Picture it: Astoria, Oregon, 1994. I was chilling out at elementary school, jamming to classic rock radio and making my Barbies dance around to Ace of Base. The distant metropolis of Portland was a place I visited only for the occasional shopping sprees (the Lloyd Center seemed like paradise on earth) or the thrilling yearly field trip to OMSI.
I had no idea that an underground culture was brewing in P-town, and I wish I could say that I became hip to it as it was happening, or even a bit later by the time I reached high school. Alas, no— I went through dreaded years as a teenybopper (first concert: Blink 182), then veered into the pseudo-sophisticated rock canon of Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, etc. It wasn't until I landed in the young Oregonian holding-ground of Eugene at age eighteen that someone put a CD-R of Either/Or into my hand, and I've been making my way back through Portland past ever since.
This three-part video chronicling the X-Ray Cafe— an all-ages restaurant/venue/infoshop on West Burnside— is a very enjoyable insight into the pre-Pearl District Rose City, full of commentary from some of its regulars as well as its proprietors (including Tres Shannon, who more recent Portlanders know as the king of Voodoo Donuts and the tambourine-shaker in Karaoke from Hell), and footage of the decor and from live performances that helps to recreate the distinct atmosphere of the place.
My love for this era stems not just from a longing to have been around for it. It also comes from a desire to play anthropologist, searching for the origins of the Northwest sensibility to more clearly understand the landscape that we've inherited. It's clear that today's culture has its roots in this earlier era— and further, we're in a stage of influx that is completely influenced by the stream of people that came/are coming from all around the country to be part of what's going on here. In the process, Portland has become a different place, and founding institutions like the X-Ray have either morphed into new forms, or have gone extinct.
Could a place like the X-Ray exist in our present city? Events like the recent Hush closure suggest maybe not. Don't get me wrong—I'm not trying to lament for the days of yore, or say "Go back to California, maaaaan". I'm just thinking about the evolution of people and places, and marveling at how I could have been so close to Portland in the 90's, never a part of it and yet completely shaped by it.