"Live Music and Other Activities" 

A Look Back at the Late, Great X-Ray Cafè

BY THE TIME my 21st birthday came around in late October of 1990, I had been in Portland for a little under six months. The small space at 214 W Burnside was still known as the UFO Café, owned by a thickly-accented Greek named Alkis. Unorthodox and adventurous in his musical tastes, Alkis hoped to increase his pizza sales by allowing a local band named The Kurtz Project to perform regularly and book other bands. Unbeknownst to the musicians and patrons, however, Alkis had been equally adventurous in his financial strategies. Some months earlier, in an inspired effort to decrease his overhead, he had also hit on the idea of discontinuing his rent payments.

In the inevitable collapse that soon followed, Alkis vacated, and two members of the house band, Benjamin Arthur Ellis and Tres Shannon, somehow emerged from the wreckage holding the lease. With no experience running a club, the pair set about transforming a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria into Portland's primary all-ages hole-in-the-wall music venue.

What was quickly christened the X-Ray Café soon featured blocked windows with cheerful signage handpainted above them. Underneath the building's gutted upper stories and rusted fire escape, the street-level exterior was whitewashed, and a mural was painted low along the sidewalk. The interior was furnished through a constant influx of thrifting scores, dumpster dives, and personal belongings. The walls were eventually hung with dozens of frustratingly memorable velvet paintings.

In hindsight, the timing of the X-Ray's birth was perfect. While grunge and alternative music were exploding in Seattle and a low-fi revolution was mounting in Olympia, the X-Ray, and nearby Satyricon, provided much-needed stages for smaller acts, and were crucial in establishing Portland as an important regional destination for touring bands. Both clubs also formed cradles for emerging Portland musicians, but it was the X-Ray that was far more fluid, encouraging, and open to the bizarre. Local bands Crackerbash, Sprinkler, the Hell Cows, Smegma, Poison Idea, Dead Moon, Hitting Birth, New Bad Things, Last Pariahs, Motorgoat (which became Quasi), and the Spinanes alternated with visits from Beat Happening, Unwound, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Hole, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Green Day.

Although it hosted an average of three or four bands a night, less than half of the X-Ray's operating hours were actually devoted to live music. Necessity and boredom fueled an endless succession of theme nights and "educational" afternoons. Sleepovers, Spanish lessons, drum and sewing circles, science and electronics lessons, and Q&A sessions about nothing in particular were regularly offered. Ellis and Shannon were open to virtually any community-minded event as long they didn't have to organize it.

Located near the geographic center of the city, the club's long hours and inclusive atmosphere attracted an amazing array of outcasts, street kids, and talkative eccentrics. Those familiar with the X-Ray invariably recall at least a few recurring characters who contributed their unique pathologies to the area's already rich pageantry. In time, some were given chores, and the chores eventually became unofficial jobs. Bands loading into the club for the first time tread very carefully, unsure how to deal with these obnoxious patrons who seemed to move about with the casual confidence of long-time staff.

Frequent attendees were also a part of the X-Ray experience. Teenagers suspended in underage purgatory could be spotted in the crowd night after night. Like the "helpful" regulars, some of the most constant were eventually drafted into the staff. Familiar faces were such an important element of the X-Ray that when road trips were organized to Olympia and Eugene, a small army of regulars was enlisted to accompany the acts on the bill.

The jury-rigged environment, all-ages status, and enthusiastic crowd of frequently unstable regulars functioned like a filter. The X-Ray never felt "cool" like Satyricon felt cool. Hanging out solely to project an image was problematic at the X-Ray. Besides the fact that there was no bar and no alcohol, awkward (and often strongly scented) reality tended to intrude. It's hard to maintain aloof detachment when you've become the sole focus of a towering Elvis impersonator with a matted beard and dizzyingly thick lenses in his busted frames. The most studied, cultivated façade was no match for interpretive dancers flailing about on the floor two feet away. If you considered the X-Ray "hip," your definition of the word was necessarily broader than the fashionable, ironic, and smug.

There was no sense of forced togetherness. No one was watching out of the corner of his or her eye to see whether you smiled or sulked. No one asked anything of you, except perhaps a moderate effort toward the physical safety of others. It was possible to walk through the door on an empty, late afternoon and curl up asleep against the far wall. Someone would greet you as you entered and then go back to sweeping the floors or fixing the sound system or painting the ceiling.

My golden memories notwithstanding, I don't mean to leave the impression of an oasis of universal peace and harmony. The X-Ray provided shelter, figuratively and literally, to a number of people I often found irritating and embarrassing. A few regulars were volatile and argumentative--unsurprising given the club's Old Town location. A hand-lettered sign offered an escort to anyone heading back through the neighborhood to their car. But part of the X-Ray's charm lay in its embrace of the unpleasant--its relationship with its neighborhood was never antagonistic or confrontational, and this respect was reciprocated. An atmosphere of affectionate seediness surrounded everything that took place there, and trouble was a rarity.

The X-Ray lasted until August of 1994, when Ben and Tres retired it voluntarily in the face of an uncertain future filled with certain debts. In the end, fundraisers and round-the-clock marathon shows weren't enough to balance mounting bills and exhaustion. After one last legendary, exultant, and emotional night, the X-Ray closed. The space was handed over to a small handful of regulars who transformed it into an outlet for second-hand clothing, punk rock records, and cheap food.

Tres remained in Portland, booking shows around the corner at Berbati's, and Ben took a video camera on several winding trips across the country. He tracked down and interviewed out-of-town X-Ray performers and audience members, returning to Portland a year ago to edit, gather archived footage and hold hundreds of additional interviews.

The resulting documentary is X-Ray Visions, Ellis' first feature-length film, debuting at the Clinton Street Theatre on November 15, 10 years to the day from the club's inception.

The film never attempts the impossible and pointless task of overall analysis. There is no agenda beyond acknowledging that something remarkable happened in and around the X-Ray during the early '90s. Ellis wisely keeps commentary to a minimum--he relies on interviews to guide the narrative and allows the footage to illustrate topics as they come up.

The wide range of voices in the film makes it clear that the club's legacy extends far the city's music scene. Before Portland had Reading Frenzy, the X-Ray served as a common distribution point for event flyers and the early output of the small-press and zine community. Its do-it-yourself attitude was a catalyst that trained sound technicians, inspired future business owners, and introduced organizers and activists to one another. Relationships both romantic and practical were initiated and still flourish.

Surprisingly, outsider viewpoints offer some of the film's most insightful moments. Comments by social workers at Portland's Outside/In, for example, are stunning. It was apparently generally understood that simply by virtue of its presence and popularity, the X-Ray provided de facto services and protection for a number of homeless, at-risk youths. And at a time when national needle-exchange programs were struggling to prove their worth, the X-Ray stepped forward and became the first satellite exchange in Portland.

From a personal perspective, the film is a bittersweet, animated series of snapshots from four very important years in my life. I'm amazed by how many scenes brought vivid memories and shivers of recognition. The faces of three constant regulars who died either during or since the club's active years are particularly haunting.

The X-Ray was many things to me. As an aspiring poster designer, I was able to find work whenever I wanted it (payment was usually free admission and heartfelt thanks). Throughout the film, I can glimpse posters, programs, and menus I designed. During the X-Ray years, I lived and worked a few blocks from the club. I would stop by late at night, attracted by the muffled din of the bands inside and the crowds on the sidewalk. Once, in a particularly bad week of a particularly bad year, I made $5 as the doorman one night so that I could eat before I went home. Whether for work or friendship, I doubt a week passed without at least one visit.

What the X-Ray ultimately offered me was a first-hand lesson in why genuine enthusiasm, for all its embarrassments and shortcomings, is still preferable to smug indifference and faux-jaded pretension. What sticks with me is not the music so much as the spirit of the people who ran it, and of those who regularly attended the shows. While it was open, I had no idea how rare such an intersection of time and place actually was. I naively assumed that it was simply Portland's eccentric version of something that occurred in most cities. By the time I was old enough and aware enough to realize there weren't places like the X-Ray all over the country, I was able to understand that there should be, and also that there never would.

This belated understanding of the X-Ray's value, after it had closed, is the hardest thing of all to handle while watching X-Ray Visions. There's consolation, though, in knowing that I didn't waste it while it was here, and in the fact that while everything changes, nothing is truly lost.

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