Burning down the house

Louisville’s stalwart punk rock venue thrives in the shadow of Fourth Street Live

The neon sign in the plate-glass window stands out from the mostly vacant surroundings along the 400 block of South Third like the stars you’d see after taking a solid punch to the side of your head. Did that sign say what I think it says?

If you wander in on a weekend night, you’re likely to find a well-mixed crowd; leather coats and vintage dresses are scattered among the various ensembles as the band plays a hybrid of punk and old-time rock ’n‘ roll. It’s a Twilight Zone of timeless presentations. It could be 1958. It could be 1985.

Third Street Dive is a warm-hearted, low-budget drinking establishment surviving and thriving in the shadow of its similarly named, corporately operated “Big Brother,” Fourth Street Live.

The chalkboard green walls surrounding the pool table are slathered with colorful chalk drawings and graffiti; messages and images range from the simplest stick figures to mural-style images of a cat-headed alien in a rocket ship facing down a cowboy riding a … what is that?

Around the corner, one lucky guy is sucking face with a gorgeous blonde while a nervous-looking little dude in a green coat and a pullover hat tries to maintain his focus on the band.

The crowd is hanging out close to the front door near where the band is playing, filling up the tiny space between the window and the bar. And just as the band hits its stride, a man behind the bar blows a huge ball of fire into the air. That fire-breathing drink-slinger is Steve Gordon, co-owner of the bar.

Yep, it’s just another Saturday night at Third Street Dive — business as usual, at least for several more weeks.

Opened on May 2, 2006, just in time for Derby, the Dive will celebrate its fifth anniversary next month, but it will be a bittersweet occasion, as the bar, in its current location, will be closing shortly thereafter to move next door. The new space is larger, cleaner and better suited for live music; it will have the same color scheme, and it will have the same name, but longtime fans of the little bar may wonder if the new place will feel like the Dive they have come to know and love.

As far as Gordon is concerned, the vibe will remain — same clientele, same live music, and maybe even the same fire-breathing stunt he’s been pulling off from the behind the bar of Third Street Dive now for five years. Maybe.

I started a joke

Recognizing the bar’s name is a rhyming pun aimed at the well-known entertainment complex on the other side of the block, it should be no surprise that Third Street Dive was, more or less, born of a joke. In 2005, Gordon was working for a local liquor distribution company, but he wasn’t happy doing liquor sales; he had too many accounts to service, and the job was stressful.

One of his customers, the owner of a bar near Churchill Downs, had impressed him with his laid-back attitude and made him wonder whether he was on the wrong side of the bar. Thus, he was already toying with the idea of running his own place when the inspiration for his dream struck.

“I was over at Fourth Street Live all the time, during the days. That’s where I had all the accounts,” Gordon says. “Liquor reps were over there every day, and we’d sit over there and have drinks. I’d been complaining about the music they were playing, and I made the joke, I said, ‘If I had any sense, I’d open a place down here and call it the Fourth Street Dive and have cheap drinks and good music,’ and we all laughed. A couple months later, I saw this location. I rode my BMX bike down here on my birthday night. It was snowy and sleety, and I parked my bike in the doorway there and watched cars driving by, driving by for parking spaces and stuff, and I thought, ‘This might work.’

“For the name to have any impact, it was gonna have to be within eye-shot of Fourth Street Live. And so, pretty much, less than a year after I made that joke, here we were.”

The storefront, which had been empty since 1978, used to be Bensinger’s Department Store. The space had not been maintained in any way. When Gordon and his brother, co-owner Kenny Hines, signed the lease in February 2006, they had a lot of work to do. “We had to scrape a bunch of barnacle-type junk off the ceiling over there,” Gordon says, “and there was no HVAC.”

The turnaround time from the naming of his fantasy bar to the actual opening was unusually brief, and as a result, it wasn’t exactly a showplace. The floor plan, according to Gordon, resembles an Atari logo cut in half, and, indeed, there is little rhyme or reason to the way the space is laid out. Where you expect to find a hallway, there’s a wall. A long, curved brick wall leads nowhere. It defies our ordinary expectation for architecture, like a funhouse designed with a dry sense of humor. From the front door, it looks bigger than it is, and it seems to shrink the longer you remain. But that’s part of its charm; it physically represents the perseverance of its proprietors, the creation of a thing where there should, for all practical purposes, be nothing.

Here comes a regular

While the space is fairly strange, a conventional appearance was never Gordon’s concern. Inspired by his memories of Tewligan’s, Louisville’s long-gone, legendary rock venue (which he visited illegally before he was 21), and Delilah’s, a similarly legendary venue in Chicago, he was more interested in creating a friendly neighborhood bar that would appeal to people in the various service industries as well as visitors to the city who were more interested in finding local flavor than the homogenized flash and dazzle of corporate chains.

“A lot of times, we’ll get busy between 2 and 4 in the morning,” Gordon says. “It’s all convention and restaurant people getting off work. All the convention guys come in here and say the same thing; they say, ‘Thank god we found a real bar,’ ’cause they’ve been over there. Once the convention guys find the place, two or three of them will be here the first time, and then the next night, there’ll be seven or eight of them, and then 10 or 11.”

While he has something of a trickster’s attitude, Gordon takes customer service seriously. A good percentage of his customers are service industry people, and they know what to expect and how to have a good time. With that in mind, Gordon explains, “We’re not gonna turn the lights up at 3:30 and shine a Maglite in your face and yell, ‘Get the fuck out!’ I hate that.

“We stay open every night until 4 a.m., and the people that work on Fourth Street drink here. They’ve been keeping me in business. I love to see them coming in the door. I’ve always called it the Hall of Justice for the service industry, ’cause all of the restaurant superheroes are in here. There’ll be four people sitting at the end of the bar wearing all black; they work at Red Star. And then you’ll see four or five people wearing coaches’ shirts that come from Champions. Then you’ll see four or five people that have the Hard Rock stuff on. It’s like little restaurant gangs.”

And they can count on the bar staying open long enough for them to finish their drink.

No surprises

One of the basic features of the Dive, its graffiti-covered walls, was, supposedly, unintended. While most anyone looking at the walls would assume they were painted flat green to look like an old-fashioned chalkboard and, thus, were designed to be a huge, community message board, Gordon swears this wasn’t the case, and that the bar’s color scheme was inspired by his background as an Army brat. “They’re my three favorite colors: olive drab, black and hooker red,” he says.

Shortly after opening, however, people started using the chalk from the dartboard to tag the walls.

“When we first opened, I had a guy cleaning the bar for me, and once a week, I’d have him the wash the walls down, but it was just an exercise in futility.”

Shortly thereafter, the bar’s policy on tagging changed. They don’t bother to take anything down now, unless there’s a chance somebody could find it offensive.

“We had no intention for people to be drawing on the walls, but it’s one of the things that people like the most,” Gordon says. “There were a lot of unintentional things that happened that made the Dive.” Now they keep plenty of chalk behind the bar for artists and writers, commentators of all stripes, both clever and lowbrow.

A couple weeks ago, while a tattooing convention was in town, a visiting artist came in and drew a mural-sized tableau on one wall. It’s likely to stay there until the bar closes next month, unless a patron inadvertently rubs up against it while waiting for their turn in a game of pool.

Another unintended eventuality has come to define the bar. “We didn’t intend to have live music at first,” Gordon says. “All the bar owners I talked to (as a liquor rep) said they’d do live music very, very rarely, but then it was only cover bands. Original Louisville music wasn’t being done in very many places when we opened. It was kind of an accident that we ended up booking shows, and it really became our niche. We’ve had a lot of bands play their first shows here, and a lot of bands played their last shows here.”

According to Gordon, it was a regular customer who told him he should do live music, but Gordon didn’t think the city would support it. Then one night, he let that customer book a band, and the place was packed.

“He did shows for a year and a half, and then I got a call from a friend who lived across the street from him, and he said there were cops ransacking the house,” Gordon says. “Detectives arrested him and solved 54 burglaries. He was the nicest guy in the world, never took a dollar from the club, but after-hours, he was stealing televisions and such.”

Employing his typically perverse sense of humor, Gordon dressed as the incarcerated ex-employee for Halloween that year; he got an orange prison-style jumpsuit from Caulfield’s and put his friend’s name on the front. “Some of the regular’s got the joke, but a lot of people just figured I was a guy in a jumpsuit.”

Brent Starkey, who plays bass for Thee Flying Carpets, is perhaps the city’s most dedicated purveyor of punk/pop. His other band, Dead City Rejects, started playing at the Dive shortly after they opened. According to Starkey, Gordon was destined to have live music at the bar. It was inevitable.

“I knew him from back when he was bartending at Woody’s and from shows,” Starkey says. “We knew him as ‘Gordo.’ After that, when he was working for Famous Dave’s, the barbeque place, they had this big annual picnic, and Steve got (Dead City Rejects) to play. When he started talking about opening a bar, he was always talking about how he was planning to have bands play.”

Ultimately, that’s exactly what came to pass and what will continue in the new digs next door.

The unheard music

If it is unclear what the original intent was, it is very clear that, as the bar moves into its new location at 442 S. Third St., live music will be central to the business model. “We built the new place with live music in mind,” Gordon says. “It’s got acoustic tiles on the ceiling. The soundboard is in the back part of the room, so the sound engineer will be able to hear better. The stage is bigger, although anything would be bigger than the ‘stage’ at the original Dive.”

The relocation coincides with another significant change: Gordon’s brother, recognizing the need to focus on his family, has sold his interest in the bar. Hines’ departure was well timed for Gordon’s new partners, Rick Barcenas and Lynn Frost, who were looking to open a bar of their own. A conversation that began as a request for advice turned into a union that addressed the needs and desires of all concerned.

While their partnership is healthy, the transition to the new space has been a bit complicated.

“Things have changed since we opened this place,” Gordon says. “The rules are a lot tougher.” Specifically, there have been more hoops to jump through involving licensing and building codes — like the required construction a massive fire exit — and these have delayed the scheduled opening. Patrons only have a few more weeks to visit the old place, with Derby weekend expected to be a grand closing of sorts; the move will take place shortly thereafter.

And what about this business of blowing fireballs?

“It was a trick I learned many, many, many years ago,” Gordon says. It’s done with Bacardi 151, “which is basically lighter fluid,” he adds. “I’ve probably blown fire 30,000 times in the last five years. It’s something that never gets old. It’s not good for you. I won’t do it more than twice a night, and I usually only do it on band nights.”

So far, nobody has complained, but will he still be able to turn that trick when the Dive moves next door? The ceilings are considerably lower, and the new space is practically upscale compared to the old space. Only time will tell.

For now, Gordon is content to have his dream job. “It’s a lot of hard work, but the greatest thing about my life for the last five years has been I’m surrounded by friends, and I have a good time. I have a place to hear music, I get to watch soccer games on television, and this is my job! You know? I mean, thanks!”