Haunted and enchanted: the ghosts of music history past keep the tunes and tonic flowing at the Railway Club
- by Julia Kalinina
“If you like drinking with ghosts, this is the place,” says Natasha Moric.
Moric has worked at the Railway Club for over a quarter of a century.
Over the years at the historical music venue, Moric shared beers with the Tragically Hip and Blue Rodeo, both bands now inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. She’s witnessed the frontman of Radiohead storm off from an album release party, and barred the lead singer of Buckcherry from entry into the club for over a decade for throwing a table.
But on her first day tending the bar 27 years ago, she wondered whether she made a mistake giving up her job at a high-end restaurant in the west end of the city.
“It was so boring that day,” she said. “I couldn’t do enough crosswords!”
On weekdays, especially when the sun highlights the deep red of the velvet couches lining the perimeter of the room, reflects off the brass furniture fixtures, and illuminates the lazy dust particles suspended in the air like astronauts in space, the Railway Club feels like a languid, old Legion. On sunny days, the heat of the sun keeps patrons from drinking indoors and the Railway sleeps.
But all along the walls hang signed posters that reveal the venue’s glamourous past. Blue Rodeo. Sarah McLachlan. Spirit of the West. The Hip, The Blue Shadows, Los Lobos, k.d. lang. Open most days since 1931, the Railway Club has shaped generations of Canadian music and contributed volumes to Canadian music history.
Before the Railway Club first opened its doors on New Year’s Eve in 1931, railway engineers gathered at the Engineers’ Club, an exclusive private social club for men on Powell Street. The club refused entry to railway construction workers, however, so in response, the construction workers formed their own club, called it The Railwaymen’s Club, and refused entry to engineers. The Railwaymen’s Club opened just two blocks down the street from the Canadian Pacific Rail station where they worked, now a Seabus terminal.
The Railwaymen’s Club continued as a club where workers came to gamble, drink, and meet women until 1980, when a Vancouver entrepreneur named Bob Williams bought it and took over its management from a mysterious woman named Dagny Forslund, who ran the establishment as a gambling saloon and lit one cigarette off of another while buzzing in railway workers in for decades.
Williams shortened the club’s name to the Railway Club and brought in an old bar that he got for free at a Kitsilano restaurant that was closing down. He hired his stepchildren to work as bartenders. Williams found no need to obtain a license to serve alcohol because the Railway’s license goes back to the 1930s.
To attract customers, Williams booked bands to play at the venue during the evenings. But the family soon discovered that it was his stepdaughter, Janet Forsyth, then in her early twenties, who had a feel for finding interesting local bands. Forsyth soon took over the booking. Little did she know how much that move would shape Canadian musical history.
Forsyth says that when she first saw the club, it was “an old guys, old gals place where people went for drinks” with small, wooden tables like those seen in old Western movies, paintings of trains on the walls, and terrycloth towels “like they had in the old bars.”
Within a couple of years, word about the music at the Railway spread beyond Vancouver. Suddenly, agents were calling from Seattle, L.A., San Francisco. While most club owners in the mid-1980s booked single bands to play a full week of shows, Forsyth booked two to three bands a night.
When Natasha Moric began working at the Railway Club in 1985, it already had a reputation as a music venue that took risks and tested new acts. No other place in the city booked the bands that Forsyth booked.
Over the coming decade, the venue hosted bands that went on to win the biggest awards in Canadian music. Canadian Legends like McLachlan, The Barenaked Ladies, Blue Rodeo, and The Tragically Hip all had their start at the venue, playing to crowds of no more than 200 people.
“I took an interest and just started bringing in more original music, that’s how it started,” says Janet Forsyth. “There was a scene, an underground scene, but there weren’t many bars doing original music in Vancouver at the time.
“I took advantage of the local talent out here and tried to bring in as much variety as I could. I was interested in all kinds of different music. We did local poetry readings, but not library poetry. Slam poetry, and events other people weren’t doing. Songwriter circles, battles of the bands,” says Forsyth from her Strathcona house on a clear recent morning, holding Clover, her old Boston terrier with bright blue cataracts in both eyes, on her lap.
Three-and-a-half years ago, Williams and Forsyth sold the Railway to its current owner, Steve Silman, because she says that 27 years “is too long to do any one thing.” Silman, a career musician in his early 30s, says he seized the opportunity to buy the club as soon as he found out that it was for sale.
“Places like this don’t come on the market very often,” he said. “For the first year, I noticed something new inside the club every day.”
But Silman bought more than a bar. The Railway Club has its own identity and comes with an entire culture behind it, and a staff and a clientele that have roots with the club going back multiple decades. The challenges that Silman faces go deeper than what most entrepreneurs in the service industry encounter. Ghosts roam the long hallways of the Railway and rest their elbows on its wide, polished wood bar with brass fixtures.
The crowd: pinstripes and polka dots
Spirit of the West released a song in 1986 called “Our Station,” written about the Railway with the lyrics,
It’s a designer’s nightmare standing out in this crowd
With leathers mixed with tweed, pinstripe with polka dot,
It makes no difference in this melting pot.
Talking business in the corner, politics at the door,
While the boy brings the house down with his acoustic guitar.
Forsyth’s curation of music attracted a diverse crowd. A loyal crowd.
“There were young punks, working plumbers, poets, journalists, all kinds of different people,” said Forsyth. “The genres of music changed over the years but it was always the same mix. A lot of artists, a lot of politicos.”
Forsyth attributes the loyalty of the Railway’s customers to the quality of acts that played and to the club’s status as a “private social club,” which required membership, however loose in its definition.
And over the years, the culture of the Railway developed as much through its clientele as its live music.
It happened at the Railway
Stan Heisie, the doorman, has sat at the top of the stairs from the entrance to the Railway most nights since 1987. He likes music, but dislikes interviews.
He only wanted to talk about Billy Cowsill, an American musician who played at the club often in the 1990s and early 2000s. Cowsill died in 2006 of alcohol and drug-related syndromes, aged 58 years old.
“Sometimes you couldn’t even talk to him, he was so wrecked,” said Heisie. “There was no way he could play, but then he’d go on stage and just bring the house down.” He trails off talking about Cowsill. “He was in a lot of pain. But the way he sang would just destroy people. He reduced grown men to tears, I saw it happen in front of me.”
Other times, bands would storm the wide, green velvet staircase leading up to the Railway after their shows at bigger venues. One night, the drunken members of Los Lobos almost interrupted a performer in the middle of a song when they stumbled into the club demanding to play after midnight one year in the late 1980s. The crowd went wild. All ten people in the room and Heisie.
When the club was still a gambling saloon in the 1950s, one man even lost his house at the Railway. Having gambled away all of his money, a man threw his house into the pot and lost. According to Moric, the son of the winner from that night still lives in that Kitsilano house with his family. He bartended at the Railway for a few years in the late 1980s.
Janet Forsyth attributes some of the success of the Railway Club to taking chances with different music and events.
When asked if she feels she played a role in shaping Canadian music and the individual musical careers of so many performers, she gives a negative answer.
“But I think the club did,” she says. “I was a booker but the acts we had was just what the people, what the Railway crowd wanted.”
The club’s loyal crowd might have created a community and provided a ballast for the original charm of the Railway, but it may also be keeping it from adapting to changing times.
Silman, the new owner, says that people now have shorter attention spans when it comes to live music. He finds it tough to attract crowds to performances that he expected do well in the context of the Railway.
“Indie rock, pop rock, indie folk probably works the best here. Singer-songwriters but not too sleepy. But blues doesn’t work,” said Silman. “I don’t know why. Musical preferences change with time.”
Moric agrees that both the Vancouver music scene and the Railway itself have evolved.
“Now there [are] a few more bars in town that are actually playing original live Vancouver bands. The Rickshaw is one. Places like the Cobalt and the Astoria, they kind of took over the original Railway Club feel,” she says.
But David Newberry, a Vancouver singer-songwriter, maintains that the club remains “vital” to the small-time music scene in Canada.
“I don’t think there are other places doing what the Railway does. The music industry doesn’t change music the way it happens in a room with 100 people,” he said. “The small time is alive and kicking and very, very healthy and the Railway Club continues to provide a really vital home for it.”
Silman has a history to negotiate with and says he feels a responsibility to the ghosts of the club, but the music, ever-changing, keeps him from imagining himself in a museum.
“[The Railway] is very much a living, breathing entity,” he says, even though patrons still dial the same seven numbers to reach the club as they did 70 years ago.
Last Sunday, Sept 20, after 27 years, Moric celebrated her retirement party from the Railway Club. Like Forsyth, she says that 27 years is too long to do anything.
Today, the Railway is renegotiating its identity, connecting with both the ghosts that perch on its red velvet-covered bar stools and the younger patrons that are bringing in new musical tastes. But one thing is certain, the club has an old soul. And a memory.
As Moric said, “it’s not Granville Street. It’s not Yaletown. It’s not Gastown. It’s the Railway Club.”