Songs As Sanctuary: Justin Hopper on Steely Dan and Dive Bar Gothic

image via Wikipedia
image via Wikipedia

I used to drink at a place called Uncle Jimmy’s in Pittsburgh, and there were two separate times I stopped by there to find it ‘closed due to stabbing’ – blood on the pool table, blood in the ice well. They played that kind of music that, in the early-1990s, was the youth-music of the people who had come to run bars – people who had been 19 in the 1970s, bought their Uncle’s place when they were 37, had a few shift beers and listened to the music of their late-teens/early-20s all day long in the dark and neon.

At the time, this was not what you might expect for the kind of place that had people get stabbed over a game of pool: Lou Rawls and Teddy Pendergrass; the J Geils Band and Styx. I once took a girl there on a ‘date’ – she didn’t know it was a date, probably still doesn’t, and if she reads this maybe she’ll suddenly realize I was just too shy and too stupid, but more likely she doesn’t recall.


One day I was in there and asked what a certain song was and the bartender incredulously told me it was Steely Dan – I’d guess it was “Peg” or “Deacon Blues,” but maybe “Kid Charlamagne.” I would’ve recognized “Do It Again” or “Reelin In The Years,” but it was definitely ‘Greatest hits’ stuff. I was actually angry, because I hated Steely Dan – I was certain of that – but this song was … amazing. But I hated it, and that was that.

I bet a lot of us went through that, didn’t we? Genuine hatred for these two dorks and their perfectionism and their smooth-jazz hackery and lack of PUNK attitude, except of course they had that in spades; more than many punks, that’s obvious now. If I owned Uncle Jimmy’s – and sometimes I wish I did; it’d be so difficult, the temptation to become a ‘cool’ or ‘college’ bar so great, but it would be worthwhile if you could fight that temptation and keep $1 Irons and $2 boilermakers alive and only serve the obsolete and the desolate. I would play Lou Rawls and Teddy Pendergrass and Steely Dan and all those dear divebar-Gothic sounds all day long.

Justin Hopper is an American writer living and working in the UK. His book The Old Weird Albion will be published by Penned in the Margins in November 2017 and is currently available for pre-order.

Justin shared this divebar gothic playlist with us so you can find sanctuary on Spotify, even if you can’t find a dive bar with a great jukebox.

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