The friendly pub with an eclectic lineup of live music celebrates 20 years.
By Peter Simpson, The Ottawa Citizen March 3, 2012 2:31 PM
One night about 22 years ago, Eugene Haslam was sitting in a bar when suddenly he blurted out to the stranger on the next stool, “Zaphod Beeblebrox!”
The stranger looked alarmed, but Haslam was elated. He had thought of a name for the nightclub he was soon to open on Rideau Street. Though that starter club closed after a couple of years, it was 20 years ago this month when Zaphod Beeblebrox opened in its now familiar space at 27 York.
The name is from the character in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who, among other dubious achievements, invented the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, a drink you can order at Zaphod’s bar. Haslam has a long explanation for why he chose the name for his club, but it comes down to this: he liked it. That was enough for the thirtysomething bank employee who rolled the dice on his dream of owning a club.
He says he had learned about “stability and being focused” while banking — otherwise a career he “wasn’t cut out for,” which is no surprise considering his signature dreadlocks, and enough rings and bangles to please a gypsy Keith Richards. (The metalwork is recently gone because, he says, removing it all at airport security has become too much of a bother. Haslam travels a lot, to Lebanon and Buenos Aires in the past few months alone, with a family trip to Paris coming up.)
Haslam was abroad when Keith Richards was in Zaphod on Aug. 29, 2005. The Rolling Stones, having played Lansdowne Park the day before, took over the bar to shoot a video for a new (forgettable) song. The street was blocked by security and thronged with lookyloos. It seemed the only person not there was Haslam. “I was quite relieved,” he says, “because I was getting bombarded with ‘hey old buddy, old pal,’ from everyone.”
He was there for many acts that played the club before they hit the big time — Nickelback, Ben Harper, Alanis Morissette, Ani DiFranco, the Tea Party, Our Lady Peace, Jewel, the Dandy Warhols and the Hold Steady, to name a few. There were also shows by the Sheepdogs, the Saskatoon band that made the cover of Rolling Stone last year and is now on bigger stages. Haslam, bemused, mentions the come-lately fans who had no interest in the band a year or two ago. “Just the other day somebody came in and asked me if we’re going to have the Sheepdogs. Uh, go through our schedule and see how many times we’ve had them play for free on a Monday night.”
There have been free shows on Monday for several years, one of Haslam’s innovations to attract crowds in a city not known for late-night parties. Most every night at the club has a DJ theme later on, with live bands on stage earlier and always done by 11 p.m. — another adaptation.
“We live in a government city. How are we going to get people out if the band goes on at 12:30 a. m.?” he says. “I came up with this radical idea of actually formatting it so people knew that consistently (the earlier shows) would happen.” People can be home at a reasonable time if they have to get up early the next morning, or, if not, they can go see another, later show at another club.
“If you make yourself available as a space, people kind of look at how they can work within what you’re doing,” he says, citing as other local examples Raw Sugar or Avant Garde, or the Black Sheep in Wakefield. “We came at a time when there wasn’t anything like this around,” he says, the “we” referring to three partners who have since moved on, “so we were appealing to like-minded people.”
He wanted a club that was local (“As global as we can be, we still have to be local, because that’s who we depend on”) and eclectic. It’s what he saw on tours of England’s pubs, and at shows by genre-busting bands, most notably the Clash.
“I had taken everything I knew about pubbing and put it into live music, so there was the sense of knowing the customer, knowing everyone,” he says. People liked the variety of music, he says. The lineup for the anniversary week demonstrates a typical Zaphod mix:
— The weekly Trailer Park Bingo on Sunday, with dabbers, drinks and “all the slick tunes;
— Eugene as DJ on Monday, playing “whatever I’m into now;
— Industrial Strength Tuesdays — “We don’t expect it to be full like a Friday or Saturday, but we do it because it’s the kind of music that nobody’s giving any time to, and I think it’s a valid type of music;”
- Wednesday with Big Jeezus Truck, the seasoned Ottawa punkabillies. “They embody so much of what we do,” Haslam says, “in sticking out in Ottawa because you’re good. You don’t have to move elsewhere;”
- Thursday with the Polytones, the decade-old Ottawa band that brings to mind a slightly poppy Sonic Youth; (Our Correction: Orienteers filled in for The Polytones who could not play due to drummer’s health issues).
— Friday with Sound of Lions, one of the most distinctive and promising young bands in the capital, with a sound that reaches from hip hop to the expansive sound of Coldplay;
— Saturday with Bourbon & Spice Burlesque, which is exactly what you saw in your imagination when you read the name.
You can follow all the shows on Zaphod’s new app, another change in the club’s presence. Less present is Haslam, who for years could be found most every night in his “office” at the end of the bar. He was seriously ill a year ago — “I was looking at my own demise” — but he’s feeling better. He’s resumed booking the music, and he’s back at the bar a couple of nights a week.
“I’m 56 years old, and I have a family so, yes, I’ve pulled back. But my soul is in it, and I have a good staff running it.”