Dave Chisholm recalls those crazy beer-drenched days in the early ’80s when the Fins were the house band at Vancouver’s Marble Arch

donna hagerman photos

If you went out drinkin’ in downtown Vancouver in the early 1980s, and you weren’t too much of a fancy pants, you may have found yourself down at the Marble Arch. It was located at 518 Richards, so a short walk to concert venues like the Commodore, Orpheum, Railway Club, and Queen E. You could hit the Arch to pound back some cheap draft before heading out to classier joints, and while there catch a few tunes by local blues-rock party band the Fins. The group’s frontman Dave Chisholm has fond memories of the Marble Arch, and here’s a few of them.

By Dave Chisholm

In the early 80s, one of our favourite places to play was the Marble Arch in downtown Vancouver. My guitarist Matt got the gig through his buddy Tony Ricci, and we booked direct, so we did not have to pay an agent.

The Fins became part of the rotation, and we played there every six weeks. It was an old-style beer parlour with red terrycloth covers attached to the tables with elastics on the bottom. The drug dealers used the tablecloths to stash their stuff; the cops often checked underneath them for coke, weed, and hash.

Draft beer was the way, the truth, and the light. There was one colossal waiter named Rod who liked the band. He had massive arms, one of which had a tattoo of dice and the words “Don’t Gamble.” If someone asked Rod for a bottle of beer, he would invariably say, “The gay bar is on Granville Street.”

Rod was a big, scary guy; after somebody stabbed a guy to death, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Always quiet after a killing”. The “Arch” was a wild place, but it was a great gig, and they paid us well.

We loved the music, the friendship, and the energy of the rowdy patrons. We spent lots of time on and off stage, bringing us together musically and personally. The Fins was and still is a brotherhood. We played six nights a week, nine to two, five sets. Nobody asked us to turn it down; the servers walked around with trays of draft beer, and the patrons would hold up their fingers for how many they wanted. A circular motion meant “fill the table.”

If someone wanted hard liquor, they went to the “liquor tree” at the bar, which had upside-down bottles of booze: rye, rum, vodka, and gin. The bartender would press the glass up to a valve on the bottle, and voila–a perfect shot. Then, of course, You could ask for ice and a choice of carbonated drinks for the mix. Coke, 7 Up, ginger ale, or soda were the options.

Most people drank either Molson Canadian or Labbatt’s Blue draft beer.

The Arch also sold “off sales” (In the old stubby bottles) until two a.m. There was always a lineup for off-sales just before the last call. If anyone complained or asked for a different brand, the back of the line is where they ended up. Every Saturday night, we finished what was left in the kegs so that they could clean the pipes.

A draft was always fresh back then. We usually took a couple of pitchers home; I remember putting my instruments in the taxi trunk and sitting in the back with two full pitchers. I was single then and got drunk almost every night. I had a little house in East Van on Templeton Street called “The Temple.” There were no religious activities of any kind.

Dave “Fast Eddie” Chisholm

The Arch was an “Indian Bar”; many patrons were aboriginal. The Fins played “Indian Bars” all over the province, and we always had a great time. They loved the blues rock that was our lifeblood and knew how to party. One old native gentleman would bring me a beer and ask for his favourite Rolling Stones song; years later, I discovered he was Norval Morriseau, a world-renowned artist.

The rowdy crowd packed the dance floor. But, of course, there were many fights. One night in particular, a big fight started in the bar during our break, and a large group of combatants ran through the double doors to fight in the street. Bruce and I were curious and went out to watch the spectacle. It was way too much, and we never went out again.

It was a rough place, but the staff and management were good to us. When my mom and dad came to see the band, the gigantic Turkish bouncer (he called himself Charlie McDonald) went to the best section, threw some patrons out of their seats, and brought them a pitcher.

Charlie and the other staff were tough guys, but they bought us beer, kept us safe; they made us feel at home. Bruce and Matt thought Charlie was the missing link between early hominids and Homo sapiens. He was well respected, even feared.

We played five sets every night, so we all got to do extended solos and practice our craft. It takes many hours for a band to unite, and the Arch was the perfect place to do just that. It helped us get a lot of other gigs, too. Drew Burns from the Commodore came to see us and got loaded, as did many other promoters.

The place was always busy, making us look like rock stars; it fit our hard-driving style well. The lineup was Bruce Morrison on bass, Matt Steffich on guitar, Darwin Glover on drums, and George Capone on keyboards. Of course, I played sax and harmonica, and everybody sang. Five sets a night would kill a singer.

We played Zeppelin, Stones, Johnny Winter, and many blues classics. Basically, we played whatever we wanted and even made up stuff on the spot. I remember Bruce playing the bass line on “How Many More Times” by Led Zeppelin as the lowlifes oozed onto the dance floor like zombies.

We started our sets with mid-tempo grooves; an intoxicated crowd needs time to gather momentum. Matt’s slide work was his strength; Duane Allman and Johnny Winter inspired him. George would get lost in a crazy solo and close his eyes; not a good idea at the Arch. There was a rail on the front of the stage, and we would balance on it while we taunted the crowd.

Playing together for 30 hours a week made us tight. The Fins spent hundreds of hours on that stage. The indie bands of today would flee in terror. Local music guru Steve Newton wrote a positive review of the Fins for the Georgia Straight; he was a friend of Matt’s. Later, we had to play certain popular songs in the clubs, but never at the Arch.

Matt Steffich (R.I.P.)

“Mean Town Blues” and “Shake Your Money Maker” packed the dance floor; the crowd got drunk and rowdy. My sister worked at the detox center, and we shared many clients. She had to keep a low profile when she came to the club. “The Fins are at the Arch,” they would say to her at the detox.

We encouraged excessive drinking, which is not good, but we practiced what we preached. I don’t think I ever bought a drink while I was there. “Welfare Week” was the last Wednesday of the month, with total mayhem from Wednesday through Saturday. We developed a following, an extensive repertoire, and a bond of friendship at the Marble Arch. It was one of the best times of my life.

A few years later, the owners wanted to rent the rooms to tourists for Expo 86; they made it an exclusive strip bar to eliminate the lowlife regulars. I went with Matt to check it out, but we could not get in because we were wearing running shoes.

The dancer on stage was wearing expensive high-heeled shoes but nothing else.

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