A Honky-Tonk Virgin Story

Frederick’s Music Lounge is closing (supposedly) after tonight. The club is a fixture in St. Louis and has been for many years. Its owner, Fred Friction, is the kind of musical character that you cannot make up (unless, perhaps you are Tom Waits) and is becoming a rarity in this day. Many local bands and an impressive handful of national acts owe their maiden voyages in St. Louis to Fred. His awesome little club will be missed and mourned. The Sports Desk did a fine piece on Frederick’s three years ago, and on the last day of Frederick’s we pass it on to you. The final show tonight features Two Cow Garage from Ohio, an exact and perfect choice for the final go of an institution.

 

The second volume of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which sits within easy reach here at the Sports Desk, describes the phrase honky-tonk as a “rhyming compound of imit. orig.” and defines it as “a disreputable, usu. small, establishment where liquor, gambling, and (esp. in early use) prostitutes are available; a cheap dance hall, casino, or saloon; (hence) a tawdry bar or nightclub.”

As part of my duties at the Sports Desk, I’ve visited various local venues—the Pageant, the Sheldon, the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill—but none of them qualifies as a honky-tonk. The Pageant’s much too new and smart, the Sheldon (which once served as a church) verges on the venerable, and the Duck Room ranks as a St. Louis institution. No, not one of those venues qualifies as a honky-tonk.

In all the best ways, though, Frederick’s so qualifies.

Frederick’s Music Lounge sits on the south side of Chippewa between Alfred and Ridgewood, roughly a block east of Kingshighway and a block west of Morganford. Technically, it occupies 4454-56 Chippewa, but street numbers can be misleading—and besides, for reasons I won’t detail, I suspect the Jazz Age structure frequently phases from St. Louis to the Twilight Zone. Whatever segment of the space-time continuum it occupies, I visited Frederick’s for the first time a few weeks ago—and the visit was an eye-opener.

Much water, a great deal of driftwood, and a corpse or two had passed under the proverbial bridge, you see, since last I’d hit a bona fide honky-tonk. During my salad days in Cape Girardeau—an era predating the vile rise of that city’s favorite son, Rush Limbaugh, if not the first appearance of lettuce—I periodically braved places like the Central Inn, where the regulars hunched atop their stools like cirrhotic gargoyles, and Ed’s on Good Hope, where one night I witnessed two drunks have a fistfight in slow motion. Again, though, such misadventures occurred long ago and far away, whereas my inaugural visit to Frederick’s came on a fine Friday night in mid-November. (A holiday lull, self-evidently, has occasioned some narrative housecleaning here at the Sports Desk.)

That visit stemmed in large part from two prior dispatches I’d filed regarding the performers scheduled for that evening, Chicago singer-songwriter Stolie and Austin bluegrass lunatics the Meat Purveyors. Presumably on the strength of those Playback St. Louis pieces, Stolie, by e-mail, had offered to add my name to the guest list. Unthinkably, I waffled. The month had been hectic, and its pace had left me enervated. Only at the last moment did I decide to attend, albeit on the q.t.

“We card like Nazis,” the establishment’s proprietor once assured The Webster Journal, Webster U’s student newspaper, and he spoke truly. Despite my walker and ear trumpet, the doorkeeper at Frederick’s demanded an I.D. Even more surprisingly, as I prepared to pay the cover, he recalled my name from the guest list and waved my greenbacks aside.

Feeling unaccountably conspicuous, I descended a short staircase to the lounge proper and, according to the Sports Desk’s modi operandi and vivendi alike, made a beeline for the bar.

From there, fortified by a libation, I scanned Frederick’s. Various accounts, both published and oral, had described the décor as bohemian, and so it seemed: a railed stage at the front looking little larger than a courtroom witness stand, a gargantuan chalkboard listing the bill of fare and coming events, ceiling fans dangling trophy bras. No one would ever mistake the place for Tony’s, but from a standpoint of depraved dormitory chic, it did approach tony.

Eavesdropping opportunities at the bar had started to beckon, and Frederick’s had begun to fill, when a familiar face appeared: musician John Goddard. We talked for a time about the local scene and about the cuisine at Riddle’s Penultimate Cafe & Wine Bar, on whose staff he now chefs and to which I made a mental note to go sometime. All the while, Goddard kept rolling his own cigarettes and lighting them with matches ignited with the flick of a thumbnail and considerable savoir faire.

Directly, a semi-familiar face also appeared, that of the aforementioned Stolie, whom I recognized from her press materials and her Web site (www.stolie.com). Not only did Stolie answer my hail—which women more often than not greet with one of those “I have pepper mace and know how to use it” looks—but also she kindly ushered me through the swelling crowd and into the greenroom, just off the entrance.

There, in surroundings so rococo they made the public area look austere, Stolie introduced me to the Meat Purveyors, who were enjoying a postprandial, preshow breather. They didn’t look sociopathic, but with musicians, one can never tell, making a degree of circumspection advisable. I thus complimented the band on their latest CD (All Relationships Are Doomed to Fail, Bloodshot, 2002) and their earlier work, made brief small talk, and loaned my nail clippers to mandolin player Pete Stiles. Around the time that bassist-vocalist Cherilyn diMond started plotting a post-show foray to Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club in neighboring Washington Park, the moment to go seemed to have come.

Before I decamped, though, Stolie also reintroduced me to the proprietor of Frederick’s, Fred Friction (né Boettcher). Friction, of course, has built a rep for himself locally for his spoon-playing prowess, as well as for drumming with the Highway Matrons and for hosting the radio program Fishin’ With Dynamite on KDHX (88.1 FM) Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Our meeting that evening constituted a reintroduction not through any St. Louis connection, though; rather, he and I had known each other glancingly in Cape a decade and a half ago. As my bona fides, I named a few femmes fatales in whose orbit both he and I had swung there and then, and at the mention of those heavenly bodies, a small smile of recollection played across his face. Although he (predictably) looked older, Friction remained as gaunt and, apparently, as roguish as ever—yet somehow almost courtly as well. Cape in the ’80s could be a deceptively dangerous place; it thus pleased me to meet another refugee from that town and that time.

Returned to the lounge, which had become crowded indeed, I inched back to the bar. Goddard had maintained his post there, chatting with a young brunette (lovely) and her blonde companion (ditto). At one point, he also conversed with one of the city’s expatriates…in the man’s native Russian. At that point, I decided that if Goddard didn’t make it so damnably easy to like him, I probably wouldn’t.

Soon Stolie played her set, mixing covers and originals like the delightful “Curse of the Randy Bird.” I thought it a valiant performance, but by that point, sonically, the crowd had swollen to a near impossible level; it felt as if Fred Friction had thrown a party and invited however many of his closest friends the fire code would fit.

Around the time I found myself reflecting on a resemblance between one of the barkeeps and actress Eliza Dushku and trading pleasantries with a brunette with a kind face, it occurred to me that I was probably growing way too cozy and that I should flee before sampling one of the establishment’s signature drinks (say, the beer-vodka amalgam punishingly dubbed the “Pabst-Smir”) or doing something equally ill-advised.

Outside in the November chill huddled a half-dozen or so hopeful bons vivants. “One out, four in,” one muttered to himself on my exit. Then, to the doorkeeper, he added, “Please, sir, we’re cold.” The moment seemed positively Dickensian, and I felt pleased my leave-taking would benefit someone. As I headed into the night, I likewise felt like sketching what a pleasurable time I’d had at Frederick’s—which opens at 6 p.m. and closes at 1:30 a.m., by the way—and what a congenial destination it would make for honky-tonk virgins and veterans alike.

And belatedly, that’s just what I’ve done here.

The official Frederick’s Music Lounge site.

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