Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fern bars (2)

Some Fern bar history
One of the many downsides of being self indulgent is that you forget to give other people background. Here I have been talking about Fern bars and I haven't said what they are. I mentioned old blue laws in previous post, for example, and that may have been confusing because Fern bars dated from decades after the blue laws were passed.

Fern bars sprung up in the early 1970s. In some ways they were typical of the era and in other ways they were a reaction against it. Before they arrived, there were two, maybe three, kinds of bar culture. There was the cocktail lounge that was created in response to prohibition. And there was the working class pub which had become the rock and roll bar. In some places, there were still Tiki bars too. [Update: There was also gay discos which would soon have a big influence but were unknown to most of us in the early 1970s.]

I'll start with decor because they were very much a backlash against 1970s design. the 1970s was characterized by two styles. One style was very modern design. Furniture, lamps and carpets came in shapes and  colours and fabrics that had never been seen before. There was a lot of artificial colours like orange and greens like you don't find in nature.

The other style you saw a lot of in the early 1970s was earth-mother  simplicity. Here everything was very much in colours you'd find in nature. A lot of browns and natural fabrics. Spider plants in macrame plant holders abounded. If anything was dyed it was dyed using old-fashioned techniques, tie-dying or Batik. All stains and paint was removed from wood furniture so that the supposed beauty of the natural grain would show through. This was even done with woods that don't have any noticeable grain such as pine.

The Fern bar (I have no idea why I keep capitalizing this) was a rejection of both those styles. They were decorated more like some little old lady's living room.

Walk into a fern bar and the first thing you would see would be a lot of old-style furniture. There would be wing chairs and Tiffany-style lamps. The chairs were arranged around low tables and on these low tables there would almost inevitably be a backgammon board. Backgammon was very big in Fern bars.

Actual ferns weren't  a necessary feature. The most important thing was that there were no spider plants. The fern was often there because it was an excuse to put it on a Victorian-style plant stand that was, again, not unlike what you might find in the living room of a upper-middle class widow in the 1970s.

Fern bars were quiet. All the fabric on the furniture and the floors absorbed sound. There was a dance floor but it was usually isolated, partially walled off and music was kept at a low volume until after 10 o'clock at night. The dance floors were also quite small with no where near enough space to hold even a quarter of the people present. The assumption was that people came to sit and talk.

What did people drink in these places? Mostly rum- and Vodka-based drinks with various citrus fruits to soften and maybe even to disguise the presence of the alcohol. Screwdrivers, Mai Tais, Cuba Libres and, above all, Pina Coladas were served. The Harvey Wallbanger was often talked about but rarely actually ordered. Women would often drink white wine and often only one or two glasses over the evening.

At the beginning there was very little attempt at being any kind of connoisseur. People would just ask for the drink and not typically specify what brand or variety. Thus, a glass of white wine would be ordered "I'd like a glass of white wine" and no one particularly cared whether it was Chardonnay,  Riesling or Pinot Gris. In practice, it was usually Kressman. Towards the end, people had started to rediscover the Martini and Grand Marnier also became popular.

Never make fun of society dear, only people who can't get into it do that
Fern bars had a mixed reputation that recalls Oscar Wilde's quip I have used as the heading above. Fern bars had dress codes. Jeans were absolutely forbidden.

That may not seem like a big thing nowadays but it was a big barrier at the time. In those days, most people wore jeans anytime they weren't at work. Having a no-jeans policy was turn away most people from the get-go. People had gotten used to thinking they could just drive downtown and wander in and out of any club just to see what it was like. To wander into a place only to be greeted by some doorman who said, sorry we have a dress code rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

But more than that, Fern bars didn't advertise their presence. In order to know which one to go to, you had to already be one of the people who knew which one to go to. When a Fern bar got too well known all sorts of people would come to see it. Everyone usually included a lot of single men looking to meet sexual partners. Anytime this happened, the people who really liked Fern bars would decamp and find a new place. And the sort of new place that would appeal to them had to be a place that wasn't advertised.

Okay, that sounds snobbish and it was but there was a certain logic to it. A decade ago now, the Serpentine One and I were in a club that recreated the atmosphere of New York's 21. Every detail of the decor was perfect but the customers weren't. As the Serpentine One astutely noted, "It's easier to recreate the room than it is to find people who know how to behave in it."

Getting laid
Sex had a lot to do with it. People went to Fern bars looking for sexual partners. Now, before you sneer, it's important to remember that that is also why people went to every other type of club in the 1970s. As I've said before, it felt like there were no consequences. There were only two sexual diseases, both of which were rare and even if you got them they were curable.

People didn't hook up in those days. Hooking up is what you did with friends. People went and met strangers in bars and went home with them. But even then it was nice to know that there was a place where you could go and meet the right kind of stranger—a stranger who had the same cultural background, manners and moral values that you did.

And while you wanted sex, you didn't want to go to a place full of desperate people looking for sex. These bars appealed to people who liked to socialize with members of the opposite sex. To meet and talk and if something happens, something happens.

I'll be blunt here, the bars appealed to people who knew they could get sex if they wanted it. They were more interested in the right kind of partner than just getting some. That is why the worst thing that could happen to a Fern bar was for it to get known as the sort of place to go meet people.

Rejecting the 1960s
Without really knowing what they were doing, Fern bars were one of the first steps away from the 1960s and towards the Reagan era. And here is where some people really objected. Fern bars appealed most of all to people who rejected the culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Not in any terribly overt or political way. Back in those days everyone, and I mean everyone, saw themselves as a liberal politically.

A writer back at the time, I forget who and I'm not going to look up the reference, called it "the new normal". After a decade in which people affected to be part of different groups—hippies, working class, flower children, Jesus freaks—a lot of college-educated people started wanting to be normal.

Only no one knew where to turn to find normal. Your parents weren't normal. They had joined the spirit of the times just like everyone else. Your grandmother's house looked normal and the kind of manners and talk you found there was appealing. But your grandmother lived there and you couldn't count on meeting the sort of young men and women you wanted to meet at your grandmother's place.

So the solution was a bar decorated like your grandmother's living room. If your grandmother was of a certain class.

You might say that the Fern bar was the first step to democratizing the idea of class. Anyone could join provided they learned how to dress and behave the right way. And provided they could afford the bar tab and the bar tab was noticeably higher than it was in other clubs.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this history of the Fern bars Jules, its very interesting. I don't recall anything like them here in the US in the 70s, although the type of atmosphere you describe "like your grandmother's living room" is very much like the coffee bars that sprang up here in the late 80s and 90s, I guess the precursors of the Starbuck's chain that followed. The early coffee bars--not to be confused with the coffee houses of Greenwich Village in the 50s and 60s--had old fashioned comfortable furniture, sofas, wing chairs, Tiffany lamps, hanging plants, and often backgammon tables. People could congregate there in groups or go alone and read a book while having a cup of coffee. This was also when the more exotic flavored coffees became popular, so that was also part of the cachet, and there was never any alcohol served. They were also quiet with very low or no music playing in the background, and sometimes there might be a folk-singer performing on a Friday or Saturday night. People generally did not go to the coffee bars looking to get laid.

    Disco was big here in the 70s, as I guess it was everywhere. The discos could be gay or straight, or non-denominational! And they served alcohol. A spin-off of the disco was the juice bar, no alcohol just fruit juices that people could drink while they did drugs. I never went to one and I don't think they lasted long, or they merged with the other discos.