The neon lights at Lee’s were so bright on Tuesday it was hard to imagine they’d ever dim.
Shouldn’t a letter or two have to go out before it’s ok for a hot spot like Lee’s Liquor Lounge to shut down after 60 years? “L-E-E’S L-I-Q-U-O-R L-U-N-G” or something? Some visible evidence of an ending, at least.
But no. Sometimes the reason for the closing of a treasured haunt is a longer story that has to do with … a light rail and a parking lot and a handshake agreement? The tale of Lee’s is a story many still don’t fully understand.
“Condos. If anyone tells you that [we’re putting in condos], it’s bullshit,” said someone onstage.
But whatever rumors may have been afloat, patrons were ready for one final (for the time being?) hurrah at the bar on Tuesday night, with two Dale Watson shows, both packed.
Inside, it seemed business as usual. Popular drink choices included Hamm's and PBR tallboys. Footwear included cowboy boots, Birkenstocks, and character shoes. Patrons (though certainly aching inside) maintained brave eye contact with the mounted cougar on the wall and scarfed plates of mac and cheese topped with jerk chicken.
When they weren’t listening to Watson and his Lone Stars, at least.
Watson is no stranger to the place. (Listen to the song “Louie's Lee’s Liquor Lounge” if you need a catch-up.) After selling out the joint on Sunday, Watson added another Tuesday show. And when that sold out he added another.
During each performance, the wall-to-wall crowd stared straight ahead at the singer. Couples swing-danced in the square-yard of room self-allotted for such activity. Many sang along. Posters for the event, perhaps in hope of a miracle, read “June 12 & 14, 2019.”
“I’ve been here too many days in a row. You don’t want to quote anything I have to say,” said someone at the bar. The anonymous man attended all three final shows, as had many others, and they’d probably be back next month if they could too.
“Ain’t ever gonna be a place like Lee’s,” Watson said on stage as a box of (smuggled?) Pizza Lucé made its way down the line. The crowd cheered.
“We can still get tickets to the late show,” someone whispered.
As Watson closed the night’s first show with “Louie's Lee’s Liquor Lounge,” Phil Kallal mentioned he’d played it as the opener too. He always does.
“Did anyone cry?” I asked. “No. But there were a lot of bottles in the air,” answered Kallal.
“Have you seen Dale before?” “Many many times.”
“Have you seen it this packed?” “Many many times.”
A longtime Lee’s lover, Kallal brought his son out on Tuesday for a first and last Lee’s excursion. A lot of other last timers were around. Not so many first timers.
“It’s sad. Everyone’s sad. Everyone has a story about Lee’s,” said bartender Reilly McNaught.
“Sad” was the magic word that night. “I’m sad.” “This is sad.” My favorite question: “Are you sad?”
“We’re very very sad,” said Shannon Butler.
Butler and her husband, Bill, teach swing dancing classes. They’ve been dancing at Lee’s every Wednesday for fourteen years. This week, they had to move the operation to Richfield.
That’s what became obvious on Tuesday: While regulars will be displaced, they’ll likely find new places to come together. There’s live music in other venues and people don’t stop going out because their favorite spot closes.
But that doesn’t make it less sad.
Walking past the bar on Wednesday afternoon, you could see the lights were out and the chairs were up. Who knows when and if they’ll be taken back down.
“In the 1970s, the bar was being robbed and a regular patron named Sleets was carrying a pistol, he pulled it out and shot the robbers,” reads the history page of Lee’s website. “The police came charging in and not knowing Sleets was a good guy, blew him away with a shotgun.”
Maybe the saddest thing to ever happen at Lee’s. Until they had to give up that damn parking lot.
See our complete slideshow of the last night at Lee’s here.