Sitting across the lobby of the Brown Hotel in Louisville, with his back to the wall sat a young man. He slouched in the overstuffed arm chair, looking up towards the balcony of the mezzanine. It was late in the afternoon, and he was killing time till showtime.
The Brown was born upscale in the roaring twenties, to compete with the Seelbach Hotel, just down the street, which was built with the grandeur of the Old World European hotels. The Brown Hotel, and its owner, James Graham Brown, had a tough row to hoe catching up with the Seelbach, which was almost twenty years its senior. It had even been immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Living in Great Neck, where Fitzgerald had lived when he started the novel, and based much of it on, the Seelbach might have been a better choice for the young man. Or maybe not, as his tastes ran towards science fiction and the bizarre. And this afternoon, this place was getting its weird on.
Curly haired, decked out in black and still wearing his shades, he recognized the face of the man looking down from the mezzanine. It was plastered all over the hotel. He slid out of his chair and made his way serpentine to the stairs. The gothic cabinet on the landing loomed above him, its carved wooden jesters catching the setting sun, laughing at him, making him question, rightly, his sanity.
At the top of the stairs he was met with a rush of activity. A bridal party was rushing by, elegant and at a great expense. The ceremony was over, the bride and groom were on the way to the Brown for the reception and the guests were streaming in. The young man from Long Island crossed over to the railing, just down from where he’d seen the old man.
He looked out across the lobby. It was all hustle and bustle and no one even noticed the bizarre symbol emblazoned on his chest. Or how when he turned his wrist just the right direction and it caught the sun from the windows, a thin beam of light scanned across the room.
Looking to his left, jutting out from behind one of the columns, he saw a cigar glow, as the owner took a puff. For a moment he caught the profile of the face, and it was James Graham Brown, the man who built the Brown Hotel.
Eric Bloom, of the band Blue Oyster Cult moved from his spot by the the railing to see for himself, face to face, a man dead for over fifty years.
But there was no one there, just an empty space and the smell of a cigar. He looked down into the lobby and into his own eyes, still wearing the shades, but now 77 years old, and staring up at the cartoon character of his younger self, slouching in that overstuffed chair.
Stoned in the lobby of the Brown Hotel
I was dreaming up both characters, sitting in the lobby of the Brown hotel, waiting for Lisa to finish dressing, soaking up the atmosphere. The ghost story has been repeated many times … the old man looking out over the lobby, the smell of a cigar being the only trace when you look for him.
Eric Bloom was on my mind as we were in Louisville to see Blue Oyster Cult at the Brown Theater later that night.
I was sitting across from what appeared to be one of the original check in windows. The setting sun shone on its metal bars, and for instant I realized that this same moment had existed now for about a hundred years. Light from that same sun came through the same window and struck that same piece of steel, day after day.
That’s probably when I realized the gummy had kicked in. A bit later, my stoned reverie on Old Louisville ghosts and rock stars was broken as Lisa came down, and we set off in search for food. They serve food in the lobby, but there was a Sicilian joint down the street. We could drink the difference in price.
It was warm for December, and walking with Lisa in downtown Louisville was downright romantic. It was a different world for us. There were young people everywhere, swarming the place. And by young, I mean teen and preteen, dressed to the nines and my mind boggled. I came from an era where in high school the biggest decision you had to make was which band band t-shirt to wear?
And as often as any, that was Blue Oyster Cult.
The dark stain on the Brown Hotel in the fight for racial equality in downtown Louisville of the 20th century
As in most horror stories, the true evil lies within people’s hearts while they were alive.
James Graham Brown was born in 1881 in Indiana. He moved to Louisville in 1903 and started a lumber company with his father and brother. But he quickly moved into commercial real estate buildings in the downtown areas. He seems to have eschewed romantic love and raising a family himself, being single minded in creating a vibrant, and architecturally stunning downtown Louisville. Starting with the Brown Hotel and Theater.
But sadly, only for the whites. In the late fifties, as Louisville was moving towards desegregation, he dug in his heels. He did allow black school children to attend performances of The Ten Commandments at the Brown Theater, but refused any other black patrons at any other time.
During a performance of Porgy and Bess on Christmas of 1959, black ticket holders weren’t allowed into the theater. Even though the play was performed by an all black cast.
This seems to have been one of the straws that led to the camel’s back crumbling, as sit-ins and other demonstrations were held outside the hotel and theater, and spread downtown. These went on for the next three years and the town’s reputation was being tarnished. More residents were arrested for protesting segregation in Louisville than in any other American city. A “Buy Nothing For Easter” campaign attracted 75,000 signatures, and the turmoil was taking a heavy economic toll.
And yet Brown refused to allow entry to blacks until the city council changed the laws in 1963, banning segregation. Louisville became the first city south of the Mason-Dixon line to ban segregated accommodation. And Brown fought it as long as he could.
You can excuse him by saying he was a product of his time. But in reality, he was worse than his time.
There’s a life size bronze cast of Brown walking his dog outside of the Brown Hotel. He looks more rotund than in the photos that are still visible inside the Hotel. Brown lived in a penthouse suite on the top floor. It’s now off limits, and on the floor below, some guests have complained of the noisy footsteps coming from above. When told no one is in the room above, they ask for a new room on a different floor.
Down the street there’s a marker, remembering the protests over desegregation, but no mention on it of the protests at the Brown Hotel. James Graham Brown is a name that still has power in Louisville. With no heirs, his fortune, which was extensive, went to his foundation. It’s done an amazing job of improving life in Louisville, for people of all races.
That’s one thing I’ve learned … Even good people do monstrous things from time to time. And even monsters are capable of doing good.
Monsters on the prowl in downtown Louisville, waiting for our appointment with Blue Oyster Cult
Blue Oyster Cult redefined what a monster was in the 1970s. They came along as I was transitioning from adolescent to teenager, and got under my skin. I had been a horror film nut, was well acquainted with science fiction as well, and their lyrics alluded to that sort of thing, albeit obliquely.
It’s how they became the thinking person’s hard rock band. Even if the thinkers were mainly teenagers. They were marketed as the American answer to Black Sabbath. A horror film injected into rock and roll. Blue Oyster Cult created new monsters, replacing wolf men, the reanimated dead and vampires with the new ones … bikers, murderous drug dealers and junkies. People with death in their eyes.
And surprisingly, for a while, had hit singles. Here in the midwest, in the seventies and eighties we had a sweet tooth for hard rock. Blue Oyster Cult was already headlining coliseums without a hit single. Then Don’t Fear the Reaper came along and blew things sky high.
We were monsters back then. Probably not nearly as bad as we remember, or for some, maybe even worse, but life felt dangerous, and this was the soundtrack to that era.
As we walked back to the Brown Hotel, I began to see the other monsters. Some were in t-shirts with the BOC logo, easy to identify.
At the Rabbit Hole Bar inside The Brown, they were better dressed, but still unmistakable. The overheard conversations from this upscale crowd were more like dissertations on who were the best bands of the seventies and why.
Drinking above our station in the lobby of the Brown Hotel
Louisville feels like New Orlean’s midwestern cousin. Particularly in the summer, you can feel the river here. There are gothic neighborhoods, blocks of bars and restaurants popping up all over the city. It’s an old town, with all the old problems we’ve never dealt with, like poverty, crime and racial divisions. And walking into the Brown Hotel, no matter how you try to justify it to yourself, is stepping into that old, genteel world.
It was rowdier than we imagined it then, and still is now.
The Brown Hotel is a swanky joint, no doubt. You can tell by the price, and also by the fact that there’s a telephone right next to the crapper. That’s a dead giveaway that where you sit is intended to cradle the asses of people far more valuable than yourself. That makes doing your business there doubly satisfying.
The lobby was a maelstrom of activity. The wedding guests were decked out in tuxedos, giving that touch of high end charm that a place like the Brown Hotel lobby needs to get the full effect. Over to one side, huddled around a TV was a circle jerk of men, watching a college football game. Their wives sat on the couch, wishing their husbands showed as much enthusiasm for their orgasms as they do for a touchdown.
I’d stood out on the street after the sun went down, having a smoke before the concert. When I first saw the band forty years ago, the question was how to smuggle your weed into the venue. Now it’s where can you find a place to smoke it before you go in, when you gave up your car for valet parking.
Just down from valet parking was a bush, dim lighting – obviously designed for discreet pot smoking. While I stood there, I heard pounding feet coming towards me. I saw a young girl, maybe thirteen years old, dressed to the nines, her entire top half glittering with blue sequins, running down the sidewalk. Tears were pouring down her face. She didn’t fit in with the perfect teens we’d been meeting earlier, no matter how shiny she was.
Above me, red and green lights signaled the oncoming train we call Christmas, adding another element of fervor inside.
The girl came back around the corner of the hotel, still crying, but texting now. She’s learning about monsters too, just monsters of a different generation. I’m so old now I’m not even sure I recognize the new ones.
Blue Oyster Cult turns the Brown Hotel’s decor from art deco gold to a gothic red and black
Inside the Brown Theater, we were in the balcony, the front row looking out. It’s an old world theater, based on the Music Box Theater in New York City. It could work as a Blue Oyster Cult album cover.
The first time I saw the band was in a stadium in 1981, the last year they had a hit. The last time we bumped paths was about eight years ago, in a small town in southern Illinois, whose entire population you could have squeezed into that stadium.
Blue Oyster Cult draws great crowds at events like that. And there’s the dichotomy with the band. They can play a bike rally as easily as the Brown Theater. It’s a result of singing about the outlaws of society. You develop an audience of outlaws. That they’re still drawing crowds fifty years later means that concept has legs.
For me, what the band truly excelled at was what they did right out of the box, creating an atmosphere. That was what made the Hammer horror films, those with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee so perfect. It was the mood those films set that was truly supernatural.
BOC could take concepts and lyrics – often donated from others, and put them to music in ways which accentuated the diabolical, and made it sound romantic. No other group could play straight rock and roll and make it lock together like a Bach quintet.
It’s that ornate edge, that air of the gothic that created a mystique around them, that makes playing on gilded stages oddly appropriate. But senior citizens are seldom gothic icons, unless you’re Vincent Price. And so far, no rocker has managed to quite pull that transformation off.
In concert, Blue Oyster Cult is consistently great
I don’t write concert reviews. They’re like YouTube videos shot on someone’s phone at a show. If you watch those, you’d likely to think Eric Bloom’s voice is as much a part of history as his laser wristband. But the sound at concerts aren’t mixed to sound good on phones. In concert, his voice sounded fine. He didn’t sound like he was in his twenties, but his snarl was intact.
Buck Dharma wrote the hits, starting with Don’t Fear the Reaper. But he’s admittedly, more into creating pop songs, though occasional gothic jewels that invoke the full moon still pops out. He’s a bit younger than Eric at 73, and his talents haven’t diminished much. Of the guitar gods, he’s likely the most melodic.
You could make the point about how amazing it is that people of that age can still play music with that edge. But that’s insulting. It’s not like Mick Jagger getting more positive reviews for his stamina in prancing on the stage than his singing. These guys still do their job.
It’s Eric Bloom’s songs that gave Blue Oyster Cult its gravely feel, something that’s carried on even to their latest album, The Symbol Remains. It’s not a bad album, but I still couldn’t help but feel, the only songs that really felt to me like Blue Oyster Cult were the Bloom songs.
It took twenty years for this album to appear. I hope it’s not their last. So far, no group, particularly hard rock groups have brought it full circle, returning to the beginning, but seen through the eyes of someone half a century older. They’re one of those groups which could surprise you and do it.
It was when I was looking around, tracing the lines of the architecture to a soundtrack of Blue Oyster Cult that I got it. Their music creates aural spaces, and sometimes you find yourself in one of those spaces, with the song that fits it. I still miss the voices from the classic lineup that have fallen away. Those voices created spaces which the band can’t go to now. But the tightness of the current band just about makes up for it.
And when you close your eyes, Blue Oyster Cult sounds better than ever.
Back in the lobby of the Brown Hotel, where people are behaving like dogs
In retrospect, we should have just went back to the room after the show. It was the first time I’d broken city limits for an overnighter in over a year. We were celebrating our anniversary after all.
But there were a couple empty seats at the Rabbit Hole bar, so we took them. By now the place was filled with the bleary eyed, and at times, the plastered. You know a gaggle of women are blotto when they all want a cigarette, and none of then have smoked for years. It’s a sign of the times when no one at the bar was able to help them.
The music from the ballroom was providing a steady thump on the ceiling. Play That Funky Music White Boy. I scanned the mezzanine for James Graham Brown, certain this would be enough to call him to his post. But he didn’t show.
I opted for safe choices at the bar with a couple bourbons from the Bulleit family, and a couple Falls City English Style Pale Ales. A can of Falls City cost eight bucks. My Granny Bert drank Falls City, and would have turned over in her grave at that price.
Lisa went exotic, with a Mojito and Long Island Ice Tea. Our bar tab could have bought us a room in many places, but it was worth it. Sometimes you have to sit in a swanky bar, just like you have to sit in dive bars. When the bar has a ghost, and down here even the Bulleit family who made the bourbon has one, it’s worth the tab.
By the time we started up the elevator, the hotel was feeling like the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. Instead of two bloodied girls in the elevator, it was a family from Louisiana, who had brought their young son up to see the concert. The father’s favorite song of the night was (Then Came) The Last Days of May, a song about a murderous drug deal. The boy just looked a bit stunned.
Lisa went on to the room. I stopped at the coke machine next to our room. It took credit cards, and I was fumbling by this point. The room across the hall, filled with drunken young wedding guests seemed to have their TV up loud, which made me jittery. The ice machine was humming. The coke machine was beeping and rejecting my advances. I was growing frustrated. The TV behind me grew louder. I heard a woman crying out, arguing, a man yelling “you think that hurt,” followed by a pounding, three times on the wall. That jerked me back into reality, for it was when I heard the sound of the wall being hit that I realized the voices weren’t from a TV.
Then all was silent, except for the humming of the ice machine. I stood there a minute, listening. Nothing. I went over to their door and listened, nothing.
I got Lisa, told her what happened and drug her out into the hall. Still silence, and I began to wonder if I imagined it all. I thought about it, then called the front desk. It’s one thing hearing a fight. It’s another when the fight abruptly goes silent.
A bit later security is knocking on their door, I’m watching through the keyhole. There’s evidently two young ladies sharing this room, the young man isn’t supposed to be in there, the girls are begging the hotel detective not to throw him out. They were hysterical, the young man was silent and finally it grew quiet, the hotel dick left and by then Lisa and I were exhausted.
Fitful dreams and farewell to Louisville
I didn’t sleep well. I had that weird feeling I’ve gotten when staying in places which were truly haunted. In those cases I can usually point to something strange happening, but not here.
The Brown Hotel is a haunting place. It’s a space carved out of the humid Louisville atmosphere, gilded and made to feel like you’re in another land altogether. It’s no wonder the building itself seeps into your subconscious. That was the idea behind the designers.
The same can be said for the body of work created by Blue Oyster Cult. They created structures in sound, spaces inside the mind. Once you’ve been there, it’s easy to find your way back.
In the end, the Brown Hotel is a living hotel. People are always passing by. The lobby can be full of people dining, some of the most well-heeled folks I’ve ever seen. You might share the Mezzanine and hallways with staggering guests. But in this case at least, you couldn’t blame it on the band.
For Blue Oyster Cult fans are after all, blue blooded.