Bid adieu to Lili’s 21

“Where things break and spill, there all goes well.”Polish proverb

How disgustingly poignant to be sitting here writing a eulogy for a bar. How perfectly mawkish.

The pressing urge to write in full-blown melodrama is almost unbearable. I’m tempted to give in. All the ingredients for a weepy farewell toast are there: lost youth, blackberry brandy, and the most beautiful woman in the world snatching $5 cover charges out of Johnny’s sweaty little hand and shoving them down her leopard-clad cleavage, swaying, strutting and swearing — Lili.

Most bars don’t have a face. But this one did. It was round and full of color, framed by a bushel of hair that no babushka could dare hold. Most bars don’t have a voice. But this one did. And it screeched and yelped and cooed. This is a toast, so I’m not going to bog it down with history. Lili’s opened in the late ’70s, a time when nocturnal adventures basically consisted of Styx at Cobo or a band that sounded like Styx playing at some shithole in Warren.

But Lili’s 21 Club would have none of that.

Lili’s was a punk-rock bar. It was one of the first to play punk-rock music for all 14 of the punk-rockers then in Detroit. Once, a Devo pin could get your ass kicked. Once, mascara-adorned glamour boys got chased across high-school football fields. Once, listening to the Sex Pistols meant you were gay and deserving of a Mountain Dew bottle (they were glass back then) thrown at your head.

But there was Lili’s 21. Lili loved you ... Art loved you ... Mike loved you ... and Alan hated you, but he let you drink in the bar anyway. Lili’s 21 had black walls, fucked-up monster toys, Iggy posters, cover art for 45s, perhaps some snot and maybe some blood — just like your bedroom.

Hidden off Joseph Campau on Jacob Street, you walked across an alley to get in through a back door. It was as if it were your own goddamn private club; they knew your face and they knew what you wanted to hear. There were girls there, in leather. They wore red lipstick and short black hair, ripped-up fishnets and high heels. They were the first breed of women who wore tattoos that didn’t necessarily evoke the whole biker/murderer/whore vibe. Some of them even had Devo pins. They liked “The Ghoul,” A Clockwork Orange and Eraserhead and gave you a raging hard-on every time they stomped their boots. If one of them sat on the pool table and smoked a clove cigarette while sneering at you, well, you were just about in love.

The alley had rats, and it was fun to watch them hurdle cardboard boxes and wine bottles. Hamtown — dirty, dirty Hamtown, dirty music and dirty girls. The place would get so packed that you could barely breathe, but you didn’t care because you had no other place to go.

You didn’t want to listen to Styx or get blown off by feather-haired girls in leg warmers who drove Camaros. You wanted music that was fast and girls who sneered at you, blackberry brandy and a pool table, rats in the alley and the most beautiful woman in the world with the weirdest fucking earrings, smacking you on the ass, throwing her head back and laughing like a lunatic — Lili.

Lili didn’t feather her hair or wear leg warmers or drive a Camaro. She didn’t throw Mountain Dew bottles at your head (they were glass back then). If you had a band that didn’t sound like Styx, then you probably played Lili’s 21 Club. You played fast and loud, your songs were 2 minutes long and it hurt your head to figure out how you were going to split $50 four ways. And those girls on the pool table were watching you! One of them wanted to make fliers for your next show and one of them had just gotten her front teeth punched out by a Burger King security guard. She spat when she screamed “Buy me a Stroh’s!” She never wore leg warmers and she drove a Dart. She wanted to get a band together and play there next week. She was going to call her band “Vulva” and she beat up her boyfriend the day before.

Week after week, you came back and Lili remembered you, as she held your sweaty face in her soft, pudgy hands and kissed your cheek and pointed you toward the bar. Alan was mixing up some “valiums” (he invented that drink, ya know) and Mike was talking, smoking and putting out fires in the girls john. Art was on the phone; he was always on the phone. “Can you play next week? How ’bout the week after that?” Lili’s boys, good Polish boys who kept the place black and sweaty and full of fishnets and lipstick and music and beer.

The most beautiful woman in the world passed away a few summers ago. The world is now full of clubs that never play Styx; the girls with the feathered hair and leg warmers who drive Camaros are now giggling as they try to decide between the butterfly tattoo or the yin/yang on their ankle. Mommy thinks the tattoo is cute and Daddy gets mad — but he knows that all the kids have ’em. But I remember when they didn’t, and when a Devo pin would get your ass kicked. When Lili’s was all we had — and everything we needed. Sto Lat! —

At Lili’s Fri., Sept. 27: Trash Brats, Bomb Pops, Nick Pivot’s Cocktail Shake; Sept. 28: Lanternjack, Erratic Gomorrah, Troublemen; Sept. 29: Lili’s memorabilia auction/Iggy Pop appreciation night; Sept. 30: Trash Brats, Polish Muslims, Junk Monkeys.

E-mail Dan DeMaggio at [email protected]
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