A Love Letter to Gypsy Tea Room, Despite its Flaws
Editor: This year, we're celebrating the 25th Dallas Observer Music Awards. Our coverage will include recollections from last quarter century of North Texas music. Here, our nightlife columnist remembers the Deep Ellum venue that won nearly every DOMA it was nominated for.
Nostalgia is not my favorite color, but looking back at 25 years of music history in Dallas forces my hand. In that blurry fuzz of memory; nothing really changes, nothing ever stays the same.
Fifteen years ago, I got my first car. That was the tipping point that turned me into a full-scale concert kid and Deep Ellum apologist.
So many of our favorite formative rooms have closed their doors since then. We've lost the Bronco Bowl, the first place I used fake identification and felt that invincible confidence that only comes from getting away with it. Gone is Deep Ellum Live, where some girlfriends and I once spent an entire Fuel concert maintaining a British accent for reasons that seemed very urgent at the time and now completely escape me. The doors have closed at Club Clearview, a venue I snuck into the backdoor of more times than I ever walked through the front. Do not underestimate the kindness of burly door men who let children dream they run the town. But perhaps the biggest heartbreaker is that the doors have closed at the Gypsy Tea Room.
There was something about a night when you were headed to the Tea Room. It was the unofficial cathedral of Deep Ellum, I'd dress up a little more. I'd arrive a little early. I didn't pull any shit with the door guy. I respected it.
I can't pinpoint the difference, exactly. In the fuzz of memory I tell myself the sound was better. The bookings were better. The lighting must have been better, if I was dressing up for concerts. I remember thinking that the music playing between bands was always so great. I remember lying about my age to a person called Christopher. I remember seeing The Roots for the first time. I remember hearing Erykah Badu singing the hook on "You Got Me." I remember seeing The Strokes.
I remember sneaking into the VIP area in the center, surrounded by the main bar. I would sit on the ledge of the platform. I would slowly turn inward to the seating area. I would push all way to the corner where I could see clearly over the crowd right to the stage, where I could make eye contact with whoever was at the microphone.
This felt like such an act of rebellion then and those images remain fixed in my mind, even after all these years. Every first concert brought a new musician in the third dimension, bathed in blue light and standing on rugs. Frequently, they were so close I could touch them and so loud I'd have headaches for hours the next day. I didn't have words for so many parts of my life in those days and, like so many of my peers, I depended on those musicians. I depended on those memories. I had those encores.
"So what was your last show at the Gypsy Tea Room?" was the question I kept asking people this week.
"The Darkness, I think."
"DJ Shadow. It was my first and last show at Gypsy."
No one had to search too hard for the memory.
"The Fall. It was my first review for We Shot JR. Spring of 2006," says Chris Mosley, former We Shot JR writer and current D Magazine contributor.
Reading that review pulls some of the glowing haze from my memory. "I swore off going to the Tea Room for a long time, but if the band is good enough I'll make an exception," he wrote. "The Fall played last night. I made an exception."
In the fuzzy glow of my memory, I had forgotten about the exceptions Mosley was referring too. It wasn't always perfect. A fight in 2004 at an Old 97's show left one man paralyzed, one man in prison and stirred some opinions about skinhead presence in Deep Ellum. It also left the Tea Room vulnerable to a community of fans deciding whether their dollars affirmed or denied something revealed that night in '04. "My last show was that Old 97's show. That show," another friend recalled.
Whatever safety I found in the those snuck-into VIP areas wasn't always the case outside the velvet ropes or even outside the club doors. It was a truth that would start affecting the reputation of Deep Ellum until more and more doors would close, and eventually it would take the Gypsy Tea Room, too.
The shuttering and reopening of Deep Ellum is cyclical in nature and political beyond reasons of safety. Someone else has a version of this story with clubs I never went to. And someone has the story before that and before that. All with their dark moments.
Perhaps this is why nostalgia can be so dangerous, because the blur of memory so easily fades the moments that are difficult to revisit. Perhaps this is why nostalgia can be so seductive, because we can close our eyes and remember just the romance of escaping into the soft blue tint of a spotlight. Even if it was someone else's.
The last concert I saw at Gypsy Tea Room was Lady Sovereign. It was the night before Thanksgiving and the crowd was small. I left early because yeast rolls do not make themselves.
It didn't occur to me then to make any special commemoration. But now maybe you will indulge a toast:
To 25 new years of sneaking into side doors and charming bartenders. To that feeling in your stomach when you first see your favorite musician in human form. To every found cathedral and the gypsies therein. To a closed door, whose destiny will always be to open.
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