Back in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., situated atop a gentle rise skirting that city’s now booming downtown, there sits a cozy little beer bar called the Stone Lion Tavern. For more than 20 years, the Lion has scored as Chattanooga’s finest, down-to-earth beer-drinker’s paradise. To some, that’s an odd, even useless, accolade to be sporting, but it’s the one best suited to the place — and, rest assured, they’ve more than earned the rights to the crown.
The bar itself is nothing special, probably even a tad rundown. But folks never went to the Lion yearning for fancy decor or expecting much in the way of cheery, corporate-trained service with a smile. They went there because the place retains a certain character: The hole in the wall with a heart of gold, if you will.
Any number of different people agreed on this point, as the crowd there was always a mixed, but harmonious bag — with nine-to-fivers sipping Heinekens and talking politics opposite punk rockers pounding PBR pitchers and talking polemics.
When I was recently home for the holidays in Tennessee, I learned of the imminent demise of this working-class hero’s landmark. There again, the common thread of economic forces elbowing out a longtime, local business is sewing shut another chapter of unique local history.
It’s a useful metaphor when observing the Vincent’s Ear folks getting thrown out on their own ear after long running a mainstay Lexington Avenue business — one not so far removed in spirit from that of the Stone Lion.
Like Asheville, downtown wasn’t a destination in Chattanooga as recently as the 1980s. Boarded-up buildings and petty crime ruled in those days, and like here, public and private investment joined hands to clean the place up and make it vibrant again. New businesses, new sidewalks and a new aquarium have transformed downtown Chattanooga into a family-friendly tourist destination — a scene bearing some resemblance to the current growth in fair Asheville.
But I dare say Vincent’s forthcoming removal ranks as a bigger tragedy than that of the Lion, as the Ear was always so much more than a simple beer bar. Besides the obvious smell of good java in the air, Vincent’s was above all else a close friend to live music in Asheville — especially local music.
And there are few things in this life more important than good coffee, beer and live music. Without them, there would be no Junk Journal, and there would certainly be no Vincent’s Ear.
Perhaps a more suitable comparison to Asheville’s recent growth trend is that of Aspen, Colo. Years and years of yuppiefied development in that lovely town effectively ravaged Aspen’s once distinct mountain character in favor of quaint, family-friendly shops and other tourist fare. I guarantee there’s little room for dives like Vincent’s Ear in Aspen — and it’s starting to appear the same holds true here.
Besides the lost jobs and lost causes tied up in the Vincent’s mess, the real tragedy lies in the damage it does our local music scene. That little catch phrase rests in the title for this particular rant space, though the “local” part of the mantra takes on an increasingly imported flavor with each passing year. And Vincent’s demise will surely only further that unfortunate trend.
There are countless local musicians and bands who will now be effectively homeless, since there are not many local venues welcoming bands like Cannibal Unicorn, Dig Shovel Dig or even DrugMoney with the sort of open arms that Vincent’s has for years.
It’s perhaps true that the death of the place will disperse some of Lexington Avenue’s oft-discussed “less desirable” elements: a source of great joy for a number of interested observers in this latest round of Monopoly (though “they” won’t go near as far away as those interested observers might hope).
Even if it’s not your favorite spot, the freaky — but ultimately harmless — Vincent’s earmarked an important facet of our community. They long welcomed a huge variety of patrons and performers to their quaint little cubby — embodying a kind of genuine tolerance not found in most churches. If catering to family-friendly tourists means tossing places like Vincent’s Ear aside in favor of more mixed-retail space and fusion cuisine, then we might as well move on to Aspen — at least the air’s cleaner up there.
Score: On the Star Trek characters scale, Vincent’s Ear (R.I.P.) scores a Mr. Spock: alien disposition, human qualities and great f••king ears.