Arts & Life, Music

A call to arms for the Royal Albert

The Royal Albert Arms Hotel has a revered spot in the annals of punk rock history. It’s been the subject of a fantastic local documentary. It’s been compared to CBGB’s in New York City and the Marquis Club in London. It’s been the launch pad from which too many local bands to count have sprung from.

The legendary venue is spoken of in hushed whispers by bands that toured through Winnipeg and had the balls to sleep in the beds – “Did you stay there?” they ask each other. Even Green Day played here before they started shopping at Hot Topic or wherever it is you get Emily Strange socks. When it shut down in 2011, there was a gaping hole in the heart of the Winnipeg music scene. The nearly century-old building is home to an incomparable history of some of the best shows and bands Canada has ever seen.

So why does everything we’re hearing about it right now have to do with Facebook page updates?

It’s ridiculous at this point to flog the dead, bloated horse. The restaurant episode was many things – bizarre, sudden, and surprising. But, does anyone even remember that now? It’s what came after that seems the strangest. There was a chance the whole thing would’ve been largely ignored if the RAAH did not have such a response to the articles following it, most actively with their Facebook account.

Daren Jorgenson, the Hova-esque rags-to-riches Internet pharmacy pioneer who bought the venue in 2007, dealt with the restaurant incident admirably. He paid the staff a month’s wages for their trouble. The problem was that the guy who fired the staff – Ray Rybachuk – was very easy to find on Google, mostly for some not-so-great things. Jorgenson’s defence of his partner was also admirable. He went to bat for Rybachuk, even offering to have people hire auditors to prove the business was clean. He wondered publicly why someone trying to make a go at a clean living was being publicly skewered. And over what should really be an internal issue, as bizarre as it was.

And it gets weirder.

The social media meltdown going on down at the Albert Facebook page is baffling. The venue is an amazing place at a perfect time: it has a great sound system, it sells the same beer we’ve always drank at dive-bar shows, and the place still has, if only in its walls for the time being, the same ‘f–off’ attitude it always had.

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But it’s being slowly eroded by the ridiculousness – condemning or deifying reporters with t-shirts (‘This bar does NOT serve Bartley Kives”), urinal pucks, and panties, all the after-parties for bands well past their prime, the Great Canadian Song Search (not even sure what that is), public Facebook firings, and the Country & Western Jam. Even Winnipeg Cat is saying things.

Jorgenson has offered up a list of possible explanations on the Facebook page: he’s being a good punk by telling you to f off, he’s changing the bar to a country & western venue, he’s crazy, or it’s a social media marketing scheme. My guess is the latter.

It may be a great scheme. One of the best, perhaps. If no publicity is bad publicity, then Jorgenson took an opportunity and has made A LOT of publicity out of it (including, obviously, this).

But here’s the thing: it’s starting to hurt. It’s starting to hurt the people who danced or moshed on the broken glass in front of the stage, the people who sat for hours ordering the same drink day in and day out, the people who chugged king cans in the parking lot before the best show they ever saw at a bar.

And most of all, it’s hurting the music scene. There is an obvious bruise on many bands in the city that used to love the Albert. Some of them feel like they’ve lost something they could always count on. Others are turned off by the fact they can’t even figure out what’s going on.

As a musician, the Albert was always a safe haven, a great place for a party, and a place we got to play as loud as we wanted. And the great thing was that at every show I went to, you could tell that every single person was there for the music.

And that’s all we’re asking. There is no reason the Albert can’t be the unstoppable underground force it was before. Do away with the social media marketing shit. There’s only one thing that makes the Royal Albert the Royal Albert: The music.

Matt Williams is a Winnipeg-based writer and musician infatuated by lady country singers. Follow him on Twitter @MattGeeWilliams.

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