June 28 2015 12:00 AM

Forty years ago the Silver Dollar opened its doors. But its precursor, the Brewery, has its own wild legacy.

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Keyboardist Jim Pitchford of Danny Hernandez and the Ones performs for a typically packed night at the Brewery.
In the early hours of July 3, 1974, an estimated 300 patrons of the Brewery, Lansing’s most notorious rock club, drunkenly flooded East Michigan Avenue in what the city of Lansing later dubbed a “major disturbance.” One police officer was injured. Several police cruisers were damaged. It was a free-for-all.

The incident was nothing new to local law enforcement. Since its owners, Paul Kacer, Bruce Wahlin and Rick Becker, launched the show bar in April 1972, it had not only become the place to see up-and-coming national acts, it was also the place to get loose — thanks to the short-lived lowered drinking age of 18.

“Tuesday night was tequila night, 50-cent shots. People were shitfaced drunk,” recalled Becker. “I shouldn’t say everyone, most people kept their acts together. But three quarters of the people in there couldn’t legally drive and they didn’t. They just walked back to Brody.”

Conveniently located on the East Lansing border at 3411 E. Michigan Avenue in Lansing, just 300 yards from the Brody complex, the Brewery was known for its tall boys of Schlitz, cheap food and legendary rock concerts. While Becker later bought out his partners and re-branded as the Silver Dollar, complete with a friendlier image, the now demolished venue was host to a laundry list of music icons — and its fair share of debauchery — in its fabled Brewery days, from 1972 to 1975.

Forty years later, it’s easy to recognize the significance of the Brewery and what occurred on its 50-foot stage, but at the time many of the bands were still on the verge of breaking. The venue saw early gigs from Aerosmith, Rush, Joe Walsh, Peter Frampton and a beardless ZZ Top, to only name a few.

When a still-budding KISS played the Brewery on Oct. 21, 1974, State News reviewer Kevin Carver complemented the band for its “excellent” showmanship but wasn’t impressed with the “unnecessary spitting and drooling of ‘blood’ by bass guitarist Gene Simmons.”

It’s strange to think that icons like Ricky Nelson, Iggy Pop, Willie Dixon and T. Rex once rolled down Michigan Avenue, en route to the beer-soaked Lansing establishment. Other more mythical, cult-status bands like Big Star and Captain Beefheart also passed through its doors.

State News reporter Jack Bodnar, then in his early 20s, was often seen on the Brewery floor covering shows and snapping photos. In late 1974, he even took on a part-time job as a waiter and began writing a book about the club. He titled it “Just Don’t Get Yourself in Trouble," a line borrowed from a Bachman-Turner Overdrive song. The manuscript sat on a shelf for 38 years, though over the past two years he’s resumed work on the labor-of-love project.

“The Brewery was top drawer, the place was always packed,” Bodnar said. “It would even be packed for the local bands. But when there was a name band coming through, and given the party atmosphere, it was so different from seeing a band at the Jenison Field House, the Alley Eye, Coral Gables or the Stables. Those venues were totally different. You were supposed to sit there and listen — not necessarily hallucinate.”

Local band members were not only seen on the stage, but also could be found in the crowd. “We opened for Spirit and some other bands there,” said Pete Wittig, vocalist for Ormandy. “But mostly we went there to hear touring bands and get our minds blown.”

Other local bands regularly headlined, like area favorites Danny Hernandez & the Ones.

“In Lansing, the Brewery was the best place to play,” said Jim Pitchford, keyboardist for the Ones. “It was a party house. There was nothing else close that compared to capacity or the built-in college crowd. The Brewery provided a good base. That place was packed, man. There was no room to do anything other than party.”

Even with the consistent packed-house nights, Bodnar said the Brewery’s end, its transition into the tamer Silver Dollar in ‘75, was inevitable.

“Whether you were drinking, doing something else or just getting off on the music at the Brewery, it was incredibly memorable,” he said. “Nobody went to the Brewery and only had a good time, they had a great time. It was one of those too-good-to-last places.”

Becker sold the Silver Dollar in 1995. In 2006, under new ownership, the Silver Dollar went into foreclosure. By 2009, in classic Lansing fashion, the structure was demolished in order to make room for the colorful Midtown Flats and PNC Bank.

EARLY DAZE

In the fall of 1971, it was risk-taking Kacer who hatched the initial idea to develop a big college nightclub to leverage the lowered drinking age. Soon he, Becker and Wahlin scoped out the recently vacated building that had previously housed Grandmother’s, another venue that had hosted a roster of outstanding concerts through 1970, including Sly & the Family Stone, MC5, the Drifters, the Shirelles, Fats Domino, the Box Tops, Chuck Berry, the Woolies, Alice Cooper and more.

Becker recalls the first time he set foot into the structure that would engulf his life for the next two decades. Immediately, the trio of entrepreneurs knew they had found their location.

“We walk in to the place, and it was really funky and nice,” Becker said. “There were big barn beams in the restaurant area. We go out into the main club and it’s all linoleum and boring. But the good thing was it didn’t have any beams in it and it had a really high ceiling, like 14 foot.”

On April 19, 1972, the paperwork was finalized and the trio began remodeling and promoting the launch of the new venue, often advertised as: “The Brewery, MSU West — King of Bars and Rock & Roll.” An overflowing beer mug served as its logo, an illustrated drunken bird was its mascot.

The ad campaign worked. The Brewery was packed from its opening night, and a string of increasingly higher profile concerts followed. Being a music reviewer, Bodnar interviewed many of the acts and explored the entire venue for the best view of the stage.

“It had a definite look,” Bodnar said. “With the crazy brick as you walked in, the barn wood on the walls, the cavernousness of it, the darkness of it. Above the bar was this narrow walkway where the VIPs, record execs, press and girlfriends of the bands would sit. That little row only fit 10 or 12, and it’s also where the soundboard and some of the lights were. It was the best vantage point.”

SLIDESHOW of THE BREWERY: 


PACKING ‘EM IN

As for the capacity, it was technically 700 — though Bodnar said some nights would break 1,000. But, he said, it never felt uncomfortably crowded.

“It was a huge place, hell, it had been an indoor golf range,” he said. “They also were open during the day, they had great food. Businessmen used to go into the lounge area for lunch. It was almost like a family atmosphere in there. The rest of place smelled like stale, spilled beer no matter how much they cleaned up.”

Even from the owner’s perspective, Becker knew they had something special, calling it a “mass happening of loud music, dim lighting and strong vibes.”

“They’d be coming through the doors after a minimum 30-minute wait in line,” Becker said. “The scene was freshman and sophomores — hippies and druggies looking to catch a buzz.”

Bodnar said the roster of bands was a major force, but the Brewery’s raucous ambiance seemed to draw on any given night.

“The Brewery had a national act coming in once or twice a week,” Bodnar said. “You had several other nights with live music, you had drink and food specials — it was the place to meet. You just came to the Brewery. It was a different experience. When I was covering the Brewery it was just gangbusters.”

One of the venue's legendary shows was the Iggy & The Stooges gig in January of 1974. Bodnar was on hand, snapping photos for his Brewery book while Dave DiMartino, a fellow State News reviewer, wrote about the gig. DiMartino went onto become the editor of Creem Magazine, and also worked for Billboard and Entertainment Weekly. He is now the executive editor at Yahoo! Music.

“Iggy was astounding,” Bodnar said. “He stripped down to a bikini. This was during his white face-paint and long, blonde hair look. He put on a classic Iggy Pop show. He just taunted the crowd like mad. He broke a pitcher of beer on stage and rolled in it, had the glass shards sticking out of his chest. He’d launch himself into the crowd and start hitting on someone’s girlfriend. He danced on the tables and sang in the audience. Everyone loved it.”

Dick Rosemont, former Flat, Black & Circular owner and WKAR DJ, would interview some of the national acts for his free-form program, “Audio Aftermath.” He had an all-access pass to all the shows.

“After the Captain Beefheart show I interviewed him upstairs at the Brewery,” Rosemont said. “The bar was cleaning up and you could hear this dishware clanking. You could see Beefheart getting distracted by these rhythms. I also got him to do a couple station IDs. Can you imagine WKAR running a Captain Beefheart station ID now?”

The easy access to the band members was a perk for excited fans — and enthusiastic reporters like Bodnar.

“During the intermissions you could go out and light up a joint or smoke with the bands,” he said. “You could go into the dressing room, follow the band members to the hotel or hit them up in the parking lot. Rory Gallagher was so heroin’d up but he put on a great show. He would talk to anybody. The artists enjoyed that intimacy.”

TROUBLE BREWING

Along with the positive vibes, came the undercurrent of drug and alcohol-fueled belligerency.

“This was a huge era where people weren’t just smoking marijuana,” Bodnar said. “There was a lot of cocaine going on — a ton of it. It wasn’t just the Brewery, it was all over campus and Lansing. The Brewery had great bouncers who tried to keep the place as legal as they could, but they knew they couldn’t stop everything. For the most part, they were trying to make sure everything wasn’t flagrant.”

Sometimes the mess would spill outdoors, leading to malicious destruction and assault and battery cases.

“There were some really bad fights out in the parking lot, cars were getting smashed,” Bodnar said. “It was a roughneck place. But, really, it was also a great time. It was like the Wild West. Anything could happen. You could steal somebody’s girl, maybe there would be some fists exchanged and drinks thrown. Whenever you have that much passion and energy, where people are just totally wired and want to have a good time, things can go awry.”

The influx of madness didn’t help relations between the club and the cities it stood between.

“Over the course of time it just got crazier,” Bodnar said. “The Lansing Police were very accepting and East Lansing Police, to a certain degree. I think they were terrifically accepting in hindsight. But it finally got to the point they couldn’t look the other way. They were putting a lot of pressure on the owners to get more control over this thing, but there was only so much they could do.”

“The Brewery was very poorly lit and had become dangerous,” Becker confirmed. “It rapidly changed into a haven for the stoners, rebels, misfits, thrill seekers and music lovers.”

THE BREWERY FIZZLES OUT

Even with the impressive attendance numbers and steady stream of rock bands headlining the venue, after just three years the Brewery as locals knew it was over.

In April 1975, as the Vietnam War drew to a close, Becker bought out his two partners and revamped the club, renaming it the Silver Dollar. He immediately took the club in a new, lighter direction.

With its new Silver Dollar image in place, the venue began weeding out some of the trouble makers.

“It stripped away the burnout crowd, the tough guys, the drug-dealing atmosphere but maintained the music cred,” Becker said. “The too-high or too-drunk and the tough guys were turned away, sometimes forcibly.”

Throughout the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s and ‘90s, Becker kept the Silver Dollar relevant and continued to bring in national and regional bands. Local celebrities like “Magic” Johnson and Kirk Gibson were seen grabbing a drink at the bar. In August 1991, grunge legends Alice in Chains played to a packed house.

Becker said that by 1995, his final cash cow, the ‘90s modern country and line-dancing craze, had ran its course. After 23 years in the business, he sold the Silver Dollar to Pat Joslin and Andrew Lewis, who later renamed it the Dollar.

While the Silver Dollar brand is better known these days, for the music fans who frequented the early Brewery shows, that’s the era to remember.

“Every major town has some place that was amazing in its time,” Bodnar said. “Over the course of decades, you realize it was the pinnacle. There were a lot of places that delivered music, but the Brewery was totally unique, as far as the groups that came through and the vibe. It was probably the greatest bar that’s ever been in East Lansing or Lansing.”