Lansing rock ‘n’ roll gem gets final hurrah

Ask Rick Becker what it was all about, and he’ll tell you, the “core of the place was people seeking community.” At the Brewery later The Silver Dollar Saloon — their search ended. Becker said the bar that was once located on East Michigan Avenue offered a haven for rock ‘n’ roll fans.

“Where people who looked like me and acted like me, and liked my music,” Becker said.

On Sept. 23 at Tequila Cowboy, that community is reuniting. That’s when Becker will host a Silver Dollar Saloon Reunion Tribute. All proceeds will go to the 100 Club of Greater Lansing and Old Newsboys of Greater Lansing.

Seven popular Silver Dollar bands will perform. Many original members of Northwind, Rich Kidz, Full House, Brat, Carrera, Showdown and Raggidy Ann will be on hand. Some musicians, former patrons and employees are traveling from all over the country to attend the event.

In 1972, Becker, Paul Kacer and Bruce Wahlin purchased what was The Tin Lizzy — formerly Grandmother’s, the Spartan Lanes and a golf course — and transformed it into the Brewery. It showcased countless national and international acts: Lynyrd Skynrd, Canned Heat, Weather Report, Little Feat, Robin Trower, Spirit, Areosmith, REO Speedwagon and many more. In ’74, Bob Segar performed there six times. The bar had a capacity of 700, but many shows, like an ’86 Foghat concert, exceeded that by hundreds. It was a good place for touring acts to fill open dates or to try out new material.

Rush played the Brewery in November ’74 — after Neil Peart joined the band only four months earlier. I stood near the band during a show that seemed like a rehearsal and watched repeated missed cues and song endings — all to the amusement of bassist Geddy Lee and a struggling Peart. Even with hiccups, seeing the Canadian trio’s show in a Lansing dance bar was an unforgettable treat.

After “listening to sound checks for 20 years,” one of the 72-year-old Becker’s favorite acts was Chick Corea and Return to Forever.

“At 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” Becker recalled, “a waitress tells me that there’s a guy here from the band. He doesn’t introduce himself. He asks about the lights and sound.” After inspecting the PA system — one Stevie Wonder had toured with — the stranger proclaimed, “Yeah, that’ll work,” Becker said. “I thought he was just a tour manager — and it was Chick Corea!” Of the many Brewery shows I saw, the Corea concert was my favorite, too. It featured Stanley Clark, Lenny White and Al Di Meola — musicians who went on to stellar careers. I remember being astonished that such renowned and gifted players were playing in a bar near MSU’s Brody Hall and at very low rates: tickets for the April ‘75 concert were $4, compared with this year’s event at $42.

For Becker, KISS was another memorable show.

“These clowns came in from the Bronx and bring a forklift in,” he said.

It was for a drum platform that elevated Peter Criss. Saving the dance floor wasn’t Becker’s only worries.

“Between the crew and the band,” he said, “I thought they were going to break out into a fight!” In ‘75, Becker, with wife, Linda, bought the Brewery and remodeled it into the Silver Dollar Saloon. The Mother Lode restaurant and fancy, red chandeliers were added. It remained Lansing’s premier rock ‘n’ roll dance spot for 19 years.

“From ’72 to ’91 it was rock,” Becker said.

Then came the Iraq War. “CNN had it on 24/7,” he said. “Bars that televised it did well.”

It wasn’t a prosperous time. As Becker put it: “The economy sucked.”

But music and tastes were shifting as well.

“Music at that time became acid — really noisy and obnoxious,” Becker said. Country music was flourishing. Attendance at the Silver Dollar was way down and the dollars owed to workers, utilities and the IRS were way up.

Linda told him, “I don’t think you’ll be able to save the bar.”

“The only thing I could do was go country,” Becker said.

For him, it was an easy decision. “All I had to do was change radio stations and bands,” Becker said. “It was decorated as a country bar.” The promise to shift formats earned extensions from creditors. The gamble paid off and the country Silver Dollar “took off like a rocket,” according to Becker.

But not for long. Live bands lasted at the Silver Dollar until June ’94, until it was sold “at the bottom” a year later. It was renamed “The Dollar” and was seized by Ingham County for back taxes just 10 years later. By January ’07, the once must-see spot was vacated. It was razed in April ’08 and turned into the Midtown Flats and PNC Bank. But Becker said that perhaps it was for the best; perhaps it had lived as long as it could have.

“I was burned out,” Becker said. “It’s a bitch to throw a party all the time.”

Twenty years later, people who remember the live music party days there six nights a week in the ‘70s and ‘80s are gathering for the tribute party. Those are the folks who remember the Silver Dollar’s heyday: its Beat the Clock drinking game, Simpson’s look-alike, Itsy Bitsy Bikini and Playboy model contests and the bar’s “Dating Game.” There was also a John Belushi Memorial Food Fight.

As Becker put it, “A lot of spaghetti was involved.”

“Silver Dollar Reunion Tribute”

Sept. 23 5-11:30 pm

Tequila Cowboy, 5660 W. Saginaw Hwy. $39 tickets (plus $3 service charge) at: www.eventbrite.com