Ziggy’s Last Waltz?

(Last Updated On: January 26, 2017)

by Brian Clarey

It’s quiet out here on this little stretch of Baity Street, cold and rainy. Overhead streetlights drop amber pools onto the glistening, cracked pavement. It’s a few clicks before eight on an autumn Sunday, and it’s the last night on earth for the place that, one could argue, put Winston-Salem on the map in terms of popular culture, as long as one doesn’t include cigarettes, which are not as popular as they used to be.

Jay Stephens hasn’t shown up yet, but in the barroom and music hall known as Ziggy’s a small handful of his employees and friends, not mutually exclusive groups by any stretch, put the pieces in place – stocking the ice bins and beer coolers, finalizing the sound and lights, sliding the trash cans into the corners, lining up the T-shirts and bumper stickers at the swag booth, adjusting dreadlocks and steel jewelry, counting cash drawers, macking down some Chinese food before showtime.

They’ve done it a million times before, this archipelago of souls that has formed around Jay Stephens, but tonight is their final performance.

More or less.

Ziggy’s is possessed of a storied history, even for a music club. Born as the White Horse Tavern in 1978 on 30th Street, a guy named Scott Yingling bought it and moved the whole building over to Baity Street as the Lawrence Joel Memorial Coliseum project was beginning to take shape. In 1981 a couple of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brothers from Wake Forest University bought it.

“The bartender,” Stephens says, “he was a Lambda Chi, too. An All-American athlete. His name was John Ziglenski. His nickname was Ziggy.”

Stephens adds: “He’s in Philly now.”

But it is Stephens himself who personifies the modern era of the North Carolina heartlands’ greatest music club.

“I bought it in May of 1990,” he says. “I came out of college, broke my neck my senior year, worked for American Express, but I didn’t like the corporate world. I always liked Ziggy’s for live music. A couple of fraternity brothers owned it, and they wanted to know if I’d buy it. I said, “Well, let’s do it.'”

He may have suspected, but he didn’t know it back then – he was going to make history. Of sorts.

Did you see how he just slipped that in there? About the broken neck? That’s how it is with Jay – the fact that he’s in a wheelchair, I mean. Sure, you see him rolling around in the thing, but it doesn’t slow him down, you know? He’s in a wheelchair, but he’s not handicapped. He’s got a huge life, hundreds of friends (dozens of them close ones) and he’s more successful than most 41-year-old men. And yeah, there are… challenges… like when he’s running errands or counting money or going fishing and whatnot. It’s been a part of his life since he was a real young man.

It was his senior year of college, like he says, Wake Forest, where he was playing out a tennis scholarship before taking a crack at the real world. He and his buddies took a road trip to Elon College, not even a road trip, really – just a quick shot east on Interstate 40 to check out the scene in Burlington, maybe meet some new girls or see a great band.

They knew enough not to drive home that night, not after the bars and the beers and such, so they stopped off at a Hardee’s or something to sober up, get a bottom in their stomachs in the form of biscuits, salted meat and eggs, let some sunlight get on the road before they put wheels to it.

Jay’s roommate was driving. And he fell asleep.

End result: The C-5 and C-6 vertebrae in the cervical spine of Jay Stephens – the ones known as the wrist extensors – were forever and irrevocably broken.

Fortunately he was able to stabilize and rehabilitate. He calls himself lucky.

He is.

It’s hard to tell that things are winding down in here when the club gets hopping at around 9 p.m. on its last hurrah. There’s been a steady line – not a long one, but a steady one – at the door for an hour, and the bartenders are starting to break their first sweat of the night.

Up in the liquor bar a bartender called Tuna makes his paces in this space that might have once been a living room but is now something like a Hellfire Club for fans of live music and excess.

Ceiling fans swirl among exposed rafters, and a long brick chimney culminates in a two-sided fireplace in the center of the room. The floor is of well-trod and -stained boards that thunder when you stomp your boots. A weird piece of art that looks like Jesus on a horse hangs in a frame up high by the ceiling; down by the lounge, someone’s just taken a shit in the men’s toilet and there’s already some puke in the urinal.

A garden of stickers grows on the walls, the windows, the door to the walk-in cooler and the mirror behind the bar, where sits a rudimentary collection of liquor bottles, enough to make the basic hi-balls and some favorite shots, but don’t be asking for a Ramos gin fizz in here, pal, because you’re out of luck.

Draft beers come through a cold plate that looks like a portable cooler – Jay never saw the need to sink beer lines in here – and the last few barstools are actually beer kegs waiting to be tapped.

Not just anybody can walk in here: Forsyth County is notoriously strict about the members-only law that affects barrooms serving the hard stuff, so a membership must be procured and a three-day waiting period observed before a body can get a shot of whiskey at this bar. Generally non-members can only drink beer, and they can only do it in the music hall that grows from the back of the little white house like a sturdy, funky flower made of hard wood and speaker wire.

It wasn’t always like this. Longtime patrons of the joint will tell you that it used to look like somebody’s backyard out here back in the day, when it was only open for the summer and late-afternoon squalls could shut down a show.

Stephens built the risers first thing, three tiers of ample boogie space with no such thing as a bad view, and he wrapped the awning overhead. He met his doorman Big Rob Ellis in the lumberyard buying the wood. Ellis, then 17 years old (though Stephens didn’t know it), was a defensive end for the Glenn High School Bobcats, and his isn’t one of those ironic nicknames, like calling a bald guy “Curly.”

“He said, “Man, you’re a pretty big cat,'” Ellis remembers. He worked his first shift that night, holding it down for the Dockers show. But he’s always been more peacekeeper than enforcer in this place during his 16 years on the crew.

“We’ve had some… some scuffles,” he says. “When the mosh pits was going on, it just used to get out of order.”

Next came the side deck by the office, with a beer bar and a horrible urinal trough covered in band stickers.

“It was in 1993,” Stephens says. “We needed more bathrooms. I had a series of sold-out shows – David Grisman, Bela Fleck and the Spin Doctors – that sold out like two weeks in advance.”

More space and more bathrooms would give him the opportunity to increase the club’s capacity so he could sell more tickets. Good business.

“My [club’s seating] capacity at the time was 500,” he says. “We built that second deck and the bar in like three days.”

Then came the fenced-in patio, which Stephens says happened because everybody kept walking outside with their drinks, which is against the law. That was in 1995.

A network of ramps connects all platforms and rooms – this is perhaps the most wheelchair-friendly club in the state – and one of the few places in the club Stephens can’t easily get to is the stage itself.

The bar manager known as Crow, AKA John Adkins, has a broad face, copious whiskers and a pirate-like way about him. He’s down in the lounge at the circular table having a beer with Big Rob, talking about why he got into the business.

“In 1984 I saw Van Halen in Charleston, West Virginia,” he says. “When I seen these guys down there, not the guys on the stage, but the guys behind the stage, the guys nobody talked about, I knew I wanted to do that.”

“Why I hang around is my love for music,” Big Rob says.

“Music and family,” Crow elaborates. “We’re all one big family. You hurt one of us, you hurt all of us.”

He was married in this bar the night Pantera was in town. Dimebag Darrell was at his wedding.

“After this bar is gone,” he says, “this city, this town, this college over here will find they ripped the soul of this city out. Ripped it out. And that’s all I got to say.”

On Ziggy’s last night the crowd fills the room like a coffee pouring from a pot, a long, steady flow. There’s a healthy contingent from nearby Wake Forest: the baseball-hat crowd, the campus jam heads, fashionably thin young women awkwardly smoking cigarettes. There are guys with graying long hair and beards who look like they’ve just wandered down from the mountains and hipsters with interesting facial hair. There are hip-hop brothers and head-swiveling women in thrift-store chic. There are preps and drunks and long-haired pirates, tattoos and piercings and shaved heads, a magnificent array of dreadlocks and a couple of guys who look like they might actually have to go to work in the morning, but fuck it.

A guy with a windbreaker and a ponytail chats up a petite blonde in tight jeans and a parka with a fur-lined collar.

“So you were with these bands?” he asks.

“You know,” she says, “I did merchandise and marketing. But I was with the band. But I was just on tour, you know?”

“Yeah,” he says. “You’d make a really good merch girl. I can see that. You’re cute; you’re friendly. You know, when my band goes out there….”

The band onstage is Perpetual Groove – P-Groove, as the kids like to say – an outfit from Savannah, Ga. that trucks in jam-band fluency, tackling funk, metal, blues, reggae, even white-boy rap with equal aplomb and competence, and beneath it all is this tie-dyed sensibility, this groovy vibe that, indeed, permeates the entire club.

Ghosts of the music, lifestyle and attitude of the Grateful Dead have haunted this place from the beginning. Stephens is an old Deadhead who started going to shows while he was still in high school and cites Ziggy’s first RatDog show, comprised of some of the band’s former members, as one of his finest memories. He met many of his employees, including general manager Mark Bloomfield, through the neo-hippie scene that permeated this part of the country in the 1980s and ’90s. And onetime sound engineer Bob Casper remembers the Jerry Garcia Band show, sans Jerry Garcia, of course, on his birthday in 2000.

Phish, Widespread Panic, Vertical Horizon, Edwin McCain – they all did time on this stage, carrying the torch passed by an earlier generation of heads.

There are even kids in here tonight wearing their freak flags – floppy tie-dye T-shirts and long dreads and hippie skirts and glow sticks, whirling and spinning like it’s the closing of Winterland. And at times the whole room smells like high-grade marijuana.

According to Bloomfield, himself clad in a magnificent long-sleeve tie dye, Perpetual Groove has been Ziggy’s steadiest draw over the last few years.

“That was basically where our roots were,” says Stephens. “When we first bought [the club] we were all Deadheads. We never started to do metal or rap or pop until the Spin Doctors hit it on MTV. That kind of opened our eyes.”

The Spin Doctors, they of the pocket full of kryptonite, was the first major band that Stephens booked at his club, about 10 months into his ownership.

“We gave them a $2,500 guarantee,” he remembers. “That was back in the day of the five-dollar ticket. But we got this fourteen-page rider, [and] we needed to rent a thousand dollars in equipment, and they had this catering list that was like four pages. It was like $4,500 in expenses. We only fit 500 people, so with five-dollar tickets, going in we were looking at a $2,000 loss.

“It was the first time we learned what it meant to bring in a national band.”

Undeterred, Stephens continued to lure in big-name bands passing through the Triad on their way from Asheville to Raleigh, or Atlanta to DC, or Nashville to Richmond.

Some of these bands were on their way to big things. A young Marilyn Manson played here once or twice, the Smithereens, the Presidents of the United States of America, REM, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Hootie and the Blowfish called this place home until they got too big for the room. Southern Culture on the Skids cut teeth here. And when Stephens bought another club, Trax, in Charlottesville, Va., he heard of a local outfit that was throwing down real good, this skinny kid with a tight band and weird dance moves. His name was Dave Matthews.

But there have been others. Many others.

Former Ziggy’s soundman Bob Casper remembers the Mothers, Frank Zappa’s band, playing on this stage, and says, “I mixed Parliament more times than I got fingers.” Bloomfield recalls Kid Rock and David Byrne gracing the hallowed hall. Framed collections of ticket stubs going back to 2000 bear names like Michelle Shocked, POD, Gov’t Mule, Galactic, the North Mississippi Allstars, G Love and Special Sauce, Papa Roach, Jimmy Cliff, Train, GWAR, the Flaming Lips, Tenacious D, David Allen Coe, the Funky Meters, Victor Wooten… the talent staggers the mind, and this is just the last seven years.

“That’s when I started saving stuff,” Stephens says. “I wasn’t much of a pack rat.”

Here’s a story: It was around ’93, ’94, wintertime, and an ice storm had laid its goods all over town, weighing down tree boughs until they snapped and fell, creating deadly patches of black ice on the streets, collecting on power lines and thickening on cars. A winter wonderland fit for neither man nor beast. Leftover Salmon was booked at the club, as the story goes, and a motocross show at the Joel had been cancelled earlier in the day.

The power went out in much of the city of Winston-Salem around nightfall, but what the hell… the band was still in town and the show… well it must go on, right?

Stephens got his hands on a generator, hooked it up in that little lounge behind the liquor bar back when there was still a pool table down there. And Leftover Salmon, a five-piece jam band out of Boulder, Colo., played atop the pool table for a hundred screaming hippies and a passel of teenage motocross kids who had wandered over after their gig got cancelled. It lasted until six in the morning, as the story goes, and they drank the place dry.

Soon it will all be gone.

Wake Forest has had designs on the land for a while, for development and expansion. Stephens saw the handwriting on the wall, saw little or no future for him and his club in the new order and he cut a deal, selling the lot to the university for what was undoubtedly a good price. Stephens knows how to negotiate.

But, he says, “We ain’t retiring; we’re just moving.”

He wants to open another club, another Ziggy’s, and there’s been talk of downtown Winston-Salem as a location. Whispers about Greensboro. Rumors that the future incarnation of Ziggy’s will exist in a different state altogether and lamentations about the possibility that the place really is gone for good.

Not if Stephens can help it.

“I’m looking at Fort Lauderdale and Ocean City [Md., Jay’s home town] as well,” he says, “but I’d like to stay in the Triad. All my friends are here. All my connections are here. That’s why I’m looking here: I want to get everybody back to work.”

This last waltz is shaping up as one of those legendary Ziggy’s parties. The bar is closed after the band laid the boogie-down crowd to waste, yet still there are many dozens of people milling around, unwilling to leave the fracas, waiting for something to happen. There are rumors of a chainsaw, that Jay’s gonna cut this whole sucker into pieces before Wake Forest yanks the land out from under him and give everybody here a piece to take home. Indeed, people are prying tin beer signs off the ceiling by the liquor bar, unfastening black-and-white band photos from the rafters, helping themselves to the artwork hanging in the lounge.

Bloomfield is off his rocker, walking around near the stage with a jar of cherries that’ve been soaking in moonshine for seven years. Crow has got his pliers out, trying for one last souvenir from the good ol’ days; Tuna is crying like – sorry, buddy – a little girl who fell off her bike on the way to school as he closes the tabs and gives the bar one final wipe.

The sound is still live, and a hot mic at the board is passed to the man in the wheelchair.

“I love all my mates through the years,” he says through a glob of emotion caught somewhere in his throat. “I love this bar…. Everyone is always treated equally here.”

Big Rob gets his hands on the mic, name-checks all he can remember over the years. Casper gives a shout-out to Shaggy; Crow says something pirate-y; Tuna, the imposing bartender, has tears in his eyes as he thanks the faithful for all their years of loyalty; someone makes a pitch for the few remaining Ziggy’s T-shirts; the guy from Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band has a moment; there is a group toast of the “ziggy-zaki” variety followed by a spirited chant of “Fuck Wake Forest.” After it dies down, a hand from the crowd grabs the mic, flicks it back on, and gives a final valediction.

“Love,” he says.

Outside, by the wooden arch at the main entrance to the grounds, a crowd has gathered in something akin to disbelief. Someone brings a ladder out there and a guy climbs it. He pries the wooden sign bearing the Ziggy’s logo off the entrance to a cacophony of camera flashes and cheers. He brings the trophy down. There are hugs and gestures of thanks.

The sun will paint the sky over this little stretch of street in a couple hours, at which time this party will be, for the time being anyway, over.

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