The Saloon That Rock Built
Many bands' first steps were across the threshold of the Golden West
U.K. oi! band The Business takes the stage. Young testosterone-riddled skinheads start slam dancing, but the Party Vikings, a local gang of rowdy punk rockers, have named themselves the kings of the pit. It isn't too long before a full-scale riot breaks loose, remembers Gordy Andersen, Black Maria singer and Albuquerque rock stalwart. Punks throw pool balls down from the Golden West's balcony. Tables and chairs cartwheel through the air and are smashed into sticks. And The Business just keeps playing.
"I thought, This is it. There's never going to be shows here again," says Andersen, recalling a younger version of himself in the early '90s making his way through the bar fight to the back door—just in case the cops show up.
In the early hours of Thursday, Feb. 28, Puccini's Golden West Saloon at 620 Central NW was gutted by a fire that swept through the historic building, collapsing the roof and charring the interior. Albuquerque Fire Department spokesperson Melissa Romero says a rag soaked in linseed oil and stored in a plastic container started the fire. The Golden West was having its floors refinished. Romero says the linseed oil caused the rag to spontaneously combust. The oil acted as its own ignition source, she says. There is no suspicion of arson, Romero adds. The fire has been ruled accidental.
Kathy Zimmer co-owns the saloon with her mother and has been running the Golden West and adjoining El Rey Theater for six years. The saloon was built by her grandfather. The Golden West has been in her family since 1929 and El Rey since 1941. "It was my greatest fear that something like that could happen," she says. "It happened." Zimmer says she'll need the community's help to rebuild. "If the community doesn't care, there's not going to be a whole lot I can do about it." And if Zimmer can't find enough money to reconstruct the Golden West, she says she'll mow it down and turn it into a parking lot.
El Rey, which is next door to the Golden West, was dealt only minor water damage. "It's good to go," Zimmer says. “The marquee looks just fine."
Zimmer declined to say whether the Golden West was insured. She referred the Alibi to her lawyer, Michael Peters, who is also her husband. Peters also refused to comment about insurance.
On Thursday morning, sunlight spilled onto the street through the gaping hole where the Golden West's roof used to be. That roof housed Albuquerque's bands as they came up through the ranks on the scene. The Golden West gave many local acts a chance to play before anyone else would.
The roof also sheltered plenty of national touring acts, and in its heyday in the early '90s, booking agents brought scores of famous and soon-to-be famous bands. On Andersen's list of memorable shows: The Hellcats and his own bands Jerry's Kidz and Cracks in the Sidewalk, as well as national acts L7, Sponge, D.I., The Dickies, Neutral Milk Hotel, the Dropkick Murphys, Agent Orange, the Genitorturers, and on and on.
Though the Golden West of late maintained a love-hate relationship with many of Albuquerque's rockers, the room, with its tin ceiling and wood floors, is remembered fondly for its great sound, its community and its history.
Andersen recalls the days the Resin Records boys did it all, when there were little to no live rock venues in Albuquerque. Young local musicians convinced then-owner Virginia Doyle to let them bring some bands in. Resin Records would often provide the P.A. and work the door. They also built a squad of big guys to provide security, Andersen says.
Erik Torrez (also known as eT) began booking for the saloon around 2003. He got a text message Thursday telling him fire was ripping through the building. "I thought I was dreaming, or it was a joke," Torrez says. He got a second text about the fire, and jumped out of bed, calling everyone he could think of that was affiliated with the venue. "It's such a sad loss. It's like my second home," Torrez says.
The second floor that contained the green room for bands—the one rowdy youth dropped pool balls from all those years ago—suffered tremendous damage.
Torrez scoured the rubble on Saturday to see what could be salvaged. "It was hard to believe, like a scene from a movie. We walked into the space with no roof, and snow started falling. We thought it was ash." He found an all-access backstage Shins pass from the show at El Rey last year with the lanyard still intact. He collected crystal shards from the chandelier. He was astonished to find the microphones were OK and even operable. Somehow, the stage, too, is still standing.