Keeping a lid on fun in Vancouver

A new documentary laments how the city is silencing its alternative music scene


090820_top_vancouverThere’s something decidedly punk rock about being evicted in the middle of a loud, screaming concert. But for the manager of the bar in Vancouver’s Cobalt Motor Hotel, even before her landlord gave her 60 days’ notice during a July 31 performance, the thrill of bucking the establishment had long since worn off. For almost a decade, Wendythirteen has been working with the city and the landlord, trying to turn the venue in one of the Downtown Eastside’s most notorious hovels into a legitimate place to hear punk, metal and hardcore acts. She’s used a good chunk of her own savings and “a volunteer army of people” to do repairs, and has kept out the drugs and violence for which the upstairs rooms are well known. Today, even the “train punks,” who tattoo their faces and travel the country in boxcars, “check their knives at the door,” she says.

To some, the eviction is part of a cyclical rotation: an old venue dies, invariably a new one is born. To others, it’s proof of just how fringe Vancouver’s alternative music scene has become. Wendythirteen started running shows out of the Cobalt in 2000 despite its sordid reputation, because “that’s where our genre of music had been driven,” she says. Since then, the spike in property values, strict new zoning regulations and city hall’s iron grip on liquor licences have made it even tougher for musicians to find a stage. Add a pre-Olympics makeover to the mix, and what you get, according to local filmmakers Melissa James and Kate Kroll, is No Fun City—the title of a documentary they’re preparing, somewhat ironically, just as Vancouver gears up to host the biggest party it has ever seen.

With its conservative liquor laws and reputation for discouraging revelry (for the Millennium, police told celebrants to stay home), Vancouver has long been chided as “no-fun.” But what struck James, 31, when she moved there in 2006, was the extent to which the alternative music scene was being pushed underground—in some cases, quite literally. Experimental bands were regularly performing in illicit venues—warehouses, lofts, even the lower level of a parking garage. “You didn’t always know who was playing. The fliers didn’t have the address on it,” she says.

At first, No Fun City was a film about people like Wendythirteen, “because they have the passion to make sure there are music spaces,” says James. But soon, the filmmakers expanded their focus to tackle the restrictive bylaws and Nimbyism they saw as hamstringing everything from new galleries to bars. Most music venues derive the bulk of their revenue from liquor. But in Vancouver, liquor primary licences, which allow for later closing times and for alcohol to be the main source of sales, are limited to the Granville entertainment district and a few other commercial spots. Elsewhere, would-be bar owners must settle for restaurant status, or buy an existing liquor primary from someone, which, due to demand, can cost upwards of $500,000. At the same time, strict noise bylaws require music venues to undergo extensive—and expensive—soundproofing. “Think about who is opening bars here,” says James. “It’s not young people who want to hear a punk band.”

City officials acknowledge the zoning restrictions can pose a challenge, but they insist the moniker of “no-fun city” is inaccurate. “We have an extremely lively music scene,” says second-term councillor Heather Deal. Staff are preparing a proposal to relax closing time during the Olympics, and efforts are under way to zone for multi-use spaces, which could function as performance venues by night. But the city can only do so much in what is still a seller’s market. The legendary stage at Richard’s on Richards, an institution since the ’80s, recently sold to condo developers. It will open in a new location in October, but many lament it won’t be the same.

For James, No Fun City, which she and Kroll are hoping to release in January (they have yet to find a distributor), has been a chance to show ingenuity born out of restriction. It’s an atmosphere, she says, not unlike the one depicted in Footloose, where the Kevin Bacon character leads a crusade against a town’s ban on music and dancing. Except in Vancouver, she says, “There’s no Kevin Bacon.”

But Jordan Koop has a different take. He helped run the now-defunct Emergency Room, a recording-studio-turned-illicit-venue. “Doing some improv night with a gang of people,” he says, “seems a lot cooler than going down to a bar.” He and his friends closed up shop this year, in part, because it had gotten too popular. Not everyone, it seems, wants to be rescued.


Keeping a lid on fun in Vancouver

  1. Sad but true. Vancouver is becoming the most beautiful, un-livable, most expensive, city to live in. With all the restrictions put on bars, people, taxes… you can't even pick your nose without someone fining you or taxing you because it wasn't regulated.

    I guess it's still better than Abbotsford where they are killing themselves over everything. But it's cheaper and they probably have places to watch live bands. Vancouver, sorry… you aren't any fun.

  2. I'd move back to Winnipeg, but that place is no fun either. Plus its usually -90 Celsius.

  3. screw that man, let the kids play its not our faults were hard, and we dont need out parents to wipe ourt arses and buy us cars, i know everrything cuz i party at these places, no wonder kids getting killed cuz they im gunna go steal and pillage apparently thats better then listening to rock all night long whoooooooo

  4. this is straigh up zeitgeist right here tell the gov to grow up smoke a fatty, and drink a fackin iced tea

  5. Its stories like this that make me question the motives of city councilors and developers alike. There are few places left where respect actually means something. Vancouver is showing a shining example of where priorities lie. Its bad enough the solution to poverty and drug abuse is hide it, mostly to put on a show to the world for the olympics. I see nothing positive coming from the closing of venues like the cobalt.
    Vancouver and other centers must realize that problems cannot be solved by hiding them, whether it be shuting down venues, using strong arm tactics to enforce municipal bylaws, or sending transient and homeless populations to other centers. That sort of civic policy is both misguided and poorly though out, it will only complicate problems.
    I don't think I will ever understand, no care to, why our society continues to move towards stricter control of expression. This is just another example of those who have stomping on those who do not. I guess Hard work and perseverance means nothing in this day and age unless you have a fortune in disposable income. Lets just make everything comfortably gentrified and hope that that solves our problems. I guess that's what happens when developers and big money take precedence. Maybe we'll wake up some day. (But i think that is a bit of a pipe dream)
    The world would be a much better place if there were more people like Wendy Thirteen, she and those like her have my full support and admiration. To Vancouver and everywhere else that keeps piling up bulls***t we will continue to try to overcome the insurmountable odds that keeps getting placed before us. Thanks for trying to regulate us to death.

  6. I've lived in vancouver for seventeen years, and under the laid-back-hippy-dippy-pot smoking surface this place is a puritanical frozen wasteland.

  7. The cobalt closing would be a huge shame. as a musician (who happens to be in the above picture) The Cobalt represents Punk Rock in it’s truest form. Wendy 13, as much as normal society hates to admit it, is a pillar of society and a patron of the arts. She has developed a community within a community that while may not be pretty in in the eyes of popular culture, is home for a lot of people that, like it or not, are members of society and deserve a place to showcase thier creativity, and as well enjoy others creativity. I think that Vancouver needs to take a long hard look at it’s political agenda, and the people creating it. They are representing themselves as closed minded biggots who cater to the closed minded upper class.

    • Complete agreement with everything you say Gino. I am also in this picture, in the audience at the back. That was a great night! I was there for the last Saturday show ever as well (Sept 26) as well. The Cobalt is a great loss for Vancouver. So many hard-working bands will now have nowhere to play. So many enthusiastic music-lovers will no longer be able to enjoy this style of music. Wendy Thirteen turned a dirty drug-infested dive into s center of creativity and this is the thanks she gets!

  8. Being a soundman and someone who's seen the demise of about 30 rock venues over the last 10 years, I'm at a loss for why such talent and artistry is neglected so ruthlessly.
    I was at the last show at the Cobalt. I'm friends with Melissa and Kate and also another girl, Anna. All of us filmed the last month of the Cobalt and will be creating documentaries. Each will have its own view, its own flavour. Mine is more about the shows. Anna and myself are doing a more low budget handicam approach than Kate and Melissa.
    I have no doubt whats about to happen to the Cobalt will fail miserably. I have no doubt Wendy 13 and her extraordinarily talented staff and volunteer army will be back and be better.
    Vancouver is not exactly a no fun city, its just very hard to find the fun and getting harder to every year.
    The one thing I have to say is "thanks Wendy"

  9. very good article, lots of coverage, lots of angles, no draging fluff, I really dug it

  10. When are we going to grow up,Vancouver?

  11. Doesn't vancouver city hall & it's puritanical followers feel guilty/worrried about all this negative "no fun city" press?
    This negative press is going to other countries & being read easily online.A lot of people/tourist have asked me about vancouver about it's boringness/lack of fun.
    One would think city hall would correct this backwardness but no,they make it worse turnong it into a nanny state…

Sign in to comment.