We Drank The River Dry: Breaking Down The Levee

Credit: Sheila Priest (cropped for web)

I can’t recall why I was there. I can’t recall much of anything really. But I’ll try.

Here I was. The space once known as Roxxys. I had played my first bar show here, barely legal. Now, powertools lined the floors and sawdust clung to the air. There was palatable energy coursing through it all. A new lease, figuratively and literally, for a music scene that needed some liquid courage.

I didn’t really know the b’ys that well, but friend circles were starting to meld and new bands were springing up. I had been far removed from music for a while; I was a stringent devotee of academia for a few years in my early 20s, writing papers on the Old Testament and spending those few free moments plying through Vonnegut novels.

Music had begun to trickle back into my life slowly, dripping in the cracks of what little free time I had. Meeting people was a whirlwind; Turner’s Tavern held a tightknit group of miscreant musicians. Musicians that outclassed me, but befriended me. Were accomplished but accommodating. Monday nights were the New Friday at CBTG’s, and Glen and company at Distortion had begun to put some vigor back into the alternative scene. Old friends and new friends alike made it so easy to jump right back in.

I grew up in a small but vibrant music scene just outside the city. Many of the same people were carving their places out amongst the transplanted talent from every nook of the province and country. It was new, but it was comfortable. And now, it was in trusted hands. Roxxy’s became The Levee. A perfect moniker for the unhinged rock and roll ethic that it would live up to. But it also meant safety from the storm. It meant community.

I was still on the fringes of it for quite a while. But my brother and my friends were smack dab in the middle of the formative years. It was becoming a real thing; a real place and not just some downtown hovel. A space built on growth. Alongside its neighbours, it helped to continue the devotion to music that I had grown up with, that I treasured, and that I believed in.

A couple of years in, I became furniture. A staple of the bar, clung to the corner with my friends; rambunctious peers with the same sense of carefree misdirection. It was shelter in that late 20s existential crisis most of us have, a place that never failed to hold some sort of cathartic solace. It was everything I could ask for: the best friends, the best music, the best people.

As much as it fed my own wandering, it propped up my sense of belonging. It gave me a musical rebirth and the people I met gave me guidance. I’d never be the musician I am today without the people I surrounded myself with. The Levee embodied our cultural stereotypes: without the passion and kindness and work ethic, I don’t think there’d be as much of an outlet in St. John’s for the misfit musicians and artists that there is now.

Gene brought that. Anybody who knows Gene (at this point, virtually everyone) knows that music is his lifeblood, flowing as red as that lumberjack beard on his face. If you’ve seen him play, you’d know that he’s a hell of a musician. He made it his prerogative not only to run a bar, but to help create a music community. To push the limits of local talent. To give them the space and push that he rightfully thought they deserved. Very few musicians that have passed through St. John’s have left without feeling his impact. The Levee’s impact.

If he thought you were good enough, he’d throw you on a big bill. If he thought you had promise, he’d let you play and hone your craft wherever he could fit you in. In its heyday, you had to book The Levee almost six months in advance. Six months! Most bands don’t even last that long.

But the beating waves are matched with the pull of the twilight. Time takes its toll, and the heavy rocks on shore erode away. The give and take of it all can’t be weathered forever. It becomes time to pack up and sail on to new waters. To breathe fresh air and look out to the horizon. I don’t look at this as the death of a bar, but instead the culmination of a great trek. A time to put down a great book. It has left its imprint and legacy on a creative generation that will push out into the currents with lessons learned and laughs laughed.

Thanks Gene Browne. Thanks, Levee staff past and present. Thanks to and from all the bands, artists, patrons, strangers, and friends that passed through its doors.

The Levee never broke. We just drank the river dry.

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