Channeling the spirit of Dean Martin, patron saint of Rat Pack bacchanalia, in Redding with Slam Buckra and some very professional bartenders.
Put away your crucifixes and rosaries. Sweep the salt out of the corners of your bedroom. Pour that voodoo protection potion down the sink. The ghost of Dean Martin has been appeased!
No more will you wake to find him rattling your doors and singing “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.” Never again will he croon about “big pizza pie” as he sends your Franklin Mint collectibles flying around the living room.
Of course, the specter of Dean never meant to frighten us with his ghostly rendition of “That’s Amore.” He was just looking for a little recognition, a sign that we here on Earth still remember him fondly. Nevertheless, all those broken dishes and towering kitchen-chair pyramids were becoming a nuisance to those haunted by the Deanergeist. “What will pacify the spirit of the famous Rat Packer?” Californians cried in unison.
Enter Slam Buckra: exceptional guitarist, reclusive mountain man and leader of Shasta County’s wildest, wackiest blues-funk band, Slam Buckra and the Groove Palookas. On Saturday, June 16, Slam led a group of intrepid folks on a 12-hour tour of Redding’s swankiest bars in celebration of the legendary imbiber’s would-be 84th birthday. We all learned a little something that day—about the lure of small towns, the secret to good steak, Slam’s musical mission and a legend named Dino.
The tour commences at the Squire Room, a windowless lounge with 1960s Italian-restaurant décor, including red-vinyl booths, the obligatory plastic grape vines, gold-veined mirrors and lighting reminiscent of the interior of an Easy Bake oven. The ambience can probably be explained by the fact that the Squire was an Italian restaurant, but the kitchen has closed, leaving only a bar with very extensive seating.
We order drinks while Slam produces an assortment of Dean Martin buttons. There’s Dean with tumbler in hand, Dean firing a laser gun in a forgotten sci-fi flick and Dean holding a child’s doll underneath the maxim “Happiness Is Dean Martin.” After we make our selections, Slam shows us his pin—a picture of Dean in his waning years, looking like a pale, bespectacled raisin. Then he offers a button to Frank, our bartender.
“Frank is a one-man empire here,” Slam explains. “When Frank’s here, the bar’s open. When Frank’s not here, the bar’s not open. How long have you been here, Frank?”
“Since Jesus was born,” Frank replies. He later confides that he started as a busboy in 1969 and has worked here ever since. Frank’s reputation reaches far and wide in Northern California, thanks in part to Slam’s song “Frank"—an ode to “gettin’ wired at the Squire” and the bartender who makes it happen. Slam’s CD Vodka Swan is in the jukebox, and “Frank” is a favorite selection with the bar’s patrons.
“Why do you have Dean Martin pins?” Frank asks.
We explain the gist of the Dino birthday tour. Frank nods. “It’s nice to remember people. If I die, will you remember me?” he asks Slam.
“For a couple of weeks, sure,” Slam answers.
“But I’ve got the song!”
“That’s right. You’ve got the song. You’ll live forever.”
Frank pours cocktails while Slam, sipping a white Russian, explains why a man like himself, who has played with musicians from Albert Collins to Mojo Nixon, would leave Southern California for the mountains of Shasta County and potential musical obscurity, as he did five years ago. “I had to get out of the big city. It was either load up a bus with 50 women, go out to the desert and start a cult or leave town. I decided to leave town. … I came here because nobody was coming to Shasta County.”
He puts his cocktail on the bar and continues: “This place has everything you need, but very low-key. You’ve got mountains in three directions, thrift stores where you can still score cool stuff because people don’t know it’s cool, and there are still bars like this. Not a dive bar, but a nice lounge bar. It’s still like they used to be before it became trendy to go to dive bars.”
“How do you like this orange?” he asks, gesturing to the orange vinyl lining the bar. “Sinatra’s favorite color was orange,” he reports, returning to our Rat Pack theme.
“Orange?” asks Frank. “How do you know?”
“I’ve studied,” Slam replies.
“I think it’s burgundy,” Frank counters.
“He likes orange,” Slam insists.
“I once saw him wearing an orange jumpsuit,” a tour-goer offers. “He was trying to hitch a ride out by the highway. At least, he said he was Sinatra.”
Our next stop is the Clover Club, an Irish-themed bar that sells Long Island iced tea by the pitcher. Slam, who spent the sunny walk over muttering, “This fireball in the sky is messing up my drinking vibe,” is visibly relieved by the darkened atmosphere. Bill, our bartender, is already sporting a Dean Martin pin.
Bill is a bartender’s bartender, personable and full of stories. He tells us that before Slam plays a gig, he’ll sometimes sit at the bar applying fake fingernails to his guitar-picking hand for better pluck-ability. One night, an old man sat next to Slam and watched this process with a bewildered expression. When Slam left for the bathroom, the man grabbed his drink and moved as far away from Slam’s chair as he could. “I’ve never seen him here since!” Bill laughs.
“I try to scare the customers,” Slam says. “We don’t want the weak here. Only the strong!” As if to prove his intent, he gets up to sing a Dean Martin karaoke tribute.
He begins with “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.” The bar patrons, old men rooted to their stools, begin to stir and hum along. A man in a Hawaiian shirt asks, “Is that really him singing?” When the tour-goers nod in affirmation, he states, “Not bad. He should head down to the Elks Lodge and make some real money!”
Slam croons a few more Dino hits and closes with “Danny Boy,” especially for Bill. “Thank you,” Slam says as the bar bursts into applause. “I’m going to return to my seat and continue with the beverage intake.”
“Danny Boy was excellent!” Bill tells Slam. “You did better than our man on the jukebox.”
Jack’s is next, where people line up an hour before the doors open to taste Jack’s legendary steak. When we arrive, the bar is packed. “It’s an hour wait!” barks a surly man on the sidewalk. We’ll come back later.
We pop into Bog Bean Books and Music, a store packed with such kitsch as velvet Jesus paintings and shrines to Mr. Rogers, to buy some Dean Martin albums. Though Dean’s picture is by the door (to placate the Deanergeist?), they have no Dean Martin records in stock.
Discouraged, we return to the Squire and order some “big pizza pie” from Shasta County Pizza Co. When the pies arrive, Slam opens a bottle of Dean Martin wine with an impressionist portrait of Dean on the label. We toast the birthday ghost with Dino vino.
The tour relocates to the Post Office Saloon, where Slam Buckra and the Groove Palookas are scheduled to play. It’s a double birthday party—for Dean and for the drummer, Patrick Wiseman. As people don party hats and blow up balloons, the Palookas generate their unique blues/rock/psycho-pop groove. The band performs its repertoire from butt bongo to mannequin slide guitar (if you have to ask, catch its next show) while people dance wildly. When the band plays “Frank,” the crowd sings the chorus, “Frank, I’ll have another glass of that!”
At the break, we try Jack’s again and find seats at the bar. Mike, the bartender, is also wearing a Dean Martin pin. He tells us that he found a menu from the restaurant Dean used to own at a garage sale. We marvel at his luck and then ask the real question on our minds: “What’s the secret to a steak so good it has people lining up each night?”
Mike answers immediately and forthrightly: “Buy the best and cook it right.” So now you know.
We hurry back to the Post Office for the band’s last set and then to the Squire for last call. “Frank has one of the latest last calls known to man,” Slam informs us.
Sure enough, the bar is full at 1:55. We choose a few more Rat Pack songs on the jukebox and order the last round of drinks. Somewhere on the astral plane, Dino’s ghost is smiling.