Red Dog Saloon to close

From the outside, the Red Dog Saloon looks like a façade from an old Western movie. The air inside is musty with overtones of pizza sauce. Janis Joplin, the Beatles and the Grateful Dead look down from posters on the old walls. “Hippies use side door,” one sign orders.

As the sun sets over scrubby peaks, the bar wakes up to men in hats—not just the occasional cowboy hat but a variety of odd hats with brims. Most of these characters are not cowboys but are members of some of the bands that have adopted Virginia City—The Dead Nutz, Crazy Texas Gypsies and the Four Blind Mice Trio.

As the evening passes the crowd grows. Mostly ranged in their late 30s to 50s and dressed somewhere between practical and fashionable, they all know each other. As a few sound checks are done, more musicians straggle in.

Soon, all these folks are going to have to find a new place to bend an elbow, jam on stage or to commiserate with their cronies. The Red Dog Saloon, one of Virginia City’s many historical monuments, is going to lock its doors—maybe for good this time.

“It’s the closest you’re gonna get to the ‘60s,” drummer Steve Tarrapin says. “It’s a shame [about the closing]. But what are you going to do?”

The Red Dog Saloon of Virginia City is one of the few places on the planet where a person can find the ‘60s alive in the new millennium. The Charlatans brought people here in droves 37 years ago. Nowadays, it’s the camaraderie of being a member of the musical community, not of a particular band, that brings folks in.

This will all end when the Red Dog closes its doors after the last big party on Nov. 30. If anyone knows exactly why the Red Dog is closing, they aren’t saying.

Bartenders at the Red Dog and folks from other bars have hinted at a variety of problems plaguing owners Richard and Mary Harris, who’ve been members of the Virginia City community for more than a decade. Some say the rent for the building has recently tripled. Others claim a considerable percentage of the bar’s regulars have moved out of the area. There are rumors of tax problems.

According to the Storey County Justice court, the Red Dog is named on an eviction notice and is on the small claims court docket, but no other details are forthcoming. All that aside, since the Harrises own the rights to the Red Dog name, the bar will likely remain closed for some time, unless something drastic happens.

Guitar player and vocalist Jessie James and bass player “Cowboy Steve” Neil start jamming on stage, unconcerned with the bar’s impending doom. They are regular members of the Dead Nutz. Soon keyboardist Johnny Dove from Uncle Funkle joins them. Steve Tarrapin hops behind the drums, while Tammy Tarrapin takes backup vocals. After much coaxing, Subterranean Paul Smith joins on lead guitar.

“The ‘60s started in this bar,” Terrell Lynn Thomas, bartender and Crazy Texas Gypsy, says. He refers to the first chapter of the book, I Want to Take You Higher, which chronicles the early psychedelic adventures of groups like The Charlatans of San Francisco.

In the book, Charlatans founder George Hunter says the Virginia City scene was about differentiating the Bay Area band from British groups like The Beatles.

“Part of it was not wanting to be associated with the British Invasion,” Hunter said in the book. “Everybody and their brother was doing that. … We were looking for some strong American identity. That’s what we were about.”

The prosperous music scene in the silver-rich range might seem anachronous, but some folks find that the Virginia City scene runs in the same stratum as the city’s mining roots. Where dusty, cold, tired men once scrabbled for minerals of wealth, others now pick away for a vein of artistic originality. And people seem to dig it.

Subterranean Paul Smith was drawn to the counter-cultural side of Virginia City. He found some rich rewards both in his own work and by playing with other Virginia City musicians. Smith sits in with the Dead Nutz, and yes, they play a lot of Grateful Dead stuff.

“We don’t know what we’ll do half the time, it just occurs to us,” Smith says. He describes how a crowd’s mood can circle back to performers, who pick up the vibe and run with it. Aspects of musical spontaneity are like the concept of Comstock time. Things will happen when they are ready to.

"[Virginia City] is difficult, quirky, a little bohemian,” Smith says. “It is also poison to some. It is both to me.”

As Jerry Garcia smiles down from the stage, its difficult to remember what year it really is. One thing is certain though, when the men in their odd hats come to the Red Dog Saloon’s locked doors on Dec. 1, they won’t be smiling.