Setting up psychedelic shop
The recently reopened Virginia City bar, Red Dog Saloon, has gone through many incarnations. It may even have given birth to the ’60s psychedelic scene
The thing about Virginia City is that it’s difficult to pinpoint where the hokey tourist trap ends and the genuine, historic ghost town begins. Some of the cowboy posturing and paranormal activity is just a lot of hogwash, but there is something authentically eccentric and quintessentially Nevadan at the root of the town—something to do with silver and something, maybe, to do with psychedelia.
One popular Comstock legend posits a little V.C. barroom as the birthplace of the entire hippie movement and the original psychedelic venue. Seems a bit dubious—there are probably a half-dozen such places across the States—but like every burger of lies, it’s salted with a grain of truth. In the late 1960s, the Red Dog Saloon was a rollicking roadhouse well-furnished with the requisite sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
The house band was the Charlatans, from San Francisco (not to be confused with the band Charlatans UK, which isn’t from San Francisco but rather the United Kingdom). The Charlatans were an early and influential psychedelic band, and though they didn’t achieve quite the level of fame as some of their contemporaries, the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane, for example, they were important to the development of both the sound and the style of the psychedelic San Francisco scene.
Charlatan Dan Hicks went on to have a successful solo career that continues to this day. His 2000 album Beatin’ the Heat had guest appearances by such luminaries as Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Brian Setzer.
That much, barring massive historical drug-induced hallucination, is true. Less certain but still probable is that early incarnations of Big Brother & the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead played there. The Red Dog Saloon was also the supposed home to some of the earliest psychedelic light shows. Less likely but still feasible is that Janis Joplin worked there for a couple years. It’s doubtful Jimi Hendrix ever played there and slightly less possible that the ghost of Jim Morrison appeared there and transformed into a swan in a flash of dazzling color.
Annie Green, who lived upstairs right above the stage for eight years during the ‘70s, says the building was originally, during the 1800s, called the Comstock House. Then it was Kitty’s Long Brand, which would also be a good name for cat food, before becoming the Red Dog Saloon for four mind-blowing years during the late ‘60s and then turning back into Kitty’s Long Brand. Then, it was a variety of odd things until 1996, when Richard and Mary Harris restored the Red Dog to a state of kooky, trippy glory.
Psychedelic rock posters adorned the walls, and the Red Dog again became a popular music venue and hang-out. This Second Coming of the Red Dog lasted until last November, when the Harrises had to shut the doors. The first two incarnations of the bar are documented in Mary Works’ film, The Life and Times of the Red Dog Saloon. The Red Dog sat dormant for a few months before new owners took up the leash.
It’s apparently customary for people involved with the Red Dog to refer to themselves only by their CB radio handles, because the new owners are named Alabama John and Hoops and the two “head swampers” are Buffalo and Roberto V. of the Mexican Mafia. The new managers aren’t associated with any previous incarnation of the bar, but they are excited to renew the old spirit.
Buffalo, standing behind the bar and seeming to have forgotten that he had put on his sunglasses for a photograph, gets animated when describing the wild times that happen at the new Red Dog on a good night:
“There’s these two drunk cowboys up on the stage trying to sing Elton John, and everyone’s laughing at them, but they’re so confused that they think they’re getting cheered on, and then this guy I like to call Johnny Lee Lewis, 295 pounds with no front teeth, sits down and starts playing the best ragtime piano you ever heard, and then I hear this sound, and who should walk on but this guy playing the bagpipes, and everybody’s playing together and having a grand old time. I swear that just about everybody who comes through that door can play an instrument but us.”
This latest version of the Red Dog hasn’t quite matched yet the psychedelic vibe of the old interiors. Where there were once psychedelic rock posters are now pictures of regulars and visitors—everyone from camel racers to blues singer Willie Dixon to girls from local brothels. All the same, there are good beers behind the bar and a menu with appetizers, pizza and calzones. The food measures up fairly well; owner Hoops’ mother owned and operated a New York pizzeria, and the recipe is an old family one. There are plans to add a barbecue, and Buffalo jokes about eventually publishing Red Dog’s Cookbook of Mountain Man Cuisine.
When I ask Annie Green, the long-time Virginia City resident who used to live above the bar, how the new owners are measuring up, she seems confident.
“They really care about it—they care about the building. And that’s important up here.”
It bears mentioning that the building, like most in Virginia City, is haunted.
Buffalo says that, though this version of the Red Dog is still young, they have already had a few “monster parties with heat-packing cowboys.”
“And I tell you,” Buffalo added, “there’s just something about the sound of spurs behind you that makes you want to turn around and reach to your hip, even if all you’ve got is a pencil.”
While Buffalo boasts, “Where else can you sit down with cowboys, lawyers, hookers, Germans, bikers, moms, kids and dogs?” (he mentions an initial difficulty in ensuring that the dogs couldn’t get back into the kitchen), he remains humble when discussing the role of the new management.
“We’re the new kids—basically just caretakers. After we’re gone, somebody else will come and take over the Red Dog. There were people here before us, and somebody will be here after us—but it’s our turn to take a shot, so we better not screw it up."