It must be better in Carbondale
My friends and I agree that there are five stages of Aspen drunkenness. The “pissed pentavalent” is unique to the town: Happy, horny, philosophical, angry, then passed out.We start out happy, sitting around the apartment drinking together, which results in horniness at the bars. We then philosophize over why there are no single women in Aspen (or at least none interested in us), which makes us angry. Not being fighters, but intellects, we decide to stagger off to one of what we call “the Bar-muda Triangle” of late-night bars – Shooters, Lava Room and Club Chelsea – where memories are murky and heavily loaded vessels like us are surely doomed to pass out.In our philosophical stage, we all have different theories as to why we never feel satisfied with Aspen’s nightlife. It’s a “phallocentric” town, my bookish, Brown University buddy offers up, with far too many guys. There’s no live music, my preppy pal from Princeton chimes in. Anywhere, we agree, must be better than here.Last weekend I decided to test that claim.Carbondale, only a 40-minute bus ride away, would be the challenger to Aspen’s title as “party town.” I did a little research and discovered that three venues in Carbondale last Friday night were offering live music: a good start. Giddy with anticipation, Times photographer Paul Conrad and I decided to see what Carbondale had to offer.Our first stop was White House Pizza, where local musician Rick Aluise was set to play. I was skeptical. Pizza places in Aspen are either far-too-fancy (Mezzaluna) or far-too-cramped (New York Pizza) to even consider being a party spot.
But White House Pizza turned out to be a good start to the evening. The place wasn’t exactly raging, but the atmosphere was laid-back and the musician took requests. A few beers with a decent pizza got the juices and conversation flowing. Feeling outgoing, we started chatting with our waitress, a striking brunette with a Slavic accent.Her name was Lenka Perutkova. She had first come to Colorado from the Czech Republic to live in Aspen, but hadn’t lost her pale good looks nor her touristy eagerness. After a short trip home to sort out her visa, she returned to Colorado – this time to Carbondale.”I lived in Aspen first but when I came back I decided to move here. It’s cozy here. In Aspen people can be so snobby,” lovely Lenka said.Perhaps it was the effect of digesting all the heavy cheeses, or perhaps it was the nostalgia-inducing music, but after a while both Paul and I found ourselves staring ruefully into our beers. This was no good – dangerously close to the dreaded “philosophical” stage – so we decided to move on and try to lift our spirits. Lenka pointed us to Steve’s Guitars, our next stop.Friday night was Steve’s 54th birthday, and he opened the doors for anyone who wanted to stop by. Steve does not have a bar, so while his shop could never really be characterized as a nightspot, it still gets a good turnout every Friday when musicians from the valley and beyond perform in the intimate setting. On Friday, Steve’s was predictably crowded with musicians and music-lovers for what Steve called an “informal jam session.” Guitar players, bassists and even two young ladies singing with only knee-slaps for accompaniment were some of the offerings.Steve is a cheery, elfin man whose cheeks redden when he smiles. Either from the birthday booze or the brotherhood of the party, he was particularly sprightly last Friday night, finding it difficult not to gush about the turnout.”It’s hard to hold on to community around here,” Steve said. “But we’re trying. It’s so neat to have all these people out, friends and other musicians coming out to celebrate and enjoy the music.”With Steve’s warmth (and a few birthday brownies) lifting our moods, Paul and I headed next door to the Black Nugget, which advertised its own live band for the night. As it turned out, the band didn’t show up. Which was fine with me. This was the first place where I felt like an upvalley outsider. The bar was nearly empty, save a scattering of large, drunk and mean-looking men, a crowd with which my urbane humor and sparkling charm don’t do so well. Besides, something about the name turned me off (why name a bar after feces?).Only later did my editors inform me that Black Nugget refers to coal, which was once mined near Carbondale. Ah, silly me.So on to Ship of Fools, another bar offering live music, which I hoped would be more my type of place. Perhaps the name was a reference to Tennyson’s famous poem “The Lotus Eaters,” in which Ulysses’ men lay torpid on their ship after ingesting intoxicating flowers. Oh, what a clever name for a bar! Carbondale’s glittering literati must await inside: I imagined a crowd full of like-minded young men and women, each one donning a pastel-colored polo shirt (collar up) and moccasin loafers (no socks).I was encouraged by the fact that a large stretch limo was parked opposite the bar. After traversing the pirate-infested waters of the Black Nugget, I felt like I’d spotted a ship flying the Union Jack. Alas, the limo was waiting for a group of wealthy Aspenites dining at the nearby Thai restaurant. And the Ship of Fools turned out to be exactly that: a close, wooden space full of drunks. There was a 350-pound woman dancing (don’t often see that in Aspen, eh?), and instead of urinals the men’s room had a long, tin trough that one patron couldn’t seem to hit.
I felt the “angry stage” of my drunkenness dangerously near. I encountered two particularly large men with John Deere hats shooting a game of pool. I could feel myself seething, but the men seemed friendly, inviting me to stick around and play. They wouldn’t tell me their names, however, only identifying themselves as “Mike Hunt” and “Mike Hock” (not exactly my type of word play, but a start). They were regulars in Aspen’s bar scene for years, but recently changed allegiance to Carbondale.”Aspen’s a bunch of old crusty people,” one of them said. “Everything’s closed up there now anyway. If you’re going to have to just get drunk with your friends, why not do it in Carbondale, where you don’t have to deal with all the snobby s–t?”Mr. Hunt had a point. To be sure, Carbondale wasn’t a raging party spot filled with young, attractive types drinking and being merry. But these days, neither is Aspen. So I chugged a beer, sank a difficult bank shot, and decided I was going to enjoy Carbondale for what it was.With my two new pals keeping the pitchers coming, the “passed out” stage was still an inevitability. But between good pizza, a cheery birthday party, and a relaxed game of pool, I had managed to skip stages one through four. That just might be worth the 40-minute bus ride.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is email@example.com