There’s a device used in soap operas, designed to bring characters together and give the audience a recognizable meeting place, a place they know they can always find these fictional people they follow. This device probably has a sophisticated name, and back when I was studying Media (many years ago) I could probably have told you what it was. I can’t now. But I can tell you that places like The Rovers Return or The Watering Hole (later to become Lou’s Place – don’t tell me I’m the only one who remembers the golden era of Neighbours??) existed so that the characters would always have an excuse to meet, and therefore story lines would always have an excuse to begin then develop.
When you’re a kid trying to grow into an adult, and you don’t yet know what your main storylines will be, you have to muddle along and create some interim ones. These will help you work out who you are and who you’re going to become. As a teenager, the major place you’ll do this is at school. But school is boring and full of idiots who think you’re lame cos you don’t like the same stuff as them. And you think they’re lame for the very same reason. So you have to go out there and find a place that’s yours – that you feel comfortable in and where you know you’ll always meet your friends.
If, like me, you’re the sort of teenager who began wearing giant jeans, hanging out in Camden Market after school (or sometimes when we should have been at school…) and listening to whatever brand of ‘alternative music’ is the Thing at the time (in the early part of the 2000’s it was Nu-Metal) then this soap opera-style meeting device will be your local rock bar. If you’re lucky enough to have a local rock bar. And I was.
It started innocently enough. Some of my friends from sixth form had heard about a bar in Croydon called The Black Sheep and wanted to check it out. We went on a Friday night and the music was okay but not great. I was wearing DMs or some other grungy, unsuitable shoe that weren’t helpful for dancing and this fact was annoying me. But the drinks were cheap. Then my friend Leon turned up because he had also heard about this new, cool bar that all the kids were going to, and wanted to check it out. He brought his friend with him, and this friend became my boyfriend for the next two years, and a lifelong friend. The meeting of characters and meshing of storylines had begun, and would continue for the next several years. The deal was sealed when we cottoned on to the fact that the Black Sheep Bar ran a rock night every Thursday. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who were like me – pierced faces, dyed hair and an appreciation for Slipknot. I felt like I knew my place, and the next few years would be made easier because there was always somewhere I could go to hang out where there would be good music and people I knew, who, like me, were trying to find their feet in a world where not everyone wants to revel in mixtapes and CD signings and festivals and learning all the lyrics to every Nirvana song. And although everyone looking the same on the outside is not a mark of whether someone is a good person or a good friend, it was important to us back then. Big jeans and spiky collars and chains attached to our wallets and exactly the right level of Emo hair was important to me and my friends and at school and at work a lot of people thought we were strange. But the Black Sheep was safe and familiar and filled to the brim with people who just…got it.
And lots of happy memories were made there. Nights filled with drinking and dancing until 4am. Meeting and dating and falling out and making up. So many of the dramas of our youth would play out in whole or in part inside the orange walls of that bar we knew so well, that we would inevitably come to outgrow as life and time began to rush forwards, sweeping us away to other places and other things, leaving in our place the next generation of lost looking grungers and metalheads who still had those important years of discovery ahead of them. They made us feel old and we all knew it was time to move on.
The Black Sheep Bar closed a couple of weeks ago, suddenly and for unknown reason. Maybe it was the recession, maybe the local council just wanted it out of the way, to make room for a Tesco Express or a new Wetherspoons. Something soulless and meaningless that does nothing to contribute to the lives and loves of confused young people everywhere. Where will they go now, the future generations of dreadlocked and tattooed teenagers who suddenly want to listen to Metallica instead of One Direction? The same sense of safety and community and carefree…ness doesn’t exist in Tiger Tiger and it never will (I did try. When I was 22 I spent a night there getting hit on by greasy men and attempting to dance to bad house music. The evening ended at 2am when, drunk, I spat chewing gum into my own hair, where it got lodged. My equally drunk friends took me home and stuck my head under the tap while they experimented with products ranging from ice to ketchup in a valiant attempt to get it out, while I ate my way through a packet of processed meat and laughed at the taps. True story. But where was I…). At the time of closing, I hadn’t been to the Black Sheep in at least 4 years, but I felt the loss all the same. The 19 year old in me cried out in pain and disbelief. And that day, hundreds of people from many generations of what had become affectionately known as the ‘Lamb Fam’ left messages of condolence on the Black Sheep Facebook page, and I knew that I wasn’t alone.
I felt like we should be holding some kind of candlelit vigil outside the now boarded up place that we queued outside so many times over the years, or smoked outside, or stumbled outside vomiting Apple Sourz. But the truth is that I’m nearly 30 now, and that sort of memorial doesn’t feel quite right. It would be a lie, because like it or not, I did grow up and move on, as did so many of the people I knew who valued the Sheep as much as me. We are different people now and we can’t go back. But our rock bar helped shape who we were and would become, and it helped us on our way. I’m grateful that I got to be part of something so awesome, that I can’t adequately explain here. If you were there, then you know. If you weren’t, then you don’t, and this is a poor excuse for a eulogy.
But it’s one I should at least try to write, and I am. Because, as demonstrated many times over in this blog, places of memorial do not only exist in the form of cemeteries or churchyards. They can be found in the night sky, a sprawling, decaying estate from the 70’s or, in this case, the bar filled with music and laughter and moshing on a Thursday night, and shooters than came in a range of violently bright colours.
And now the bar is gone, and so is my youth and while I’m looking forward to whatever comes next, I’m taking this opportunity to look back and be sad about the past and the loss of that innocent part of my life where all you needed was £20 in your pocket and to know that you could get on a tram and in 20 minutes time be listening to great music with all your friends.
And, for now at least, the bright bold letters that make up the front facade of that place we knew and loved will serve as the Highgate or Brompton or Abney Park of our era. I wonder what the Victorians would have had to say about it?