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Washing glasses behind the bar of the Lager House on Michigan Avenue in Corktown, P.J. Ryder says, "In Detroit, we want to see things change but at the same time, we want them to stay the same." A born-and-bred Detroiter, Ryder has been familiar with this particular school of thought all his life. But he became more intimately acquainted with it a year ago when he purchased the ancient tavern from Kevin Weakly, whose family had owned it since 1977.
Built in 1914, the glazed brick building's history has run deep ever since — from storied speakeasy to Corktown hangout, favored by everyone from former Mayor Jerome Cavanagh to John F. Kennedy himself. But in recent years — particularly since the Gold Dollar went dark in 2001 — the Lager House has been ground zero for another local phenomenon: the city's ever-evolving punk, garage and rock 'n' roll scenes. But when word first hit the street about a year ago that Ryder had purchased the place, cries of suspicion went up, with many a jaded naysayer pronouncing the club dead and buried.
"Part of the problem is that as long as I've been into music, I've never really been in 'the scene,' so a lot of people didn't know who I was," Ryder says. "But I came [to the Lager House] for five years before I bought the place, and I liked the vibe here. I liked the people, liked the bands. And I think Kevin felt like, 'Here's a guy that's going to preserve the tradition; he's not going to turn it into a dance club.' And that's one of the reasons I think he sold it to me.
"We took something that was somebody else's place and we changed it," Ryder continues, "so I could understand the concern and criticism. But there was this undercurrent of rumors — that it was going to become an Indian restaurant, that it was going to become strictly a blues bar, that it was going to become an upscale place — and I had no idea how to counteract these rumors; no one ever asked me. Finally, [local musician and Sights leader] Eddie Baranek made a comment in an interview about it, saying something to the effect of, 'If the guy lets us play our music there, who cares who he is?'
When Ryder talks about changes, however, he's not talking about the kind of soul-stripping gentrification that routinely ruins classic, character-laden bars like the Lager House. He's talking about serving drinks in glasses and not plastic cups. It's a small touch but it makes a huge difference, just like the freshly painted two-tone green walls that offset the beautiful old back bar make a difference. Once swallowed up by its dark surroundings, now the club almost seems to glow, rising from wooden Depression-era coolers and tapering off toward the tin ceiling in mirrored, mahogany arches.
From the recently refinished wood floor — revealed after Ryder pulled up wall-to-wall carpeting and discovered a base so seedy and threadbare that you felt dirty just standing on it — to the original electric fan that hangs from the ceiling near the doorway, the Lager House probably looks more like it did back in the 1910s than it has in decades. Black-and-white pictures of veteran Tigers players from the '50s and '60s hang in tandem around a large rendering of Tiger Stadium opposite the doorway — relics that Ryder unearthed from the basement and restored back to their proper places. Ryder loves the history of his bar ... and he never tires of talking about it.
"It was built as two separate places in 1914," he begins. "The restaurant side [which is now where the bands play] was open in '15 but the bar side was empty that year. In 1916, statewide prohibition came to Michigan earlier than it came to the rest of the country. The bar side was a "furniture store" from 1916 to 1934 — but I have my suspicions that it was a bar from Day One because, when Prohibition ended, it opened immediately as a bar." To underscore his point, Ryder points to an archaic bookie's betting slot carved into the door leading to the basement.
When the restaurant side was closed in 1998, the bar began to feature local music, which drew Ryder — who'd run PJ's Used Records in Ann Arbor for 15 years — to the place as a customer. At the time, he was selling real estate after moving back to his hometown and marrying Detroit News photographer Donna Terek.
"After 10 years in the real estate business," Ryder recalls, "I asked myself a few questions: 'Do you want to do this for the next five years? Do you want to do this for the next five months? Do you want to do this for the next five minutes?' And the answer to them all was no. Since I've always been kind of an entrepreneur, the question became: What kind of job could I create for myself in the city? I'd always wanted to own a rock 'n' roll club, so I went back to that old dream. I haven't gotten paid yet but I think I will eventually."
Having always enjoyed the types of shows that built the Lager House's reputation, he saw no reason to change the club's booking policy. "The talent in this area is just phenomenal; it never ceases to amaze me," says Ryder, who recently shaved a day off a planned vacation because he couldn't bear to miss the Hentchmen, long one of his favorite bands. The club's first anniversary celebration week — which runs Oct. 20-25 — is a testament to Ryder's varying tastes: Over five nights, patrons will be treated to legendary SRC guitarist Gary Quackenbush (who's recently had a Thursday night residency at the club) with the Howling Diablos; a hip-hop "battle"; counterculture guru John Sinclair; promising up-and-comers the Pizzazz and the Dial Tones; and Lager House stalwarts the Fondas, the Muldoons and Danny Kroha, to name a few.
"I love rock 'n' roll, but I love other forms of music too," says Ryder, who's been traveling to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival nearly every year since its inception, and attends the city's annual Ponderosa Stomp roots music bash just as religiously. Having already successfully brought country and blues into his club, he hopes for a future that will also include Cajun and Zydeco, as well as a few more national acts.
Aiming for live music six nights a week, he'll continue to champion the local bands that he knows and loves — from Scott Morgan's Powertrane to the Terrible Twos — and he's continually on the lookout for new ones as well. Ably aiding him are Carrie Hadler and Jeremy Cybulski, who handle publicity and booking, as well as bar manager Karen Davis, without whom he says, "there's no telling how deep under water I would be.
"I'm 54. Karen and Jeremy are in their early 30s and Carrie is in her early 20s, so there's a pretty wide range of ages — as well as tastes — involved here. I can't think of everything, and I don't know everything, so the idea is to take advantage of everyone's talent; let them do what they do best and get out of the way."
And it goes both ways. "Karen recently told me, 'Look at how much progress you've made in a year,'" he recalls. "And it's true. I walked in here on Oct. 23 a year ago and realized I didn't even know how to turn on the lights! There was no security system, that nasty old carpet was still on the floor, the electrical system was pretty bad, the ceiling was stained brown with nicotine. The lights behind the bar barely worked, there were 12 bottles of booze back there and every one of them had fruit flies in it; there were wires hanging all over the place. ..."
Ryder smiles with just a hint of satisfaction. "I want it to be comfortable," he concludes. "And quite frankly, it's still a bit of a dive — but at least you're not sticking to the walls anymore!"
PJ's Lager House, 1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-4668. Go to pjslagerhouse.com for a full club schedule.
Michael Hurtt writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.