Back in 1991, when Seattle was still something of a gray, sleepy backwater, a local punk kid named Kurt Cobain was invited to a new underground joint, Re-bar, to throw a release party for a then-unheard-of album called Nevermind.
He and his cronies got wasted, and by the end of the night, were not very respectful of the place. “The band decided … that it was a good idea to start throwing the food they had out for the party,” says Re-bar’s current co-owner, Michael Manahan, recalling the now-legendary tale. Then-owner Steve Wells looked up, saw “cake and food flying around,” and—understandably, especially since his friend’s original artwork was all over the walls—threw the band out on the sidewalk. “Of course,” Manahan says, Wells “had no idea who they were to become. Literally, in the following weeks, they completely blew up.”
In those days and through the long, crazy years since, the beloved, edgy, countercultural oasis that is Re-bar—still “chugging along,” as Manahan says, just south of Denny Way—became a cherished home for grunge punks, misfits, weirdos, drag queens, poets, freaks, and celebrities, and has long stood as a crown jewel of Seattle’s LGBT community. Lauded by one Yelper as “one of the few clubs left in Seattle that hasn’t been overrun by douchebros,” the still-gritty venue presents a reel of resident productions including Flammable, the longest-running weekly house music night on the West Coast; Night Crush, a party and safe space for “queers and their legit allies”; the Seattle Poetry Slam, Seattle’s longest-running open mic of any kind; drag-comedy superstar Dina Martina; and all manner of goofy, gaudy acts, from raunchy burlesque to “carefully curated video mayhem” to World Extreme Pencil Fighting Championships.
Today Re-bar stands, squat and proud, in a short row of divey, one-story establishments, now cartoonishly dwarfed by an ever-burgeoning ring of construction cranes and high-rises.
As you might’ve guessed: Re-bar’s days could be numbered.
That’s because, although Manahan and co-owner Dane Garfield Wilson “consider ourselves caretakers more than anything … it’s a really special place to us,” they don’t own the building. As a result, given the area’s skyrocketing property values, Manahan imagines they have about five years or so until a sale forces them to close—and that much time only because the building hasn’t yet been sold and the permitting process for new development takes so long. “It’s really just a guess,” he says. Next on Manahan’s to-do list: apply for historical landmark status. A Seattle landmark must be at least 25 years old; Re-bar is 26. “We’re hoping that will allow us to either move into the new building that will eventually be there, or move, or something like that,” he says. “Fingers crossed.”
In the meantime, the only major impact of the Amazon explosion he sees is that the endless construction has been “really messing with our parking.” In the next eight months, though, the 2,000 or so new neighbors the club is expecting to see could change things a bit. “I’m curious what that’s gonna be like,” he muses. “Our programming tends to be pretty underground. And we’re very … ” He pauses, then laughs. “I like to call Re-bar ‘straight-friendly.’”
On a recent Tuesday, Re-bar’s weekly slam-poetry night, the place is scarlet-hued and incense-smoky, its black walls hung with trippy cat paintings. Performers sweep the stage with tales of absent fathers, fluid genders, painful miscarriages, and Black Lives Matter. Featured poet Robert Lashley is crisp, lyrical, hilarious. A trans man croons the tale of his transformation to whoops of applause and encouragement.
“There’s a lot of queer history that happens here,” says Ebo Barton, special-events coordinator for the slam. “As a queer person, this has actually been my space to congregate.” Barton believes that especially when it comes to queer people of color, “we don’t have a place to go anymore because the Hill is not actually a safe place for us. I think Re-bar being here is … us taking our neighborhood back, a little bit.”
Nathan Deman, a vocalist and Re-bar staffer working the door, found Re-bar through the poetry slam (which he calls his “weekly dose of sanity”). But it’s more than that: “Re-bar, to me, is like the holdout for the weirdos and the strangers and the people that just, you know, need a safe place when the world is very hostile,” he says. “This is a place of, like, chosen family where people are really looking out for each other. This is not just a bar where people go to get fucked up. This is a safe place. You look at the shit with Orlando? That could have been this bar.”
Ade Connere, a local drag queen and theater icon, has been bartending at Re-bar for nine years and performing here for 12. While they shake a drink, they reminisce. Re-bar was not only the site of their first Seattle show, but “actually the first night club that I came to” in Seattle. “I was really strangely drawn to this place. Just somehow, it instantly became home for me. I met my roommate of seven years that night … It kind of felt like the place that I had always been looking for and never found back home in Colorado.”
Connere is aware of Re-bar’s quest for historical-landmark status and, like Manahan, has their fingers crossed. But they’re also resigned. A former bartender at The Bus Stop, a now-shuttered dive on Capitol Hill, Connere—like many artists from the old gayborhood—has seen it all before.
“I would be really, really sad to see Re-bar go,” they say. A low, haunting voice, sad and sultry like Nina Simone’s, begins to sing in the next room. “I really would. It’s kinda like, if Re-bar goes, I guess I’ll leave the city.” They’re laughing now, but only half-joking. The song continues behind them like a beautiful dirge. “It’s the last bastion, or something, you know? We’re like the Alamo.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the gender of Ade Connere. Pronouns have been updated.