Fred Holzman has a cold. It’s been dogging him for a week. Earlier in the day, he waited in a long line at the Lake City Fred Meyer shortly after noon to purchase antihistamine, which made him late for a lunch appointment. After taking his medicine on an empty stomach, he vomited all over his shirt, which meant he’d be even later for lunch, as he had to swing by his small apartment near the Fred Meyer to change clothes.
Holzman works nights as the drummer for three bands: the Davanos, Powercell, and N-Sane. Occasionally he fills in on skins for the popular cover band Magic Bus. In fact, all the bands Fred Holzman plays in are cover bands, each includes Joe Shikany on either bass or lead guitar, and one of them plays the Rimrock Steak House on Lake City Way at least twice a week, making the 6’2″ Holzman the Rimrock’s de facto house drummer.
The bar at the Rimrock is called the Stirrup Room. With its Western mural and thirsty clientele, it would feel just as at home in Wyoming as in northeast Seattle, and it opens at 6 a.m. every morning, serving Vegas-priced breakfasts and pre-shift nips. It’s owned and operated by an erstwhile Wedgwood Broiler waitress named Connie Dunn, who refers to it simply as “a drinking man’s bar.” The Rimrock’s morning bartender is Dunn’s longtime boyfriend, Chuck, who told Dunn she was “fucking nuts” when she bought the restaurant 13 years ago.
“This place used to be, if you passed out on the floor with two dollars in your hand, they’d serve you another drink,” says Dunn, who was a Stirrup Room regular before she assumed its reins.
Shortly after the state’s smoking ban went into effect in late 2005, the 60-year-old Dunn put the Rimrock up for sale, but she’s fairly insistent upon passing her torch to someone who will maintain the bar’s integrity (hence its failure to sell). And while a smattering of younger folks from the neighborhood pop in from time to time, the Rimrock remains one of the last dives to have dodged hipster Seattle’s tapeworm-like appetite for authenticity.
All of Holzman’s bands start promptly at 8 p.m. and end at 12:30 a.m., with three hour-long sets sandwiched in between. While Powercell and N-Sane play a wide range of rock covers, the Davanos, which features Jerry Battista of the Dusty 45s on lead guitar, is a twangier, more versatile outfit, and of the three bands draws the most consistent crowd to a dark, red-hued room that can feel like sharing a phone booth with George Wendt when there are more than 50 people in the house.
Holzman is a self-taught southpaw who plays on a right-handed kit. Taped to his kick drum is a portrait of the Muppet Show drummer, Animal, to whom Holzman is often compared artistically. Lanky and mustachioed, with stringy hair and an elastic expressiveness to his face that tends to mesmerize his audience, Holzman looks like the long-lost love child of Frank Zappa and Mick Fleetwood.
And here Holzman is on a Wednesday night, saddled with an ass-kicker of a cold that’s a wheeze away from turning pneumonic. Nevertheless, every third song or so, he leads the crowd in a shot of whatever they have in front of them (Holzman drinks Rumple Minze). At the culmination of the group tipple, the Davanos sing the phrase “right on” in three-part harmony, a ritual birthed by Holzman. Hence his nickname: “Right On.”
Shikany recently replaced John Case, who used to sing lead on a jammed-out, 10-minute version of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer.” The Davanos haven’t played that song since Case’s departure, but still pull off wholly original versions of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” and Wang Chung’s “Dance Hall Days.”
Thankfully, Battista is singing lead on the latter, because Holzman is coughing up a storm behind his kit. Still, he doesn’t miss a beat—Holzman claims to have never called in sick to a gig. Not only that, whatever malady he might be stricken with does nothing to diminish his effervescent, carnival-barker stage presence.
“He’s so entertaining,” says Battista, over a preshow meal of steak and potatoes. “And he underplays his talent. I’ve played with great drummers who give lessons, and Fred’s just got that feel. Plus he knows the words to every song ever written.”
This includes the chestnut, “You Are So Beautiful (to Me),” which follows the Wang Chung cover. Most crooners would pluck a comely lady out of the audience to serenade, but Holzman instead dedicates the tune to his shot glass as Shikany shines a bright lamp in his face to give the rendition a spotlight effect. Following the last line, Holzman segues into a nonsequitur about Richie Sambora getting a DUI, remarking that whoever was driving behind the guitarist must be “a Bon Jahovi’s witness.”
After Holzman’s quip, the Davanos launch into a Pink Floyd medley with Holzman on lead vocals. At one of many psychedelic shifts, during which Holzman yields the microphone to his cohorts, Shikany and Battista alter a lyric from “the lunatic is in my head” to “the lunatic is on the drums.”
The crowd roars at the accuracy of that statement.
“He’s a total character,” says Dunn. “Everybody absolutely loves him.”
And yet, Holzman operates in relative obscurity. This could be because he plays in an obscure bar known to few outside a neighborhood that remains among the last in the city to elude “next big thing” status. Or it could be because Holzman operates in a musical genre, cover bands, which gets little respect among indie-rock cognoscenti—yet, when stick comes to cymbal, might require the most finely-honed chops of them all.
With its diverse population, quirky commercial core, and workaday ethic, Lake City is North Seattle’s answer to South Park or White Center, two gritty areas which have been feted as “up and coming” in the local press. Yet you never hear anyone mention Lake City as “the new Ballard,” nor is Linda Derschang contemplating transforming an old repair shop into an organic tequila bar with a gorgeous Afro-Nordic DJ spinning sea shanties and retro soul. Instead, you hear people denigrate the neighborhood as “Lake Shitty”—and as far as youthful night owls are concerned, it might as well be Chehalis.
At downtown Lake City’s main intersection, Northeast 125th Street and Lake City Way, there’s a new development that includes a Bartell Drugs, a T-Mobile, a MoneyTree, a Boeing Employees’ Credit Union branch, and a Fed-Ex/Kinko’s. Whereas on Capitol Hill prominent business leaders might shit a turkey over such an affront to grassroots retail flavor, the head of Lake City’s Chamber of Commerce, Diane Haugen, is ecstatic about these tenants. And unlike Seattle’s more central boroughs, which are so over Seafair, Lake City’s corresponding Pioneer Days celebration is the neighborhood’s signature summer event, featuring a salmon bake and vintage auto show.
In a city where it gets ever more punitive to gas and go, Lake City Way is a slave to car dealerships. What little acreage isn’t devoted to Motor City spawn is occupied by highly specialized, somewhat archaic shops that fix clocks, sell model trains, or hawk erotica (by the grace of God, there’s also a Dick’s Drive-In). The neighborhood has two exceptional restaurants, Toyoda Sushi and Thai One On. But there’s a dubious armada of shopping carts stuffed with homeless people’s belongings perennially perched in front of the former, while the latter boasts possibly the most repugnantly clichéd, Orlando-or-bust moniker in all of Seattle.
Just north of Lake City’s auto row, situated across the street from the Déjà Vu strip club, is Flo-Anna’s Diner. It sounds like a soul-food joint, but it’s actually run by a Greek guy who’s a Rimrock regular. Here, Fred Holzman pulls up in a gray Oldsmobile and declines to order lunch after his unfortunate cold medicine–as–castor oil episode.
Holzman looks like a rock star, or at least a guy who partied himself into the ground trying to achieve such status. Judged by appearance alone, Holzman would have spent an hour at the strip joint doing lines of coke the length of a floor-to-ceiling mirror before crossing the street. But looks can be deceiving.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, Holzman’s family relocated to Edmonds when he was in middle school. He has four sisters and an older brother, and golfs once a week with his 82-year-old father at Walter Hall in Everett, where he once shot a 75. Afterward, father and son shoot pool at Harvey’s, a Lynnwood watering hole on Highway 99.
“Fred is good at all sports he plays—basketball, golf, pool; doesn’t matter,” says Battista, a baby-faced 49-year-old who occasionally joins the Holzmans on the links.
Holzman took up the drums in 1979 with exactly zero lessons under his belt. While his bandmates consider him to be a fine stickman, the 45-year-old Holzman is a glutton for self-deprecation, saying things like “I still don’t know how to play the damn drums,” “I’m not a musician, I’m a drummer,” or “My job is to sell drinks.”
As for his aspirations, they’ve always been whatever his collaborators’ were, which wasn’t much when he was in his camera-ready prime in the ’80s. “The writers I was playing with weren’t the best writers, and I’ve never been a writer,” he says. “I’m pretty much a singer.”
But he offers only high praise for Battista and Shikany. “I can’t believe those guys play with me,” says Holzman. “I feel really blessed. The way Jerry plays guitar is incredible. And Joe’s just stepped in and stepped up.”
Holzman has been playing four or five nights per week for the past decade, if not longer. When he hits a slow patch, he’ll take a “freelance landscaping” gig here and there, but such instances are rare. He first played the Rimrock some five years ago, when Mark Shaffer invited him to play in a band called Groovestock, which also included Battista. It wasn’t Holzman’s first acquaintance with Battista: The pair first met in 1982 at a roller rink in Lynnwood, where Holzman’s band opened for the Allies, a seminal local act which Battista played in at the time (and Shikany before him). Battista can never remember the name of the band—High Risk—that Holzman played in, referring to it instead as “Slipped Disc.”
Holzman’s bands are all three pieces by design: For ends to meet in a venue as small as the Rimrock, it’s economically implausible to carry a fourth member. Battista, who named the Davanos after his parents’ Spanglish term for “couch,” says each bandmate pockets about $140 per night after tips, provided the bar’s till surpasses $1,000, which it almost always does. While he and Shikany both have more lucrative side gigs that permit them to not hold down a day job, Holzman, whose bands also play venues like Debbie’s Drift On Inn in Shoreline, is less flush. But he doesn’t have a day job either, living “paycheck to paycheck,” as Battista puts it—and those paychecks are typically doled out in crumpled-up cash.
While Battista has one foot firmly planted in Seattle’s alt-country scene with his Dusty 45s tenure, the other, older foot took its first steps in a late-’70s/early-’80s Seattle music scene that consisted of “all these dirty old bars where people just wanted to go ‘woo-hoo!'” says Tim Hayes, former owner of Olive Way’s legendary Fallout Records.
The biggest locally based act of this pre-grunge era was Heart, the Wilson sisters’ polarizing rock group. “I’m from Aberdeen, so that shit got shoved down my throat,” says Hayes, one of the region’s foremost musicologists, who now runs the restaurant-bar Tigertail in Phallard Gulch (the burgeoning valley between Phinney Ridge and Ballard). “I don’t think Heart really influenced anyone locally. Amongst the community I was in, there was a reaction against Heart.”
But the 58-year-old Shikany (Holzman’s the only one of the three who looks his age) has always embraced the Heart branch of the Northwest family tree, and it’s helped him land some pretty sweet gigs. After leaving the Allies, Shikany toured the country with Heart guitarist Roger Fisher’s band, and then hooked up with Paul Rodgers after another Heart alum, Howard Leese, left the Bad Company frontman’s band to help care for his newborn child, subsequently recommending Shikany to take his place.
“One week I was on a stage with Magic Bus playing Foghat songs, the next I’m in Fort Myers, Florida—and Foghat is opening for us,” recalls Shikany, who, like Battista, is a Spokane native. “Then I’d come back [to the Rimrock] and play for 20 people. It keeps me humble.”
Cover bands: every bit as divisive as, well, Heart. While Hayes says he’s “seen some great cover bands,” he thinks they’re “something you do when you retire,” and he “won’t pay to see them.” (Luckily for him, there’s no cover at the Rimrock). Meanwhile, Ben London, the former Alcohol Funnycar and Sanford Arms frontman who now runs the Grammy-affiliated Recording Academy in lower Queen Anne, professes nothing but respect for grinders like Shikany and Holzman, even if the cover-band scene isn’t his cup of tea.
“There’s been such degradation in musicianship, but these guys actually had to know how to play,” says London, a 40-year-old native Ohioan who moved to Seattle in ’89. “Cover bands are like the chitlin’ circuit; they all have to know how to play together. Bands [that play originals] nowadays, you break one of them off and ask them to jam, they can’t do it.”
Tim Mitchell knows Lake City well. A 39-year-old real estate appraiser who grew up on Northeast 110th Street and Sand Point Way, his recent move to Ravenna has done nothing to diminish his obsession with his native neighborhood’s every nook and cranny, to the point where his wife, Kimberly, ribs him about how he should appoint himself “mayor of Lake City.”
When he became of legal age to consume alcohol, Mitchell and a pair of friends would regularly embark upon what they refer to as “the crawl,” which would start at a recently razed convenience store on Sand Point Way called JP’s, where they would purchase forties of beer and sip their way toward Rick’s. However, this never guaranteed that they’d actually make it through the doors of the Lake City Way bosom ‘n’ boner emporium that more recently took center stage in the Strippergate scandal.
“I had a big spender and a guy who wanted value with me, and I don’t think we ever once went to Rick’s because of the cover charge,” says Mitchell. “But the arguments would always occur at the Shell station next to Rick’s.”
Typically, the trio would wander north to Claire’s Pantry “for mixed drinks and to get warm.” Then, says Mitchell, they’d “go to Jalisco’s, where, believe it or not, the night might end. Our friend was a bartender, and we’d just get loaded.
“Then we’d go to the Rimrock,” Mitchell adds. “And again: high chance the night would end there.” If they made it out of the Stirrup Room upright, they’d hit Cadillac Jack’s (since shuttered to make way for the Bartell’s development) and the Backdoor before returning to the Rimrock for last call. Then, depending on the speed of their stagger, they’d either catch the 2:10 bus home or summon a cab.
As for where Lake City’s notch would appear on Seattle’s totem pole, Mitchell says it would “be underground.” “When I was a kid, there was a movie theater and bowling alley,” says Mitchell. The movie theater has since been replaced by a Mennonite church, and the bowling alley gave way to a school bus parking lot. “It’s not like the bowling alley in Ballard, where they’re talking about condos,” says Mitchell, referring to the fate of Sunset Bowl. “It’s the Laidlaw parking lot. And they used to have a fountain near the WaMu branch. Now it’s a planter. How often in Seattle do you hear about shutting a fountain down?
“It’s kind of the land that time forgot, and you see that in the people,” he adds. “Everybody looks tired, and it’s kind of a relief to get to happy hour.”
Mitchell describes the typical Lake City denizen as “kind of your older, blue-collar guy who knows how to work with his hands; guys who are selling used tires or fixing TVs—these derelict, left-behind industries. They didn’t take the state’s offer of retraining at the community college. There’s white-collar, but the everyday white-collar, the Edward Jones salesmen—old white-collar professionals who are getting ready to retire.”
And yet in spite of all this, Mitchell takes a half-full view of the neighborhood of his youth. “Lake City was like an ‘urban village’ before Norm Rice came up with the term,” he says. “Single-family houses start a half-mile from the core, so it’s kind of European—Eastern European. And the playground behind the old Lake City Elementary has galvanized-steel slides, and the parents are all laid-back and eating Dick’s.”
While acknowledging some of the neighborhood’s manifold challenges, Chamber of Commerce head Haugen thinks it’s just a matter of time before the rest of the city starts discovering these sorts of virtues. “It’s simply happening a little slower and quieter here,” she says. “Other neighborhoods market themselves, and we’re just starting to do that again. I think it’s taken a little time for investors to see the potential of Lake City. The blessing in Lake City right now is there’s room for everybody.”
As for how the Rimrock fits into the neighborhood’s future, Haugen says simply: “The Rimrock is legendary.”
Back when he toured extensively, Ben London says he used to “come back [to Seattle] and feel like I was pregnant with Budweiser’s baby.” Even though he’s married with children now, London’s still liable to shut down a Ballard Avenue bar on any given Wednesday. The only difference is he has to be up at 6 the next morning to tend to the wee ones, no matter what.
“When you’re younger, you always think that when you get older, you’ll settle down,” says London. “But you just end up being an older version of yourself.”
London has never been to the Rimrock, but that’s a pretty accurate description of the bar’s MO. Aside from a handful of crusty customers who couldn’t care less if it were Bobby Brown or Bob Hope onstage, the clientele is generally over 40 and dresses like they’ve come straight to the Stirrup Room from a Foreigner video shoot. The lounge is a half-century-old relic of the days when Lake City was predominantly Caucasian, and its regulars’ attempts to endear themselves to brothers from other colors can be amusing at times—as evidenced a few Tuesdays ago when one drunk guy’s warmhearted attempt to befriend a couple of Latino gentlemen came off as awkwardly as Owen Wilson at the urinal in Bottle Rocket (“Hola! Como esta? I love J-Lo, Corona, and quesadillas, too, just like you, amigo!”). Then again, the undisputed queen of the Rimrock is a 50-something black woman named Della who drinks Mickey’s Hornets. Go figure.
The Rimrock’s strongest weeknight is Wednesday, when a magician named Cliff works the floor for a full hour before the Davanos come on. The preceding night, when either Powercell or N-Sane plays, is spottier, but on one recent Tuesday evening the bar is jam-packed by 8:30 as Powercell blows through “All Along the Watchtower.”
Holzman and Shikany are joined onstage by Lynn Sorensen, another veteran of the Paul Rodgers band. (This probably explains the preponderance of Rodgers T-shirts at the front few tables.) “Fred has girls beating down his door,” says Sorensen at the conclusion of the song.
“Too bad they were Seattle cops,” replies Holzman, before setting up the next ditty. “Here’s one you might remember. We sure hope we do.”
The song is CSNY’s “Love the One You’re With,” with Holzman singing lead, a goofy smile intermittently breaking across his face. When the band transitions into a Doors medley, the dance floor, positioned toward the back of the bar, swells with Wilson-sister wannabes and their male suitors. Herein, a packed Rimrock at 8:45 on a Tuesday with Powercell onstage is at least as vibrant as, say, the Tractor at 12:30 on a Friday night with the Gourds headlining.
If you ask Holzman what songs he likes to play most, he’ll tell you, all kidding aside, that his favorites are “the ones I don’t know.” Battista’s claim that Holzman has committed to memory the words of every song ever written is only a slight exaggeration: When someone shouts for Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Goin’ Out With Him?” the onus falls on Holzman to wing the lyrics, as the song is not among the band’s standard repertoire. If Holzman isn’t the most technically accomplished player in the band, he’s certainly the most indispensable, especially when you factor in his magnetic stage presence. He puts the stir in Stirrup, the rock in Rimrock.
Powercell closes out its first set with a smokin’ version of Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On.” Zep’s not the easiest band to cover, so when the trio opens its second set with a four-song Page-Plant medley without coming up for air, it’s not to be taken lightly. One of these tracks is “Good Times, Bad Times,” of which Fred says: “I can’t play those licks, but it’s still a blast.”
At the conclusion of “Whole Lotta Love,” Holzman hoists his shot glass of Rumple Minze into the air, beckoning the energized crowd to do the same before breaking into his hallmark chorus of “right on!”
“Let’s hear it for Fred Holzman,” says Sorensen to the crowd. “He drinks, talks, and plays drums at the same time.”
Attending a concert with Fred Holzman behind the drums is a forced participatory experience. If you’re too shy to raise your glass during his “right on” toasts or dance to a funky number, Holzman will ride your ass from the stage until you cave. This approach doesn’t mesh well with Seattle, which, as London puts it, “traditionally has had such stoic crowds.”
“Maybe when you’re middle-aged,” he speculates, “you don’t care what people think of you.”
Or maybe, if you’re Fred Holzman, you just want to yell “woo-hoo”—and want everyone in the crowd to yell “woo-hoo” too.