Endangered Species

The Crazy Horse is demolished, the Golden Bears Rick Babiracki passes on

For lots of us, it was a big, big deal just getting to see those acts play there. I've been in scores of music venues, from Leningrad to Greenwich Village to Breaux Bridge to Ocho Rios, and there probably weren't more than a handful on the planet with the musical atmosphere the Bear had. It was a funky old hole, but it was as if the bricks had soaked up every good note ever played there and challenged acts to add to that legacy.

What of human value is ever going to transpire at the Pierside Pavilion developer's wet dream that now stands in the Bear's place? You consume, pay and leave—and that's it.

"They're tearing down a church here," Chuck Babiracki declared the day they had to vacate the building. The rainy night previous, Jan. 29, 1986, Robin Trower played the last show on the Bear's stage. Rick had pleaded for another 30 days in which to give the club a proper send off, with shows, he hoped, by Lindley, B.B. King, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Martin and others who had played the club. He'd called a news conference to say, "This building and its history and what it has meant to the music business give it an inherent dignity that deserves a better fate than what it's getting." It was torn down on May 18 of that year.

Those of us in the journalism racket had cause to approach Rick a little warily. Ask him a simple question, and it would never quite get answered, lost in stream-of-consciousness manifestos, as if he'd latched onto some sort of magical pontification powder. He had a gift for overstatement, claiming after the Bear's closing he'd become the exclusive booker of the Kona Hawaii club, which was sure news to its owner. (He did promote several shows there, though.)

He may not have been the greatest businessman: the Bear's inevitable demise may have been hastened by the money drain of a second club opened in Long Beach. But there was no doubting he loved the place. As a Bear employee recently told me, "He saw the Golden Bear as his ship. At the end of a good night, he'd break out the Oouzo and raise his glass in cheer, and all was well with the world."

Just keeping a club open for 12 years in the volatile music business is a hell of an accomplishment. That the club is still missed and beloved two decades later is also a hell of an achievement. Having done that in Orange County is a near impossibility.

Those were very different times, when local officials still regarded rock as a nuisance instead of a cash cow. The same year the Bear closed, H.B. officials shut down the Safari Sam's club amid overheated claims it was a haven for sex and drugs. Club owners were also a very different breed then. Today, most venues are efficient enterprises run by faceless strata of corporate management. In the Bear's day, the owners were entrepreneurs and characters, an admixture of carny barker and musical apostle. Babiracki was one of the greatest of that sadly fading breed, so please raise a glass in cheer to him.

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