X-Ray Visions: A Look Inside Portland's Legendary X-Ray Cafe
In October of 1990 the small space at 214 W. Burnside was still known as the UFO Café, owned by a thickly-accented Greek guy named Alkis. Unorthodox and adventurous in his musical tastes, Alkis hoped to increase his pizza sales by allowing a local band named The Kurtz Project to perform regularly and book other bands. Unbeknownst to the musicians and patrons, however, Alkis had been equally adventurous in his financial strategies and had stopped paying rent.
In the inevitable collapse that soon followed, Alkis vacated and two members of the house band, Benjamin Arthur Ellis and Tres Shannon, somehow emerged from the wreckage holding the lease. With no experience running a club, the pair set about transforming a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria into Portland's primary all-ages hole-in-the-wall music venue.
What was quickly christened the X-Ray Cafe soon featured blocked windows with cheerful signage handpainted above them. Underneath the building's gutted upper stories and rusted fire escape, the street-level exterior was whitewashed, and a mural was painted low along the sidewalk. The interior was furnished through a constant influx of thrifting scores, dumpster dives, and personal belongings. The walls were eventually hung with dozens of frustratingly memorable velvet paintings.
In hindsight, the timing of the X-Ray's birth was perfect. While grunge and alternative music were exploding in Seattle and a low-fi revolution was mounting in Olympia, the X-Ray, and nearby Satyricon, provided much-needed stages for smaller acts, and were crucial in establishing Portland as an important regional destination for touring bands. Both clubs also formed cradles for emerging Portland musicians, but it was the X-Ray that was far more fluid, encouraging, and open to the bizarre. Local bands Crackerbash, Pond, Hazel, Smegma, Poison Idea, Dead Moon, Hitting Birth, New Bad Things, Last Pariahs, Motorgoat (which became Quasi), and the Spinanes alternated with visits from Beat Happening, Unwound, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Hole, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Green Day.
Although it hosted an average of three or four bands a night, less than half of the X-Ray's operating hours were actually devoted to live music. Necessity and boredom fueled an endless succession of theme nights and "educational" afternoons. Sleepovers, Spanish lessons, drum and sewing circles, science and electronics lessons, and Q&A sessions about nothing in particular were regularly offered. Ellis and Shannon were open to virtually any community-minded event as long they didn't have to organize it.
Located near the geographic center of the city, the club's long hours and inclusive atmosphere attracted an amazing array of outcasts, street kids, and talkative eccentrics. Those familiar with the X-Ray invariably recall at least a few recurring characters who contributed their unique pathologies to the area's already rich pageantry. In time, some were given chores, and the chores eventually became unofficial jobs. Bands loading into the club for the first time would tread very carefully, unsure how to deal with these obnoxious patrons who seemed to move about with the casual confidence of long-time staff.
Frequent attendees were also a part of the X-Ray experience. Teenagers suspended in underage purgatory could be spotted in the crowd night after night. Like the "helpful" regulars, some of the most constant were eventually drafted into the staff. Familiar faces were such an important element of the X-Ray that when road trips were organized to Olympia and Eugene, a small army of regulars were enlisted to accompany the acts on the bill.
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