Up in Smoke

City Hall and the Greater Houston Restaurant Association once again threaten the right to light up in bars

The anti-smoking crowd likes to think of itself as some kind of sleeping giant -- that if the ban is enacted, the bars would be crawling with people like them who shun the places now because they don't like the smell or fear the health risks. They also love to point out that cities like Austin, San Francisco and New York that have bans in place also have much livelier music scenes than Houston, and imply that a ban here is all that it would take to transform H-town into the next Seattle.

These are nice theories, but in a recent interview with Austin radio station KUT, country guitarist Redd Volkaert and steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar both said it most decidedly wasn't the case in Austin. "All the lyin' nonsmokers said they would come to the clubs if they passed the law," Volkaert said. "None of 'em have ever showed up." Cashdollar added that several Austin venues have started cutting pay to musicians because their booze sales had dropped because of smokers staying home. And bands had responded by downsizing from quintets and quartets to trios and duos.

In the same KUT story, reporter David Brown noted that many of the clubs on Sixth Street and the Red River strip in Austin were now shuttered early in the week. For bars everywhere, Sundays through Wednesdays have always been a razor's edge profit-wise, but if you take the smoker out of the mix, the owners say, it's not worth it to open. And without these graveyard shifts at the clubs, I might add, where are beginning bands supposed to learn their live chops and earn their followings?

If the effects have been that bad in the (self-described) Live Music Capital of the World, how bad would it get here? Sure, some clubs could build outdoor smoking areas, but what about those that don't have the option? And what about the joints that are in sketchy 'hoods -- I'm a big guy, but I don't know how comfortable I'd be smoking after midnight outside the Meridian or the Proletariat.

So let's try to find some middle ground, people. If you truly love live music but hate smoke, you are free to patronize the venues that already offer that experience. Or you could start booking some of your own shows and stipulate that they are nonsmoking. Or you could go so far as to open your own smoke-free club. Hell, you could get rich: If you listen to all the nonsmokers who say they're just waiting -- hands poised over wallets -- until the glorious, smoke-free dawn, you've got to think that such a club would be a gold mine. Or maybe Volkaert is right and those people are liars who would rather punish smokers at the ballot box than actually go out and hear live music. That's your call to make.

Or, as Mike Bell points out, you could help encourage City Hall to enact legislation similar to that in Dallas. "Up there, they have a ban on smoking completely, everywhere, but the liability goes on the customer, not the bar. So if someone is sitting at your bar and they wanna smoke a cigarette, you have to hand them an ashtray and tell them, 'Look, if an officer comes in here, it's a $500 fine.' And the customer goes, 'Okay, do I wanna take that risk or not?' And if he gets caught, the smoker gets a $500 ticket and the bar gets nothing. Leave it up to the customers -- if they want to take the $500 gamble, more power to 'em. Don't threaten the bar on it. We're already threatened enough. We've got to watch our back everywhere we look."

Indeed we do -- all of us, not just bar owners. Rodgers chuckles at the weird, quasi-illegal status of the cigarette now and the shenanigans of the increasingly bothersome nanny state, of which this is just another burdensome manifestation. "It's like we've all gone back to sneaking cigarettes from your parents when you were a teenager," she says. "And I think that the whole idea of telling people they can drink alcohol and not smoke cigarettes is just wrong at the core."

As Charles Bukowski once put it, "a drink without a smoke is like a cock without a pussy." "Indeed!" Rodgers says with a laugh. "Charles had a nice way of summing things up -- right there, the heart of it. That's the gist of it."

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