The Smoking Ban
It's safe to say that John Evans is no fan of the recently enacted smoking ban. To him, the municipal stubbing out of our collective ciggies is another step in a long process of pasteurization that is making Houston less, well, Houston.
"This has always been a 'Screw you we're from Houston' kind of town, the last frontier," he says. "Let everyone else be all tight-ass, but now we're just like everybody else."
What's more, he believes it is harming his bottom line. "The smoking ban is kicking our ass," he adds flatly.
For one thing, despite his 15 or so Houston Press music awards over the past seven years, he's finding it harder and harder to get people to come see him play. "My shows are still decent; I can still drag people out to them," he says. "But it's not as easy as it was. You don't just walk into a packed house anymore. And that sucks."
He pities the bands that are just starting out, as it's his view that the only shows that are guaranteed to do well are event-type shows, like a recent bill his band shared with Jesse Dayton's Road Kings. "It rained like hell and that place was still smashed," he says. "People were gonna go see that show no matter what."
But in his experience, there are few surprisingly well-attended gigs these days. And that, he believes, is all because of the ban. "If it's just someone who plays town all the time, people just aren't going out the way they used to," he says.
Evans believes that the ban has crushed what desire the casual, on-the-fence music fan had in going to shows. Instead of hitting a bar at happy hour to get prepped for an evening on the town, more people today are just picking up something to go at Spec's and kicking back in their backyards or in front of their TVs. Once ensconced, they lose their inclination to head back out again.
"They can't smoke and drink and talk and drink and smoke some more, so it's just like, 'Screw it, I might as well stay home.'"
Evans claims that Beaumont's smoking ban has virtually destroyed that city's music scene. And for what? "I mean, how can you not smoke in Beaumont?" he scoffs, and he does have a point. Banning cigs there seems a bit like banning microwave ovens in Chernobyl.
He goes on to say that the once-burgeoning club scene on Crockett Street in downtown Beaumont is flagging now, and that his favorite club there seems to be running out of steam. "The Vortex there was a killer bar, where you could play country shows, punk shows, honky-tonk shows, rockabilly shows. Now, it's just the same people, the guaranteed draws. And even then all the people are all on the back porch smoking."
Some clubs there are trying to do more shows on outdoor stages, but if recent history is any guide in Houston, those just won't fly here. The hordes of new suburban transplants to Montrose, the Heights and Midtown are ever ready to phone in their complaints to the cops.
"What screws you with outdoor shows is you can only play until ten and then they'll shut you down," Evans says. "That's gotta hurt bars as far as the late-night crowd. As for all these assholes moving into town because it's chichi, they've ruined what was cool about the Montrose and Midtown — you could raise hell and you didn't have to worry about it. The West Alabama Ice House is like one phone call away from not having live music anymore. There's so many people griping and moaning about noise over there that now they've got the volume so low, you can barely hear the band."
"It's getting like Big Brother is taking over everything," he says. "Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to be living in the United States. There's no place I'd rather live, except maybe Mexico. But Good Lord, man, let people have the option to do what they want to. Most of the people who don't wanna smoke and wanna bitch about loud music are staying at home anyway."
"Now you don't even feel like you've done a gig," he adds. "My pearl-snap Western shirt still smells like Bounce."
With Evans's rant in mind, I decided to call a few more people in the Houston music scene to gauge opinion on the first 90 days of the ban. Here are their responses:
Pam Robinson, owner, Walter's on Washington: It really hasn't had much of an effect on overall attendance. It does create some management issues, though. The customers are always trying to walk outside with drinks, and they want us to leave the doors open so they can still watch the show while they're outside. And I predicted this would happen, but my bartenders keep trying to run outside with their smokes and their cellphones. But as for the shows themselves, I think it's better. Most of the bands like it. The air conditioners seem to work better, it's easier to breathe and we don't have to pick as many cigarette butts out of the urinals in the morning. I do wonder, though, how if smoking is banned we still find so many butts on the floor. We will adjust to it. The kids seem to be doing fine with it. The older people are the ones who seem to have a problem with it.
Geoffrey Muller, musician in the Sideshow Tramps and a host of other bands: I haven't really noticed a difference. All I do know is our band takes more smoke breaks.
Byron Dean, singer, Poor Dumb Bastards: Being in a band and being a smoker, it absolutely sucks. I think that bars should be exempt from that rule with every rotten lung in my body. Yeah, I feel bad for people that don't smoke and work in bars, but there's plenty of other places those people can work where smoking isn't allowed. I'm a smoker and I don't smoke in restaurants. It's just rude, because people are eating. At a bar, I'ma get my smoke on, mayne.
As for people not going to bars because of the ban, I'm one of those people. I live in Cypress, and I don't go out a whole lot anyway. I usually only go out if it's a band I really, really want to see, or if I'm playing, but if I do, that ban is one of the things I consider, and I typically stay a lot closer to home nowadays. If I go to Rudyard's or the Next Door or Lola's, once I have that third beer, forget it — I'm having a smoke.
Allen Hill, bandleader, the Allen Oldies Band: I wasn't a fan of how it became law, but now that it is here, I love it both as a showgoer and a performer. As a performer, I think it gets rid of a lot of the hidden wear and tear of playing a gig, because when you are up on stage, you get twice as much smoke as the people out in the audience because you are above everybody else.
Tom McLendon, owner, The Big Easy: It certainly hasn't helped business. I personally prefer it as a nonsmoker, but I've noticed that once people go outside to have a smoke, it's easier for them to just head on home than come back inside for another drink. And it really hurts, because business is bad right now, not just for us but for the whole economy.
Thomas Escalante, singer in the El Orbits and the owner of record store Sig's Lagoon: It's been refreshing. I don't have a headache in the morning, I don't feel like I have a hangover after two beers. I'm surprised it's taken this long. From a musician's point of view, I sing better now, can hit higher notes and don't feel like I've swallowed glass after two songs. Has it hurt business? Maybe a bit, but it's like wearing a seat belt. You just get used to it. If clubs depend on smoking to stay in business, maybe they aren't really in business.
JJ White, singer-guitarist, Dizzy Pilot: As a nonsmoker I was against it, and I am still against it after the ban. Bars are supposed to greet you with the aroma of alcohol and nicotine.
Pete Mitchell, owner, Under the Volcano: I'm really confused. So much of the feel of my place has changed. The regulars have been shifted to the patio, and there's not that banter with the bartenders there used to be. Ultimately, though, I think this is a time of transition, and my gut feeling is that people will just smoke less in the future. More people will just give up.
Brad Moore, owner, the Pearl Bar: Mike Simms told me a funny story about the Dwarves show at Rudyard's a while back. The Dwarves are kinda infamous for doing 20-minute sets, but this time they played for 45 whole minutes. They wanted to do an encore, but the whole room had cleared out as soon as they finished; everybody had stampeded out to the patio. Their fans weren't expecting them to play that long, and all of them went to go smoke as soon as they were done.
Miss Leslie, singer in Miss Leslie and the Juke Jointers: The smoking ban has been fine, but you have to get used to watching half your audience walk out to go smoke in the middle of your set.
John Egan, singer-songwriter: Who fucking cares? What's everybody getting so bent out of shape about one way or the other? It's less smoky. Big deal.
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