The Tote: a pub for all seasons

12 July 2010

Written by: Jean Kemshal-Bell

It’s nothing much to look at. A slightly begrimed two-storey collection of bricks sit on a semi-busy Collingwood street corner. But there’s just something about The Tote Public Bar, and I’m not the only one that thinks so.

Straight out of the blocks: Dan Hesse really likes The Tote. ‘Yeah, I’ve been coming here off and on oh, about five years now,’ he tells me in his thick Australian drawl, words spilling out through his ever-so-slightly-nicotine-stained beard as we cosy up in a corner of the newly-reopened Collingwood icon. ‘Ever since I could get into pubs, really. It’s taken me a couple of weeks to get back down this time but it’s still exactly the same,’ he laughs, shaking his head in slight disbelief. ‘Shoulda known though,’ he winks at me through the jug of Carlton Draught we’re rapidly sinking, ‘It’s the Tote, for fuckssake. Shoulda known she wouldn’t be shut for long.’

The re-opening of The Tote was a triumphant coda to a blackhearted chain of events that led to it shutting its doors after 30 years at the heart of the Melbourne underground music scene. The facts are old news: the big, bad wolf of government bureaucracy blew down the house of live music lovers throughout the city, and that little piggy had nowhere to run.

The Tote was the first major casualty of the controversial Brumby ‘Liquor Licensing Laws’, which saw any late-night venue playing live music forced to pay outlandishly inflated security fees to control the supposed surge of violence and mayhem from the punters that attended. The situation was beyond farcical: while boorish and brutal drunken violence continued unfettered along the King Street strip of trashy, tragic meat-markets, the real heart of Melbourne music was being quietly husked by a government greedy for the benjamins.

The Tote closure spurred a 20,000 strong march down the main street of the CBD in a bonafide old-school protest that made your ‘60s we-can-change-the-world father,aunt or grandmother sit up and take notice. The Save Live Australian Music (SLAM) Rally was an unprecedented success. It was also one of those rare and rich ‘I was there’ moments that occur maybe a handful of times in a lifetime. Hesse was there. I was there. A generation of people, infamous for their apathy, indolence and involvement with self, were there.

So what was it about The Tote that incited us to flick the fringe out of our collective eyes, move legs clad in impossibly skinny jeans up Bourke Street instead of bopping in them to the latest synthpop, and dare to think we could make a difference?

‘Maybe it wasn’t just The Tote that made people think like that,’ Hesse muses. We’re on our second jug now and philosophy has oozed into the conversation in a thick and viscous slab, as natural as a slug of Bailey’s in a shot of Kahlua. ‘But it was a wake-up call, for sure. I don’t think anyone actually thought The Tote would close. Until it happened. Up till then everyone knew it would, but didn’t really think it would. If you get me. Then it happened, and boom. People got mad. This is Melbourne, you know? This is our town.’ Our town? ‘well, you know, music-wise. It’s got such an awesome live music scene. Why would you fuck with that? People got angry that a bunch of people who had no idea what was going on were making all these decisions that affected the scene.’

It’s an excellent point. In a remarkable display of short-sightedness, at the end of 2009 Minister for Consumer Affairs Tony Robinson poured fuel on the fire of discontent by pointing out that Melbourne played host to so many music festivals, and by implication, what were we worried about? The salient display of disconnect between the powers-that-be and the scenesters was almost palpable: instead of fostering local talent, the government was yet again going for the green in the form of massive, revenue-generating events. The natives were restless. The centre could not hold. Something had to give.

The conversation turns heavy, and I excuse myself for a brief bathroom break. The carpet is still notoriously sticky (apparently an unholy mixture of alcohol, tobacco and vomit) and the toilet door lacks a lock. It’s good, nay reassuring, to know that re-opening does not come with re-sprucing; The Tote is The Tote, man, it changes its colour for no one. I come back to the table to find Hesse has bought us whiskey and cokes. This is a lovely state of affairs, and I briefly consider asking him out on a date.

‘I think the government was kind of forced to take notice,’ he suggests, really in stride now. ‘The rally was just so cool, it really changed things.’ And it did: Brumby, Robinson and gang were forced to back down after the rally, signing an Accord with the Melbourne music industry which relaxed the licensing laws relating to smaller live music venues, a major victory which paved the way for The Tote’s renaissance. ‘Look around you,’ Hesse says,  ‘here we are, back drinking in The Tote.’

It’s one of those incredibly exceptional instances of life where, despite the odds, the good guys seem to have won. Perhaps it’s the alcohol (and let’s face it, the odds of that are better than average), but this warm feeling of contentment is a pretty palliative that must be felt by anyone who crashes through The Tote’s skinny front doors. I gently remind Hesse that he’s yet to answer my burning question: what is it about The Tote, exactly, that makes people feel this way? He looks up at me and I can almost see the cogs turning in his brain before he breaks into a enormous grin. ‘It’s The Tote, dude!’ And then again, for emphasis: ‘It’s The Tote.’ We both laugh, mentally high-five, then move on to shots.

But is this enough? ‘It’s The Tote’ is the summation of a billion bar-room tales. Every Tote patron who has sodden their elbows while getting a round, stumbled down the deceptively precarious stairs with the aid of a (not-so chummy) bouncer, or embraced fast and dirty toilet intercourse with drunken gusto has their own tales to tell. And it’s this idea of The Tote, this idea of a place that exists which welcomes all sorts, from the wet-behind-the-ears Year 11 lad cutting his musical teeth in the band room to the ageing indie couple who met at The Birthday Party’s first gig back in 1980, that we were really all fighting for.

‘It’s The Tote’ is the language given to the myriad feelings belonging to this iconic local watering hole, and in this case yeah, it is more than enough. That the physical place still exists is excellent, amazing, and worth championing, but that the idea never died? Well, that in itself is the marvel.

Renee Tibbs is  enrolled in the graduate diploma of journalism program at La Trobe University. This is her second piece for upstart.