Backing into the Blues

Tony Gleeson

When I heard the Back Room was back after six dark years, I wasn't gonna let the headache that had dogged me all day keep me away. Since it opened in 1991, the Delray Beach institution had hosted blues legends — Leon Russell, John Mayall, Junior Wells, and James Cotton, to name a few. Now it had relocated to a place the invitation touted as "the oldest pub in Boca" and "a topless bar known as the Ship Ahoy in '70s."

I had known the place as the Hideout, a dive where you could get an awesome barbeque sandwich, made all the more tasty if you'd inhaled some of the ganja that folks frequently smoked beneath the banyan on the porch out back. Seemed like the perfect place there next to the railroad tracks on the dirty side of Boca Raton. To show the change of ownership, the Hideout's sign had been inverted in its illuminated frame and a hand-painted wood sign in the dirt alongside the road announced the Back Room's February 2 opening with the same formality that's normally reserved for advertising boiled peanuts.

When my friend Chris and I arrived, we were more than a little surprised to hear country music through the windows of the wooden structure. I craned my neck to peek in the windows, and sure as shit, a young blond woman was sawing away on her purple fiddle while beneath the brim of his cowboy hat, a buck with arms the size of the fiddler's thighs got down on guitar.

Maybe it was just an opening act, I hoped, and went inside to scope things out.

"I don't know if it's the music or the Advil just hasn't kicked in yet, but the look on your face...," Chris remarked as we stood gaping at hordes of fans packed into the front room by the stage.

Someone told us the tight-bodied fiddler in the sequined jeans was local rising star Amber Leigh, who'd spent some time in Nashville. Between songs, the entertainer talked in a twang (evidently picked up in Nashville, since she grew up in Boca) that made every muscle in my body tighten in revolt. (For the record, when I say y'all, it's the hip-hop version, not its syrupy country cousin.)

Maybe it was my brush with the law in Mobile, Alabama, where my friends and I were harassed for being city weirdos (purple hair, dreadlocks, and piercings), but the only thing I like about the Deep South is the home cookin'. Something about a culture of flag-waving, Christ-invoking, Fox-watching Bush-lovers who feel divinely inspired to rid the world of blacks, Jews, liberals, gays, sluts, hippies, and other heathens makes me kinda nervous.

"God help me!" I exclaimed in an involuntary response.

My request for divine intervention was answered by the bartender: The cash-only bar required that Chris and I leave since both of us had only plastic to fund our habits. Once in the car, we had no intention of returning. But dressed to blend in at a blues bar, my vintage rock T-shirt, frayed jeans, and sneakers limited my Boca options, so we decided to try City Limits, which had also been resurrected in a new location.

"Nothing's really going on," Jonathan claimed, then griped about the loss of the venue's open-air stage. "It's not City Limits — it's Indoor Limits."

It was one of the few things he said that didn't rhyme.

"I'm single, and I'm ready to mingle," he said, flirting with me as he reminisced about the days when I hosted the poetry slam at nearby Dada. "I won't stalk. I just want to talk. And if you don't, I walk."

Suddenly, country music seemed like our best option. After stopping by an ATM, Chris and I returned to the Back Room. It was as if the good Lord had heard my prayers: A new act was on stage singing a Rolling Stones cover.

We got some beers at the bar, and since I was finally relaxed, I could appreciate the remodeling, which can be summed up as "budget bordello." Lots of red paint, vintage lamps, and framed pinups made the place look like the perfect spot to have a sinfully good time. The place even had an actual back room where folks could relax on Victorian drawing room sofas as a hula-girl lamp wagged her skirted hips.

Just when I thought things were looking up, Amber Leigh took the stage again. I decided to try to blend with the clan down in front.

"I'm probably like her number four fan," said a guy named Latham, spitting into a water bottle with an inch of brown saliva in it. "We went to Spanish River [High School] together."

He tried to convince me to attend Leigh's show the next night at Legends Sports Bar. I politely said I'd try to make it.

"I'll be there when I get done baby-sitting," said his friend Alexia, an FAU student. "We're usually there."

I appreciated the warning.

Between songs, a guy behind the bar took the house mic and tried to encourage some naughty behavior: "Tonight we got a special. The girl who shows the most skin on the pole gets a bottle of Moët."

He said it with a hard t in a really bad Southern accent.

"This used to be a hoochie-coochie place, so we won't be breaking any laws," he continued. "But you gotta show skin or you get nothing."

Maybe that was a sign from management that it was time for a change, because soon Amber Leigh stepped back down from the stage and there was some shuffling of band members. During the pause, the guy continued with announcements like "Don't forget your Back Room crack pipe officially signed by James Cotton."

With a lull in the country music and a smartass in charge of the mic, things were looking up. I was inspired to talk with the joker behind the bar, so I pulled up a stool and introduced myself to the man who happened to be the owner himself, John Yurt.

"Something's deeply wrong with me. Why else would I get into this business?" he laughed when I commented on the oddity of reopening the place with a country band. "Any blues bar can have a blues band. You should could come here anyway. You know why? Fuck you."

I laughed out loud. He was talking my language and without a Southern accent. I liked him immediately. Blaming his six-year absence from the blues scene on home-schooling Johnny Jr., I wondered aloud what sort of subjects he was an expert in.

In a conversation that ranged from the domestic (his children's education and his admiration for his wife) to the licentious (his two-year collection of vintage Playboys that now decorated the bar's walls), he vacillated between incorrigible naughtiness and heartfelt sincerity. I was beginning to understand that it was his personality that fueled the bar's popularity.

Yurt didn't understand why I had a beef with country music in a blues bar.

"Just because they're evangelist, Nazi lunatics who elected George Bush doesn't mean they're not nice people," he jokingly admonished, then shook his head as he realized I was probably going to quote him.

Meanwhile, just before 1 a.m., Amber Leigh took the stage again, this time without the fiddle. She opened with a Jewel cover.

"I was hoping Amber Leigh would dance naked on that pole," Yurt said with a smirk that meant he was half-serious. "Her daddy's going to kick my ass," he added with a laugh, referring to the beefy guy on guitar who was not only Leigh's bandmate but also her old man.

Longtime fans and friends of Yurt's came by to pay their respects as they left, gushing about the Back Room — in all four of its locations over the years — swearing their allegiance, and ingratiating themselves to their host.

"My best memory had to be a Zydeco moment," one fan reminisced. "I danced with the scrub-board player from Buckwheat Zydeco, and he became my boyfriend."

I understood. How could she resist a guy equipped to do her laundry?

"I saw the sign out front on my way to work and was like, 'Please, let it be the same Back Room," another fan said as she departed. "We'll be back."

"Next time, there'll be no country music, right?" I said, looking at Yurt meaningfully.

He nodded.

"That's OK," she chirped. "We'll still be back."

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