by Vanessa Oswald
Whether people remember that one time they visited that weird dive bar in Buffalo—once called the Pink Flamingo, current name 223 Allen, still universally called the Pink—the bar has been a refuge for freaks, geeks, music fanatics, and the like for just under four decades. As you walk through the wooden door of the railroad-style purple house adorned with neon-green-painted flames, the putrid but pleasantly familiar stench of beer, sweat, tears, blood, and most likely a few other bodily fluids fills your nostrils. The red-lit sheen over the bar illuminates all its inhabitants with a devilish glow. It’s a haven for those looking to be immersed in stimulating conversation about music and culture, and it’s where mischief comes to play in the late hours.
At 3am the bar takes on its true identity. It sways and shakes up its temporary but recurrent visitors as the Cramps’ “Goo Goo Muck” reverberates from the speakers with a distinct crackle and pop. Every surface of the bar is covered in stickers advertising local bands, silly sayings, and various caricatures. Memorabilia and famous faces peek out behind the bar—photos of Prince and James Brown, for example. In the DJ booth there’s a kitschy velvet photo of Elvis.
On any given Saturday night you’ll find two blonde women sitting at the middle of the bar sipping mixed drinks, laughing at the top of their lungs, and jamming out to every song the DJ plays. Another staple patron of the bar is a curly-haired pool shark with electric lime green glasses and a free spirit. A few shadowy figures lean up against the door of the DJ booth bobbing their heads as they take in the music and wait to hear what song will play next; sometimes they poke their heads into the booth to praise or chastise the DJ. Close to the end of the bar in the back is an older, slender man giving warm greetings. As you sit down on a fraying, ripped bar stool, he analyzes your astrological sign, telling you about yourself; surprisingly his description is spot-on. On the uneven dance floor, an impromptu dance circle erupts. These are the kind of people who gravitate to this place: eccentric folk with stories to tell and talents to share.
When Mark Supples, at 23 years old, first opened the bar in 1983, it became a safe haven for the gay community and an early home for Goth kids. “I wanted people to think it was a gay bar so the knuckleheads from Brick Bar wouldn’t come in,” Supples says. Other early clientele included bikers, punk rockers, policemen, judges, neighborhood people, retirees, and drug dealers. On the first day the bar opened, it didn’t look much different than the bar does today, Supples says. “Except it was painted much cooler in the front, and the bathrooms were considerably cleaner.”
Another aspect of the bar that’s remained unchanged is the regular DJs offering up a diverse range of music in the compact DJ booth, a nook between the women’s and men’s bathrooms. Most of the DJs avoid spinning mainstream music and instead play an endless catalog of classic genres: garage rock, punk, soul, alternative rock, dream pop, reggae, funk, new wave, and any other genre imaginable.
One of the first DJs to grace the booth was Casino El Camino, who moved to Buffalo from Long Island in 1984 and played bass in the psychobilly Buffalo band the Splat Cats. He now owns a bar similar to the Pink called Casino El Camino in Austin, Texas, where he moved to in 1990 and currently resides. “I was always the guy who threw really good house and dorm parties,” he says. “I would make compilation tapes and stuff, and it just kind of grew out of that.”
In 1985 he asked Supples if he could try his hand at being a DJ and was spinning at the bar until 1990. He played an array of genres, from garage rock to glam to classic punk to rockabilly to hip-hop. One of his favorite songs to play back then was “Wild Thing” by Tone Loc. “If I liked the song, I would play it, but it had to flow,” he says. “It wasn’t like I was going to play ‘Highway Star’ by Deep Purple and then all of a sudden go into Tone Loc. There was sort of an element of a rhythm or a thematic element. Whether other people enjoyed it was another deal.”
Back when Casino manned the DJ booth, all the music he played was on vinyl, so the only way he could play someone’s request was if he had it and if he considered it a worthy pick. “So somebody would come up with like, ‘Hey, what about some Peggy Lee after this?’ and I’d be like, ‘You know what, I could really fuck up things and I like that. It doesn’t really work, but I’ll do it.’ People would come up and be like, ‘I really need to hear “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor,’ and I’d be like ‘Fuck you, go to Brick Bar.’”
A particularly memorable event for Casino was seeing the New York cult-garage band the Raunch Hands play at the bar in the mid-1980s. As for what he thinks makes the bar special, he says its longevity. Also, the time period he spent working there was significant to him personally and for the world of music culturally. “This was before the Goo Goo Dolls had become popular,” he says. “The Bills were doing poorly. Nothing was happening there, which is why I loved it. It was just like everybody had their own thing. It was before Nirvana made alternative popular. That was our social club. It was that and the Continental. The Continental was where you went for live music. The Pink was like the lounge of the ne’er-do-wells.”
Terry Sullivan, a well-known musician who has played in several bands, such as the Jumpers, Celibates, Terry and the Headhunters, the Restless, and Dollywatchers, also served as a DJ early on. Sullivan was one of the founding members of the Jumpers, who played from 1977 to 1979, and opened and toured with renowned acts of CBGB fame, including the Ramones, the B-52s, Patti Smith, Dead Boys, and the Talking Heads. Sullivan joined the ranks of DJs at the bar in 1987, starting out as a substitute for Gary Zoldos, who he knew through music.
“Initially, I stuck to a mixture of ‘Top of the Pops’ format with a twist, but I couldn’t resist throwing curveballs into my set,” Sullivan says.
Occasionally, the artists whose music the DJs played set foot in the bar. Some of these artists included Paul Westerberg, Chris Mars, and Tommy Stinson (the Replacements); Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers); Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes); Randy California (Spirit); Johnny Colt (Lynyrd Skynyrd);, David Johansen and Johnny Thunders (New York Dolls); and Buffalo-born Rick James. Of these artists, Sullivan says he conversed with James, Westerberg, Stinson, Johansen, and Thunders.
“Rick James wandered in one night dressed like a Spanish cowboy,” Sullivan recalls. “He drove up to the front of the building and parked in front with his white Bugatti. Rick seemed to need adoration and definitely got it at the Pink, signing autographs and chatting up his female fans.”
Sullivan also remembers plenty of pranks orchestrated by the bartenders working during his DJ shift. Once one of the bartenders opened the trap door in the floor behind the bar. As one of the other bartenders approached a customer to take a drink order, he disappeared into the floor. “It was a bizarre sight to see from the DJ booth,” Sullivan says. “He fell through and down to the basement without major injuries. It was funny.”
Current bartender Brian Fitzgerald, who has worked at the bar for the last 14 years, says he’s carried on the tradition of pranking. “We have a rubber rat that we sometimes hide in different places around the bar for other bartenders to find,” Fitzgerald says. “Once, on an especially slow day in the wintertime, I tied a fishing line to it and hid it in the pool room. When people would walk through the door, I would pull the string and make people jump to the ceiling.”
Fitzgerald was always drawn to the music played at the bar. “I get to listen to fantastic music played by some of the best DJs in town while I’m at work,” he says. “When those guys get a good groove going, it’s like it’s not work at all. I can’t tell you how many nights I wanted to just jump over the bar and start partying with everyone else.”
Fitzgerald says the bar maintains a steady flow of patrons and its musical identity on the nights without a DJ in the booth, but the nights with DJs are by far the busiest and most exciting. “There’s just something about a person playing to the crowd that cannot be achieved by a jukebox or a playlist,” he says.
Every Saturday night is special, according to Fitzgerald. Whether it’s a celebrity inconspicuously shuffling through the bar, someone making a fool of themselves, or unexpected friendships being made, anything is possible. “I see friendships develop every night I work there, unlikely friends who may have never met each other otherwise. When the DJ is playing those songs and the air is on fire, it’s like a whole other world in there. It’s infectious.”
In the early 1990s, Robby Takac, the bassist for the Buffalo-bred Goo Goo Dolls, also took a turn in the DJ booth. Jim Santella hired him as a college intern at 107.7 WUWU-FM, and later, when his friends Marilyn Rogers and Lee Zimmerman took over the station, he became the overnight DJ. Next he began spinning dance music at gay clubs, such as the now-defunct City Lights and Villa Capri, and then made the transition to playing rock music at the Pink.
“It was our place, a place for misfits. The normal people had the rest of the city, but that place was ours,” Takac says. “You could be a misfit there and it was okay. There were a few of these places scattered around town, but inevitably you would end the night with the rest of the pack at the Pink.”
For years Takac was also doing a show on 103.3 the Fox called “Modern Rock on the Fox.” Here he would get his hands on some of the newest tracks and would mix them in with his personal collection, which meant the patrons were getting to hear the most current music as it was released, along with the classics, offering up a healthy variety of music.
During this era Takac worked alongside Eric Van Rysdam, otherwise known as EVR, and Sullivan, who both had a profound effect on him: “EVR and Terry both have an unbelievable handle on the history of rock music, and I always found myself being educated on something I didn’t know after spending a night listening to them spin,” Takac says.
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On Friday, February 23 from 9pm to midnight, the bar will be hosting the DJ event “Blame the DJ” featuring short DJ sets from EVR, Dr. Know, Malik Von Saint, DJ Electric Hamburger, LJ, and maybe even a few other surprise guests. Come celebrate the DJs who have contributed their talents to the bar, leaving their mark, making them a permanent part of this historic Buffalo bar venue. While listening to killer tunes feel free to show your appreciation for the Djs by throwing some cash in the tip jar that will be passed around, otherwise the event is free.