For those of you who are too young, too far away, or too…. um…. nope, no other excuses spring to mind, the Hopetoun Hotel (affectionately dubbed ‘The Hoey’) is a small, dank, malodorous pub in Surry Hills in Sydney. It hosts a tiny stage at one end, a long bar down one side, a seen-better-days pool table in the back room, a downstairs lounge that would crumble into its foundations if it weren’t for the mildew holding the bricks together, and the tiniest courtyard known to man.
It is also, to Sydney’s live-music-loving throng, the beloved crazy old aunt of band venues. It wears its leopard-print dressing gown to the shops to get milk. It smells like last night’s chops and this morning’s menthol cigarette. Its hips creak when it gets up out of an easy chair, and its fingernails bear traces of last week’s nailpolish. Even though you suspect it's a stubbie short of a sixpack and perhaps owns three too many cats, you look forward to every visit and the gifts it brings you in its never-fashionable handbag.
Yesterday it was announced that the Hoey would close until further notice.
Before writing this, I thought perhaps I should do some research to make sure I filled in any holes in my knowledge of the Hoey – like confirming the rumours that you can actually get food there (I’ve always placed beer higher on my priority list), and checking that they did actually still have a pool table, and it wasn’t just my memory tricking my eyes and brain, as so often is the case. But then I realised that it’s exactly my own experience and memories of the Hoey that make it special to me, just as it’s other people’s experiences and memories that make it special to them. Plus, I’m a lazy old bitch. But that’s neither here nor there.
There are very few things as clunky, cramped and cacophonous as the Hoey that can be described as ‘special’, but for reasons varied and musty, it is. And stuff your reasons – I’m going to tell you what my reasons are.
I have to lead with this one. Hardly any artists of more than middling renown at the time play at the Hoey, but that’s the point. The big blackboard near the bar that lists the week’s gigs usually includes more bands you’ve never heard of than those you have. A not unremarkable percentage of the bands that have played there have been… well, a bit shit. But this is where you go to get close to the noise, discover the new stuff, revisit the old stuff, have a beer and a chat to the bands afterwards and occasionally be part of some unscripted, raw musical brilliance, all of it in what feels like your own loungeroom. The Hoey makes you feel like you’re a sincere part of the Sydney music scene, not just a one-step-back observer.
Pretty much everything in the Hoey is made of wood (except the bar staff, who are generally eighty-five percent body hair). I can’t explain why this makes me feel all warm, fuzzy and gently strummed, but it does – the floor, the furniture, the stairs, the bar – it’s all that deep-smudged, creaky, sonorous timber that screams ‘pub’ instead of ‘bar’, and whispers a raspy farewell at closing time.
I reckon you can always gauge the quality of a music pub by the calibre of its toilet graffiti, and the Hoey is a pearler in this respect. I remember being chest-puffingly proud that an epithet I scrawled on the wall of the left-hand toilet in 1996 was still there when I checked during a Christmas party in 1998. Toilet graffiti at the Hoey is the kind that invites responses and dialogue – sometimes the kind that snakes off the wall onto the door and even onto the toilet paper dispenser. Graffiti keeps punters in that the smell would otherwise drive out. It’s important. It’s relentless. It’s hilarious.
I love the courtyard at the Hoey. Get there early and you can watch the first band suck back beers and squabble over their set list. Pop out between bands and you’ll make lifelong friends you’ll never see again, and accidentally spill the drinks of some of the most scruffy and talented musicians in the country. Swing a small cat and you’ll hit fifteen more. And if you manage to get a seat, cling to it like your last breath of oxygen.
There’s something about the Hoey. I’m one of those painfully insecure people who can’t stand to walk into most venues alone, and always has to meet friends somewhere else beforehand. But not here. For the first part, even if you’ve only been seeing bands for six months in Sydney, you’ll probably notice some faces you recognise. For the second part, it’s just one of those places that you can start conversations in, even over the ear-jarring slam of all that glorious musicky noise bouncing off all that glorious wood. In my head, it’s a room in my own house. With beer.
If there are things we can do to save the Hoey, we should. If there’s a way we can stop it becoming a smooth-edged, shiny, pokie-funded, cocktail-peddling bar, we must. Sure, nothing stays the same forever and progress has to happen, but progress can pick any other street corner it likes.
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