Note for overseas and interstate readers: The Zoo is a music venue in the quaintly-named inner suburb of Fortitude Valley, in my hometown of Brisbane. It’s 20 years old this week, a startling achievement in an industry where places to play appear and often disappear in the space of 12 months. This is my happy birthday message to one of my favourite places, which changed the face of the Valley, and helped change the way we viewed our own city during a time of great change.
The Zoo was always different.
The first time I walked up that short but steep staircase, it was to see former Go-Between Robert Forster. The stairs brought you not to the entrance, but smack into the middle of the venue. There was a small stage in the far right-hand corner; a basic wooden platform less than a foot above the floor. I heard the cracking of pool balls as I walked in.
In the left-hand corner was the serving area. The conditions of the nascent venue’s license at the time meant that food had to be provided with drinks. Being an impoverished student (and a lousy cook besides), there were many times when the Zoo’s cheap, nourishing meals were seriously appreciated.
On the walls, covering most of the available space, hung paintings by various local daubers. So The Zoo was a gallery space, too, as well as a pool hall and venue. The dedication to promoting Brisbane’s musicians was matched by its philosophical alignment with, and commitment to the city’s artistic community.
That word: community. That was what made The Zoo different. When you went to see a show there, you felt like you were part of something special, vibrant and new.
Part of it came down to timing. The early 1990s was an era of transition for Brisbane. Queensland itself was in a process of profound social change. Musical change, too. The punk generation had grown up; the grunge generation was moving in. There was a feeling of political and cultural renewal.
Part of it came down to place. The venue was in Ann Street, Fortitude Valley, which a corrupt alliance of cops and criminals had called home for decades. The Fitzgerald Inquiry had seen them off – to exile, or to prison – but the Bjelke-Petersen years were not yet a distant memory, and the Valley could still be a little scary.
It was the middle of a recession, too. It seemed like every second shop in the Valley was vacant. The ultimate example was the old Target building, in the middle of the decaying, neglected Brunswick Street mall. That was where many of the bands that played at The Zoo – and would soon become household names – honed their craft.
That was important, because the cheap rents then available in the Valley allowed the musical community to set up house. The Zoo was among the first in, and it quickly became the new face of the changing district and, in hindsight, an early harbinger of its gentrification.
Anyway, I remember sitting on the floor with the attractive young lady whom I was (hopelessly) trying to woo. There were maybe 100 people sitting in a semi-circle around the stage, watching Robert hold court. He was playing an acoustic guitar. “I want to be quiet,” he sang. That was quite a statement in a post-Nevermind world.
The Zoo liked acoustic artists. Amid the tide of grunge, there was something of a folk revival happening. Mexican-American songwriter Rodriguez was as important a part of Powderfinger’s early makeup as Soundgarden, and arguably it was the former’s influence, more than the latter, that eventually turned them into million-sellers. Others, like ISIS and Paddy Dempsey, were beloved acts here.
Women always found a voice at The Zoo, too. Women ran the venue, after all, and there was a distinct absence of machismo in both the presentation and the atmosphere. There was no balding publican pulling beers with a tea towel slung over his shoulder; no security guards built wider than they were tall.
Instead there were two young ladies – Joc and C – who had a vision of the kind of place they wanted to run, and they had strong values. They didn’t sell cigarettes, or rum, and preferred not to book metal bands. The venue had no dress code, but you were expected to mind your manners. All of this commanded respect.
I have countless gigs and memories to cherish. The Dirty Three, just before their relocation overseas, with Nick Cave sitting in comes to mind. A young and messianic Ben Harper. The so-called Australian Go-Betweens show, marking the debut of the new line-up with Glenn Thompson and Adele Pickvance.
Even some of the less palatable aspects of the venue – like the unrelenting heat of a full house in summer – had its virtues. Perhaps my strongest recurring memory of being at The Zoo is just standing by the big timber sash windows, sucking in the fresh air while a storm raged outside; the rain making the city sparkle afresh in the night.
Over time, The Zoo grew and changed. Soon there was a real stage, and a real bar. You no longer had to order a meal to get a drink. The paintings on the walls disappeared. More and more international acts played there, though the commitment to local artists remained.
These days, Fortitude Valley might be regarded as a victim of its own success. Tens of thousands of revellers swamp the entertainment precinct every weekend. There’s more alcohol, more drugs, more violence, and I wouldn’t like to ask how much higher the rent is. But The Zoo has endured. Indeed, it’s something of a haven.
That’s because, despite the aforementioned alterations, what hasn’t changed are the values the venue embodies. Those values, above all, give The Zoo its atmosphere and warmth. It’s a culture, which everyone who works there buys into. There’s still no dress code, and you’re still expected to mind your manners.
So, with that, there’s really only one thing left to say.
Thank you, Joc and C, for the gift you have given Brisbane: from all the musicians who have performed on your blessed stage, and all the punters who have enjoyed so many wonderful nights here. May The Zoo endure another 20 years.