I walked the streets of Missoula all day long in search of a job. At one of the coffee shops accepting applications, a dark-haired barista took pity—she seemed to know I’d never get hired there—and invited me to come see her boyfriend’s band.
She led me to a bar a couple of blocks away, above a laundromat, called Jay’s Upstairs. We climbed a steep and narrow stairway to a tiny room with a sagging floor. Much later, I’d learn that the building was among the oldest in town, built in the 1870s. Arcade seating lined the back wall. A small stage occupied most of the square footage. Skylights in the ceiling had been covered over with black paint. The bar prominently featured a chilled Jagermeister dispenser. The place was nearly empty.
A touring band was meant to headline, but had engine trouble and couldn’t make it. The barista’s boyfriend played in a five-piece outfit called the Oblio Joes. They were meant to share the undercard with a new group called Lettuce Prey, which turned out to one guy with a guitar—another recent Missoula transplant, like me.
Rather than call the show off, both acts simply traded sets for the next four hours—all for the entertainment of myself, the girlfriend, the bartender, and each other. Lettuce Prey had prepared only thirty minutes of material. Once that was exhausted, he produced a music stand and a “Great Songs of the Seventies” songbook. He closed with a killer cover of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, in which he hummed the solo over his rhythm guitar.
Jobless, friendless, living in my grandmother’s basement, I saw this night as a kind of musical welcome mat to a town I was only beginning to understand. I didn’t know it at the time, but both the Oblio Joes and Jay’s Upstairs were on their way to becoming the subject first of reverence and later of nostalgia in Missoula. As far as I know, Lettuce Prey wasn’t heard from again.
Salt, Sugar, MSG
With a flick of each wrist, Fong worked the handles of two woks at once, sent portions of meat and vegetables airborne, and then caught them again. “See, I’m good,” he said. “I do two at once. You? You’re learning. You use the big spoon.” He held a long metal spoon up between us and made a stirring motion. “The big spoon is your goal.”
My job search had ended in the kitchen of the Thai Spicy Restaurant. In spite of the name, the place was owned by a Hmong family from Laos, and served mostly Chinese food. By way of training me, Fong chose random dishes from among the hundreds on the menu, and cooked them at lighting speed while shouting the names of ingredients over his shoulder as he added them to the wok. “Salt, sugar, MSG,” began each recipe like a staccato chorus.
This turned out to be the best job I’d ever had in my life. I was the only non-family member who worked there, one of two native English speakers. The owners didn’t want me on the clock any more than absolutely necessary. I’d show up at ten-thirty AM and stir-fry my way through the lunch shift—working a single wok while Fong spoonlessly worked two at once. After the rush, they’d send me away for a couple of hours with a Styrofoam tray overflowing in fried rice, eggrolls, pounds of lo mien.
I’d share food with a friend who worked at one of the downtown cafes. He’d give me free coffees in return. I killed the nicest hours of the afternoon in the riverfront park or walking around downtown, exploring the junk shops and used bookstores.
Where I grew up, it was impossible not to buy a CD from Tower Records or Sam Goody. Books came exclusively from strip mall retailers. It was hard to eat a hamburger without patronizing a national chain. At that age, I wasn’t interested in the dynamics of corporations versus small businesses. But I was bored by it all. Montana was like a different country. You could buy a plate of cow brains, a second-hand bicycle, and a chainsaw sculpture all on the same block. You could drive a hundred miles per hour just outside of town. Parking tickets cost seventy-five cents. Apart from weather and certain accents I’d heard on television, I’d never realized that America contained this sort of regionalism.
The dinner shift was the best part. Less hectic than lunch, the staff all drank cans of light beer and listened to a top-forty station. Fong had a soft spot for Whitney Houston. He’d sing along to her ballads over the hissing from the woks. As the music faded out, he’d turned to me in earnest, and claim, “I cried to this song so many times.”
The minute we closed for customers, they’d kick me out with a few more pounds of food and a cut of the tips. I’d find myself downtown, well-fed, a couple of beers into a nice buzz, and having not yet spent the day’s first dollar. Jay’s Upstairs was two blocks away.
The Ensuing Dust Cloud
I’d just missed one of the watershed events in Jay’s history: “The Night of Spontaneous Carpentry.” Apparently, a sturdy wooden railing once encircled the stage. Called “the Corral” this might’ve been installed to prevent audience members from climbing aboard, or perhaps to minimize beer-on-monitor spillage. Six months before I moved to town, the crowd at a Hanson Brothers/Humpy show ripped the railing off and carried it atop their heads out the back door. Legend has it that the Corral left Missoula atop the Hanson Brothers van.
I managed to be present for another of Jay’s most storied moments: when the opening band at a Famous Monsters show dumped a bag of kitty litter to the front of the stage. The ensuing dust cloud sent dozens of drunks shoving towards two steep and narrow exit stairways, blind and coughing.
I don’t recall the name of the local band I first saw sporting the Vest. The flesh garment was made from an animal’s rib cage—most likely a deer or small elk. I thought it was a one-off thing, but was later told that the Vest became a recurring tradition at Jay’s. I fictionalized this bit of stagecraft in the first chapter of my novel, How the Mistakes Were Made. I’m fairly certain the same band threw a cold elk heart into the crowd, where giddy moshers kicked it about.
They weren’t all rowdy nights. One of my favorite shows was a visit from Lou Barlow in the fall of 2002. He sang mellow versions of songs from his entire multi-band catalog, before a Jay’s crowd that was duly reverent.
I kept abreast of the schedule through KGBA, the amazing college radio station at University of Montana. But even if I had no idea, it was worth investigating. The best shows were always the local ones. Bands like Oblio Joes, Spanker, the Volumen, and the Fireballs of Freedom were staples of that era. But even more entertaining were the ragtag groups of three or four local kids who could throw together some semblance of a band for an hour or two. During those shows, you never knew if you were witnessing a fleeting musical incarnation, like Lettuce Prey, or the birth of a new Missoula institution—the next Oblio Joes, perhaps.
The best part about Jay’s was this populist aspect. Funky little punk rock scenes existed throughout the country. But at Jay’s, everyone was invited. Nobody was expected to be in the know, to recite any obscure band’s arcane discography. Baseball caps and red Mohawks were equally welcome. As long as you weren’t squeamish about kicking a heart or shouldering a severed railing, you could belong.
One of our lunchtime regulars explained to me the origins of Missoula’s Hmong community. It was a long story, but involved a local smokejumper named Jerry “Hog” Daniels who was recruited by the CIA for their secret war in Laos. Daniels worked closely with the Hmong General Vang Pao, who ended up moving to the Bitterroot Valley, outside Missoula. His ranch became a jumping-off point for many other Hmong refugees.
Things around the Thai Spicy changed with the seasons. Many of Missoula’s Hmong families raised vegetables in the area. They were major constituents of the farmer’s market during the summer months. Hmong hunters brought dead elk into the restaurant and butchered them there in the kitchen. Fong and I did our best to work around them. One night, a tall and smiling man who spoke no English—one of Fong’s relatives—hung strips of jerky up to dry over the woks. He drank wine coolers as he worked, and often paused to raise the bottle in my direction and offer a cheerful, wordless toast.
One night, I got out of the kitchen later than usual. The band at Jay’s had generated a lot of buzz. Their new album, Lonesome Crowded West, was in heavy rotation on KBGA. By the time I arrived, Jay’s was sold-out—something I’d never witnessed before. I foolishly waited outside for a few minutes, as if anybody would exit before the headliner began, then went home. The next time Modest Mouse came to Missoula, they’d play a bigger room on campus.
I could tell that the owners of the Thai Spicy felt obliged to help friends and family make it through the winter. First, I was moved to the front of house. The money was better, but I didn’t enjoy it as much, and spilled egg-drop soup all over the place.
Business slowed down. Another restaurant—whose menu was exclusively Thai—opened around the corner. Kitchen shifts were divided up between more friends and relations. The owners seemed relieved when I finally offered to quit.
Always on My Mind
In the end, it was the Olive Garden that dealt the deathblow. The economics of liquor licensing in Montana have been explained to me many times but never in such a way that made any sense. Apparently, the owner of Jay’s did the math and realized that he could sell his license and afford to retire. The Olive Garden offered him far more than anyone with interest in taking over Jay’s.
Doors officially closed in 2003. I’m told that the space itself has since become a “posh, member’s only social club.” Fate is not—it turns out—without a sense of irony.
I saw my last show at Jay’s in those final months, when a Master and Everyone-era Bonnie Prince Billy came to town. In some ways, it was the polar opposite of my first night at Jay’s Upstairs: a touring headliner whose music I knew well, a crowd at capacity, a room full of friends rather than strangers. The band mostly played faster, upbeat versions of the tunes from recent albums. But after repeated requests from the crowd, Will Oldham sang a slow, nearly a cappella version of “New Partner.” The entire packed-to-capacity room sang along to a refrain that might’ve been cribbed straight from Willie Nelson: “You are always on my mind.” The crowd’s communal voice cracked accordingly midway through the ‘always.’
I remember wishing that Fong could’ve been there, so that just once I might’ve turned to him and said. “I cried to this song so many times,” and shared a final laugh.
That would be my swan song for Jay’s, and for Missoula. It’s an amazing thing: whenever a bunch of weirdoes find a small square of America to call their own—though it rarely lasts. I hope that Missoula’s next generation of outcasts and refugees manages to find an Upstairs of their own—a place to gather together, share a common language, and be themselves.