The Kahiki: 1986-1998
The Kahiki was a Columbus late-night landmark, one of the largest and more elaborate Tiki restaurants in the country, it was founded in 1961 and by the time I first visited there in 1986 it was still coasting from a mid-sixties lounge vibe. With elaborate drinks made mostly with rum and punch served in smoke filled skull glasses and Easter Island designs it shimmered with an almost Las Vegas atmosphere that begged one to have try not to have fun. It was a vast building, with an A-frame roof with two large Easter Island head statues parked at the double doorway, Columbus Ohio had never seen anything like it before or since. Upon entering the restaurant, one was transfixed by large fish tanks, nubile Indonesian women dressed in grass dresses and lays, in the back of the restaurant, presented like a large Catholic Church crucifix hanging above an alter was an in-ground waterfall. Periodically, there would be an indoor rainstorm transplanting the patrons from the staid flatness of Central Ohio to the plush exotic environment of Indonesian. It would also take one’s concentration off the very bland and tasteless Polynesian food that was closer to warmed over Chinese take-out spruced up with pineapples than any sort of dish flavored with the scrumptious spiciness of sambal.
My first encounter at the Kahiki was with Jenny Mae, we were seniors in high school very much in love and without a drop of some of the weary cyncicism that would sprout up in our lives in just a few years. Being the high school equivalent of a social dissenter, I had no proclivity of attending Senior Prom for a variety of reasons. The main being that my biggest ambition was to graduate and shake the farm dust of Catawba Ohio out of my well worn sneakers and never return. My second ambition for that particular weekend was to attend the Ohio University Spring Fest in Athens where Jason and The Scorchers happened to be playing. I had become a fan of the Scorchers the previous year with the release of their first full length, “Fervor” which I played constantly on my radio show. Jenny had other plans, and with me more than willing to do her bidding, I caved on my plans of venturing down to Athens for a weekend of cheap beer and music.
Jenny had been to the Kahiki the prior year for junior prom with her then boyfriend, Randy. Not only did I not like his name, nor didn’t the fact that he was the complete opposite of me, he an angry blond haired redneck but I also like to be reminded of him. It only brought out any sort of hidden insecurities I had; I certainly didn’t want to drive all the way to Columbus to eat at the same reason he did. The fact that I didn’t have a job was another reminder of my pathetic adolescent state, I would have to borrow $40 off my then step father which was akin to zipping my dick up in my fly. We were to drive to the Kahiki with Jenny’s best friend Natalie whom I always believed looked down on me, although in hindsight she probably never thought too much about me to even harbor an ill thought.
I got a tuxedo, feeling foolish the entire time, my cackles already raised at my inherent distrust and apathy of ceremony and one built around high school. I never believed then nor do I now that high school is a person’s greatest age. The feelings of complete inadequacy, jockeying for social status, sweaty palms and the sensation of overpowering displacement were a complete drag. I murmured and muttered as Jenny and her mother turned me around in their kitchen, impressed by how well I cleaned up I felt as foolish as a grown man in a mascot costume. There was nothing that has ever made a person feel more crooked emotionally than having to stand on ceremony, with the weight of countless generational traditions bearing the brunt of nostalgia some of us cower and duck away from this sort of pageantry. It did not help matters that Jenny’s mother was homecoming and prom queen her senior year. Jenny herself had ducked out of the Clark County Fair Queen ceremony to lie in my bed, she was crowned Lamb Queen in absenteeism.
The night started on a disaster, we were running late and while I wanted to drive Jenny and I in my beat up Toyota Corolla complete with broken broom handle holding in the starter, Natalie’s boyfriend John was going to drive. John was a nice enough fellow, truly a good-old-boy in the most sincere sense he would whoop and holler at the drop of a hat and when he had a few drinks in him he turned into an extra from the Dukes of Hazard. We got along well, we once all rented a cabin in the Hocking Hills, and John getting overtly excited about Pink Floyd’s “comfortably numb” playing on his car radio and punched out his windshield while driving. Prom night would be “a blast” Jenny told me. We drove the hour to Columbus and arrived at the Kahiki in the late afternoon hours, I was too busy to notice the grandiosity of the Kahiki, I was too busy focused on the expensive menu prices and they were carding so I could not order a drink. I ate some stir-fried rice and thought of Jason and the Scorchers.
On the way back I started feeling a little ill, the rice did not settle well, it was climbing the walls of my gut as if it were trapped. The prom was held in the Springfield Holiday Inn, in a large banquet room called the “Holidome” it could have been the title of a mid-eighties horror movie. We didn’t even stay very long at the prom as we were already well oiled up, the plan was to go back to my house and all sleep there. My step-father was gone; I was basically living there by myself. Jon and Natalie could have my brother’s room while Jenny and I slept in my room. Natalie had issues with my brother’s room as the sheets had not been changed since he graduated high school the previous year. He was living in Germany and I wasn’t going to change his sheets. After some protestations, Natalie and Jon left in the middle of the night while Jenny pleaded with them to stay. In spite of a very upset stomach I insisted that we have sex because when I was seventeen I never thought I would have it again, any opportunity was the best opportunity. Jenny was drunk, tired and mad but she went along with it, because I suppose that is the American tradition; to get drunk and laid on prom night. As I did my best clumsy concentrated sex my seventeen year old boy body could muster, Jenny appeared to yawn and scratch her left breast. I was dumbstruck. How could she not be enjoying this? I stopped and incredulously asked her “did you just scratch your tit?” Feigning passion, she simply stated “no, I was just really getting into it.” That’s what I thought, I plugged away for about fifty more seconds till my shattered in an adolescent burst. I puked about five minutes later.
I started having Anyway Festivals on the last weekend of August somewhere around 1993 as a way to showcase music and have a three day party. On one of these first ones, my friend Liz drove down from Ann Arbor and a later friend Paul drove in from New York. They both were well versed in the Kahiki. In fact several of the other out-of-towners were familiar with the exotic lounge restaurant. We made a point of going, the interlopers were excited. Finding out that the Kahiki had a reputation was analogous to finding out that the obnoxious uncle who makes fart jokes at the dinner table is a well respected philosopher. I had no idea.
The Kahiki became a landing point for any vacationer to Columbus; we would go, tell everybody present not to order the drinks but stick to the flaming drinks and the vast amount of liquor served in brown bowls with Tiki Men statues. Somewhere on the tail end of 1994 when the world was startled into frenzy by the sounds of Seattle, everybody wanted to know what town would be the next-big-thing. A very brief few thought for a minute that it may in fact be Columbus. This came from several essential facts about what would constitute a music town, first and foremost a college that could foster and harbor artist’s types. Check one, Columbus is home to The Ohio State University although the underground scene received scant support from the typical OSU student. Secondly it has to have a healthy live music scene which Columbus had in spades due to the close proximity of the High Street bars such as Staches, Bernie’s and Apollo’s. Thirdly it had to have an independent record label, Columbus had several. My own label, Anyway, Craig Regala and Chad von Wagner’s Datapanik and Lizard Family Music which housed some of the younger indie-influenced bands. Fourthly, the town had to have a sound. Which Columbus had, it was somewhat of a lo-fi haven not because it made esthetically but more because of economics. It was much more affordable to have Jerry, Craig Dunson or Mike Rep record your band for a case of beer than go to a real recording studio. Lastly and most importantly bands such as The New Bomb Turks, The Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments and Gaunt had some well connected fans who loved the “Columbus” sound.
A few of these friends made their way to Columbus in the early nineties, for a while Guided by Voices were telling people they were a Columbus band and people such as Matt Sweeny and Paul Sommerstien, who worked for the promotions company Nasty Little Man would travel to Columbus where we would have a riotous time, with Sweeny’s excellent Chavez sharing the stage with the New Bomb Turks, GBV and V-3 over the course of several years.
Entertainment Weekly decided to do a story on the next Seattle, bringing in several writers to spend an extended weekend in Columbus where Jerry and I played host. We organized a hastily show that showcased a spectrum of Columbus bands we were affiliated with, got drunk and took them to the Kahiki. It was a hilarious weekend as Jerry and I took full advantage of the Entertainment Weekly credit card. The weekend was a blur, filled with clouded nights and the rushed adrenaline of being in the center of the moment. We laughed at the absurdity of the situation; while we knew it wouldn’t last we had never thought that it would ever even be a moment. We spent around five hundred dollars on Entertainment Weekly’s money at the Kahiki; I believe there were around seven of us there. Jerry and I cackled at the bar bill and we were secretly proud that one of the men from Entertainment Weekly went to rehab immediately after getting back to New York. An act I would follow only five years later.
Our last visit to the Kahiki was when Gaunt was being courted by Warner Brothers; a kind hearted teddy-bear of a man named Bruce Maguire was the A&R man who signed Gaunt to Warner Brothers. Bruce resided in Minneapolis, where he got to see Gaunt several times as they were on Amphetamine Reptile records based in the Twin Cities, their sound man , Tim Mac worked from Am-Rep. Bruce was instrumental in helping to break the Flaming Lips and Gaunt was his first signing. We he came to town complete with Warner Brother charge card we headed to the Kahiki. Bruce didn’t drink, nor did Jovan Karcic but Brett Lewis (Gaunt’s bass player at the time), Sam Brown, myself and Jerry did. We acted like five year old children let loose in the candy shop, ordering almost the entire drink menu. Bruce was the only person who ate. He was flabbergasted as we had assembled an army of Tiki Men glasses on the table, devouring the dry-ice drinks as if we had been residing on a desert (Easter) Island he shook his head in astonishment. The bill came to a staggering amount by our mid-west flannel standards, it cleared $700. Brett and I figured it was over $170 per person drinking. For the first time, Bruce was a bit nervous over his courtship of Gaunt, but most likely that night sealed the deal for Jerry, Brett and Sam, the quickest way to their heart was through a liquor bottle. Shortly thereafter, the Kahiki shuttered its long wooden doors, emptying the famous eatery in crates to be sold at auction. For me, I will always remember it as a place with Jerry laughing and holding a long straw as he sucked some strange rum concoction from a flaming saucer, astonished at his good fortune.