You know that place where you go to get away, to relinquish your worries for a moment in time over a relaxing beverage. You sit at a bar, take a sip or two, and bathe in the music like a baptism that exorcises all that’s been haunting you.
Everyone has ghosts. Everyone fails miserably at some point. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone needs a place to get away. Churchill’s Pub, also known to some as the CBGB of the South, was a place of escape for me for a moment in time. It was a place to hide away for a few hours at night, to get away from the specters in my mind. And I found it was full of its own spirits.
David Daniels, the original owner, called the live music venue Churchill’s Hideaway when he opened it in 1979. I feel the name suits it better than its current name, Churchill’s Pub, because for a few freaks, weirdos, outcasts, drug addicts and alcoholics, rebels, artists, free spirits, musicians, exhibitionists and poets in Miami, it is a place to hide out, to get lost in music, creativity, mind altering substances and conversation with friendly strangers: sometimes pub regulars who will learn your name and always be glad you came. But like most bars, this punk rock Cheers has a dark side.
Two white ibises glide over a grey-blue lake. Palm trees stretch out over pink and yellow clouds in a baby-blue sky. Beneath this idyllic landscape, downturned bottles of spirits– Southern Comfort, Johnny Walker, Jameson– wait in line to be tapped, to possess the next person thirsting for an escape. But, this lake is not real. Neither are the birds, the palm trees nor the cotton candy sky. Inspired by the Florida Everglades, Southern artist Harold Bennet painted these images in his escapist mural around the dark bar at the pub. According to Dave, whom I interviewed on various occasions, an art appraiser once visited the bar and claimed that if the piece was on canvas, it could be worth more than the building itself. But the true value of art can not be measured in money. Within its four walls, free expression flows like booze creating an atmosphere of intoxicating creativity.
I sat at the thirty year old mahogany wood bar, full of the dents and scratches of time, on a Monday in September of 2013 during happy hour. I was covering the last ever Miami Rock Festival for a local online arts magazine, miamiartzine. Dave Daniels said it would be the last time he would be hosting the month long affair.
I had gone early to sign up for the Theater de Underground open mic and to listen to jazz. The open mic, which just celebrated 17 years going strong, occurs outside on the patio stage while Monday night Jazz Jam, which has been happening for 20 years, is inside, on the main stage. There are just a handful of people, mostly men, sitting at the bar on this Monday early evening.
Smoke curls into the air like a Cheshire cat. An older, dark-skinned man with friendly eyes underneath his lenses sits next to me with a drink and cigarette. I look over at him and he grins.
“What brings you here?” he asked.
“I am writer, and I’m covering the Miami Rock Festival for miamiartzine, and I want to read some of my poetry tonight at the open mic.” I replied.
“There’s a rock festival?” he turned at me with an inquiring eye.
“Yes. It’s going on for the whole month of September and started September 1st on the pub’s birthday.”
“It seems just like a regular Monday to me. You should have seen it back in the day. There were men in underwear playing music on the double decker bus outside. You would have known there was a festival.”
“Oh, have you been coming here a long time.”
“I have been coming here at least once a week for over 19 years. My wife was a jazz singer and I met her here during jazz night” One thing about Churchill’s is that there are always some regulars at the bar. Some call it the punk rock Cheers because everybody knows your name. If you go in more than a few times, you’re bound to make a friend because people just strike up a conversation with you, unlike many other venues in Miami, where people are more likely to look you up and down and judge you based on your shoes and handbag.
“Wow. So I bet you’ve seen a lot happen here.”
“I have seen this mural get stained by tobacco smoke over the years.”
A former jazz night belly dancer, a fifty-something black woman named Frida, one of the few women who went into the bar in the late afternoon for a drink, heard our conversation and said, “There is a festival?Back in the days, there were up to five stages, there were people in the streets, and the bus was decorated like a genie bottle. People would go inside.”
A lot has changed since the 1970s, a non-functioning double decker bus has been parked in its lot for years, and has been painted over in different shades throughout the years. For a while, this tribute to the vehicles of England, which gives visitors an illusionary ride into another era, was all white with black Old English letters spelling out the pub’s name and a black silhouette of a hunched over old man with a cane, a hat, and a cigarette in his mouth, the icon of the punk rock establishment.