There’s a dark, dank, dingy brick building on Oak Street that serves as a gateway to Youngstown’s east side. The darkness is by design, the dankness is simply embraced, and the dinginess, well, you can’t just make dingy. Dinginess is earned over decades. “Dive bar” comes to mind, but the concept doesn’t accurately represent the essence of the Royal Oaks. Speaking on the culture of the city, one would be hard-pressed to identify a more accurate and telling cross-section.
It’s an old bar in an old part of town that caters, at different times on different days or sometimes all at once, to blue collar workers, football fans, university professors, rockers, punk rockers, hardcore crews, hipsters, drunks, refined cocktail drinkers, barbeque eaters, would-be hippies, metalheads, skinheads, east side roamers, local politicians, yuppie-types, hard-partiers, old heads and regular folks in sweaters. I’m not here to fluff it up or be funny or wax historical about a bar that claims to be the city’s oldest in a building that has stood since 1912. It’s just the nature of the establishment.
Speaking personally, the Oaks represents the last bastion of true punk rock venues, comprising not a genre but an ethos. The shows, the kids slipping on spilled beer, the fights, the public nudity, the piss on the floor of the men’s room, the noosed baby doll with wings hanging from a pulley attached to the women’s room door, the tables from which one could jump, the standing, stagnant smell of sweat and cigarettes, are all indicative of a place that exists for people to be themselves and do what feels natural at the time. And it was one of the last places in the state to allow people to “smoke inside like human beings.”
“It didn’t matter. It was like a public bathroom,” Magnatones bassist Zach Lovitz said. “Seriously, [for shows] you didn’t have to run all over the stage with a sound guy fuckin’ hassling you. It was just, do whatever you want, and it always got packed and rowdy.”
“Shit. Umm. The Tay-Sachs/Horses Have People Teeth show, that was a blast,” said Mike Stein, Tay-Sachs drummer and local reveler. “Getting my haircut at the Oaks by Louie (Kennedy, owner) on my birthday, the Pabstolutelys, whenever the Weedhawks play, that one time I got a lapdance, but I don’t like that one… We used to go there every Wednesday night, all the random shows, shit, I feel like going to the Oaks.”
It’s a place that hosts the annual Pabstolutely fest, an all-day outdoor/indoor affair with live music and, you guessed it, Heinekens. Ho ho, just kidding! In fact, this past summer, they sold 32oz cans of Pabst (the things looked like artillery shells) at the event.
In my own mind, the Oaks was at it’s best when it was wearing its venue hat. I performed there with Tay-Sachs, and it was a beer-soaked, table-jumping, equipment-breaking fiasco (i.e. a good punk rock show). But I have also performed there as a rapper, and I can recall one memorable show with Greenlander () on a Wednesday night in which 100 people showed up and danced. They fucking danced! It was a serious get down.
“The oaks never disappointed, and if the band sucked, you could usually still witness a gnarly fight,” JT Whitfield (Greenlander) says. “Kids never had more energy at any other Youngstown venue than that of the Oaks. I distinctly remember Chris Nichols and myself at the second Fishwives show being forced to restart songs over and over because at the beginning of every song a pile of young jerks would fall onto my drum set and knock everything over.”
It would be tough to list all of the acts, or even just the most memorable ones, that have played the Oaks’ backroom. But it’s not just a venue, as it is not just a bar. It’s a place that, more than any other spot in town, illustrates and celebrates what those who live in Youngstown actually take away from the city.
I asked Michael O’Brien, better known in local circles as OB, to share some thoughts about the Royal Oaks, and he sent me the following message:
Any small American city that finds itself frustratingly impotent and prostrate in cracked concrete, mortar and steel deserves a decent, working-class, dive bar. Downtown bars on the main strip of this one-pony-town and the “scene” desperately- valiantly?- try to create an identity for itself by re-arranging it’s used parts, straining and contorting itself into this weird miniaturized club/contrived urbane atmosphere complete with frat boys drinking $9 dollar martinis and reticent, out of touch hipsters staring into their phones while a homeless veteran has the police called on him outside because he’s disturbing folks that want to have a nice Friday night. ANYWAYS, when you want steak and potatoes instead of soybeans: The Royal Oaks is around, and has been around long enough to know what it is– a place for anybody to sit down and order a dollar beer or 12 without a curled lip. Louie will usually throw in some free yuks too.
-WRITTEN BY NICK BAKER
PHOTOS BY JIM MARTIN AND NICK BAKER
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