The Off Ramp — Let Me Set the Scene

An excerpt from “Dive”, a book about the loud, dark club that was an early 90s Seattle music epicenter.

Photo by Pam Woolard

Many of us spent countless hours, five to seven nights a week, in the dive by the freeway, whether we were working or didn’t even work there at all. Inside that old, decrepit, dingy building was a place for the drunken misfits and freaks alike to come and sometimes hide from the rest of the world without judgment or scorn.

To be honest, there were a few dives back in the day like the Rendezvous, the Frontier Room, the 5 Point, Sorry Charlie’s and Sonya’s. All had their own dirty charm, but none as much as the Off Ramp.

Walking through the blue, single door underneath the small black and white sign that simply read Off Ramp Music Cafe and down the short narrow entryway, you entered a dank, cryptic refuge.

To the right through an archway was the cafe with its filthy alcohol and puke-stained carpet. Who knows how old that carpet was, and I’m fairly sure it had never been cleaned. Why on earth would someone put carpet in a bar or club? I think the Gibson House had carpet too, but it definitely wasn’t as vile. The musty smell from the carpet and cigarette smoke permeated every crevice. The high-backed booths made it easy to hide, drown your sorrows and people watch, or be the center of attention amid a crowd of admirers and other beautiful people.

There was something about that dark, grungy place that was seductive and wrong. Everything about the place and the people was wrong but in the most appetizing way possible.

Directly to the left of the entryway was the old, vintage-style counter with four small, round stools. Behind it was the small box of a grimy kitchen with a small, flat top grill, oven and a microwave, a few shelves overloaded by God-knows-what, and riddled with cockroaches that loved to hover on top of the coffee maker.

I don’t think a lot of food was ordered out of the kitchen, but, in order to sell hard alcohol in Washington State, a bar had to sell a certain amount of food. I am pretty certain the food quota required to have a liquor license was made by the ingenious idea of Hash After The Bash; a small but substantial meal that was served buffet-style after shows and cost someone something like 50 cents or a dollar. It usually consisted of scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and a roll. On a good night, you might get french toast. For a lot of the regulars who were broke and would prefer to spend their money on booze, drugs and shows, Hash After the Bash was a favorite among many and sometimes their main meal of the day, cockroaches and all.

Past the kitchen was a hallway with a fork-in-the-road. One way went into the showroom, a couple of ways went into the ladies’ or men's rooms, one went into the main bar, and another led to the creepy, back hallway that led to a whole other labyrinth of doors and stairs.

The showroom wasn’t really anything that special when it was empty, just a small, somber room with painted black walls and a small stage no higher than my knees with a pole situated almost in the middle. Four steps up, there were large, round, high-backed booths that covered the back wall along with the sound booth. The back bar was at the end of the room and looked like any other bar. Cute boys walked around selling one-dollar shots out of test tubes. But what that empty, not-so-special room would become was beyond special. The shows, the bands and the people that filled it, rocked it and made it insane. It became legendary.

History was made in that room, like Pearl Jam playing their first-ever show there as Mookey Blaylock. Hole’s first show in Seattle was there. Unimaginable shows like Iron Maiden and Ace Frehley with Peter Chris. Popular bands like Alice In Chains, Nirvana, The Afghan Whigs, My Sister’s Machine, Gruntruck, Flipper, Boss Hog…almost any band you could think of played the Off Ramp. Mark Lanegan said how much he hated the place, but nonetheless was there hanging out from time to time. Kurt Cobain passed out in the green room while his very drunk wife, Courtney, was on stage with Hole. Chris Cornell sat up in a corner booth and watched his brother and sister in Inflatable Soul play to packed rooms. Crash Worship almost burned the place down with their pyrotechnics every time they played. That fairly small, not-so-special room was everything.

Off Ramp T-shirt from 1990-something

Then there were the bathrooms. I don’t know if I can do them justice or injustice. The Off Ramp boasted the worst bathrooms in town. The only way to sufficiently clean them at the end of the night was to take a couple five-gallon buckets of bleach water and throw them all over the bathrooms. The men’s room had a trough on the floor, essentially making it into one big urinal with a toilet in the corner and a drain in the middle of the floor, which was handy when bleach water was thrown around. The toilet didn’t even have a door. Tad Doyle, the very rotund lead singer and guitar player for the band TAD, ripped it out of the wall once. Twenty years later, when he got clean and sober, he got hold of Lauren, a club manager, and made amends for his ridiculous act of destruction.

As bad as the men’s room was, it didn’t hold a candle to the women’s room. I had to clean that bathroom more than once and the one thing I learned was that women were foul and disgusting. I get that there was a lot of alcohol and drug consumption going on, but I always thought, ‘Come on, ladies, crap in the toilet, not next to it!’

A white residue of some sort of accumulation of drugs covered the flat, steel tops of the toilet paper dispensers so often that on random nights we would spray a clear adhesive on top of them. It was always a sick pleasure to hear the sounds of terror come from the stalls when the drugs became glued to steel tops. Most of the toilets clogged up every weekend with coked-out girl poop, puke and God knows what else. The plumber came one day and snaked out dozens of shit-stained panties. He laughed, but he was mortified. Like I said, foul.

Needles were found in the toilet tanks regularly. I remember not being able to get one of the toilets to flush. I asked the short, stocky, intimidating main club manager at the time, Jan, to come in to help. She stuck her hand in the tank to see if the float or plug was stuck and got poked by a needle some junkie had disposed of.

She yelled, “Fuck!”, ran, grabbed the bleach and poured it over her hand.

I felt horrible and apologized for having her come look at the toilet.

She said, “No, I’d rather I get poked by a dirty needle and catch something than have it happen to you.”

That was one of the few times she showed she cared one iota about me, or maybe she was afraid I would sue her if I caught something.

Just past the bathrooms to the right was the front bar situated at the back of the cafe. A long, narrow, loud, cramped room with little ventilation. The bar fit a dozen well-worn stools with the ass prints of several regulars.

The Ramp’s bartenders all had a heavy pour with one goal: get people drunk! A wide variety of music was played in that bar by an array of bartenders. At any given time you might hear Monster Magnet, Jeff Buckley, Morphine, Soundgarden, Peter Gabriel, 4 Non Blondes or Charles Mingus.

“I’m drunk half blind
And it’s an ugly Sunday morning
The wind arrives with the clouds refusing to break
Apart, like me”
— Mark Lanegan

**This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Dive. More blogs from and about the Off Ramp and the early 90s in Seattle are published here on Medium.

West Seattleite. Authority on underbelly of 90s Seattle scene. Art Institute of Seattle graduate. Writer for defunct Rocket Magazine. Animal welfare advocate.

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