Vancouver-based Brian Nation reminisces on his blog about a beery Montreal summer night in 1967 when he and a few friends enjoyed the company of the likes of poets Robert Lowell, George Barker, and Robert Creeley. The venue was the long-gone but well-storied Swiss Hut on Sherbrooke Street, near Ave. du Parc.
I’ve seen many references to the fabled Swiss Hut over the years. In the 1960s, it seems, there were fewer choices when it came to boozy libations. There were plenty of seedy taverns — for men only — and a number of music venues that sold drinks in the evenings (after you paid a cover charge to get in), but not so many places where you could go for just a sociable and civilized drink or three.
For some reason the Swiss Hut — which I assume was a licensed restaurant, not a bar — became a popular spot for what today we might call “the alternative crowd.” Hippies, draft dodgers, poets, pundits, gadflies, commies, and separatists all gathered at the Swiss Hut — most likely in separate booths — to drink beer, scheme their schemes, and generally thumb their noses at the dull ordinaries.
What a time that must have been. I feel nostalgic for those days even though I wasn’t even there — I was far too young and far too distant. Still, those references. You can’t read a ballsy book about Montreal in the 1960s without finding a couple of them, maybe a lot.
For example, there’s an obscure book by Ronald Lee called “Goddam Gypsy,” which is part novel, part memoir, and all cocksure swagger from a self-proclaimed Montreal Romani. While the book is no great feat of literature, it did provide me with an understanding of the Roma, where they come from, and what they’re about, despite (or perhaps in spite of) Lee’s gushing boosterism.
There were many scenes in that book in which the bell-bottomed and bekerchiefed Lee repaired to the Swiss Hut to lecture some ignoramus or other about the high moral qualities of that Roma who just picked his pocket, and how the sudden loss of his wallet was his own damn fault as he had let the obviously superior Roma gentleman (or woman, or child) outsmart him.
All this talk of a fabled restaurant makes me wonder if such a place exists today. Sure, we have many hip places where smart and odd and daring people meet, but are any of them legendary? Or will they ever be? Perhaps the problem is that we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to bars, cafes, and pubs. So many that the movers and shakers of our generation are too widely distributed across them to make any one of them stand out.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’d rather have too many bars than not enough — especially since, as I get older, I am becoming more and more disdainful of noisy crowds. But still, there’s a part of me that wishes I could go back in time for a couple of weeks and hang out at the Swiss Hut with all those poets and gypsies and other n’er do wells (many of whom did rather well).
On the other hand, I’d likely be disappointed. It probably wasn’t the beehive of activity I like to imagine. History and nostalgia have a way of compressing things while at the same time expanding them. Back then, the denizens of the Swiss Hut probably had no sense of the one-day legendary status of their hangout. All they were doing was sitting there, drinking beer, smoking, and talking — and probably wishing there were a few more watering holes around.