All Roads Lead to Raoul’s

Follow I-95 North from Boston for about 2 hours or so, and you’ll eventually land in what is arguably the crown jewel of the Northeast. Infinitely smaller than the wasp’s nest sprawl of Boston, and about twice the size of her older sister, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Portland, Maine has long been a haven for artists, craftspeople, Bohos and anyone who has just felt the need to create. Regardless if you are good with your hands or not, this city will draw the need from you. You will have no choice but to give in to your own personal muse. Towering Banking Headquarters in the center of town that have seen the rise and fall of whatever economic climate of the time may be, fade into the background against the vibrance of weekly Farmers’ Markets, and yearly Art and Music Festivals. The people who inhabit her, in this city that wakes up before the rest of the country, take their work as seriously as their play. It’s a serious college town. It’s a serious college town that still knows the privileges of youth and how precious that brief moment in time is.

What I’m trying to say is this town likes to drink.

This town likes to drink, dance, eat, carouse. This town likes feeling alive, and this town loves it’s music.

There is a small but measurable sense of pride that Portland has about it’s burgeoning local music scene. To say that it’s huge, would be a great injustice toblahblahblah[Hi. Author here. This is the section of my journal entry that just went on and on about the Portland music scene. Rather, the Portland music scene of my memory. This is also the section of my journal entry where it evidently went through several drafts. From what I could discern from the chicken scratch in my book, it looks like a bunch of run-on sentences about this place and that venue. I was either really tired, or really happy. My point is, the Portland music scene isn’t unlike most towns in the world; it’s everything from aspiring hopefuls who either have a record contract, or have made their own label (I’m so proud of my Twisted Roots), or they’re the weekend warriors that play for beer, or they’re music students from USM trying to get their bones on any gig they can. However, regardless of what I say, I feel I cannot paint a proper picture of the scene having been gone for so long. Bottom line: the scene is diverse. It’s as deep and wide as the Back Cove, and I miss it, and miss being a part of it, that’s all I really wanted to say. Anyway, let’s get back to this geezer’s rambling before he notices we haven’t been paying attention.]e, complete with a full horn section.

The pride also extends in some part to the major acts we attract. The Cumberland County Civic Center is either a starting point, or a last venue for arena-packers like Def Leppard on their world tours. Add to that, the acres of bars and cafes that were and may always be the place to see any band “before they were cool”. As in politics, we have given our not-so-silent approval to acts such as Live and the Indigo Girls from such establishments; our warmest blessing magically sprinkled upon them before they went supernova. On any given night, we might unknowingly give the next biggest thing the Portland Bump. If you want to catch them before they turn pro, I suggest heading over to the Big Easy or even Zootz on some nights. But up until recently, if you wanted to check out the favorite haunt of artists such as Ani Difranco and Leo Kottke, or if you wanted to put a face to your ultra-hip record collection, then the place to go was Raoul’s Roadside Attraction.

“Weren’t you supposed to teach me that song?”

“Which one?” I ask as if the span of over fifteen years didn’t just flash in front of me. This is an abbreviated email exchange between me an another college buddy that came out of the woodwork to find me on Facebook.

“Oh, I can’t remember,” she replied. Of course she remembers. All of it. As we all still do. She remembers that privileged time. “Maybe it was something by John Gorka?”

Back when I was still a wandering troubadour, I kept a handful of songs in my pocket and few more in my guitar case. Only two of them were original and hardly ever saw the light of day. The rest were cherry-picked from here and there; jam circles at parties, learning by ear. All of which accommodated the scant few chords I mastered, and they were all put to the test at said jam circles while drinking beer, beer gigs, and playing for spare change on street corners…to buy beer. I did say that this town likes to drink, right? My guitar, my weapon of choice, my dancing partner is an Alverez Dreadnought 12-string. For these many years, she has been my secret lover, and I have been trying to impress her since the day we met. How and why she keeps singing for me, I have no idea. So we dance, at another party. I break out another old reliable from my pocket, and she impresses without effort. This was one of my go-to’s:

First of all, I’d like it to be known that that’s not me in the video (of course). Second of all, I’d also like it to be known that I would never perform this song for cash. Beer sometimes, but never cash. For me, it was more about finding my own voice through other artists and, let’s face it, to get girls. It was the musical equivalent of walking into a crowded room with a new suit on and asking what everybody thought. I didn’t fall in love with this song right away, but once it set in I couldn’t let it go. It became a part of me, it became automatically associated with me, and perhaps, that’s not all bad.

Follow Forest Ave. until you’ve just about hit the outskirts of town. As soon as you see the signs for Westbrook, you’ve gone too far. I’ll even go so far as to go to cliche-land and say if you blink, you’ll miss it. Actually, blink all you want. They padlocked their doors some years ago; End of an era.

There it once stood, defiant against time and the Earth and the landscape that has been trying to reclaim it for years. During its prime, the place was a dump of the highest caliber. It was the Dive Bar at the End of the Universe. The weather, the years of diesel saturated atmosphere had rendered it’s facade prematurely old like some champion sun worshiper. So it was either through sheer force of will, genius design or somewhere in between that the miracle of how the walls stayed up laid. I don’t know. Maybe it was the sawdust and peanut shells on the floor.
To be sure, finer, larger and albeit more architecturally sound places are plentiful all the way across town. You could run the gamut from the sleek and sterile meat market of the Old Port Tavern, to the warm and cozy dungeon, the son of a CBGBs, purveyor of all things Metal, The Cave, in the span of an hour or two. But, they all lack the soul of Raoul’s; An old fashioned honky tonk that refused to give into the pressure of passing trends. Raoul’s is the guy at the end of a dimly lit bar that’s holding court over his glass of Old Grandad. Raoul’s is the faded beauty that still holds vigil in a downtown train station, ever hopeful that he’ll be coming home on that next train. Raoul’s was the Blues, and as such, attracted just about just about every major Blues artist that still drew breath to its stage. Etta James, Susan Tedeschi, bless my soul I do believe even John Lee Hooker made an appearance or two. But they weren’t all blues, all the time. Even the powers that be knew that it would be wise to keep a diverse portfolio, and therefore, charmed the likes of Warren Zevon, Robyn Hitchcock and Marshall Crenshaw to play. Artists who don’t get radio play, but still manage to pack houses through their devoted following. Artists like John Gorka. Portland loves its music, John Gorka loves Portland. The love-fest happened on a fairly regular basis at Raoul’s Roadside Attraction.


“I never did tell you about the time I went to go see Judi Collins at Raoul’s,” she wrote. We were catching up as two people that haven’t seen each other in years often do. “I had no idea who this guy opening up for her was, until he opened up with ‘Stranger With Your Hair’.” It’s a funny feeling when you suddenly realize that you haven’t danced in a while, that the piece of your life that you were saving in the back of your refrigerator and you swore you’d use in something has been forgotten for so long that it has become unrecognizable. I haven’t played that song in years. I haven’t played any song in years.

“The place had really good acoustics. Too good. I said to the person next to me, ‘this is Tony’s song!’.” What happened next will put a smile on my face for the rest of my life. She continued, “John heard me, turned to me and said, ‘No, I’m pretty sure it’s mine.’ “

Yes Mr. Gorka, you did write this wonderful music. And I’m very glad. Without you, I wouldn’t have found the kind of voice I was looking for. I wouldn’t have had that special connection between man and guitar. I wouldn’t have gotten laid. Most importantly, this probably would have never happened:

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and our 7 month old daughter are hanging out at home. She has this song on in the background: This is a song I sang to my girlfriend in our early days of courting. From the moment she was born, I have hummed her to sleep with a fairly decent cross section of lullabies. As far as I know, my daughter may have never heard this song, but she is a direct effect of it. After the intro, when the first lyrics were sung, my baby daughter turns to the direction of the music and says, “Dada!”

Yes Mr. Gorka, I’m pretty sure you wrote all of your wonderful music.

…But I’m fairly certain I’ve made it my own.

Photo Credit:

 <span content="Photographs of Portland, Maine, an old New England seacoast town and the second largest fishing port in Maine.

” itemprop=”description”>Ian Britton via


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