The past two weeks has seen an outpouring of unabashed emotion from Melbourne, Victoria and Australia in response to The Tote Hotel’s closure. Musicians who over the decades have graced the stages, fans whose live-music cherries were popped at the corner of Johnston and Wellington, those that have never visited the place but who actively fight to retain our city’s rich musical culture: these are just some of the many sectors of society that stood up and said no to the outrageous late-night venue restrictions, and more specifically to the demise of this beloved venue.
And then there are those of us that just loved to be there. To the people that frequented The Tote, its potential closure meant more than the loss of a great live venue, more than another nail in the culture coffin – though it was those things, too. But this was personal. It meant that we no longer had that place – the place where it didn’t matter what you looked like, the place where the love of music and a drink was enough to unite even the most disparate patrons, the place where people knew your name and you knew theirs, the place where you felt safe, the place that felt like home.
There is much talk that The Tote may reopen, which is brilliant evidence that when people stand up for what they love, the government is forced to listen. But that fact also threatens to make Tote memorials (such as this) somewhat redundant. After much thought, though, I have concluded that regardless of what happens, this is simply a celebration of The Tote as I knew it.
All the things I loved about The Tote were present at the phenomenal "Last Drinks" gig held on an otherwise unremarkable Monday night in January. If you too knew and loved the place then I’m sure these images will ring bells, and I have no doubt you have countless other memories that aren’t captured here. If you didn’t know The Tote very well, I hope this is enough to convince you to check it out should the doors reopen, or perhaps just to remember not to take your own local for granted.
Because The Tote was as ugly as sin, but like any great local pub, within its walls there was just so much beauty.
Some of the best nights at The Tote included the unplanned attendance at either stage watching music as yet unknown to me. This was how I came across excellent bands such as The Toot Toot Toots and, most memorably, Vampillia, whose tiny body-painted performance-artist frontman being violently pushed off the stage by the much bigger suit-clad head-shaving co-singer blew my slightly drunk mind one quiet Sunday evening.
There were over two dozen bands playing during the Last Drinks gig but I only got photos of Digger and the Pussycats, largely because I just couldn’t get close enough to any of the other acts. I’m so glad I got this shot, though. Each time I have seen Digger and the Pussycats play I have grinned uncontrollably watching Andy smashing the lone drum like some kind of wild-eyed lunatic. Above is exactly what he looks like.
The music machine that sat humbly in the front bar was known far and wide for its excellent selection. More often than not the metalheads would take over and we would all be subjected to hours of double-bass drums and monotone screaming – but that’s OK, because it contributed to the front bar's character. Sometimes, though, if we waited long enough we would rejoice at the sound of our own selections. From Andrew WK’s “Party Hard” to Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone” to anything by The Boss, dancing around the pool table between one and three a.m. was a regular occurrence.
I didn’t intend for this shot to be a double exposure; I simply neglected to wind on the film. I quite like the result, though, which includes the gleeful faces of Billy and Vanessa – two of the many Tote faces I know so well, but whom I don’t really know at all. Billy reiterated this phenomenon that night, exclaiming that he had never had as many Facebook friend requests as he’d received in the week since the pub announced its closure – because, according to him, “otherwise we’ll just never see eachother”.
the footy team
An example of the pub’s community reaching well beyond its building is the motley bunch of rejects that made up the 2009 Tote Football team, four of which are pictured above. They were largely unfit and most of them had trouble kicking a ball straight, but somehow they managed to beat Old Bar, Bar Open and The East Brunswick Club to take out the 2009 Pub Footy flag.
And how did they do it? With the help of this guy, the coach, whose half-time addresses (which on one occasion consisted of nothing more than “just keep doing what you’re doing”) apparently inspired the team to victory. Or maybe they were just inspired by the fact that their coach turned up to the matches in vintage suits and smoked cigars during play.
When I went to The Tote for the first time Tony scared the shit out of me. The massive, heavily tattooed security guard was a fixture at the pub for as long as I was a patron, and his devotion to his job was solid right to the end: while I waited in line to get in on the Sunday of the protest, Tony swiftly hurled a drunken woman out onto the street because she allegedly lit up in the Cobra Bar. In response to her slurred shouts of protest the always-professional Tony dismissively retorted “Shut your fucken pie-hole and go home!”. Yeah, at first, Tony seemed really mean.
But actually, he’s a big softie. And he always looked after us and made us feel welcome and safe.
the cobra bar
The Cobra Bar was kind of like an old exploitation film – small, dirty and sometimes forgotten about, but filled with unexpected gems. Like The Breadmakers, an excellently fun Melbourne band with the power to make people dance like maniacs. Like Eddy Current frontman Brendan Suppression dancing like a maniac to an excellently fun Melbourne band.
Like Marieke Hardy loitering in the filthy ladies toilets, at various stages of the evening participating in a media interview, charging her phone and looking for her money between the pages of a book.
Yeah, of course there was the sticky carpet, but there was also the Attack from Mars pinball machine that I loved but never once played, the gig posters and photos that adorned every inch of the walls, the lightshades that looked just like the ones my mum used to have in our dining room, and the totally random objects that hung from the front bar ceiling, including a naked baby doll with a safety pin through its ballsack.
As much a part of the décor as the baby with a safety pin through its ballsack, the punks could be found checking out bands or having a drink in the front bar on any given night. They appeared to be the real deal – totally devoted to the music, mean-looking but friendly as hell, literally wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
the bar staff
The percentage of attractive staff members at The Tote was so high that one night my friends and I were inspired to pen an imaginary song (by our phenomenal imaginary all-girl rock band) in their honour, entitled “I Like the Way You Pull It”.
There’s Tom, whose sweet eyes and charming smile have no doubt left a trail of broken hearts across Collingwood and beyond.
There’s Lachlan, whose perfect features and impeccable mod style turned the heads of girls and boys alike night after drunken night, and whose healthy air of arrogance is sure to send teenage girls into a frenzy as he leads his band over stages around Melbourne.
Honourable mentions to Lachlan’s sweeter but equally appealing tattooed partner-in-crime Curtis, and to the smokin’ hot ladies of The Tote, whose faces unfortunately eluded my lens.
There’s Marty, whose face is not as familiar to me as some others, but who captivated me in the moment pictured above as he belted whichever track was blasting from the jukebox speakers in The Tote’s final hour of business. Because that’s the endearing thing about the staff: aside from being lovely to look at, it always seemed like they enjoyed being there as much as we did.
Finally, to the people who introduced me to the place, who spent all those nights and all that money with me, and who loved it as much as I did for all the things listed above and more. Laird, Rusty and Shasta, and all the others who don’t happen to be in this shot – we’ll find other places to drink, dance and love. But there’ll never be anything quite like The Tote.