Keeping Portland (Very) Weird: “X-Ray Visions” remembers Portland’s legendary X-Ray Café

By on June 10, 2019

Benjamin Arthur Ellis’s X-Ray Visions: A Look Inside Portland’s Legendary X-Ray Café pays tribute to the club at Portland, Oregon’s geographical apex during its early ’90s alternative arts/culture heyday, when everybody in Old Town was doing their best to “keep Portland (very) weird.”

Watch this 66-minute D.I.Y. video-doc now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

In late October of 1990, “a thickly-accented Greek” man named Alkis decided to stop paying the monthly rent on his pizza joint, the UFO Café, which was located at 214 West Burnside in Portland, a prime spot at the very epicenter of Old Town.

Ben Ellis and Richard E. Shannon III, known as “Tres” (pronounced “trace”) — two musicians in the Kurtz Project, a dadaist combo that Alkis had hired as a house band to help boost pizza sales —  took over the lease after Alkis vacated the premises.

Renaming it the X-Ray Café, and re-opening again on November 10th, the club soon became Portland’s main community-oriented music venue, a “punk-rock rumpus room” (as one reviewer called it) catering to an über-eccentric “anything goes” clientele.

The two inexperienced entrepreneurs’ timing couldn’t have been better, though, as there were dozens of local Portland-area bands available to play at this new all-ages club (where no alcohol was ever served).

A partial list of local Portland-area bands would likely include Elliott Smith’s Heatmiser, Everclear, Satan’s Pilgrims, Team Dresch, Crackerbash, Pond, Hazel, Smegma, Poison Idea, Big Daddy Meatstraw, Dead Moon, Hitting Birth, New Bad Things, Drunk At Abi’s, Last Pariahs, Frances Farmer Gals, Motorgoat (later: Quasi) and the Spinanes, among probably hundreds more.

The Pacific Northwest grunge and alt-rock music scene was exploding at the time too, particularly up in Olympia and Seattle, Washington, which meant there was an endless supply of regional and left-coast touring bands adding gigs at the X-Ray as part of their itineraries.

Some of the bigger bands who played shows at the X-Ray included Olympia’s Beat Happening, Bikini Kill and Unwound; Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate; Berkeley, California’s Green Day; Oakland’s Neurosis; San Francisco’s Thinking Fellers Union Local 282; and San Diego’s Crash Worship, among dozens more, many of them hailing from that other weirdo capital of the left coast, Los Angeles.

Eventually, many of the café’s musically-enthusiastic habitué organized road trips together, following some of these bands who’d just played the X-Ray to their next club gigs in cities like Eugene, OR, and Olympia, WA.

The X-Ray Café only devoted a few nights a week to live music, though, which genre-wise ranged from punk to country to bizarre avant-garde cabaret acts of all kinds.

The rest of their open hours were filled with strange little “theme” nights and “educational” afternoons, which included Spanish-language lessons, drum & sewing circles, primal scream therapy sessions, slumber parties, Sunday brunches, poetry slams, plays, science & electronics lessons, and occasional free-for-all Q&A sessions built around whatever topics everyone wanted to discuss.

Read more about X-Ray Visions: A Look Inside Portland’s Legendary X-Ray Café below.

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Ellis’s and Shannon’s X-Ray Café became a favorite spot for the all-ages crowd, where the older regulars took the youngsters under their wings, and everyone was soon treating the place like their personal clubhouse or, dare we even say it, their church.

Ellis and Shannon transformed the X-Ray into a beloved local haunt, at one point adding a mural that ran the length of the club’s street-facing front wall.

There were big signs and everyone made regular visits to local thrift stores and dumpster-dived to find various bits of decadent découpage to affix to the club’s interior walls, which were also decorated with a huge collection of black velvet paintings.

Because the X-Ray was open both days and nights, the long hours attracted all sorts of local eccentrics, including destitute street people, runaways and stragglers who were apparently not made to feel welcome elsewhere.

Many of the local weirdos were even given “jobs” and “chores” to help keep their active minds occupied — helping sweep up or paint the ceilings — but it was not unusual, however, to see some of them drifting in during the late afternoons and curling up asleep in the venue’s dark corners.

During the early ’90s, the X-Ray’s popularity inspired other local businesses to come together like a co-op to pool their resources and help each other out (kind of an altruistic rock club “Potlatch Effect” if you think about it).

The club provided skills-based training and motivated activism, and provided de facto services like Portland’s very first needle-exchange program and protection for homeless, at-risk underage youths.

Alas, the X-Ray Café, struggling with ever-increasing financial debt, proved to be a short-lived experience.

There were valiant attempts to keep the doors open — Ben and Tres hosted fundraisers and marathon live music shows — but eventually they closed their doors on August 16, 1994, on the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death and Madonna’s birth.

A group of club regulars then it into an outlet for second-hand clothing, punk rock records, and cheap food.

Ben — who now lives in New Orleans — made several road trips, tracking down out-of-town band members and café regulars in order to videotape their stories for X-Ray Visions.

Tres, meanwhile, stayed in Portland, eventually becoming one of the founders of the very successful Voodoo Doughnuts chain.

Watch X-Ray Visions: A Look Inside Portland’s Legendary X-Ray Café on Night Flight Plus.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.