Eugene Haslam is not known for being a man of few words, so a recent Facebook post from the owner of the popular York Street nightclub Zaphod Beeblebrox caught many by surprise not only for its content, but also its brevity.
“Goodbye. It’s time for another chapter in my life. I hope you’ve enjoyed what I have done so far,” he wrote late last month.
The post was accompanied by a Douglas Adams quote, fitting since Zaphod Beeblebrox is a character in Adams’s book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There was also a video of the Sex Pistols performing their version of My Way.
What was missing, however, was an explanation.
“By my post, I’m putting you on notice. I’m putting ME on notice,” Mr. Haslam says in an interview with OBJ while relaxing at his kitchen table. “I’m putting me on notice and I’m saying I’ve taken this weight off me and I’m handing it to the city, to the people of Ottawa. I’ve done for you, this for so long. You want it to continue? Go ahead. You figure it out.”
What that exactly means is anyone’s guess.
“There’s staff. Good staff. There’s a building. There’s a history. There’s a legacy, there’s a philosophy. All of this I’m giving back to the people of Ottawa and saying it’s in your hands now. What happens with it is up to you,” he says.
Mr. Haslam is quick to say the club is for sale, but only if the right people come along. He insists he hasn’t given himself a timetable to either sell the club or shut it down, but he knows it’s time to walk away.
“It’s happened up here,” he says, pointing to his head.
It’s a rainy Wednesday night in the Byward Market. The poster at the door of Zaphod’s says Breakdown Wednesdayz features a DJ spinning punk rock, metal core, pop punk and hard core. It says doors open at 10. It’s now 10:30. The doors are locked.
When asked how Zaphod’s is doing these days, and whether that has played a role in his decision to at least start thinking of walking away, Mr. Haslam doesn't offer a concrete “yes” or “no.”
“Can we always do better? That’s what I strive for,” he says.
Irons in the fire
Mr. Haslam says his staff was understandably concerned when his Facebook post first appeared. “What’s happening?” and “Do we still have jobs?” were common questions, he says.
He says he would love to see a collective of staff members come forward to keep the club alive, adding there are some irons in the fire. But he says he can't elaborate.
“Certainly, once you announce something, other things start taking shape,” he says. “We’ve got a great location, we’ve got a great club, we’ve got a historic club, almost legendary. It is legendary as far as I’m concerned.”
Mr. Haslam, 59, suffered a stroke four years ago, but he is healthy now, he says. He talks about former finance minister Jim Flaherty, who died shortly after retiring to spend more time with his family.
“He left to spend time with his family and there was none left. I don’t want that to be my story,” says Mr. Haslam, who has a 16-year-old daughter with his partner Kari.
Looking out into his backyard, Mr. Haslam sighs.
“Doing the pool, the garden – I like those things,” he says.
Pool cleaner and gardener might not be the image that immediately comes to mind when thinking about the man who has run Zaphod’s on York Street for the past 22 years and at its original location on Rideau Street for a couple of years before that.
Mr. Haslam also opened the Brigadier’s Pump in 1983 and The Underground nightclub in 1985.
Before starting the Brigadier’s Pump, he spent seven years as a banker with the Bank of Nova Scotia. After The Underground closed in 1987, he went back to the banking world, this time with Toronto Dominion.
To this day, he says, he still considers himself a banker.
“I love the bank. I think they taught me well. I have nothing bad to say about banks and bankers. Great people,” he says, adding they wished him well when he left.
He needed more than good wishes when he left for good to open the first Zaphod’s on Rideau Street.
“I had chosen to follow this dream of music. I didn’t want to fail,” he says. “Zaphod’s was me and some good personal friends. They scrounged up the money. I had the idea.”
Mr. Haslam says he did contribute some money – one dollar.
The money did come, says Mr. Haslam – slowly. He says it has never been a concern to him, since he arrived in Canada, from Calcutta, India, as a 15-year-old in 1972 with just $8 in his pocket. He says he always “works to live,” not the other way around.
“I have so much faith,” he says.
Over the years, while other clubs came and went, Zaphod’s remained, playing host to a number of bands that went on to be huge, such as Nickelback, and some that were already massive, including The Rolling Stones.
A club owner’s life isn’t always smooth sailing, however, and Mr. Haslam had his share of bumps in the road when he ventured out of the Byward Market in the mid ’90s, entering a partnership to re-open Barrymore’s Music Hall. When that partnership dissolved, he went on to open Zaphod’s 2, just two doors down from Barrymore’s. That club lasted just 18 months, again thanks to a breakup with his partners.
“You know what’s good about this brain of mine?” he asks rhetorically. “I forget bumps so easily. It’s so hard to even think of bumps. I suppose a bump in the road would have been the breakup of my partnership with Randy Lanctot at Barrymore’s and stuff, but I have the amazing ability to just move on."
Mr. Haslam took sole ownership of Zaphod’s in 2000, and it has been his main focus ever since. He says he had to choose between being a caretaker of an institution – Barrymore’s – or staying with his own creation on York Street.
Future wide open
As he prepares to walk away from that creation, his future is wide open, he says.
“It might be charity work, it might just be hanging out.”
Hanging out seems unlikely.
“I love cooking. I love eating,” he says while serving up homemade duck prosciutto to his questioner. In fact, he was recently in the running to buy a local restaurant, he says, but he would not disclose the name of the establishment.
“I kind of pulled out. I just thought, ‘No, not yet.’”
Mr. Haslam says he is very comfortable with his age, saying he is now older and wiser and still has a lot to offer. He is also looking forward to possibly being a neutral voice for the music industry.
As a club owner, he says, sometimes his views are discounted – for example, he says he has beefs with music festivals receiving government funding despite, in his view, straying from their original mandates – because of a perceived conflict of interest.
But that will all change if and or when he walks away from Zaphod’s.
“I’ve seen the industry start from the lowest levels and I see how it interacts on a cultural level, on a funding level, on a political level, on a business level. I think I have all that. Perhaps maybe the (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) may want to chat with me and put me on a board,” he says.
One thing he says he won’t do is throw his hat in the ring for the upcoming municipal election, although it’s clear his community means a lot to him. Mr. Haslam says his bid to be Capital Ward councillor in the last election fell short largely because he entered the race too late.
Now, he says, he is gearing up for another election of sorts – on the future of Zaphod’s.
“I’m asking the public to vote again,” he says. “Many years ago, they voted when we first opened that this is what we wanted. We want to create a community place unlike anything else. I’m asking the community, ‘Do you give it a mandate again?’ Think about it. And not only just for its social aspect, but its musical aspect. What does it mean to you as a city?”
And if the right ownership group doesn’t emerge?
“Then they have spoken and that’s cool too,” he says.
One of the reasons he hasn’t set a strict timetable for closing the doors, he says, is he doesn’t want to see a flood of people coming only on the last day. That happened with his original location on Rideau Street, and it remains a bad memory for him, one he says still “sticks in my craw.”
For now, his community is still Zaphod’s, a place he said he is very proud of because it includes everyone, regardless of gender, race, fashion, sexual preference or musical style.
“You should always feel safe here,” he says.
It’s business as usual, locked doors on a Wednesday night notwithstanding, and Mr. Haslam continues to, in his words, “curate.”
“I see my work the same way as a gallery owner. I could throw up a bunch of pictures … the way you curate, it says something about you and your direction and your audience.”
What does it say about him?
“I’m whacked out,” he says. “What’s he doing? What’s next?”
Whatever it is, there’s a good chance he’ll let us know.