I was never much into leather. But that never stopped me from appreciating the Barracks, the leather-bar component of the south-side gay bar Club 5. A cozy space that is wholly separate from the rest of the cavernous nightspot, the Barracks is, on a given weekend night, usually filled with guys wearing chaps and chomping on cigars. Drag queens hold court and hurl abuse. Gay porn plays on the TVs. Unlike Woof's, the welcome new downtown gay bar that "plans on breaking the 'gay bar' stereotype," the Barracks cheerfully embraces the gay bar stereotype.
For the Barracks, and for the entire Club 5 complex, Madison gays can thank late owner Ed Grunewald. He died last week, at age 58, of pancreatic cancer. At last report, Club 5 will go on.
It's a funny thing about Madison's gay nightlife. In a city touted as lavishly gay-friendly, there are relatively few gay bars. That was especially true before Woof's opened a few months ago. What with the closing in recent years of downtown's Rainbow Room and the east-side queer redoubts Ray's and Ce's, Madison was down to just two gay venues: the Shamrock, which is Irish-themed -- appealing in a gay bar, if unusual -- and Club 5.
But although the Shamrock is a fine neighborhood hangout, Club 5 is something different. Actually, it is many things. Certainly if gay-bar standbys like thumping techno and male strippers are your thing, Club 5 has them. But the large, multipurpose space also functions as a kind of a community center. There is gay country line dancing. There are Latin dances for women. There are drag shows, leather pageants, charity events. There is a salad bar.
Certainly the bar has its detractors. Snarky denizens of the local gay.com chat room dismiss the place as Club Dive. And it may be that Madison's gay nightlife, ironically, suffers a bit from the city's gay-friendliness. In other, less tolerant cities, gay bars are havens for queer folks who don't feel welcome in mainstream bars. Madison gays, on the other hand, are welcome nearly everywhere. So there may be less need for wholly gay bars.
But Club 5 is a wholly gay bar, and that is a credit to Grunewald.
Sometimes a dude just wants to take his shirt off and hang out with other dudes. Regardless of the shifting currents in Madison's gay nightlife, Club 5 is still a place where dudes can do just that.
A celebration of Grunewald's life will be held at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 7 at the club, located near the intersection of the Beltline and Fish Hatchery Road at 5 Applegate Court. His family asks that any memorials be made in the form of contributions to the Madison AIDS Network in his honor.