In memory of Ian Relay
Bellingham’s music scene lost a historic figure in early November as the former owner of The World Famous Up and Up Tavern, Ian Relay, passed away. If you came of drinking age before 2007, you might not be familiar with his name, but for nearly 20 years, Ian and his wife Patty opened up their doors to whoever came and respected their establishment – creating lifelong friends and a second home to many. But The Up and Up was also instrumental – and largely a starting point – for the music scene that grew into what we have today.
In 1987, while working at the Up (as he and his wife were working on buying the beloved tavern, which had originally opened in 1935), Ian convinced the owners to allow Henry Szankiewicz to have local music on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights. Prior to this, local bands playing original music could play house shows and beg onto bills on campus, but that was it – most bars weren’t interested in anything but cover bands.
Ian, Henry and Patty changed all that. Bellingham had a venue and the town hasn’t stopped having a venue for live original music since.
Back then there was a great core of bands in Bellingham – alt-rock was at its beginning as was the Seattle scene. Henry, who had been friends with Ian and Patty since working at Western earlier in the decade, approached Ian about letting bands play there. The bar was making a ton of money on Thursdays with their dollar pitchers (800 people through the door most weeks) so they didn’t have to worry as much about the weekends. They also knew it’d bring in a different crowd. Ian approached the owners and they went for it.
This element of the Bellingham music scene was born.
Music lasted at the Up and Up for approximately seven years before the attitude of the music scene in the Pacific Northwest had changed enough that the job was no longer fun for Henry. Even during the heyday with Henry, Ian wasn’t a fan of the music. “The music was interesting – it was loud, it would make your ears burn, as Ian would say,” stated Patty, adding, “He wasn’t into the music, but he liked many of the people.”
“He loved absurd and strange situations,” added Henry. “He liked a little bit of chaos, it tickled his fancy. He would be the king of misfit toys – that’s the type of music it was and the crowd it drew.”
But in 1994, it was time for everyone to move on – the Up and Up would occasionally have bands play afterwards, usually Patty and Ian’s favorite Celtic music, but that was essentially it. In 2007, the owners of Rudy’s Pizzeria bought the tavern (which had been for sale for five years), expanding Rudy’s and downsizing the Up and Up.
After a few years, Patty (who had gone back to college, earning her degree), Ian and their son Stuart moved to Valdez, Alaska where Ian most recently worked at a cannery.
On May 21 of this year, Ian went to the doctor to find out why he’d been of ill health recently and was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer. Over the next five-plus months, Ian and Patty worked with doctors in an attempt to do anything that would reverse the growth of his cancer. But on the first Monday in November, after a weekend in which he insisted he didn’t go to treatment, but needed to stay home, Ian passed away.
To just talk about Ian and his place in the music scene would be an injustice to his legacy. It was more than just a bar – for many, it was a home and a safe haven, a place a where college kids grew up. Ian and Patty commanded respect in their bar and they got it. Everyone was welcome, according to Patty, “It didn’t matter who you were – you could be a musician, journalism students, business student, as long as you respected mama Up and Up and out of that, we carved a lot of long lasting relationships.” She added, “What some people didn’t understand, if you didn’t respect mama Up and Up – if you were breaking glasses, running on tables, doing drugs in the corner, you left in a relatively painful fashion.”
“Whether you were a punk or a college kid, people looked down at you. Ian was never like that – it was one of the first places people came in and felt comfortable. The bands were comfortable and Ian treated them with respect. There was discipline – it was like he was a good parent, who happened to live in a tavern where your band could play and get paid.”
After Ian’s passing, there was an outpouring of emotion from those who loved Ian. In spite of a hard exterior, Ian genuinely cared and if you became part of the Up and Up family, he cared immensely. He might still look at you cross or come across as gruff, but he was also generous and loving. Patty related back to when the Up started charging $1 cover on Thursday nights – it wasn’t so they could make more money, the extra cash would go to a local charity or even a friend they knew needed the money. No fanfare, no press releases, just doing what they felt was right.
And, it seems to be what Ian was all about – he did what he saw was right. An immensely smart man (he was incredibly well read), Ian could see both sides to an argument, making him compassionate to those who might not have been understood. If you treated him, his wife, and his bar with respect, he’d treat you with respect – and with Ian Relay, that was something special.
We spread the word to folks to share stories about Ian – not craziness in the bar, but ones that would help people understand who he was. The stories people shared weren’t just about Ian helping teach new parents how to change a diaper (Cindy) or watching out for crazy guys in a mosh pit (Patti), but also ones that were Ian at his finest – funny, caring, and “the look.” And here are some of their stories…
The year was 1989-90 or so I think, I was around 24. My band Thin Men was booked to play at the Up and Up with our good friends and a great band, Action Buddy. We had done many shows with them in Bellingham and it was always a great turnout. This was Sea to Ski weekend and was set to be a huge gig for us. The day rolled on and I got a call saying Action Buddy had to cancel due to illness. I thought the whole night was now screwed. Much to my delight Ian and Henry decided to let us do two sets and play the whole night ourselves. So we did. It was a hot, muggy night and I remember Patty and Ian sweating and slingin’ beers all night to a capacity crowd. We did two great sets of music and finally the crowd was thinning out when we all realized we had no place to stay. Without batting an eye Ian offered up his place with Patty for us to crash at. (I think there were six or seven of us.) We made it there, had a few more beers and crashed on the floor. I awoke to the smell of bacon and coffee. Patty was goin’ to town in the kitchen cooking the most amazing breakfast I had ever seen. Two-dozen scrambled eggs, one loaf of toasted, buttered bread, two pounds of bacon, two packs of breakfast sausage, one large pack of potatoes O’Brien, one gallon of fresh squeezed OJ and five pounds of some fantastic, gourmet coffee. Henry (our label guy) and Chris Mcklurken came in about then and we all began to feast and discuss what a smashing success the night was. Thin Men made $1,200 at the door and the bar sales were through the roof. We finished breakfast and loaded all the gear for the trip back to Seattle. Before leaving someone suggested a group photo, to remember this auspicious occasion. We piled out of the van and spread out across the front lawn disheveled and hung over. Ian lifted his shirt to show the huge breakfast he had just devoured, placed his finger in his belly button like a giant bowling ball And ‘snap!’ this pic was taken. This picture (bottom right) represents to me the kind of people Ian and Patty really were. Not just club owners, but friends who opened their home to all of us and genuinely cared that we (the band) were taken good care of. In all my travels and gigs since then I have never met anyone as concerned and caring as they were. Bellingham was always like ‘coming home’ to us. These people were family and the years I spent there profoundly helped shape who I am today.
Love to all, Tom Gnoza and Thin Men
As life rumbles along, certain people and places keep passing by. What they mean, or signify, we may never know; but know that their family has impacted me and who I am, for better or worse, it’s all family.
I remember Chris Robert died how flummoxed we all were that he stopped into chat with Ian, about 12 hours before he died. He bellied up and told Ian how much he loved him, strode off and that was it. I remembered Ian telling me how strange it seemed at the time. Same with when Cammy died, and Colby.
When my husband, Chris (Richardson) died of lymphoma, in 1998, The Up and Up was one of the places I wandered by to remember. The building made me smile, and the memories of that time of my life made me know that I’m on the right track.
I had been to the Up & Up in the late 80’s with friends while a student at WWU – in fact, Henry and I saw each other for the first time at the Up and Up and he told Ian he was going to marry me. I thought they were an interesting (if unlikely) looking pair of friends.
When Henry and I became a couple in 1990, he took me to officially meet Ian and Patty – this was a big deal because they were family to him. Patty was behind the bar as she looked me up and down and told me I looked like a cross between his two previous girlfriends (ouch), it took me a few years before she trusted me. Ian had my back and never questioned me. Ian and Patty were there for us – toasting us at our wedding with Dom Perignon, hosting a wedding party the following week at the Up that no one will forget! We shared the experience of having children within a year of each other and Ian was one of the first people to hold our daughter after she was born. The gentlest and strongest man I will ever know.
For anyone lucky enough to come of age in Bellingham in the early 90s, the World Famous Up and Up was the central meeting venue for live music and cheep beer. I was lucky enough to have the job of doorman/bouncer. Through this experience, I got to know Ian, first as a boss and then a friend. Over the years, way too many stories were created to think of just one to highlight, and sadly Ian was always better at remembering and telling the stories, as I really liked the cheap beer part of the Up and Up. I do just want to say that not only was he my friend, over the 20 years we hung out, he became a big part of who I am, a big brother. I will truly miss him.
One day at the Word Famous Up and Up Tavern, we were all doing our own thing. However there was an underling mood: a feeling that there was either great joy approaching, or great misery. After many hours, Ian came in through the side door. We all knew that face. It was the DO NOT MESS WITH IAN face. We all watched him come in the door. We all SAW the face. It was the face of doom. In that instant, my heart wept for Ian and Patty, and I shared their loss. But Ian did not stop walking. Instead, he continued to walk, going behind the bar, all the way to the end, where he rang the bell, and proclaimed that he had a son, and drinks were on the house!
Before every show at the Up and Up I would get the hiccups before Rambis would start. The very first show we played was at the world famous Up and Up Tavern. Ian would have me take a deep breath and then would apply pressure to my chest as I exhaled. This would do two things: 1) it would cure my hick ups, 2) it would give me a crazy head rush right before going on. He was always there to support the local music scene and to cure what might be getting you down.
Back in the early nineties, I rarely purchased new clothes and really could give a shit what I wore anyway. I did have a go-to for my anti fashion ways…..The Up and Up lost and found box. Everything aquired from said box reaked of smoke and stale beer but I did not mind. I smelled like that in those days anyway! So about after a year of pilfering lost items, Ian learned what I was up to. I thought for sure the gig was up. He said he wondered how the box was never getting full like it used to and then gave me the “look.” Boy, Ian had the LOOK down pat. I sheepishly laid low on my practices honestly fearing bodily harm. A couple of weeks go by, and Ian calls me over to the corner of the bar. He says “what do you think” holding up this ugly dark brown cable knit wool sweater that stinks. I say umm…huh? Ian grins a little and tells me he put it aside for me and will do so with anything he thinks I may wear home. What a guy and what a time! I am quite sure that I will never meet anyone quite like Mr. Relay. That’s the way it should be.
–Jeff Kyle (GFV – Medelicious – Fanny Alger)
Jeff Kyle told me about walking into the bar one early evening and Ian sitting at his perch inside the door. “I don’t want to see you today,” Ian said. The two were friends, and Jeff laughed and started to walk past him. Ian stopped him and repeated that he did not wish to see Jeff in the bar that night and Jeff again laughed at what he thought was a joke and tried again to walk by, into the bar. At this point Ian picked him up by his beltloop and his hair and used Jeff Kyle’s head to open that heavy front door of the Up, depositing him in a pile on State Street. The next day Jeff walked into the bar and Ian said “hey dude” without any reference to the previous day’s event.
* I talked on the phone two weeks ago to an infamous character from the 1980s named “Karate” Frank Powers. I asked if he’d heard about Ian and he said he hadn’t. He then told me about Ian walking him out of the bar one night to the sidewalk. “Go next door, Frank,” said Ian sagely. “It’s best.”
-As told by Jeff Braimes
I remember the first time I met Ian. It was the middle of November and I had just turned 21. My buddy Matt and I were out and about downtown. I was still living in Seattle, but up often visiting and now that I was 21, we wanted to hit the town. Matt wasn’t 21, of course, but he had a good fake ID and we figured we’d give it a shot. Matt and I walked and started by hitting the Up and Up, where a huge biker looking dude was checking IDs. He was hairy, big, really intimidating and looked like he could fit in with the Hells Angels. Matt showed Ian his ID and Ian looked at it, paused and handed it back to Matt, simply saying “nice try.” He could’ve taken the ID (which he did to many others over the years), but for whatever reason, he gave it back and didn’t judge us or act mean in any way. We smiled and said, “Thanks, we’ll be back in a few weeks when he turns 21,” and moved on to the next place. I have no idea what happened the rest of the night, but meeting Ian always stuck with me.
There were many times in the late ‘80s, as I watched a show in front of the stage of the Up and Up whilst big dudes whipped themselves into a mosh frenzy and things would get out of hand, I would do the signature ‘elbow punch’ trick I learned from Marx and M and sometimes really made some guys mad. Occasionally, I might get a little bit more mouthy and snotty than I should and one would yell at me or just get too threatening, and out of nowhere, Ian would appear, eyes steeled the on the dude, tap him on the shoulder, tell him it was time for nighty-night and throw him out of the bar. Happened quite a bit. I always wondered how he could keep an eye on everything all at once and know exactly what was going on in the bar at all times. For a girl, it was great. You always knew you were safe cuz your big brother was there.
I don’t feel like I spent a lot of early weeknights in the mid 80s drinking in The Up, but maybe I did more than I remember, because I have a vivid memory of sitting on a stool with a pint in front of me, Jeopardy playing on the TV above the bar. Ian was standing on his side of the bar, with one hand on it and the other on his hip, also looking up at the screen. Alex gave a clue about some obscure category like botany or animal husbandry or maybe the Old Testament and Ian answered the question without hesitation, not bothering to frame his response in the form of a question. He was correct, of course, and I shook my head and asked how anyone could know this kind of stuff. Ian cast me a steely glance before stalking away. “Common fucking knowledge,” he muttered, disappearing into the cooler. I don’t think there was anyone else in the bar at the time.
Back before you could just text someone if you needed to ask them a question in Bellingham, it was sometimes easier to go physically find the person than it was to call them at work or reach them on what was referred to as a home phone– even if you lived in Seattle. We came up for a drinking visit in 1995 to ask Dave Morissette if he would officiate our wedding, which we had just decided to have. Dave said yes and we celebrated the heck out of that up and down State Street, arriving eventually at the Up. Ian demonstrated his approval of our announcement by breaking out a bottle of champagne and some real glasses. Patti danced on the hearth and I just laughed like hell until the champagne ran out and we started drinking beer again.