Part of moving to a new city is exploring your immediate neighborhood until you become comfortable enough to expand beyond your general territory into the various areas around town. In Kansas City, there are the usual parts of town that everyone suggests you visit: Plaza, Crossroads, PnL, Westport, etc. Each has a distinct flavor and history that you’re constantly cognizant of, whether it be the fountains at the Plaza or white sunglasses and studded jeans at PnL.
And then there’s the West Bottoms. A former stockyard during KC’s rapid agricultural expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the West Bottoms now exist as a virtual ghost town to tourists and many close-minded or unaware locals.
The West Bottoms are a five-minute drive from downtown KC. You take a huge, lazily winding bridge down into what feels like the depths of the city. My first visit brought surreal memories of the underside of Gotham in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, save for the seedy crime and caped crusaders. Stoplights are non-existent, craters filled with water from some long forgotten rain abundant. Huge buildings loom overhead, seemingly deserted like something out of a “Walking Dead” set.
For the most part, the area is used for art studios, to host the annual Boulevardia festival and, in the fall, as a hotbed for commercial haunted house attractions. However, situated in an alley in the middle of the West Bottoms is an old speakeasy called The Ship.
It was here that my friends and I first ventured down to the West Bottoms in search of The Ship, which had been written about in a local news story. The outside looked like the site of an unsolved murder: wooden shack of sorts with dim, overpowering red lighting. If it weren’t for the electricity, you’d think this were the Unabomber’s vacation home. Inside, however, you feel as though you’ve been taken below deck on an old boat. An impressive “The Ship” sign illuminated by dozens of individual light bulbs greets visitors as they find their seats in the nautical-themed bar.
All of these elements combined create a dreamlike environment that, beyond the swinging double doors, teleports visitors to a completely different, indiscernible time period populated by a cast of characters sometimes as illusory as the place itself.
We met one of those individuals on our second trip to The Ship, an older gentleman who had spent seven years bartending in Hawaii (the place where Hawaiian Punch is made). It was around 7 pm – an hour or two after they open – and completely empty aside from us and another bartender. Our bartender regaled us with tales of bartending in Hawaii and The Ship’s fascinating past while the other man popped a quarter into an ancient jukebox near the bathrooms.
On comes these old soul tracks I’ve never heard before, mostly from the 60s and 70s, that at any other bar would seem inappropriate, but here, they just fit. The music is as integral to the bar as water is to sailing, and you can tell that each song has been hand-chosen by the people who run The Ship. After a few songs, Ann Peebles’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain” comes on.
It opens with these strange, almost unsettling guitar (?) plucks that transport the listener – if only for a few moments – to a nebulous space devoid of familiarity. You’re floating there, unsure of your surroundings, until Ann Peebles comes in seconds later, luring you back to reality with the smoky, soulful voice that was so popular in the 70s.
Percussion and organ follow shortly thereafter, with some horns thrown in as well, and suddenly the listener is grounded. However, those otherworldly guitar plucks linger in the background for the duration of the song, sounding almost like the score from an old horror film, and when combined with the traditional soul sounds make it one of the more unusual tracks I’ve ever heard.
I can’t seem to get this song out of my head. It feels ahead of its time while remaining a product of its time. “I Can’t Stand the Rain” coexists with the West Bottoms and The Ship in a way that many songs don’t. Every time I hear it I’m whisked away, if only for a few moments, to that strange part of town that always seems further away than reality would have you believe.