On any given Friday night, the crowd peaks somewhere near 1,000 just after 2 a.m. That's more people than any club around attracts, and with 28,000 square feet, the Cowboy, as its generally called, usually has room to spare.
These hundreds are not the cowboy-hatted heirs of BJ's Star Studded Honky Tonk, the country-dance club that preceded the Cowboy in the converted warehouse. There are two-steppers, to be sure, but mostly, the crowd is a sea of wildly different people, united only by a common desire not to go home.
The last time I made the trip, that meant giggly Asian girls, frat-boys in muscle shirts, mustachioed Hispanics, peroxide blondes with obvious boob jobs, black guys in night camouflage jump suits, ladies in skirts too short to simply be called mini, squirrelly looking bald guys on Ecstasy and women old enough to be your mom.
By any comparison beyond Arkansas, Central Arkansas sucks for nightlife. Once you've gone to New York or New Orleans or anywhere else where bars never close, it's hard to get too excited about our tepid scene, small as a natural consequence of our size, but even more limited because of the screwy blue laws that dominate the state's alcohol culture. Call Arkansas the temperate state, where more counties than not are dry, where booze can't be purchased on Sundays, where, even in wet Pulaski County, the labyrinth of regulations that spell out who can serve what and for how long takes a degree in higher math to decode.
I bitch, but here might be a good spot to pause and let us count our blessings. There are, after all, scores of area clubs and pubs and restaurants that serve booze well into the evening, if not the morning. It could be worse: We could be in White County.
But damn if the pickin's don't get slim after 2 a.m. Which is where the state Alcohol Control Board comes back into play. To stay open all-night, or more precisely until 5 a.m., a club must have a Class B private club license. In 2001, the ABC stopped issuing Class B licenses and quit allowing the transfer of license between counties. Now, once a license remains inactive for 18 months, it disappears forever.
There are currently 22 active licenses in Pulaski County, and one five months into inactive status, which means that the county will never have more than 23 private clubs allowed to operate until 5 a.m. A close look at the group reveals further insularity. Among the Class B's, five are strip clubs,
two cater to gay clientele, four are oriented to black audiences, at least four cater mostly to whites and a half dozen aren't open to the public. Counterpoint, in North Little Rock, doesn't fit into any of those categories, but it's being forced to change its hours in response to a recently enacted city ordinance that forces all North Little Rock clubs to close by 2 a.m., regardless of license.
When you whittle all those down, that leaves three equal opportunity late nightclubs for the rest of us: the Electric Cowboy, Discovery and Midtown. With so few options, the late night hordes flock, and they come in all stripes. There's no setting more diverse in Central Arkansas. Decadence — it's what brings folks together.
There's a popular perception among those who've heard of Discovery but not been there that it's a gay club. That's not unfounded. Norman Jones, a former state worker and female impersonator, opened the club in 1979 on Asher. Two years later, he took over the far end of a rectangle of warehouses in Riverdale, where, in the mid-'90s, he also opened Backstreet, another gay-friendly private club.
The shift at Discovery from gay to “mainstream,” as Jones calls it, happened gradually at first, the club owner said. Around 2000, he remodeled and expanded his space by over 50 percent in a move targeted at a broader audience.
Around the same time, too, he decided to only open Discovery one night a week, on Saturday night. He's pragmatic about the business model. “If you can do enough business in one night to pay your weekly bills and still come out with some sort of profit, then why not do that one night a week and be done with it?”
Today, as perhaps a sign of its evolution into the mainstream, the club's posted a sign near its entrance, aimed for at least one relatively new demographic: “NO ‘THUG WEAR' ACCEPTABLE. NO BACKWARD HATS. NO HEAD WRAPS. NO OVERSIZED T-SHIRTS. NO OVERSIZED PANTS.”
Inside, there's still an obvious sense of gay culture. A large, lit portrait of Norman as Norma, elaborately made up and with a 'do that would make Dolly Parton envious, greets club-goers in the entryway. Then, there's the real thing next door. In an expansive theater with a strange plaster-of-Paris-style Egyptian motif, drag shows run every Saturday at midnight and 2:30 a.m.
The last time I visited, the stage's set looked like it'd been looted from a high school play. A faux-fire pit, with a sheet blowing and “coals” illuminated, sat center stage, with potted trees and two cardboard totem poles, with penises for noses, in the foreground. Beach balls hung by fishing line from the ceiling.
The audience seemed to suggest that drag shows are far from the exclusive province of the gay community. I did see a man in a cowboy hat and chaps, with a wife-beater rolled up to expose either his stomach or giant belt buckle, but also a number of middle-aged couples, a very pregnant African-American woman and a distant cousin, who was at an after-party for his high school class reunion.
I got to my seat just in time for the start of the 2 a.m. show, which was introduced by an unseen MC.
“All right, we're going to bring our first entertainer to the stage. She is sending this number out to Bethany, who is celebrating her divorce.”
“Give it up for Bethany! And her divorce!”
“At this time, we are going to bring her to the stage. She is Miss Little Rock US of A. Give, it up for Teon Iman.”
I'm not sure what the criteria for being Miss Little Rock US of A is, but Teon, wearing sunglasses, tight but concealing pants, a cleavage-exposing bra and a fur-lined long coat, looked pretty womanly as she stalked the stage lip-synching to Mary J. Blige's “Deep Inside.”
Elsewhere, Discovery's 21,000 square feet look and feel like a modern club, or at least enough like what a modern club looks like on TV to pass muster. Off the entryway, in the large room Jones calls the lobby, there's a velvet-roped VIP area (empty when I last visited) and a square bar, with liquor stacked on multi-tiered platforms, like a pyramid. Beyond the bar, young black, white and Latino twentysomethings bounce and grind to hip-hop.
A third room sits farther off the lobby. Darker and more compact, with a high ceiling and strobe lights, it's one of the few places in town that regularly plays house music. Whereas most hip-hop is built on a tempo of around 80 to 100 beats per minute (BPM), house music typically pumps out 135 BPM. People dancing to house music often forfeit the beat to just sort of expressively flap their arms around. Not unlike the hippies.
The last time I was there, only a few occupied the dance floor. Above, though, in a cage reached by ladder, two attractive young women danced, kicking their legs through the bars every so often. Below, a group of guys unabashedly gathered to peer up their skirts, while a lone man in an opposite cage grasped hold of the bars in his cage and thrusted slowly.
Someone with a keen sense of social interaction arranged the Electric Cowboy. The basic floor plan revolves around a basketball court-sized dance floor that's enclosed by a narrow bar: a spot for the exhibitionists, a perch for watchers. Better yet, beyond the bar is a wide, open space that forms a kind of track around the dance floor, for those unwilling to dance, but too fidgety to stay in one place. Tests of drunken courage sit in opposing corners: the famed electric bull in one, and an electronic punching bag in the other.
With maybe one exception, I've only seen women ride the bull. They usually start with a fair amount of trepidation, holding on stiffly, and then after about 30 seconds, they feel the rhythm and loosen their torso and lift one hand in the air and holler out some cowboy-cliche. Then, the operator usually pushes it up a gear and they fall off awkwardly. A group of dudes always appears before bull rides.
In the other corner, goateed dudes in muscle shirts gather around an oversized speed bag attached to a sensor that gauges the force of a blow. It's like modern take on the sledgehammer and the bell at carnivals. Some strength-testers take running starts. Others employ a shot-put-style spinning punch.
But amidst the wealth of people watching, nothing compares to the sight of the crowd when the DJ plays “The Cha-Cha Slide.” Like its forbearer, “The Electric Slide,” the song was made for an urban line dance, though the latter has none of the former's soul. In fact, the beauty of “The Cha-Cha Slide” lies in its pure functionality.
“Song” might be a stretch. It's simply a steady 4/4 beat that even the most arrhythmic can follow and dance instructions, delivered by the song's creator, DJ Casper, in the eager intonations of an exercise instructor leading a step class.
Everyone does “The Cha-Cha Slide.” On an August Friday this summer, I watched a trim middle-aged man, who, with a chinstrap beard, high-waisted pants and a black bow tie, looked like a recently fallen Amish, sprint to the dance floor when the opening bars of the songs blared across the club. At first, after finding his place in line, he stood almost rigid, save a gentle leg wag in time with the beat. As the bass deepened and DJ Casper gave a call for clapping, the man obliged. When the commands got more complicated — “slide to the left/slide to the right…/one hop this time/right foot, lets stomp” — he followed along expertly, but perfunctorily, like he was doing a job that he'd done for years, but grown weary of.
The song catches its breath three quarters of the way through with more clapping and a series of questions, posed as dares, “How low can you go? Can you down low? All the way to the floor?” Like limbo, there's a tremendous potential for people to make asses out of themselves during this section. Liquid confidence inspires the too-drunks to forget their limber limits, and they go tottering over. And then there are the short-skirted. On this particular Friday, a woman in a mini, heard earlier loudly decrying thong underwear in the women's bathroom, dropped low enough that everyone in sight respected her choice.
Most all-night joints hide off main drags, but Midtown Billiards sits on the south edge of downtown on Main Street. By comparison, it's only a fraction of the size of either Discovery or the Electric Cowboy, just a narrow pool hall with a stage and a small bar, but because of its proxim-ity to downtown, it often gets customers that neither of the bigger clubs do. If you're wavering between bed and a night extender, Midtown's an easier sell.
Open from 3 p.m. to 5 a.m. every day of the year save Christmas, it's the picture of dive bar: a concrete floor, Polaroids and beer signs cov-ering just about every inch of wall space, a chandelier made of PBR cans and three pool tables, stained so heavily that if you squint, they look like maps.
The smell of the bar, a dank combination of decades of unventilated cigarette smoke and hamburger grease, is unmistakable. Last year, in a list of the “Best Bars in America,” Esquire said that the bar's name is “an epithet among wives whose husbands stumble home at 4 a.m. ‘smell-ing like Midtown.' ”
Like Discovery and the Electric Cowboy, the Main Street dive is the end of a funnel of nights spent out all over town. It's not unusual to see half a wedding party angling for a spot at the bar with grizzled dudes in motorcycle jackets, girls with fake tans coming from the River Market and spiky haired punks from three doors down at Juanita's. Few arrive sober. Someone almost always leaves by force.
Most spend their time milling around the bar, waiting for a hamburger (cooked on a griddle and heavily spiced, there's no finer food to be had at 2 a.m. in Little Rock), waiting for a drink and waiting for the bathroom. The latter often inspires men to find an alley outside, some-times women, too. At peak hours, the line stretches 20 deep, and the one-john bathrooms that wait at the end hardly count as a prize. Despite gender designations, few abide, and just about every inch, even the women's toilet seat, is covered in graffiti.
Last time I stopped by, a young guy wearing a homemade shirt, repping a local punk band called the STD's, asked if he could read my palm. I declined, but he persisted and, without looking at my palm, told me I'm ready to have kids, dissatisfied in my job and unhappy in marriage. O for three, I told him. But there weren't any hard feelings. He showed me the tattoo of his initials on the inside of his lip, and we said our goodbyes.
Going to the Electric Cowboy is sort of like going to the fair. It's a rare opportunity to see someone wear a cowboy hat in public. It's inconveniently located — 11 miles on I-30 and nearly a county away from downtown on a one-way access road going the wrong way. Parking extends, if not miles, then acres around the nightclub, under and around dilapidated industrial buildings. After midnight, when the cars start really rolling over the gravel lots, big plumes of dust choke the foot-traffic. Inside, it feels like a mass confrontation with humanity.