Oct 192009

Missoula, Montana had a downtown bar called the Top Hat, which was one of the few venues that featured live music on a regular basis. I say “had”, because I believe the bar went out of business some time ago, though I understand it has now reopened. I left Missoula in 1987, when it was still in operation.

The Top Hat was renowned as a hippie hangout, where patrons wearing Birkenstock sandals danced to endless reworkings of “Mustang Sally” and other R&B standards. Just outside the door to the alley there was a covered overhang, where customers would congregate to smoke pot. Back in the 1980’s the cover charge was usually just a dollar, and behind the bar was the obligatory sign that read “Tipping is not a city in China”.

On May 2, 1985, a Wednesday afternoon, a very strange event occurred that involved the Top Hat, a violently schizophrenic man, a fellow pharmacy student scheduled to take a polygraph test, and possibly Jeff Ament.

At present, this essay is partly drawn from memory, and partly drawn from the Missoulian newspaper archives. If anyone reading this has any facts, leads, or especially photographs regarding this story, please feel free to contact me.

The story starts out in late spring of 1985. A classmate of mine in pharmacy school was applying for a job at a major pharmacy chain. Part of the application process was taking a polygraph test. Although this guy was an excellent student, he had a major history of illicit drug use. I was shocked to learn that he was something of a fan of PCP! The polygraph exam was preceded by a written questionnaire, in which he admitted to having smoked pot, but nothing more. He was terrified that he would fail his polygraph test, and was madly searching for a way to beat it. This was all occurring in the Stone Age before the World Wide Web, so naturally information on the subject was hard to get, and beset with bullshit. Being a pharmacy student, he naturally gravitated toward a pharmacological solution to his dilemma. He found an associate of his who had access to muscle relaxants, probably carisoprodol, the generic name for Soma. Evidently he was able to get just one dose from his “connection”, just enough to attempt to beat the polygraph.

The polygraph exam was to be administered downtown by a sheriff’s deputy or police officer. My friend screwed up his courage, took his drugs, and proceeded to walk downtown. He never made it to his destination.

Unknown to my friend, a strange psychodrama had been taking place in the Top Hat bar that afternoon. A man came into the bar, sat down on a bar stool and ordered a beer. A prosaic act, except that he also set down on the bar four unfired 12 gauge shotgun shells and a bottle of Stelazine, a powerful anti-psychotic drug used to treat schizophrenia. The man was living in an apartment in the same block as the Top Hat. In fact he lived on the top floor, with a view from his window of the brick wall that extended from the back door of the bar to the alley. The roofed overhand beloved by the potheads didn’t extend all the way to the alley.

Preceding the man’s visit to the Top Hat, someone had painted a rather large side-view image of a mohawked punk flipping “The Bird”.

Photo courtesy Kathleen Taubner and Kevin Hefty.

The image was well proportioned, and suggested the creator had legitimate artistic skill. After the ensuing events, rumors circulated that the artist was none other than Jeff Ament, whose motto at the time was “No Art, No Cowboys, No Rules.” I knew Jeff only peripherally, but I do know he considered himself very much a punk. As I assume most of you know, Jeff went on to become the bassist for Pearl Jam.

At some point that afternoon the psychotic man returned to his apartment, loaded his 12 gauge shotgun, and discharged it out his window down the alley, in the general direction of the Top Hat. Later, a motorcycle officer arrived on the scene, and was “peppered” with gravel kicked up by another shotgun blast.

Understandably, the entire area was quickly cordoned off, and a long stand-off between the psychotic man with the shotgun and Missoula authorities took place.

The officer tasked with administering the polygraph test to my pharmacy school friend was understandably re-assigned to the stand-off.

After several hours, the psychotic man gave up, and surrendered peacefully.

Being a “Family” type newspaper, the Missoulian didn’t print a photo of the punk flipping off the hippies. It wasn’t until the public was allowed back into the area a day or two later that one could piece together what might have really happened.

Some of the shotgun pellets hit the brick wall where the graffiti was. As part of the investigation, the cops had highlighted each little divot in the wall with a red marker. As seen from a distance, the punk now looked like he was sneezing blood!

From that fact alone, one could infer that the shooter must have had a clear line of sight from his window to the punk graffiti. It’s my belief that the shooter may have believed that the graffiti was intended for him, and not the Top Hat patrons. This possibility was of course never mentioned in the Missoulian…

Understandably, the mohawked punk sneezing blood, flipping off the hippies, was quickly painted over.

I visited Missoula in September, 2008, and carefully inspected the wall where the shotgun pellets had made their little divots, but the wall was coarse to begin with, and it looked like multiple coats of paint had since been applied. I couldn’t find any little divots.

As for my pharmacy friend, he had to re-schedule his polygraph exam. He couldn’t get any more drugs from his connection, yet he still beat it! I was amazed that he was able to do this, and asked him about it. He claimed he purchased a copy of Oui magazine shortly before his exam, and studied the photos of naked women intently. When questions about former drug use came up, he claimed he would simply distract himself with mental images of sexual fantasies.

As far as I know, he later got the job with the major pharmacy chain!

Part of the “official” newspaper account is found here.

 Posted by on 10/19/2009 Growing Up In Montana

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