If you came up in or around OKC and you were even remotely Left or weird or outcast or even just a little “curious,” it’s likely that you spent some time at the Hi-Lo.
There was a time in my life when it was at least a weekly destination. For a lot of people, it could be nightly.
It’s a dive bar, yes, and it could be a particularly crazy or wild or annoying dive bar at times, but for a couple generations of full-on Freak City weirdos and left-leaning bar-hoppers alike, it’s been a second home, an oasis of true counterculture in the middle of the ever-expanding industry and frustratingly stubborn, traditionalist morality of Oklahoma City.
You could find anything at the Hi-Lo, but you wouldn’t ever find judgment.
Fights? Yes, often. Arguments and yelling and tensions? Definitely. Getting a drink spilled on you by an obnoxious boozehound or a hopped-up punk? Of course, practically guaranteed.
But no judgment. Never judgment. You could be exactly who you are at the Hi-Lo, and more importantly, you could be exactly who you wanted to be, for better or worse.
Everyone has stories about the Hi-Lo, whether or not you’re even in the story, or were there to see them happen, you’ve got stories. A touring singer comes through town and decides to pop into the locals’ favorite dive to see the culture and is met with a lavish, raucous drag show without warning, or a national superstar winemaker comes through town and gets up to some less-than-legal recreation in the bathrooms.
Those stories won’t be lost. They’ll be told forever, along with thousands or millions more.
My feeds have been loaded with outpourings of love and sadness for the Hi-Lo from friends and acquaintances over the last week or so. Most sharing stories and photos of their happiest or wildest long-ago memories. Some recalling how they met their partners there one random night, or how they ended up there on the first date with their now-spouse. Everyone making their final visits like a holy pilgrimage or a loved one waiting to be taken off life-support.
We all just kind of “ended up” there, didn’t we?
I can count on one hand the number of times I intended to go out to the Hi-Lo. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I randomly found myself there after a night out. It was the perfect place for Last Call, because when the lights came on and everyone flooded out, you were pretty well guaranteed to see some familiar faces and then you could stand around outside and talk for another couple hours and the night didn’t have to end.
Hi-Lo was for drag and for punk and for rockabilly and for queer culture and for anything and everything that didn’t belong elsewhere in this confusing city. It was never safe, but it was always a safe space.
All of those scenes have started seeing their spaces dwindling around here. There are fewer punk venues, fewer metal clubs, fewer gay bars. Some people would say that’s because those cultures have started spreading out into the mainstream scene of OKC, but what the Hi-Lo eventually became was a place where all of those cultures could mingle amongst themselves, without the need to water themselves down to appeal to general audiences. It was in-your-face, always, and if you didn’t like that, then you didn’t go to the Hi-Lo.
Like everyone else, I have my memories of the place, each as wacky and hard to explain as the bar itself. Singing “Kiss from a Rose” at the top of our voices on a packed night, or meeting one of my closest friends for the first time on a surprisingly dead weeknight Halloween, her appropriately in a giraffe costume.
Losing the Hi-Lo is more than just a bar closing. It’s a very clear signal of the end of an era for this city. After COVID, after “urban renewal,” after exploding populations and mainstream breakthroughs and rampant gentrification, it’s a giant, flashing sign that says “Freak City is closed. Welcome to OKC.”
There used to be another city hiding in the sewers and shadows beneath Oklahoma City. Now the lights are coming on everywhere like one big Last Call, sending us all out to stand in the parking lot in the cold.
One way or another, Hi-Lo will be back. There’s still the sister bar, Lost Highway, but while it’s developed its own identity and its own collection of diehards over the years, it’s never been the Hi-Lo. It’s hard to imagine, in this strange, new, homogenized-yet-compartmentalized OKC, that any one place will become such a countercultural center ever again, even if the Hi-Lo reopens, be it in a different location or even if, rents and property values permitting, it comes back to the post-renovation Donnay Building. Who knows? Owner Christopher Simon says he’s saving all the wall art and neon for the new place, wherever that ends up being.
So this next week is less a funeral and more a going-away party. Don’t know when or where, but we’ll cross paths again, maybe after a haircut and a new wardrobe, but somewhere in there will be the same memories, the same craziness, and the same obnoxious drunk guy spilling his drink on you. Every time.
Goodbye, Hi-Lo. May we find ourselves inside you again.
Last Updated March 26, 2022, 4:52 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor