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Double Down Saloon still serving Las Vegas’ wild side

You drink the place in right along with your booze and neither is meant to go down too smoothly.

Homemade signs scrawled out in magic marker advertise drink specials involving Twinkies and Slim Jims and, it only follows, $20 puke insurance.

The bathrooms look like graffitied subway stops, tattooed with the signatures of hundreds of patrons past.

The walls here used to be white, two decades ago; now even the low-slung ceiling swirls with color.

Murals of skeletons and half-dressed dames cover those surfaces not acned with countless band stickers, which serve as the calling cards of groups from all over the world who have come to this dark corner of Vegas to play the bar that’s become most synonymous with it.

Nov. 30, the Double Down Saloon celebrated its 27th anniversary, and in that time, it’s become as much a Vegas totem as Wayne Newton’s frozen-in-place coif, Elvis’ golden shades and Frank Sinatra’s weary liver.

“I wear my Double Down shirt a lot, I travel a lot, and I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, the Double Down,’ in Tokyo, in Europe,” says Allan Carter, founder of Vegas-based record label SquidHat Records. “It is a universally recognized symbol.”

Late globetrotting chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain counted it among the top five bars in the world, while fellow Travel Channel staple Samantha Brown also has sung the joint’s praises.

Comedian Dave Attell partied there during an episode of his up-all-night “Insomniac” show, while “Maxim,” “Playboy” and “Rolling Stone” are just a few of the publications who have singled out the Double Down as one of the best dives there is.

Like the B-movies that play on the dented, dated TVs above the bar, the place is a gritty fantasia of knowing, pointed outlandishness.

Its look is chaotic, but nearly every aspect is thought out and deliberate.

Nothing here is happenstance.

The decor may look like it was acquired at Satan’s yard sale — shrunken heads, metallic insects, a Playboy pinball machine — but everything has its place.

This is the actualization of a carefully crafted, highly idealized notion of one dude’s dream dive.

“What I wanted to do was open a bar that I would like to drink at,” says Double Down owner P Moss, working on a vodka tonic on a Saturday evening as he sits at his bar. “I took the picture I had in my head and I did this.”

With silver hair descending down to his shoulders, matching goatee and dark-framed glasses, Moss possesses the thoughtful, yet freewheeling air of a debauched philosophy professor or perhaps a particularly sociable mad scientist who’d rather create cocktails than creatures.

He speaks with purpose, his words barbed and frequently blue.

As a young man, he aspired for a time to be a journalist, even getting accepted into Northwestern University’s prestigious journalism school, and to this day, observation and attention to detail figure prominently in his success.

P Moss is certainly a character.

And so he created a home for them.

From grotesque porn on the TVs to rite-of-pasage band venue

When the Double Down opened nearly three decades ago, it wasn’t just underground, it was deeply subterranean, buried beneath several strata of anonymity and indifference.

Located on a then-sparsely developed stretch of Paradise Road, it was smack in the middle of nothing.

The Hard Rock Hotel had yet to open to anchor the district.

The bustling strip mall that would be developed across from the casino was then a car rental lot.

What neighboring businesses the Double Down had – the gay clubs of the Fruit Loop – greeted the place like an unwanted houseguest.

The area’s prevailing customer base was comprised largely of vagrants, who would figure prominently among the bar’s first clientele.

“A broker was showing me this place, it had been closed for a year, it was a drug den, the power was off, it was like, ‘You don’t want this,’ ” Moss recalls. “But I go, ‘I’m going to look at it anyway.’

“I open that door to get some light in here,” he continues, motioning toward the west side of the bar, “and the MGM Grand was staring down on me. I go, ‘The Strip is right there. This is a killer location. Maybe not today, but this is a killer location.’ And that was all I needed to see.”

Still, the place got off to the kind of bruising start that brings the 1988 Baltimore Orioles to mind.

“It took me five years until I didn’t have a stack of unpaid bills this high,” Moss says, using his hands to approximate a stack of debt the height of one of those yardlong souvenir drinks. “I was borrowing money. I was selling furniture. We had a lot of close calls. This place almost folded. A lot.”

Back then, the Double Down was a much more hardscrabble kind of joint.

Former doorman Gerry “Turbo” Proctor, a sizable man who drums in bands like The New Waves and Dirk Vermin and the Hostile Talent, recalls having beer bottles and pool cues broken over his head.

“When they first opened that bar, it was rough,” he says. “There was a big, big fight. It was a violent place for a minute.”

This anything-goes vibe was mirrored by Alonzo, the mechanical horse that female patrons were only allowed to ride topless, and the pointedly grotesque hard-core porn videos that played on the TVs.

But the Double Down slowly began to build momentum for itself.

A killer jukebox was a big draw, stocked with fierce locals like The Vermin along with punk and R&B subverts such as Andre Williams, The Saints and The Cramps.

And then there was the introduction of live acts to the bar, which Moss initially resisted because he thought the room was too small.

But an impromptu Man or Astro-Man? show, which the Double Down hosted only because the venue where the band originally was scheduled to play closed suddenly the night before the gig, packed the place with 300 people.

From then on, the club attracted a slew of seminal acts such as The Bomboras, TSOL, The Vibrators, The Adolescents and hundreds more, never charging a cover for the shows.

Mostly though, the Double Down became a breeding ground for Vegas bands for whom playing the space became a right of passage.

“It really was the only place for alternative-anything music,” says Jenn O. Cide, a fire breather and performance artist who first played the bar at age 14 in an all-girl punk band. “I think there was a huge sense of community there.”

Scads of groups have performed their first shows at the bar, earning 50 bucks, some drink tickets and the chance to play in front of what is usually a decent-sized crowd.

“He was the only person who gave a chance to everybody who didn’t get one,” says Rob Ruckus, Double Down bartender and bassist in numerous Vegas bands over the years, speaking about Moss’ willingness to host eclectic, unproven acts. “He’s opened it for artists to have a chance to explore their art and usually, cool, magical stuff comes out of that,” he notes, before letting loose with a hearty laugh. “Or complete crap.”

Bacon martinis and shots served in miniature toilets

P Moss is an accomplished storyteller, having published a pair of books filled with characters who occupy the periphery of Las Vegas — strippers and con men, high rollers and lowlifes, winners and losers — and yet also serve as the city’s lifeblood.

He has plenty of tales to tell, especially when it comes to the lore of the Double Down.

Chief among them is the story behind a pair of signature, inimitable cocktails.

First, there’s Ass Juice, a sweet, often tropical tasting concoction with a stomach-turning origin.

It began with a Jagermeister knockoff called Bekturova that the bar got a few bottles of.

“It was disgusting,” Moss says. “Even bums wouldn’t drink it.”

He made a sign offering shots of the stuff for $3.

Then $2.

Then $1.

Still, no takers.

“So I crossed out ‘Bekturova,’ wrote out ‘Ass Juice’ and I sold out immediately,” Moss says. “I go, ‘I can make my own Ass Juice.’ It just became huge. We’ve sold thousands and thousands and thousands of Ass Juice T-shirts.”

He notes that they also sell around 10 Ass Juice shot glasses, shaped like a miniature toilet, on a nightly basis, though there’s still no set recipe for the tangy, potent libation among the various bartenders who make it.

“It’s all different,” Moss says. “Basically, it has to taste good, it has to be fruity and it has to look like (crap).”

And then there’s the bacon martini, which has made its way onto the “Today” show and the BBC, and which has been written about in the pages of the New York Post.

“My guys said one day, ‘You know what? We need a bacon drink.’ I go, ‘I’ll have one tomorrow,’ ” Moss recalls. “So I went home and made the bacon martini.”

Just don’t ask him to drink it.

“I think it tastes like (crap), but a lot of people love it,” he says matter-of-factly. “Give the people what they want.”

At ‘Clubhouse for Lunatic Fringe,’ truth in advertising

Though the surveillance camera-quality footage of two chicks wrestling in KY Jelly that plays on the Double Down TVs pretty much makes his point for him, Moss still explains himself anyway.

“My tastes were always a little off-center,” he says, and it’s worth noting that he fronts a band, Bloodcocks UK, that features a blow-up doll in its ranks. “I like earthier, grittier things. I was always drawn to the fringes a little bit.”

And yet the Double Down no longer inhabits said fringes.

What’s made the place a success, full most nights of the week, is that it feels like an in-club, a place for brave urban adventurers and people with meticulously curated record collections.

But it’s welcoming to just about everybody — and that’s exactly who shows up.

Everybody.

“See these guys over here? Do they look like they belong here?” Moss says, pointing to a group of gray-haired gents in khakis commingling by a pool table. Well-pressed and proper looking, the opposite of their surroundings, they seem like the kind of fellows who might enjoy a good shuffleboard match.

“But yet they’re here, and they’re going to enjoy themselves,” Moss says, ordering another round, taking visible pride in the scene unfolding before him.

“On any given night, you could have a plumber sitting next to a lawyer next to a movie star next to a bum next to a rock star. And everybody gets treated the same,” he says. “The plumber, he’s excited, he’s going to go home and tell his friends that he got treated the same as the rock star and the movie star. The rock star and the movie star are happy because nobody’s fawning all over them like they do everywhere else and they don’t see their name in the paper the next day.”

To underscore his point, he asks us to think of a dude with a tattooed face.

“If you’ve got the weirdest guy you ever saw, where does this guy go in his life, whether it’s a grocery store or a bar or anywhere, where people don’t just look at him and walk away or make a crack?” Moss asks. “Where does this guy go where he’s treated with any respect at all?”

The bar in which he sits is meant to serve as the answer to these questions.

“He walks in here and all of a sudden he is (treated well),” he continues. “And after five minutes, you’ve got him forever.”

Moss is really just talking about being nice, a simple, easy thing, but he cites it as the root of the Double Down’s appeal, what made his stack of unpaid bills something he now has to mime.

On the Double Down website, the bar is referred to as the “clubhouse for the lunatic fringe,” and there’s truth in the catchphrase.

“There’s not a lot of places for weirdos to go and be weird,” Ruckus, the bartender, says. “That’s what makes it such an inviting room. People who are coming there are looking for that.”

And they found it on a recent Monday evening, when a semi-belligerent drunk guy with a white beard extending down past his sternum banters loudly with a couple of offensive lineman-sized 9-to-5ers.

It’s hard to tell whether it’s playful or confrontational, but it doesn’t matter — any tension disappears almost as quickly as the beers before them.

The bartender greets regulars by name as they walk through the door, shaking hands and introducing himself to any unfamiliar faces.

No one seems to fit in, not the table full of tipsy tourists or the square-looking journalist, and no one seems to care.

“You would think that there would be people going, ‘What’s this dude in his suit doing in here? This is a punk rock bar,’ ” says Jesse Del Quadro, guitarist in Vegas surf rockers Thee Swank Bastards, Double Down staples. “You walk in there dressed like anything you want and nobody’s going to look twice at you.”

As such, the place feels inviting despite its gruff facade.

“It’s real. It’s not a scene,” SquidHat Records’ Carter says. “The Double Down just wants to be what it is, and the right people will get it.”

Enough people have gotten it for Moss to open a New York City version of the Double Down as well as popular hang Frankie’s Tiki Room on the edge of downtown.

He could have cashed out by now and says he’s had plenty of lucrative offers.

But he sticks around, practically indivisible from the furniture.

“Hey, Shorty,” he says, acknowledging a regular with a wave.

It’s a small gesture.

This room was built on them.

“You can’t be all things to all people,” Moss says, giving voice to the Double Down’s de facto operating principle, “but you can be an awful lot of things to an awful lot of people.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.

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