Long live the Tote – Never Say Die!

Living by the Tote's motto of Never Say Die!, publican Andy Portokallis did everything he could to revive the Tote, after it's short-lived closure

This month, the iconic Tote celebrates 30 years of being in business, an anniversary that almost wasn’t celebrated. In 2009, live music venues were under such scrutiny that the Tote was forced to shut its doors. Members of the tight-knit community the Tote had created on the Melbourne, national and international music scene quickly mobilised to “Save the Tote”.

Their response, the historic SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) Rally, which saw over 20,000 music lovers take to the streets of Melbourne to protest the Victorian Government’s Liquor Licensing laws. One of the protestors was Andy Portokallis who, just like any other punter, was protesting in support to keep live music alive in Melbourne, not knowing that he – along with business partners Jon Perring and Sam Crupi – would be responsible for reopening the Tote.

When a 17-year-old Andy walked into Festival Hall to see Black Sabbath, he was already hooked. A Melbourne teenager, live music ruled his life. He enjoyed watching it, living it, smelling it and being part of it. His closest friends were made through going along to gigs; lifelong friends and even his eventual business partners. He rented a house on Wellington Street, Collingwood, right near the Tote, so that he could be in the heart of the live music scene. Two weeks later he walked into the iconic pub. It was 1985 when Andy climbed the stairs to what is now the Cobra Bar to see his first ever gig at the Tote.

“You knew then it was a special place,” says Andy about his first memories of the Tote. “It was rough and ready but it was always about the music, everyone that went there were all about the music.” An institution for music lovers, the Tote is one of the most credible and respected music venues the world over. Known for its sticky carpet – that was ripped up and given to punters in what they thought was the last days – the Tote is iconic due to the number of bands that have played there, making this building on the corner of Johnston and Wellington Streets a legend in itself. 

But what makes this venue special is the community feel of all the bands, their members and punters. The ones who might have been left behind if the Tote stayed shut and the ones, through sheer determination showed that people power can save music in Melbourne. “It’s something that Paul Kelly said, places like the Tote are the universities,” Andy offers as an explanation why this pub has stayed strong for 30 years.

The venue fosters bands and musicians and offers them a sanctuary. With so many people that have come and gone throughout their time, no one forgets their ‘stint’ at the Tote.

“You used to get a lot of the band members working behind the bar or picking up glasses and the next day they would play a gig there,” says Andy. “It’s not just some venue people go and play at, it’s also a venue that they hang out at and people who loves live music hang out there so it becomes a community.”

The live music community is like no other. It’s supportive but also fickle; it’s intense and at times unhealthy but it’s the most fun community you will ever find yourself in. Andy had been in the thick of this community since his teenage years.

He first dipped his feet in becoming a venue owner by taking on the lease at Bar Open with his business partners in 1997 as a response to the booming club scene and the threat it was placing on live music. 13 years later, Bar Open is a still a mainstay of the Brunswick Street scene. In 2001, he opened Pony: a venue responsible for the resurrection of the late-night gig. And with Yah Yah’s opening on Smith Street, Collingwood, Andy was fast gaining the reputation of opening venues that epitomised the grit and the dirt of rock’n’roll.

When Andy tells you a story about a music venue he has operated, a tale of battle quickly follows. From the six to eight month court dispute to open Bar Open to the 2am lockout that the Victorian Government imposed on high-risk venues such as Pony – due to alcohol fuelled violence in the city of Melbourne – his journey as a venue owner is one fraught with struggles. The truth of the matter is rock’n’roll has a bad reputation and although Andy admits it’s a tough game; he’s in it because he loves it.

“Live music does not cause violence, that’s just bullshit,” says Andy. “The Collingwood Police have never come to the Tote, unless we’ve called them: and we’ve called them twice in nine years.” The Tote began its story as Ivanhoe Hotel in 1981. It went from being a local pub with meals to a live music venue in a short time and as the venue side evolved and took off, no one noticed the cracks starting to appear, things like building code and planning all fell by the wayside so when the council came to the venue in 2009, the damage then was almost irreparable.

Due to the high risk license the Tote had – operating after 1.00 am – new government legislation required them to have security attached to the venue for the early hours which wasn’t a viable option for the then owners. “There were a whole lot of things that could’ve gone wrong and nobody could be blamed,” says Andy of why the Tote had to close its doors.

The last days of the Tote were not only sad ones for the community but for fans of live music. No one would have ever imagined that a venue that special, that was instrumental in so many music careers and memories, could close. It was four days of music, tears, memories and beer. Andy organised for 40 barrels of beer to be delivered daily to the Tote and every last drop was drunk. But the Tote survived. By really living by their motto of “Never Say Die!” the Tote survived to see another day.

As someone who has been touted as ‘saving the Tote’, Andy says it took more than him for the Tote to enjoy a successful resurrection. As a business man who understands, lives and breathes live music, he knew what was needed to save the Tote. And so began the story of rebuilding, and repairing an old Melbourne legend. Andy confesses the road to getting the Tote back on track has been a hard and long one but a rewarding one at that.

But did he save the Tote? “I think the Tote was saved collectively by all involved; directly or indirectly. With Chris Morris, the new owner’s preferences to have music people reopen it, and most importantly the punters who came for the last weekend, and then the 20,000 who marched to parliament asking for the Tote to be saved, to be spared.” “I do consider us to be … the lucky ones to have the opportunity to reopen the icon that is the Tote, and hopefully put it into a position that allows it to keep its status and viability alive for another 30 years and more.”

Throughout the month of November, the Tote will be celebrating 30 years of live music in Melbourne with month-long celebrations curated by bands, musicians, individuals and organisations who have played a part in shaping the identity of the Tote. For more information and tickets visit www.thehotel.com