There aren't many times when I dread writing a review, but this is certainly one of them, because I'm about to say bad things about what has become an institution among San Francisco alternaqueers, or at least those who like to imagine themselves as such. There is no doubt that The Rod is one of the single most popular nights for gay men in San Francisco, and DJ Bus Station John has achieved underground celebrity status for his attempt to provide some tonic to the world of circuit parties and gym clones. I certainly applaud him for making this attempt, I only wish that he had found some other solution than situating us once again in the ghetto of 70s gay disco.
Loyal readers should have some sense of my priorities when going out and looking for a good night; comfortable space, fun crowd, danceable music, clean sound, skilled DJs. What I don't look for is that an event is necessarily gay; honestly, that's one of the least important things to me, because when I go out, I go out to dance and be with my boyfriend, rather than to hook up. Hooking up, however, is what gay nights generally tend to be about, so when I got an event like the Rod, I'm already way out of synch with the night's intentions. It's difficult, then, for me feel what my relationship to the night should be, and to what standard I should adhere when writing a review.
Deco is absolutely one of my favorite club spaces in San Francisco; with three levels, an outdoor patio, super-friendly bartenders, and an all-around great vibe, it feels to me more like a clubhouse than an actual club. The decor is very retro, with curvy disco moldings, mirrors, and neon. When you step through the door for The Rod, the combination of this decor, the retro 70s and 80s rare disco B-sides, and the vintage 70s porn that serves as The Rod's calling card makes it feel like you have stepped back into pre-AIDS San Francisco. And this is precisely why I hate it, despite the fun everyone I know has there, despite Bus Station John's good intentions, and despite my own desire to be stop being such a critic and just enjoy it.
For me, The Rod represents Bus Stations John's fetishization of pre-AIDS gay life, and, to me, makes the statement that there is nothing that follows after it that can have any meaning for gay men. It says to me that the best time to have been a gay man was in the past, and that the best thing we can create for ourselves now is a simulacrum of the past. Having come from Lights Down Low a block away, where I saw young queer guys involved with straight kids and others in making new culture for everyone, The Rod seemed like stepping into the living room of an old gay auntie who hadn't gone out in thirty years and wanted to show me pictures of "the good times."
As loyal readers know, I really don't like disco. It's thus hard for me to objective about the music that Bus Station John plays, or even the way he plays it. I wouldn't really call him a DJ, and, to his credit, he has said as much in interviews. More accurately, he is a guy with a really amazing record collection, and a couple times a month he plays it for people. I watched him play records for a while on Friday night, and he does clearly know his music and enjoy it, but don't expect anything beyond moving the fader from one channel to another; he doesn't even use headphones to listen to the track he's about to cue up. This is fine if all you are about is playing records, but I like a little more excitement and performance from a DJ.
I can't say that there was really much of a dancefloor - the lounge room where BSJ was spinning was packed, but it was more of a mingling floor; here and there you could find pockets of people getting down, and some general head-bobbing, but nobody seemed to really be there to dance. This is somewhat consistent for what is essentially a pick-up scene; as long as the music isn't too obnoxious, as long as it doesn't break the mood, it doesn't really matter what you play. In this case retro disco is just enough stimulus to raise the energy of the room, but not enough to distract from flirting and conversation. It's also quite comfortable and unchallenging, not unlike the shawl you might put on to keep yourself warm while looking at those old photos.
My worst experience of the evening was getting into an argument with a friend of ine who is also a friend of BSJ, about my opinion of the night. He is a genuine alternaqueer sort who is looking for something other than the standard run of Gus Presents and Castro bars, and I am totally in agreement with him on that. For him Deco represents a space that is welcoming to other sensibilities, and where you don't have to be an overbuffed steroid queen to get attention. And in those respects, he's completely right. My argument was that, if we want to create alternatives to mainstream gay club culture, why do we have to look back to the past rather than creating something for ourselves out of our present situation? It was at this point I realized how much the likes of Gus Presents and similar events have poisoned young gay guys against what they think of as "techno," which, generally, means terrible tribal house. For them "techno" music is synonomous with all that they find oppressive about mainstream gay culture, though I also think there is an element of willful ignorance at work here, since most of them couldn't tell you the difference between techno, trance, and house even while listening to it. I also think the return to classic disco demonstrates that, to be a successful gay club night, it's much easier to go with the comfortable and familiar than to take a chance with the unknown and potentially challenging. This is what I think ultimately accounts for the wild popularity of The Rod; you are guaranteed that it will be the least challenging thing you, as a gay man, can do on a Friday evening. If you are looking for a night of the comfortable and familiar, and maybe a desperate hook-up at 3AM, then by all means, go for it. As for me, I'll be looking for party destinations that aren't focused on locking us all up in the closet of the past.