Saturday, January 12, 2008

Event Review: The Rod at Deco

There aren't many parties that lead to the boyfriend and I having a passionate debate about the meaning of parties and the scene, but that's exactly what happened Friday night at The Rod at Deco: while everybody else was in the front room cheering on the wet jockstrap contest, there we were in the back room by the pool table, throwing around words like Gesamtkunstwerk and pondering the necessity of gay men connecting with their own history in a way that, while troublesome in its nostalgic aspects, also gives them a sense of their possibility in the present. On the boyfriend's side he thought I needed to lighten up a bit, since the evidence was all around us that people were there having a good time and connecting with something, and I had to concede that, at times, my contrarian nature, suspicious as it is of all things popular and fun in the tradition of Theodor Adorno, clouds my critical perspective. On the other hand, my position remains that the party scene is about creating culture, and if we are going to take a critical perspective upon it, it can't be from the perspective of whether or not people are simply having a good time - after all, people have great times at circuit parties, which are the target of numerous dismissive comments within the "alternative" gay community - but it must be from the perspective of the kind of culture that is being created and the meaning of that for those participating in it. And from that perspective I continue to have issues with the culture being created by The Rod, because, to me, it feels like a step backwards in the evolution of San Francisco's gay culture.

The Short Version of the Review - Is It Fun?

I am perfectly willing to accept that this point about the place of The Rod in San Francisco's gay culture probably doesn't really matter to anybody else but me, so here I'll give you the the standard nightlife magazine review of The Rod and you can continue on with the rest of your online reading without further ado. The Rod, on the 2nd Friday of the month at Deco Lounge, is among San Francisco's longest-running gay nights, having celebrated its 3rd Anniversary this past Friday. DJ Bus Station John, who has advanced leagues as a DJ since I first heard him spin a couple years ago at Aunt Charlie's place, where he continues with his very popular Tubesteak Connection, has one of the best collections of rare-groove disco, Hi-NRG, and original New York electro ever assembled. If you closed your eyes during one of his sets you could easily imagine yourself back in a San Francisco disco or bathhouse circa 1979, and if you opened your eyes the photocopies and projections of vintage porn, featuring pre-steroid swollen guys with feathered hair (many of whom look exactly like the guys who gave me boners when I was in high school) might convince you that you are really there. The Rod is an almost perfect emulation of a particular moment in gay history, and if the attendees were sporting more polyester and facial hair you might think that the door to Deco was really a time portal.

That The Rod has been going on for three years should be enough testament to its popularity, and on any given Friday night you can rest assured of a sizable crowd of guys and a few girls as well. Since it's a Tenderloin bar the crowd is definitely scruffier and more alternative than you would find at any given Castro bar, and I suspect that many of the guys competing for the $100 prize in the wet jockstrap contest might otherwise be trying to get that sum by walking the beat of Polk Street. To my eye the crowd skews a bit older, since the music attracts many guys who probably heard it when the grooves were fresh off the cutting press, but I also saw a few twenty-somethings of my acquaintance. Though I've usually seen a few guys boogieing in front of the DJ stand, The Rod doesn't really come across as a big dance party, but more of a mingling scene, and the music provides a great background for the naughtiness that people get up to later. We noticed that, after the patio closed and the wet jockstrap contest began the crowd seemed thinner, or perhaps just more concentrated in two rooms, one where they were watching the contest, and another where they were carrying through on the instincts it aroused. All in all, if you are looking for a laid-back, sexy (for a late-70s value of sexy) night out with a crowd that isn't too precious or grotesquely buffed, and your main goal is some sleazy fun, then The Rod is a great choice.

I Come Not to Bury Bus Station John, But to Praise Him

And what, you might ask, is wrong with a party simply being a good time? In the present moment of the event itself, nothing - people come and have a good time, connect with each other, and maybe leave with a feeling of satisfaction in whatever form they were seeking. But the success of The Rod is also, in my mind, what opens it up to a higher level of examination. I admire Bus Station John for having created a total aesthetic, for the way he combines sound and visuals to bring forth a vibe that others connect with. Despite the boyfriend's protestations that this is a pretentious way to put it, I think Bus Station John has created a work of art that is distinctive in the San Francisco gay scene, and that The Rod is an example of someone really creating culture. And this is where I believe that the critical perspective comes into play, where its legitimate to ask, what kind of culture is being created, what ideas are being put forth in this creation? As I pointed out before, many of my friends and acquaintances have no problems with negative criticism of the culture being created by other promoters, such as Gus Presents, when that culture is not part of their own aesthetic, when the ideas they see being put forth are in contrast to their own. Things get trickier when the object of critical perspective is within one's own cultural milieu. I will admit that in my previous review of The Rod, I was bitchier than I needed to be, since I thought that tone was necessary to make my voice be heard. But since then I have softened my stance a little bit - I have heard disco played under circumstances when it felt right and was enjoyable, and I have absolutely nothing against the man himself; though I don't know him personally, many other folks of my acquaintance do, and by all accounts he is a really great guy who's heart in the right place. In fact, I am quite sympathetic to the intention that I think is behind Bus Station John's nights, I just disagree with the way he is materializing that intention. I hope that a greater degree of respect for that intention is evident in this review; if I did not feel some respect for the ideas that someone was putting forth, believe me, I would not be spending my Saturday afternoon in front of this laptop, hoping that my perspective might, in some way, help further those ideas.

Disco of the Past, Disco of the Present

My main issue with The Rod is its nostalgic foundations. In an interview with the Bay Guardian, in which he was asked about his take on the current gay club scene, Bus Station John said " . . . I've retreated to the past, where I dwell happily with my pre-AIDS, pre-crack, pre-MTV, pre-PNP vinyl collection. Greetings from 1981! Visitors are welcome." Given the rather bland state of the gay club scene over the past few years, with its endless rotation of the same DJs playing the same music to the same crowd of guys over and over gain, I can't blame Bus Station John for wanting to recreate the vibe of an earlier time, when the scene was more about joy and sex and fun than meth and money (though it seems contradictory to be anti-PNP and have a giant cut-out of a bottle of poppers in the front window of the club). And I can even understand wanting to return to music that has, at its core, genuine warmth and emotion after listening to the hours of anthem tribal dreck that is spun at most circuit events. But, even with the best of intentions behind it, this approach is essentially reactionary and regressive, and says that the best solution to the "ennervating" (to use Bus Station John's term) state of current gay club culture is to retreat to the past.

I can't deny that there is a legitimate place for disco in current gay club culture, and I've found myself increasingly drawn to music from contemporary producers like Justus Koehnecke, Prinz Thomas, and Lindstrom that updates the disco sound with modern production. There is a looseness in its composition and upbeat hipness in its sonic palette that can't help but bring a twitch to my hips and a smile to my face. And, thanks to the recent Mineshaft party from Honey Sound System, as well as Bus Station John's set at the recent Paradise All-Night Disco Extravaganza, I've found a way to connect with it in the club experience. I think that, periodically, the gay club scene needs to re-connect with its roots as a means of rediscovering its values, and in this regard I have no problem with the occasional disco party (as long as nobody plays Donna Summer or Gloria Gaynor, that is). My problem is when the disco party is seen as the height of gay club culture, carrying with it the statement that there is nothing of value at all to be found in contemporary culture, when this plainly isn't so. I also worry that, in the context of creating culture, disco nostalgia keeps us from participating in the creation of a new cultural identity for ourselves. This is what I like most about parties like Lucky Pierre and those coming from the Honey Sound System; they are in touch with the past and recognize its importance, but are also actively engaged in using contemporary msuic and culture to create a new sense of gay identity. In fact, from things I see going on right now, I think 2008 might very well be a banner year for the San Francisco gay scene, one in which many groups come together to once again create a sense of excitment and joy about being a San Francisco queer. Looking back to the past will never really get us to that point, because once you step beyond the door of the time portal, your're right back where you started from.

Say No to Nostalgia, Say Yes Creating the New World

Nostalgia is a powerful impulse, and after the eight years of shit we've all lived through, it's no wonder that so many people, gay and straight, are looking back to the past, when things seemed easier, more fun, and certainly less dire (just think about all the 80s, disco, and "return to . . ." parties that have gone down over the past year). But, ultimately, what we have to deal with is the here and now, and nothing from the past will really solve our present problems. Looking back to the past may give us ideas about how to deal with the present, but it's up to us to put those ideas in a contemporary context. 1970s era disco might help us connect with a set of values, but that doesn't mean we need to precisely emulate that era, it means we need to create the disco of the 2000s. The Rod is a great place to go on every second Friday to have fun and reflect on the original disco era, but the moment you start thinking "yeah, it was all so really great back then, I wish we could go back" is the moment that you enter into bad faith with the present. Rather, you should be thinking "yeah, how do we bring this into the now, how do we create this feeling with contemporary music, images, fashion, and people?" Formulating the answers to that question should be the main task of the San Francisco gay scene over the next year, because when the elections happen in November, we need to be ready to make our contribution to the change that will ensue.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Check out this other SFBG piece on BSJ. He actually included the link on one of his flyers...and we thought he was a Luddite! :) No date but based on the now-outdated info @ the end of the article, it looks to be around 3 years old. Gives a deeper picture of what this guy's really about.

http://www.sfbg.com/39/38/cover_bus_station_john.html

The Jaded Gay DJ said...

Thanks for the additional link! I remembered this article was out there but couldn't find it. However, I think in this interview he's still putting forth some of the attitude about contemporary culture that I find problematic - it's all very reactionary and reaching back to the past. Sure, it's important to honor our past and keep in touch with it, but it's another to see it as the total solution to the problems of the present.

SeanF said...

purity versus innovation...the age old argument. I guess I wanna go to this event now to see how fun it really is. Seems to me that there are always those who want an authentic experience from the past. I think this kind of thing can be fun and informative, but agree it's probably less of a builder of new culture. But then, how much ever really is?

So I wonder if you are asking this event to accomplish something it's not trying to....

The Jaded Gay DJ said...

Good question, and one I've struggled with myself. I think that when BSJ kicked off his parties some three years ago, he was really responding to that present situation, and his response was as reasonable as any other - it did get people back in touch with a gay culture that wasn't predicated on money or being a Falcon model, and in that regard I think it did accomplish something along the lines of what I'm arguing for. But, in the three years or so that he's been doing this, it's not moved forward with with that, and I don't see BSJ really getting in touch with the positive things in gay culture, or just in dance culture, that have happened in that time.

Of course, the larger question that I do try to ponder here is whether it even makes sense to talk about something like a party night in the kind of terms that I'm proposing, since what most people have in mind is drinking and getting laid, so I might very well be putting a frame around these events that isn't appropriate. I think I rely on you all, to some extent, to tell me whether this line of inquiry is legit, or whether I should just stick to observing what I see in the moment and writing about that.

Anonymous said...

We love Bus Station's parties, and had a blast at the Rod's anniversary. The dance floor actually got packed as the night progressed, it just took a while to get going (people usually need to have a drink or three before they start loosening up.) Plus Bus Station attracts the "late crowd." Fortunately The Rod has after-hours!

The Jaded Gay DJ said...

I think it was about 1.30 when we left, and I remember that when we passed through the dance area there were quite a few people present, though I don't recall how much dancing, as opposed to socializing, was going on. One of the great things about Deco is the fact that you can go at least a little "after hours," though I usually need a pretty substantial kick of energy early in the evening to convince me to stick around for the late show.

zenosf said...

Thanks for writing such a thoughtful article! "Adorno" and "bad faith" used in a club review! Shocking and refreshing at the same time. Like a sort of existential altoid. I too come from a similar critical perspective, and I have been alternatingly disappointed and surprised when I bring my reflective skills to the dance floor. I'm here to dance, to discover new music, to hang out with friends, and hand over my sensory inputs to a master craftsman (the DJ). Thus, I often find myself feeling let down when I find that the DJ is playing something I could just as well find on a myspace or imeem or radio station for free. I want to hear the craft, I want to think along with the DJ: why this song, why this sequence, what's happening now that we respond in this certain way musically. And that's probably why I gravitate to the smaller venues and events. Because I'm looking for something (anything?) that stimulates. And not just biologically or chemically, but aesthetically as well. In fact it is this subtle distinction between something that stimulates and anything that stimulates that club promoters are hoping we'll ignore. But for myself, I am unwilling to accept anything that stimulates, and instead am hoping to find something of substantial value in exchange for my party-going efforts. The reactionary aesthetic should not be dismissed entirely, seanf commented. We are living in the midst of a reactionary culture (witness the popularity of conservative and evangelical cultures across the globe). The problem, as you eloquently point out, is that for every reaction there must be action, and between the two a synthetic move forward (or higher, or to a different plane of values). And so the virtue we are seeking is not to be found in the particulars of the aesthetic (its musical taste or visual taste or fashion sense) but to be located in its substance or meaning. What does it mean to dance at a circuit party vs. what does it mean to participate in a retro-themed party vs. what sort of values are you hoping to communicate...... Speaking for myself, I am attracted to music that causes me to think (smart lyrics), causes me to dance (even, perhaps, uncontrollably), causes me to connect that cogitating-dancing-event to the events of our present circumstance (whether political or spiritual or economic). In other words, a party is just a collection of people who come to unwind and relax or escape or have fun.... but to unwind (etc.) from ---. To unwind from the pressures of the world, from the dreariness of pop music, from.... To party, it seems to me, is a movement away from and also towards. And the craftsman ought to be able to suggest just what is being kept at a distance and what is being brought near. I say suggest; I am not expecting a clear philosophical analysis or cultural critique from our musical masters. I am saying that artists, poets, & musicians, are saying something true, and it is the task or function of the DJ to advance that truth, to pick out those artists that have something substantial to offer, and to mix that into a compelling and enjoyable package for our sensory indulgence. And that's what I love so much about contemporary music, whether indie or punk or metal or classical or .... so many artists are creating music art forms that speak to all aspects of our existence: our minds and hearts and legs and groins. But our existence is contingent. We could be elsewhere. We could be at the other party. We could be at home. We could be dead. But to dance, to feel the music and to feel. To feel is undeniably to be alive. And we might be deceived about the contents of our sensory indulgence (there could be an evil genie at work here)... nonetheless I cannot be deceived that I feel, and that I feel in this certain way, and that in large part this sensory experience is produced in joint collaboration with the DJ, the promoters, the venue, my friends, and the total environment. If I had one thing I would put on my wish list (admittedly quite subjective) would be to open up our ears. "Aperite portas," so to speak. To open the gateways of perception to new, different, or just unexpected musical-sensory inputs. I'm just talking off the top of my head here, but there could be an industrial transition, or a Sun Ra movement, or an glam indie dance song, or a juno reactor hymn. I mean, I am here to dance. I might as well dance for something I don't yet know but might just love simply because it moves me (literally).

The Jaded Gay DJ said...

Yay for existential Altoids! And oblique references to Descartes as well!

Yes, I agree, I want to be moved physically, emotionally, and mentally when I go to a party or club, and while I am down with anybody who can bring about the first movement in my or anybody else, it's those other two movements that are what I see as the legitimate objects of critique. I guess the easy way to say it is that I feel like retro nights don't move me forward as an individual in those respects, and I don't believe they move people forward as a group either. I think retro becomes about a the simple consumption of the familiar, when what we need is something that takes us into unfamiliar territory and asks us to interact with that, and each other in that environment, for a while. This is how new ideas and concepts are brought to mind, and this is what I'd like to see more of in the club scene, events that aren't just about consumption, but in some way might move us in a new direction.

zenosf said...

"the simple consumption of the familiar, when what we need is something that takes us into unfamiliar territory and asks us to interact with that, and each other in that environment, for a while" -- you said it, must more succinctly. And this is what is uninspiring about most dance-houses (the consumption of what is familiar) and what therefore remains uninspired in club-goers (for what is already familiar does not open us towards the tremendous energies and ideas being explored in contemporary music). You've inspired me to read Adorno. Gotta go now! This will be quite a treat.

The Jaded Gay DJ said...

Oh jeez, I'm not sure I would wish a sourpuss like Adorno on anybody, but if you're feeling inspired The Dielectic of Englightenment by Adorno and Horkheimer is a good place to start.

Karin said...

1977-1983 may or may not have seen the height of gay culture; probably not. A culture so large and mercurial as one built around sexuality, as opposed to one grounded in a specific aesthetic (the latter, of course, inherently possessing a finite lifespan), is bound to enjoy a neverending tide of highs and lows.

1977-1983 (give or take a few years, depending on how much leeway you grant funk and house) does, however, most definitely qualify as the height of the disco era. Like you, I've heard the newbies: everyone from Lindstrom to Escort to Sally Shapiro and back again. Some of them are pretty good. But I think most disco lovers will agree that the new shit doesn't hold a candle to half of BSJ's record collection.

People go to clubs for different reasons. Plenty of gay men certainly hope to hook up and couldn't care less about what's being blasted over the system. The primary draw for me is good music...specifically, good, hard-to-find disco, and Bus Station John has that in spades. The records in that man's crates are indimidating in number, inspiring in quality, and, furthermore, representative of a time when dance music was doing all the right things.

So, while your argument is interesting, I find it irrelevant; not because I'm the type who just wants to drink, dance, and fuck, but because I think nightlife is ultimately more about art than politics. Bus Station John does not have a social responsibility; no artist does, and to suggest otherwise, I think, demeans the very notion of art. He consistently plays great music, some of the best in San Francisco, and I see nothing wrong with the fact that most of it was made about 30 years ago.

The Jaded Gay DJ said...

Karin, thanks for the comment!

I have to disagree with this:

" . . . I think nightlife is ultimately more about art than politics. Bus Station John does not have a social responsibility; no artist does, and to suggest otherwise, I think, demeans the very notion of art."

First, I don't think it demeans art to suggest that it has a social function (responsibility is a bit of a loaded term, but I'll come back to that); in fact, I think just the opposite. If art doesn't have a social function, if it doesn't engage us in a thoughtful way and make us think about our being-in-the-world, it's mere decoration.

When it comes to nightlife, I think this is especially the case, because club nights are overtly concerned with the social and political (in the broadest sense of that term). The nights I find most interesting, like The Rod, Bearracuda, Charlie Horse, Lucky Pierre, and Heat (to name just a couple) are those that, whether I agree with their vision or not, do have a vision of something that they're trying to create in that space, and a way in which they are trying to get people to relate to one another. In some cases, like Charlie Horse, I think there's also some very pointed political satire and parody.

Take away the idea, and what you have left in the nightlife scene is what you can experience on any Friday night in the Castro - commerce that is geared toward engaging the most prurient instincts of gay men. This is why, even though I don't agree with the specific way that BSJ approaches his idea of a "gay utopia," if you will, I admire him for having a total vision that he materializes every month, and that he can get others to take part in. I think that, from statements I've seen of his in the weeklies, as well as what I've experienced at his parties, he does have an social/political vision that he is trying to promote, and, in that way, he is taking on a social responsibility at the same time that he is putting forth an artistic vision. I don't think this demeans him, or his vision, or the music he plays, in any way; in fact, I think it elevates him to a much higher rank than parties where the greatest attraction is baby oil wrestling.

Karin said...

I agree that all art has a social function. If an artist puts something into the world, people are going to respond. And one might say that the best artists--or, at very least, the best DJs and club promoters--have cohesive visions they wish to share with others.

When I said that no artist has a social responsibility, I meant that an artist's singular charge is creative self-expression. To propose that Bus Station John's artistic vision is flawed because it does too little in the way of advancing gay culture; to judge art didactically, as a means to an end; to assert that an artist should sacrifice even a modicum of his/her vision to promote a social and political agenda, feels, well, slimy.

It's okay if you don't like disco (though you may have to hand in your gay membership card for an admission like that). But why discourage musical and thematic variety? Almost every club out there is spinning modern stuff. Let The Endup and the 222 Club push the neo-disco/disco house envelope, and let nights like The Rod and Tubesteak Connection remain havens of nostalgia and classic beats. There's room enough for every artistic vision, social agenda notwithstanding.

The Jaded Gay DJ said...

Well, here's the thing: I think BSJ does have a social vision that he's promulgating through his events, and I think this is borne out by things he's said in the articles that have been linked in my post and in the first comment. For example:

"My nights are audiovisual tributes to the old-school gay demimonde, when our culture was at its creative, aesthetic, and sexual peak. There was a short but amazing window of time when incredibly imaginative, engaging, and sometimes crazy electronic music was coming out of New York, San Francisco, Europe, and even Montreal, made principally by and for gay men." (http://www.sfbg.com/39/38
/cover_bus_station_john.html)

Where I have a problem is with that assertion that the pre-AIDS era was when "our culture was at its creative, aesthetic, and sexual peak." Saying that downplays the things that all of us who participated in the post-AIDS gay civil rights movement did, and it ignores the really amazing things that are being done every day by faggots everywhere - as well as the imaginative, engaging, and often crazy electronic music that's being created now. I'm very sympathetic to the critique of mainstream gay culture that I think BSJ is raising, but I disagree with what he is offering as solution, which is a return to the past. If we want to have a vibrant, exciting, gay demimonde, then we need to create it out of contemporary culture, in my opinion.

In that same article he says:

"In a sense I think I'm providing a musical bridge between two distinct queer generations, an emotionally important connection that was decimated both by AIDS and the lust to harness our "demographic" 's spending power to the popular market. By restoring this connection, I'm hoping to inform and empower us to make our sexuality our own again. I hope for a world where freaks can be freaks – and can proudly walk the streets of San Francisco again without feeling any pressure to fit into the latest fashionable "scene" shoved down our throats by whatever liquor or "lifestyle" ads are currently barraging our community.

I think it's important to make this historical connection as a way of getting back to our roots, and I too want a world where freaks can be freaks, but I don't want it to have to take place within a time portal. I like the idea of what disco represented, on a spiritual level, even if I don't care much for the music itself (and the idea that I would have to turn in my gay card for admitting that, as if gay identity and disco are inextricably linked, is also something I'm critical of), but I think we, as a community, need to focus on how we can do that without turning our parties into a history lesson.

I can't fault anyone for enjoying the music that moves them; we're all wired in a different way, and what I enjoy is always going to be a little different, at least, from what someone else enjoys. For that reason alone we need a diverse scene where you can go out and find the thing you're looking for. You're right that there's room for every kind of artistic vision, and I would hope that every vision finds a community to support it, as BSJ has. But, I would also hope that every now and then people would step back and look at the foundation of that vision. I think it's great that BSJ does have this vision that others want to participate in; but, I have issues with what I see as the foundation of that vision, as expressed by the man himself, and I think it's legimate to critique that. This doesn't mean that he should change to suit me, or that his parties aren't a fun time for those who are into that music and scene, it just means that I disagree with him.

Anonymous said...

Fuck Over-Analysis, Let's Dance!!!

The Jaded Gay DJ said...

Ah, but that's the problem with having a grad school education, over-analysis becomes a way of life!