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.