Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Event Review: Dore Alley Fair

A few weeks ago Baltimore's Dan Rodricks interviewed Elijah Anderson about his new book The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life on local NPR affiliate WYPR. The main thesis of Anderson's book is that it is the cosmopolitan canopy, those spaces where all races and classes of a city mix, and agree to act civil toward one another, that provide the true social fabric of a city. As I listened to this interview, and the attempts by Rodricks and callers to name such spaces in Baltimore, I thought, well, in San Francisco, we call them street fairs. From How Weird to the Castro Street Fair, each provides an opportunity for a neighborhood to invite the rest of the city to have a visit, socialize, have some food and drink, and maybe dance a little while soaking in some of the unique "atmosphere" of the neighborhood. As I walked around Dore Alley Street Fair this past Sunday, I realized that I could not find a better example of how the cosmopolitan canopy of the street fair brings all of San Francisco together in a way that only this city really can.

Let's be honest: Dore Alley is FREAKY, and there are things both wonderful and terrible to be seen. But I think it's a mark of being a San Franciscan that one can wander into that scene, with perhaps only the slightest notion of what a "fetish fair" might be, and think, oh, there are some naked guys, and over there someone is pretending to a dog, and, wow, the sound of that whip is really loud, and it's all just another day in the city. There are many people who would take that as the very mark of how deviant and decadent Sodom by the Bay has become, but for me, it's a mark of what is truly special about "San Francisco Values:" we judge people not by how weird or freaky they are, but by things that really count, like the strength of you character. So you like to spend some time running around on all fours and barking, yeah, whatever -- are you someone I can count on when I really need you? As a city, we also have a vast tolerance for difference, because we're almost all people who have come here because we were so very, very different in the places we lived before. Dore Alley Fair is an event where people from all over the city come together, and whatever our differences in race, gender, class, ethnicity, etc., we can be civil to one another because we don't just tolerate difference, we encourage it in full display.

For me, Dore Alley was also a deeply personal reminder of why I came back to San Francisco. I went down there with no particular plans, no crew, and spent the afternoon wandering around, running into friends, hanging out for while, running off again, finding more friends, repeat repeat repeat. It was the best experience of "community" I've had in a really long time, because I could feel how I connected, in so many different ways, to this gathering of people. In some ways the big party aspect of Dore Alley Fair was far less important to me than this ability to just have a spontaneous, serendipitous experience of being part of something much larger than myself.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Event Review: Comfort and Joy's "Active Touch," July 29, 2011

A few weeks ago I read a post on Facebook in which someone was responding to the closing of The Eagle by complaining that the gay bar/club scene "just wasn't the same anymore," how it had become boring and predictable, homogeneous, lost its cruise/sleaze factor, etc. While in my original post about the closing of the Eagle I pointed out that things change, and perhaps it was time to think about a "new gay" as opposed to waxing nostalgic about the "old gay," events like Comfort and Joy's "Active Touch" demonstrate quite well that there is a thriving, exciting, gay scene alive and well in San Francisco, with all the sleaze and craziness you could want, if you just take the time to go looking for it.

This is, to the best of my hazy recollection, the fourth or fifth year that Comfort and Joy has been throwing the Touch parties, usually in conjunction with a major holiday or event, in this case, Dore Alley. While the parties serve on the practical level as fundraisers for Comfort and Joy's annual excursions onto the playa, they also provide a glimpse into a "new gay" underground scene. Inspired in large part originally by John Cameron Mitchell's film "Short Bus," Comfort and Joy events evoke the vibe of the 70s bath-house, where you can cruise, dance, see some inspired performances, and connect with a community that is truly creating something new, rather than trying to hold onto the past. Comfort and Joy parties have provided a platform for musicians, DJs, drag divas, and visual artists like Honey Sound System, the House of Herrera, the House of Salad, III, and many others, and serve as a nexus for queers of all shapes, sizes, and varieties to cum, er, come together.

I must admit that, for this particular event, I didn't really have the energy to devote to a full-scale party. I went primarily to connect with friends and a community that I haven't been part of in a while, and in that regard, it was a blowout - I heard the words "welcome home" so many times that it convinced me that I really was "home." If I'd had a bit more spunk in my junk I could have certainly found any number of amusing divertisements to keep me occupied until the closing bell at 4AM, since there was a dancefloor (though, admittedly, I am not that great a fan of Bus Station John's retro disco sound), a "gentleman's boudoir," a tiki lounge, and any number of small niches where one could locate oneself for conversation or other social interactions. It was enough for me, though, to just feel like I had found myself back among a community that, like a family, has its fractious and dysfunctional aspects, but are the still people with whom feels that special, intimate connection. I'll take that over being groped at The Powerhouse any day.

Event Review: Honey Soundsystem 4 Year Anniversary at Holy Cow

I signed a lease on a shared space in the Castro last Saturday, and ever since then it's been a whirlwind of moving, cleaning, setting up, and dreaming of the future. There have also been some moments of pure anxiety, as I contemplate the ratio of expenses to savings and how long the latter will last without a job to replenish it. It's a good thing, then, that the Honey Soundsystem 4 Year Anniversary party at Holy Cow came around at just the right moment to remind me of why I moved back to San Francisco.

Honey Soundsystem first came to my attention by way of Marke B. of the Bay Guardian's Super Ego column. We had been having an email exchange about techno in the SF music scene, and he told me I should check out this DJ PeePlay and his comrade-in-arms Jason Kendig. And then, just about the same time, Kitten Calfee of Comfort and Joy told me he'd been contacted by this group calling themselves Honey Soundsystem about playing at an Afterglow party. Did I know anything about them, and could I recommend them? And that, as they say, is how history is made.

Checking out the posters for past Honey events at the party reminded me of what I have always appreciated about them: they focus on the music and creating a big open vibe for everyone, rather than playing to the typical marketing ploys, usually based on identity stereotypes, of other club promoters. Honey Soundsystem has never put a guy on their flyers, never proclaimed that their parties are for this type, or that one, but for everyone. You could see the effect of this at the party - there were club kids and "mature elders" like me, bears and twinks, Asians and Latins, women and drag queens, all there because they wanted to go out and have a good time on the dancefloor with each other. Which brings me around to the music: while I have not always grooved on every musical orientation of Honey Soundsystem, these are guys who always care deeply about the music they play, and who go out of their way to use the music to create something that is a true expression of their ethos. You can go to any bar or club in the Castro and consume pre-digested pop dance pablum, but Honey Soundsystem will always feed your ears and your soul with something substantial and carefully cultivated.

On this particular night, the sound had a distinct acid/retro house feel, and as I danced for the first time in months, on a dance floor full of shiny happy people, I had a flashback to some of the great Sunday night parties of the past, like Pleasuredome at King Street Garage, or the tea dance at The End Up. Sunday night is always a special time in clubland, a time when those who have a different relation to the workweek come out and party, but it's also a night when you're not necessarily looking for the peak experience of a Friday or Saturday. In this case, Honey hit that sweet spot (oh man, I can't believe I wrote that), between uplifting and groovy that, for me, has always defined the essence of a good Sunday night out. I shook it loose for about two hours, had a nice conversation about the Hawaiian lifestyle with a couple of very friendly guys on the back porch, and re-connected with some old friends before I finally gave in to exhaustion and headed out the door around 12.30. At that point, the club was packed and there was a line that looked like something out of Satyricon stretching down the sidewalk, so I'm sure the festivities kept up well until last call.

Honey Sundays at Holy Cow is going onto my list of San Francisco Essentials, things you must do when you're in the city. And to PeePlay, Kendig, Robot Hustle, and Ken Vulsion, my thanks for reminding me of what makes this a great city, and why it's worth whatever it takes to be here. Long Live Honey!

Check out the weekly Honey Potcast for a taste of Honey and special guests.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hey Bitches, I'm Back!

Hello San Francisco, good to see you, it's been too long.

I've been back in The City for about a week now, and walking around, not much seems to have changed in the two years I've been gone. Checking out club posters in the Castro yesterday I saw many of the same names, and same concepts, that were on those posters when I left, and my traditional watering holes had many of the same faces on both sides of the bar. But if not much has changed in the material world of gay SF during my exile years (putting aside the frankly confusing demise of The Eagle), I've been making the effort over the past few days to adjust my perceptual apparatus, to calibrate it back to that state when I first came to San Francisco in 1999, and perhaps see the same things differently. When I first came to San Francisco, fresh out of grad school and as desperately glad to be out of Atlanta as I am to be out of Baltimore now, there was a glamor that radiated from everyone and everything, and cast a spell of enchantment over me. For a while I was able to give up on being the skeptical, cynical East Coast intellectual and simply be enthralled by the spirit of the City, to find it all quite marvelous and fascinating. Over time, of course, those perceptions changed, and it was difficult, particularly by the time I left, to not find the rot at the center of the bloom.

Whether or not I can find a way to throw wide the doors of perception again, returning to a place should not also automatically entail a return to the same modes of being, falling back into the same comfortable attitudes and ideas. There are some mistakes I think I made during my last residence in SF, and some things I've had ample opportunity to ruminate upon during cold, dark nights in the Baltimore winter. I came back to San Francisco not necessarily to pick up where I left off, but to try and strike out in a way that's substantially new. I haven't really decided what to do with this blog yet, whether the way it focuses my attention, and upon what, is something that that will ultimately help or hinder my efforts in trying to find this new direction, but, for a little while at least, it continues to give me a good excuse for going out and seeing what there is to see.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Event Review: Rich Morel's Hot Sauce at Grand Central (Baltimore)

Rich Morel, of Blow Off fame, brought Hot Sauce to Grand Central in Baltimore last night, and I had one of my best nights on the dance floor in a very long while, with swollen knees to attest to that fact this morning. Morel played a high-energy set of electro-inflected dance music that included some great sing-along opportunities with remixes of tracks like Oasis' "Wonder Wall" and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," along with plenty of the typical four-on-the-floor tracks you'd hear at any good dance party. At one point I found myself thinking back to my first gay clubbing experiences in the mid-80s at places like the now-defunct Traxx in DC, where synth pop met Hi-NRG and there were always plenty of hands in the air. That was the case at Hot Sauce as well, by 11.30 the dancefloor was jumpin' and jivin,' and when I left a little after 1AM there was still enough of a crowd to ensure it would keep going until last call.

Given that the logo for the Hot Sauce party is a cowboy riding a bucking bear, you might have some idea of what to expect from the crowd, and sure enough, it was predominately older, large of size, and ample of body and facial hair. By midnight there was some greater diversity to the crowd, and I even ran into a lesbian of my acquaintance, Pam, who, like me, was looking more for an opportunity to dance on a Saturday night than anything else. Still, as a guy who would have been considered a twink until I started going gray and blind, and remains pretty small and possessed of about the same amount of body hair as I had when I was 16, I had a hard time figuring out how to relate to this scene. I certainly enjoyed Morel's set, but for all the other considerations of why I might go out to a gay dance night, I might as well have been invisible. I even had a slight moment of hesitation when I took off my shirt on the dancefloor; plenty of other guys had already done it, and there was a lot of tactile admiration of Buddha bellies and pelts going on as a result, but I actually had a moment of wondering "Is this okay?" I have, in the past, heard some rather unkind remarks about twinks issuing from the muzzles of bears, and I wondered whether taking my shirt off in this club, with this crowd, would be taken as provocation, or, even worse, would mark me out as a target for scorn because I don't fit into this particular scene's image of masculinity. I thought about this for a second and then decided well, if anybody has a problem with it, fuck them, I came to dance, and I would hope that my obvious enthusiasm for the music and the energy of the party would be of greater importance than the accidents of genetics that made me the way I am.

I admit that I continue to struggle with the whole idea of a "bear movement" and with bears as a separate subculture of the gay scene. I understand where that subculture comes from, and I'm generally sympathetic to attempts to create alternatives to hegemonic mainstream culture of any type, gay or straight. I also cannot fault anyone for their attractions, and if bears aren't attracted to me, that's okay, because I'm not particularly attracted to them (though I have noticed that it has become increasingly "incorrect" in larger gay culture to admit that you're attracted to twinks, or nelly guys, or anything that isn't in keeping with a fairly conservative notion of masculinity). But it does bug me that, like so much of mainsteam straight culture, gay culture forms itself around body types, and those body types are taken to be the signifiers of a shared set of values. This, in the end, can make the most revolutionary movement just another exercise in conformity, and enforces separatism at the level of phenotype when the real shared values exist at a much deeper level. I have always believed that the dance scene has the ability to bring people together through a shared physical and emotional experience, and that a good DJ, like Rich Morel, knows how to create that experience. I was happy last night to share the dancefloor with big guys bumpin' bellies, two geeky Asian boys dancing together, a very drunk Latino exotic dancer, at least one drag queen, and my lesbian friend Pam. I can only wish that that the intention had been to create that shared experience for the diversity of people I saw there, rather than one exclusive group.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Endangered Eagle

Word has reached me via Facebook about the threatened closing of the San Francisco Eagle, and over at Joe.My.God there is an unsourced rendering of what is planned for the future. Aesthetically and culturally pleasing it is not. I have written before about what a great institution the beer bust is, and on many a dull Sunday afternoon in Baltimore I have had wistful thoughts of drinkings and doings on the Eagle patio, and looked forward to experiencing it again upon my return. I hope that a plan of action to save it will come out of tonight's meeting, whether through having it designated a historic landmark (one can only imagine the plaque for that), it being purchased, or a a bunch of rowdy queers chaining themselves to the toilets like in the good old days to defy the wrecking ball. However, I think a larger lesson that must be taken from this is that the SF gay community has to learn to adapt to a changing world in order to survive.

Many have bemoaned the passing of the leather bars and bathhouses that lined Folsom some thirty years ago, but what made all that possible was that SoMa was a marginal zone of low property values. As many have pointed out, the new boom and the coming of companies like Twitter and Zynga have brought up property values in SoMa, and for whoever owns the land on which the Eagle sits, I'm sure there are much more lucrative opportunities than leasing to a gay bar. This gentrification, if you will, of SoMa, is a ruthless, uncaring process driven by pure capitalism, and no one will be happy to see what it does to the treasured institutions and watering holes of the past (see, for example, my post about the controversy over the re-location of The Hole in the Wall). By enlisting the aid of the city it might be possible to win some battles, but the overall trend of the war is clear, and if the gay community is going to survive, it must learn how to adapt to the new conditions it faces, rather than mourn its losses.

I've seen many comments on this situation that take a very traditionalist stance; this is what was, this is what must be, and development must be opposed at all costs. As a Southerner, and someone who has lived in many places where the populace has linked arms against any change or development in the name of the past, I can tell you that what this ultimately brings is economic ruin. You cannot keep the San Francisco of the 1970s or 1980s; however golden those years might have been in some ways, they were also very lean years, when San Francisco had serious economic problems. That's what made it cheap to live there, that's what makes it cheap to live in Baltimore, but I don't think many San Franciscans want to live in a city where block after block of downtown is boarded up and abandoned, as SoMa was during this time and as Baltimore is now. The economic boom of the 90s revitalized San Francisco in as many ways as it created new problems, as in the case of The Eagle. I'm coming back to San Francisco because of the energy of the city, the opportunity it presents, and the kind of people who live there, so I want to see it grow and prosper. But I also want to see it keep the character of what makes it San Francisco, and for that to happen, there must be adaptation. So SoMa is not what it was in the 1970s -- find the new marginal space, work with the city to keep gentrification from encroaching upon it, and create the new SoMa. Instead of trying to hold back the tide and crying over what was lost, look ahead and create the new. If the The Eagle is sold, find a new space, because what makes The Eagle isn't the building, it's the people who come and create the space of a community.

UPDATE: Courtesy of SFWeekly, a report on last night's rally at The Eagle, which fills in this unpleasant detail:
But before that deal could go through, the owner of the property decided he wanted to start a bar there himself, and wouldn't allow the current owners to transfer the lease.

"He saw an opportunity to start his own business here," Thirkield said. "He blew up that entire deal."

Now, the Eagle has been given notice to shut down by the owner, reportedly a thirtysomething resident of Santa Rosa who inherited the property from family.
So what truly sucks about this is that someone from outside the city, who seems to have no experience with a bar, and likely has no understanding of the cultural landscape, is going to try and start a straight bar in a spot that has no foot traffic, and is well away from other bars or businesses that will support it. This means that it, like The Eagle, must be a destination bar. But note that the Skylark, which is owned by the person the property owner intends to turn the location over to, which is on the heavily trafficked 16th Street, was empty on a Monday night when the protesters showed up. Put all this together, and I can almost guarantee that whatever they put in there will fail within a year, especially given the certain negative publicity the bar will receive. So, some dunderhead is going to rip out a chunk of the gay cultural landscape of San Francisco for what will likely wind up being a failed business folly - somehow it would be better if The Eagle was going to razed for condos rather than subjected to this indignity.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Event Review: Proper at Dionysus (Baltimore)

Last night was the first taste of Spring we've had in Baltimore after a looooong, cold winter, and there was a clearly festive spirit in the air as I wandered around Mt. Vernon. After seeing Jacques Tatti's The Illusionist at The Charles (a film very much in the spirit of Jean Renoir), I ambled over to Dionysus to have a beer and discovered that a DJ night, Proper, was shortly getting underway in the upstairs bar. I had a couple beers downstairs while things warmed up, and then proceeded through the secret door to discover a very "proper" house night indeed, one that had a very lively, and friendly, underground vibe.

When I first sat down at the bar there was a conversation underway about the origins of rap, sparked by the passing of Nate Dogg earlier this week, that was straight out of High Fidelity. I wound up talking with the bartender for a bit, as well as the fellow sitting next to me who told me his girl had just left him, and that he once had been addicted to crack, but now had cleaned things up and owned two restaurants. A tattoo of barbed wire strands wrapped around his left forearm, and I think (I can't be sure because it was dark and the brim of a cap was pulled down low on his forehead) he was wearing something sparkly at the corners of his eyes. I turned him on to Strongbow Cider and we commiserated about broken hearts and making music. Clearly, Proper attracts an interesting crowd, and I saw everything from blissed out hipster kids to girls in cocktail dresses. While standing on the edge of the dancefloor a guy asked me "what do you think of this?" and I said "It's great, no douchebags." Really, what more do I need to say?

The tunes were on the pop side early in the evening, when I heard the likes of Michael Jackson and Radiohead remixes, before it settled into nice smooth flow of house (of course, it helps to keep the flanger on in smoothing out those mixes) that was moving people out onto the dancefloor. I left around midnight, as I'd had my fill of beer and was looking forward to other weekend activities, but I will definitely be back to check this scene out properly.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Early Days of Baltimore Club

On WYPR's "Maryland Morning" show this past Wednesday there was an interview with one of the early Baltimore Club DJs, DJ Equalizer, about the scene back in the early to mid-90s, when it seem that things were really hopping. What I found most interesting was Equalizer's statement that, when he left the city for about five years, starting in 1995, and came back, everything was gone. I've heard this from a lot of people I've talked to about the dance scene in Bmore, that through the mid-to-late 90s there was a very strong house/club music presence, but then it all suddenly dried up. I've not heard a good explanation of why this happened, though I suspect it may have something to do with how much population this city has lost since the mid-90s, as well as shifting demographics and population centers within the city. I've also yet to hear any "Baltimore Club" in a club, mostly it's the same dance pop I'd hear anywhere else, but maybe I'm just not going to the right places or nights.