(This story first appeared in the SF Weekly)
We’re hanging out in Martuni’s, the last great gay piano bar in San Francisco. Once, these majestic animals roamed the hills like mastodon; now, they are nearly extinct. On a good night, it seems like every professional singer in town will show up and open their mouths for free, belting out music like a drunken chorus of angels, as if salvation is guaranteed us all. Then they scatter back to what little of the theater world has managed to remain in the era of Netflix.
My friend Jessie wants to know how I can be so cynical. “Why do you even write about nightlife if you’re so hard on it?” I’ve disappointed her again, but I’m too drunk to care.
The problem is this: The more experienced you are, the easier it is to lose the magic. Tourists don’t get jaded about San Francisco; locals do.
San Francisco’s nightlife, at its best, is a war by a dedicated cadre of locals to extend the magic: to keep ourselves living by keeping it alive. The Beats bled into the hippies, whose bullshit fertilized the ground for an explosive gay culture in the ’70s, which inspired a vital scene in kink. The Suicide Club died out in the early ’80s, but the Cacophony Society rose from the ashes, leading to Santa Con and the Billboard Liberation Front and Burning Man. Veteran Burners returned from the desert and decided to fight the war at home, leading to the Odeon Bar and clown burlesque troops and Camp Tipsy, which in turn inspired the All Worlds Fair, as extraordinary venues shone and vanished in back alleys like fireflies in spring.
“That’s a gross oversimplification,” Jessie says.
The hell it is. “San Francisco generates a lot of bullshit — maybe we’re the bullshit capital of America,” I say, pointing over my martini. “But we don’t settle for it.”
The first really good party I went to in San Francisco was raided by the police … for absinthe, of all things. To be fair, it was an absinthe party: publicly thumbing its nose at a legal system the organizers assumed wasn’t paying attention. During the ballroom dance, a dozen cops in bulletproof vests walked through the dimly lit building warning revelers in elaborate Edwardian costumes to stay where we were and not try to leave. So some of us went back to dancing. Waltzing to the rhythm of a raid, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 …
Flustered, they kicked us out.
That was a great night. We danced in the face of authority.
Both of San Francisco’s obsessions — politics and nightlife — are the art of the possible, but at our best we demand a reality check from our parties that we never demand from our politicians. We let our political leaders get away with pieties and fictions because in politics that sinking feeling in your chest is supposed to mean you’re being effective. What’s considered “hypocrisy” in politics is often considered “glamour” in clubs, but in fact it’s the worst kind of nightlife: where we’re all made up and dressed up and pretending to be people we’re not, going to places where we can’t even hear the lies we’re being told, for the same old experience. It’s exhausting. It’s work. It’s bullshit.
Great mixology and costumes always help, but the magic happens when fictions are stripped away — when you connect deeply with someone you’d never otherwise meet; when you have a moment of shouting from the heart; when you participate in something you’d never imagined possible; when you take a risk and something real is at stake.
That’s not a formula that can be repeated. It’s not an algorithm. It can’t be bought. It’s a struggle with our humanity that needs to be reinvented not just by every generation, but every weekend. Often it fails. Badly. But some people who live here are good at making this happen. They’ve stood in our tradition and inherited the gift from their elders, like shamans.
Thanks to them, we sometimes show up to a bar expecting cocktails, but end up kissing Truth; we can go to a house party and confront Beauty. I’m not one of them, but goddamit, I love to watch them fight that fight. I love to be here when they win.
Joe calls out from behind the piano. “I want the guy who sang ‘Minnie the Moocher’ earlier tonight to come back here.”
“That’s you,” Jessie says.
She’s right. I stumble my way up to the microphone. “What are we doing?” Joe asks.
“Leonard Cohen,” I say. “Hallelujah.”
“Oh yes,” he says. The chords run through his fingers. “Watch out,” he tells the crowd. “In a moment, we’re all going to cry. Real tears. But don’t let that stop you from singing along.”