(This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly)
I’m going to tell you a ghost story. It’s about a bar.
About 13 years ago my friend Colin went to the Odeon. It was locked. He and his friends knocked on the door.
“What time do you open?” Colin asked.
The man at the door thought about it. “We don’t open,” he finally said. “We just occur.”
Colin considered this answer. “Well, can we come in anyway?”
The Odeon closed 10 years ago. It was sold and replaced by a bar called The Knockout, which is still there today.
Nevertheless, I swear to you, I was drinking at the Odeon just last weekend.
Back when the Odeon was open, the guy checking your card at the door was underage. The drinks were watered down, but often free. And the Odeon, which operated 2000-2005, was at the time the only bar booking circus, freak, and variety acts in the city. Its stage was the place where a whole scene got permission to fail in front of a live audience, repeatedly. On any given night you could see pancake jugglers, an all-homeless comedy revue, or musicians deliberately trying to make their act so bad that it would convince the whole audience to leave — kind of a test of wills.
Acts like that desperately need to practice in front of a live audience to hone their craft. The Odeon gave it to them, helping to shape the next generation of weirdness in San Francisco.
It was glorious, and usually a shitshow — or so I’m told. I was never there. I arrived in San Francisco shortly after the Odeon closed.
But I got a second chance at the end of May, when the Odeon’s owner rented the Knockout and made it the Odeon again for one night only, in a celebration of the 10-year anniversary of its closing.
I wasn’t the only one clamoring to get in that night: Former performers and staff from the Odeon crossed the country to be here. And they wanted to celebrate.
The bar was packed, which is one crucial difference from the old days. Back then, Laughing Squid called the Odeon our community’s “clubhouse,” but it was rarely crowded.
This night, however, it seemed like everyone was there. They sang along to the music, laughed to the variety acts, got surprisingly quiet for the poetry reading, and a number of people from the old guard walked up to me, put their arms over my shoulders, and said, “Hey, you remember when the Monsters of Ukulele played?” “Or the time Flash broke the bar?”
I tried to tell them no, but they didn’t believe me. I am around the scene so much these days that when they got a few drinks in them, the old-timers were inserting me into its history.
If the Odeon is a ghost in our present, then I was a ghost in its past. I probably didn’t belong there then, and it doesn’t really belong here now. Places like the Odeon are only possible in a forgiving environment, where there are lots of second chances. That’s not San Francisco today — and while people are constantly trying to re-create that feel of a special clubhouse where anything can happen, it never works. The Odeon was proof of a concept that no one in 21st-century San Francisco wants to admit: Past a certain point, money kills fun. The kids crashing a derelict warehouse to set up a DIY open mic will always have more fun than the people paying $10,000 for an exclusive evening.
If you go to 3223 Mission now, you’ll find The Knockout, a bar that describes itself as “Good music, cheap booze, loose morals, tacos next door, mayhem inside,” which sounds exactly right.
No, it’s not the Odeon. Nothing could be. But it is one thing the Odeon never was: a functional bar. You get decent beer on tap for $5, cheap cans for $3, acceptably good cocktails at about $9, a gorgeous wooden bar in an otherwise shitty room, nothing’s watered down, it generally opens on time, and none of the musical acts are a complicated form of performance art designed to annoy you past the point of endurance. Nothing but rock ‘n’ roll.
Oh yeah, and some of the shots are lit on fire. Gotta love that.