The Saloon is dark, dank, wooden, narrow, and potentially dangerous. Stepping inside is like entering an abandoned mineshaft.
January 2016. Two guys prowl the wet surface streets of San Francisco like soldier ants working a freshly scrubbed countertop, looking for the greasy crumb trails that they knew were once there, and are now gone. That’s the way the City is today. You come back after a year away to find another section is scrubbed clean. You go to Ha Ra expecting to trade barbs with Carl the bartender, who will make you do a shot, scrutinize the way you handle that shot and then decide if you should stay or go. Instead you find a sparkling new bar with shiny beer taps that have digital thermometers on them, and a clean-cut millennial bartender who probably deejays at Coachella.
The last time you saw Carl, which seems like a few months ago, was in fact six and a half years ago. The Beatles’ career as rock stars lasted less than six and a half years; how could six and a half years feel like six and a half months to you?
Welcome to San Francisco in the mid-2010s.
No matter what was happening in the other San Francisco neighborhoods, the Tenderloin always stayed grungy. Every bar was a dive bar. That was a fact of life. But the process of gentrification is now so thorough and unrelenting that even the Tenderloin is full of fern bars and people with designer eye-frames and whitened teeth.
So, the two visitors head out to North Beach, a neighborhood that became gentrified and filled up with tourists so many decades ago that even the entrenched tourist traps now feel like an authentic Herb Caen-era city that’s disappearing everywhere else.
North Beach is dead when they get there. All up and down Columbus Ave. the waiters at the tourist restaurants stand idle and bored, hands in pockets.
The two visitors are on the last night of what has been so far a futile quest to find that most simple of city mainstays: A dive bar with a live band.
The unacknowledged truth is that San Francisco hasn’t been much of a live music town since the turn of the 21st Century, and as the years roll on the puddle continues to shrink. But all hope is not yet gone. There is still a pair of bars on a two-block stretch of Grant Street left to check out. If nothing’s happening there, then the two seekers are officially out of ideas and will have to go salve their shattered expectations at the hotel bar.
It’s as still as pond water as they reach Grant St. and peer into the first of their last hopes, the Grant & Green tavern. Only the thin strains of a weakly sung karaoke ballad let them know the sound system is even on.
They’re now down to their final strike.
As they near the corner of Grant & Fresno they hear nothing, but they do see a faint light. Then they notice the doorman, a spectral figure with a long grizzled prospector’s beard that suggests he’s been Rip Van Winkling in that very doorway since the 1890s. But in a sign of the times, the doorman has a smartphone held up close to his face, bathing his cotton white prospector’s beard in a puddle of icy blue light.
Where the beard meets the retina display is the perfect juxtaposition of San Francisco’s two chronological bookends: its 19th Century frontier-town origins and its 21st Century tech-sector present. Usually the collision of hi-tech and working class is not as copacetic as blue light hitting a white beard. Usually it’s an old bohemian being forced out of his apartment and a young tech worker moving in. This is one reason why it’s so hard to find decent live music in San Francisco anymore.
As the travelers peer into the darkness behind the doorman, they are flooded with relief to see the timeless visage of a drum, bass, guitar, and keyboard. It’s a band alright. The band is out back taking five, but just by looking at the setup, the visitors can tell that they’re playing barroom blues and rock this evening.
The Saloon is dark, dank, wooden, narrow, and potentially dangerous. Stepping inside is like entering an abandoned mineshaft. The two travelers make out a pair of stools at the end of the bar near the stage, and grab them.
That’s where they find me. We get to talking, and before I know it the two travelers have bought me a round of beer. And another one. I’m grateful for people like this: Midwesterners who wear business casual to work, but have an ingrained sense of egalitarianism and know how to hang out in a bar, and who, unlike most of my fellow wannabe bohemian peers, display no sense of judgment towards people based on what they wear or how they look. They go to bars to be sociable and see live music, not to try to act cool.
The Saloon is, famously, the oldest bar in San Francisco. It smells vaguely of farts, as it has since the first time I set foot in there not long after the quake of ‘89. I’m fairly certain that, like the legendary San Francisco sourdough starter said to still contain traces of the original batch of starter dough from the 19th Century, the Saloon air still holds traces of the flatulence left behind by its first bean-eating patrons of the 1860s.
The Saloon’s stage is a low riser sandwiched between the bar and the back wall, fronted by a dance floor about the size of a walk-in closet, and behind that are the bathrooms.
The band has finished their break and begun their next set. The riser is small enough that the bass player has to stand off the stage, against the back wall, directly in front of the door to the Saloon’s Gentlemen’s Room.
My eyes have been transfixed all night on this bassist, because in the half-light of the bar he is indistinguishable from Fred Mertz, and growing more so with each gulp of beer.
Fred Mertz rocking the bass guitar in a divey blues bar, a visual both surreal and so real.
Surreal because I grew up in a very provincial time, when rock and rollers were eternally 20-somethings with hair and attitudes to match. There were strict delineations of who could rock and who couldn’t rock in those days. Anybody who could be legitimately compared to Fred Mertz could not rock.
So-real because this is the age of the Convergence. The tech bro millionaires who are displacing a century and a half of working class anti-establishment San Francisco crustiness don’t look like Rockefeller and JP Morgan, they look like hacky-sack bros and Frisbee golfers. As often as not, they are hacky-sack bros and Frisbee golfers.
So real because rock and roll has in fact become an old man’s game. This is that strange January 2016 week when it did nothing but rain in San Francisco, and the media was abuzz with the deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey. Even news of poor Dallas Taylor’s death started going viral. The small detail that Taylor had really died a year before, on Jan. 18 2015, is not important. Taylor’s actual death garnered little social media fanfare when it happened, but now his obituary is going viral because it feeds the trending hashtag of iconic 70s forever young rock stars checking out. Lemmy’s death, which happened between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2015, already seemed like ancient history at that point.
A turning point in the greying of the rock n roll demographic was reached when Bill Clinton won the 1992 Presidential election, and Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” was blasted on a loop over the PA at his victory rally. Until that moment, sitting US Presidents were about as synonymous with Fleetwood Mac as Fred Mertz was. But nowadays, rock and roll matches up very well with the AARP white male demographic. Every advertising campaign proves it.
The bassist looks like Fred Mertz, the drummer looks like Philip Roth, and the guitarist looks like Arte Johnson from Laugh-In. The average age of the band is about 65, which is just about the perfect age for rock and roll heroes if you think about Lemmy, Glenn Frey, David Bowie, and now Paul Kantner, who apparently took up residence in a small North Beach apartment just above one of the Saloon’s neighboring storefronts for the last few years before his death–wanting to be as close as possible to where the action still was, no doubt.
It’s standing room only at the Saloon, meaning that the dozen-odd barstools are taken. One couple does a sloppy waltz on the dance floor while everyone else leans against the back wall. Each time the bartender passes by our neck of the bar, she sprinkles several napkins on the counter alongside each beer like she’s scattering rose petals at a wedding, three napkins per bottle at least. The supply of coasters at the Saloon must have run out back in the Frank Jordan era.
As the band ends its set, they implore people to put money into the jukebox, anything to stave off the awful silence that threatens to engulf us all the moment we stop feeding the festiveness. Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” comes on the jukebox. The bartender loses herself in the music and continues scattering napkins across the bar with abandon.
Maybe it’s the handwritten “Cash Only” and “1 Drink Minimum” signs that festoon the walls of the Saloon; maybe it’s the general attitude of the clientele; or maybe it’s the smell of farts and the foreboding bathroom that scare people off. But for whatever reason, this bar hasn’t been “discovered” yet. At least not by Monday night bar-hoppers.
A woman who looks like Bailey Quarters from WKRP In Cincinnati has entered the building. She sidles up to the bar and begins a conversation with the bartender, who, it soon becomes clear, is not impressed with what she hears, and has identified this woman as a trouble-maker. The Bailey Quarters lady’s first mistake was to ask what “colors” of wine the Saloon has on offer. In my estimation, the last bottle of wine the Saloon ever had was something with a rescue note in it from a shanghaied sailor.
Bailey’s next mistake was to let the bartender know that she was there to meet a first date from Match.com. And for strike three, she ignored the cash-only sign and handed the bartender a credit card.
The bartender rolls her eyes and shakes her head at the blatant spectacle this woman is making of herself. “Match.com” the bartender says with exasperation and another roll of the eyes as she passes by the two travelers with more napkins for their beers, drawing them, and me, into the world of frustration this Jan Smithers lookalike has just visited upon her.
“Match.com” the bartender sneers yet again on her next pass. We’re in on the joke now, and we laugh along knowingly. This time she drops off a round of on-the-house beers in appreciation for us being respectable patrons, unlike you-know-who on the first date from you-know-what.com.
Some minutes later, having come back with cash dispensed from a machine somewhere out in North Beach, the next time we saw Match.com lady, she was dirty dancing with another blonde woman in front of the stage, followed by a few spins with a number of interested bachelors, while her Match.com date, approximately 20 years her senior, stood as far back against the wall as possible. As a consolation prize, she went over and made out with him between dances, according to reliable witnesses.
The longer the night goes, the better it gets at the Saloon. And the band brought out its A game for the next set, which we watched from stools at the back wall. We saw the backline of Philip Roth and Fred Mertz keeping Walk This Way tight and in the pocket. We saw the band play a version of I’ll Be Around that switched effortlessly to a middle 32-bars of I’ll Be There, before slipping right back into I’ll Be Around. We saw in-the-pocket precision on Papa Was A Rolling Stone by a bassist who sat on a stool in front of the men’s room because there wasn’t room for him on the riser. We saw them do the Tighten Up and had to ask ourselves, “is that Philip Roth or is that Archie Drell? The entire set went on like that, and by now the dance floor was full. Full of blonde women, plus one slick-haired guy wearing sunglasses, who was easily the best-dressed and hardest-working dancer on the floor.
But just when the clock strikes twelve and the most interesting part of the evening is about to begin, I have to run like Cinderella for the 12:24 BART, the last train of the night heading across the bay. Like most of 1990s San Francisco, I live in the East Bay now, and the trains stop running just after midnight, which means my nights end by 12:10.
So I run. I run like Cinderella in drag with two bad knees, until I reach Market St, the very block where 12 hours earlier I had been making deliveries to the office buildings at my day job and 12 hours later I’ll be doing it again.
The two travelers will be in another city and another time zone tomorrow night. There will be another dive bar with live blues, and another cast of characters, who will be different yet exactly the same.
And the Saloon? It’s not going anywhere soon. The Saloon is just too cool to die; like David Bowie.