Friday, December 2, 2011

Your Bay Area Dive Bar Jukebox Song of the Week:

The Count Five from San Jose are the quintessential mid-60's garage rock 'n roll story.  Five California suburban teenagers who picked up instruments trying to sound like British rockers who were trying to sound like black Southern blues men and then coming up with something new, raw and in it's own genre we now call garage rock.  Hardly before the band even had a name "Psychotic Reaction" was a hit song in 1966 and the band was signed to a record label who rushed them into the studio to quickly write and record an album full of mediocre songs that were not nearly on the level of their single.  By early 1968, the members of The Count Five wisely decided going college was a better bet than to vainly pursuing rock stardom and they called it quits.  If not for being preserved in the memory of true and great record geeks like critic Lester Bangs and Lenny Kaye, who compiled the Nuggets compilations of garage rock, the Count Five would have been lost to history and never passed to the younger generations of record geeks like myself.

"To him, it’s just normal.”

    I knew I wanted to spend my life doing history right about the same time an Audi almost ran me over in a narrow Barcelona alleyway.  My wife, of only three days at that moment, and I were on a brown brick street that was only about six feet across.  Every street in the orderless maze of a neighborhood looked exactly the same and none were labeled with street signs.  All the buildings were similar and unremarkable except for the fact that they were between seven or eight hundred years old.  I was staring up at the buildings, dumbfounded at the generations of lives carried out in these buildings, contemplating the drastic waves of change in those lives over generations that would have crept so slowly to an individual’s naked eye, realizing that history is not just something that happens to people, it is their opinions, beliefs, desires, what they consider possible of the universe itself.  I was wrapping my mind around that Barcelona predates Christ, but is also the same city described in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, with these buildings, draped in the red flags of communists, black flags of anarchists, seething with revolution and grand ideals of creating better society.  Two different worlds, separated by millennia, but on the same soil and somehow I was now there as well.
    Just then, as I was having my mind blown, the black Audi came around the ninety degree corner, somehow at fifty mph, straight out of a Bourne movie and barreling down on me.  There was no room to even flatten against the wall on one of those streets.  At the last moment my wife grabbed the back of my shirt and pulled me into a doorway.  I could feel the wind as the rearview mirror jet past where my crotch had been a second earlier.  We popped our heads out to see if there was somebody in fact chasing the Audi.  But everything was clear and quite, once again as if we were standing outside time.
The Spanish know how to do bars.
    “That was crazy,” Dawn finally breathed out.  “That guy didn’t give a shit!”
    “No, he didn’t,” I admitted.  “Kind of awesome though.”
    “That you almost were killed?”
    “No, that he is so used to these streets that he does that through them.”
    She gave me a look, a mix of love and sympathy, that I’m very familiar with now.  It is a look that says, Really?  Are you really that big of a history nerd?  Then she just sighed and said, “This all isn’t history for him.  To him, it’s just normal.”

    By the time we left Europe I was already making plans to go back to college, this time as history major (I dropped out of SF State as an English major and had been putting off returning because I couldn’t bare the idea of pretending to read another Thomas Pynchon “novel”).  I had also gotten it into my head that Americans didn’t know how to live with their history.  Where Europeans respected their long history and maintained buildings and statues of beauty through the ages while living alongside daily, Americans seemed to be constantly tearing down anything old and with character to put up something bland and cheap.  That or spots of historical interest were roped off, untouchable, Disneyfied attractions, to be gawked on family vacations because they were told that it is important. 
    My shining example of this is Fremont Street in Las Vegas.  The old Strip has all the classic casinos of the pre-corporate mafia age, the Vegas of Sintara's Ocean’s Eleven and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  It has the iconic giant cowboy and cowgirl signs with moving limps and hardly an inch of space where there is not a light bulb.  But in the late 90’s traffic was blocked off, booths of street vendors were put in and a giant metal dome was constructed overhead projected hourly light shows that felt technologically outdated by the time you finished watching the first one.  It was rebranded, “The Fremont Street Experience.”  In other words they took something classic and cool and made it into an outdoor mall that looks more Vegas themed than actual Vegas.  Never mind that the business were dying down there because most people don’t equate old and seedy with cool the way I do (what do you mean it’s depressing to play blackjack alongside an elderly person betting their whole month’s Social Security check?  That’s high stakes, baby!), I was appalled that people were so willing to pave over history and put up an amusement park.
    I thought about this again on the very first day I worked on this project when I walked through Jack Kerouac Alley on my way into Vesuvio in San Francisco.  The speck of a street had been named after the author since the 1988, but it was still just a functioning alleyway, garbage bags, fish trucks and all, until 2007 when Lawrence Ferlinghetti successfully petitioned to city to make it a bit more like the “Jack Kerouac Alley Experience.”1  So what bothered me so much?  I understand the business aspect and any public acknowledgement of a spot of historical relevance should be applauded, right?      
      Meh. There is always just a gut level reaction against the trading of the authentic for the artificial.  The idea that history can not simply be preserved, maintained and lived alongside daily, but it has to be enhanced in some way to be noticed.  Americans need a big tacky arrow, most of the time in the form of fake cobblestones, to know they are interacting with history.
     Then I discovered bars.  Or I reevaluated what bars are beyond a place that serves alcohol (as I detail in my last post).  If there was ever a living and breathing interaction with local history it is in bars.  Beyond the historical significance of the bar itself, which some places display more overtly than others, the sheer amount of community interaction encourages historical conversations.  Museums only draw in a certain number of a certain kind of people and provoke conversation within that day’s outing.  But bars have a wide cross section of the community and provoke a more fluid and ongoing discussion.  You might have to run through a conversation about sports, politics or gossip, but the history sneaks is in there through these other avenues.
    So how does one get the public passed the other stuff and address history directly?  A museum exhibit for historical bars would be an utter failure to recreate the experience of a single, let alone many bars.  Besides that would completely fly against my thesis of telling Bay Area’s history through the bars, rather than simply giving the history of bars itself.  I would propose making a pub crawl or tour that would actually go to each bar and give the history over drinks and then allow discussion.  In my professional life I’ve been a hotel concierge and town car driver in San Francisco for most of the last decade, so I know there is absolutely a market for this and know exactly how to plan it.  This provides a tactile experience with the bar and with the neighborhood the bar is in.  History would not be in a wall or in a book, but would be shown to be a living entity the way I felt it on the street in Barcelona and while I went to each of the bars in this blog.  And it’s fun!
    The main problem with this idea is the notoriously unsustainable attention span of folks as they drink.  By the third bar few people would completely be taking in further lecturing on the history of the Bay Area.  So the format I would prefer, though I am less sure if there is a market for this, would be a class or club that meets at a different bar every week or month to take the whole night to discuss that single bar and its relevance to the history of the Bay Area.  This gives a chance for people to delve deeper into the subject rather than getting a quick speech before being shuffled off to the next stop.  Also logistically the only place a tour would be possible is within San Francisco, and maybe Oakland, because everything else is too far apart to cover in a realistic amount of time (which would mean no Warehouse Café in Port Costa and no Smiley’s in Bolinas and then, well what’s the point, right?).  The people who made an effort to get to each destination would invested in listening and discussing.  It could be a have a book club format, but for history, with cocktails, and probably not require any actual reading before hand the so feel would be much more of a fun night out with similarly minded people.  The meetings could be organized through, and with no charge to, a museum or school.
    Hell, I would organize and lead discussions for this group in a second (if I had a second that is, which I don’t).  The only thing that could be fun that getting drinks and researching this project would be getting drinks and discussing it with people. 

1. Carl Nolte, “Kerouac Alley has face-lift,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 30, 2007, accessed October 8, 2011,

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Your Bay Area Dive Bar Jukebox Song of the Week:

the original album cover for the 2001 album, Party Music.
 The Oakland hip-hop group, The Coup, had the misfortune of being only days away from releasing an album with the cover depicting the bands members, Boots Riley and Pam The Funkstress, blowing up the World Trade Center buildings with a guitar tuner when September 11th, 2001 occurred.  Starting in 1993 the band's albums titles include Kill My Landlord, Genocide and Juice, and Steal This Album with lyrics that were sharply anti-capitalist, critical of police and political radical, but always funny, sardonic and deft.  The strange coincidence with the album cover incident drew the Sauron like eye of conservative pundits who obviously did not find the humor in The Coup's lyrics (these are people that actually consider Rush Limbaugh funny.  Think about it, the funniest conservative stand-up comedian is Dennis Miller.  You see my point).  However, the Fox News target audience is not the same as The Coup's and the attention probably only gave the band positive publicity.  Their next album, 2006's Pick A Bigger Weapon was their biggest seller to date, with songs in showing up in video games and movies, including Superbad.  The whole summer of 2006 I couldn't go anywhere without hearing "My Favorite Mutiny",which is an incredible song, but why I'm choosing a different track off that album, the adroit ode to the heroic shoplifters, "I Love Boosters":

Thursday, November 24, 2011

barstool historians

    The quarter is winding down and we are at an end of the regular posts that covered a different bar every week.  Now I’ll be focusing more on the analysis, but I do plan to have a few bits of new history in the next couple weeks.

    Bars are historically unique for these reasons:
    1) Their history is collective.  Each person who goes to any given bar is adding their personal story to the larger, shared story.  Bars are touchstones, each night is a snapshot of the neighborhood or community that the bar serves.  Regulars will even be able use references as in, “Were you there that night that…?” or “Remember that old bartender who used to…?”  The history of the bar is often passed down to the successive generations of patrons.
    2) Good bars stay open for a very long time.  Everybody knows serving alcohol is a recession proof business that never goes out of fashion.  Certain places are undoubtedly trendier than others, but even as bars close they always reopen, as another bar.  Bars that are able to inspire loyalty will always be able to find new patrons as the old ones phase out.
    3) People go to bars for the express purpose of socializing.  It can be everything from a source to the news of the day to where one discusses the finer points of Proust.  Also you’re much more likely to talk to people you wouldn’t have otherwise at a bar.  I’ve sat at the same table with a lawyer and drug dealer having a engaging conversation about immigration reform.  Such a cross-section of intermingling people adds to the richness of the larger history.
an example of the dumb things people do at bars
    4) Alcohol is not just a social lubricant, but it makes a person dramatic and drastic.  If patrons were just sitting around talking, not much would happen there.  Add booze into the mix and relationships are passionately spawned or hotly ended (sometimes in the same night).  Fights break out, friendships are formed, baseball is exciting, dancing happens!  I’ve seen people who dance sober on TV, but I’ve never met one of them.
    As I found out this collective history is not always easy to nail down.  In my Kingfish post (see Nov. 11th post) I realized how few people ever keep an official history of bars and, believe it or not, stories passed down from one drunk to another are not always the most accurate.  Another problem is that many of the barstool historians aren’t able to see the forest for the trees and tend to strong on gossip within their lifetime at the bar, but a little weak on historical significance.
    This does not diminish the importance of the role bars play or what they say about a community.  The Kingfish is fighting for its survival by attempting to quantify the historical significance it has played in the neighborhood.  In smaller towns, like Bolinas and Port Costa, the bar was a major focal point for the surrounding people, serving as something akin to a town square.  I witnessed people not just coming in to get a drink, but to eat lunch and chat or just find out what was going on about town.  Telling the history of the bar is telling the history of community and vise versa.
    Vesuvio and Specs, put on the map by Beat culture in North Beach, are now used to define identity.  These days the two bars share a basically interchangeable cast of regulars and there is defiantly the feeling of a proud subculture within the North Beach community based on the collective bar history.  The regulars at those bars revel in the tradition they joined by drinking alongside the ghosts of their heroes.
    Heinold’s First and Last Chance was the anomaly here.  The community of sailors, fisherman and rugged writers has long since left the marina we now call Jack London Square.  Few people live or even work in the touristy area so it is a destination bar now, a place to sit in the sun with a gimlet (my favorite sun-sitting cocktail).  But because the saloon was not able to evolve, and proprietors have been keen enough to maintain the history, it stands like a monument, preserved in amber, to a lost era.  Defining what that era is might be tricky, spanning the 1880’s to the 1960’s (when George Heinold died), but one gets the impression little changed in the bar in those 80 years (other than the floor sinking that is).
    The Last Chance is also exceptional in that it does have an official record.  Every other bar either was a challenge trying to track down written sources on its history, but George Heinold wrote down the history of his father’s saloon in the early 30’s, which was just about the time he took it over himself.  The record was then updated in the 70’s with another book by a regular named Otha Wearin.  It is likely that Johnny Heinold’s relationship with Jack London made it historically notable while the bar was still relatively young.  If the owner of Merchants Saloon (or whatever it was called in the 1890’s) three blocks away had given Jack London a dictionary, would that be the destination bar today, standing perfectly persevered, rather than walls covered in spray paint?

    So these bars tell us something about the history of the Bay Area, what is that?  If these bars were in Chicago with similar opening dates it is likely they would have been centers for industrial labor strife for immigrate populations.  If I was writing in Philadelphia I’d be visiting Revolutionary era taverns, probably many that claim Ben Franklin as a patron.  In New Orleans… man, that would be a rich area for historical bars, somebody should do that.
    My point is the story of our bars is nothing short of the history of the West.  Of California itself.  I’ve spanned the entirety of this state’s history since it joined the Union (and even some time before) and I’ve been able to see some of the great moments in the Bay Area’s past play out in the stories of five different buildings.  The history of each of these bars are tales of reinvention and of seizing possibilities.  Let’s go through chronologically:
    Smiley’s Schooner Saloon (c. 1851), constructed in the boom time of new California, on the land of a Mexican Ranchero, by a sea captain who carefully danced around the temperance leagues of the ranchers.  Through many names, owners and incarnations the place as stood on the edge of the Pacific for 150 years in a town so hippie that this guy leads parades:

    The First and Last Chance Saloon (1884), built by a man who came from back east as a dock worker to start his own bar, then a new one because he couldn’t bare to be far from the sea water.  Even the name is a reference to turn-of-the-century Oakland’s status as a world class urban port.  The home away from home to Jack London, who went from being an illiterate scavenger to one of the most famous men in the world with his stories of life in the West.  I mean, really, is there anybody more California than Jack London, other than maybe Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”?
    The Kingfish Pub (1922), a bait shop serving booze on the sly turned a neighborhood institution, that is now repeated threatened by developers looking to build condos.  There are no celebrities at the Kingfish, whatever winning team you happen to be pitching for, you’re going to have to put your name up on the shuffle board and wait like everybody else.
    Vesuvius (1948), the favorite watering hole of the Beats, who were only part of a long line of bohemian romancers of the West, leaving all points East in seeking freedom of body, mind and soul on the world’s last coast.  The 60’s liberal, free-thinking reputation of San Francisco arguably grew out of the 50’s artistic Beat movement, which drew thousands of young On The Road readers to the Bay.   And conversely, the counter part to Vesuvio, Specs Twelve Adler Museum Café (1968), became so because as every good scene gets watered down once the word gets out to all the Johnny-come-latelies (hippies), truly hip are compelled to relocate somewhere ever darker and weirder.
    Finally, my personal favorite, The Warehouse Café (c. 1967), a bar in the 1886 warehouse built by a man who fostered a town out of desolate and isolated grasslands with sheer ambition, innovation and can-do American grit.  Every iconic image of the Wild West played out in Port Costa, from the raucous lawlessness of a boomtown to the nearly abandoned ghost town.  And then only to be rescued in the modern age on the hopes of another man who could not find personal, artistic and sexual freedom anywhere else, so he decided to make a community of his own.  The Warehouse in this era has been a gay bar, a cowboy bar, a biker bar and now it’s a bar for anybody whose idea of fun could be sleeping in a 19th century whorehouse.

    I had gotten so comfortable with bars I like as a places of enjoyment, that I thought of their history as mere pieces of trivia, not tying their microscopic narratives into the larger history of the Bay Area.  If these bars were people they would have valuable oral histories.  There are few places one can go to that are able to span so many generations are still open and functioning business.     
    I began this project with a cynical opinion of how Americans publicly venerate and the willful inaccuracy of collective memory, but over the coarse of this blog I’ve been come into new thinking of what history can be.  Next week’s post will be about the possibilities and aspects of how this project applies to field of Public History.

1. taken by Ami Colbert Messina of author at the Kingfish Pub.
2. taken from Smiley's website.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Your Bay Area Dive Bar Jukebox Song of the Week:

Like Rodger Collins, Jesse James was part of the WWII era migration of African-Americans to the East Bay.  James McClelland was born in 1943 in Eldorado, AR, but his father was a longshoreman who brought the family to Richmond, CA.  As a young man he would work in one of the local chemical plants by day and sing in clubs by night.  He was given the name Jesse James by a MC who couldn’t pronounce his name correctly.  Under the new moniker he had a string of small hits in the 60’s, but his biggest hit by far came in 1967 with “Believe In Me Baby Part 1” which hit number one on the R & B charts.
That’s about all I know about James other than this is one damn good song.

"pretty civilized,"- Smiley’s Schooner Saloon and Hotel, Bolinas

    This week we’re going way out: geographically, culturally and chronologically.  From the popular day trip destination of  Stinson Beach in West Marin you can hardly see the town of Bolinas that hugs the north side of the lagoon, stashed away in the trees.  The road from Highway 101 to Bolinas is a long, curvy trek over the mountain that leads into the lush valley of Muir Woods; then along the coast, with the drive no less winding and a view of the vast expanse of the Pacific I so rarely see regardless of daily proximity to it.  Since I had to navigate the switchbacks and keep an eye out for hardly existent signage, I was only able to appreciate the scenery in momentary glances.  But what really had me ill at ease was the knowledge that I was going to have to make this return trip after however many drinks Smiley’s Schooner Saloon required of me to get my story.  It didn’t help that I made enough wrong turns or what I thought were wrong turns that required me to double back that I made about half a dozen u-turns.  All the while I could see the sun slipping lower toward the ocean. I cursed myself for my late start and damned the entire concept of Daylight Savings and its recent arbitrary lapse.  Winter hours are the bane of all people who sleep until noon then spend a hour watching the Daily Show and checking email before doing school assignments that involve drinking alcohol at remote bars on the other side of national parks at the furthest edge of the North American continent, at the end of the fucking earth itself.  By the time I reached Smiley’s my stress over the drive ironically lead me to a point where I was ready to skip the beer and get a scotch.
Could this bay be the same as...

...this bay?  Elia says no.
    The Bolinas Bay has been at the end of the earth since Europeans went as far West as they could go before they met the East.  I’m sure the Coast Milwok Indians who had occupied the area for about 3000 years1 would have said they were right in the middle of it all before these smelly white guys on huge boats showed up and started holding freaky religious services.  I am, of course, referencing the arrival of Sir Francis Drake arriving in 1579 somewhere along the coastline we now know as Marin County (ahead of the Spanish this far north), declaring land for the English crown and naming it “Nove Albionis” (roughly meaning New Britain).  When he arrived he buried an English sixpence in the new soil and held an Anglican service for his men (suck on that, Spain!).  I found a book from 1974 that makes the case that Drake had landed and built his fort in the Bolinas Bay, just above of the lagoon, rather than in the bay slightly north that holds the title of Drakes Bay.2  Later in the day when I met Elia from the Bolinas Museum she assured me that “that dear man” had never been to there and all the leads that indicated otherwise came up dry over the past few decades.  I can assume that if there would be anyone making the case for Drake’s landing there, it would be a person who spends their life studying the history of the town.  Still, evidence has not been found to definitively say exactly where Drake built his fort (some argue that it was in the San Francisco Bay where San Quentin now stands), but I believe the greater mystery is to why Elia refers to Francis Drake as “that dear man”.3

    Fast forward a few hundred years to when California was part of Mexico, but just before the Anglo-Saxon people were about to make their dramatic and enduring return.  In 1837, a decorated Mexican soldier by the name of Gregorio Briones was given a immense land grant that comprised pretty much the entire bay, lagoon and all surrounding land.  He named it Rancho Baulenes.4 
    His peaceful retirement was short lived though because in 1846 John Fremont would start raising some hell in nearby Sonoma, an event commonly referred to now as the Bear Flag Revolt, and other events conspired to ignite the Mexican-American War, the conclusion of which see California join the United States as its 31st state.  Gregorio Briones was not too keen on Americans (refusing to let his daughters marry any of the newcomers), but times were changing and because of the Gold Rush they were changing very, very fast, so he contracted much of his land to foresters to make use of the redwood lumber.  San Francisco was ballooning at a staggering pace, and every few years the city would burn down, hence requiring ever more wood.  The lagoon was also a terrific place to build and repair schooners for the flourishing trade industry.  In 1852, the first census of Marin recorded 323 adults in the county, two-thirds of which lived in Bolinas Township.5
    Enter into this the enigmatic Captain Isaac Morgan (as far as I know there is no relation to Captain Henry Morgan, the 17th century pirate of the Caribbean and namesake for the spiced rum favored by “woo-woo” girls at bachelorette parties everywhere) who built a number of buildings in Bolinas and Stinson, ran an apple orchard, invested in many of the towns’ business and aided in the building of the road I had just drove over to Sausalito.  His legacy that I’m interested in was the construction of the Schooner Saloon in 1851 (maybe ‘52) near the docks in Bolinas.  At the time the area of town was called Jugville because of the six saloons in close proximity.
    I laugh a bit when Elia tells me this and say, “If a small town has that many bars, I guess that says something about the people living here at the time.”
    Elia isn’t as amused as me and responds with local pride, “Well, two of them, I think, we’re pretty civilized.”6
    I was merely referring to the fact that a town of mostly men, sailors and lumberjacks at that, aren’t exactly known for their temperance, but it turns out the town has had a long and complicated relationship with alcohol.

    The man behind the bar at Smiley’s fills my small glass to the brim with the warm, brown drink.  Is there any problem that can’t be caused and/or solved with a little bit of hard liquor?   I had arrived about 3:30 in what the locals call “downtown”, a strip of rustic wood buildings moderately clustered compared to all the houses in the area, which tend to be on generous properties, set back on hills and partially hidden behind thick trees.  Being the off season the street is quite and most of the businesses closed on a Tuesday afternoon, but Smiley’s is blaring Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues” of out the dark barroom.  It’s a surprisingly small structure, but painted a glowing clean white, adorned with two versions of the American flag, it radiates with the pride of a 19th century small business man.  It could have been off the set of Blazing Saddles and owned by somebody surnamed Johnson.
    The bartender is friendly as can be and actually seems interested in my “I’m a history student doing a blah blah blah” spiel as he pours my shot.  He gives me a little bit of information that was similar to what I had read on the Smiley’s website, but says the person I really need to talk to is the owner, Don Deane.  As if on cue Don walks in the front door.  He’s a handsome older guy who reminds of John Muir, with a shorter beard, but that could be because of his brown woodman’s hat.  He gives me a little bit of information that was similar to what I had read on the Smiley’s website, but tells me the person I really need to talk to is Elia at the Bolinas Museum across the street. 
    We walk down the block a bit and into the back of another old white building that apparently also used to be a saloon.  Don introduce me to Elia and I give my spiel for the third time in twenty minutes, but now, out of the bar setting, I’m acutely aware of what the few sips of whiskey has done to my breath. 

    Close on the heals of the town’s raucous founding, Bolinas became a hotbed of temperance movement in the 1860’s.  I didn’t think to ask Elia where this sudden piety sprang from, but I can speculate by looking at old pictures and counting at least three churches and a school that were built in the 1860’s and 70’s.  Most of the new people coming to town were not the sailors and lumberjacks, but families of cattle and dairy ranchers.7  These were the rural Americans of the late 19th century, by any account a godly bunch, who would not look kindly on seediness of Jugville.  Contrast this to Port Costa (see Nov. 4th post), another small town on the water, but it didn’t developed out of it’s origins as a shipping hub until the 1940’s and kept its Barbary Coast reputation well through the Progressive era.
    Captain Isaac Morgan was not on the roles of the “Sons of Temperance”, as most of Bolinas’ prominent citizens were, but in 1872 he was titled as the Chaplain of the “Independent Order of Rechabites”, which sponsored temperance lectures.  That same year he moved back east to find a wife (apparently still not a lot of single, respectable women in California at that time) and left the Schooner Saloon to his good friend, Niles Ogdon. Ogdon also took up Morgan’s residence next door to the saloon (which still stands today) and ran the bar for the next 40 years.  The saloon weathered the temperance movement and even thrived after the 1906 earthquake as San Francisco refugees waited for the city to be rebuilt in surrounding communities.  The next century saw the saloon change ownership and names quite a few times.  Though the bar always remained, the use for other parts of the building often altered, it’s been a hotel, a barbershop, a bait store, a pizza place.  One long time owner was named Ed Knott, at which time the place was called Ed Knott’s Inn (get it? “Ed’s not in.” [I’m reminded of a line from True Blood in which Vampire Bill reminds Sookie, “You know, puns were once considered the height of comedy.”]).9
    During Prohibition the bar moved to the second floor and the windows were painted black (as they would be again in World War Two to hide the lights from any Japanese ships or bombers) except for one on the first floor that looked in on the barbershop.  Customers would enter through the barbershop and head upstairs.10 In fact, there are numerous caves along the West Marin coastline that were used by rum-runners as they snuck booze into the larger Bay Area.  Elia told me about an article she came across that mentioned that when the Coast Guard found bottles during Prohibition they had to dispose of any broken ones themselves.  One could guess that “broken” was a relative term and there are many methods of “disposing” of bottles of hooch.11
Am I the last fan of this guy?

    In 1955, the bar was bought by an Italian immigrant named Ismaele Biachini, but most people called the happy guy Smiley.  This era would see a cultural shift as many artists and writers would discover Bolinas.  The Beats would often take extended trips there and the 60’s would put a lasting hippish feel to the town.12 Richard Brautigan’s brilliant novel, In Watermelon Sugar was based on a fantasized utopian commune version on Bolinas.  I asked everybody I talked to about Brautigan, as I’ve been a fan since high school, but nobody else seemed too interested or to know anything beyond that he had shot himself at his house in town and the body was not discovered for some time.  Don said he had seen Brautigan at Smiley’s a few times, but doesn’t remember anything about him.  According to Elia there are currently 164 published writers living in Bolinas and Stinson Beach in a population of about 2000 people.
    The Smiley’s website has a section that reads, “Before Lincoln was president… Before baseball was a game… Before Jingle Bells was a song…  There was Smiley’s Schooner Saloon and Hotel.”  At 150 years old the saloon is probably the oldest bar in California that has stayed in continuous service.  On the walk back to his establishment Don, whose been the owner for 35 years, told me that the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland, near Yosemite, is a close second, opening in 1852.  Since nobody is exactly sure when Smiley’s opened they can’t make a definitive claim for the title.
    My drink is right where I left it (the break from it half way through was probably a good idea).  After a sandwich and beer at the bar, I’m back on the road, sun still barely above the horizon and with no diminished ability to make the turns.

1. Phil Frank, Kendrick Rand and Tamae Angoli, Bolinas and Stinson Beach (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 9.
2. V. Aubrey Neasham and William E. Pritchard, Drake’s Landing: The Evidence for the Bolinas Lagoon (Sacramento: Western Heritage Inc., 1974).
3. Elia Haworth (Bolinas Museum) in discussion with author.
4. Frank, Bolinas and Stinson Beach, 15-16.
5. Frank, Bolinas and Stinson Beach,  23-24.
6. Elia Haworth in discussion with author.
7. Frank, Bolinas and Stinson Beach, 39-41.
8. Joan Reutinger, "A Short History", Smileys Schooner Saloon website, accessed November 17, 2011,
9. Elia Haworth in discussion with author.
10. Reutinger, "A Short History".
11. Elia Haworth in discussion with author.
12. Elia Haworth in discussion with author.

1. taken by author on Highway 1 above Stinson Beach.
2.  Neasham, Drake’s Landing, 6.
3. taken by author.
4. taken from

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Your Bay Area Dive Bar Jukebox Song of the Week:

me at a Jawbreaker show at the Jabberjaw in L.A. in 1996
    I’ve had a hell of a time deciding which band to profile of the dozens of great Bay Area punk bands of the early 1990’s.  Both sides of the Bay were having a explosion of talented and prolific musicians that played in an incestuous web of bands.  It was never, “Is there a show tonight?”, but “How do we decided which show to go to tonight?”  There was a distinctive pop punk sound, but this would included an extremely wide range: the melancholy last-night-on-earth rasp of Jawbreaker, the Beatles LP played on 45 speed reverb of the Ne’er-Do-Wells, and the self-deprecating geek rock of Mr. T Experience who never seemed to sing a serious line.  And, of course, there was Green Day, which didn’t seem to be any particular stand-out until suddenly they were, propelling the entire Bay Area scene into the world’s spotlight.  Green Day has shown to have staying power (which is a mystery to me.  Seriously, I don’t begrudge their fame or longevity, I’ve mostly grown out of the punk rock contrarian impulse to hate the band everybody else loves most, but a few months ago I caught a glimpse of the Teen Choice Awards and the kids were going nuts for Green Day.  Most teenagers now probably were introduced to Green Day by their parents, so is it possible that they still be cool? [how old did I just make you feel?  I just grew like two inches of ear hair just writing that], but all the other bands are long gone, or at least only pop up every few years for a reunion show.  Blake from Jawbreaker seems to come out with a new band every year now, but even at their best they are only appealing for the wisps of Jawbreaker’s ghost.  I’ve see Dr. Frank of Mr. T Experience on Piedmont Ave quite a bit, sometimes typing on his laptop with a beer, so I assume he’s working on his successful series of young adult novels, the first of which is called King Dork.

    J Church was a San Francisco band (hence the name after the Muni light rail line) that started in 1992 out of the ashes of another solid band, Cringer.  I hear so few people ever talk about J Church anymore.  They were political and had a vaguely crust punk aesthetic, but they were also melodic, funny and sweet.  Front man, Lance Hahn had a knack for vivid imagery that always made say, “I know somebody just like that” or “I’ve been to those type of parties before.”  Unfortunately, he succumbed to a long struggle with kidney related problems in 2007.  A few years before that I bought a bottle of whiskey from him without realizing it at a liquor store in North Beach.  It wasn’t until we got outside that my friend said to me, “Dude, that was Lance Hahn!”  I had seen him play a few times in the 90’s, but you don’t expect to see your high school heroes in such common place settings a decade later.  Punk rock is awesome like that.
   This is “Tide of Fate” off a 1993 EP that I still listen to on a regular basis:

Okay, after talking about Mr. T Experience I put on one of their records and now I can't resist a bones track.  Also from 1993, this is "Even Hitler Had A Girlfriend":