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 CafĂ© 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,