“Every man’s life ends the same way. All true stories end in death.”
Late in the California Gold Rush and only six months after the first shots of the Civil War, the Saloon first opened its doors on the corner of Grant Avenue and Fresno Alley. And, with the exception of occasional natural disasters and a very few observed holidays, the place has been serving alcohol and camaraderie every day since. The same old mahogany bar still nudges up against the 15 foot ceiling, and faded, nicotine-stained murals depicting a bygone San Francisco still stare down from high up the battered plaster walls. On the top floors of the aging, three-story building, hotel rooms (reputed to have once been a brothel), nearly unchanged in all these years, are inhabited by a varied, if not unexpected, collection of iconoclasts and eccentrics, just as they have been since 1861. These days, however, instead of housing miners, gamblers, drunks, and drifters, they’re home mostly to musicians, unknown poets, under-employed philosophers, and other socially invisible characters.
Not too many years ago the Saloon was one of many such places in the City. Today, it stands unique and alone, the oldest drinking establishment in San Francisco.
And not much has changed in 144 years. Yes, there’s now indoor plumbing, a new set of bar stools, and, most importantly, electricity; I say most importantly because the electricity facilitates the essential modern characteristic of the place — music — live, loud, Blues music seven nights and three afternoons a week. But, ignoring the amplified sounds, incandescent lighting, and flush toilets, sitting at the bar you can still effortlessly imagine you’ve been transported back to the Barbary Coast days of speakeasies, casinos, and dance halls.
At the Saloon, the regulars, the habitués, are known as Saloonatics, an appropriate and undoubtedly age-old designation for as varied a group of drinkers and sinners as you’re likely to encounter in the City, or anywhere for that matter.
Gold Rush San Francisco was well known for the diverse, colorful throng it attracted, most of whom came looking for quick riches and a new life. Much remains the same. The City, and this bar in particular, still function as a homing beacon for those unwilling to embrace or unsuited for traditional civic responsibilities. The assortment is remarkable. Skin color, economic designation, religious orientation — all, apparently, immaterial; professions, vocations, obsessions, and addictions are equally varied and tolerated. In all the many years I’ve spent at the Saloon, I can’t recall a single incident of anger or argument related to social standing, race, politics, or religion.
Surprisingly, given the variety of people that frequent the Saloon, violence, even passionate argumentation, is nearly unknown in the place. Yes, the occasional drunken patron, regular or itinerant, will get too loud or fall asleep at the bar and has to be shown the door, but those few moments are usually little more than brief entertainment for those of us who manage to moderate our drinking and behavior.
Yet, occasionally some events are so egregious and un-ignorable that said patrons are immediately placed on the dreaded and infamous 86’d list. And once on the list, the only way to regain entry is a repentant conference with the owner, Myron Mu.
Myron is a gentleman. By manner and appearance, he’s an unobtrusive, quiet man that one would otherwise be surprised to encounter at the Saloon. But given that Myron is a classically trained French Horn player and passionate lover of music, I’m certain that without him the place would have long ago been destroyed to make way for something more sedate and profitable. It also helps that his family owns the building.
So play on does the music. Yet, as I said, the Saloon is unique and alone, and once Myron moves or passes on, I have no doubt that, like so many other of the rich, authentic haunts of old “workingman Frisco”, it will pass into oblivion.
But, to address what first drew me into the Saloon, should anyone imagine the music to be as crude and anachronistic as the building that gives it opportunity, the pedigree of the bands and celebrated musicians from which some of the players have come will raise the eyebrows of anyone with an even passing knowledge of recent musical history: Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Youngbloods, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane (and Starship), The Electric Flag, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Country Joe and the Fish, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, as well as B.B. King, Johnny Otis, Boz Scaggs, Aretha Franklin, and John Lee Hooker alumni. And I’m certain there are many I’ve missed or that I’m unaware of. Yet these are facts I’ve discovered only over time. I’ve never heard any one of the musicians boast of their musical pasts. Mostly I’ve learned from the older Saloonatics who delight in passing on the rich, oral history.
To the immediate point however, this collection of pictures, stories, and conversations I’ve been working on for so many years now began after I saw an exhibition of vintage photographs from the Jazz Era in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. At one time the Fillmore was an important hub for the larger international Jazz community. But in the 60’s, during the age of what was so clinically and euphemistically referred to as Urban Renewal, the entire neighborhood was leveled and replaced with institutional looking, concrete buildings that had none of the history or character of the old district. Additionally, most of the people who lived there, those who were the Fillmore before the bulldozers came through, either voluntarily moved or were forcibly relocated. The neighborhood never quite rebounded, and the Jazz never came back.
Unfortunately, although through a different and more gradual mechanism, the same phenomenon is beginning to occur in North Beach. Slowly but deliberately this neighborhood, so important to the cultural life and history of the City, is being changed into something equally sterile and lifeless — as is much of San Francisco.
In the case of North Beach, what’s replacing houses of music, art, and poetry are fashionable boutiques, pricey gifts shops, and expensive restaurants. Read the 50s North Beach tale The Dharma Bums. One of the central locations, if not characters, in the story is The Place, a long-defunct bar and coffee house that was located only three blocks from the Saloon, at 1546 Grant Avenue. Some of the most important writers, artists, thinkers, and poets of the day used to frequent The Place. Today it’s the office of a couple of high-priced architects. With the exception of the old sign bracket that still hangs uselessly from the front of the building, there remains not a single clue as to the former importance of the structure.
I recently read that sociologists predict that San Francisco, in the next decade or so, will become the first fully gentrified city in the United States. Not too many years from now, the Saloon, its Saloonatics, and the music that brings us all together will be gone. Nothing more than collections of photographs and live recordings, many of which have been produced on the premises, will be left.
But, back to those wonderful Fillmore photographs — it was like looking into a time capsule. Something of the lost energy and life of the era had been preserved. And besides those pictures and, again, a few still available live recordings made in the clubs (Miles Davis’ Live at the Blackhawk being my favorite), little else remains.
So it was, a Sunday, one of those frequent Saloon afternoons when the sunlight spills into the bar only after bouncing off the neighboring buildings, that I stood leaning against the counter looking at my friend Greg, the door, recording, and sound man at the Saloon. As he sat there enveloped in that soft Vermeer light, lost in thought, staring out onto the street, my opportunity struck me. It’s like Kerouac said of On the Road, “I wrote the book because we’re all gonna die.”
So I asked Greg if I could take his picture. And he’s seen me, almost always, with a camera since I’ve known him — much more than a decade now — which made the request more an annoyance than an unusual event. He begrudgingly agreed, without ever shifting from the position I’d first noticed him in — the position he’d taken to stare out onto Grant Avenue. It was that scene, as he sat enfolded in that light that is the visual equivalent of quiet, that caused me to first set up the camera there in the doorway. He just sat patiently, or perhaps with amusement, as I wrestled with the cumbersome equipment before making that first half-second exposure, the first of what has since become many hundreds.