Dilettante 31: Retro club nights

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It feels really good to spit fire, especially in print, at a corporation clumsily trying to target-market your generation with pablum.

This Polly Esther’s nightclub ultimately failed, in its chain locations in San Francisco and nine other cities. Let that be a lesson: Don’t ever try to make an in-real-life mainstream radio station for people to drink at like it’s the playground section of a McDonald’s. They won’t like it.

This column entry I wrote in 1998 goes on to list quite the fun sampling of a few actual retro dance nights throughout the City that were NOT the premiering chain-restaurant-ass dance club who tried to steal their audiences with mall-style tactics.

It’s sort of hard to look back now in amazement at all the cheap and gritty entertainment available to San Franciscans before the dot-com hordes and major economic inequality trampled everything. But it’s nice to know we all banded together to stay away from places like Polly Esther’s.


Scroll down or click through to read “You’ll Dance To Anything,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on November 17, 1998.

This is the 31st piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; Dilettante’s first installment is here.


summer burkes dilettante logo sf bay guardian 1997-2001_resized

You’ll Dance to Anything: Does San Francisco really need another retro nightclub?

by Summer Burkes, 11.17.1998


Our nostalgia for music can be pleasant — songs rank right behind scents in their capacity to conjure memories long repressed.

But that same nostalgia can also be sold down the river and subsequently rammed down one’s throat to the extent that our once-pure recollections of coltish and carefree days past are exhumed only to be gutted, and eternally, inextricably linked with images of hamburgers, cars, and phone books.

Here I am,
prayin’ for this moment to last

Yes, overkill is an essential, even quaint, part of American culture. But if I see one more white frat boy put on an afro wig and a gold chain and think it’s funny, if Puff Daddy rips another one of my childhood favorites to shreds, if I hear James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” or Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” one more time… I’m going to open fire in a crowded food court. [kids, this was written in a time before people started to do near-constant mass shootings in America, so it used to be a marginally funny thing to say. -ed]

The news that even more of this tripe is set to storm the shores of the bay next weekend may force me to finally purchase a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook and call upon the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project to expand its base of operations.

Polly Esther’s — the corporation that bought out the already insufferable Club 181 and plans to reopen it next weekend — is not only a chain with clubs in nine other cities, it’s also a recalibrated, ham-fisted simulation of nostalgia for the lowest common denominator.

The press kit promises, among other things, a life-size re-creation of the Partridge Family bus, a smaller ’80s room called the Culture Club, featuring Pac-Man murals on the walls, and a Tie-Dye Bar with drink specials such as Brady Punch.

kids, this is sigue sigue sputnik, a new wave band so incredibly cool they’d never be played at a crappy retro club. this is what the bassist (tony james) for generation x (the band) did when they split up and (generation x lead singer) billy idol became billy idol.

Polly Esther’s will doubtless be packed to the gills every weekend with dental hygienists from Orinda and guys who go to the gym a lot. But think twice, readers: on any given weekend, this town already has enough dance clubs in which to relive your past (or an imagined past life) without caving to chain-store hyper-target marketing. A random sampling:

Popscene, every Thursday at 330 Ritch, caters to the 18-and-up mod squad, playing ’60s-’90s Brit rock, with the odd Stones oldie or Manchester dance number thrown in. On a recent Thursday, a few pristine Vespas, including one particularly impressive scooter with a dozen rearview mirrors sticking out like antlers, sit near the entrance to the club. Beautiful, young, smartly dressed, short-haired androgynes wait patiently in the sometimes long line (overheard conversation: “Ohmigod, have you ever seen Quadrophenia? It’s, like, the best movie ever”).

honestly the rockers were so much tougher-looking but we know it’s always the psychos who dress neatly in suits

Inside the packed club, relatively composed patrons twist and go-go in an anti-meat-market environment. The DJs segue decades and musical selections fabulously, never venturing too far into either the obscure or the overplayed. At one point, the Who’s “Can’t Explain” spills out of the speakers, and a group of girls pogo in place, chanting “We are the mods, we are the mods, we are, we are, we are the mods.” No one is amused, but they don’t get beat up, either.

Every Thursday, the newly renovated Cat Club hosts 1984, a free (!) all-’80s dance night. If you’re of a certain age, it can prove itself a fun and harmless return to high school. Cliques form as though it’s been scripted — Goths over here, honor-students over there, punks off to the side, fedora-wearing drama club students yonder. There are two dance rooms, one that plays the pop hits of the ’80s that haven’t been sold to Burger King yet and a darker, smaller one in the back that plays Gothic and industrial. (Hey, it was their decade too.)

In the main room, during Bow Wow Wow’s “Candy,” a drunk leatherboy grinds against a stack of amps, ripping his shirt open and squirming heavy-metal-video style to the horror and amusement of his friends. A stray she-Goth in full-length Chinese silk dress, tall and pale and hair ratted to the sky, gyrates tragically to Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”

When the music lurches into Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way,” she — losing all hope and pretense of otherworldly grace — abruptly freezes and slinks off the floor. Later, as we catch our breath in the sepulchrally cool Goth Room, a Sisters of Mercy song segues into Madonna’s antidark “Holiday,” and a collective cheer rises from the crowd. We’re all friends here.

welcome back … to a place you never wanted to go back to

The DNA on weekends shows that Club 181 people, even when deprived of Club 181, will nevertheless find the Club 181 within themselves and go on Club 181-ing. Collared shirts in muted hues for the boys; small clothing, any kind of small clothing, for the girls. The cover bands Grooveline and the M-80s play on Friday and Saturday nights respectively, and it’s actually the same band in different clothes.

Sadly, we arrive too late this past Saturday to see our favorite Mister Mister number brought to life, but thankfully, we’re just in time to catch a glimpse of a cowboy-preppie layering himself with a slim brunette on the crowded stage during a techno version of “We Are Family.” Her legs wrapped around his waist, her arms encircling his neck, she swoops toward the floor in clumsy circles. He almost drops her more than once and then, getting a better grip, accidentally lifts her skirt to expose her butt-flossed hiney to the crowd. She doesn’t care, tra la la. She’s wild and free and it’s Saturday night.

the DNA Lounge on 11th street. please continue existing despite gentrification, DNA Lounge

As we hastily make our way upstairs to Spencer’s Martini Lounge, located in the small VIP room of the DNA, an anachronistic woman in perfect curls and cigarette pants hightails it past us and in the door. The contrast between upstairs and downstairs is profound — low, fabric-covered ceilings, mellow red lanterns, gilded mirrors, and handsome couples elegantly lindy hopping in perfect rhythm. There’s a “rumble” during “Sing Sing Sing” during which several of the most skilled dancers square off.

We leave heaven (unfortunately, the only exit is back downstairs in hell). “I don’t care if you kick them out, just get them the fuck away from my bar,” we overhear one of the tattooed, out-of-place bartenders tell an equally bruising bouncer near the exit. The staggering, slurring “them” in question do not go quietly, and one throws an empty pint glass at the bartender with such force that it sounds like a gunshot when it hits. The barkeep, unfazed, pours another drink as guards wrestle out the drunk. Throw that funky pint glass, white boy.



This is the 31st entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).

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