For the past 20 years I have played at least once a month at The Saloon — infamous among local musicians as the oldest, smelliest, grimiest, scummiest blues bar in San Francisco. But don’t let that fool you — it can be a whole lot of fun in its own inimitably surreal way.
Located on Grant Street in North Beach, kitty-corner to Caffe Trieste — the coffeehouse that was once the favorite haunt of Beat Generation hipsters like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg — The Saloon is a slice of San Francisco history. Not only was it one of the few structures to survive the great 1906 fire (allegedly because firefighters kept their hoses trained on their favorite watering hole while nearby homes burned to the ground), it was also the staging area for countless shanghais in the late-1800s, in which innocent victims, dosed with knock-out drops, sobered up to find themselves virtual slaves aboard a ship headed to some distant port.
You can count on The Saloon to be a colorful freak show 365 nights a year. Inside and out, tourists from around the world mix shoulder-to-shoulder with homeless beggars, cigarette girls in 1920s flapper attire, rowdy college kids, hardcore blues fans, and bleary-eyed Saloon regulars chasing the hair of the dog that bit them — for the umpteenth time. I’ve seen literally everything there is to see while sitting on the drum throne at The Saloon.
Grant is a bustling, narrow, single-lane, one-way street lined with bars, Italian restaurants, music venues, and haberdasheries, which places the act of loading a set of drums from your double-parked car firmly in the hands of God. Over the years drummers learned to put up with the hassle and inexorable parking tickets until, in a flash of brilliance, the proprietors of The Saloon bought a set of Yamaha Recording Customs and Zildjian cymbals. Suddenly, like a miracle, drummers only needed to bring a stick bag.
Predictably, though, the bloom came off the rose. After being walloped four hours a night, seven nights a week, for years on end, the kit eventually showed signs of wear. Wing nuts and hi-hat clutches went missing. Heads became ruinously pitted. And despite its handiness — you know how it goes — you could never quite get the kit to feel as comfortable as your old favorites snoozing in the closet at home.
But I always remind myself to count my blessings. Convenience aside, having to muscle through four sets on The Saloon’s rickety kit is a lesson in humility. It forces you to adjust your technique and make the most of tones and timbres you might not normally choose. Bottom line: With drumming, as with life, anything that challenges you to go outside your comfort zone is a mitzvah.