New Year's Eve marks the close of more than a calendar decade — it's also the last night the lowbrow Folsom Street institution Annie's Social Club will be open. After four years of giving local bands, karaoke fans, and Britpop connoisseurs a comfortable place to hear music and drink on the cheap, the dive bar's namesake, Annie Whiteside, has sold her home away from home.
She blames — what else — the crappy economy. "I tried really hard to keep the place going, and I just couldn't do it," she says, explaining that recent years have been rough, but 2009 was the killer financially: "I've been crying a lot of tears over it, believe me."
The musicians who got loud and boozy at Annie's are spilling tears into their Hunters Point Porters right along with her. Whiteside has worked in San Francisco bars for 30 years, and is a real presence in the music scene. Sluggo from punk rockers the Grannies notes that Whiteside was at most shows at her club, which housed Bay Area and touring acts, punk-rock karaoke, and, until September, Leisure's Britpop DJ night. "I don't mean [she was] hiding in the back office," Sluggo adds. She was out there with the rest of the riffraff, slinging drinks from behind the bar three to four nights a week.
Before she owned Annie's Social Club, Whiteside ran Annie's Cocktail Lounge (across the street from the Hall of Justice) for seven years. I've been to both places many times, and have fond memories of all the debauchery you could get away with there — like randomly singing karaoke with members of the Hives at the Cocktail Lounge during the Swedish band's first S.F. tour, or watching the Thee Oh Sees and Intelligence collapse into one another onstage at the Social Club. I've never personally seen Dave Alvin drinking at Whiteside's dive around closing time, but the Southern California roots-rock icon says he never misses the opportunity to close out the night at her bar. He notes a particular affection for Annie's jukebox, which has a range of obscure punk rock and classic country songs.
Annie's Social Club has many regulars, and Los Angeles punk godmother Exene Cervenka of the band X is another familiar one. Like Alvin, she considers Whiteside a friend. Cervenka says the only time she's ever sung karaoke was at Whiteside's bar (a duet of "King of the Road," for those keeping notes), and she'll be at Annie's big Penny Pincher's Ball finale on New Year's Eve. "Annie worked her ass off to make a place for people to play and have a good time," Cervenka says. Of San Francisco's hundreds of watering holes, Annie's is her favorite. She'll miss it, along with one of her favorite activities there: cramming into the photo booth to get her picture taken with fans.
It wasn't just the household names who bellied up at Annie's. One factor that made the place dear to many local musicians was the fact that the Social Club was something of an incubator for up-and-coming acts. "They took a chance on booking unknown bands, and if you did well, you got invited back," says Ian Miller, bassist of Kowloon Walled City, which recently had a CD release show at the bar. He calls the place a rare meritocracy in the S.F. music scene.
Unfortunately, that helpful attitude may also have contributed to the club's downfall. Even its biggest fans note that its live music calendar didn't have enough well-known names to draw consistent crowds, and similar venues like the Knockout and Thee Parkside grabbed better-known touring acts. "As a talent buyer, I think Annie would still be in business if she had a better club booker," says Bottom of the Hill's Ramona Downey, a longtime friend. "It saddens me to know that she will be closing her doors."
Whiteside says it's always been her mission to give fringe bands a boost, but that the scene has changed in San Francisco over the years. She used to see unknown bands all the time when she was younger, and she admits that it's hard to get people to check out new bands now.
The building that houses Annie's has long been an oasis of rock 'n' roll in the rapidly gentrifying SOMA hood that is home to one interchangeable new dance club after the next. Before Whiteside ran the bar, it was the Covered Wagon Saloon, another great live music space that gave San Francisco plenty of blurry memories. So the end of Annie's also marks concern for the legacy of that cozy, crazy, anything-goes room.
Whiteside can't say who she sold the bar to before the deal is finalized, but there's worry around town that the new owners will turn the place into yet another swank, soulless ultralounge. The eclectic nature of Annie's is what made it so special. It was the one SOMA bar where, as Kowloon Walled City's Miller puts it, "Bike messengers tried to pick up goths who bought drinks for hippies hugging metalheads."
As for Whiteside, she hasn't given up her longtime dream of owning another bar in the future. But for now, she says, she's going to be "just like everybody else — looking for a job." The bikers, heshers, punks, and roots rockers have one final month to help generate her last bit of 2009 income, however, toasting the memorable rock 'n' roll outpost.