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Riff Raff 

O, Pioneers!, Lies! All Lies!, There Was a Riot Goin' On, But That's Over Now

Wednesday, Dec 15 1999
O, Pioneers! A sale of the Hotel Utah, one of SOMA's most venerable clubs and residence hotels, is currently pending. "There's something in the works," says owner Paul Gaer, who put the Utah on the block a little over a year ago when he decided to retire from the business. He adds, however, that "it's a bit like a Persian carpet company that has its going-out-of-business sale for three years." In other words, nothing's finalized, though manager and booker Guy Carson notes that they've received multiple offers. Carson also says that they've only considered potential buyers who are willing to keep the building standing.

That's good news regardless of what happens. In a SOMA that's increasingly defined by what just got built and which dot-com got new offices, the Utah is a marker of what's made San Francisco bar life -- and by extension San Francisco itself -- interesting in the past century. The Utah opened in 1908 on the tail end of a Barbary Coast era that was supporting over 200 breweries in the city, on a corner -- Fourth and Bryant streets -- that was essentially the middle of nowhere. The bar proper that's there today is the original, commissioned by Fredericksberg beer -- the only brew the Utah sold -- and imported from Belgium.

A variety of myths surround the Utah and the area in general, but after Prohibition, facts become a little more clear. Then, Al Opatz bought the Utah and renamed it Al's Transbay Tavern, and by the '50s it had become a happy home for every rowdy longshoreman, Wobbly, beat poet, and city official of questionable ethics you might think of. From open to close, Opatz was there greeting customers with the words "shook the hand that shook the world." "Al was the quintessential barkeeper," says Carson. "He was this bigger-than-life kind of guy." While KQED had its cramped studios across the street in the late '50s, the bar provided dressing room for performers. Legend has it Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe would stroll in on occasion, as did Bing Crosby. And every July 24 -- Pioneer Day, Utah's official state holiday -- transplanted Utahans would drop by for cheap drinks and memories.

By the mid-'70s, San Francisco in general was facing an economic downturn, but into the Utah strolled Paul Gaer, who was flush with excitement -- and a bit of cash -- after selling his screenplay for The Electric Horseman, the Robert Redford-Jane Fonda vehicle that capitalized on the rhinestone cowboy fad in 1979. In Gaer's hands the Utah became both a bar and a cultural center, supporting theater, live music, and experimental art; Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, the Pickle Family Circus, and other comic acts made their way onto the Utah stage, and the place got a rep as supporting the offbeat. The common line about the Utah is that the main factor in getting a job there -- or a room in the hotel itself -- isn't so much a matter of skill or finances as how interesting you are.

Carson, a soft-spoken man with shoulder-length sandy hair with more than a little gray in it, says the myth is true -- to an extent. "There's no policy," he says. "That's always been the policy." The Utah is a place with a rich history, and Carson notes that "we try to rent to people who are going to respect that. Money has never been the bottom line here. We'll leave rooms empty rather than rent to the wrong people. There's a nice balance of young bohemian types and artists. We've always said we were the finest residence hotel in the city. I've been in some of these places, and there are places where you're afraid to go to the bathroom. There's some truth to the idea that the culture of the Utah -- especially at the saloon -- is that it's always been an iconoclast's bar. I always say, 'You can be anything here. You just can't be bullshit.'"

Carson himself has worked at the Utah for the past eight years after a career playing bass with the Potato Eaters and the Residents-affiliated Snakefinger. And in his time, he's overseen the growth of a number of acts that have gone on to bigger things, including locals like the Mommyheads, Red House Painters, American Music Club, and Third Eye Blind, as well as one earnest Alaskan folkie named Jewel Kilcher, who played her first three shows in San Francisco at the Utah.

Despite all the changes that have gone on in SOMA, Carson isn't a complainer -- he's seen enough genres grow and deflate to understand that these things go in cycles, and that the rock 'n' roll that's been the keystone of the Utah's shows isn't going to disappear. Besides, he has the support of those selfsame dot-com folks, who like a good beer and a good band just as much as anybody else. "The computer talent that drinks at this bar is unsurpassed in this world," he says proudly.

Lies! All Lies! Local musician and studio owner John Vanderslice posted a cease-and-desist letter on his Web site recently. On the site, the former MK Ultra frontman claims his authorship of a song called "Bill Gates Must Die" elicited a letter from Microsoft stating his "use of Microsoft trademarks and logos" violates federal copyright law. Vanderslice also notes on the site that "My NT server has been crashing daily, and my five phone lines have either been tapped or disrupted. I've been recording the mysterious calls I get from the 425 area code (Redmond, WA)."

Here at Riff Raff, we call it a crock.

Well, Mr. Vanderslice? "It was a prank," he confesses. He says he came up with the idea with Josh Bloom of Fanatic Promotion, a PR firm of which he's a client, and that the "Bill Gates" single was sent to radio stations around the country with a note about the false cease-and-desist order to elicit interest. CDNow's news section, All Star, has already swallowed the bait, writing up the story as "Seattle [sic] Indie Rocker Ruffles Microsoft's Feathers." Vanderslice also notes that Entertainment Weekly and New York Magazine have been requesting quotes. Not that we believe him or anything.

There Was a Riot Goin' On, But That's Over Now Dec. 7 marked the last of Cafe Du Nord's Tuesday night salsa events, closing out an eight-year tradition at the below-street-level Market Street club and one-time speak-easy. It wasn't a happy ending: At closing time, patrons and Du Nord staff got caught up in a melee that left two of the staffers injured. And while owner Cindy Johnson notes that salsa provided for "our most consistently busy night from a business standpoint," those financial issues were trumped by the need to make the club's employees feel safe. "It just got too rough," says Johnson, who notes that she is open to bringing salsa events back in the future. Until that happens, the jazzy Neo Trio will be filling in on Tuesdays.

Oops Darren Keast's feature last week on Emanate Records ("Rethinking Techno," Dec. 8) gave an incorrect location for the electronic music label. Emanate is based in Berkeley. We apologize for the error.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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