Why the Eagle is home

Pub date April 19, 2011

Some people don’t fit in. Anybody who has walked in the margins for any period of time gets this. And anybody who gets this, honestly, understands that within the margins of the outsider, there are narrower margins to inhabit. If you came to San Francisco, or the Bay Area, as an outsider’s outsider, you may have found a home of sorts at the Eagle Tavern.

I came to San Francisco a long time ago. I came out, I did my time in the Castro. I migrated out of there as I migrated out of my 20s and wound up hanging in the SoMa bars, where I felt more comfortable and had more in common with the men who frequented them. The scene down there was edgier for sure, maybe outright crazy at times, but at least it seemed a little more down to earth. The people were interesting and fun. Artists, musicians, addicts, hustlers, drag queens. Home.

Beyond my identity as a queer man, I’ve also worked as a musician for the last three or so decades. I’ve had a reasonable amount of mainstream success. But I also do a lot of smaller projects, which don’t always make me money but are in many ways what I live and breathe for.

About 10 years ago, one of my musical brothers in arms, Doug Hilsinger, who is the talent booker at the Eagle, asked my to play with the Cinnamon Girls, his Neil Young tribute … The catch, well you gotta wear a dress. In fact, well, you get to have a couple of drinks and rock out LOUD (really loud) and play Neil songs … and we do, and if you’ve heard us, you know we do it right, and we do it well. It’s shambolic, drunken, and artful. Awesome fun, the art of the bar band, a stage to play on and an audience to listen.

Do a little cultural deconstruction here: a band of straight and gay musicians get together and play Neil Young songs at a leather bar in San Francisco, simply for fun, to a mixed audience (the Eagle is notoriously mixed straight and gay on music nights). I believe you call this cultural cross-pollination, when groups of people who might not anticipate socializing do so by accident and create some unanticipated unity. It’s not at a scripted event, but it is part of the day-to-day workings of the Eagle Tavern in San Francisco. Could you please tell me, if you happen to know, if there is any other place on the planet (seriously) where something like this happens? People throw around phrases like “unique San Francisco institution” a little to easily sometimes. THIS is the real deal.

And this is, by the way, one of about 100 plus events that may happen at the Eagle in any given year. What else may happen? AIDS fundraisers, political rallies (I’ve seen no fewer than five city supervisors and two state senators plying the crowd at the Sunday beer bust). Hilsinger’s regular Thursday night indie music night has seen a host of great and notable artists for a decade, offering a venue to people who might otherwise have a hard time finding a stage. I’ve been to memorials and wakes there. My partner Troy and I had our reception for our illegal San Francisco gay marriage at the Eagle back in 2004.

The Eagle isn’t really as much a bar as it is an oddball equivalent of the old school public house, the bar that also has become a community center. Add to all of this a history of more than 30 years, far enough back to when leather was really the outsider community within the community, old enough to have lost a lot of clientele and fought hard to stay in business during the AIDS crisis. Old enough to have weathered the shifting demographic of SoMa during the dot-com and Web 2.0 economic tidal shifts. That’s called institutional endurance, and its rare. You can ask any bar owner or restaurant owner about this.

The Eagle Tavern, for all of these reasons and many more, is culturally significant in this town. Should it close so that an owner (who doesn’t live in town and who has shown callously that he doesn’t give a damn about the community) can “clean it up” and make, presumably, a straight bar that caters to the bridge-and-tunnel scene (or even a new, trendy gay bar focused on younger clientele), we as a city are going to lose something that simply cannot be replaced.

Victor Krummenacher is a musician and designer.