1982: By the time I’d arrived in San Francisco I’d gone tone deaf again. My music craving, lasting from the late ‘70s to maybe 1981, faded with Punk. 1980s New Wave went in one ear and out the other; its preprogrammed plodding drumbeats and thin vocals left me feeling sterile. There were tunes, now and then, that I liked (none come to mind now . . . “One Night in Bangkok”? Sigh . . . .). I was profoundly peripatetic and had no room in the suitcase for a stereo. At one point, I became practically homeless; even my unique and admired Morricone collection had to be stored in the home of an appreciative fellow fan.
1990: I safely landed in an apartment in a Haight Victorian. One of my roommates, Judith from Germany, delighted me by turning out to be world class drummer for a fine rock-ska band called The Offbeats and they happily tuned up my ears for awhile. But I was still drinking in dive bars with drunkards whose outlook was prunier than mine.
Sunday afternoon, late 1992: I’d wearied of hoisting toasts to nihilism and walked down the dreary Haight among the lost and their pretenders. I decided to have one more at a bar I’d only stopped at once before some years back: Its green tile front sported an art-deco-lettered sign: CLUB DELUXE.
I ordered a beer from a bald guy who looked like Telly Savalas, but had one talent Telly didn’t: In thirty seconds, I was doing spit takes and toppling off the stool in laughter. I hadn’t met such a funny bartender since . . . ever.
He called himself Vise Grip. I was back next Sunday and every weekend after for the next six years. (Honestly, Vise was God's slowest bartender. Typical conversation: “Burchfield! Wanna beer?” “Nah, gotta leave in a couple of hours.”)
Vise had another talent: he was a musician. In fact, the Deluxe was a musicians’ bar. Not only that, it was the gravity point for a new robust pop music movement, what is known now as the Retro-Swing scene.
What I knew about Jazz and Swing could’ve fit into my ear (even now I’m not particularly smart about it), so I found myself subject to a great musical education, plus one other important lesson. If you want to hang out at bar, hang where the musicians hang.
Musicians, aspiring and pro, are like sharks—gotta keep moving, keep hustling for gigs, keep making music. If you want to even sit with them for a drink, you’d better be moving on something, too, whether it’s a protest movement or a bricklaying business. Otherwise, you will bore them, I promise.
The Deluxe was a magnet for all sorts of people, all of whom had one (often only one) thing in common—they wanted do more than pickle their brains (though, honestly, there was plenty of that; more than one habitué drank himself into a corner and into treatment.) Nor did everyone like each other—there were enough feuds and spats to worry the Hatfields and McCoys, but no one slumped at the bar feeling sorry for his besotted bedeviled self. Those that did, didn’t last and no one had to show the poor bastard the door, either. If misery loves company, the Club Deluxe crowd was the worst company possible. There, my quest for nothingness ended.
As it turned out, like me, most of the musicians—Vise included--were refugees from Punk, alienated from soulless 1980s music and its flat-faced post-modern ‘tude. Retro Swing drew its fire from the Swing Era (roughly the 1920s to the late 1940s, the time of Ellington, Goodman, Cab Calloway and many more); others, like Vise Grip rescued gems from the bridge period between the fading of Swing and the rise of Rock n’ Roll, the time of a style known as Jump Swing, the province of artists like Louis Jordan.
These new bands did more than play their parents’ records: They brought eclectic modernity in terms of energy, color and edge. One of the bands from that era—and one of the only ones still standing—“The New Morty Show” (featuring Vise Grip) had the could swing from Goodman through Jordan and robustly into that great Ramones’ anthem “I Wanna Be Sedated” with amazing grace.
Thanks to the Deluxe’s ingenious manager, Dutch Pennfield and owner Jay Johnson, an incredible parade of talent poured through the door onto the tiny stage: St. Vitus Dance (featuring Vise Grip and called “The Sex Pistols of Swing”); The Royal Crown Revue, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Blue Plate Special; Timmie Hesla’s Big Band (the very first of them), Mr. Lucky, the Ambassadors of Swing (. . . featuring Vise Grip). Most of the musicians were younger than me, but some had played with greats like Count Basie and Ellington. The crowds spanned the world and generations, uniting the young and old like never before.
Their music brought something very important to life, probably the most important quality that any art brings: joy.
For many it was more than the music: it was the revival of a lost (and unfairly maligned) culture of elegance, sophistication, sharp dress great dancing and high manners. This, I stood somewhat apart from (though Michael Moss, publisher of Swing Time Magazine a niche publication that was born in the Deluxe and lasted for 14 issues, made a gift of a fine 1920s-vintage suit for which I really need to shed a few pounds to fit in again; V. Vale’s book Swing! The New Retro Renaissance is a valuable reference tool for much of this). I was an indifferent dancer and an early-to-bed type.
It was one of the best times I had . . . but like all good times, it ended. In 1998, the Deluxe no longer featured Vise Grip behind the bar; and Frank Sinatra passed away. But I walked out with a whistle and good feelings for one and all, my ears as tuned up as they’d ever been and a budding Duke Ellington collection, open for the Next Beautiful Thing.