I wandered down to Capp’s Corner the other day to check out the linguine and clams, and ran into James Melling. Some may recall that in earlier columns I referred to him as the Gentleman Trencherman. James is a dilettante with a highly discerning appetite for the good things in life — among them food, wine and spirits, jazz, and American literature. But what I really appreciate about James is that he puts a premium on stimulating, eyeball-to-eyeball conversation. He speaks well, has a lot to say, is opinionated, but doesn’t crowd the floor. That is, he lets you talk, too. Some don’t do that. They stone you to death with the first personal singular.
AN ADMIRATION FOR MILES AND MONK
We had a conversation about big-band swing in the thirties and forties that was like an exchange of gunfire. For example, James doesn’t share my admiration for Count Basie. That’s his downside. He thinks Basie, Charlie Barnet, and Woody Herman created big-band music for elevator travel. I bridled at that and waited for his counter offerings, which were Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. I share his admiration for Miles and Monk but rue his thumbs-down on Basie, Barnet, and Herman. But it’s good to stretch out a bit with James.
OTHER SALOON CONVERSATIONALISTS
My point is this: Bar talk — usually thought of as monosyllabic dribble — isn’t all dirty jokes, sports ephemera, autobiographical B.S., and hook-up lines. It can be surprisingly stimulating and vigorous, even bookish at times.
Let me give you some other examples.
THE SAN FRANCISCO MAD MAN
Jerry Gibbons was one half of the iconic San Francisco advertising agency Pritikin & Gibbons, once the hottest “shop” in town. These days Pritikin operates a boutique hotel in Pacific Heights. Gibbons is an advertising consultant and consummate bar storyteller who likes martinis straight up in well-chilled glasses. One Gibbons story recalls his agency’s ad for swimming pools. The headline read “A word about nude swimming.” The copy that followed went something like this: “The beautiful abandon of swimming in the raw is at once an experience of sensual, almost spiritual joy.” Then: “Do it alone, do it with friends, do it with the better half — but by all means, do it in an Anthony Pool.”
THE BLUES WALKED IN AND MET ME
Harry Duncan likes to hang out at Capp’s Corner. He’s an erudite blues scholar I met many years ago at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Music is a way of life for Harry. He has a radio show on KUSF called the Soul Kitchen, which serves up funk, jazz, blues, gospel, reggae, and other assorted musical persuasions. One day in Capp’s we discussed blues guitar — Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, and Mark Knopfler. From there, we segued to an abstract discussion of Sly and the Family Stone and from there to the Staple Singers, James Brown, and Muddy Waters. At the 1974 Monterey Jazz Festival, Harry played harmonica with blues master Sunnyland Slim. The following year he produced the festival’s Saturday afternoon blues show. Among the artists were Bobby Blue Bland and Etta James. As a youth, he managed The Meters and went on a European tour with the Rolling Stones. Later he managed Captain Beefheart and played with Boz Scaggs. That gives you an idea of the kind of bar conversation one has with Harry Duncan.
THE TWO LAWRENCES
Occasionally I have lunch at Capp’s Corner with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Recently, over a lunch of lamb stew and red wine our conversation centered on British novelist, poet and painter D.H. Lawrence, who — you will, of course, remember — wrote Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Ferlinghetti recalled that many years ago he visited Taos, N.M., where Lawrence (D.H., not Ferlinghetti) lived for a few years. Ferlinghetti said he wanted to photograph some paintings by Lawrence that had been reviled in Britain and sequestered in Taos. He found them in a hotel there, La Fonda de Taos, and photographed them for an article he wrote at the time. How’s that for casual bar talk? Ferlinghetti is 94 and over lunch talking about D.H. Lawrence.
SOME RESTAURANTS OF YESTERYEAR
Bob Mulcrevy, a notable former restaurateur and saloon proprietor, is my go-to guy to talk to about food and drink. Bob doesn’t fusion around. We talk about “real” places like proper steakhouses and bars where they don’t put a lot of vegetables in the Bloody Marys. Bob is a regular at Capp’s. He has his own stool at the bar. Frequently I sit catty-corner to him and we chat. The other day we talked about restaurants of yesteryear that we both miss. We came up with four, but we probably could have gone on all day. Bob’s choices were the Washington Square Bar & Grill and Vanessi’s. It gave him genuine sorrow that both places are gone. He recalled the magnificent hamburger at Vanessi’s — the quintessential burger, full of grilled onions and slapped in a hollowed-out hunk of sourdough. I thought for a few minutes and suggested Ernie’s and La Felce. Ernie’s on Montgomery was internationally acclaimed. I still miss it, and I miss Victor and Roland Gotti, the suave proprietors. La Felce was on the southeast corner of Union and Stockton. I devoutly wish it were still there. Specifically, what did I tell Bob I miss about La Felce? Well, today it would be called an amuse-bouche. But at La Felce, it was just a complimentary starter: a small bowl of pinto beans dressed in olive oil, minced onion and parsley, and a little ground pepper. A few spoonfuls with a crust of Italian bread — Italian ambrosia. That’s the kind of bar talk Bob Mulcrevy and I engage in at Capp’s Corner.
ROMMEL AND PATTON
Ron Spinali talks to me about Field Marshall Erwin Rommel or General George S. Patton. Ron — Butcher Ron — of Little City Market on Vallejo, is a student of European battlefront history. His interest spills over to me, and I read the books he loans me. Sometimes over a glass of wine, we will sit at the bar and make small talk. But soon the small talk evolves, and he’s discussing Rommel the Desert Fox and the North Africa campaign or Old Blood and Guts Patton and his Third Army that relieved Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge.
Just your ordinary gaggle of North Beach characters and not what is usually thought of as typical bar talk.