When I heard the recent news that the Hemlock Tavern — a cozy showcase room on Polk Street, featuring up-and-coming indie-rock performers for roughly 17 years — was closing in early October to make room for yet another condo development, my heart sank. I’ve spent my fair share of hours at the Hemlock, pint in hand and plugs in ears, enjoying local bands and touring artists as they brought sounds to the fans. Soon, at that location, there will be no more bargain-priced music for anyone of any class or economic status, just more housing for the well-to-do in an increasingly over-developed city emblemized by the looming Salesforce Tower.
Yes, they’re taking the Hemlock — only it’s killing us, presuming “us” represents those who blanch at fewer and fewer places to see musicians in need of a San Francisco forum for their talents.
This is not the first nor the last time a beloved location dedicated to the entertainment scene has been shut down, only to be replaced by something else. In certain instances, the beat (or some version of it) goes on. In other words, the arts prevail. Quite a few of my fondest musical memories involve the Old Waldorf, the compact nightclub that was located in the Embarcadero Center from 1976 to 1983, and hosted the San Francisco debuts of U2, Elvis Costello, R.E.M., and so many more. It was renovated, and its dressing room area was expanded and converted into the still spiffy Punchline comedy club, which is how it remains today.
REFURBISHED AND REINVENTED
Similarly, the building at 901 Columbus Avenue started out in 1923 as Club Lido and went through numerous permutations — the Italian Village (jazz), the Village (variety), Dance Yer Ass Off Inc. (’70s disco), the Boarding House (the venerable Bush Street comedy club relocated there in the early ’80s), Wolfgang’s (touring rock and pop music acts, starting in 1983), and the 7th Note (jazz in 1990, after a fire ravaged the place in 1987) — until becoming the current location for Cobb’s Comedy Club in 2003.
The Regency Ballroom — the multilevel concert space on Van Ness Avenue at Sutter Street — was previously a multiplex movie theater, the Regency I, along with the adjoining building on Sutter Street that was dubbed the Regency II. But before that cinema incarnation, the latter was the site of the historic 1960s rock music palace, the Avalon Ballroom.
Sadly, for culture lovers, there have been too many conversions of performing spaces to different uses in the interest of economic gain. I know of people who openly wept when Winterland — the ice-rink-turned-rock-mecca at Post and Steiner Streets, where the Rolling Stones, Sex Pistols, and the Band played what were among the most memorable shows of their careers — was torn down in 1985 to be replaced by, uh-oh, condos. And the original site of the big-band-skewed Carousel Ballroom at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Market Street — which later became home to the Fillmore West, the psychedelic-era hippie haven, until it closed in 1971 — most recently languished as a car dealership. Although it was refurbished this year for events (musical and otherwise) under the name SVN West, it’s still in early stages of existence and not much appears to be happening there as yet.
CHANGING TASTES, FORTUNES, AND SPACES
Some clubs have closed due to ownership issues or changes in taste. The North Beach location on Broadway Street that housed the Mabuhay Gardens — the legendary Filipino restaurant and world-renowned punk-rock club — was shuttered in 1986, reborn as the Velvet Lounge nightclub, then Club 443, and now serves as an events space branded Fame. Across from where the Mab was housed, The Stone rock club, previously the music venues The Matrix and the Soul Train, became the Penthouse Club, an upscale strip joint.
Underground, unlicensed, or D.I.Y. clubs that fostered the West Coast punk scene in the late ’70s, such as the Deaf Club in the Mission and the Masque in Los Angeles, were funky hovels that burned bright for a year or two and then flamed out, leaving the crowds to move on to the next hotspot. Following a similar route to that of the Mabuhay, two Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, Madame Wong’s and the Hong Kong Café, became competing new-wave rock clubs in the late 1970s before eventually closing, with apartments replacing Wong’s, while the Hong Kong is now a gift shop.
Even as the Hemlock was given notice, word came down that the storied Viper Room, where hard rock reigned and Johnny Depp occasionally tended bar for tips and giggles, is closing on the Sunset Strip, Hollywood’s longtime party central. Along with neighboring properties, it’s been sold for $80 million to Arizona developers who have yet to decide on what the best (meaning the most profitable) use would be for the real estate. Going by recent changes on the Strip, expect luxury condos and high-end retailers.
Ultimately, the loss of the Hemlock, the Viper Room, and comparable establishments diminishes the color and vitality of their respective cities. And those of us who will miss them can only shrug and find other places to feed our souls with music.