PARTY RADAR That disco music has been the recent historical music of oppressed people of color and queers is a cliche — but that doesn’t mean it’s any less true. Or useful, since we seem to be entering another time where we’ll need to gather together at underground spots and hold each other on the dance floor.
Thus it’s a perfect moment to celebrate our most “authentic” disco (and more) experience — DJ Bus Station John’s weekly Thursday night party at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, The Tubesteak Connection, which, on Thu/10, becomes the longest-running weekly party in San Francisco. For twelve and a half years, Bus Station John has transformed beloved Tenderloin dive bar (hanging plants! carpeted dance floor! popcorn machine! too-strong drinks!) into a direct tribute to gay bathhouse discos past, with vintage porn on the walls, cheeky retro beefcake videos playing onscreen, DIY lighting and special effects, and a strict “no cell phones” policy.
And of course there is extraordinary music. Bus Station John spins rare vinyl disco and funk (plus more) classics from pre-1983, many of them gleaned from record collections of men who died of AIDS. Disco nights that stretch beyond the wedding party hits may seem common now, but a dozen years ago they were mostly unheard of, outside of corny (and sometimes pretty racist and heteronormative) retro ’70s night. Besides carving a space out for older gay people to reminisce, The Tubesteak Connection has provided a necessary education to young gay men — especially DJs and party people who would otherwise not encounter such wonderful, organic sounds in their native habitat. The party is a legend, and as San Franciscan as high school students marching from their classrooms to protest Trump’s election (happening as I write this).
Below is my lively email conversation with Bus Station about the Tubesteak Connection, the long arc of disco, and the contemporary gay nightlife scene.
48 HILLS Congratulations on becoming the longest continuously-running gay weekly party in SF nightlife history! I know you’ve been counting the days! How many Tubesteak Connections is that? Has there been a “secret formula” in managing your longevity?
DJ BUS STATION JOHN Thanks, Mx. Bieschke! That would be 655 Thursdays — I did the math, ha ha. A seamless DJ blend of perseverance and insanity? Seriously, I’d say it’s still going because of my drive to share the rare vintage dance music I have such a passion for, mixed with the gorgeous inspiration I’ve gotten from the thousands of people who’ve visited my tiny, threadbare, carpeted dance floor at Aunt Charlie’s since that fateful spring night back in 2004.
48H With the Tubesteak Connection you’ve maintained the same basic format through the years, even as the nightlife world continues to swirl and change around you. You’ve now entertained generations of gay clubgoers. How would you characterize the importance of what you do?
DJ BSJ Wow, generations! Yeah, it’s pretty wild to think of how I’ve watched so many of these kids “grow up” in the bar, seeing them through from their ’20s into their ’30s, or their ’30s into their ’40s. Now a lot of them are complaining about being “old,” ha ha. Honey, I was already “old” when we started! Anyway, it took a long time before I began to consider that what i do might have a larger significance than just throwing parties, and I’ve thrown a lot of them, starting around the turn of the century with TRASH at the Powerhouse, then Tubesteak Connection at Aunt Charlie’s, followed by The Rod at Deco Lounge, Double Dutch Disco at The Transfer, MANQUAKE! at The Gangway, Le Perle Degli Squallor & Love Will Fix It at Hot Spot, and currently DISCO DADDY! at The SF Eagle and occasionally Akbar in L.A..
There have been many peaks (and a few valleys) over the years, but that The Tubesteak Connection should make it to this milestone is pretty great. It means the world to me that a club that’s about old-school Tenderloin realness rather than mainstream branding is taking the crown for The City’s longest-running GLBTQIAXYZ#@%!!! weekly party, especially in our current gentrified climate. To my mind, this truly represents what the real spirit of the San Francisco is all about.
48H You’ve preserved a glorious past moment in gay culture for so many years. Has the Tubesteak Connection taken on different meanings for new audiences as time has progressed?
DJ BSJ I’ll start off by saying that despite the supposed impending demise of gay bars and parties (and the proliferation of sex apps), this night is and always will be a homo-centric gathering place. The fact is, a great many gay men still want to find tricks & lovers, friends & boyfriends, live-in-the-flesh the good old-fashioned way, in a space created specifically with that desire in mind. The Tubesteak Connection serves that purpose while continuing to be a connecting thread to our gay night-lives past. Is it still a musical celebration of gay bathhouse-era culture? I’d say aesthetically, visually, yes, but the music has expanded well beyond its original “bathhouse” parameters as I’ve discovered more and more musical treasures from multiple dance genres over the years — so in addition to the gays, the club attracts music heads of all orientations.
In terms of audiences, I’m not sure we or any other club will ever be quite as colorfully-freaky as we used to be, since the demographics of San Francisco have changed so dramatically. What was once “Gay Mecca” has become largely inhospitable to the new generations of young queens who’ve historically come here to find themselves and in turn create new waves of alternative queer culture. They can’t afford to move here — and, heart-breakingly, so many others (of all ages) have had to leave, including many of the characters, creatives, and tastemakers who’ve contributed so much to the scene
Where does that leave us? It’s tempting to say we’re fated to live in a pretty but blanded-out husk of a city, overrun by a flood of “normals” — and sometimes it seems that way. The good news is there are still enough interesting people here — as well as tourists (fresh meat!) –to make for a lively party. I’m lucky because the people I attract, regardless of their socio-economic status, have a clue — they’re into the vibe, the music, and can handle the no-cell phone policy, and the ones who can’t don’t come back.
48H How have you changed since starting the club, personally or as a DJ?
DJ BSJ You mean in addition to morphing into a big-bellied, big-bearded “bear-daddy?” Well, I think you know that for many years I’d earned a reputation for being secretive — even territorial — about my fave rare vintage dance tracks. And the truth is, I was. It totally worked my nerves that treasures I’d dug so long and hard for — spending countless hours in record stores, dusty basements, garages & other interesting places — were suddenly becoming available on the internets at the click of a mouse. This is coming from a vinyl addict who at times had blackened fingertips from diggin’ the crates in her feverish quest for that next great cut.
It took a long time for me to make my peace with this reality. Then one day i thought, “ya know, the technological Pandora’s box has been opened, and there’s absolutely nothin’ I can do about it, so I’d best chill out & see how I can work with it.” I also came to the rather obvious realization that, in the end, it really is all about the music, music with soul, creativity, musicianship & imagination that stands the test of time, music that can still fill dance floors 35+ years later. In this digital world where most dance and pop songs are disposable “product,” people are starved for something real — so whatever means we can use to turn more people onto the good stuff can only be a good thing. I’ll even admit I’ve discovered my fair share of vintage goodies online via Youtube and Discogs.
So, yes, these days you’ll find a changed, mellower, hopefully more giving BSJ behind the turntables. I still have a large cache of gems I wanna keep special, just as a magician doesn’t want to give away all of his secrets — but now, more often than not, I’m happy to spread the love & tell you what i’m playing — so never be afraid to ask. (No more fear of being caught and Shazam-shamed behind the DJ curtain — yay!)
48H When I interviewed you 11 years ago for the Bay Guardian, you said, “I don’t see what I do as conscious rebellion, just my natural reaction to the steady decline of gay culture and nightlife over the last 20 years.” More than a decade on, do you still see gay culture in decline – despite major advances in civil rights and a surge of interest in the art, nightlife, and fashion of the AIDS and pre-AIDS era?
DJ BSJ Civil rights are great, but gay mainstreaming and conformity have also increased as well, and I see that as a form of decline after decades if not centuries of queens being on the cutting-edge. We want fewer boring people, not more, ha ha. Social networking –like cell phones, a massive phenomenon now but barely a thing when I first started the club — can bring people together in a good way but other times ends up compartmentalizing them, dividing the nightlife community into groups of queens who only want to hang out with those who most closely mirror themselves. I do understand someone looking at facebook and going “hey, that hot guy’s gonna be at this party, maybe we’ll have sex, count me in!” That’s cool, but then the whole concept of diversity kind of goes out the window — and the music can easily become secondary to socializing, even when there are “name” djs on the decks.
48H Aunt Charlie’s is one of the last of its breed. What does it mean to you?
DJ BSJ There are fewer and fewer spaces left in San Francisco for the non-monied classes to hang—the working poor, the queer, the old folks, the oddballs, people of every color and stripe who don’t fit into “The New San Francisco,” and have no desire to. Aunt Charlie’s offers us a refuge. Yes, bachelorette parties have largely appropriated the Hott Boxx Girls’ shows on the weekends — drag queens are catnip to the “woo” chicks — but the rest of the time Aunt Charlie’s can be pretty magic. We have an amazing family of regulars, day-drinkers, night-drinkers, bartenders who range in age from 30-ish to 90(!), super-cheap, super-stiff drinks, free food on holidays, tons of benefits, High Fantasy on Tuesdays and The Tubesteak Connection on Thursdays. While the bar has yet to succumb and disappear like so many others have — and I’m happy to report that we’re not going anywhere anytime soon — it still needs the support of people who appreciate the charms of a classic gay dive.
It does get my dander up when one of our city’s beloved institutions dies, as so many have in recent years, and people just click some little sad face emoji and cry extra loud on facebook about how terrible it is. My response to that is, “Honey, when’s the last time YOU showed face and supported?” Queens need to represent now more than ever. Start by stepping up and (re)claiming your cruising grounds. Non-LGBTQ people who are truly our allies understand and respect the fact that we still need a few places on this planet to call our own — and they know when to gracefully step back so we can maybe find a little app-free man-to-man action.
48H Yay, man-to-man action! Let’s talk more about the music. You “revived” disco before trends like disco edits, nu-disco, and the disco rival via Daft Punk etc. became mainstream. How has it felt to watch this music morph and change in pop culture over the past decade?
DJ BSJ To be honest, I haven’t paid a lot of attention because I don’t find most of what I’ve heard nearly as compelling as the original music. Many of the kids mistake nu disco, edits and the like for actual disco, having not been exposed to the real thing. This is where it’s on older DJs like me, Steve Fabus, Lester Temple and Jim Hopkins among others to educate the dance floor by playing dedicated disco sets — we lived the music the first time around and know our onions, ha ha.
Speaking of “the music,” I have to confess that over the years I’ve rather lazily let my style be defined by others who use “disco” as a convenient umbrella term for all old-school dance music. It’s been simpler than explaining that I cover a lot of ground from the mid-70’s through the early 80’s, playing not only rare disco, but an eclectic mixture of hi-NRG, funk, soul, R&B, “boogie,” electrofunk, italo/eurodisco, new/no wave, left-field, very early hip hop and more recently, even throwing in a touch of early house — so I’ve just kind of gone with it. It’s been cute to be dubbed “SF’s Godfather of Bathhouse Disco,” but it’s always been a challenge to figure out a name for what i really do — I’ve never wanted to paint myself into a corner. I follow my muse in the moment, rarely planning anything in advance; I just try to keep the (disco) ball in the air and the dance floor humming.
I try not to let public expectations come into play too much, though I sometimes fret over potentially disappointing the older gay man who comes to the club after reading about me, waiting to have her hi-NRG bathhouse flashback, only to find I’m in an italo-disco mood when he shows up. Or the young italo head who came for quirky synthetic beats & chirpy vocals and unexpectedly got served some soulful disco-funk instead. Hopefully they both stick around anyway and have a good time. My best advice for first-time visitors (besides phones only in the bathrooms or outside) is to keep an open mind and expect the unexpected.
48H You also prefigured “the new gay underground,” as it’s been called — exemplified by groups like Honey Soundsystem, Honcho, Men’s Room, etc. — that used the imagery and sometimes the music (thinking of Dark Entries Records’ popularization of hi-NRG here Patrick Cowley here) to transform gay nightlife away from circuit parties and towards a different kind of more “authentic”-feeling gay experience, one that was hyperconscious of history, but embraced the latest underground techno and house. Many of its participants have directly acknowledged you as a source of inspiration. How do you feel about this movement?
DJ BSJ I’m down for anything that steers our nightlife away from the circuit-pop / ‘tween-girl top 40 video mess that predominates in gay venues worldwide, so good on these guys—but while a “new queer underground” sounds sexy & intriguing, “underground” as we once knew it is no longer really exists, as most modern parties are typically facebook-driven. For better or worse, everything’s on the internets, so a lot of the mystery of going out has been lost. Even my classic tea dance DISCO DADDY! (though it’s administered by “myveryclosefriend,” Scott Tobereal, wink-wink) is on Facebook, albeit at the Eagle’s behest. I personally am still holding out, participating minimally in social networking and rarely featuring myself (i don’t have a BSJ page) or The Tubesteak Connection. There are no facebook invites for Thursdays; as always, I promote the night via flyers and rely on word-of-mouth (and, as a nod to the 20th century, an email list, ha ha), so you never know in advance who’s gonna show up, and i love that unpredictability. I reckon we’re as “underground” as a club can be in an internet age.
To answer your question, it feels nice to be acknowledged as an inspiration; I think it’s the best gift humans can give each to other. And I respect and admire the dedication Josh & the Honey boys have shown in rescuing the “lost” Patrick Cowley tapes. I was actually invited to go through the vinyl in John Hedges’ record dungeon (the DJ of yore who handed down large chunks of his vast collection to both HSS & myself before moving to Palm Springs), & saw a bunch of tapes sitting on a shelf as i was digging through her basement. I looked at their labels and thought “wow, this is history, I’m sure she’ll want to hold onto these” (plus they were kinda funky-mildew-y), so I left them behind. I’m glad HSS had the presence of mind, technological means, motivation & social-networking skills to clean them up and present them to the world. If I’d picked them up, they’d probably still be moldering somewhere in my archives, ha ha.
Aesthetically, it’s been nice to see some of the kids put more old-school homo style & creativity into their “looqs” and graphic designs, especially after years of hum-drum GAP separates haunting our big city streets, not to mention all the utterly unimaginative glossy club posters featuring interchangeable photo-shopped porn stars — but musically what I’m looking for are those moments which transcend the surface aspects of a retro revival trend and sincerely bring the old-school music to the dance floor. What really makes me happy is hearing new guard DJs who have a genuine, deep appreciation for disco & an eagerness to learn more about its history — the ones who wet their pants at the mere thought of digging for and playing the old records — they’re the ones who warm my cockles. Among these would be locals like Kenneth L. Kemp, “Lil’ John” Cartwright, Joe Prince Wolfe, Carrie Morrison, and Chaka Quan. While some of them mix old & new stuff together, which may not be my personal cup of fur, they feel and unabashedly love the original old-school music. When I hear them play disco, it’s a passing-of-the-torch, full-circle moment.
48H Name three things you’d like to see more (or less) of in the San Francisco night life scene.
DJ BSJ 1. Fewer glowing screens, cell, plasma, or otherwise
2. More vocals
3. More (tubesteak) connections!
THE TUBESTEAK CONNECTION
officially becomes the longest continuously-running weekly club in SF history
Thursday November 10th
10pm-2am / $5-20 sliding-scale cover
Aunt Charlie’s Lounge
133 Vicki Mar Lane & Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Way (aka Turk & Taylor)
Partial proceeds will benefit The San Francisco Night Ministry
As always, this is a cell phone-free event.