Taking Back Sunday
Sunday has never been the new Friday in my world. I can easily turn, say, a Wednesday into a weekend – by cramming drinks, dinner, a show, and a slice of pizza into an evening. But Sunday isn’t part of my night owl mentality. That’s when I bolt the door to the outside world and clear the brain clutter a bit.
I know that’s not how the other half lives, though. I’ve heard Sunday revelers in every San Francisco neighborhood in which I’ve lived. The drunken boys in the Castro were always louder when the weekend was ending, and in the Haight, there’s no last call for Cha Cha Cha margarita fans.
Curious to know if I’ve been missing out on some secret society, I broke my rule. I spent a month of Sundays living the three-day weekend lifestyle. Along the way I discovered the best underground funk, a good spot to meet soul mates, and the hidden Twin Peaks of Taraval. I also realized I’ve been acting like a total grandma by calling it a weekend so early for all these years.
The Sweater Funk DJ crew was legendary in my mind before I’d visited their weekly Chinatown sauna. The boogie collective has style – shiny matching jackets bearing the Sweater Funk name. Their motto is also the best I’ve heard: “Wrong music, wrong place, wrong night…three wrongs make it right!”
By “wrong music” they mean the sunny Jheri-curl jams of the ’70s and ’80s.
By “wrong place,” they mean Li Po Lounge. The Chinatown dive is like that weirdly cool dude who’s friends with every social clique in school. I’ve seen a wider variety of music in its poorly lit and acoustically unfriendly basement than anywhere else in the city.
I hit Sweater Funk on a holiday weekend, when the temperature was still in the 60s well past 11 p.m. The bar felt like a massive house party – people were crammed into every nook, upstairs and down. I slid past drinkers mashed three-deep at the bar, careful not to knock into the old man snoring near the stairwell.
As I stepped through the concrete threshold to the dim underground cave, things were downright tropical. The musk of hot bodies was so tangible I was soon wearing it like cologne. There were only two light sources in the room – one over the DJ, and the other over a pair of sunken couches.
I snaked my way to the middle of the dance floor, which meant getting slimed on all sides by the damp backs and arms pumping around me. It was dirty and stinky and sweaty in there, and I was into it – claustrophobia was forcing people to move their asses or get off the floor. I couldn’t tell you a single song on the set list, though. This was some obscure funk.
The club had perfect rec room vibe: unpretentious, under the radar, and underlit. (Around a dark corner by the basement entrance, I saw a couple slink off to do some sloppy getting-to-know-you.) The one problem on a summer night? The club was also unventilated. My friends and I tried planting our bodies against one of three portable fans set up around the dance floor, but after a couple hours, we were cooked anyway. We walked home through an empty Chinatown, which, after all that dancing, was the coolant we’d been craving.
The Knockout is the Outer Mission mainstay for great retro DJ nights, but I’d never experienced golden oldies in such a mellow atmosphere until I hit its Sunday Soulcial. The monthly happy hour is designed as a meeting ground for “manual shift” scooter lovers who dig Northern soul, Motown, R&B, reggae, and rocksteady. My friend and I only fit half that bill – we arrived around 6 p.m. in a stretch version of the ride, a.k.a. Muni – but as it turned out, we were already kinda in their club, through typical six degrees of San Francisco.
We sat at the bar near some nattily dressed manual shifters. After drinking a couple Red Stripes for the occasion, I worked on the “social” part of the event when a tall blonde broke from his scooter buddies to pull up a stool next to us.
It turned out this guy was a DJ, a Brit from the Heist crew who are deeply embedded in the local funk scene. He filled me in on the other clubs where I could get a funk fix in the Mission – Wednesday nights at SOM and the occasional gig at Laszlo. Soon we were connecting back through Triple Crown, where he’d DJ’d a party for a good friend of mine last year. Our new buddy also told us that the DJ we were listening to, Selector Kirk, is involved with Sweater Funk, taking us full circle to the previous weekend’s fun.
It was strange to be at the Knockout and not once hit the dance floor – no one moved beyond their stools. This Sunday club had a uniquely conversational vibe. We were all focused on hanging out with friends, and perhaps meeting a couple new ones. The oldies dive was neighborly like that, pared back to its laid-back music lovers.
When I got to the Riptide for Joe Goldmark’s monthly stint with the Seducers, I realized the bartender and I had definitely met before. He swore we’d taken yoga together. I reminded him I’d dated his friend for a minute. It’s usually one or the other in this city.
Every place I hit on a Sunday was fun, but no other destination had as many characters as the Riptide. As the bartender, Jefferson, put it: “People are eccentric here. And they know it. And it doesn’t matter.”
I’d been down in Big Sur all weekend and wanted just a little more of that beach bum vibe. The Riptide, located at the very end of Taraval, is the only neighborhood bar I know of so close to the ocean. As co-owner David Quinby put it to me later, it’s “the last juke joint at the end of the world.”
The place was jammed down to its last half of a bar stool – and a black pug was spinning around on the other half. The tables were populated with every generation of drinker, here to see Goldmark and his talented honky-tonk crew perform.
Goldmark is co-owner of Amoeba and founder of Escape from New York Pizza. But at the Riptide he’s a celebrity for playing the pedal steel guitar. It’s a complicated instrument that involves using both your hands and feet, and it offers a rich, twangy sound that adds a lonesome edge to every cowboy ballad. Goldmark isn’t the singer, though. Those duties are left to Hank Maninger, a guy who looks “just like Lyle Lovett” according to Riptide’s newest neighbor, a sunburned surfer named Keith who pulled up the stool next to me.
Keith is a DC transplant and musician. He told me his band back East had opened for Kansas. He was a funny guy, and with each whiskey he thought more people around him looked famous. When Keith learned that the guy to his left, David, co-owned the place, he blurted out that he looked just like Bruce Springsteen. “You both look like rock stars,” he said, swiveling his head my way. I was less fortunate in comparisons. Keith matched me with Courtney Love. After a couple more rounds of “he looks just like,” Keith was out. He gave me a fist bump by way of goodbye.
Keith’s seat was still warm when another local arrived. She was a white-whiskered regular named Wanda, and she liked to fish, ride motorcycles, and “smoke doobies,” she told me with a hacking cackle. I admired the way she walked in, ordered a Coors Light, took two long gulps that left the bottle half empty, and hit the dance floor. The Seducers were working their way through Hank Williams, but the music only held Wanda for so long. The smell of weed drifted in from outside and she was out the door.
I learned that night that San Francisco has two Twin Peaks – the scenic tourist spot and the David Lynchian bar out by the beach. The Riptide is the unofficial home of the latter. It’s also a genuine Sunday night special – a burst of city eccentricity in an otherwise sleepy neighborhood.
I finally realized that waking up rested every Monday is overrated. The end of the weekend attracts a special breed of barfly, regardless of the bar. These are folks you can drink, dance, and probably smoke doobies with in ways you can’t when the whole city’s getting wild. On Sundays, there’s a unique bond between night owls who know that together they can curse the new workweek.
Sweater Funk goes down every Sunday at Li Po. You can follow the DJ crew on Facebook and Twitter.
The Knockout’s Sunday Soulcial happens monthly, and the bar has plenty of great oldies nights when the scooter club isn’t happening. You can follow the Heist DJ crew online.
The Riptide is always an adventure. Joe Goldmark and the Seducers play on the second Sunday of the month from 7 to 10 p.m.
Admission to all three places is free.