The Eagle Has Landed
As a queer person in San Francisco, I’ve huddled into dark corners of the Lex, gone dancing at The Café, had a million two-for-one margaritas at Moby Dick’s — but from my experience, the Eagle was the most epic queer bar in the city. Until its untimely demise at the end of last month, The Eagle was a charmingly unholy pastiche of motorcycle jackets, pool tables, patio drinking, and punk rock.
It seemed anyone who ever went to, say, a beer bust, a live music night, or a dance party at this SOMA institution was provoked to show support for the bar once recent news hit that it might be sold. Facebook groups were created, protests were organized, and city supervisors even wrote letters, all against the sale of the 11th and Harrison dive. Why the ire? And, why, upon hearing the news that the Eagle officially closed (for now), are so many of us stricken with heavy hearts?
The Eagle was that special hangout that truly had something for everyone: part small-town gay bar, part leather scene, part underground music jewel, part daytime drinking hot spot. But what, exactly, did the bar mean to its devoted legion of patrons and musicians? I set out to document the best memories behind the leather dive loved by such a variety of locals.
I think this was in 2001. I'd been a regular at the Eagle since probably 1994. I had two cousins who were clowns in the circus — Ringling Brothers, you know, the big circus — and they were doing a show at the Cow Palace that night. I took some friends with me to see the show and then I brought this whole big crew of clowns, riggers, and a trapeze lady to the Eagle.
My cousin Pat was 19 at the time and I warned him not to draw too much attention to himself or he might get tossed out. I was out on the patio laughing it up with a bunch of the circus folks and I realized I hadn't seen Pat in a while, so I went inside. I found him balancing one of the Eagle's 30-pound bar stools on his chin for a crowd of cheering leather guys — including the bartender, who then proceeded to get us all completely cab-calling drunk on the weirdest assortment of shots I've ever tried. My cousins kept the bar roaring with circus stories and were everybody's darlings. Needless to say, we closed the place down that night.
Five years ago, I was over at Flynn’s, seeing X’s 25th anniversary show. It was amazing — the original lineup, absolutely magnificent. When the show was over, I stopped by the Eagle and they asked me if I minded filling in because that night’s DJ had to go home sick. Still excited about the show, I played an X song and one of the bartenders came up to the booth and said, “I think one of the guys from X is here.” I was like, “No way!” The bartender checked and came back and said, “It’s John Doe!” I got really nervous. John Doe is a legend.
I looked through my music, thinking what would John Doe want to hear? The bartender said, “You should come out and meet him. He’s really nice.” I didn’t want to. I was just thinking, “I think he likes Juliana Hatfield.” The next thing I know, I look up and he’s walking toward me and shakes my hand. I said, “Your show was so amazing!” And he hugged me! I said some of the songs had almost made me cry and he called me a softie. He was so nice. He looked forever young, like Thurston Moore. I couldn’t believe that he hugged me. He ended up staying the whole night, getting really drunk with his friends.
The Eagle was such a special place. I can’t tell you how many times I’d discovered a band, only to find out they had already set to play a show there. In fact, all these amazing bands wanted to play in April because of the potential closure. I was really excited for the Off! show on April 21. Off! is made up of guys from Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, and when they wanted to play, we were amazed. We were like, “You know people have to walk across the stage to go to the bathroom?” They didn’t care.
I’ve DJ’ed at the Eagle for 12 years and it was kind of a utopia. The people who worked there put what they loved most into it. It felt like a family. If we’re going out, we’re going out with a bang.
I joined the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on Pride Day 1985. There were only six of us in the parade that year and only a few others on different floats. Shortly after that, we were in habit and wanted to have a drink at the Eagle. We got to the door and the manager said we couldn't come in, because there was a dress code.
I snapped back, "But we are wearing dresses." He said this was a leather bar and it did not allow drag queens. We proceeded to give him a short history lesson on how drag queens and transgender people were the ones at the Stonewall riots who made it possible for the gay community to assemble in bars, leather and otherwise.
He still was not convinced until I told him that the Sisters had been raising funds to fight AIDS and had made thousands of dollars — back then, that was a lot for a small group. I asked him, "How much money has the Eagle made to fight AIDS?" He blushed and stammered and said, "Go right in, girls, and the first round is on me!"
Soon after, the Eagle was holding Sunday beer busts, many hosted by the Sisters, to fight AIDS.
It was the best. It was so raw and minimal. Every experience I had there is my favorite memory of being there. As an example: I booked a show there for us and [Seattle lo-fi post-punk band] The Intelligence. I always told out-of-town bands how great the Eagle was, so I had really talked it up to [The Intelligence’s frontman] Lars.
After we played the show, I mentioned to Lars that the Eagle had a thing where you could give your underwear to the bartender for free drinks. He signed his and handed them over. Later that night, when I went to pay him out, he was totally blotto. He was making out with some girl against the wall, just wasted. I was tired and trying to go home, so I gave him the money and checked, “Are you sure you’re okay to get this now?” He said he was, but he was just holding a fistful of cash in his hand. I was like, “Put that in your pocket, man.”
So, he called the next day looking for the money for the show. I told him I gave it to him and then he says, “Okay, but did you take my guitar?” That was the Eagle. Anyone could have that moment there.
My relationship with the Eagle began when I moved here in the late ’80s. The bar's soundtrack at the time consisted largely of dance covers of Broadway show tunes, and I was a skinny proto-hipster in a sea of leather men. Flash forward 24 years and a few more pounds, and it's a little hard for this "bear" to pick out a favorite Eagle moment — it's all a happy blur — though one afternoon stands out.
While shopping around for something special to wear to the Folsom Street Fair a couple of years ago, I discovered a latex Barbra Streisand Halloween mask gathering dust in the corner of a party store, and it was priced to move. Voilà, a star was born! After a long hot Sunday afternoon of cruising the fair (and trying not to suffocate), it was inevitable that I should come up for air at the Eagle. Still working my mask, I carried on as "Bearbra" for the benefit of my fellow patrons, making "prayer hands" à la Streisand and tilting them under my chin to camouflage my wattle. No longer freaking out the tourists who’d wandered onto Folsom Street, at the Eagle I was a member of the tribe, just one thread in that rich tapestry of queer-manity that is the Eagle Tavern. There really is no other place like it on the planet. It was so refreshing to have this magical, welcoming, genuinely queer refuge where you could commune with a wide variety of kindred spirits, not be judged, and be completely yourself.
Though the Eagle has officially closed its doors for now, community members and fans are lobbying hard for an eventual re-opening. Join the fight to save the Eagle by liking the Save the Eagle Tavern Facebook group , which offers updates and information on the bar’s status.