When Alfie Kulzick drops off her book Chatterbox, Biography of a Bar: San Francisco 1986-1990, I tell her I loved her club, that I used to go all the time. She pauses, peering through her still-shaggy, still-signature rock 'n' roll bangs, and asks, "Underage, right?" I admit to being about 17 at the time, and she shakes her head in wonder.
"I can't believe we never got popped," she says, as if the threat might still be imminent. "I thought our door staff was great."
"They were," I agree, knowing that neither of us really measured the worth of her staff by their ability to calculate birth dates. They were some of the greatest folks in town.
"Fake ID," I offer.
Kulzick nods happily, then shrugs. We both know that the Chatterbox was rife with underage drinking. In the '80s, every club in town was home to drunken kids and music so loud it mocked the very notion of a sound ordinance. It seemed like you couldn't walk three blocks without stumbling into a horde of happy, sweaty, smelly fuck-ups spilling out of some nightclub with beer in their hair and smiles baked onto their faces. Or is that just the petroleum-jelly sheen of nostalgia clouding my mind's eye? A look at Chatterbox tells me no. In the middle of the book, which is mostly photos and fliers sprinkled with some rudimentary but sentimentally precious text, is a map marked with all the rock clubs Kulzick could remember, 36 of them: the Mab, the Stone, On Broadway, VIS Club, the Farm, Tool & Die, Chi Chi Club, Club Foot, Bat Cave, Firehouse 7, 6th St. Rendezvous, Komotion -- the list goes on. The nights were long, Mondays were irrelevant, and the Chatterbox was just a few blocks from my tumbledown flat in the Mission. Late nights always found me at the Underground, the first industrial club in town, but my housemate was a devotee of the Chatterbox, so evenings started at our local bar, under the sprawling signature of Mr. Johnny Thunders. It took me years to notice that giant signature, scrawled across the center beam between the stage and the bar the entire width of the room, which gives you an idea of how crowded the Chatterbox could get and how much booze could be consumed. The story of how Johnny Thunders came to sign the beam, first practicing his signature with spray paint in the basement rec-room below, is retold in Chatterbox, along with Kulzick's firsthand account of some of the more memorable fights, shows, and notable characters who called the Chatterbox home. While Chatterbox does not hold up as a book for the newbie San Franciscan, it's an amazing family album that captures a magic moment in the city's musical history when punk-ass kids could afford to hang out and make music. Members of the Dwarves, Jackson Saints, NoFx, Buck Naked (RIP) and the Barebottom Boys, and White Trash Debutantes were die-hard regulars, but Sonic Brain Jam, featuring (the underage) Tony Gil (now Wilson Gil of the Willful Sinners), was honored for being the group with the most consecutive nights of drinking under its belt. (The prize was 49 free beers, corresponding to the 49 straight nights of drinking perpetrated by the band. It was a close contest.)
The camaraderie and delirium felt by Gil at the time would later inspire him to write "Hey Greg," an ode to the Chatterbox years in which he turned a quote from Jackson Saints guitarist Eric Meade -- "Rock is my religion, this is how I pray" -- into a doomed but rousing plea. The same quote, used eight years later to end Kulzick's book, has an entirely different effect. While Gil's song was a lament for the places and people long lost in 1998, Kulzick's book is a goofy (and, boy, does everyone look goofy) celebration of where we came from and the hope that, in 2003, San Francisco's ailing economy might head us in that direction again.
"I'm going up to 'Sushi Sunday,'" says Kulzick with a huge grin that instantly recalls all the sake and all the fine Sunday afternoons spent relishing live music at the old Nightbreak. "Imagine that, live rock 'n' roll in the Haight. Just like the old days."
The old Chatterbox gang celebrates the release of Chatterbox on Saturday, Nov. 8, at El Rio with former Jackson Saints frontman Kevin Meade playing with his new band, Two Headed Dog, at 4 p.m. Admission is free; call 282-3325 or go to www.elriosf.com. (If you're drunk enough, stick around for the Amazing Embarrassonics: The Human Karaoke Machine at 10 p.m. Ticket price is $5.) The new "Sushi Sunday" will be held on Nov. 9 at Club Milk (1840 Haight at Stanyan) with the Cliftons, Texas Thieves, the Odd Numbers, Sloe, and Invisible Enemies performing at 4:30 p.m. Admission is free; call 387-6455.