Bay Bridged Editor and longtime San Francisco musician Annie Bacon left San Francisco for Michigan weeks ago. In this essay, she says the goodbye she needs to say to the city and community that she loved and that loved her right back.
Even though I am not a native San Franciscan, I am third generation Run-Away-To-San-Franciscan.
My great uncle John came here in the 1930s as a merchant marine, lived a bachelor’s life of plenty, but when he died he was buried back in Rhode Island. Roughly 35 years later, my mother came here, yes, with flowers in her hair. She stayed a year or two then journeyed on to the Rocky Mountains before settling in Maine. My turn came roughly 35 years after that in September of 2001, and now in the summer of 2018, it’s my turn to leave.
(There are dozens of threads that could be followed to tell you the story of my life here, but it’s the music thread I’ll follow. It’s less of a thread, and more like a mooring line.)
When I came here, I had $80, a Ford Tempo GL, a credit card, a best friend, and a heart blasted open with idealism and possibility. We could be anyone, do anything. The world was our oyster. Nine days later the Twin Towers fell and a new reality declared itself.
In the context of that highly political time, living then in Berkeley and being a full-time activist (yes, paid!) I met Nicole McRory at (the now closed) Beckett’s Irish pub on Shattuck Avenue. Human jukebox, guitar shredding live-band karaoke QUEEN and transgender woman in her 50s, Nikki was a demi-goddess to us. The first night I saw her, in November 2001, something in me stirred. I got up and sang Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” and that was basically the beginning of the rest of my life (so far). From that moment, music and home became one.
Every Wednesday night for five years after that, a devoted crowd of radical activists, Young Republicans, lost souls, douchey bros, and queers would attend this rock and roll mass, all swayed by the dynamic energy of Nikki and Pussy (her guitar). It’s hard to overstate the power of this experience. It was a scene, a community, and a family.
It was there I met Corinne West, who plucked me up and took me on the road as her backup singer. I met Wayne Skeen, future founder of Opus Music Ventures, Deli Radio/Magnifi, and the Ninth Street Opus label and studios where I cut my first real EP, and had my first industry heartbreak. And there I started playing bass, which later got me the job in Sweet Crude Bill & the Lighthouse Nautical Society.
Memory: Thee Parkside. The supporting band’s lead singer is so drunk he’s sitting on the edge of the stage and his drummer’s getting pissed. It’s their last show and an album release. They hobble through the set and when it’s done the drummer hoists his kit one drum at a time from the center of the room straight out the door, crashing 17th Street’s double yellow lines. Rock and roll. Our set includes Bill writhing on the beer-soaked floor, an outlaw country rock n roll revival.
Sweet Crude Bill cut its teeth in the warehouse scene of the early aughts. Bill, (the nom de plume of the inimitable Octavian Drulea), was a magical preacher and lyricist, gifted in the art of insult and searing criticism. Our earliest tunes included “Satan Is The Pilot of Air Force One” and (my first song for the band) “You’re Gonna Get Yours (You Son Of A Bitch)”, in which, portraying a motorcycle mechanic and single mother of 5, I dared the president to try to drag one of my boys off to his greedy oil-plundering wars.
Memory: Studio H. We are opening for Low Red Land . I think I know the language of the bass, but when I hear Ben Thorne play everything I know is instantaneously shrunk to that pale blue dot of the earth in a picture of the cosmos. I ask him to teach me. Later, he does. Later later, I attend their final show on a rooftop, which is hosted by a nascent The Bay Bridged.
Against the better judgement of every adage ever, the lead guitarist and I dated. We were really in love and had been before the band. It worked for a while, but it turned out he liked me better when I didn’t realize I was great. Fucked up. But he wrote to me once, “I know this city is home, now, because I’ve loved you here.”
Memory: Snoppy Quop (later called Studio SQ). We’ve just broken up for the second time in four years. This time it is crushingly certain and the future and family we’d both envisioned has been torn from our sight. We’re recording the final bow of Sweet Crude Bill with the guitarist/keyboard player from French Miami at the board. “I will be your anchor true” is a love song, but now it is an agonizing tearing apart of lovers. The anchor, meant to ground and stabilize becomes the symbol of our destruction in each others lives and our voices ache with the full weight of desperately broken hearts. We’re laying our vocal parts at the same time, facing without looking at each other. Breath is drawn in the control room. The echo of Bill’s hammer on an anvil reverberates in our headphones. It is the end.
Heartbreak is like a bitter wind, clearing out the old dead leaves and making room for spring. Suddenly, it occurred to me on a winter visit back to Maine that I was meant to be a songwriter when I grew up. The songs poured out and before those first chords were finished ringing out I had scheduled my debut show as Annie Bacon & her OSHEN at Amnesia, opening for Jesse DeNatale (a lost gem of the San Francisco music scene). The world opened that night, my true purpose unfolding. I sold a couple homemade Garageband demos with handwritten labels. (One I sold to guitarist Eric McFadden who would later be on tour with Eagles of Death Metal during the terrorist attack at the Bataclan in Paris.)
Memory: The Knockout. We’re co-billing with the Fucking Buckaroos and I thought it would be funny to wear a really girly, frilly dress with my kicker boots. I figured no one had ever done that at the Knockout. Turns out it was for good reason. We are laden with insults before we even begin. Halfway through the set we get a begrudging “OK, you’re not so bad” from the worst heckler. Later, she even drunkenly dances.
Music became life. My partner of, now, 10 years, wooed me with his thousand-record collection, each chosen for their full-album listenability. We had our first (accidental) date at the Knockout, at a Low Red Land show! (I remain a huge fan.) Our first on-purpose date was to Gogol Bordello at the Warfield. Lovers that mosh together, stay together. Take my word for it. The night I knew the love was sealed and true, we were holding hands at the Independent while the Dodos blew our minds.
Memory: Yoshi’s in Oakland. My first shift as a cocktail waitress. Cleaning tables between shows. Jazz legend Elvin Jones, attached to a tank of oxygen with tubes up his nose, won’t leave the stage. Handlers around him, his wife. He won’t go. Picks up his sticks and starts playing. Not wildly, not like a madman. But playing, won’t stop. Keeps playing for 20 minutes while we wipe down tables and collect quarters for tips. It is his last public performance. He dies about a month later.
Before I left, I wanted to give something back to San Francisco. Wanted to make an impact, change something for the better, shine a proud light back on my city. I don’t think I did. I’m another dreamer come and gone.
But I did, at least, give San Francisco to my family. The fourth generation is native.
Memory: Home. It’s been over 12 hours of hard labor already, three minutes from the start of one contraction to the start of the next. The midwife breaks the first of many rounds of bad news to come over the next 57 hours: I’m barely dilated and there’s a fuckload of work left to do. It’s time to get into a deep and hypnotic state and save as much energy as I can between the contractions. Inside my mind there is a swirling mayhem of despair, confusion, embarrassment. My lover tees up Keith Jarrett’s the Köln Concert. It’s four records long. Keith Jarrett and I go to the same holy place. We are working — across time and space — on the same holy work for hours. Forever. To create something in an act of both deep learning and total improvisation where there was nothing. He moans with his effort. I moan with mine. I’m aware that music is a birthing, and every birth begets a death. We both bring forth the life and death (neither of which has thankfully yet arrived) of our work simultaneously.
My lover and I (and later our son) lived in a Tower. We hosted concerts in there. Little Wings, the Range of Light Wilderness, Andy Friedman, Terese Taylor, Birds & Batteries, the Blank Tapes, Michael Musika, Yesway, Kath Bloom (who predicted my pregnancy at her performance a few days before I knew), Nine Pound Shadow, others. Julian Koster from Neutral Milk Hotel came to do a late-night lullaby concert, but his band slow-crashed their van in our parking lot and a hand was hurt. Instead they came inside and we binged on pomegranates until 3am talking about music and life. They stayed and hung out all the next day, which happened to be the day the first pressing of my Folk Opera vinyl arrived. They heard it from upstairs while I fretted downstairs over every imperfection.
Memory: The corner of 16th and Valencia. Yet another brass band on a Tuesday night at midnight for no apparent reason.
Where did all those brass bands go? Where did the circuses go that used to pop up in Balmy Alley or Clarion? As people left, the city started to feel soulless. But then something else happened. There were ideas: The Root, which never happened, and Balanced Breakfast, which did. There was a joining together, suddenly a more connected community. Like we all wanted to take stock; OK, who’s left? Let’s all get together and do what we can for each other. It’s happening. There’s some great fucking music in this city, and the people making it are making each other’s music happen too. Everyone’s showing up for their people. It’s feeling like a scene again.
In 2016 I dumb-lucked my way into a tiny corner of Taylor Mac’s work of (legitimate) genius, A 24 Decade History of Popular Music, exploring 24 decades of American history through popular music — one decade per hour. The show is a radical queer disassembling of dominant historical narratives in order to understand “how communities are built as a result of being torn apart.” It is beautiful, difficult, uncomfortable, revelatory, and deeply engaging. Being a 90-second part of the 24-hour show in Brooklyn remains among the peak experiences of my life. They brought the show (in four 6-hour sections) here in 2017 to the Curran Theatre, where Judy Garland performed a vaudeville act in 1952. I was blessed with a slightly less tiny, non-musical part as a doula of sorts (a dandy) to the audiences whose consciousness was deliberately and delightfully being cracked open hour by hour.
Memory: Hour 19. My one musical moment is playing a simple rhythmic ukulele part with the band on “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” Even though I am just one sound in the midst of Matt Ray’s brilliant band, there are spotlights on me and Taylor alone. The moment is powerful, moving, emotional for all involved. But when the song is over, my name is not spoken. In a show lush and generous with acknowledgements, my name is not. I wait in the wings to hear “Annie Bacon” called out to the sold-out crowd. It isn’t. My ego rears up — an ugly beast. I am not proud of this moment, feeling crushed and entitled. But then! My ego melts. My self disappears, my names disappear. My purpose and presence shine. I sit in the aisle of the Curran’s balcony silently sobbing through the rest of the 1970s and into the AIDS epidemic feeling my pure being grieve the loss of self and celebrate this melting into collective consciousness. The grief and joy mingle over the coming weeks.
I’ve had many failures here. So many missed opportunities. Mistakes. What could have been? It doesn’t matter, because it isn’t. And it’s the quiet, lonely “isn’t” that haunts me: the ghosts of what I wish I’d done here whispering urgently in my ears.
But the magic of magic is that it works magically. This melting of my ego made me look hard at my creative life. I realized that after so many years fighting to be seen, I’d been hinging my value on my Self, my Name, and the Objects I was creating, forgetting the purpose of them all — to deepen connection. It became clear that it is time to shed the name, the band, the city, the familiar comforts. It’s time to be lonely and isolated in the pursuit of deeper connection. Time to feed the loneliness, feed the ego, ask them what they really want, give it to them, set them free. Transform. To start at the beginning, again, and rebuild.
The world was my oyster when I arrived, and now I have my pearl: That hard, luminous wisdom that comes from loving and losing over and over. San Francisco gave me my lover, who gave me my child, and it gave me music. Music which will define me, poison me, destroy me, remake me, baptize me, rip me from existential despair and deliver me to the quiet After. It will walk with me. It will dance with me. It will outlive me.
Nothing stays the same.