I CAN now say with reasonable certainty that global socialism is dead.
Deader than a Holiday Inn cocktail lounge on a Monfay night. Deader than a
Mennonite sock-hop. I knew this when I heard that a friend of a friend has
just been named to head the Russian branch of American Express. Imagine
Gold cards in Gorki. Karl Malden skulking around hotel lobbies in Minsk.
Yet there is still a place where the torch of socialist revolution burns
bright. One place where the Bolshevik barricades will never fall. There may
not be a Communist bloc anymore. But there is still a Berkeley.
And in this city-state where self-righteous indignation has been the
semi-official civic mood for several decades now, there is still Ashkenaz,
a venerable cafe and social hall where the world-beat music is hot and the
rhetoric is loaded with more left turns than the Indianapolis 500.
According to the club's hand-written monthly calendar-cum-broadsheet, two
things are inevitable: The workers eventually will throw off the shackles
of corporate oppression. And, there will be dancing. Plenty of dancing.
They've got the latter pretty well covered -- with a six- day-a-week
lineup featuring everything from Transylvanian folk-dancing and Celtic
blues to Afro-beat and calypso. And so it came to pass that on a recent
Saturday night we found ourselves running through the rain outside
Ashkenaz, late for a date with the Queen of Zydeco.
After encountering a couple of neighborhood thugs -- excuse me, they're
probably called ethically impaired persons in Berkeleyspeak -- who were
intent on the immediate redistribution of wealth, we opened the club's
plain rough-hewn wooden front door and stepped into an urban barn-dance. At
10 p.m., the proletariat's playtime was in full swing. The club (modeled
after an ancient Eastern European synagogue) is a low, wide, hangar-like
open-beam room with a mirror running the length of one wall. Looking across
the dance floor that dominates the room, all one can see is an endless
horizon of . . . ye gods! Hippies!
Young hippies in tie-died rags and leather moccasins. Old hippies in
comfortable, no-nonsense unisex L.L. Bean shirts, wide-wale cords and
Birkenstocks. Wanna-be hippies who were just a glimmer in some flower
child's eye back in the Summer of Love. Used-to-be hippies who had cut
their hair and stretched their credit limits far enough to buy that new
Saab Turbo. Enough hippies of all ages, sizes, sexual orientations and
economic strata to make poor old Ronald Reagan think he was having a bad
acid flashback to the People's Park era. Ahahahaha!!! Mommy, I don't think
we're in Bel Air anymore.
Of the nearly 300 people jammed in wall-to-wall, dancing the free-form
self-interpretive zydeco, a near-majority looked like they had just fallen
off the last Microbus from Mendocino. Of course, there were perhaps a dozen
bona fide Acadian seniors hooting and yelling at each other in French, a
few cowboys and cowgirls doing the Western swing and a good smattering of
nondescript people who clearly came only out of adoration for the Queen.
One man who stood next to us as we watched the dance-party unfold asked:
"Does this place always smell like this?" We didn't know. I
assumed he was talking about the funky wet-dog aroma that permeated the
hall. My companion thought he was talking about the "People's veggie
stew" that was selling for $2 a bowl at the little stand by the door.
(They also sell tofu sandwiches for $3.) Most people opted to stick to
liquids -- imported beer, fruit juices and water.
The club -- say it ASH-ken-az -- is named after "a kingdom of sorts
in ancient Armenia." It's something of a cross between a temple and a
playhouse for the politically correct, and although the dance scene we saw
was blessedly free of any sermonizing, we understood we were deep in the
inner lair of the kooky left. The signs that vie for space on the high wall
behind the stage seem to chronicle every street protest back to the
Haymarket Square Riot: "U.S. Out of Solar System!" "ROTC =
college credit for murder." If politically inappropriate laughter is
grounds for ejection, this running-dog lackey of the corporate-media cabal
came within one red whisker.
Up on a wide stage that fills almost the entire rear wall of the room,
Queen Ida Guillory, the long-reigning monarch of zydeco, was strolling
through a set of languid one-step waltzes that seemed downright staid by
today's standards. Of course, Queen Ida was pumping the living bejeezus out
of button accordions way back when today's young firebrands such as Zachary
Richard and Terrance Simien were still in short pants -- so we can't fault
her for laying back a little. The Queen, who's well into her '60s, is a
tiny, broad-shouldered woman with jet-black hair, flawless bronzed skin and
a commanding hard-edged voice that she perfected, no doubt, during her days
as a Daly City school-bus driver.
''We need the rain but we also need the bon temps," said the Queen.
Amen to that. By midnight the hall was steamy and the dance floor was slick
with sweat and spilled drinks, as if some Gulf Stream squall had blown
right through the room. As she rolled into the classic "Jolie
Blonde," she raised her red accordion high and shouted, "This one
goes out to all the ladies!" We were, frankly, relieved that nobody
told the Queen, who comes from a long line of ladies, that the correct,
non-patriarchal term was "women." For now, the revolution could
wait, at least until the music stopped.
1317 San Pablo Ave.
Details: Live music and dancing Tuesdays-Sundays.