On a mission of mercy to prevent ossification

Published: April 24, 1992

IT'S a sad state of affairs when we become so enraptured by our own dance that we fail to notice the other couples who are drifting off the dance floor. How many times have we turned away and pretended not to see the danger signs in friends? How many times have we watched a tragedy unfold and said nothing, thinking foolishly that our words would strain the delicate web of friendship?

As my partner and I slouch toward 30 (which is, quite coincidentally, the old newspaper code for "the end") we're noticing some disturbing changes in our social circle. A formerly well-adjusted couple, whom we'll call the Dealers, have become moody and withdrawn as of late. These former club-crawlers have taken to staying in, hunkered down over a game of bridge. We hope this is not a trend. Virtual Reality, rave parties and retro-disco we can accept, but an endeavor that involves "rubbers," "dummies" and "odd tricks" is simply beyond the pale. Friends don't let friends deal bridge.

Crisis intervention occurred on a recent Friday night: Before they could so much as utter "trick bid," they were stuffed in the back of an unmarked car and sped across town to the Bottom of the Hill, the newest stop on San Francisco's alternative-rock circuit. The 6-month-old club, in a sleepy industrial neighborhood on the north slope of Potrero Hill, is proof that quality local rock doesn't dwell only in the Haight and the 11th Street strip.

Were it not for the fab neon sign above the transom and ace DNA Lounge doorman Tommy Vision standing watch underneath it, a passerby could easily mistake the club for a run-of-the-mill neighborhood dive. Inside, the decor takes a surreal turn. The main room is a riot of candy colors and trapezoidal angles -- like Salvador Dali run amok in Pee-Wee's Playhouse. Designer Barry Sinclair (the guy who did Julie's Supper Club) must have run up a remodeling bill to match the national budget of Burundi.

We threaded our way through the wall-to-wall bodies and squeezed beside the foot-high carpeted platform stage to take a quick census:

Many scrawny young Haight Street slackers with bad hair coloring and attitudes to match, a handful of collegiate skate- punk wannabes in long cutoffs and thrift-store T-shirts, a few Harley riders, a couple of wan young women in housecoats who look like they fell out of a Lynda Barry cartoon, two button-down Montgomery Street yuppies, one bona fide derelict and one zaftig cabaret refugee turned out in a bowler hat, black lipstick, white pancake makeup, a white T-shirt and black spats. My kind of people.

And there, holding court by the 15 beer taps behind the bar, is Ramona Downey -- the coolest barkeep this side of "Casablanca." Looking at Downey in her vintage Chanel suit and pillbox hat, you would not think this was a woman who moved to Oakland so she could put a skateboard ramp in her house. Think again. Downey, who ran the Hotel Utah for four years and booked the Blue Lamp and the Starry Plough for two, is the reason the best bands on the San Francisco circuit -- the Movie Stars, X-Tal, the Sneetches, et al. -- instantly added the Bottom of the Hill to their dance cards.

'Round midnight, as the humidity in the little room nears 100 percent, the Jackson Saints (a very good quintet in the same vein as Sister Double Happiness) open with a frenetic cover of the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On." The crowd is all smiles as the charismatic lead singer kicks off his shoes and jumps headlong into the human sea. Frankie and Annette are fruggin' away on the three TV monitors over the bar as the Saints uncork a buzz-saw version of the MC-5's trademark call-to-arms "Kick out the jams motherrrrrrr . . ." More smiles all around.

Someday, when the light goes out on this tribe of kindred souls, we may go quietly to find our places at that game of bridge. But not yet. Please, not just yet . .

Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St.
San Francisco
Admission: $2-$5
Music: 9:30 p.m.
Sundays-Tuesdays, 10 p.m.
(415) 626-4455

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