Published: May 14, 1993

THE Most Outrageous Shirt doesn't get out much. It's patently unsuitable for office wear. And there are few social functions that really call for a shiny black double-knit polyester cowboy shirt with red pearl snaps, several yards of fluorescent red accent piping and two winning blackjack hands embroidered on the back. This garment makes a statement. It bellows "Howdy partner! I have a very dry sense of humor and an appreciation of highly flammable western wear."

If ever worn in a bona fide backcountry honky-tonk, it would lisp, "Hi, I'm making light of your cherished folkways. Please pour a beer on me." Only a select tribe of retro-rock aesthetes can appreciate the un-subtle beauty of the Most Outrageous Shirt. When that tribe convened in a tiny underground bar recently for an intimate evening of western swing and rockabilly, the shirt and I were only too eager to fall in with the fashion parade.

Spike's Speak is not the kind of place you'd take your grandmother for an aperitif -- unless the old dear is fond of accessorizing her wardrobe with a can of Mace. After dark, the foot traffic in San Francisco's Minna Alley -- just a half-block south of Mission Street -- is mostly winos and feral cats. The 49-seat club is just down the alley from the austere and arty Spike's Cafe. Go down an iron staircase and you'll find yourself in a black, low-ceilinged room that's not much larger than your average two-car garage. The room was a gay S&M dungeon back in the '70s. You can still see the shackle mounts on the ceiling.

There's a 12-seater bar (illuminated by strings of plastic Christmas lights shaped like fish and chili peppers), a few tables and little else. On a recent Thursday night the pool table had been pushed into the corner to make room for Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys, an outstanding Orange County rockabilly quintet. Except for the two German tourists who had wandered over from the youth hostel down the alley, the crowd of 30 was entirely rockabilly aficionados -- the real gone cats.

Talent agent Tracy Dick is the den mother of the local roots-rock scene. And her phone machine ("The Honeybunch Hotline," 415-861-4776) is the de facto hub of the action. Thursday, she was wearing a Dale Evans-style outfit that had more tassels than a whorehouse lampshade. When I introduced myself, the first thing she said was: "OK. Lemme see the shirt." The Most Outrageous Shirt was good, but hardly outrageous to this crowd. At the corner of the bar sat a man who had an entire cactus tableau embroidered across his back. The rockabilly women are stunningly good-looking in a hard-shelled, heavily lacquered sort of way. Perhaps you've seen the look before: cocktail dresses baring alabaster shoulders and petite tattoos of champagne glasses and tumbling dice. Stiletto heels. Brenda Lee-meets-Exene Cervenka on the Planet of the Ultravixens.

Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys turned out to be superb interpreters of Bob Wills-style western swing and classic hillbilly rock. Big Sandy is quite a specimen -- a great loaf of a man with a face the size of a 20-pound Butterball turkey. From the way he punctuated his material with the occasional "eyaaaah-BOY!" it's clear he understands Moon Mullican's honky-tonk credo: You gotta make those bottles bounce on the tables.

As I got up to leave, the pedal-steel guitarist started in on a languid, saucy mambo and two of the rockabilly kids -- Augie and Tammy -- began to dance in the small space in front of the stage. I stood there on the stairs for a second, watching as they glided through a dance that was around decades before they were.

A good night for the Most Outrageous Shirt. And a good night to find oneself welcome in the den of the true believers.

Spike's Speak
139 8th St.
San Francisco
Admission: $3-$5
Details: Music Wednesdays-Saturdays at 9:30 p.m.
(415) 255-1392

Previous article
Next article
Main index