Published: July 24, 1992

'THIS is like Pacifica without the ocean," said Iron John, gazing out at the marshy wasteland toward the Bayshore Freeway as we coasted down the deserted frontage road into Brisbane. "Chill. We could be back there," said I, gesturing over my shoulder toward the Cow Palace. Quite a jolly crew -- Rick, Iron John and me. John had just quit his insurance job. And Rick had just quit playing bass for Redwood City's best stone- soul cover band, Mahi Mahi 898. We were out for a Thursday night male-bonding session -- looking for beer, loud music and the savage within and willing to settle for two out of three. It was 10:30 and we were lost in Brisbane. Ho!

Rolling up Visitation Hill, we saw the petite "23 Club" neon sign, heard the happy cry of the accordion and knew we were not lost anymore. We'd found the primo home of le chanky chank, that big crazy Zydeco sound that makes good women bold and bad men cry.

DeMarco's 23 Club is the genuine item -- a 50-year-old country roadhouse whose stage has been shaken by the likes of Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Ernest Tubb and Ray Price.

Today, the big barn of a club looks like an Italian supper house set in the middle of Sheridan, Wyo. Red lanterns on the walls, wagon-wheel chandeliers, big Frederick Remington-style paintings, one fat Elvis on black velvet, a set of steer horns as wide as the front bumper of a Pontiac Bonneville and -- everywhere -- the buffaloes. Back in the early '70s, John DeMarco -- a man who made no small plans -- built a barbecue out back that was large enough to grill seven buffaloes simultaneously. The whole town pitched in and the shaggy moon- eyed beasts have been a part of 23 Club lore ever since.

We sat in the dining section off to the side, ordered a round (yeah, the waitress called Iron John "darlin' ") and settled in to watch the action. There were about 50 people -- twentysomethings to sixtysomethings -- milling around. Most were casually dressed in T-shirts and jeans. More than a few looked like they'd come straight from blue-collar jobs.

Motor Dude Zydeco, a wild five-piece Oakland group that I'd met at a high-desert pig-roast out by the Nevada state line, should be called Muffler Dude Zydeco. Whenever I hear that chanky-chank sound of the rub-board, I think of the bum tailpipe on my old Pinto. The DeMarco's crowd loves the band so much they've given 'em an open-ended Thursday gig.

The Motor Dude style is very orthodox Cajun music -- dance- oriented without a lot of rock influence sneaking in. The band's lead vocalist is sort of like a Gallic version of Screamin' Jay Hawkins -- lots of shouting and baying and barking and braying. I don't speak French, but if I picked up on it, he seemed to be shouting, "The Grand Derangement was le bunk! (chanky-chank) They bounce us from Canada in a funk! (chanky-chank) Now we can't play hockey worth a lick. (chanky chank) But we can cook jus' as good as we walk! (chanky chank) Suck crawdad heads, suck crawdad heads, amen!" Ah, it was great.

There are no bad dancers at DeMarco's. There are good dancers and better dancers -- but no bad dancers. Some careen around the room with all the grace of Butterball frozen turkeys skittering across a kitchen counter. Others with move with slow, fluid precision of Tai-chi masters.

Of course, we'd blown off the complimentary 8 p.m. dance lesson. "Man, if you know how to do this stuff, there is no shortage of good-looking women here," Rick said wistfully. True. In this place where you're only as good as your last dance, we were non-entities. This male-bonding stuff is great, but the dance of the inner savage is a lonely one indeed. Ho.

DeMarco's 23 Club
23 Visitation Ave., Brisbane
Admission: No cover-$8.
Details: Zydeco Thursdays at 9 p.m., country Fridays-
Saturdays at 9:30 p.m., zydeco or blues Sundays at 5 p.m.
(415) 467-7717

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