If asked how Amnesia has changed in all the years I’ve known it, I’d be hard pressed to think of a single answer. Dropping by for one more visit before it closes down on Feb. 29, I did notice something new, though: Three aggressive signs are now posted on the mirror behind the bar saying, “No Public WiFi.”
That’s different, I guess. Perhaps symbolically representative of … something.
It was a comedy night, and … honestly, comedy nights at this level are a much, much, bigger crapshoot than music nights. The live music playing at a bar might not be to your taste, but you’re very likely to get some level of competence. At Amnesia, it was always likely to be damn good, in fact.
But local stand-up comedy at a bar? Okay … there’s a shot that someone is going to be just transcendently funny. One of the best stand-up experiences I ever had was at a Bay Area bar where the (drunk) comedian out of nowhere told a long meandering story about a kind of teenage love affair when he and another kid who were both working at a KFC discovered that they could coat their body parts in the company’s flour mix and safely dip them in the fryers. Years later, my friends and I are still talking about it. Sure, that happens.
But most of the time? Local comedy at a bars falls squarely into the “mediocre is even more painful than awful” side of the spectrum. Which is why I almost never go to watch it. Even though I’m glad it exists, because without it a city can’t have a comedy scene.
Which, now that Amnesia is closing, is one important part of the bar’s epitaph. It’s a place that I really wanted to exist, but almost never went to. In principle, I loved that we had it as a lively center of street-level art and culture. In practice, I found it cramped and crowded and painful to endure any show that I wasn’t really, really, into. In practice, I liked it better when it was quiet, and almost empty.
The comedians that night weren’t helping. The first one started off his set trying to get the audience on his side by talking about how ugly people in Cleveland are. Which … come on, man, really? Never mind how thin the laughs were: Is that who you want to be?
But Amnesia’s problem wasn’t poor attendance. The place was standing-room-only for a shitty Tuesday night comedy show. Amnesia pulled crowds.
No, Amnesia is not closing because there’s no market for live art and entertainment in this town. Hell, much of San Francisco was built by artists and entertainers. Believe me, they want places to go. No, Amnesia’s closing — whatever the real reasons — feels like it is happening because San Francisco is now a city where good things close down. We’re no longer in the culture creation business; we’re a kind of private equity firm that takes over major cultural spots and events and strips them for parts before selling the remnants off.
We used to be a city of art. Now we’re the Bain Capital of art.
The fact that the owners are talking about potentially re-opening Amnesia at some point without its entertainment license makes that point pretty clearly. Even I — someone who likes it as a space without entertainment — don’t see the damn point of Amnesia without it. Amnesia as a quiet and empty space was so cool in part because it kept the patina of its performances … this was a place where community and magic happened, and you were getting to be part of it at rest. A strip-mined, private equity version of Amnesia is just one more mediocre bar.
Assuming it opens again at all.
On stage, the next comic is making jokes about hookers with no teeth. So, okay, let’s not romanticize street-level art culture, or the places that facilitate it. And, frankly, making money on live events is incredibly difficult, and anyone who doesn’t think so has never tried. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to do that anymore.
Sometimes places like this close. The problem comes when new clubhouses for grassroots art and culture aren’t opening. What little we have left is being stripped for parts. Amnesia was an institution both because it was really good at what it did, and because it was one of the last places like it standing.
Only one line from the comedy show that night stands out in my memory, but it was a good moment: “No one in a Mission bar is selling cocaine? San Francisco, you HAVE changed!”