I've been across the water now so many times
Back in April, Ira Marlowe, proprietor of the Monkey House in Berkeley, decided to announce, as an April Fool’s joke, that his speakeasy performance venue was shutting down. The reveal was “below the fold,” as they say, so of course many people missed the obvious clue as to his intent and there were many genuinely irate and despondent comments.
For those of us who perform in the Bay Area, the prospect of losing a place to perform is no laughing matter. I took the Marker Hotel to task in this blog a few months ago for nearly shutting down Local Vocals at their hotel and am happy to report it’s back and better than ever (even if you do still get thrown down in the dungeon from time to time). We also had reprieve from losing Bazaar Cafe, it's even had it’s first anniversary under new ownership (it turns out we share the same birthday, BTW).
But there’ll be no escape for the princess this time.
We’re losing the Octopus Literary Salon in downtown Oakland.
The location of the Octopus always struck me as a bit odd — as close to the 19th Street BART as it is and as near to the through-fares Broadway and Telegraph as it is, its location feels a bit off the beaten path. Amid incomplete high rises its surroundings exude a sense of desolation — it’s hard to imagine it getting much foot traffic.
For those of you unfamiliar with this little institution, it was first and foremost a bookstore. With a selection of new and used tomes nestled in bookshelves lining the walls and hand-painted signs indicating their eclectic contents, it had a distinctly Bohemian feel, accentuated evermore so by the numerous namesake cephalopods of varying forms and materials strewn about. There was also the cafe in the back with its avocado toast and Vietnamese style sandwiches in addition to the typical lattes and pastries. But most important to musicians and performers of all stripes was the corner to one side of the ramp and railings bisecting the venue. Pressed up next to the window there, with a piano and stereo system, was a little space to act as a make shift stage. An increasing rarity these days.
I had the pleasure of performing a show there about a year and half ago with Matt Jaffe and Rob Jamner, and before that as part of Hurricane Harvey benefit show, but alas, was not able to book anything in the lead up to my album release show this past June. Despite the ample slots, it was also competitive to get a show booked there and you had to book well in advance. I kind of felt they had ideas above their station in terms of their actual capacity (let alone target draw) and that splitting the night between two bills, one starting way too early for Bay Area folk, and one probably too late for most week nights, didn’t do artists any favors when it came to rounding up the requisite crowd. And being in that desolate little wedge of downtown Oakland certainly didn’t help.
But it was a great space, and I always made a point of getting across the Bay, even if it meant squeezing onto a BART train during rush hour with a guitar, to promote an East Bay show at the open mic on Mondays (even if it felt a bit futile in terms of getting folks out to said show). On a particularly ambitious night, I’d play a set at the Carlton or the Marker, hurry across the bay to the Octopus and then back to the Utah in San Francisco for the open mic there.
I liked the vibe they curated and met some wonderful creative-types there — or at least saw some familiar faces. The allowance of half the sign ups to be in advance through Facebook felt like a reasonable compromise for those who couldn’t necessarily be there at the start, even if the exact timing of the advance sign ups was a bit inconsistent (sign up policies for open mics vary and each has its pros and cons in terms of who they tend to favor — I've seen some positively Byzantine sign up processes). I’m sure the comedians weren’t happy when the powers that be put the kibosh on their pre-signups and then participation all together, but I take that as a sign that someone was concerned about the overall feel of the night (there’s a bit of tension at times as to whether an open mic is for comedians or songwriters — it can be a delicate balance where the ecosystem can tip too much one way or the other).
I was hoping the place could hold out until that retail space across the street got filled in and maybe some life would spring up to that otherwise obscure little street. But after what I surmise was a bit of a Hail Mary of “Octopus Days” over the summer and despite a few packed open mics of late, the management has decided to pack it in.
I happened to be up late in Austin Sunday night when I noticed there were still some open slots for the open mic this past Monday (unexpected, and almost unheard of, actually). So despite the fact I was flying into Oakland early, early in the morning — and would have to make the trek back and forth across the bay to my place in San Francisco, I decided to make a go of it, just to make sure I got there one last time. It did, after all, inspire a song of mine — The Octopus Song — which I wrote to promote that show with Matt and Rob (it was also heavily based on the book “The Soul of an Octopus” by Sy Montgomery). I figured having a song about an Octopus might be a useful marketing device. I’m actually quite fond of the end result and was pleased as punch that Vica Hernandez chose to cover the song for the most recent edition of EGPhest. So the Octopus got a final rendition of the Octopus Song (which you’d be forgiven for thinking was entitled “Alien from an Alternate Earth”).
Losing a place like this is tough. There was a lot of eulogizing this past Monday and a lot of people paying their respects, saying it had been the first place they'd ever played in front of an audience. Its absence will be felt. The only remedy I can suggest at this point is that if there is a place like it in your neck of the woods, make a point to support it by at least popping in now and then to buy a beverage, maybe even take in a show.
There’s one more regular open mic left at the Octopus, this Monday plus two more bonus rounds Wednesday and Thursday. The address is 2101 Webster St #170, Oakland, CA.
P.S. give my rough demo of "The Octopus Song" a listen below
The extended musings of a songwriter.