When punk hit San Francisco in the late 1970s, it needed a venue. Typically, the S.F. venues generally gave punk the cold shoulder, so a more creative solution proved necessary. Robert Hanrahan, manager of The Offs, was able to take over what had actually been a club for the deaf that had existed in that location (16th and Valencia) since the 1930s and turned it into a vital, scorching venue for bands like Dead Kennedys, D.O.A., The Subhumans, Tuxedomoon, X, Flipper, and The Germs. It didn’t last long, but while it was open it provided the Bay Area punk scene with its first legendary venue. It opened on December 9, 1978 and closed in the mid- to late 1980. As Jello Biafra himself said, “The magic of the Deaf Club was its intimate sweaty atmosphere, kind of like a great big house party.”
Robert Hanrahan remembered finding the place: “I bought a burrito at La Cumbre and noticed a sign on the fire escape across the street. It said ‘Hall for Rent.’ I went up the flights of stairs and saw two guys watching TV with the sound off. After a very short while, I realized we weren’t going to communicate, so I wrote on a piece of paper that I wanted to rent the place. Bill—I never knew his last name—was a mustachioed, lascivious, cigar-chewing character who apparently was in charge. He wrote ‘OK & $250,’ so I wrote ‘OK.’”
On Found S.F., there is an invaluable page describing some of the history of the Deaf Club. The first show featured The Offs, The Mutants, and On the Rag. The show was “dark & very crowded.” Sensing a fracas, the cops showed up but didn’t stick around. My favorite bit from account of the first night: “Lots of hand signals between old & young club members.”
A possibly unique aspect of the club was the constant presence of actual deaf people in the hall, who didn’t know what to make of their unruly musical cohorts—but counterintuitively, they did seem to enjoy the music. Indeed, punk music might be tailor-made for deaf people to enjoy, because of the constant frenetic thudding of the 4/4 beat that can be sensed as vibrations. As Penelope Houston of The Avengers said, “It was kind of amazing. I think they were dancing to the vibrations. The deaf people were amused that all these punks wanted to come in and rent their room and have these shows.” According to artist Winston Smith, “They put their hands on the table and they could hear the music. It was music they could appreciate because it was so loud.”
Nothing was easy for a venue like the Deaf Club, whose main strategy for staying open was to keep a low profile. Essentially it was scarcely known outside the punk community. The cops, however, frequently instigated temporary closures due to complaints about the noise from neighbors. The Chicano community in the vicinity “resented what they considered a “punk invasion” of their territory — like one night 3 young machos gangbusted up the stairs & immediately started slugging men & women alike until they were finally forced out by sheer numbers of a surprised/rallied crowd just drinking & dancing.”
In 1980 Gammon Records released Can You Hear Me? Music from the Deaf Club, a compilation featuring many of the club’s mainstays, including the Offs, the Mutants, Pink Section, Dead Kennedys, and so forth. In 2004 the Dead Kennedys released Live at the Deaf Club. Interesting aspects of the show include the purportedly “disco version” of “Kill the Poor” as well as their closing covers—the Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas.”
Some terrific full-length concerts from the Deaf Club after the jump…...