BARchive: Leathernecking

  • by Dr. Jack Fritscher
  • Tuesday July 19, 2011
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Barman Ron stands outside the Leatherneck Bar. Photo: Jim Stewart from the book Gay San Francisco.
Barman Ron stands outside the Leatherneck Bar. Photo: Jim Stewart from the book Gay San Francisco.

Barcheologists excavating SoMa bars will find a swimming pool hidden under the northwest corner of 11th and Folsom streets. Since the 1960s that magnet spot has drawn dozens of spunky sex businesses from the Drummer Key Club to Oasis. In the early 1970s, underwater pool lights, dancing blue, lit legions of fully clothed men who paid 25 cents to jam hard on into the outdoor patio for standup sex at the Covered Wagon after-hours club.

In June 1977, my housemate Allan Lowery stoked that hot pool to boil when he opened his subversively named Leatherneck Bar. He asked me to partner; but as much as managing 1970s wild bartenders sounded as delicious as owning Roman gladiators, I kept my job editing Drummer, and instead commissioned Jim Stewart's candid photos of the Leatherneck for Drummer 18.

The night its doors opened, the 'Neck became the peer of vintage theme bars like The Tool Box, The No Name, and The Brig. The Leatherneck was one of the best bars of the Titanic 1970s when our speeding first-class party cruised on, unaware of the iceberg of HIV that lay ahead. So this is a real tale of the City and how the boys in the band played on.

With Stewart, author of the memoir Folsom Street Blues, as his contractor, Lowery designed his bar as a performance-art set, complete with whipping post, bondage cross, dungeon rack, shoeshine, and stocks as props. Leatherhead customers could spontaneously act out S&M scenes near the long front bar, in maze cubicles and around the pool.

Four USMC murals by A. Jay, Drummer's art director, further incited the fraternity of homomasculine men into leather, uniforms and exhibitionist fetish sex. Lowery hired four of the hottest barmen in town who, like emerging Palm Drive Video star Chris Meyrovich, discounted drinks to customers flashing USMC tattoos.

Eager "recruits" swarmed the Leatherneck to act out theme-bar manhood rituals denied us by the military. The muscular doorman, Bill Essex, one of the first gay San Francisco deputy sheriffs, very believably enforced the leather-uniform dress code, and kept close watch on the pickup trucks, motorcycles, and ever-ready sex vans rockin' with "curb service."

Inviting what virgins were left in 1977 San Francisco, I wrote in Drummer: "Don't worry if you're going down South of Market on your first visit. You're safe. The action is totally consenting. In some bars, S&M means 'Stand and Model.' S&M at the Leatherneck means 'Sensuality and Mutuality.' What happens is what you want to happen. Sure the 'Neck's a beer bar with country music and wall-to-wall shit-kickers, but up-front macho ain't no pose."

In 1979, the Leatherneck finished its wildly popular two-year run when, through no fault of the stand-up Lowery, it crashed into a giant iceberg of cocaine and sank like the Titanic into that sparkling blue pool. That swimming hole has since been covered with a wooden dance floor exactly as in It's a Wonderful Life. And it was. Wonderful. If you didn't weaken.

More info about Leatherneck at