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Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge: Where Getting Weird was Invented

This originally appeared ing my Weeknighter column for 7×7. 

There’s an incredible song that Johnny Cash recorded on the first of his American Recordings albums called “The Beast in Me.” The first stanza goes:

The beast in me
Is caged by frail and fragile bars
Restless by day
And by night rants and rages at the stars
God help the beast in me

I think we can all relate to that on some level. There’s a bit of each of us that has to be restrained just so that we can be participatory members in society. Anyone who has spent an evening in Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge knows what it’s like to have those frail and fragile bars fall apart. Invariably, The Beast gets out, and it’s usually Mama Candy’s fault.

Dimly lit and supremely divey, Bow Bow has decorations. That is to say, I’m pretty sure there are decorative things on the walls, I just don’t know what they are. It’s impossible to walk out of there with all your faculties firing properly. By the time you’re about to call it a night and do the responsible thing of going home and getting into bed, Mama Candy doesn’t let you leave. She pours you a free shot and says, “How about some Chinese whiskey?” and you say “Ok Mama Candy, just one,” and the next thing you know, you’ve had four more and your arms are around complete strangers, belting out the bum bum bums of “Sweet Caroline.”

Yes, Bow Bow has karaoke too. But there’s no stage, or spotlights, or even a KJ. There’s just a big TV at the end of the bar playing weird videos, like people sailing remote controlled boats, and other random things that have no relation to the song being played. That’s how the fuck Bow Bow rolls. Half the songs in their karaoke book are in Mandarin and the ones that are in English are poorly categorized. Does Mama Candy care? Fuck no! She won’t even let you sing karaoke if you’re just drinking water; you at least have to buy a soda, and even then she gives you a little bit of the stink eye. That’s because Mama Candy wants you to be the full you, the you that yells the lyrics to “Hot for Teacher” at the top of your lungs (even though you have a microphone), attempting to take off articles of your friends’ clothing. Things happen at Bow Bow that shouldn’t ever be mentioned again; The Beast comes out and Mama Candy eggs you on without even offering to be your confessor. She doesn’t wanna hear your shit, she just wants you to work through it…in front of everyone.

If you were to say that Bow Bow is the kind of San Francisco establishment that is imbued with magic, I’d agree with you, but qualify that it is a black magic. It’s the kind of powerful necromancy that you’re not sure any place should be allowed to contain. Big, tough men enter, hopped up on beer and adrenaline after the seeing a Giants game and leave wearing pantyhose on their heads like a hat. Quiet, sheepish people enter looking to just be a voyeur and end up exorcising their demons while singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” under the harsh glare of a row of swimming baby ducks on the TV screen. I often say things at the start of a night like “Let’s get weird.” Bow Bow Cocktail Lounge invented getting fucking weird. Which is of course why I love it.

God help The Beast in me.


If you too like to keep it weird we have just the shirt for you. Gals’ cut here & guys’ cut here.

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Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

I've been called "an Underground legend": SF Chronicle , "an SF cult hero": SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap": Time Out New York, but to those familiar with my work, I'm just "that douchebag who writes books about cheap stuff and drinks a lot".

  • Marc

    Ssshhhh if too many people find out about Bow Bow it’ll lose its black magic