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Elana Koff

Dirty Jokes and Slurred Lyrics: Denise, a bawdy, strung out jazz singer with a fabulous set of pipes and a crack back-up band does her patented "Just My Imagination/It's Not Unusual" medley at QT on Polk St.

Millie searches for show people

By David Mills

Isn't that Millie? Standing outside the Masonic auditorium smoking a cigarette and muttering obscenities? You'd be pissed off too if you paid 30 bucks to see some over-hyped, new moon chanteuse mumble through a 25-minute set and then walk offstage without as much as a nod toward the audience. The last train to Clarkesville is leaving at the station, babe. "You better be on it," grumbles Millie.

It wouldn't be so frustrating if it wasn't so typical. Self-indulgent jazz and pop performers coming to town, charging ridiculous prices and performing brief sets, deliberately skipping over any previously released material. If they deign to play one of their hits, they "deconstruct" it. They throw out the hooks that made it a hit in the first place and substitute in overblown orchestration or spare arrangements.

"Is this what's become of show biz?" Millie asks a bunch of tourists who walk by on Bush Street. They stare back at him with blank faces. "Hey, you kids want to see a real show?" Millie shouts out again, but this time in broken French. Before the tourists can respond, Millie hails a cab and pushes them in. "To the Polk, mon dieu."

The cab screeches to a halt at the corner of Polk and Post, right outside the Polk Gulch Saloon (1100 Polk St.), San Francisco's premier bar. As the cabby screams at the hustlers blocking traffic, Millie and his Eurotrash friends jump out and squeeze their way into the packed bar.

With its legendary drag show running every Friday night at 11pm, the Polk Gulch Saloon is the best place in town to get a dose of your favorite diva and pick up fashion tips from the experts. Tonight it's packed to the gills with drag queens hooting and hissing at the show. Millie orders a round of drinks for the gang, some queen is doing a Petula Clark-on-speed number and everything seems groovy. The bouncer starts to look a little too much like Janet Reno for Millie's tastes, so it's time to leave.

Two blocks up Polk Street, Millie and company make a stop at the QT (1312 Polk), a neighborhood bar and perennial hustler hangout. (Ask any of your Financial District CEO types.) With geometric angle-cut mirrors on most of the walls, the place looks and feels like some early '80s airport lounge in the bowels of SFO. Millie's Euro-pals fit right in. Every Friday and Saturday night at 9:30pm, the QT presents live music. Typically, that means Denise, a bawdy jazz singer with a fabulous set of pipes and a crack back-up band. The dirty jokes and slurred lyrics leave Millie's Euro friends somewhat cold at first. However, a few drinks later they catch every one-liner. For a real treat, Denise does her patented "Just My Imagination/It's Not Unusual" medley. Unfortunately, after six or seven Cuba libres, Denise can a bit too belligerent. It's best to leave before 12:30am.

For real audience participation, Millie suggests Karoake at the N'Touch (1548 Polk St.) on Tuesday and Sunday nights. Your garden variety Asian gay boy club on most nights, the N'Touch turns into an international star search competition when a microphone appears. You can be a pop star in English, Chinese, Japanese or Korean. English is not the first language for most here. However, that doesn't stop the fellas from belting out Celine Dion hits. Who cares if no one can quite understand their unique interpretations? They sing it like they mean it.

It's late, and Millie has just about had it. Millie drags the kids up to the Swallow (1750 Polk St.)--formerly the White Swallow in less viral times. One of the oldest piano bars in the city, the Swallow provides the perfect low-key finale to a night of music and merrymaking. With show tunes and leather mixing freely, the place can feel like something out of a David Lynch movie.

Millie and his Euro-pickups crowd around the piano and request a few old favorites--"On a Clear Day," "As Long As He Needs Me," "Que Sera, Sera." When the tinkling piano and cacophony of Euro-accents finally subside, Millie smiles, grabs the mike and requests his favorite tune. It's Millie's farewell number. "This one goes out to all the show people ..." Millie jumps up on the piano. Welcome to the show.

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From the December 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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