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Sweetwater: Not Fade Away

From Jules to Jerry, longtime Mill Valley resident reminisces about the art of chair dancing, the legendary gigs and the impending reopening of Mill Valley's musical mecca.

I arrived in San Francisco in the fall of 1978. One of the first things I did was to go with friends over to Mill Valley to hear Jules Broussard play at Sweetwater. He did occasional sets on Friday nights but on Sunday afternoons, you were down for a party.

A few years later I got married and we moved from our apartment in Sausalito to Mill Valley, to be closer to Sweetwater. I met Jeanie Patterson and her dog, and soon found myself at the bar where I met Dixie and JB.

Over the years I became skilled at the art of chair dancing at the bar. One foot on the bar stool, one foot tapping to the beat of the gig that was onstage. The bar was narrow and one single file aisle with tables on the right.

You couldn’t enter the bar when the music was playing so you had to learn the body language of the bouncer and the timing of the music to get waved in.

Sweetwater was solid for many years and I can remember Bonnie, Jorma, Maria, Bonnie Hayes, Nick Lowe, Carlos, and Marty to name a few. I think I heard Elvis Costello and Jerry Garcia do a set in ‘89.

One night I was sitting at the bar and the woman sitting next to me, blond and vibrant, stated she was Clarence’s girlfriend waiting for him to finish his set. Somewhere during the set in walked his wife, and proceeded to have an animated conversation with Clarence and then with his girlfriend.

Maria Muldaur was always around and often stepping in to help with a set or sing one of her songs. You never knew. Austin de Lone seemed to be the common denominator to so many friends and acts. He was a member of everyone’s band.

When Sweetwater went through its changes, and threatened closings, I figured someone would figure it out. I kind of made a pact with myself that if Sweetwater left, that would be the end of my life in Mill Valley as I knew it, and it would be time to move elsewhere. I hung in there, and then Village Music closed, so that was a double deal for me. But I didn’t leave. Couldn’t give up.

was always around looking to tell a story or a joke or two. His toilet seat guitars were legendary and for a while quite popular among some of the great pickers. One night we had a benefit to raise money to . Do you remember that night? We sold t-shirts on the sidewalk. Or how about the night Mink deVille played? Little Village? Taj? The list goes on and on.

I am happy and looking forward to hearing some great music so close to home. And also looking forward to hearing some of the old stories that have been lost in the cobwebs of my mind.

John Oppenheimer has lived in Mill Valley for 32 years. He spent 27 years on the trading floor in San Francisco and is now a licensed marriage and family therapist seeing families in his private practice in Corte Madera. He is hoping to catch the next set-list at Sweetwater soon.

Suki Hill January 19, 2012 at 08:13 PM
I have photographs of Jeannie and the gang, as well as pictures of the inner sanctum downstairs at the Sweetwater. It was a wonderful venue, wonderful people (especially Jeannie and her crew) and I'll never forget playing accordion for open mik with Austin as the moderator! Happy days!

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