100 years of funk

Wenjie Yang/Staff

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It’s Thursday night, and you want to go dancing.

You have a paper to finish and you haven’t done laundry in weeks. You’re not going to make rent because you spent all your money on bowling shoes. You’re graduating in a few months and you don’t have a job but you know two things for sure: You’ll be having eggs for dinner and, come 10 p.m., you’ll be driving down to Funk Night.

Funk Night is a weekly dance party hosted by the Starry Plough — a pub and venue on the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Prince Street. The bar has hosted live dance music from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. every Thursday for the past two years, since a Berkeley alumnus first organized the event in 2014. Since, it has quickly become a favorite of Berkeley students and local residents alike.

During the academic year, the Starry Plough is packed with Funk Night goers to the point of near discomfort, an easy indicator of the party’s popularity. And surely this is one of its main draws — by hosting a weekly event, the Starry Plough has created a reliable expectation that if you show up, you will see, and be seen by, friends and acquaintances from all walks of campus life.

But this silent agreement to attend Funk Night seems to extend beyond the promise to see familiar faces. Since the campus’s founding in 1868, UC Berkeley’s nightlife has observed decades of change. And while each popular hang-out has catered to the social climate of its time, many seem to hold one thing in common: While these venues play host to familiar faces, they also introduce Berkeley students into a social world that is entirely separate from the campus.

Over the years, a number of reasons have driven UC Berkeley to socialize off campus. Soon after the university was established, the state of California enacted a law prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol within two miles of the campus. The Kingfish Pub & Cafe, on the corner of 52nd Street and Claremont Avenue, sat snugly outside of this dry zone.

Established in 1922, the Kingfish was originally a bait shop. And as business grew, it began selling alcohol. As a result, the Kingfish — known by locals as “the ‘Fish” — became a popular meet-up spot for Berkeley students.

Students traveled to Oakland’s Temescal district to attend the Kingfish out of necessity, which created an enduring bond between the cafe and the campus. The ‘Fish’s popularity grew out of this imperative, which bred such a strong local allegiance that when the property was bought by a real estate developer in 2014, its owners decided to lift the bar entirely as it was and roll it over to the corner of 52nd Street and Telegraph Avenue, where it stands today.

By the 1950s, students had long forgotten the once harsh restrictions on alcohol around campus. Instead, while culture on the campus was ruled by violent protests against the Vietnam War, Berkeley’s off-campus culture was captured by live dance music, as a number of prominent venues began to pop up along San Pablo Avenue. Among the most popular of these venues was the the Steppenwolf, a local hangout that hosted live dance music. While students were not driven to the Steppenwolf out of the same necessity as those seeking beer in the 1920s, the venue was popularized by a feature of its own time: the revival of folk music.

Like the Kingfish, the Steppenwolf — known by regulars as “the ‘Wolf” — was beloved among Berkeley students and local residents alike. To dance there was to escape UC Berkeley’s intense campus culture while also engaging in an environment that welcomed its countercultural ideals. Indeed, the venue was a staple of off-campus life until its owner Max Scherr sold it in 1965 to launch The Berkeley Barb — an underground newspaper that gave a voice to the radical politics and countercultural movements circulating among the students who had danced there.

  Today, Berkeley students share no cause quite as unifying as prohibition or the Vietnam war or even the revival of folk. But in the absence of such unity, maybe our off-campus gathering places speak more simply to a desire for social alliance than they ever have before. And while there may not be any single venue quite as popular as the ‘Fishes and ‘Wolves of the past, there is Funk Night.

The Starry Plough is not a catch-all gathering place for Berkeley students. But like the venues that came before it, it seems to cater to the inclination to spend time with friends while also engaging with an off-campus world. And though it may change in its edifice, this space endures in response to a timeless desire — to form an identity beyond “student” and drink a beer or two in the process.

Contact Alastair Boone at [email protected].