Pearl Oyster Bar & Restaurant, an intimate spot in the shadow of Rockridge BART, was sleepy on the second-to-last Friday of 2007 — DJs spun the Stone Roses and Psychedelic Furs; the small crowd largely comprised late-night diners and freshly discharged service-industry folk, laughing with the friendly staff.
They had no idea what was coming.
"Pearl at this point is open territory," explained Rob Greenhill, aka the Duke of Windsor. "It's a chance to build up something new." Scheduled to start soon was the latest iteration of the House of Windsor, the DJ's '60s- and '70s-rock event that makes monthly stops at the Stork Club, the Missouri Lounge, and Ghost Town Gallery, all places the residents of Oakland Rock City feel at home. How would heavy psych and obscure nuggets fit into Pearl's sleek, raw-bar environs?
What's a better pairing with St. Simone oysters — the Seeds or the Standells?
The Duke likes to keep folks guessing a little; he titled the Pearl gig, accordingly, "Confusion Is Next." During his first night on College, he mixed up his usual fare with the Slits, the Damned, and Lee Hazlewood. The bar stayed respectably populated with local musicians and other dedicated rockists till near closing time; the TV screened Metropolis and Barbarella, lending the bar's backlighting — whose slow spectrum fade looks oh-so-Soho-chic on other nights — an appropriately psychedelic cast by proxy.
The Duke has that effect on things. The 36-year-old from Cadillac, Michigan, is something of a "man out of time": His vintage winter uniform cape and ever-present ascot drew snickers at the open casting call for Gus Van Sant's Milk, but earned him one hell of a last laugh when he was cast as a "primary hippie extra," with instructions from wardrobe to wear mostly his own clothes. "I'll be 'out of time' when I'm dead," he insists, and he did grow up with normal 1980s and '90s proclivities, listening to Ministry and Public Enemy. But in 1994, he recalls, the Gories and the Kinks changed that. "They blew me away once I really heard them."
That was shortly before he moved to Oakland to attend college. He followed a woman back to the Midwest in 2000, then returned in '03. "It's not like San Francisco," he says about Oakland, "where every night there are a handful or more readymade entertainments." Here, he says, you have to work to make things happen. And so the Duke — with his vinyl-only sets and meticulously hand-drawn fliers that hark back to '60s posters — makes happenings.
By 11 p.m. or so at the second Confusion Is Next, the bar was legitimately packed. Anna Hillburg of Dreamdate "came out because the Duke knows how to bring the party. Period."
"Plus," said Oakland musician Connor Morrison (Nobody Beats, the Porch Steps), "he wears a cape. A cape."
"Man, people love that cape," laughs the Duke.
Go-to local garage rock drummer Russell Quan was the Duke's guest DJ that Friday, and folks were dancing in the walkway between the turntables and the bar's front door right up till the place shut down at 1:30. (Hello, restaurant license.) There were even some San Francisco folks spotted slumming it eastward. And despite the bar feeling a bit upscale for the East Bay rock 'n' roll faithful — "I felt like we were having a party in someone else's house," said one patron — the $2.50 cans of Pabst were a big hit, as evidenced by the clusters and even pyramids of empty cans rising on tables throughout.
So how long will these cultures cross? Can College Avenue be won over by tube-driven portable turntables, perfectly imperfect shags, and tight jeans with empty pockets? If the Duke presses on, this happening might just keep ... happening.
"I was afraid of Pearl," says Quan. "I'm way too ugly to even sit in this place, I thought. But as soon the Duke's records played, it was just as home should be."
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