“It’s about writing. We should start the interview with that.” Todd Tholke leans forward across the greasy café table. “The whole reason I came all the way over here today to meet with you is to tell you about this thing that we do that has to do with free speech.”
Tholke emcees open mics, which is something he’s been doing in San Francisco for over 15 years to showcase the works of local artists in a free venue. At present, Tholke is hosting acoustic nights every Thursday at Sacred Grounds Café, which lies north of the Panhandle.
One of the city’s oldest coffee shops, Sacred Grounds has been hosting musicians almost every week since 1967. This pioneering open mic has a legacy that boasts artists such as Joan Baez and Tracey Chapman.
Tholke has been emceeing this event, which he refers to as the Songwriters’ Guild, for eight years, but he has no interest in discussing the event’s venerable past. He lays his ring-laden hands on the table. “I’m a person that’s into the present and the future,” he says with a smile.
In addition to his extensive history in the SF open mic scene, Todd works as a street musician on Haight and has a day job down at the docks. “I work on the docks and I’ve been living aboard my sailboat for fifteen years” says Tholke. “That’s how I supplement my lifestyle as a songwriter and musician in San Francisco. I live on a boat.”
As a known musician and vibrant personality in Upper Haight, Tholke was asked to emcee his first open mic at the now-defunct Coffee Zone. “The way that you become the host is by being asked to do it. I’ve been asked to do it at many different venues in Haight-Ashbury that I’ve been haunting for 25 years.” Tholke’s devotion to the district is emblazoned on his necklace, a metal disc that bears the image of the Haight and Ashbury street signs.
Though he doesn’t get paid to host the Songwriters’ Guild at Sacred Grounds, Tholke has been here once a week for nearly a decade because he believes that what happens there on Thursday night is important. “There’s an element of magic,” he says, “an element of the unknown and of possibility.”
He runs a tight ship in which no acts are favored, no one is barred, and politeness is key. “Sometimes people will come up and they’ll be vulgar or rude,” Tholke explains.
“We have something called clapping someone offstage. We’ll politely clap you right off the stage, and if you don’t get it we’ll give you a standing ovation.”
Unlike most open mics in the city, Sacred Grounds has no PA system. The unplugged aspect of the event forces people be to be quiet and listen, otherwise their chatter would drown out the musician in the small café.
“Everyone here is listening. At the end of the night there’s a camaraderie of people that don’t know each other. They shared two things: they shared their music and they shared the respect,” Tholke says. “At other open mics, everyone is like, ‘blah blah blah I don’t care who else plays and by the time I leave I’m going to be drunk.’” Tholke makes sure that the experience at Sacred Grounds is different.
“People come from all walks of life and it doesn’t matter how old you are, what your gender is, none of those things matter. All that matters is that you have your name on the list.”
When I slip in to Sacred Grounds on a Thursday night mid-June, a man named Rainbow is just finishing his set. I count only 12 other people in the room, but it doesn’t feel like a small crowd with the dark paneling and low ceiling in the café.
Like the first time I met him, Todd is dressed in all black. This time his long hair is tied up under a beret. In between performers, he whispers to me, “You came on a really good night.”
After Rainbow, the next performer opens his set by asking the audience, “Anybody think they’re on Obama’s kill list?” Despite the eccentricities and left slant of most of the performers, the music is simple, never offensive, and some is just downright beautiful.
Featured musicians Maria Quiles and Rory Cloud play Nickel Creek-inspired folk lullabies that leave the Songwriters’ Guild literally begging for more. The audience is incredibly involved and tight-knit, addressing one another by name, borrowing instruments, and asking each other how they can buy their music and when their next gigs are.
As Quiles and Cloud leave the stage — more like a designated corner — Quiles calls out, “we met at an open mic! It could happen to you!” She smiles, “Maybe it already has.”
Reservations and revelations
After eight years at Sacred Grounds, Tholke isn’t sure he can keep it up. “Every single week I think it’s gonna be the last one and every single week I’m glad that I didn’t quit that week,” he says. Tholke was paid to host open mics in San Francisco for many years, but the gig at Sacred Grounds is an act of charity. “My win is them winning, but I feel like a loser because I am poor,” says Tholke. “I’m the most poor person I know. I don’t know anyone that has less than me because I’m not on any programs.”
Despite his reservations, Tholke keeps coming back every Thursday. The open mic got shut down in 2007 because of the musicians’ use of copyrighted materials, but Tholke brought it back.
He struggles with the time commitment, but ultimately he loves the Songwriters’ Guild. Tholke values very little above free speech, and the fact that the open mic is available to everyone for free is something that he thinks is immensely important for San Francisco’s culture.
“Free speech and freedom and liberty. You can actually have it,” says Tholke, sipping his coffee. “That’s the thing that keeps me coming back.”