Remembering Tom Guido, Purple Onion Manager and SF Counterculture Legend

Tom Guido (right) and Joe Marchi on the steps of The Purple Onion in the '90s. (BethZombie.com/PurpleOnion)

Friends describe Tom Guido as the type of quirky character one could only find in San Francisco.

From 1993 to 1999, he ran North Beach nightclub the Purple Onion, revitalizing the standup comedy landmark as a destination for the city's booming garage-rock scene and a home for his own eccentric persona. As manager, bartender, doorman, talent buyer and emcee, Guido operated the venue almost singlehandedly, and his strong personality permeated the basement club.

Tony Bedard, a longtime talent buyer for the recently shuttered Hemlock Tavern, remembers Guido flitting about the Purple Onion, jumping on stage to interrupt the bands whenever he felt like interjecting his opinions about the music. During those years, Guido was a North Beach legend who attracted admiration and ire in equal measure.

"He had this manic, crazy personality," says Bedard. "The Purple Onion was infused with this spirit of roiling chaos. How the whole thing existed for that long—no one could figure it out. Tom was so mercurial and charismatic, but he also irritated people and pissed people off." 

Bedard and others in the Bay Area music community learned Wednesday that Guido died in a Jan. 8 slaying in the Tenderloin. On Tuesday, police responded to a call about a man who jumped out of a window on the 900 block of Post Street. They found Guido, 58, inside the building with gashes to the neck and head; he was transported to a hospital, where he succumbed to his wounds. The medical examiner ruled Guido's death a homicide.

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Friends describe Guido as a music purist obsessed with '60s garage rock, apparent in his uniform of Beatles-style boots, a shaggy pageboy haircut and striped, long-sleeved T-shirt. He referred to himself and his friends as "Charmkins," which he defined as people of the '60s, and published a fanzine called Charmkin Rebellion

The Purple Onion, which opened in 1952 and famously hosted the likes of Phyllis Diller, the Kingston Trio and the Smothers Brothers throughout the 1960s, had a dilapidated vintage decor in the 1990s that matched Guido's throwback aesthetic. Rickshaw Stop talent buyer Dan Strachota describes its vibe as "fallen grandeur." At the Purple Onion, Guido booked contemporary groups like The Mummies and The Trashwomen, and Strachota remembers that he had a catch phrase—"That's not '60s!"—that he'd yell when he didn't think the music was up to par.

"If the band was playing and he was sick of it, he would say, 'The beer is all gone and everybody go home,'" Strachota says. "It definitely led to an atmosphere of anything goes at the Purple Onion."

Jonnie Fellman, who was a record store employee when he met Guido in the late '80s, says that Guido was originally from Texas, later attending Kent State University in Ohio. Fellman recalls that before the Purple Onion, Guido had a graphic design business. The Purple Onion shuttered in 1999—the club would reopen under various identities afterward—but Guido didn't go on to run another club. Several people who knew him say that he didn't talk much about what he did for a living, and that he fluctuated in and out of homelessness over the years.

"There was definitely some mental health stuff going on," recalls Tina Lucchesi, the drummer of The Trashwomen. She had been friends with Guido since the '80s, when he booked a '60s night called Fuzz Club at The Chameleon, known today as Amnesia. "He was in and out of taking his meds, he would get confrontational with people and get in fights. He ended up living in the club with his cat, Timid. It ended up kind of falling apart." 

Lucchesi recalls that the Purple Onion grew into a destination for touring bands, but as Guido's behavior became more erratic, he sometimes failed to pay musicians and began to burn bridges with his peers. "It was a bummer to see the Purple Onion end, but it was time," she says.

Still, she says that Guido and the Purple Onion left plenty of memories that speak to a bygone time in San Francisco, when a lower cost of living fostered a thriving, out-there creative scene. "We were lucky that to be a part of that, and Tom made it happen," she says.

As Bedard sums it up, "It was a legendary rock club in the United States and it existed by the force of his personality."

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