Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Folk City and other great clubs of the past

I mentioned Folk City in my "best shows" post, and I wanted to say something about that venerable institution.  I waitressed there on Friday nights for a while in the early 80s, maybe 81.  As one might imagine, most of the shows were various sorts of folk music, and it was home to the "Fast Folk" bunch.  (Fast Folk was a "magazine," an occasional record album showcasing a group of singer-songwriters.  Some of them, if I remember this correctly, were Suzanne Vega, Tom Intondi, Frank Christian...I can usually remember more names when I'm not sleepless at almost 5 AM.)

As mentioned, this is where I saw George Gerdes, Andy Breckman and Michael Hurley, as well as whatever band Peter Stampfel was fronting at the time (it must have been the Bottlecaps, although I don't remember hearing that name).  I'm not remembering a lot of performers' names, although I remember a rather popular trio called the Bermuda Triangle.  It was a guy and a couple of women (rumor had it that he was involved with both), and the guy played autoharp.  I have a vague recollection that they were funny and well-liked.

Of course, even though I've forgotten a lot of the performers' names, I do remember some things about working there, including a couple of pretty good stories.

I was friendly with another waitress there, named Mary.  She was gay, short and pretty with long chestnut hair and bright blue eyes (if I went that way, I would have gone that way).  We used to smoke a joint after getting off work.

Waitresses were permitted two drinks per shift, but I usually had mine after the shift was over.  While we were working, we waitresses favored their yummy coffee, brewed with cinnamon, which for some reason we drank out of tallish bar glasses.  (Maybe there were fewer mugs than there were glasses, or that the mugs had to be returned to the kitchen instead of the bar, or we just plain thought it was cool.)

Folk City was mostly a drinking establishment, a small cove and a two-drink minimum at each table, but they did have a small kitchen that cranked out some really good sandwiches, made on home-baked bread.  I can't remember the name of the woman who ran the kitchen, but I do remember that she was extremely beautiful and was dating Loudon Wainwright.  Lynn Samuels, later famous as a talk-radio host in New York, hosted open-mike night (which we referred to as "zoo night").

I had a day job, and my Friday nights at Folk City generally made me a nice chunk of spending money for the weekend (averaging around $35, as I recall).  I was heartbroken when they rearranged the schedule to give the full-time waitresses better shifts; I was taken off Fridays and offered a weeknight shift, which I couldn't take because of my day job.  I tried to explain this to the manager, who basically didn't care, and I departed feeling not very good about the management there.  Even though I understand why they did it, I still feel kind of unhappy about it.

Three stories:

I wandered in one day, not during my shift, and Frank Christian was sitting at the bar with Dave van Ronk.  I knew Frank slightly -- I had taken a couple of guitar lessons with him -- and he introduced me to Dave.  The three of us ended up at Dave's apartment.  I remember Dave playing us a record of Bulgarian folk music that had lovely harmonies, and Dave said he had played it for Simon & Garfunkel when they were newbies.  The harmony lines of the Bulgarian music were indeed very similar to S&G's.  I remember that Dave flirted with me -- he was kinda drunk, but it was an honor anyway.

Number two:  One night when I was working, Maria Muldaur was playing, which was a big deal.  I was asked if I wanted to work as her assistant for the night, and I said yes.  I would fetch drinks for her and for her band, and screen anyone who wanted to visit her dressing room.  I was told that she would give me a substantial tip at the end of the evening, and that I would not receive my regular shift pay (which I think was $10 per night).  It was kind of thrilling to be with her, and I remember her band members were nice.  She said that her daughter had the same first name as I (Jenny Muldaur is now a well-known musician in her own right).  At the end of the evening, Maria said thank you, and "God bless you," and didn't give me a dime.  At 21 or 22, I was not assertive enough to say, "The management told me to expect a tip from you, since I'm not being paid by them."  I did complain to the management, though, in hopes they would say something to her or pay me something themselves. but the manager just kind of shrugged.  Ironically, the waitresses made tons of money that night, and I didn't make a dime.  Someone told me later that Muldaur was "born-again," and informed me that born-agains did not believe in tipping.  I think it was told to me seriously but I have no idea if that was true (I've certainly never heard about born-agains not tipping in the 30 years since).

Number three:  I worked there one Christmas night.  The musical act was a klezmer band, which made sense.  The regular bartender had off and one of the waitresses replaced her for the night.  Most of the crowd were older Jewish people, clearly not too experienced with this sort of place.  Unlike most of the audience, who ordered things like beer, rum-and-cokes, and gin-and-tonics, these folk were ordering things like dacquris.  The bartender was rummaging madly through an Old Mr. Boston book (this used to be the standard drink-mixing guide).  I remember that someone sent back a dacquri saying that she wanted it weaker and sweeter; the bartender added some water and sugar, and sent it back to the table.  I seem to remember that the tips weren't too good that night.  It just wasn't a "club" crowd.

Folk City no longer exists, and there is nothing comparable around.  The club mixed new singer-songwriters with well-known folk artists, and it's just not done any more.  There are plenty of outlets for singer-songwriters, but not with the connection to and inclusion of folk-revival icons.  (On the other hand, there aren't that many folk-revival icons left.) 

Lots of great clubs no longer exist.  It was a sad day when NYU booted the Bottom Line out of their longtime home.  That was a great venue for folk, blues and jazz artists, and singer-songwriters; it was crowded, but the tickets were relatively reasonable.  It was also home to the famous multi-night stand of a soon-to-be-known Bruce Springsteen.  (I had a horrible boss at NYU who once told me that she had seen Springsteen at the Bottom Line, which was one thing I did like about her.  It was kind of like saying you'd been at Woodstock.)  I also met J. Geils at the Bottom Line, and probably some other people I've forgotten.  -Tramps is gone; I saw Los Straitjackets there, Wilson Pickett, Delbert McClintock, and met Debbie Davies and Rick Derringer.  At their old location, I once saw Big Joe Turner (I went with the late Bill Dicey).

All of the blues clubs and bars -- Chicago B.L.U.E.S., Manny's Car Wash, Dan Lynch, Mondo Cane and Mondo Perso -- are gone.  Only Terra Blues remains as the only NYC club dedicated solely to blues.  Saw the Holmes Brothers at Chicago B.L.U.E.S. and was greeted from the stage.  Saw them at Terra, too, and was introduced backstage to Catherine Russell, on whom I have had a fierce girl-crush ever since.  Mondo Cane and Dan Lynch were where you saw Slapmeat Johnson & the Titans, although they did play one New Year's ever at Mondo Perso.  Dan Lynch was home base to a lot of folks:  the Holmes Brothers did a lot of Saturday nights there in the 80s, before Alligator signed them.  Flamin' Amy and Sweet Potata, an all-female group.  Bill Dicey, of course, with the fabulous guitarist Jon Spector, and sometimes with Dave Keyes on keyboards (he still used his real name, which I'll be nice enough not to print).  Jon Paris played there; I just love Jon.  I think Bill Perry also played there, although he was more a Manny's guy.  A lot of the bigger names played Manny's, like Luther Allison, Coco Montoya, Anson Funderbaugh and the Rockets with Sam Myers, Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, Johnnie Johnson.  I met Luther and Coco there, also Jimmy Vivino, who backed Johnnie Johnson.  (I was writing for Blues Revue at the time and got to meet a lot of blues performers.)  Saw Vivino play once at Chicago B.L.U.E.S., and fledgling talk show host Conan O'Brien showed up; Jimmy now leads the band on Conan's show.  Jimmy's brother Jerry also plays in that band, and a third Vivino brother -- wait for it -- is the legendary twisted-kid-show host Uncle Floyd.  In fact, I saw Jimmy open for Floyd at the Bottom Line, and an old pal of theirs was introduced out of the audience, and we all wished him a happy 75th birthday:  Soupy Sales.  (Just saw a show about him on PBS with commentary by Floyd.)

A couple of places ran jam sessions: Jerry Dugger and  Dave Doneghy, as I recall, ran the Saturday and Sunday jams at Dan Lynch, and Popa Chubby ran the jam at Manny's. 

Barry has a great Uncle Floyd story; Barry is a huge fan of all Vivinos, especially Jimmy.  So Barry went into a used vinyl store one day -- this was within the past ten years, when vinyl was out of date and basically a collector's item.  He spotted Floyd, whom he did not know, and said, "Floyd!"  Floyd responded, in his Jersey accent, "I don't owe you money, do I?"  Later, as they browsed the vinyl, Floyd said, "So, you into 'black crack'?"  He was referring to vinyl.  Still makes me laugh.

Rodeo Bar, which still exists, had and still has some good blues acts as well as other strong performers.  Bobby Radcliff used to play there, and I saw Sleepy Labeef (Dave Keyes played with him when Sleepy was in town).  Another great band that played Rodeo was Simon and the Bar Sinisters, Simon Chardiet's band for many years.  (He previously led Joey Miserable and the Worms, which included Jono Manson and Milo Z.)

Simon also played Continental a lot of Friday was (still is?) a pretty scuzzy bar, and I only went there to see Simon, who would often play until 2 or 3.  Big Ed Sullivan ran into me there on night; I was by myself, which I guess he thought was dangerous, and he watched over me all night.  (Who has a bigger heart than Big Ed?)

Simon also played Nightengale's which was a few doors down from Dan Lynch, on Second Avenue.  Nightengale's was also fairly divey, and another place I only went to see Simon.  (I missed seeing the spanking-new Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler, who also played there frequently.)  I specifically remember one Simon show at Nightengale's, one New Year's Eve (it must have been 1993).  I started out at Mondo Perso, where Slapmeat Johnson was playing, but it was kind of crowded and rowdy.  Then I went to Lynch's, where Kid Java was playing; he was another good one.  Then Susana and I went to Nightengale's, where Simon was playing.  Chuck Hancock was playing with him that night, and for some reason, the two of them dropped trou and played for a while in their undies, pants  pooled around their feet.  Chuck wore tight colored briefs and Simon wore big white boxers.

I mean, these were some great times in local joints, both in my drinking days and later on.

Another note: I was rewatching a documentary about Arthur "Killer" Kane, the late bassist for the New York Dolls, and the filmmakers interviewed, among other people, a photographer named Bob Gruen.  During a piece of Gruen's interview, you can clearly see a photo of Jon Paris on the wall behind him.

I was interviewed twice for the documentary Bound to Lose, about the Holy Modal Rounders, but both interviews ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor, although I was thanked in the credits.  Steve Weber will not talk about the film or talk to anyone who participated in or has a good word to say about it.  I shut up about the movie and shifted my allegiance from Team Peter to Team Steve, for many reasons best left unsaid.

Like the song says, I don't get around much any more.  I lived in Manhattan during the blues-writing days, and could easily get home from clubs by bus or taxi (back then, a taxi ride home from any of the clubs was no more than $6).  These days, it's a way longer trip from, well, north of Coney.  Even Williamsburg, the hot new neighborhood in our very same borough, is a terrible trip if you don't have a car.  You have to go into Manhattan, change trains, and go back to Brooklyn.  Long damn trip.  Don't have the money for clubs now, anyway.  Can't wait until the free concerts in Brooklyn again, round about June.

No comments:

Post a Comment