Blueser

When I emerged from the egg and arrived in Greenwich Village as a newly minted folksinger, the streets were filled with juvenile Joan Baez wannabees and their male kindred. It was Childe ballad here and soulful lament there on the part of the young women. The earnest young men thought they could get along with old Limelighters, Kingston Trio, and the like. Each train in from Long Island and each subway car from Uptown held a new draft. 

You didn’t need Delphic wisdom to know that most of the trains heading back were equally filled. The new drafts soon realized their peers were doing the same material. All the women with ironed straight long hair like Baez and the earnest young men in chambray shirts soon returned to the burbs and the Bronx, casualties of the mass production of vinyl long-play albums by artists who’d commercialized a specific brand of folk music years before.

I survived out of luck. At that moment, there were not tons of “bluesers” in the Village, and my style was raw enough that I eeked out an existence in the second and third-tier coffeehouses. I was thrilled to do so and didn’t care that I was on the lowest wrung in the Village. Once you were a regular habitue, the real world of life in the Village opened for you. It was a round-robin of singing and playing sessions that went on all night and poetry readings in friends’ apartments. There were potluck suppers, impromptu music lessons, long conversations on Zen and the art of guitar, and plots to flee the East Coast for the raptures of LA or San Francisco.

So why leave all this? Well, the Village was always a big pot of Stone Soup. New additions are continually being made. And then, some of us would leave for other venues, experiences, and lifestyles. We graduated.

I have not returned for over a generation, but I’m sure the pot is still churning somewhere. Radically different because the additions have changed, but still a sort of Bootcamp for creativity.

It was a great place to be from.

Originality

It was perhaps ten PM. Sitting in the back of the cafe Rienzi, my girlfriend practiced her version of “A High flying Bird” for about the fifth time. The song had been written by Billy Ed Wheeler a few years previous, but Judy Henske had recorded the version that became popularized. So half of Greenwich village was singing the song and basing their takes on Judy’s performance filtered through dozens of derivations. 

There is an appropriate quote for this: “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.” This spin on things could get a bit iffy with some trying to make it like a Joan Baez or Peter Paul and Mary thing, which didn’t fit with the pure power of Judy Henske’s voice. But everyone wanted to make some “unique” change or shift in characterization that marked it as theirs.

 But it still had to resonate with the stew bums, tourists, druggers, uptown slummers, and straight non-hip pedestrians who were our regular clientele. So it was tough on the street.

A white shirt and tie type was hustling Susan. He insisted that he could get her better gigs in places like Pocatello if she allowed him to come on to her. Susan was stringing him on to annoy me. I was busy trying to stretch out a new G string before my next set at the Dragon’s Den. The waiter passed by and gave me a shrug in apology for letting this straight midtown type through the door into the music room. 

By the way, in those days, the word straight meant someone who wasn’t hip. Susan and I were hip. Most of the outside world was straight, or L 7, as some of the older hipsters stated. And, no, a hipster was not some rich dude with a beanie, playing with being different while dreaming of starting a craft brewery in Brooklyn.

At about eleven, I headed over to Dragon’s Den, leaving Susan to dispose of Mr. Pocatello head. In the morning, she’ll call me and regale me with what happened after I’d left.

I started my set with my take on what other Folkies in the Village were doing with Van Ronk’s song borrowed from old Bessie Smith recordings – You’ve Been A Good Old Wagon.

It was hard to be original on a Monday night.

Snip

Arthur was an unsuccessful writer of dramatic tales. His plotlines involved so much obfuscation that you needed a guide to wade through the story.
He sat in the darkest recess of the coffeehouse, drinking espresso and scribbling ferociously on legal pads. Steer clear of his corner or be dragooned into listening to his latest attempt. One night It was my misfortune to get caught. After fifteen minutes, I struggled to get away only to have my sleeve grabbed, ” hold on, I’m getting to the good part now.” It was another ten minutes before I was able to depart.
Nobody knew what his day job was. This particular corner was his demesne, territorially his and undisturbed.
Arthur appeared late every afternoon and departed just before closing. Except for Sunday, he arrived at noon Sunday carrying the air of sanctity associated with the newly churched. Most regulars were good agnostics or atheists and let slip a slight whiffle of a laugh.

It seemed as though this pattern would go on forever. The most senior employees only knew that Arthur seemed to be some tail end leftover from when the coffeehouse had been a favored spot for literary luminaries. The others had moved on to Paris and San Francisco, only Arthur sat here becalmed in Greenwich Village.

One day one of the cats in the alley behind the kitchen snuck in. A waiter went after it with a broom only to have it leap onto Arthur’s table. In second, it was swept into his arms and disappeared into the large old overcoat he wore. Two eyes peered out at the waiter and seemed to be saying, “there, see? I’m an expected guest. Be about your business, churl!”

The cat became Arthur’s new muse. The owners allowed the cat to be smuggled in as long as it was out of plain sight. Arthur became more sociable. Patrons and staff visited the corner to pet the cat and allowed themselves to be sat down to listen to the adventures that featured Snip, the Greenwich Village cat as told to Arthur.

That year the owners were looking for something unique to do in the evenings leading up to Christmas. One of the regulars looked over at Arthur and Snip and jokingly suggested that they commission Arthur to write a Christmas adventure with Snip. It could be a special family evening. The suggestion was meant as a joke. But several of us sitting at the table liked the idea. It got put to the vote, and a deputation of us wandered over to suggest it to Arthur. Arthur seriously asked Snip, and after consultation, he stated that Snip agreed that it might be fun.

So the week before Christmas, Arthur, resplendent in a red Santa suit, white hair, and beard freshly combed, sat on the small stage and told the tale of how Snip had saved Santa one Christmas Eve and won the friendship of all the elves and reindeer. Throughout this Snip sat cleaning himself at Arthur’s feet. The evening was a great success and was repeated for years afterward.

I left the Village, but when I went back years later, Arthur still sat in his corner with a cup of espresso, legal pad, and supervisory cat. Only now, instead of being the peculiar relic of literary days past, he was the literary lion of the establishment. The ongoing tales of Snip selling well at bookstores and Arthur getting pointed out to visiting tourists.

Waiter

I caught the final bars of the Hesitation Blues as I entered the coffeehouse, “…can I get you now, or must I hesitate.” Pat’s finishing off with one of his signature songs suggested that it had been a good set for him. I pulled a key from my pocket, opened the little linen locker, and pulled out a new waiter’s apron. The principal reason for my covering my friend Paul’s shift was that I had the opportunity to listen to people like Pat Sky or Dave Van Ronk in performance. Sure I ran into them at parties, but this was different. I had a chance to watch them “work a house.” See how they took on an intimidating drunk spoiling for a fight, teased a reaction from a dead audience, and worked around disruptions.

I usually couldn’t afford the cover at some of the better houses around Greenwich Village. However, covering the odd shift as a waiter allowed me in where I’d never been otherwise. Aspire, as I might to be on that stage, it wasn’t going to happen yet. So I worked the shift, stood in the back, and learned from my betters.
Around eleven, I got off, grabbed my jacket and guitar, and headed off to the Cafe Whynot. I think I’ll try that bit of patter Pat used on the audience. It should work fine at the Whynot.
It was snowing, and things would be slow; it was the perfect night to try something new…before all the other performers picked it up and tried it.

Another night, and another dollar, in New York’s Greenwich Village.

Pat Sky

Pat Sky has died, and I’ll miss him even though it’s been over fifty years since I last saw him. Pat was one of the regulars in Greenwich Village around the same time I was there. Talented, witty, and not taken with his celebrity, he was an enjoyable individual to hang with – to use the argot of our times.
So all the obituaries are talking about his fame, songs, places he played, and records. Here is a story that I’d hope he’d appreciate:
One night in the late winter of 1965, there was a large and raucous party in the Village. I was attending but watching from the background as better-established performers did a round robin of songs for what must have been hours. In the early morning hours, a superbly intoxicated Dave Van Ronk called loudly for Pat Sky to ” get out here and give us a song.” Pat did not seem to be anywhere near. A search found him sleeping peacefully on the floor of the kitchen. Van Ronk then called for a guitar to be placed in his hands, predicting that even asleep, or passed out, Pat would start playing. Van Ronk put the guitar in his posed hands, and Mr. Sky did indeed begin to play.
We all moved on in life and didn’t let those early days define who we later became. Pat certainly did with degrees and other musical interests. But once we were young, foolish, and shared experiences, others only wish they could have had. Catch you at the big bash later; save a spot in the circle for me.

Here is the link to the NYT obit

Caution

If you were me in the ’60s and early ’70s, you always walked with one shoulder higher than the other. The weight of the guitar and its case dragged one shoulder down. The guitar traveled wherever I went. Some of this was practical. I frequently had no fixed abode to bide in, so my most crucial possession had to come with me for security’s sake. A few nincompoops who attempted to part me from the guitar came to rather tragic ends. You may have heard the term ” double stomp that groin”; actually, I did much worse. I had learned in a hard school: the IRT subway at 4 am. People would try to roll you for whatever you had on you. You couldn’t be too bashful and survive. A guitar case is a fine weapon. Yeah, going home from Greenwich Village could be as enjoyable as performing there.
The occasional fool at a coffeehouse would start asking you to play the Beatles or some silly Rock & Roll. You’d sadly explain that this was a Folk house, but being that it was, 2 am if they came up on stage and sang some of the lyrics, you’d play along. Ten minutes later, the house would be howling as the drunk, at last, realized he was being played for laughs. It was one way to inject some variety into a dead Monday.
Issues also developed when someone became grabby with the guitar or the person of a performer. Unless it was an absolute screamer, the Fuzz (police to the noninitiated) stayed away. They’d show up to harass the manager or shake someone down ( look for a bribe), though. So we had to rely on our wits. Sometimes it was as easy as inviting them over to the Minetta Tavern to ease their parched throat with a bottle of beer. Other times it got interesting.
During the spring and summer, you’d linger with friends in the park, an alley, or backroom. You’d sing, sip at a shared bottle, and wait for the sun to rise. The end of another day-night- and you’d head over to the IRT to travel home; safer now that day shifters were filling the subway cars.

Nocturn

Tourist buses were a frequent sight on the streets of Greenwich Village. We, the proud habitues, gave them a salute in various colorful ways—some by flashing the middle finger salute, others by playfully spinning about and displaying the nether regions. Many of us stood together in groups and went “ooh” and “ah” at the faces set against the windows. The drivers were pointing out, “…and there they are folks…genuine beatniks!” The people on the busses were from so far out of town that they really wouldn’t have known the difference between mid-town and the Village if the driver didn’t tell them. We, however, made much of our income from out-of-towners and desired that they get their money’s worth – while entertaining us.
There was Jerry. Jerry made a bit of cash as a barker in front of a lowlife basement establishment dealing in third-rate folk music and worse coffee. Walls and ceiling were painted black but lit with third-hand theatrical lighting that emphasized that here were the Bohemians. From down the street, you could hear his patter ” Step right up, step right up! See 49 female Viennese dentists drilling on our stage!…yes, forty-nine dentists 48 lovely costumes. Watch out for that first Step down, sir; it’s a doozy.”
Down the way was Sue. Sue would collar out-of-town couples ( couples only) and chat them up. Soon for drinks, she’d be showing you the sights, sounds, smells, and experiences of a genuine Village Saturday night; cheap. The tour frequently wound up at some westside dive bar over by the Hudon River like The Loose Caboose. Surprise!
Folks like me would have spent all our energy on our evening sets at our regular round of coffee houses. By 2 AM, we were laid back and experimenting with stuff to the “too blasted to care” crowd at the Why Not, Dragons Den, or other lower-tier basket houses – what was put in the basket after the set was what we got paid. Surprisingly, the drunks in the midnight to four AM choir could be very generous.
Sometime after four things closed down, the habitues gathered in places like the little all-night diner on Sixth Avenue. Then we wandered home to sleep till noon. As we were getting on the subway, we were mingling with the early morning crowd going to work; two lifestyles pretty much the antithesis of each other, but side by side in a city that did not ever sleep.

An Education


Today, the school would tell my parents I had an Attention Deficit or other learning problem. A plan for my education would unfold. In those days the teacher or principal would inform my parents I was lazy, dumb, or deviously hiding my talents. This led to being “warehoused” in high school. The schools told my parents I could never finish anything. 

No one noticed around age twelve, I began self tuition on guitar, and by sixteen, I started performing at coffeehouses. The guitar became an act of revenge on my teachers; they’d say: “look how good you are on the guitar. If only you’d put this effort into ( insert subject name here).” My sneer became a trademark method of communicating my disdain for them and their education methods. 

High school’s stress guaranteed I was too ill for years to eat anything substantial till noontime. When they expelled me, I promptly relocated to New York’s Greenwich Village and the Beat and Folkie scene flourishing there. I did not look back.

Life in the Village was not just about playing at the coffeehouses. It was about understanding the intellectual and artistic background of life. You’d be sitting with a fellow habituate listening to a discourse on Proust one day, Aristotle the next, and Steinbeck the day succeeding. As a performer, there were intense daily sessions with peers practicing and exchanging techniques. It was a free eclectic university. I carried around two things: the book I was reading and my guitar—every day.

The next year was a compressed “hello/goodbye” whirlwind of greeting the new and leaving the old – A self-renewal pattern. Education became more of a matter of community involvement than teachers in a classroom.

I went back to school about five years later but perversely skipped the high school diploma for bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. work. One potential employer asked why I listed no high school diploma. I asked, ” does it matter?” his reply? “Yes.” ” But you can see that was I was cum laude with honors in undergrad and did extensive grad work?” ” We require a high school diploma.” I unearthed my high school sneer for him and quickly left.

Stay Just a Little Bit Longer

It was a very in-between time. I was mostly on my own, spending time in the Village, but still traveling uptown to my friends in the Bronx and Riverside. I was still very much in love with Danielle, Danny, but she had her sights firmly set on Harvard while mine was set on, well I don’t know what. I was between visions of the world and would be for several more years. In the meantime, I was experiencing a life my academically inclined friends would never comprehend. In college, they would read “On the Road” by Kerouac. I would live on the road and tell you where Jack cut out the good parts. But that was still in my future.

Tonight I was on my way to my last date with Danny. We both agreed that it was time to end it. Reluctantly on my part, firm and resolute on hers. Harvard was only part of it. Her parents dreaded the though to me as a possible son in law. Danny, could not see a future in which I behaved like a responsible adult. And I couldn’t see a future in which I acted like the responsible adult they expected. So the end.

As a group, we were going to a dance. Looking back to that time, it’s interesting to see all my friends emerging from adolescence into adulthood. Clint had a job at Xerox. Michelle was continuing her study of dance, and Danny was looking forward to the fall semester at Harvard. Young adults in the offing.

I have few memories of the dance itself. Things resolved into focus when the band began to play the song “Stay.” That song made whole my feelings about the night, the relationship, and my hopes for a future I was cut off from. One part of me wanted to drag time backward to have again what we all had had together, but of course, I couldn’t.

None of us could “stay.” We were all little eighteen-year-old rocketships bound to see the universe.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWRtyAgt-u4

Blather

Lefkowitz moved from something similar to a Bach fugue to an interlude that morphed into a 12 bar blues. Mitch provided some impromptu lyrics, and Sue did some neat things with her soprano voice. I had a bad cold and sore throat, so I just sipped my extra-large tea with honey. After Lefkowitz finished up, Mitch picked out one of his tunes for us. Sue followed up with one of her favorite Scottish ballads. 

It was a quiet Monday night in the Village. Monday and Tuesday tended to be slow, and on Wednesday, things picked up heading into the weekend. Monday was a good time to experiment with friends. Several other groups at the Rienzi were doing likewise. Over in a corner, a clutch of poets was critiquing a colleague’s latest work, and near the door a pair of sketch artists were drawing the scene in the Cafe Rienzi’s music room.

A clearing of the throat announced a stranger at our table. He snubbed the men at the table while shuffling in a chair between Lefkowitz and Sue. Portly, bearded, and looking like a down at the heels professor of lit, he began to take issue with Sue’s diction and accent on her version of “The Bonnie Earl of Moray.” He was in full blather about how the McEwan version was the one she should emulate. Sue sat there smiling slightly, apparently not knowing if this was the intro to a come-on or just another deranged Village tourist who couldn’t find his tour bus and was now stuck in the inmates’ asylum. On he went, and when we all assumed he must come to a pause, on he continued.

Mitch picked up a discarded New York Times and began finishing the prior reader’s crossword puzzle. Lefkowitz started to miming “yada, yada, yada, yada,” while pretending to be before a class delivering a lecture.

Mitch looked up at me and loudly asked, ” Wes, what’s a 12 letter word for an idiot who endlessly natters on about uninteresting topics?” This one I knew. When he isn’t playing coffeehouses, Mitch is a grad student in sociolinguistics. Mitch is my primary source for obscure words that might sound insulting, and this was his word of the day for me on Friday. I pretended to think deeply about this while everyone at the table watched. “Why, that would have to be Blatherskite!” I croaked.

Mitch looked pleased with me, but looked over to our unwanted companion and said, ” It is derived from the 17th century Scots Bleatherskate, but of course, sir being all-knowing on things Scots, you knew that.”

Sue began laughing, Lefkowitz picked up his harmonica and began playing the Bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Loman as a blues. I choked, and Mitch slapped me hard on the back. Our unwanted guest had the wits to take his chair to the corner and bother the poets.

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