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.

Bright, Hot Lights

The guitarist spent time warming up while I prepared my video and audio recording equipment. Finally, a chord rang out. ” Your high E is just a bit sharp,” I said, not thinking for a moment that I had not performed for about fifty years. She grinned and checked that string; ‘just a bit sharp,” she agreed.
We were recording in the old Meeting House. They designed the buildings as centers for religion and to be the center of Town government – in those days, in much of New England, religion and Town government were the same. Being that a significant part of the Town population might squeeze in, they designed for good acoustics: no microphones, no amplifiers, and no speakers in those days. These days it’s used mostly for weddings and performances.
Acoustics aside, air currents, hot lights, and temperature differences create problems. The lower end of your guitar lives in one temperature zone, and the tuning heads at the top of the neck live in another. The lower tension, more heavily wound bass E, A, and D strings seem less affected. The treble strings are under more strain and are thinner – they seem to be the source of most issues.
For a while, I am back in the music room of Rienzi’s Coffehouse in the Village. The wound G string rather than breaking on my classical guitar always let’s go gradually as its outer wrapping unwinds. I am hurriedly placing a new string and stretching it out as carefully as I can – new strings have lots of excess stretch, and will go out of tune at the worst possible moment; in the middle of a song. The B and high E both need replacement, but that will have to wait until I buy new strings. Being that I am pretty busy at the coffeehouses this spring, that means almost every week.
When I get to my gig at the Dragon’s Den, I can almost feel the treble strings go out of tune as I step into the hot lights that shine down on the performer’s little stage. Our “green room” for preparation is a barely heated cubby with a draft. You know that any tuning you do here is a waste of time in February.
I am back in 2020, the guitarist and I discuss how capo’s change tuning and how you have to retune after placing it and after taking it off. Capo’s are little adjustable bars that fit over your guitar’s neck. They help change the key while staying in a fingering style you prefer. but there is a cost to everything. Your tuning ican be affected. Even more so if the neck of the guitar is not absolutely straight.
It is pleasant to just for a moment, step back, and realize that some things have not yielded to either technology or years.

Reviewed: a day in the life

First things:

It’s seven, get up before Jerry and his dad, quick shower and outta here. Poppy bagel at Reuben’s? Plain cream cheese or schmear? Oh, I need that coffee bad. Jeez just went to bed at four-thirty. I’ll get a nap between jobs this afternoon.

At Reuben’s: 

Damn, that coffee’s hot. ” Hey Joey, could you make sure next time that you really toast that bagel?” Can’t get good help. Snicker. Who am I to talk? Damn, she’s hot…” hey watch it buddy, hot coffee here!” where’d she go? No place to sit now.

On the IRT subway:

Look at that dude in the corner, man, what’s he on? The guy next to him, like he’s going to Maiden Lane. Some stock market place. Ow! There goes the corner dude falling asleep on Mr. Stock Market’s shoulder. Must be some potent shit! Too early to visit the Magical Kingdom.

This car stinks. Hey, some cool new graffiti. My stop next.

Mid-Town:

I wouldn’t say I like these crowds.

Three deliveries later: “let’s see pick up at Harmon, Marx, and Tobias, drop off at LevinFabrics.”

“Hi Mister Levine, sure I’d love some tea. How’s the family? Arthur’s decided on CCNY. That’s great. Those guys from Columbia would be a bad influence on him. How do I know? I see them drinking every night in the Village.”

Five deliveries later. In the back of the dispatch office- a two-hour power nap, followed by the last two deliveries of the day.

Five pm:

Pick up my ax (guitar) at Josie’s, head down to the Why Not. Check with Jerry or Toppa about tonight’s sets.

Might as well go to get a bit to eat. Got a buck, eating cheap tonight.

Six pm the Village

Settle in at the music room at Cafe Rienzi’s. So quiet, I can hear my guitar while I tune. I really need to put some cash aside for new strings. Ah, here’s Sue. “What’s up, Hon? Where are your sets? I’ll come and fill up the crowd. No, I haven’t seen Lefkowitz yet. I’m hoping we can play together later.”

Eight pm till ten – sets at Cafe Why Not, Dragon’s Den and back to the Why Not

The first set of the night

“Oh no, he’s back. Shit, Jerry, you booted him out last night, why’d you let him back in tonight?” ( in the background) – “I’m sober, want ta hear me recite the preamble to the Constitution? How about the Tridentine Mass?” Jerry- ” Look, Mister Terry, you have to quiet down, or I’ll call the cops like I did last night.”

” Welcome to the Cafe Why Not. I’m Wes, and I’d like you to tune out Mr. Martini over there – bad day at the office, huh, Bud?, and I’ll sing a couple of songs for you. The first one is Wild About My Lovin’.”

” Well now, listen here people

I’m about to sing a song

 goin to Saint Louis

And I won’t be long

Cause I’m wild about my lovin

I like to have my fun

If you want to be a gal of mine baby

bring it with you when you come

Well now, Jack of Diamonds told

the Queen of Spades

Come on honey stop your foolin ways

Cause I’m wild about my lovin

I like to have my fun

If you want to be a girl of mine

You got to bring it with you

When you come”

Ten pm – Minetta Tavern

“Guinness Toby. Oh, that’s good. I bet they don’t put up with drunk jerks at Gerdes or the Gaslight. The idiot tried reciting the preamble to the Constitution, and when he couldn’t get past the first line, he settled on the Our Father. Strangest prayer I’ve heard for a while. I never suspected that God’s name was hollowed, the way he pronounced Kingdom come made it sound a lot more like King Kong’s cum. The tips in my basket were good, though. I think they liked how I handled him.

Ten twenty until eleven twenty pm final set performed at the Dragon’s Den

Same old Same old made some money.

Eleven thirty pm – Rienzi’s 

Louie Lefkowitz, Sue, Mitch O’Brien, and me howling like it’s a full moon. Singing songs. Ah, Listening to Louie play the blues harp. He’s one of a kind. I’ll play Roll in my sweet babies’ arms next. Sue’s hot tonight. We’ll head over to Tomkins Park afterward, head of to Sixth Avenue, and get some food. Got enough for new strings, maybe a new capo.

Three am – Christopher Street

“Hey Tom! You up? want ta let me in? Shit. I’ll sleep right here.”

Six thirty am-

“Wes? What the…why are you sleeping here. I left the door open for you.” Me – ” can I use the shower, I have to get ready for work.”

Bricolage

There was no way I could have kept body and soul together on what I made in the Greenwich Village coffeehouses. I worked some dissolute day jobs as well. For a while, I was selling Time clocks and their supplies in New York’s Garment District. I was treated very kindly by the factory owners who didn’t have a wonderful reputation for being mellow, mild types. Their time clocks were works of art produced near the turn of the century in lovely hardwood cases, and working perfectly. Why did they need a new one? Actually, I think they thought me to be a bit meshuggeneh (nuts) and felt sorry for me. One elderly sweatshop owner always insisted on my stopping and having tea. But, I could not make a living on not selling time clocks.
Then I became a messenger for the Quik Speed Messenger Service. I was delivering messages, documents, and small packages from Mid-Town down to Wall Street. I remember delivering legal documents to a distraught Lennie Bruce, contract documents to singer Eartha Kitt, and patterns to my old friends in the Garment District. I made a regal one dollar an hour, but the tips and the people I met were great.
Then I did a stint as an inside “tour guide” for tourists interested in lapping at the fountain of Bohemian creativity that was the Village. A few friends and I would arrange a tour of some of the Village’s most suspect retreats, coffeehouses, dive bars, and restaurants for a reasonable fee. Our tours featured the sort of places that in more recent days you’d never find in a Zagat’s guide.
In addition to all this, I did my regular gigs at the Cafe Why Not, the Dragon’s Den, and wherever else I could scare up a gig.
The adventure in all this was finding the time, and sometimes the place, to sleep. Life was not dull, and it was a relatively happy time.

Setlist

Well, here it is. It took about an hour of digging around to locate. It’s a list.
A setlist. It contains a listing of the songs that I regularly performed when I composed the list. It’s very late, probably around 1977. But, the first 28 songs all date from sets I did from the 1960s in the Village. Some I still know, and could play blind drunk on the floor of an apartment on Christopher Street. That happened, not to me, but a very famous performer who passed out in 1964 in said apartment. I think it might have been Van Ronk or Havens who said: “put his ax in his hands, and I bet he’ll start playing.” He did. In those days, almost everyone knew lots of performance material cold. Coffeehouse playing wasn’t necessarily lucrative, but it was a living. We all had setlists, and mine was neither distinguished nor as expansive as some.
So whether he was giving us all a rise or not, we all howled at the result. And we respected how professional the performance was under challenging circumstances.

This one was more of a reference list of stuff I could put together in different ways depending on mood or need. Narrower ones might get taped to the top of my guitar. Depending on what I was playing, it might be my nylon string old friend “Charlie,” or the speed necked Gibson “I.O.U.”
The spill on the list looks like beer.

Van Ronk once put together a song of all the Towns on the Garden State Freeway – Garden State Stomp. Most of us could have composed similar material of all the coffeehouses, bars, cheap clubs, street corners, and parties that we frequented while keeping it all together. We knew this stuff better than we knew our girlfriends’ names, and that may explain why we had so many bad relationships.

Folkie

I sat down to watch the movie ” a Mighty Wind” with some trepidation. Within moments I was groaning at the portrayals of people who were almost that of Folkies I had known. The movie cut, in a humorous way, just a little too close to the bone. The preoccupations of the performers opened to public view. The jealousies, and innuendos, it was all there. We took it so seriously, and the movie exposed how mundane we were.

It was tough to watch because I know friends who either never picked up a guitar again after their last gig or those who practiced endlessly for a gig that will never come. Think of it; thousands of folkies, male and female, practicing in their basements waiting for the Folkie Apocalypse to come. Do you think I’m joking? We may be getting old, but, Folk Music is a powerful drug.

I have not been able to watch the movie ” Inside Llewyn Davis.” Just watching the trailer gave me bad flashbacks. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Greenwich Village, and I loved my life there. But, to get shoved back inside it again. No. Much too much crazy stupidity. But oh for the beautiful afternoons, evenings, nights, and entire weeks of playing that music.

Cafe Why Not, Greenwich Village, New York City; 1965

The Cafe Why Not didn’t stand; it lurked below ground level opposite the Cafe Wha in New York’s Greenwich Village. The Wha took in crowds and lit up that corner of Bleecker and McDougal, the Why Not was, just what it appeared to be, a dark hole in the ground. I checked only a few years ago, and the location remains much the same as it was the last time I performed there in April of 1965. The stairs down just as dingy and dark.
There were three rough tiers of Folk coffeehouses in the Village. At the upper range were places like Gerdes Folk City. The next level included the Wha. Near the bottom were places like the Why Not.
Performing at places like those was not a living, but it was a way of life. In my day gig, I tried to sell timeclocks and supplies in the Garment District. Among ourselves, we didn’t share the details of those other lives. They weren’t real. Only our seven PM to six AM reality mattered. Between gigs, we assembled at places like Cafe Rienzi, Figaro, Kettle of Fish, or the bar at the Minetta Tavern. Conversations never featured mundane life, only how the songs we were working on were going. Real-life crept in in the form of where we were going to squat for the night if we were currently homeless, money because, at our tier, we always needed it, and, for some drugs- gaining access.


The Folk scene in Greenwich Village was my life from the fall of 1963 to just after the Easter of 1965. One night at Rienzi, I fell a bit too much in love with songs about being on the road. And, I decided to slip into another life. Back in the music room, I sang my last song in Greenwich Village, Fred Neil’s Blues on the Ceiling. By three AM, I was on my way to Boston. I didn’t return.
One night about three years ago, I was noodling around with the guitar. My hands fell into a chord pattern and a pick that I once used frequently. What the hell was that song? The internet helped, and soon I was listening to Fred Neil’s album Bleecker and McDougall. Looking at the album cover, it seemed as though it was me walking with my guitar to the next gig in ’65.

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