Sunday, January 30, 2011

1.30.61: Dylan shows up at Gerdes to play Hoot- Turned Away

Fifty years ago today, 19 year old Robert Zimmerman strode over to Gerdes' Folk City on 4th and Mercer to partake in the famous and ever-exciting Monday Night Hootennany. Since mid-1960, Gerdes' was the home of Greenwich Village's first open mic. It was a place where "dreamers came to dream," as David Massengill put it; A place known as "headquarters" by Carolyn Hester; A place called "the Mecca" by Richie Havens; A place that a grown up Bob Dylan would call in his autobiography Chronicles "the preeminent Folk Club in America."

But not this night. Young Bobby just looked to damn young to be allowed on stage. 

"Get out of here you punk kid," Mike didn't say to him. 

No. It was probably more like this: "How 'bout you come-a back next week with-a something that proves-a how old you are."

Which he did. And then he played the Hoot again the next Monday. And then several Mondays after that until soon enough, the likes of Dave Van Ronk, his wife Terri Thal, Folk City booking agent Charlie Rothschild and a host of others "sternly suggested" that Mike book the Kid. Which he did....

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bob Dylan plays at the Folklore Center for the first time 1.29.61

Isreal G. Young- Godfather of Folk

here's a bit on his link to Gerdes'

It's been said with much acuracy and historical fact that without Izzy Young, there would be no Folk City. After all, it was his idea to formally hire acts and headline them at Gerdes' Restaurant at 11 west 4th. He and business partner Tom Prendergas approached Grandpa in December of 1959 to encourage him to use his place as a venue to book the up-and-coming acts that were performing elsewhere in the neighborhood. It was a match made in Heaven for the Folk crowd and Porco, but not so for Porco and Young.

Isreal Young was the eccentric owner of The Folklore Center located at 110 Macdougal Street. It was known by all the musicians and tourists alike as the place one could go into and buy everything related to Folk Music. He sold everything he thought musicians and music enthusiasts would want. His patrons were the musicians themselves along with everyone else who paraded around the streets of Greenwich Village. His store became a destination for tourists and Musicians since there was enough space to sit and play their music without having to purchase very much. Izzy never treated anyone like a freeloader. He loved the music and he loved the people who played it. They, in turn, loved Izzy. In fact, he became a sort of promoter to some in a happenstance definition of the word. His crowning acheivement was producing Bobby Dylan's Carnegie Hall concert in 1961. Fifty three (or was it 56?) tickets were sold and Dylan was paid duly from Isreal Young's pocket. 

The village back then had a scant many bars that had a New York State liquors license. Places like Cafe Wha?, the Gaslight and several others relied upon the blend of Beatniks and the growing folk crowd to keep the register open with sales of french fries and coffee while the stages showcased alternating acts of poets and singers. The musicians who needed a place to play would carry their guitar and playlist club to club, night after night. The patrons tended to do the same in search of a newer scene, prettier faces or just better music.

Some joints were known as "baskethouses" since everyone performed for free and passed their own hat, as it were, to collect pay for their performance. Usually this required a trusted friend to act as part accountant and part salesperson. Pretty girls encouraged bigger tips, so said new comer and former portrait artist Richie Havens. 

Baskethouses got the reputation for being the places where beggars who played guitar melded their trades. Many players paid their rent just this way and an exceptional few, like Havens, made quite a living playing as many as a dozen different houses a night. However, it just wasn't the way for big dreamers to get their careers off the ground. They were to be more successful at promoting their musical message at the more "upscale" coffeehouse circuit.

Problem was, there wasn't any real upscale circuit to speak of. The Wha?, The Gaslight, The Bitter End, The Kettle of Fish to name a few, were the more sought after rooms to play since they were almost fully transformed into Music-only venues. The Beat poets were losing ground to the steady stream of singer/songwriters/street performers making their way in to the clubs from out in the Park. Unfortunately for Young, the Folklore Center was ill-suited to showcase acts and house an audience at the same time.

But Gerdes' restaurant seemed ripe for such an adventure. Mike Porco had already been hiring various solo acts to play there on a regular basis to provide background sound for the blue collar eatery. Accordian and guitar players would skulk around during dinner hours. At the time, Porco had a loyal customer base of factory workers and students who would eat there during the day while during the Happy Hours, Gerdes' would be open serving up beer and liquor and exceptional Italian food to the locals. Even so, closing time would still take place around 8PM.

Izzy and Tom saw an opportunity staring them in their faces. Young already knew all the musicians and they could utilize Gerdes' liquor license to service and entertain a steady and thirsty crowd with select acts charging for admission at the door. Their plan was to hire the acts, promote the gig, and pay the musicians while offering Mike all the profit on food and drink sales. It would come to be known as The Fifth Peg at Gerdes'.

The math from the start was fuzzy. Gerdes held under a hundred patrons and were being charged $1.50 for entry. The headliners got $20 and the cost for up front promotion wasn't cheap. They quite literally needed to sell out every night to make their money back. As Izzy later put it, it was a win/lose situation: Izzy and Tom couldn't win and Mike couldn't lose.

(more on the transformation from the Fifth Peg turning into Folk City later...)

Monday, January 24, 2011

It was fifty years ago today.....

When the man named Zimmerman crossed the George Washington Bridge and rolled his way down to Green-witch Village to warm his bones and show his wares. The story has been told a thousand ways, so I won't chatter on too much. After spending early January playing coffeehouses in Chicago, he ventured to the University of Wisconsin and spent time with future Village pioneers Danny Kalb, Eric Weissberg and Marshall Brickman. Then he grabbed a ride to NYC in a 57 Impala with Dave Berger. First stop: The Wha? where he took the stage for a couple of songs with Fred Underhill. Owner Manny Roth asked the audience for a volunteer to put Little Zimmy up for the night.

The Cafe Wha? will be staging celebration of the occasion this Saturday January 29 to help celebrate the anniversary of his arrival. HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED, the official Dylan tribute band, will perform to an excited bunch.

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Zimmy was bent on playing at the feet of his idol Woody Guthrie (which he did) but first he had to get his feet wet and perform around the Village (which he did).

There were a lot of baskethouses to hone his skill in.....And there was a little Italian restaurant on 4th and Mercer that was a paying room. It had been booking all the up-and-comers as well as some blues greats still making their way on the road. It also held an open mic on Mondays. Bobby wasn't the first nor the last fingerpicker to make a point to hoof over to Gerdes and take a number from the hat.

Dylan's first Hootenanny would have to wait a few days, but he seemed to like them considering he frequented and played them for months after. Folk City later would be known as "Dylan's turf." The legend of how Bobby became Dylan lured singer/songwriters from around the country to try their hand at it, too.

Ain't it grand?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

What a splendid piece. 
The movie. And Phil. 

The buzz for the movie's arrival started some weeks back. Phil's sister Sonny had mentioned it to me in the spring but it had completely slipped my mind until recently when it started to get mention on Facebook. The first thoughts that came to mind when I saw the ads and promos were the words of my grandfather himself saying "I wish-a Phil Ochs lived a hundred years." He said this in 1979 during an interview with Dan Behrman. Dan was generous enough to make me a copy and it remains the only lengthy recording I have of Grandpa's voice. 

The interview was taped in the basement office at 130 W. 3rd and aired on Dan's show on WBAI and in it, one can hear exactly what Mike Porco was like. His speech was even paced and comforting. He had a firm mastery of English even if he might twist a pronunciation or two around. He had a kind laugh and was soft spoken. In fact, the recording caught Mike answering the phone a couple of times to give directions and to take a message for an employee who had not yet arrived at the club. He wasn't pressing for time nor did he seem pressed himself. He was taking his time before work. The night was likely to be long. 

Dan was talking about some of the musicians that had played on Gerdes' stage and Phil Ochs was mentioned. Phil Ochs graduated from passing the hat at baskethouses to working paying rooms in Greenwich Vilage.  "Phil was a very shy type, when I met him," Mike said. "I think he was-a one of the best songwriters around. Where ever he would play, he used to mention 'Folk City' and my name and say 'that was the first paying job I had.'"

 It's been said that Mike treated most of the Fellas like his own son, but everybody knew that Phil was "his boy". Sonny told me that. Jack Hardy told me that. Rod MacDonald told me that. And I'm sure to hear it again. 

In an unguarded moment, Mike's voice softened even further as he seemed to lose his place. "Ive been thinking the world of him and I really miss him today. I wish he lived to 150. I love him."

I felt a strong pull to see the Phil Ochs bio as soon as I could. It was so fitting that the first theater it was shown was in what was once the Waverly on 6th Ave at the west end of 3rd St; a stone's throw from the old Folk City. It opened Wednesday 1.5.11 and I went yesterday. 

It was a gripping tale of a man every generation should know about. As it was put in the movie, "he had a voice, six strings and conviction." Phil was able to create a career for himself out of nothing if not a passion to express himself through music. While Dylan and many others were writing from personal experience, he was interpreting world events into a language that could be understood on the gritty streets of New York. Like a conduit between the New York Times and the masses, he found a way to mobilize people against the unholy and unjust acts committed at home and abroad. He brought unspoken and heady issues to the forefront like the CIA overthrow of the democratically elected leader of Chille, Allende. He helped form the Young Independent Party (Yippies) with Abbie Hoffman. He tirelessly battled the ridiculousness of Vietnam. And he did it through music. With beautiful melodies and a sweet voice. 

No one I've spoken to so far speak ill of Phil Ochs. And when his name has come up, the tone of the conversation changes. His contemporaries and peers loved and miss him. And I'm proud to know that Grandpa cared for him when others shunned him. 


The movie is a lesson in creativity and rising up in a crazy and crazed world. 

About the film:


Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's all a-Buzz

I rang in the New Year with a long conversation with The One, The Only...Buzzy Linhart
Oddly enough, I was thinking of him recently and was taken aback by a phone call from him. I couldn't think of a better way to bring in new years (and my first year's journey into Gerdes' past) than with a guy who was known for doing the Folk City new years show. As fate would have it, my plans to be out of the house changed in the early evening and I was able to return the call and spend a new years with him.....a bit differently from how Mike spent some with him but a Porco/Linhart connection none the less. Lot of love still pouring out of the Folk City legend to this day. It's an honor to be in contact and "In tune" with so many of the people who shared intimate moments with my Grandfather.

Buzzy and I had spoken about a month before the Anniversary party. It was clear to me over the phone that he held Mike in high regard and was happy to have heard from me.

(to be continued)