COLUMN SIX, FEBRUARY 1, 1996
(Copyright © 1996 The Blacklisted Journalist)
HOW DO YOU BURY A CELLAR?
116 MacDougal Street, site of the old Scrap Bar, once the Village Gaslight.
A look down at the entrance of the old Scrap Bar a few days after it was buried by the Blizzard of '96. Can anyone hear the music still in the walls?
Sam Hood left early. He took one of the slats of the swinging doors as a souvenir, climbed up the uneven stone steps to the sidewalk, went into the bar next door and proceeded to get drunk. The bar next door was the Kettle of Fish, once famous as a local Mafioso hangout but, by this particular night, it had long since been overrun by every guitar-picker who had ever migrated to Greenwich Village. This was the night of April 5, 1971, and Sam had left the Gaslight for the last time. The Village Gaslight. That was the club's official name. Some people liked to call it the Gaslight Cafe. For thirteen years, it had been one of America's leading folk music clubs, a Mecca for every kid who ever had picked up an acoustic guitar and tried to sing a Woody Guthrie tune.
"I didn't want to get maudlin or anything," Sam told me afterwards. "I didn't even stay for the second show. Not a whole lot happened. I didn't want to celebrate it."
The Gaslight was at 116 MacDougal Street, with its twin entrances at the bottom of a pair of deceptive stone stairways, located on either side of the flight of steps leading to the shops above. The past fades fast. Walk past that address today and there isn't a clue that 116 MacDougal Street was a landmark where music archaeologists ought to start digging. I had to go through some double-takes and I even had to ask people on the block if that was the right address. Hardly anyone knew. It was January 13, 1996, soon after the Blizzard of '96 and there was too much snow for me to tell if the stone steps were still uneven. In the old days, there were six stone steps down in the stairway at the building's right and nine stone steps down in the stairway at the building's left. At the building's left, the steps now lead down to what used to be a boozery called "The Scrap Bar." On the building's facade above those stone steps, the Scrap Bar had once hung a motorcycle as a decoration. Yes, the past fades fast. I still remember how John Mitchell had opened the Gaslight and how Sam Hood had closed it.
John Mitchell was a celebrity on the MacDougal Street of the late '50s. Greenwich Village already was long established as America's Left Bank, where the rents were still cheap enough for starving artists and runaway
This was when the poets and painters and other arty types of the Village were known a bohemians, not beatniks
kids and where Italian bars and restaurants shared the street with silversmiths and sandalmakers and dress designers. Picturesque MacDougal Street was turning into Boutique Row. It already had won fame as a hangout for America's avant-garde and its sidewalks were always full of suburban middle class hordes, arriving like sight-seeing tourists coming to behold the Grand Canyon. This was when the painters and poets and other arty types were still called Bohemians. This was when the Village became my beat for the New York Post.
By the late '50s, MacDougal Street was as bright and booming and fabled and flourishing as a carnival midway, and I would have to look in the New York Post files to remember all the ways in which John Mitchell manipulated me to get a story in the paper so he could effectuate some scam. He was a leader in the movement to keep the real estate interests at bay when they tried to chip away at the outre population's elbow room in the Village. I liked him because he was always so colorful and therefore always good for a story. He disappeared from the Greenwich Village landscape long ago, remaining a local legend only in the memories of survivors like myself. Somebody researching those days will keep coming across John Mitchell's name again and again. He still has a dynamo of a daughter, Christine, a mother of two and a 37-year-old college student majoring in English literature in upstate New York. The subject of an article about children of the Beats in the New York Sunday Times magazine section of last November 5, she was quoted as saying:
"I think the Beats were extremely dysfunctional people who basically had no business raising children."
Christine's mother was the late Alene Lee, a longtime friend of mine, who did her best to remain unsung as one of the great legendary figures of the Beat Generation. Although Jack Kerouac turned his interracial romance with Alene into a best-selling novel called The Subterraneans, she avoided attention by winning the hearts and the friendship of all the journalists best equipped to write about her (such as me or Lucian Carr, Jack Kerouac's good buddy, who ended up Alene's longtime lover). But Alene is a whole other story, which maybe I'll tell you some other time.
As for John Mitchell, I remember him as a master carpenter, a star con man, a resourceful innovator, a proud individualist and a cagey entrepreneur who helped establish the coffee house as a Greenwich Village countercultural institution, a peculiarly '60s phenomenon, a hangout that catered to the sweet tooth rather than to the drunken or unruly. The coffee house proved to be just the place to attract a generation of peaceful potheads. For the middle class, it was either pastry and a hot chocolate with the arty types in the Village or TV and Sara Lee alone at home.
John used to say that he discovered the Village while driving to visit friends who lived on Elizabeth Street, on the other side of the Village. He never told me where he had started out from. When he got to Bleecker Street, with several blocks still to go, one of his tires blew. John told me that he never made it over to Elizabeth Street because he liked where he was. That's how Greenwich Village attracts a lot of people. John got to be buddies with a poet who became one of the Village's greatest legends. The poet's name was Maxwell Bodenheim, and Maxwell Bodenheim and John Mitchell became roommates, odd-couple style. John used to boast that he knew everything there was to know about construction. He also had a great way of persuading everybody he was telling the truth.
John's first major undertaking was the Figaro, a coffee house at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal. The Figaro became a big-time hit overnight, allowing John to sell it quickly for what he claimed was a whopping profit. It was certainly enough of a score to prompt John to try it again. This was in 1958 and, after selling the Figaro, John immediately began scouting MacDougal Street in search of a location for another coffee house. He'd already decided to call it the Village Gaslight. At 116 MacDougal, John noticed that there were gratings in the sidewalk. That told him there was a cellar underneath, but when he went downstairs to take a look, he could hardly stand up. The ceiling was too low. John couldn't raise the ceiling, so he lowered the floor. It was all dirt, and he shoveled it out by hand. Except, the city refused him a building permit, and so he had to load the dirt in sacks and get rid of it as if he were tunneling his way out of prison. At night, he would carry the sacks out into MacDougal Street and dump a little dirt into each of the garbage pails on the block. The Gaslight had a hard time being born.
The Village Gaslight started out as one of the first of the Village's basket houses, so-called because the entertainers got paid by passing a basket through the audience. The basket houses represented a new twist to the coffee house concept by offering poetry along with the pastry. This was in the Beat Generation days, predating the folkie tidal wave which later rolled in with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan riding its crest. This was in the Beat Generation days when Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso read their poetry at the Gaslight. Hugh Romney also read his poetry there and then reappeared as another persona, Wavy Gravy, the legendary clown, comedian and founder of the communal Hog Farm. Len Chandler also started out as a poet at the Gaslight before he became the biggest folk music star MacDougal Street had ever seen until then. One of the Gaslight's MCs was Noel Stookey, who later became the Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary. Paul's first gig was at the Gaslight. This was in the days when every truck driver would holler, "Hey, beatnik!" at every man wearing a beard. This was when beer-drinkers from Jersey would look for Saturday night entertainment by driving into the Village to beat on beatniks. This was when MacDougal Street was still a Little Italy and the small kids, young hoods and old toughs on the block would drop water bombs from their upper tenement windows onto the clogged sidewalk traffic below. The cops kept trying to close down the Gaslight. They wrote summonses because there was no soap in the bathroom or because there were no lids on the garbage pails. When the neighbors complained about the noise in the Gaslight, the audience was asked to applaud by snapping its fingers.
John Mitchell sold the Village Gaslight and then helped build the Commons, another coffee house, just across the street. Later, he rebuilt the Commons, renamed it the Fat Black Pussycat and sold that, too. At first, he went looking on MacDougal Street for a site where he could build another coffee house but instead he left the
Three times a self-made millionaire, Clarence Hood had gone broke three times
country. As I said, the past fades fast. Years later, John Mitchell was living the life of an expatriate in Spain. Clarence Hood, meanwhile, had bought the Gaslight in 1961. Clarence knew what it was like to be a winner and he knew what it was like to be a loser. He had been a self-made millionaire three times and he had gone broke three times. The Beat Generation was about to be supplanted as the relevant expression of culture by The Great Folk Revival. Clarence's son, Sam, later told me that Clarence had no idea of what he had gotten into or what he was doing.
"All my father knew was the lumber business," remembered Sam Hood. "He had also been in citrus fruits. He was a Democratic committeeman in Mississippi in 1949, but he was involved in the fight for Truman's civil rights program. Things got a little uncomfortable, so we left Mississippi. When my father took over the Gaslight, the place just ran itself."
The night the Gaslight closed in 1971 was, for Sam, like a death in his family. Still, how could he mourn a place where the pipes always leaked? Sam said he'd spent a fortune on plumbers trying to find out where the water was coming from. One of the leaks was right over the spot on the stage where the performer was supposed to stand to remain in the exact aim of the prefocused battery of fixed spotlights. I, myself, remembered noticing that John Hammond Jr., for one, and James Taylor, for another, had gotten all but drenched in the middle of their sets. If they'd been playing electric guitars, they would've been electrocuted. The truth is that John Mitchell wasn't much of a master builder after all. Not only were the twin stone stairways up to the sidewalk grossly unalike, but each stone step seemed to be of a different height. I used to marvel that no one ever tripped, fell and sued.
At first, Sam got involved with his father in running the Gaslight but then went to Florida to open his own club. Without Sam to help him, Clarence decided to close the Gaslight in 1967, shutting the club's doors with a big, though premature, ceremony. A new owner, Ed Simon, reopened the Gaslight in 1968 and, before long, Sam, at first reappearing as Ed Simon's partner, eventually wrested control of the club back. Sam thought Ed was running the place too much like a tourist trap. Sam was so successful in reviving the Gaslight that, two years later, he decided to close it for the last time.
There were hot, sweaty nights when the air conditioning would break down. Even when the air conditioning worked, condensation would rain from the ceiling. The legal capacity was a hundred and ten persons, but Sam remembered that when James Taylor played the club, Sam packed two hundred and twenty customers into the Gaslight.
There was a time when Sam closed the Gaslight at its 116 MacDougal Street location and reopened the Gaslight two nights later at its new site on Bleecker Street where the old Cafe Au Go Go used to be. At its new location, the Gaslight seated 320. With that capacity, the transplanted Gaslight thrived for about a year, but Sam's personal life eventually forced him to close that place, too. As for 116 MacDougal Street, Sam remembered:
"At first, I wanted to have a big party. I thought we'd have a gigantic celebration and move the whole show over to the new place in the same night. But then, as the day got closer, I got kind of scared of any kind of things happening. In the last two months, the club had never done better. I had to move it because it was totally stifling us. To continue there meant we had to continue presenting performers limited by the confines of the place. I don't know what's going to happen to the old club. There's so much music in the walls there that somebody will have to do something with it."
Music in the walls? It was such a dirty, crumbly decaying place that at first Sam's image made me think of music infesting the walls of the old Gaslight like tuberculosis bacilli surviving in the walls of a slum tenement. But after a while, I began to like the romance of the phrase. Music in the walls? I began to think of music embedded in the walls the way music is embedded in a phonograph record. Were CDs invented at the time? How do you get to the music in the walls? How do you rediscover it? Do you dig like an archaeologist?
"I think Mississippi John Hurt put more music in the walls than anybody else," Sam mused. "I remember his second night in New York. He had just been rediscovered. He was right in the middle of a song and he walked off stage. The place was packed. I thought he was sick or something and I ran up to him. He said, 'I just had to take a pee!'
"And there was Ramblin' Jack Elliott and the night Johnny Cash stopped in to do a guest show and Joan Baez singing along with a Doc Watson hymn and then, seven years later, singing along from the audience with Kris Kristofferson. There were a thousand things like that. And the nights when Bob Dylan would come in to work out a new song, to try it out in front of an audience. He did Hard Rain and Masters of War for the first time in the Gaslight. Until 1965, whenever he got a new song worked out, he would stop into the Gaslight unannounced to try it out in front of an audience. I remember the night of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We closed early and sat around the big table. Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton and Luke Faust. We said it was all over, the end of the world. Everybody just played music for themselves, with no audience. Those were the best nights.
"I guess everybody took his souvenir. It wasn't anything to celebrate. Nobody wanted to be there when it was over. It wasn't like going to Janis' funeral or Hendrix's funeral where somebody or something died prematurely. The Gaslight had lived its life and it was over. As a club, it was no longer workable. It had a great life and it was over."
There was music in its walls, but the Gaslight had died. The problem now was how do you bury a cellar? ##
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