In the mid 1960’s, if you were a budding singer/songwriter of junior high school age, the only venues available to perform with your band were school dances, the local YMCA or American Legion Hall and churches and synagogues. You were still under the drinking age so, though it certainly didn’t stop you from drinking at age 15, it did make it nearly impossible (and illegal for the club owner) to get a gig at a nightclub.
It so happened that many churches had their own coffeehouses. Mine (Center Church in downtown Hartford, Connecticut) had The Blue Door. It was a trend in the country. Coffeehouses were springing up everywhere. Most college campus had one, and people were buying and renting old buildings in cities and in the middle of the country and starting their own. There was the whole beat poet/cool jazz/coffeehouse connection going back to the 1950’s. In the mid 60’s the folk scene was just starting to explode and coffeehouses were cool all over again. As a writer of poetry and musician this connection appealed to me. And I loved coffee. Strong coffee. Espresso. I wasn’t wearing a beret (not yet) and my facial hair was just beginning to come in, but I identified with the whole poet/writer/musician-as-hero archetype.
So it was natural that I would find my way to coffeehouses. One of the first songs I wrote, a rather melodramatic epic called “Faces At Dawn”, featured what I called my piano- travis-picking style. Having listened to a lot of folk guitar playing (Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, Leadbelly, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary) I developed a piano style incorporating the rhythms and sounds of these guitar players. The result was something I still do on occasion today. Basically it’s me imitating guitar picking on the piano.
I showed “Faces At Dawn” to my girlfriend in 1965, an aspiring folksinger named Christine Larsen, and I remember watching her perform it at a coffeehouse. The relationship ended a few months later, but the song survived, as was so often the case in my life, and I had my first taste of being “the songwriter”.
In 1968, almost twenty years before I would actually move to New York to chase down a record deal, I got the urge to perform there. A friend of mine, Robin Lilienthal, who lived in the house owned by the Quaker Church in our town, told me about a place called The Bitter End in the Village. They held ”folk music hootenannies” on Tuesday nights. You could just show up early in the day, play a song and see if you got picked to perform later that night. Robin said he would pretend to be my manager, in case of discovery by a record label mogul. (Supposedly this was where Bob Dylan got discovered, so who knows?) So we rented an electric Wurlitzer piano, packed it in Robin’s car and drove into Manhattan from Connecticut. I played at the audition, got picked, and then sat around waiting for the show to begin and for my name to be called. It would be a long wait, but an interesting one.
After sitting through a pretty lame comedy monologue by the MC, the host told the audience to stick around later for all the many hootenannie acts, but first we were going to hear a very talented young singer. At which point a tall, skinny guy hopped onto the stage dressed in a white Navy uniform and sporting a military buzz cut. His name was Loudon Wainwright III, and he mentioned something about being on leave. He then proceeded to sing some funny,self-deprecating songs, one of them about a dead skunk in the middle of the road. Robin and I both liked him, but I was too excited and nervous about my New York debut to give him or anything else too much thought.
Since we had arrived shortly after noon, we had our choice of seats and were sitting right in front of the stage in the tiny club. As the many hootenannie acts began to perform, there was a distinct lack of what I call “eye contact hiding space”.
I don’t know about you, but when someone is singing and playing and it’s just not very good, I invariably develop an intense, face-flushing embarrassment for the performer and become fixated at staring at their hands or the guitar bridge, anything to avoid looking into their eyes because THEN THEY WILL KNOW I THINK THEY SUCK. And I hate, I repeat, HATE to hurt someone’s feelings. I will tell an ornately constructed lie of Hugh–mongous proportions, complete with sturdy flying buttresses of flowery compliments, rather than say to someone “Did you ever consider never singing in public again?” I don’t know why but I’ve always been this way.
Did I mention there were many hootenannie acts? It turned out, as the last one to be called, I didn’t go on until 3:30 in the morning. There were four people left in the audience, one of whom may have been a custodian. My ass had fallen asleep seven times in that hard chair, and when my name was called I almost couldn’t move. But I did. By Jiminy, I waited all day and night, I was gonna give them a show! I performed three songs, at least one of which was lugubriously dramatic and slow, which I realized, while singing it, might have been a poor choice. It was called “One Thing I Can’t Hide”. But I made sure the other two were bright and peppy. After all it was almost dawn, late, even by New York standards. They were: my old chestnut “Who Are You And How Are You” (written that year at age 18, a true folk song, complete with piano travis picking) and a loud bluesy one I had written at a couple years before called “There’s A Time”. The people left in the audience all woke up when I played that one, from the volume, if nothing else, and gave me some very nice applause. There was, of course, no pay. This was a hootenannie, folks. It was also the last time I played for free.
The whole point of this story is that coffeehouses really were fun places to perform and to hear music in. And, unless you doing a hootenannie, you got paid pretty well. People were there for the music, and they as a rule really listened and were quiet and well-behaved. Even if much of it was amateurish and not so great, it was all very heartfelt. It was a time.
And the coffee was good.
To hear the 1992 version of that song that pierced the early morning coffeehouse air click HERE.