This week, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
Bartenders with beards and tattoos serve $15 cocktails to a sharply dressed, late-20s public at what is now the Up & Up. The menu instructs: “Gentlemen will please refrain from approaching ladies. Ladies are welcome to start a conversation or ask a bartender to introduce you.” What would Kerouac have thought of that? “Refrain” is not much of a Beat chorus.
It isn’t hard to imagine the place as it was. Strip away the 2016 fanciness, insert a small stage and there you are: the legendary subterranean Gaslight Café of half a century ago.
“My first impression was, this is just an awful place. It was dark, it was damp, it was cold,” Lynn Hood said during a phone conversation, recalling her first visit to the Gaslight. She and her then-husband John Moyant went to check out the place, because a friend had said it was on the market. “The owner had run into some sort of trouble,” she said, “and wanted a quick sale.”
That owner was a man named John Mitchell. Back in 1957 he had found a shallow basement on MacDougal Street in an 1883 landmark building and saw its potential. Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, the cellar had served as a speakeasy for a mostly gay and literary clientele, frequented by the notorious Jazz Age poet Maxwell Bodenheim, among others.
Since then, an antique store, a plumbing warehouse and several different workshops quickly succeeded one another, as Mitchell argued in a letter that was intended to convince the municipality of the fact that the venue had been used for non-residential purposes before. After a year he finally got permission to open up, but this troublesome relationship with the authorities would continue to pester the coffee house throughout its existence.
According to legend, Mitchell had dug out the accumulated dirt himself in an attempt to make the seven-foot basement a bit more accessible. His do-it-yourself approach had made a mess of his neighbor’s plumbing, however, and resulted in the first of many confrontations. “Mitchell was the world’s foremost maniac,” blues and folk singer Dave Van Ronk writes in his memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, supporting his friend Liz, who ran the small restaurant above the Gaslight called Caricature. Liz would serve many a hungry performer her 65-cent hamburgers even when they were flat broke and was, understandably, widely loved.
After finally opening up, Mitchell invited poets to entertain his coffee-sipping crowd. He kept alcohol off the menu, allowing the Gaslight to stay open throughout the night. Initially dubbed the Gaslight Poetry Café, the basement between 3rd Street and Bleecker in one of New York’s most eccentric neighborhoods, soon became a fixture of Manhattan’s bohemian life. It followed earlier Greenwich Village artist hubs like Pfaff’s, frequented by Walt Whitman, and Cedar Tavern, where Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning hung out.
At the Gaslight, Beat poets would showcase their radiating works of non-conformity, sex, spirituality and drugs. A year earlier, Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl had reached national recognition as the result of a widely publicized obscenity trial and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road had finally made it into print. Not only Ginsberg and Kerouac, but also LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Hugh Romney and Diane di Prima were among those who read for an often packed house. Officially, 110 people were allowed, but Mitchell often crammed in way more.
The now 77-year-old poet and singer Edward Sanders remembers attending his first Gaslight reading in 1958 as a young NYU student. “It was very, very packed, because the Beat generation was ‘hot,’ so to speak,” Sanders said in a phone interview. Among the performers were Ray Bremser, “who was in and out of jail in those days,” and Kerouac, who stood upon his barstool to engage the crowd and managed to bump his head on the low metal ceiling.
There had been earlier poetry readings in the avant-garde 10th Street Galleries and on the West Coast as part of the San Francisco Renaissance, most notably the so-called “Six Gallery Reading” in 1955, where Ginsberg performed Howl for the first time. But the Gaslight was among the first to bring the hype to Greenwich Village, instigating what newspapers at the time called “the coffee house fad.”
Part of the popularity of the Gaslight and the Beats had to do with how they revitalized poetry, Sanders said. “Poets were used to reading, but in sedate circumstances, such as university libraries. The idea of poetry as a wild art form came about from the Beat Generation, but also jazz poetry, the combination of jazz and poetry.”
Hugh Romney, who later took up the clown persona Wavy Gravy, had come to know about West Coast jazz poetry and brought it to Boston, where he was studying theater. “I read about it in Time magazine. I thought, shit, I know musicians, I can write poems and, so, we did it!” When he moved to New York in 1958, he “gravitated to the Gaslight,” where he found a stage for his performances. “It was Beat mecca; the premier spot to read poetry,” he said in a telephone interview. Soon enough Romney became a regular performer at the Gaslight, eventually taking up the role of entertainment director.
He was one of the poets recorded on May 15, 1960, when the well-known broadcast journalist Mike Wallace came to the café to do a TV special on the Beats. This was right around the time that the café opened up to other performers and more and more musicians became part of the Gaslight’s line-up, often playing in between the poets’ readings. This was a new concept that was not immediately embraced by everybody. In his book on the Bitter End, a nearby club where Woody Allen tested his material in those days, owner Paul Colby recounts how “if a folky came up between two beat poets, the audience would usually hold their collective nose or stick their napkins in their ears.”
Van Ronk recognized this marginalized role. “To maximize profits,” he writes, only half kidding, “Mitchell needed a way to clear out the current crowd after they had finished their cup of overpriced coffee, since no one would have bought a second cup of that slop. This presented a logistical problem to which the folk singers were the solution: you would get up and sing three songs, and if at the end of those three songs anybody was still left in the room, you were fired.”
New York Times journalist and 1960s professor Richard Goldstein, himself a folky in the early 1960s, described a similar social stratification. “It was all about status,” he said. The poets were upper class. They were sophisticated literary people. They would never hang with an “unwashed kid from the Bronx,” as he described his own 20-year-old self.
Goldstein got into folk music in the hope of some upward social mobility, playing the kazoo “because that was the instrument that required no talent.” He played folk music, he said, “because my wealthier friends played it.” He had to suppress his true preference for rock ‘n roll, which was deemed working class. The coolest of the folkies would however still not hang with him. “That’s the way it is in New York,” he said. “All these very subtle gradations of status determine who your friends are.”
One of the earliest musicians who did cooperate with the Beats was Len Chandler. Every Sunday, he performed in “the Circle on the Square,” the dry fountain in Washington Square Park for “whoever wanted to listen.” He was a folk singer, but classically trained and one day Hugh Romney invited him for a joint gig in Harvard, Connecticut.
Chandler remembers the poet saying, “We are supposed to be hippie beatniks, so dress down.” In a fair attempt, Chandler chose black dress pants and a red shirt “like Harry Belafonte.” The performance went well and afterwards Romney invited him for a follow-up gig at the Gaslight to alternate with the poets. But first, Romney took him shopping to make sure he’d fit in the crowd. “I’m this kid from Akron, Ohio,” Chandler recalled laughing, “so I thought dressing down was not dressing in a three-piece suit.”
A year later, Romney and Chandler would record a live performance of jazz poetry in the Gaslight together with the poet comedian John Brent, not long before two of Bob Dylan’s performances were famously bootlegged on that same stage and Tom Paxton recorded his first album in the club. By that time, however, John Moyant had taken over and the café had evolved into a new mecca, for folk music this time, completing its gradual transition from a place of poetry into a venue for musicians and comedians.
In the meantime, the coffee house scene was increasingly getting into trouble with the authorities. In June 1960, Mitchell was taken into custody for disorderly conduct and assault when the fire department came to close the Gaslight for “safety violations.” For over a year, claiming offenses such as “fire hazards,” “no no smoking signs” or “waitress working after hours,” city officials had been clamping down on the “34 Bohemian espresso parlors” populating the Village, according to an article in the Utica Daily Press. The Beats and their non-conformity were seen as “one of the greatest threats to American society,” as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover argued before the Republican National Convention in 1960.
Under the clever headline “Beatniks Howl at Bid to Close Coffee Parlors,” another newspaper article described how the Beats and their friends shouted “Corruption! Graft!” at the fire inspectors who tried to shut down the Gaslight. The slogans referred to the then-customary bribes that Mitchell had decided to stop paying, whistle blowing instead with attorney (and later mayor) Ed Koch as his legal representation.
Romney, who described Mitchell as “mad as a hatter, but a genius in his own way,” was present and remembers how he participated in a sit-in, intended to keep the authorities out of his beloved café. The cellar’s air shafts that led to the tenements above came in handy, offering an opportunity to bring in refreshments into the barricaded basement. It was in vain, however, the Gaslight would be closed for three months.
Up until that point, those air shafts had mostly been an annoyance to the Gaslight. As a concession to the building’s residents, if the audience liked what they heard, Chandler remembered, they had to snap their fingers to show their appreciation. Loud noises in the basement went directly into the flats upstairs so clapping was not an option. “And the stupid thing was,” Chandler said, “then I would perform somewhere else in the country and the people would suddenly start snapping their fingers. They wanted to be cool, like those kids in New York, not knowing that there was a reason we did that. The moment they finally blocked those air shafts in the Gaslight, we clapped all we wanted.”
Because of all the conflicts he got himself in, Mitchell grew suspicious of newcomers and when the tightly cut Tom Paxton came in, fresh from military service in Fort Dix, Mitchell was convinced he was an undercover cop. “Everybody thought he was a cop,” Romney said. “So whenever we wanted to smoke grass we would excuse ourselves and leave him sitting all alone somewhere.” Eventually deciding to test their newfound friend, Romney and John Brent took Paxton to a place on St. Marks and “gave him some dynamite grass,” Romney recalled. “He was so stoned he was crawling on the floor and we said: ‘Ok, arrest us.’ He said: ‘What?’ So that’s how we found out he wasn’t a cop.”
Tom Paxton remembers Mitchell’s mistrust. “He even fired me after a while,” Paxton said in a phone interview. Mitchell seemed to have had a habit of firing people, though. Van Ronk elaborated on this point: “Every few weeks there would be some kind of screaming fight between Mitchell and myself,” he wrote in his memoir, “and it would always end with Mitchell shouting, ‘You’re fired!’” After a week of unemployment, Van Ronk would then come back to watch a performance to find a Mitchell who wondered where he had been. If Van Ronk then told Mitchell that he had fired him, Mitchell responded promptly with: “Well, you’re hired!”
Romney picked up the thread. “Yes, Mitchell was hot-tempered,” he recalled laughing, “but I loved him dearly.”
“This one time,” Romney said, remembering another Mitchell moment, “the great actress Marlene Dietrich came in and left a beautiful lipstick blot on an espresso cup and John, who was nuts beyond belief for her, snatched it up and put it in this little display case. Then at night the dishwasher comes in and says, ‘What’s that dump doing in there, it’s dirty,’ and washed the lipstick off. When John found out, he chased him down the street with this antique sword he had hanging on the wall, screaming: ‘Just let me at his eyes!’ ”
Van Ronk described his ambiguous relationship with Mitchell and the Gaslight in a song called “Gaslight Rag” with lines such as: “Leave your wife and bring your knife if you’re working in Mitchell’s café,” “I had a dream that the Gaslight was clean and the rats were all scrubbed down” and “There’s not much light, but there’s plenty of fights when you’re singing in a hole in the ground.” The café was a “second home” to Van Ronk, though, and for about four years he hosted a hootenanny (an open mic) every Tuesday with a $1.50 cover charge.
On July 10, 1961, the Gaslight took up an unexpected role as the backdrop for Romney’s wedding. Blues guitarist Reverend Gary Davis performed the honors and “everybody was present,” Romney remembered, “Paxton, Dylan, Van Ronk, my mother.” Convinced that their children would be “born mad” if the couple got married on the Gaslight’s stone floor, Reverend Davis had them stand on a wooden board. Davis, who was blind, performed the ceremony with a copy of Peter Rabbit in hand, which he had accidentally brought instead of the Bible.
Romney and Bob Dylan had met at one of the Gaslight’s earlier hootenannies in 1961. A 20-year-old Dylan approached Romney, who hosted the night, asking him whether he could perform. Romney went straight for the mic and said: “There he is, a legend in his life time… Uh… What’s your name kid?”
In addition to the authorities, MacDougal Street’s coffee shop owners also had to deal with other adversaries. Israel Young, the owner of the famous music store the Folklore Center was quoted in the Utica Daily Press, saying, “someone – we can’t pin down who – is putting pressure on them,” apparently referring to the mob that was still active in that neighborhood. “Some people don’t want Negroes down here and a good part of that feeling is the real estate issue,” Young said. “They are putting up a lot of new luxury apartments down here.”
Chandler, one of the few African American folk singers of that time, remembers the interracial tensions. One day he witnessed a tall black man “coming down like a tree” on MacDougal Street after an Italian youngster smashed his head with a piece of concrete. Abhorred, Chandler pointed at the guy, shouting, “He was it, he did it!” Before he knew it, a group of young men jumped into a van, returning a second later, baseball bats in hand. Running for his life, Chandler escaped into the Bitter End to exit through the back door into a small alley. In an attempt to slow down the attackers, Chandler said, the owner of the club was hit in the face and suffered a fractured skull.
Chandler got away and, sometime after, he approached the leader of the gang asking whether “his life was in danger.” In response, he heard the reassuring words, “No, you’re cool,” and felt safe enough to come back and continue performing on MacDougal Street.
It was then, in 1962, that folk singer Alix Dobkin came to the Gaslight. Someone who represented Mitchell had already approved her while she was still in college, but with the change of owners, Dobkin had to re-audition after moving to New York. She did so together with a 24-year-old comedian who was represented by the same agent. The humorist cracked some jokes about the Spanish language and was loved right away. It was because of the wit of this young Bill Cosby, Dobkin believes, that the both of them got hired.
By that time, the Gaslight’s new owner John Moyant and his wife Lynn Hood had asked Lynn’s father Clarence Hood to come and manage the café. Clarence Hood, the story goes, had already made (and lost) over a million dollars three times and ran the Gaslight successfully through the height of its folk fame, together with his son Sam, who married Dobkin.
In his memoir Chronicles, Bob Dylan describes the central role of the Gaslight in the music scene that made him famous: “I kept my eyes on the Gaslight. How could I not? Compared to it, the rest of the places on the street were nameless and miserable, low-level basket houses or small coffee houses where the performer passed the hat.”
This tradition of passing a hat or basket to collect a pay for the performers had, however, not always been strange to the Gaslight. “We had someone do it, Malcolm the Witch,” Chandler recalled about the early days. “She was a green-haired lady with a python in a bag.” Clarence and Sam Hood, however, instituted a cover charge and paid the performers from the take at the door. “At some point we paid Dylan $75 per week,” Moyant recalled.
That money partially went to the many high-stake poker games that Dylan played with Van Ronk, Paxton, Sam Hood, Phil Ochs and others in a small room upstairs from the Gaslight. (Paxton’s song “The Name of the Game is Stud” recounts those poker rounds). Speaker boxes connected to the café’s sound system informed the gamblers about what was happening. This way they knew when it was their turn to grab their guitar and run downstairs. Now and then the foremost performers used the room to stay over and Bill Cosby, Hugh Romney and Bob Dylan all had it at their disposal for a while.
It was here that Dylan, who was influenced by the Beats and later became good friends with Allen Ginsberg, wrote a three-page poem on Romney’s typewriter in 1962. When it was finished, he showed it to Paxton, who was around early that night. Asked for his opinion, Paxton said: “It’s wonderful, I think you should put a tune to it.” Late the next night, Dylan performed a seven-minute long “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” for the first time. “That’s the kind of thing that happened,” Paxton said, “New songs were being born all the time. It was very exciting artistically.”
Fifty-four years later this would be the song with which Bob Dylan’s coronation as the laureate of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature was celebrated. In Dylan’s much-debated absence, punk poet Patti Smith received the award and performed in his stead.
Despite Mitchell’s departure, the Gaslight’s problems had not disappeared. When the inspectors came in, Dobkin writes in her memoir, her father-in-law Clarence Hood would ask: “ ‘What brand of cigar do you smoke?’ A ‘big’ cigar cost one hundred dollars, and a ‘medium’ cost fifty. Either was preferable to ‘none,’ meaning a real inspection and a big fine, since there was no way that kitchen would pass.”
“We had big problems with the law,” Moyant recalled, “We really got summoned quite often.” Both the Gaslight and other local coffee houses faced demands to obtain cabaret licenses and Van Ronk describes how at some point “Clarence had to go into court for over a hundred consecutive days” to fight charges.
The neighborhood cop, Jimmy Burns (“actually a very decent guy” in Van Ronk’s words), apparently was under a lot of pressure from his sergeant and came in every night to hand Clarence a “summons for running a cabaret without a license.” Then, in the morning, they would head to court where Burns denied that he had personally seen too many performers on stage and the judge would dismiss the case only to have the whole charade repeated the following day.
In 2013, the famed Coen brothers released an Oscar-nominated film portrait of the Gaslight and the Greenwich Village folk scene. The main character of Inside Llewyn Davis was inspired on Dave Van Ronk. “It was all wrong. I know no one involved in that scene who thinks it’s a good depiction,” Dobkin said in a telephone interview. “The only thing they got right was that the Gaslight was dark.”
Dobkin remembers the special atmosphere of that time fondly. “Musicians would help each other, teach each other their songs,” she said. The café played a unique role in that little world. “The Gaslight was for real grassroot, simple appreciation of folk music. It was the most informal to me. There was no drinking, so people really came to listen.”
Dobkin and also Lynn Hood missed that supportive environment in the film. “The Gaslight performers and audiences provided the color,’ Hood said. “The walls were dank and cold and had not too much on them. But still it was a very cheerful place. A lot of coming and going. A lot of people.”
Tom Paxton partially disagreed: “It looked great. It actually looked liked the scene looked. The only thing I missed was, nobody laughed in the film and we laughed all the time. I just don’t think they were trying to have the characters be like any of us.” Asked whether he thought that Troy Nelson, the character inspired by him, was well done, he said: “I would have died before I would have worn my military uniform in Greenwich Village.”
Faced with closure, Moyant and the Hoods were eventually able to have the space re-zoned, a city government concession “that was quite unheard of in those days,” Moyant said. The Gaslight thus eventually won its constant struggle with the municipality, but other coffee houses continued to experience repression.
In a 1968 letter to several New York City dignitaries, the increasingly political Allen Ginsberg stuck his neck out for the coffee houses that he had frequented since his earlier years. “Conservative status-quo elements in the community,” he analyzed aptly, “have disprized these coffee houses as dens of iniquity,” in reaction to which “local bureaucracies” attempt to close down the cafés “by application of fantastical municipal business codes.”
So the battle continued, while the Gaslight closed its doors in 1967 due to rising rent. Despite its fame, with only coffee drinking guests, business was barely profitable. It reopened for a bit under new ownership as the Village Gaslight, again managed by Sam Hood, who had returned with Alex Dobkin from opening and running the Gaslight South in Miami. But its heydays slowly faded, as folk music made room for rock.
For more than a decade, however, the Gaslight Café had played its wondrous part central to two important artistic moments. The story of that dark basement and the neighborhood it found itself in, as Richard Goldstein said, offer ”a real window into American alternative culture.”
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, the cellar would acquire renewed fame as the heavy metal Scrap Bar, frequented by the members of Guns ‘n Roses among others, but the time of the Beats and folkies would be gone forever, only to be remembered by the many who held the café so dear. “We loved the Gaslight,” said Hood, who is now 75. “It was a fun fun time to be young alive and in New York.”
Paxton felt the same: “The Gaslight was my home.”