Friday, June 27, 2008

The Bells of Hell

This is a slightly abridged and edited version of a piece I posted on the Fray three years ago as a comment on an article in Slate about "Bohemian New York", by Inigo Thomas, in which he mentioned Café Loup, which now occupies the space formerly taken by a great bar called The Bells of Hell.

The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling,
For you but not for me,
And the little devils how they sing-a-ling-a-ling,
For you but not for me.
Oh death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling,
Oh grave, thy victory?
The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling
For you but not for me.

-British Army song

I discovered the Bells in the summer of 1976, following the breakup of my brief first marriage, when I was moving from Bank Street off Abingdon Square to smaller digs in what had been the notorious Van Rensselaer Hotel, newly rehabbed as a yuppie warren, on 11th Street just east of Fifth Avenue. Although I had lived in the Village for three years, I'd never had occasion before to walk the block of 13th between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. When I saw the awning with "The Bells of Hell" on it, my first thought was that this was a bit far north and east for a gay leather bar. On the way back, I looked in the window and saw a sign that said, "Traditional English, Irish and Scottish Music." Being a big fan of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and their ilk, I resolved to check the place out sometime.

My first visit to the Bells was on a weeknight, when there was no live music. I found a vacant barstool near the door. To my left was a burly man with dark hair, and beyond him a brown-haired woman with glasses and a Scottish accent. The man introduced himself as Gary and his friend as Barbara. We chatted pleasantly while the jukebox cycled through "Dancing Queen" by Abba, Billy Connolly's spoof on Tammy Wynette's "D-I-V-O-R-C-E", Mna Na h'Eireann by the Chieftains, "Rivers of Babylon" by Boney M, "Hot Stuff" by the Rolling Stones, "I Can't Get Started" by Bunny Berigan, and "Highland Paddy" by the WolfeTones. Gary and Barbara filled me in on the history of the place. It had been started a couple of years before by the actor Malachy McCourt (now, along with his brother Frank, famous as a writer), who had been somewhat cavalier in the matter of paying Con Ed (the local electric company) and, as a consequence, had for a time done business by candlelight and with an ancient mechanical cash register. Malachy later sold the place to two Englishmen, Tony Heyes and Peter Myers. Tony is a Liverpudlian dockworker's son who had gone to Oxford on scholarship, gotten a Ph.D. from Michigan, ran the McGovern presidential campaign in Kentucky and Tennessee, and, during his tenure as a Bells owner, had a day job as an academic dean at the College of New Rochelle. (He later gave up academe and wrote a newspaper column on horse racing; the last I heard, he was doing some sort of business in Latvia.) Peter is a mountaineer and member of the Keswick Mountain Rescue Team. (He is now the proprietor of Myers of Keswick.) He is also a friend of Mick Jagger, who would visit the Bells now and then. (Many times I walked in and was told, "Oh, Mick just left" or "Right after you left last night, Mick came in.")

The following Friday, I went again, and caught a show in the back room by two singers named Chris King and Mike O'Brien. As they were singing about "Men who strived, and men who died/ To tear the red rag down", I looked behind me and saw the two Brit owners grinning, no doubt thinking about the money they were making off this "Paddy music", as Gary had told me they called it. I decided it was definitely my kind of place.

During my time at the Bells I had lots of long, alcohol-fueled conversations with the likes of Nick Tosches and the late Lester Bangs. One night I was moved to make my confession of musical sin to Lester. I told him about several lapses of taste, including liking Gordon Lightfoot. "Hmph," Lester said, "I know Gord. Do you know what he does when he needs inspiration to write a song? He goes to the hardware store and stares at the labels on cans of paint."

One of the Bells' regulars was an elderly man named Al Fields. Al had a private drink he called "kerosene," that included two or three kinds of clear liquor as well as (I think) Ouzo, served over ice in a beer mug. After a couple of these, he would often go to the back room and play the old upright piano that stood on the stage. One night, the members of The Clash were at the bar (I was elsewhere that night, natch) and were so impressed by Al's performance that they had him back them up on "Julie's Been Working for the Drug Squad" on their album Give 'em Enough Rope. The last time I saw Al, he was standing in the middle of Christopher Street on a weekend night, turning from side to side as he sprayed urine in great arcs, and shouted "I'm taking a piss! I'm Al Fields, world's greatest piano player. I played with the Clash!"

I introduced my friend and co-worker Charlie McCrann to the Bells, and he also became a regular. He recruited several members of the cast of Toxic Zombies there. To my everlasting regret, Charlie was in his office on the 100th floor of One World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001.

For much of 1978 and '79, the Bells' house band was Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, consisting of Pierce Turner, who is now a succesful solo artist, and Larry Kirwan, who now fronts Black 47. I have a CD made from a tape of Pierce and Larry's last performance at the Bells, climaxing with their cataclysmic 22 minute version of "The Foggy Dew," at the end of which you can hear me whooping ecstatically.

The Bells died in August of 1979. Its nemesis, I understand, was (fittingly) an enormous arrearage due to Con Ed. Afterwards, most of the Bells crowd, including me, migrated to the Lion's Head, a somewhat more staid venue frequented by, as Ace Gillen, one of its regulars put it, "drinkers with writing problems." The Head lasted until the mid 1990's, and its demise marked, for me at least, the end of any semblance of Bohemia in Greenwich Village.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mariners celebrate a night without the DH.

Something like this could only happen to the Mets: their ace starter gives up a grand slam to the opposing pitcher. Listening to the account of the game on WQXR this morning, I was surprised to hear that it was the first homer ever by a Seattle pitcher. Then it struck me: "D'oh! They're an AL team. They play ninety nine percent of their games with the DH."

See the fun you've been missing, guys?

Update: Twiffer (see comments) says: "as far as the general DH discussion goes, i thought we agreed to disagree? [grin]". Indeed we did. This post wasn't meant to try to convince you, Twiff. It was meant for those who perhaps could be convinced, or for those on my side who might need more ammunition.

In other words, I will continue my campaign against the DH until my dying breath. I just won't expect you to join.

Monday, June 23, 2008

How Aurora Borealis almost destroyed civilization, and how Bobby Kennedy helped to save it.

I vaguely remember reading this tale before, but Richard Holbrooke, in his review of Michael Dobbs's One Minute to Midnight--Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War in Sunday's New York Times Book Review, recounts how, on "Black Saturday" (October 27, 1962), the day of maximum tension in the Cuban Missile Crisis, an American pilot named Chuck Maultsby (no doubt a CIA operative), "confused by the Northern Lights, wander[ed] hundreds of miles into Soviet airspace and somehow escape[d] without triggering a Soviet reaction." That reaction might well have been a full-press thermonuclear attack on the U.S., as Soviet forces were on hair-trigger alert, anticipating a possible U.S. strike in retaliation for their having shot down a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane, just like the one Maultsby was flying, over Cuba earlier that day.

That evening, as Holbrooke recounts, on President Kennedy's direction, Attorney General Robert Kennedy

summoned the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin...and told him that the crisis had reached its moment of truth. ...With the downing of the American U-2 that day, Bobby Kennedy said that the American military, and not only the generals, were demanding that the president "respond to fire with fire." This meeting, coupled with a letter to Khrushchev skillfully drafted by Bobby Kennedy, Ted Sorensen and others, led to the Soviet announcement the next day that the missiles would be removed from Cuba.
So, we have another example of the thermonuclear bullet being dodged, but this time by action instead of inaction, and at the top instead of near the bottom of the chain of command. How many times can we be so lucky?

George Carlin, 1937-2008

In the summer of 1971, I was an Army second lieutenant going through the field artillery officer basic course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The Sooner State in summertime is no treat, but my three month stay did produce close encounters with two famous entertainers. The first was Lou Rawls, who must have been at the absolute nadir of his career to have been scheduled for Soul Night at the Fort Sill Officers' Club. He sang on the patio as I went through the buffet line, getting ribs, black-eyed peas, greens, cornbread, and (yes!) watermelon.

The other occurred on a long weekend when I got in my car and headed west with the intention of getting to high mountains. After driving most of a day and part of a night, including a spectacular run north and west of Tucumcari on a road that skirted the edge of a deep canyon, along which I saw working cowboys on horses, I ended up in Taos, New Mexico. After checking into a motel and having the best Mexican dinner since I'd left San Antonio at the age of five, I went looking for action. At the center of town was a shopping complex done in the worst sort of 1960s brutalist style, a bunker-like structure with great expanses of exposed, unpainted concrete. On one of these walls I saw a sign pointing down a staircase that descended from street level, saying "Downstairs at the Sunshine Company".

I went down and found a small bistro, fairly lively but not overcrowded, was able to get a small table not far from a stage that was unoccupied at the time, and ordered a beer. As I was about halfway through my first beer, a man dressed in black pants and shirt, with thinning brown hair and a scruffy beard, took the stage without any introduction and started a routine about parochial school, where the object was to get girls to throw up ("Hey, Mary Margaret, looka this! BLEAGGGGH!") He then shifted into a discussion of drugs: how the word had become a synonym of everything wrong with the younger (i.e. my) generation, yet how prevalent drugs of legal varieties were ("Coffee, the little daily cup of speed."). Next he riffed a bit on the misunderstandings arising from the hipster usage of "shit" as a synonym for marijuana. When he got onto serious theological stuff (see the YouTube clip above), I nearly fell out of my chair.

I finished my beer, and waved to the waitress to get another. When she delivered it, I asked who was the comedian. "That's George Carlin," she said. "He's a friend of the owner and he's doing the gig for free."

Update: Jerry Seinfeld has this appreciation on the op-ed page of today's New York Times. "[L]ike a train hobo with a chicken bone" is a simile I will treasure.