Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dave Coles on the Lion's Head, and the Greenwich Village of yesterday.


The video above was first included in this post about a reunion of Lion's Head veterans at the Cornelia Street Cafe last April. The event featured composer, multi-instrumentalist, and all around fine fellow David Amram and a first rate crew of sidemen, along with some excellent guest musicians, as well as Dave Coles, shown in the video reading a passage from his memoir in progress, accompanied by Amram on piano. The story Dave read was of his time as a bartender at the Bells of Hell, which attracted off duty Lion's Head bartenders, just as the Head attracted Bells bartenders like Dave in their off hours. In it, Dave describes how Amram, also a Head regular, would come into the Bells, greeting everyone at and behind the bar, then go into the back room and join whatever musical group was playing that night, deftly putting his French horn into whatever groove it would fit.

Dave is continuing work on his memoir, and recently sent his first chapter to Dermot McEvoy, who then shared it with all of us on his extensive Lion's Head alum mailing list. Here's Dave's description of what it was like to be in the Head on a busy night back in the late 1970s:

These are the grandest nights. Voices of all manner fill the air, from the lofty public school lilts ringing from a crowd of Murdoch's Fleet Street castaways to the nugget-hard demz and doz of a Brooklyn firefighter. On my left, laughter swells over a wagging Irish tongue; from the right a quick, clipped Gallic summing-up coming from beyond the backs of people standing at the bar, "Exeestentshalism ees zee prophylactic of zee mind fuck." The place is jammed and full of sound, conversations rise and fade as I pass, catching a word here, a phrase there, snatches of meaning filling first one ear and then the other--orderly at first, then a jumble: city politics; sixties poetry; left-handed pitchers; tin-eared publishers; music and Marxism; boxing and Boccaccio; women and horse tracks and the price of a pint in Dublin.
This passage corresponds closely to my memory of the Head on a crowded evening; indeed, mine is likely to have been part of the babble of voices Dave heard. Unfortunately, the seeds of this scene's destruction had already sprouted then. The Head survived until 1996, but its last couple of decades were borrowed time. Pete Hamill wrote this in his eulogy for the Head in the New York Times:
The young didn't drink in the same sustained, defiant way, nor did they care much for dark smoky joints full of talk. By the late 1970's newspaper people were finally being paid what they deserved. But nobody ever left the Head at 3 A.M. to drive to the middle-class hamlets of New Jersey. The times had changed; so had we.
Journalists may have been leaving the Village digs a short stagger from the Head, but new folks were moving in. It pains me to confess, but I was part of what caused the death of Bohemia in the Village. I wasn't an aspiring artist or writer (well, I did have occasional fantasies about someday writing a novel) but a well paid law firm associate. People like me, who were seeking authenticity, were able to pay rents that put Village apartments out of the reach of the kind of people who had made the Village what it was, thereby eroding the very qualities that drew us there. The Village was becoming a combination tourist attraction and bedroom community for yuppies.

The artists and writers moved north to Chelsea and Clinton (the renamed Hell's Kitchen), south to Soho, and east to the East Village, a name bestowed by real estate agents on what had been the northern part of the Lower East Side. But the arrival of artists and writers, and the galleries, bookstores, bars, and restaurants that followed them, made these places attractive to the same sort of young professionals and executives who had pushed them out of the Village. So the Bohemians fled across the East River to Williamsburg, DUMBO ("Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass"), and Red Hook in Brooklyn.

The process continued as these neighborhoods gentrified, so the artistic migration continued, to further Brooklyn locations like Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Sunset Park. Some artists left the City entirely, discovering in the decaying industrial towns along the Hudson Valley such as Beacon, New York a supply of affordable loft and studio space in nineteenth century factory buildings.

Dave describes waking around today's Village:
Ancient square-shouldered saloons, neighborhood bars that once roiled with merchant seamen and off-duty cops, with writers and tug boat captains and painters and cab drivers, with know-it-all all-day talkers, old deep-shadowed joints where people drank and sang and fell in love--sometimes into fist fights--have become wine bars with cell-phone chatting young women and their wired young men lounging at sidewalk tables; casual daylight cafes have sprung from weathered storefronts that once housed afterhours clubs and diners, corner newsstands and record shops.
Walking east toward Sixth, I find only interlopers: sushi bars and designer hair salons; sterile boutique windows lit by laser-tight pins of light; card shops touting ribbons and balloons, any kind of trifle; coffee chains and sandwich franchises, the commerce and character of Village streets having become nearly indistinguishable from any in Cleveland or Wilmington or Naperville. 
So, will the tourists from Cleveland continue to come to the Village if what they find is...Cleveland? There are some remnants of the old Village left, but you have to know where to look.

Quoted excerpts from Dave's manuscript are copyright David Coles 2011.