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 McCourt, 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.

16 comments:

  1. I envy you your acquaintance with the late Lester Bangs, whose "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung" remains my favorite book by a music critic. Lester was a "critic" in the best sense of the word - not just a judger, but a man with great writing talent and a wicked sense of humor, inspired by his enthusiasms (positive and negative); reading his work was/is always rewarding.

    BTW, I'm a fan of Kirwan and Black 47, too (rockin' the Bronx!), although the Pogues are my favorite Irish punkers.

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  2. Beautiful reminiscence of The Bells and of the NYC tha' twas...

    thank you

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  3. The title of your post reminded me of that AC/DC song!LOL.

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  4. Claude! Lovely memoir. Nice to see you in cyberspace. Give me an e-mail at your convenience. Best, Michael

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  5. Oops! guydebord@sbcglobal.net

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  6. Anonymous12:49 PM

    1976 at 'The Bells' was a magical time - Chris and Mike playing, late night debates about cabbages, kings, and the world. I was nostalgia googling and found yoour blog. Thanks for that memory....Stacey

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  7. Anonymous3:18 PM

    I love this article! You can truly tell a story! How I would love to hear the recording with your addition!
    Susan

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  8. Anonymous2:03 PM

    Wow...I was an (underage) regular at the (Malachy) Bells and then later at Tony and Peter's version. I knew Barbara and Gary and Al Fields..probably knew you too.
    I had album (yes one of those prehistoric vinyl things) of Chris King and Mike O'Brien but alas it got lost long ago..
    But what a wonderful, special, amazing time and place it was. People who only know today's super rich, super trendy Village have no idea of how much real fun it was back in the day, especially if you lived close by and could stumble home. (I lived and around the corner and my best friend lived next door to the Bells)

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  9. I just picked up an album by Michael O'Brien & Chris King. It was autographed to John Mcnamee. It was in support of the EIRE NUA. If you're interested in the album, contact me at siknik18@aol.com

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  10. it is signed.
    To John McNamee
    May your drinking arms never fail. Michael O'Brien
    and then signed:
    To Sean, God's Blessings Slaeinte (can't really dicepher??)
    Chris King

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  11. I doubt you will ever read this since I am four years late, but I was just converting Chris and Mike's LP to digital (for my own use) and thought I would like them up. Your blog came up first.

    I saw them more often at Molly Malone's in NJ but I remember seeing them at the B of H when they were being heckled by a jolly bearded man: the novelist Frank Herbert.

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  12. Anonymous10:42 AM

    I started going there in '74, met some of the moodier bartender/woodbe woodbine writer(s) (murph, et al.) and their (then) unemployed sister(s)/g/fs (names withheld, hint: red female manes). sat, drank, got drunk, got laid, rarely, but usually not (who can forget the famous k***y, with the glasses, and who lived nearby in chelsea, read a book at the bar. till she got drunk enough to talk, and was as fucked up a ny girl at the time as you could get?), played the juke ("fever" was big then, and the stones crap they had: sweet black angel, tumbling dice, etc), got fired from my job dowtown for missing work due to drinking, still came back to the bells, broke, almost, but not quite, got drunk again, had a constant 20 - 30 dollar bar tab, got laid even less, now that the wallet had thinned, listened to reggae bands come in and play once in a while, tried to smoke ganja with them in the basement, was turned away at the stairs as they were balling the malchick groupies on the basement floor, listened to the b of h's shitty house band kirwan and whatever interminably play the kinks (ape man, et al) in the back room, which was often packed on weekends, they got laid, i didnt, never saw anyone famous (but did see lit types when everyone would get bored and go to the head: markson, rip, and that crowd), closed the place up probably 3 times a week in '75, as i lived nearby, on 13th and universtiy, and don't remember a thing I said to anyone, or anything anyone said to me, other than peter asking me to settle up, when he was not having fistfights with his partner, late at night, over shall we say the operational direction the place should take, and i'll bet not a soul other than he remembers me today -- complete whisky sodden greyout was probably had by all. years later, met peter at his new place, and bought some english grub there, which of course was made by "mexicans" in the tiny kitchen in the back. it surprises me that for all the lit power at the bells, at that time, not a single book has come out of it all. not one a fan's notes... not one modern day take on volcano. nada. someone was supposed to write some article, it never happened, and all you got was that passing british airline magazine reference, in the 90s i think, or may it was the early 2000s. as for today, well, i am not big on nostalgia, but the cafe loup, by way of comparison, is total shit. what else could it be? walked in there two or three years ago, bought a girl a drink, went to piss, and when i came back, she had quaffed her 7 dollar drink, and disappeared. i wont even tell you what i think of that. fucking cunt.

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  13. Anonymous5:54 PM

    Are you a Bill Nighy impersonator?

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  14. "Are you a Bill Nighy impersonator?" I presume that question is addressed to the previous Anonymous, who I suppose could be the Bill Nighy character in "Love, Actually." Then again, if you're thinking of him as Rufus Scrimegour in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," you could mean me. In that case, not consciously.

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  15. Thank you so very much for this post. A few years ago out of some oft regretted haste I traded a dear Elvis Costello shirt to a friend and in return he gave me an Orange shirt with "Bells of Hell" and an adress.. seeing the west designation in the address I had always assumed this was a LGBT bar.. and googling the address had discovered the place no longer existed... Furthermore, the story about the Clash and Mr.Fields ... totally made the shirt trade amazing.. and to add to that Frank McCourt! Thanks again.. be well, stay cool, stay excellent.

    Jobian Herron
    Boston MA.

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  16. Anonymous2:30 AM

    I am Anonymous of the long post. What can I say, to yer heathens, except that all you have now is regret, sorrow, and bad eyesight? Think of it: regret, sorrow, and er that other thing. I have been reading some noir lately, Goodis, yes, and Thompson, and of course the Lush Life, but I never did find out the point of it all. Have you? Just so you know when this was posted, Zimmerman the murdering fuck was just found innocent.

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