Now you're smiling out the window/Of that crummy hotel/Over Washington Square” – Joan Baez, “Diamonds and Rust”
On July 25, 1965, to the consternation of many in the crowd (including Pete Seeger), Bob Dylan plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival. A little over a month later, on August 28, I was at the Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, N.Y., when Dylan plugged in for the second time. (Shout out Stevie Snegroff for bringing me along.) After an acoustic set, Dylan brought out the band; Robbie Robertson on lead guitar, Levon Helm on drums, Al Kooper on keyboards, and Harvey Brooks on bass.
Photographer Daniel Kramer, who accompanied Dylan to the Forest Hills concert, wrote: “Dylan held a conference with the musicians who were going to accompany him in the second half of the concert. He told them that they should expect anything to happen—he probably was remembering what occurred at Newport. He told them that the audience might yell and boo and that they should not be bothered by it. Their job was to make the best music they were capable of, and let whatever happened happen.”
Many in the crowd (but not all) booed. Several times during the concert, some kids rushed the stage, only to be immediately repelled by security.
Several decades later, Dylan did a sit down with the late Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes.” At the time, Dylan did his best to disabuse Bradley of any notion that he was the voice of a generation, claiming he wasn’t a spokesperson for anything, and that he “never wanted to be a prophet or a savior." All he really wanted to do was have a family, be a good husband and a good father. Fair enough.
Whether Dylan wanted to cop to it or not, there is no denying he was a voice – a major voice, but certainly not the only voice – of a generation. His early work were clarion calls for social justice and a more humane world. His poetry brought to life victims of oppression: from Hattie Carroll, the Maryland maid brutally killed by an upper-class Baltimorean, to Davey Moore, the boxer killed in the ring; from Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader shot down outside his Mississippi home, to Hurricane Carter, the wrongly convicted and imprisoned boxer.
I never met Bob Dylan, but we might have crossed paths in the early sixties.
During my teens, I spent a lot of Saturday afternoons in Greenwich Village visiting my father, who owned the Waverly Lounge, a bar and restaurant located inside the Hotel Earle – the “crummy hotel” Joan Baez was talking about in “Diamonds and Rust.” Located on the corner of Waverly Place and MacDougall, it has since been reimagined, refurbished and renamed The Washington Square Inn.
During the afternoon I’d walk around the Village, spending time hanging out by the fountain in Washington Square Park, but never getting involved in any of the master-class chess games. And, I didn’t frequent any of the folk venues that had been popping up around the Village over the previous few years.
I would, however, pick up copies of The Villager and The Village Voice, tuck them under my arm, and feel at home when a tourist would ask me for directions.
The Waverly Lounge Inside The Hotel Earle
I was in the Village visiting my father. In the mid-fifties, my parents became one of the first in our Bronx neighborhood to divorce. My dad, Leo, who changed his last name to Berk -- "for business reasons" -- re-married and moved into an apartment on Christopher Street. On many a Saturday afternoon, I’d walk the two blocks from our Gerard Avenue and McClellan Street apartment to the 167th Street/Grand Concourse station (one stop from Yankee Stadium) and take the “D” train down to the West Fourth Street. From there, it was a short walk to 103 Waverly Place.
The Waverly Lounge was an extraordinarily ordinary place – a bar and restaurant that was out of its time. While the times were a changing, the Waverly Lounge was decorated like a Tin Pan Alley oasis. As a kid, the most exciting thing about going there was having the chef (a fabulous cook from Sweden) make me hamburgers and French fries. He'd then give me the green light to dish out as much ice cream as I wanted.
Later, when I became more interested in beatnicky type stuff, I still spent most of my time in the restaurant. For most of my father’s life, he dreamt about being in show business. His uncle, Joe Greenwald, an actor who appeared in a number of Broadway shows including Golden Boy, once promised him a trip to Europe. The trip never happened. My grandfather refused to let him go. Instead of the stage, my dad went to work painting signs at the Ganz Brothers midtown Manhattan stationary store.
As a young man growing up in the Lower East Side my dad wrote Minstrel Shows for the Boys Club. He would skip school, and go to as many movies and vaudeville shows as he could. On one of our last walking tours of the greater Village in the late 1970s, he told me how he’d hang outside one of the many theaters that used to dot 14th street: “Two kids could get into the theater for a nickel,” he said. “So I’d stand outside the theater yelling, ‘I’ve got two, who’s got three.’ When I found a partner, we’d both go in.”
The Waverly Lounge was indeed a bar out of time. After my father first took it over in the early 1950s, he turned it into the consummate Broadway-esque piano bar. He had several terrific piano players in the early days, but it wasn’t until Laurie Brewis arrived from London – a fellow of slight build who seemed to know every show tune that had ever been written – and began to play there, that the Waverly Lounge found its character.
While the social and political landscape was rapidly changing outside the bar – transitioning from Bohemian/Beatnik to Folk/Hippie culture – the Waverly Lounge was a safe harbor for many. The regulars were a mixture of mostly white professionals – some artists, a sprinkle of journalists – and a fair share of closeted gays and lesbians. While it wasn’t The Stonewall Inn, it wasn’t Joe’s neighborhood saloon either. It was a place where people could relax, knowing that they would be treated decently, and wouldn’t get hassled by the police. (I’ve long thought that my dad must have paid off someone at the local precinct to guarantee the bar’s tranquility.)
As I got older, I began waiting tables and serving drinks. Late in the evening, when the crowd was well lubricated, my dad would chip in with a tune or two. His most requested number was “The Trolley Song.” No matter where he was in the bar he wouldn’t disappoint; always making it back to strike the bell at just the right time. My dad’s repertoire was pretty eclectic and esoteric. One of my personal favorites was an old World War I anti-war song called “Keep Your Head Down Fritzie Boy if you want to see your Father in the Fatherland.”
Abbie Hoffman Comes to Lawrence, Kansas
In 1969, during Abbie Hoffman’s visit to the University of Kansas, I interviewed him for our underground newspaper, Vortex -- named after Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Hoffman appeared at Allen Field House, and spoke to thousands as part of a benefit for our newspaper. I believe it may have been the first time he pulled out an American flag handkerchief and blew his nose in it in front of such a huge crowd.
The following day, after a night of Hoffman’s story telling, smoking weed, drinking and hooking up with one of the locals, several of us jumped into Dick’s VW van to take Hoffman to the Kansas City Airport for his trip home. As I was in charge of interviewing him, I turned on the tape recorder and we had an hour-long conversation. When I returned home to the Vortex House to transcribe the tape, I discovered that the only thing that could be heard were the sounds of the VW van belching its way along the highway; Hoffman’s voice had been swallowed up by an engine in distress. But I had a centerfold to fill, so I recreated the interview as best as I could. I‘m sure I missed a lot of what Hoffman said, so I made up a bunch of it.
Journalistically speaking, it was not my finest hour. As a tribute to my father, I headlined the piece “Keep Your Head Down Fritzie Boy…”
By the early 1970s, disasters struck: the chef lost his leg to diabetes; Charlie the salad chef, fell down a flight of stairs and never returned to the kitchen; Earl, the waiter, got cancer and passed away; Joe the bartender fell, or may have been pushed, from a high-rise window and died; Laurie Brewis died of a burst appendix after being misdiagnosed at a local hospital, and, yy dad lost the Waverly Lounge.
Despite these tragic events, my dad had a few chances to save the business. He was asked if he was interested in turning over the back room to promoters staging folk music events. He turned them down without thinking twice.
While that seemed a bit pigheaded, it was even a bit stranger because Joan Baez and Bob Dylan stayed at the Hotel Earle and may have even popped into the bar on occasion.
All these memories ran hard against each other when I read Bob Dylan’s book, "Chronicles." I read the first hundred pages in a flash: Dylan was talking about times past and the places that I used to inhabit. Even though I wasn’t there with him, there was a definite link to the same streets, and the same sounds of the city.