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It's Saturday morning at Chelsea's Big Cup, and some of the regulars are having a hotter-than-coffee argument about the Robbie Williams CD playing over the loudspeakers. It's the pretty boy's Swing When You're Winning collection, in which he appropriates, without changing hardly any inflections, the signature songs of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Bobby Darin. A few of the fuming discussants declare the project somethin' stupid; others in that corner of the funky hangout praise Williams.
Similar scenes have been enacted since February 19, 1995, when Big Cup opened with, some would say, music as important an attraction as java. Indeed, unless a defective CD catches in the system, there's rarely a moment when music doesn't fill the gaudy, high-ceilinged room. There are week-long, sometime month-long, stretches when the same artistsMorrissey, say, or Peggy Lee or ABBAare aired daily. There are hours-long stretches when only classical or house or techno is broadcast.
Day managers Louis Esteban and Michael Tobias supervise the aural menu. They're the ones who promoters have come to recognize as the pivotal on-site arbiters and to whom promo CDs are sent, sometimes a few months before official release dates. Norah Jones's five-time Grammy-nominated Come Away With Me is an example. "I always say I discovered her," jokes Esteban. Considering that Chelsea boys and their like have an acknowledged influence on popular taste, Esteban may not be exaggerating his influence. He certainly knows he was often asked to write Jones's name down on scraps of paper when he first featured her. He always told the eager consumers to wait a few weeks for the product to hit stores.
Tobias, who says his tastes are eclectic with something of a preference for '80s rock, explains there's a pattern to Big Cup programming. Music is quiet in the morning and gets louder as day edges into night and the habitué demographic alters. No matter what heights the decibels hit, however, Tobias rarely gets complaints. He occasionally hears from customers he's never seen before but adds, "Usually when they ask me to turn it down, it's not up that loud." During the warm months, Tobias makes a point of opening the glass doors at the front so strains waft onto Eighth Avenue. "That's what attracts people," he says. "The Big Cup is known as a gay place, but music's not gay or straight."
Although there was a time when maybe 400 CDs filled racks in the kitchen, the number, Esteban estimates, has slimmed to around 100. Also, other music-loving men and women who work behind the counter bring in CDs to which they're partial, or they burn their own compilations. Patrons also contribute. "If we enjoy your company," says Tobias, "of course, we put it on. Walk-ins? We don't do it." Esteban confides that at moments when coffee drinkers get too rowdy, he'll take measures. "Last week, I put on the Talk to Her soundtrack. The whole shop went quiet." Proving that at Big Cup, music still has charms to soothe savage beasts.