By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
American pop music began on the Bowery. We can even assign a date and place: February 6, 1843, at the Bowery Amphitheatre near Chatham Square, the first documented appearance of the Virginia Minstrels. Immediately, Dan Emmett's quartettheir faces blackened, their lips exaggerated, their wigs woolly, their costumes tatteredtook off. They enjoyed tonier gigs at the Cornucopia on Park Row, the Masonic Temple in Boston, and after a national tour, went to Englandwhere, poof, they broke up. By then, however, their format was all the ragenot so much blackface, an entrenched novelty since 1830 or so, as the joking, hyperactive blackface band: banjo, fiddle, drumlike tambourine, big loud bone castanets. In evolving permutations, the minstrel show would dominate American show business for the rest of the century. It was nurtured on and around the Bowery, where sometimes the music was less manneredLuc Sante reports that long before emancipated slaves donned burnt cork, "black bands played in every Five Points dive and every Bowery resort that was not dominated by the Germans." In 1864, minstrelsy's greatest composer, 37-year-old Stephen Collins Foster, died a broke alcoholic in the same halfway respectable Bowery hotel (the North American, No. 30) where the Virginia Minstrels had worked up their act two decades earlier.
The next year, Tony Pastor opened Tony Pastor's Opera House at 199-201, where he domesticated minstrelsy by dispensing with the bar and offering weekend discounts to women and children. As what he called "variety" became vaudeville, Pastor moved up the status ladder to Broadway and then 14th Street. The Bowery remained an entertainment district, but a rough one. The rube who narrates "The Bowery," the biggest hit from the record-setting uptown musical A Trip to Chinatown, knows he should stick to Broadway, but can't resist a Gay '90s Bowery "ablaze with lights." He's buttonholed by a grifter and conned by a shopkeeper before entering "a concert hall," where he starts a row because he thinks "A New Coon in Town" is directed at him. Bye-bye rube: "A man called a bouncer attended to me./I'll never go there any more."
Though the Bowery hung in there as show business kept moving uptownIrving Berlin sang in its saloons and brothels in the '00sit meant bum by the '20s, around the time Greenwich Village came to mean bohemia. Although in the '40s Sammy's Bowery Follies was installed at 267 and the Amato Opera at 319, neither was about breaking new ground, and until the '50s the thoroughfare's musical significance was history. Revival came from the Bowery's other end. Just as minstrelsy moved up from the teeming, violent, multi-ethnic Five Points, bebop moved in as Greenwich Village claimed its eastern frontier. In 1957, on the block where the Bowery turns into Cooper Square, Joe and Iggy Termini took a hint from a patron who hosted jam sessions in his nearby loft and bought a piano for a family bar called the Five Spot. Though new to music, the Terminis dug jazz, and their place was soon a hangout for artists like Willem de Kooning and Al Leslie. In August, the Thelonious Monk Quartet recorded my favorite album of all time at the Five SpotMisterioso, definitely superior to the other album Monk cut the same night.
I missed the gig myselfat 15, I'd never heard of Thelonious Monk. By the time I'd reached drinking age, which was then 18, Monk and Ornette Coleman were both regulars at the Terminis' newer club, the Jazz Gallery, at 80 St. Marks. At the Five Spot I caught lesser fare, Mal Waldron and Art Farmer, for (can this be?) two 75-cent beers at the bar. I dropped by the night the place closed in 1962 after reading about it in the VoiceI think Waldron was there. But soon the Five Spot had relocated to the north end of Cooper Square, St. Marks and Third. In the summer you could listen through the windows, although the acoustics were better on the garbage cans in the fleabag next door. I had a friend on Stuyvesant Street who caught Monk that way nightly in the summer of 1964. Returning to town in September, I pulled up a can and joined him, and after I found work I'd sometimes go in and sit at a table. I don't remember the dealtwo-drink minimum?but as I recall the tariff was three bucks.
Legend on the cleaned-up strip
photo: Leslie Van Stelten
Punk needed Bowery scuzz the way minstrelsy needed Bowery fun-seekers. CBGB's ambient grunge and flophouse residues added texture to punk's lower-class pretensions and kept bizzers on their toes. Loud, deep, in constant motion because you have to pass the stage to go take a leak, CBGB is the only club I've ever hung out at; when the band was bad, I'd try to hear how the drummer sucked, which was always educational. If my musical heroes had their minds on other thingsLegs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me names 30 heroin users on the scenewe shared an affection for urban ugliness and a willingness to live someplace most Americans would consider a shithole as long as the action was good and the rent was cheap. As it happens, the best music I ever experienced on the Bowery took place a few blocks north, when Hüsker Dü launched a transcendent late set for eight or 10 diehards at the shorter-lived, harder-rock Gildersleeves. But the countless good nights at CB'sOK, let me single out the Feelies show we saw from the front rowwere what made it possible.
No wonder they call that joint on Delancey the Bowery Ballroom. Not so surprising it's a good joint, either.