“The Bowery, the Bowery! They say such things and they do strange things On the Bowery, the Bowery! I’ll never go there any more!” “The Bowery” (1891) Lyrics by Charles H. Hoyt, music by Percy Gaunt
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 quartet—their faces blackened, their lips exaggerated, their wigs woolly, their costumes tattered—took off. They enjoyed tonier gigs at the Cornucopia on Park Row, the Masonic Temple in Boston, and after a national tour, went to England—where, poof, they broke up. By then, however, their format was all the rage—not 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 mannered—Luc 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 uptown—Irving Berlin sang in its saloons and brothels in the ’00s—it 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 Spot—Misterioso, definitely superior to the other album Monk cut the same night.
I missed the gig myself—at 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 Voice—I 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 deal—two-drink minimum?—but as I recall the tariff was three bucks.
Legend on the cleaned-up strip
photo: Leslie Van Stelten
In 1970, poet Paul Pines opened another crucial jazz club at 310, a haven for loft musicians called the Tin Palace. My mind elsewhere, I rarely visited until Stanley Crouch started booking it in the late ’70s; one night, I let Voice writer Roger Trilling climb in through a window and he walked out managing James Blood Ulmer. But by then CBGB had re-established the Bowery as another kind of music central. Unlike the Terminis, owner Hilly Kristal was a music man, but once again it took neighborhood artists—especially Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell of Television and their angel, Terry Ork—to show him the true path: not Country BlueGrass Blues, but the fast garage rock soon and forever known as punk. Punk wasn’t really to his taste, but Hilly is an agreeable man, and although he still may not understand why the Ramones outsold the Shirts, 30 years have proven him a singularly durable and unegotistical impresario. The long, narrow room always had a rough je ne sais quoi; no barfly, I wandered in for a momentous beer there after seeing the Cockettes with my future wife in 1972. We returned, frequently, when the fledgling Patti Smith Group did seven weeks at CBGB in the spring of 1975, and around the same time also got our first glimpse of the Ramones. Patti and Television fit in at other venues, notably Max’s on Park Avenue South. But the Ramones were made for CB’s. I must have seen them 20 times there—most memorably the last, when I literally hung off an upright at a police benefit.
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 things—Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me names 30 heroin users on the scene—we 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’s—OK, let me single out the Feelies show we saw from the front row—were what made it possible.
No wonder they call that joint on Delancey the Bowery Ballroom. Not so surprising it’s a good joint, either.