What audience members tend to remember after a show at the Bitter End (aside from the music, of course) is the famed brick wall that serves as the backdrop for the iconic Greenwich Village club. But for musicians, it’s the venue’s late booker and co-owner, Kenny Gorka. On March 20, Gorka unexpectedly passed away, leaving behind his wife, daughter, friends, and countless musicians who remember his warm, welcoming demeanor and passion for music. He was 68.
Gorka’s death comes just thirteen months after the passing of the Bitter End’s longtime owner, Paul Colby, whose name continues to grace the signage for New York’s oldest rock ‘n’ roll club. Paul Rizzo, the surviving co-owner of the Bitter End, reflects on the influence of his colleagues.
“Their legacy is already established,” he says. “I mean, they’ve been in the business for a hundred years. Kenny’s legacy is built on his past dealings with thousands of musicians. Paul’s legacy is built on his bookings back in the Seventies when the club was a different animal and much more prevalent in a higher echelon of the music scene. I think their legacy is something that was built while they were alive. It’s weird to say that, but I think they’ll just carry on.”
Colby acquired the Bitter End in 1974 from its founder, Fred Weintraub, who opened its doors in 1961. Gorka played bass in the Sixties pop band the Critters and began working at the Bitter End during the Eighties.
The Bitter End showcased the early rise of hundreds of artists, including Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Hall & Oates, and one of the club’s earliest performers, Peter, Paul & Mary, whose debut album cover featured that same brick background. In recent years, the establishment showcased popular artists such as Gavin DeGraw, Lisa Loeb, Vanessa Carlton, and Lady Gaga, although her early 2006 performances at the club were pre-Gaga as she played with her NYU group, the Stefani Germanotta Band.
A major draw for artists playing the club was the thought of cutting their teeth there and growing through the venue, regardless of size, popularity, and large record deals. Gorka teamed up with singer-songwriter Tina Shafer in 1991 to host a monthly songwriters circle as a way to showcase young musicians, and he was the man on the other end of the phone, booking the club’s acts and providing them with opportunities.
“Normally, you get a quick message saying, ‘Here’s a couple of dates!’ but Kenny wanted me to call him,” says Becca Fox of the Brooklyn band Gentleman Brawlers in regard to their booking. “No one really does this. We actually talked for about thirty minutes, and he asked me for my story. It seemed like he was going though a paper calendar or a Rolodex. He was old-school, and it brightened up my day.”
New York singer-songwriter Maddy Jarmon played two shows at the Bitter End, and she was performing on its stage the night of Gorka’s passing.
“He was a very personable guy who liked to really connect to the artists that came through, and I definitely felt that,” she says. “He took me aside after my show and shook my hand and we had a conversation. He made you feel very special when you were talking to him. I was looking for him that [Thursday] night, actually, because I didn’t know [him] at the time. It was a great show and when [my manager] Swang found out, he messaged me. It was very sad. It was crazy that we played on that night. We now definitely feel like that was our show for him.”
For now, Rizzo will manage the majority of the Bitter End’s booking. He mentioned he’s reached out to a few people to take over the job. This Sunday on March 29, a gathering will be held at the club honoring Gorka. In the next few months, Rizzo plans on coordinating commemorating concerts in his memory. Though Gorka and Colby are irreplaceable, Rizzo plans to move the Bitter End forward while keeping them in mind.
“I really don’t think — I mean, truthfully, it will never be the same. But that’s how life is. You have to go with the flow and you have to change. It’s something we want to keep going to enhance the legacy of Kenny and Paul. We want to keep it up and we’ll do what we can. The music scene in New York is always going to change and the whole thing is that you’ll have to change with it,” he says. “There’s a deep connection to the music industry from Kenny. And I don’t know whether we’ll still be the same as before but, with them in mind, we’ll try to keep the spirit of the whole place still going.”