Word brought me to 94 St. Mark’s Place on a Tuesday night. “It’s underground. Performers of all kinds show up, each inspiring,” he started off.
That was enough for me from a guitar wizard.
Next door was the porch where the Rolling Stones had filmed Waiting for A Friend.
Led Zeppelin's album cover Physical Graffiti was also photographed here.
St. Mark’s Place has a permanent history in New York punk, rock, counter-culture, Warhol Pop, and all that jazz.
Thelonious Monk played at 2. Yoko Ono performed at 4. Lenny Bruce lived at 13. Velvet Underground was a houseband at Andy Warhol’s club at 19-25.
Abbie Hoffman lived at 30. David Bowie, Cindy Lauper, Debbie Harry, and Joey Ramone bought their make up and punk attire at 33. 51 showed graffiti art by Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat (SAMO), breaking them into the mainstream (if you can call it that). Klaus Nomi, John Sex, Wendy Wild, The Fleshtones, and Fab Five Freddy performed at 57. Joan Mitchell painted at 60. Allen Ginsberg (& Beat friends), Shelley Winters, and Frank Sinatra drank at 75.
Both Leon Trotsky and W. H. Auden lived at 77. Author Ishmael Reed lived at 79. 80 holds the American Gangster museum; there was an actual gangster shootout at 19-25. Lyonel Feininger, painter and caricaturist, lived at 85. We’ll get back to 94. Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones were at 96/98 for that album cover or music video. Dumpling Man at 100 has been tasty. There's a belly dancer in 101 (where a poet once lived). New wave singer Klaus Nomi lived in 103, first celebrity (?) to die of AIDS in 1983. Commodore Levy abolished Navy flogging, lived at 107, and died there in 1862. Best hummus in town was said to be at 109. 113 has an Eat Me hot dog sign. The phone booth used to be a speakeasy secret entrance (shh). On Mondays, Jeff Buckley sang at 124 (The Sin-é). It then became the Irish bar Tua (Irish for "victory"). It competes with 125, next door, a serious beer bar called the Beligian Room.
These are addresses for just one New York street.
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94 ~ A venue for "independently produced (as in not affiliated with any of the major improv theaters) improv shows,” according to Wikipedia.
It reminded me of unmarked places where gypsies played jazz. Django was here. Inside, there were comedians, musicians, poets, writers, actors/actresses, dancers and cabaret style performers – outside you would never know there’s a theater downstairs. And it’s licensed for beer.
I think I was only asked for $3 to enter. I came long after midnight. And what are the odds…that an erratic drunkard who nearly got booted out of Caffe Vivaldi, across town, also showed up. He would later heckle in the middle of a performance and get booted out.
Usually there’s no one like this at both Caffe Vivaldi or Under St. Mark’s Theater. Just my night!
The show must go on.
This is Penny’s Open Mic – this is a place where anything goes (almost). You can experiment to your heart’s content. Even if you want to play guitar in your underwear – as it happened in one case. There was also a woman dressed in a cat suit sitting next to me who later went on stage. A spoken word virtuoso, she ended her life's sketch with a paper airplane made from her portfolio picture thrown into the crowd. There it goes. Bye.
Tonight, someone is reading Edgar Allan Poe’s Raven from sheets of paper. I’d never heard it live but strangely had just read Gotham – a Pulitzer Prize winning history of New York. It cited the Raven in my previous night’s read. A sign? Turned out this is also the only poem host Penny Pollack committed to memory.
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
There were people dancing like they came from Cirque Du Soleil afterhours. A Tricyle Theater troupe was in town.
There were people speaking slices of life, spoken word, what happened to them ("Estrangement"), as if it mattered, making one see things from a sharp lens. People who talked in rhythm. I am writing this one year later on memory. Each night has a theme. Risk was this night. I just remember the rhythm. The edge. And people dressed like punk.
I arrived after midnight on 11/11 in 2009. A day to remember. I'd always wanted to write a risky piece on "Estrangement" but who can outdo her? Many people could identify. A night of Risk couched it. The rhythm made it okay.
There was even a spoken word piece about suicide. Travelling south, seeing some schools where students were expelled for being gay, who later became suicidal. How topical that would become one year later.
The billing stated:
"Take a risk? What is a risk to you? When was the last time you took a risk? Artistically? Personally? What have you risked in the past? Has it payed off? Was it a big mistake? or the Best thing you ever did? Do artistic risks make you better? Scared or excited? Sing/dance/show a short film/do a monologue/tell a story about taking a risk or don’t use the theme at all and just enjoy another night of art at Pennys Open Mic!"
Risk made me look at things quite differently, made me deal with what I was going through. In a strange way, Risk healed me. Risk rapped at my door. This whole street's history came from Risk.
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The Hootenanny at Penny's Open Mic this night was American Pie where everyone went up on stage to sing.
The Hootenanny in New York was first held by Pete Seeger and friends to help raise money for rent. It’s an Appalachian word for “ things whose names were forgotten or unknown.” Synonyms might be thingamajig or whatchamacallit.
It became an old country word for “party” and later became known as a folk-music party. Firefighters once used the word to mean a “meeting of the minds.” The Open Mic evolved from this and in many ways embodies all those definitions.
Tuesday nights at the Bitter End were among the most famous Hootennanys in Manhattan. These days, I only think of two: Kate’s Open Mic (Caffe Vivaldi, Mondays) and Penny’s Open Mic (Under St. Mark’s Theater, Tuesdays).
Both have lasted several years in New York City – the longest continuous shows with many performers (without the words Lion King). Both yielded tight knit communities and invite newcomers. This is when your name is Robert Zimmerman before becoming Bob Dylan. When you and I and he or she are the same.
If I were to use a metaphor to describe Penny’s Open Mic – I can only think of Patti Smith. The musicality you will experience comes in many forms. Music, dance, poetry, spoken word, comedy…I know Patti is not all of these. But the ethos is the same.
If Led Zeppelin can alter reality at 96/98, then Penny's Open Mic can too, next door at 94. This whole blog got inspired by that one line.
I won a door prize that night but didn't claim it. The show was too good of a deal. I didn't want to take away anything else. There are days I never forget. This is one. Risk. And I am grateful.
PS Penny’s show No Travel travelled to Scotland where she, Killy Dwyer and Scout Durwood represented New York City. Their expedition got funded by Kickstarter.