Thursday, July 4, 2013

Songs from the Empty Chair

I sat at my chair wondering where to start.

This image of an empty chair kept on gleaming in my head.

In Andy Warhol's chair (1985-86),
Caffe Vivaldi founder Ishrat Ansari

At a cafeI recently took pictures of every chair in daylight.

It dawned on me  these chairs represent an entire community and history.  More than 100,000 artists have sat in them.

A chair was once even used as a drum.

I  photographed Josh Taylor from his chair so he could see what he looked like from his own point of view.   

No one has sat where I am more than Josh.

It’s discernible that every regular has had a regular seat – at least in memory. Like band positions on a stage. 

At the window (1st table from the corner) is Marcus Mumford's chair, where he sat after singing with Oscar Issac

The next year Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis -- in which Oscar stars as a singer in Greenwich Village -- won the Grand Prix for the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.  

Mumford's chair is also where Rachel Epp sat regularly with Mary Jennings. 

Every cafe chair has had a person on a poster.   

Rachel once told me she wanted to give  Beautiful Like This  (a song about a surviving farm where she grew up) to Farm Aid.

It has a cool line about seeing things from a  "passenger seat."  I listened while in Josh Taylor's seat.

A video made from our conversation was suddenly shared farm-to-farm in upstate New York, tweeted weekly for months.  Responses came from so many people we'd never met - including Mark Ruffalo and Mariel Hemingway. Next thing I know, Farm Aid is coming to upstate New York. I kept on flashing back to our first conversation. The seat gleamed like magic.  

At Rachel’s regular seat, friends of Jeremy Sisto (Law & Order, Six Feet Under) once shared a table. Sisto dialogued with them from stage before he closed with a rousing Just Cuz.

Al Pacino sat at this table too eating a salad when he first frequented Caffe Vivaldi.  So did Ethan Hawke on a night his daughter Maya sang, and he later joined her on stage. 

Nearby,  Maya's mom Uma Thurman sat in the middle row  across from Andy Warhol’s chair.

Warhol's chair was across from here. 
He snapped pictures in daylight. 

A half circle of people once huddled around Al Pacino sitting by the fireplace. He then declared he would direct his debut feature film here (Chinese Coffee). Bette Midler celebrated her birthday there. Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally) and John Cusack once sat around there too. This might be New York’s last public fireplace in a cafe.

Bob Dylan sits on a piano chair
looking towards Jones Street
where he was photographed
for a 1963 album cover 

In the corner table by pictures from Woody Allen's Oscar-winning Bullets Over Broadway (1994),  writer Joseph Brodsky sat with his glass of wine. The world press came to interview him here after he'd won the Nobel Prize.  That’s just one story.  In a community, every story is just one thread of a  tapestry.

It is possible Woody Allen has sat in every chair here. He did shoot two movies 15 years apart here: Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and, more recently, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David sat outside Caffe Vivaldi for Woody Allen’s Whatever Works (2009).

There was once a bench  outside 32 Jones Street on which many singer-songwriters sat. There's a mystical wind blowin' down Jones. Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was photographed on Jones. It’s why Steve Earle moved to Jones. 

9 Jones 

But these days, guitar players stand and wait on Jones before going on stage at Caffe Vivaldi. For Robert Johnson’s Centennial, Jeff Buckley guitarist Gary Lucas stood here before he went on to play some amazing finger-picking guitar.  At Josh Taylor's seat,  I saw why Rolling Stone called him "one of the best and most original guitarists in America."

* * *

At the chair jetting out most from the round bar,  the Closer, aka Erik Frandsen,  arriving at last call, would sit on Monday nights playing the last song, his guitar unplugged.  I often sat at that chair in my earlier years here. The Grammy Awards once asked me to storyboard a photo community illustrating the meaning of music and this is where I sketched the concept. 

At closing, Monday nights, Erik has sung duets and played guitar with Kate Sland who poured last drinks and sang from behind the bar. 

 Erik Frandsen took Josh Taylor's seat this time!

Erik is still at the heart and soul of Greenwich Village music.  I think the late Dave Van Ronk - whose memoir inspired the latest Coen brothers film - would readily bestow Erik the title of Mayor of MacDougal.  Besides Joel Zighel who operates Jones Street Wines nearby,  Erik might be the only Village local who regularly plays here. Long ago, he recorded with Bob Dylan when Dylan was local. More recently, Erik has appeared on The Colbert Report as a funny man. Blues players have told me Erik is the reason why they play guitar. And one night, I saw Erik play slide guitar for Robert Johnson’s Centennial hosted by vintage guitar connoisseur Zeke Schein who found the 3rd known photo of Robert Johnson. That was once only and I’ll never forget it.

It’s good to know the best values of Greenwich Village are still being passed around this café. There’s no cover, no minimum drinks and no RSVP. Only open access. You just come right in and freely listen or play. And you’ll meet people you’ll know for life.

I used to get a bar seat at 7 pm on Open Mic Mondays. But now you have to arrive 5:15 pm  before the café opens 5:30 pm to get one. Blame it on hosts Kate Sland and now Tracy Thorne whose songwriting I love and personalities will show you a new life. You’ll be outside of yourself. 

I first saw Kate Sland sitting in Josh Taylor's seat waiting for her shift to start. That was nearly 7 years ago.  I don’t think I’ve seen her sitting since (working 3-5 jobs here).  She served every chair drinks/food somehow within the ticking time of 1-2 songs before calling up the next Open Mic artist. That was after washing dishes (once upon a time), doing sound and talking to patrons. That night, she also sang Jeff Buckley’s Mojo Pin and  Lover, You Should’ve Come Over. 

Years later, I’d sit in Josh Taylor’s seat and see Jeff Buckley’s guitarist  Gary Lucas play Mojo Pin. Magic got summoned. 

Producer-guitarist Will Hensley also sat at Josh’s chair when Tracy Thorne first asked about working together on an album. They’ve since released I Am That.

On my birthday, sitting in my regular chair, I wondered how far I'd come. And this is true, I sat next to someone on my left from my birthplace. And, on my right, someone was born on my birthday. I’ve had a lot of strange intersections here. I once waited for friends driving from Memphis 24 hours to get here and a man from Memphis sat next to me. In San Francisco, I once bumped into someone who regularly sat next to me at this café.

Music vagabonds drift in from all over the world - as far as Paris, Scandanavia and Tokyo -  like some magnetic force is here.   It must be music ley lines or something. 

* * *

I watched Caffe Vivaldi's live daily webcast from Canada for Kate Sland’s going away to California. So did folks from Sweden. Johnny Boy from Hoboken stood on a chair aiming high as he sang Kate Sland's  song Aim Low. True to his own song, he might've been the "Last Man Standing" on a chair singing  a song here.

Every chair here has a story.

Layers of people have sat on them. I would hazard to guess that Kristin Hoffmann sat on the piano bench most. Kristin Hoffman  just celebrated her 10th year here…400+ sets. 

Kristin Hoffmann on the wall 

Her long-time friend NLX once went from this piano seat to catch a Canada-bound bus seat in Midtown. Somehow she made it in 14 minutes, 30 seconds before departure. 

Before the Closer was here, I once saw Dani Mari after closing. Lights out, she sat on the corner bench, where everyone piles guitars now. She started fiddling around on her guitar, whispering words, before heading home to Philly. Next thing I know,  there are two rows of chairs huddled around that bench as she sung.  It was like you could hear your soul in dialogue with that song. I’ll never forget that feeling.

So next time you sit in a radiant chair, you never know what new history will manifest.  Every square foot here has a story.