Vagabond Shoes: New York Snapshots, August 3rd

There was music in the air during the five days we spent in New York at the beginning of July. But first, a visit to Manchester in 1964, courtesy of our friend Rick. He and Liney had taken us to a favourite dive bar (the 169 Bar) on the Lower East Side. It has a leopard-print pool table — that may be all you need to know. We had a great conversation with the bartender, Dakota, about Ross Macdonald, who he was re-reading and had decided was the apex of the knight errant-as-detective genre started by Hammett and carried on by Chandler. Macdonald’s a favourite of mine, so I was willing to entertain this point of view. Rick mentioned a favourite Dion song, “Your Own Back Yard”, about kicking booze and drugs. I say there was a great letter from Dion in the Lou Reed exhibition (see below) and note to listen to the track when I can. I find it on Born to Be with You and a nice live version from Dion’s post-doo-wop career as a Greenwich Village folkster, which I send to Rick. Here’s his story, featuring what may be Britain’s finest street name…

{ONE} A LEVEL BLUES. It’s getting late, but I’ve just listened to the 1971 Dion Bitter End album. Like a Proustian madeleine, it exploded memories. Specifically, Dion’s lovely version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin”: The Twisted Wheel, Brazennose Street, Manchester, maybe 1964, Saturday night; I’d climbed out of my bedroom window to hitchhike into the city centre for the Saturday-night all-nighter — Spencer Davis Group (with Stevie Winwood) and Sonny Boy Williamson. Around 2 a.m. I found myself randomly sitting at the bar (bar — cokes only, which I could hardly afford; when we were thirsty, we used to go across the street on pass-outs to a pub that stayed open all night and was flexible about age laws) next to Sonny Boy Williamson. He was hunched over a coke next to an impossibly glamorous girlfriend in a cheetah-style coat. What I noticed was his beautiful long graceful fingers, and I could hardly speak, awe-struck. We muttered for minutes, and he wandered off to the stage, unimpressed. Then he played (backed by the Spencer Davis Group), and somehow he’d got drunk (must have had his own bottle), so with those lovely long fingers, he beckoned my friend John Lancaster (a wonderful man I used to discuss TS Eliot with and who had the sweetest of all possible girlfriends who worked on a perfume counter in Lewis’s on Market Street, where, about that time, I saw Bobby Charlton buying furniture with his new wife) on stage to support him, and he proceeded to give us a lifetime memory. Those long fingers I shall never forget. And though those all-nighters screwed up my A levels, they made my life. As a friend of mine at the time said when we were rousted by the cops and asked what was going on after an Otis Redding concert: “Otis, man!”

Ricky, plaque, Evan on drums with Frank

{TWO} AS AMERICAN AS MUSIC GETS. We spent the day of July 4 at the best possible place in New York — the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona — on his birthday!* We were greeted by the irrepressible Ricky Riccardi (the Director of Research Collections), seen here holding his Grammy for best album liner notes (for an Armstrong release last year). He’s also holding some original photos of Louis playing a concert in New Orleans in 1952 that were sent to my dad when he edited the British jazz magazine Eureka, which I wanted to donate to the museum. The Armstrong House is about to get a beautiful contemporary museum building opposite so that it can properly display its collections. The big band of the brilliant Evan Sherman played, red beans and rice were served, and the garden concert ended with a pulsating version of “What’s Going On”, sung by trombonist Frank Lacy, in a style reminiscent of the great Ted Hawkins. The house is as it was when the Armstrongs lived in it, and Harvey gave us a brilliant tour. It’s a testament to Lucille’s extraordinary embrace of Louis and his talent — she found the house in the borough where she was raised and gave it to a man who had never had a real home, who had lived mostly in hotels. It was not just a place to rest his head with hers, but a whole community he became a fundamental part of. You can learn lessons about how to live from this modest house and, in Louis’ case, how to turn the love given to you by millions of people outwards, back into the world. It’s there, in Louis and Lucille’s voices as you walk around their house and in all of Louis’ music.

Klein’s designs are top; the page-turning cleverness

{THREE} EINE KLEIN FOTOMUSIK. I always hear music when I look at William Klein’s photos, often something close to a Bernard Herrmann film soundtrack, or a particularly percussive opera, or, in the case of his Moscow photos, a bevy of cimbaloms… pleased to have been in NYC when such a good selection of his work was on show at the International Center of Photography on the Lower East Side. Klein wears his talent lightly, skipping between disciplines while keeping his vision of seething life intact. The show is beautifully staged, with wall-sized prints and clever digital page-turning video tables so you can see his books about cities (which he also designed).

Moscow Book; Fashion; Little Richard; self-portrait

{FOUR} LOU REED: CAUGHT BETWEEN THE TWISTED STARS. New York Public Library at Lincoln Centre. If you are a huge Lou Reed/VU fan, this exhibition of his Archive will blow your mind. As a moderate Lou-O-Phile, it was still stunning. Guitars, lyrics, letters, painting, videos, ephemera, and, just for the completist, a couple of pairs of Lou’s Views, a collaboration with an Italian spectacle designer — the lenses flip up, so Lou wouldn’t have to take his glasses off to read. I love that Mo Tucker called him “Honeybun”… It runs til March 2023. Highly recommended.

{FIVE} PJ CLARKE’S JUKEBOX. Another Rick and Liney pick, it’s an oasis of brick in a desert of glass and steel in midtown; this unreconstructed bar has a unique layout. The men’s restroom is four feet behind the patrons sitting at the counter. Some might call this lazy. Among its rather beautiful original fittings from the 1880s sits a 70s jukebox, with this playlist of the top hits from 1971.** Johnny Mercer wrote “One for My Baby” on a bar napkin here, and Buddy Holly proposed to María Elena Santiago at this 3rd Avenue watering hole five hours after they met. “The Lost Weekend” was written by a regular, Charles Jackson, and a young Frank Sinatra regularly closed the place down at Table #20. The bar wears its history lightly, and the food and the staff are fantastic. We didn’t notice how intense the sun was outside as we looked doorwards from our table, but as we left, we realised that we were witnessing Manhattanhenge, where the setting sun lines up with the crosstown grid, usually twice a summer. It was some walk back to our hotel drenched in this amazing light.

*According to Louis, he was born on July 4, 1900, but records located a couple of decades after his passing found that it was August 4, 1901.

** Three Dog Night were famous for picking great songs by hip songwriters and doing hit-parade-friendly versions (Nilsson’s “One”, Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come”, Laura Nyro’s “Eli’s Coming”, usually with a good dose of Wurlitzer electric piano). Van Dyke Parks gave them their name: on cold nights, Aboriginal Australians would customarily sleep in a hole in the ground while embracing a dingo, a native species of wild dog. On colder nights, they would sleep with two dogs, and if the night were freezing, it was a “three dog night”.

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