The Cafe Wha?

The Cafe Wha?
Authored By Johnny Blogger

I was on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, standing outside the Cafe Wha? and eating a falafel sandwich from the awesome and still super cheap Mamoun's Falafel. It was a very sunny early evening, not yet too warm, and - having liberally refreshed ourselves during a happy hour in some dive bar a couple of blocks over - we were feeling no pain.

It's still a very nice place to spend an afternoon or an evening, Greenwich Village, but it is not exactly the cauldron of creativity and radicalism that it once was. Typifying the change, the mighty Cafe Wha? is a bit of a tourist trap these days, all two-for-one margaritas and a covers band - but it was once THE place to be.

Celebrated as Dylan's first stop on arriving in New York on 21 January 1961 (he got up on stage to play harmonica along with the then-owner Fred Neil, who wrote the Harry Nilsson hit 'Everybody's Talkin'), the Wha? actually has a Dylan-esque history of reinvention. The original Cafe Wha? was actually next door to the place we know today (the original is now a comedy club), and the owner Manny Roth, uncle to David Lee Roth, sold it 1988. The new place has kept the name and milks it good.

And why not? For the list of people that have played here is awesome. It was a fixture on the folk circuit throughout the Fifties - Hilly Kristal, who founded CBGBs over on the Bowery - says he would play at the Radio City Music Hall uptown and then come down to the Village to sing folk at the Cafe Wha? Allen Ginsberg could be seen there, drinking and holding court.

In 1965, a little theatre of post-colonialism was acted out when a growing number of US folkies, centred on the Wha?, became disenchanted with the Beatles-lead British invasion, while Torley Richards played a version of the "Battle Hymn Of The Republic' at the club. Singing folk for Uncle Sam? It all seems a bit weird.

Jimi Hendrix, playing under the name of Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, played here in June 1966, with the 15-year-old Randy Woolfe also on guitar. In August, Chas Chandler of The Animals saw Jimi play here and vowed to get him a record deal.

Dylan played the day shift at the Cafe, being allowed only to play the harmonica or guitar on Freddy's sets for a while. He met and befriended Tiny Tim there, another day shifter trying to get a break. It was a place for all sorts of acts, anything from drag to ventriloquists to rock.

Dylan described one desperado thus: "The saddest character of all was a guy named Billy the Butcher. He looked like he came out of nightmare alley. He only played one song 'High-Heel Sneakers' and he was addicted to it like a drug. Fred would usually let him play it sometime during the day, mostly when the place was empty. Billy would always preface his song by saying "This is for all you chicks." The Butcher wore an overcoat that was too small for him, buttoned tight across the chest. He was jittery and sometime in the past he'd been in a straitjacket in Bellevue, also had burned a mattress in a jail cell. All kinds of bad things had happened to Billy. There was a fire between him and everybody else. He sang that one song pretty good, though."

Dylan found the cook at the Cafe Wha? a source of frightening inspiration: "Norbert was a trip. He wore a tomato-stained apron, had a fleshy, hard-bitten face, bulging cheeks, scars on his face like the marks of claws thought of himself as a lady's man saving his money so he could go to Verona in Italy and visit the tomb of Romeo and Juliet. The kitchen was like a cave bored into the side of a cliff."

In the evenings, the place was given over to comedy - Dylan saw Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Lenny Bruce perform, but later it became celebrated as much for its rock. Hendrix, The Velvet Underground and, a bit later, Bruce Springsteen all played here in their early days.

It may have moved next door, but the Cafe Wha? will always be in no doubt at all about its exact place in the history of rock as one of the great rock venues.

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