By Harold Goldberg
It was shocking. Online, I'd read that the end would soon come to The Sidewalk Cafe and that might mean the end of an institution (which had a formative effect on me). I'd heard that the weekly antifolk open mic night might die as well.
When I first moved to town and lived in Jersey City but worked at a Manhattan magazine, I would take long, exploratory walks through East Village, looking for something like solace, love and redemption. On one of these strolls, I passed the junkies trading needles and stories in the park. The East Village was that way then. A few blocks later, I heard music emanating from what, at first look, appeared to be a dark, graveyard dive called The Chameleon (which is now Club Cumming, actor Alan Cummings' destination for cabaret and other artful doings).
Inside, The Chameleon was anything but dead. The bartender was Lach and, with black-framed nerd glasses, he was holding court over an open mic he called the Anti-Hoot. Lach, now living in the U.K., was the prime purveyor and creator of the antifolk scene, a musician who would pepper his own sets with, say, the Spider-Man theme song. He was a witty m.c. and singer, but he also possessed the almost undefinable prestidigitation of those who are part creatively brilliant saints and part half-truth telling hustlers. Those two ingredients were essential to Lach's magic of bringing people of disparate personalities together. At The Chameleon, I marveled at the performances of Beck, Michelle Shocked, Paleface, Brenda Kahn, Casey Scott, Tom Clark and John S. Hall. It was a competitive scene and yet, people were generally affable and upfront about their desires for success, and often, lovably self-effacing about their art. Sometimes, the antifolk bar felt like a home away from home. I wrote about it for the Village Voice, and did some readings at the club as well.
When the bar closed and Lach moved to the nearby Sidewalk Cafe around 1990, it felt like a reasonable substitution in a brighter spot, this time with food to order (not just booze). It was a place for Heather Woodbury to premiere her amazing What Ever performance art, which included 100 characters she herself transformed into. I knew the Sidewalk for its cheap but hearty all-day breakfasts, a place where, when it was warm, I would sit with the musicians and performers I'd grown to know. I became closest to Brenda Kahn, and enjoyed long talks during which we parsed everything, came to conclusions, then felt we accomplished nothing that would help us with navigating life (except the strengthening of our friendship). All afternoon and sometimes all night, I'd sit and hear about the performers' hopes and dreams for creativity and success. The Sidewalk later became an essential springboard for the brilliance of Regina Spektor, Jeffrey Lewis and Nellie McKay.
When Lach left for the U.K., it was stunning to all of us. I went to his apartment sale and bought a Clash DVD and a Japanese tin toy of a spaceman with a camera. We reminisced, talked about who was doing what and looked forward to his creative work in the U.K. Yet the scene continued even without its creator. The music, rough, rugged, yet often empathetic and melodic, was played nightly, even as sections of Brooklyn became more hiply inviting to musician communities than the East Village.
I don't mean to say that every night was exciting music-wise at the Sidewalk. I spent a New Year's Eve there a year or so ago and the part I enjoyed more than any of the music was talking with a couple of first time in the U.S. Swedes who wanted to know about our politics. But talking was part of what made The Sidewalk and the antifolk scene alluring. Because of what was something between collegiality and friendship, the place was also a kind of casual salon for the exchange of ideas.
I didn't have time to get to The Sidewalk as much as I used to. But from what I've seen, New York City antifolk has evolved into groups of older people and groups of younger people. In the sense of the important spreading knowledge between generations, antifolk is better than it ever has been. As I see it, admittedly from afar, Jon Berger, the spoken word poet, is now its unofficial historian and Peter Dizozza, the playwright and pianist, is its sage experimentalist.
On that last night of the open mic, which has from Day One been the beating heart of the antifolk scene, many of the people who played were those I didn't know. Steve Espinola, who I have met, played a Eugene Chadbourne meets Ozzy Osbourne version of "Iron Man" on a tennis racket. It was rife with noisy, ragged perfection. Originally, I had planned to spend one hour there, listening quietly and taking in the varied personalities. Then, I'd leave to prepare for our New York Videogame Critics Circle mentoring at the Bronx's DreamYard Prep School, work on a review and re-write some fiction which may or may not be for an audience beyond me.
But soon, I realized how important that last night would be. Jon Berger raged from the stage, angry that the The Sidewalk as he knew it would end. After Jon moved to a corner to greet friends, I saw that everyone was bringing their finest performances, some regulars, some who hadn't played there in six years, one who was there for the first time. M the Myth, someone new to me, sat at the piano and began a searing pop song. It was clear he had one of the evening's best voices, completely stirring. He captured everyone's feeling when he said that the Sidewalk was essential in his life because it was accepting of all the misfits who ventured through its portals. He was completely right. It's been a place where we all entered like misfits, but misfits together as one become something else altogether, something like a force of nature.
And so it continued, everyone with one song, everyone giving it their all. I stayed until the open mic's end when Peter Dizozza, name checking 80s experimental theater artist Ethyl Eichelberger, talked about the antifolk outdoor concerts of yore at Tompkins Square Park, then sang "Come Out," which ended with the line of essential optimism. "And you and I from long ago are ever meant to be."
As the evening turned into night and single songs would give way to full sets, King Missile's John S. Hall showed up, looked bemused at the large crowd but eventually found a table. I heard that Regina Spektor might step in to play (she did) and that SourDoe, which Berger called the potential future of antifolk, would play an hour after the open mic concluded. But as the performances ended, I slipped out. It's not that I had had enough. I just didn't want to have too much.
A few blocks away in a generally happy, pensive cloud, I consumed a slice and too much soda at Two Boots. In the bathroom, found this William Faulkner quote, "People talk about the dead past. The past is not dead. It's not even past." I walked back home with an unusual bounce in my steps, uplifted, thinking that wherever those in Manhattan's antifolk scene hang their collective hats once the Sidewalk closes and opens under a different name, the past is part of it. Because this night's past is not the end, and it's not dead. At all.