I have long been fascinated/repelled by authentic bad guys. From a distance, they are intriguing, maybe even glamorous. Up close, man, they are no fun. No fun at all.
In this excerpt from my ebook on Rhino, My Life in the Ghost of Planets - The Story of a CBGB Almost-Was, I look back with sentimental longing for a time when I almost got my ass handed to me by actual Good Fellas... plus, a few quick bonus tales of first-hand mob woe for dessert. A name or two has been changed, okay.
Here we go...
In 1973 and '74, if you were in a band doing your own material in New York City and you knew one of the New York Dolls, you might have been able to get an occasional gig at Mercer Arts Center or Max's Kansas City, maybe. If you were a folkie with an acoustic guitar, there were still a dozen little joints in the Bleecker/MacDougal Street area in the center of Greenwich Village (the Bitter End being the most famous) where you could get a pass-the-hat gig. But, for at least a year, there was really only one venue in all of New York City where a band of regular rock bozos could get booked playing original material through Marshall stacks: the Coventry Club on Queens Blvd. in Sunnyside, about two miles east over the 59th St. Bridge. Yes, this is the joint from KISS lore, too.
The club was a dump, a faceless, everything-painted-flat-black dump. There were two rooms. You walked into a run-of-the-mill joint, jukebox, cigarette machine and toilets on the west/left, a standard issue bar running the length of the room on the east/right. Behind that was another room, a small stage on both the east and west walls, each with a barely adequate PA and lights. While a group played on one stage, the next band would set up on the other.
This Queens dive was pretty much The Planets' only available venue.
You will not be surprised, I'm sure, to hear that the Coventry Club was, uh, suspected of being a flat-out money-laundering joint. Every time we ever played there, there would be five or six ominous guys slouched at the bar. They clearly hated rock & roll, hated rock bands, hated having to keep their jackets on to hide their guns. This wasn't even a maybe; these guys were hardcore lower-level gangsters. Tough, sullen, chip-on-their- shoulder thugs. Scary!
By the Fall of 1974, The Planets had played Coventry several times. We had earned our first prime weekend slot, 10:30 pm on a Friday night. A friend with a van drove our equipment out to Queens at 7 pm with the understanding that he'd be back to pick us up around 1 am. By the time we went on, there were about sixty people sitting at the tables in the middle of the back room. Not great, but not bad. We were doing the standard 35- minute/nine-song set, going down well.
As we started the last song, one of the hoods at the bar walked directly up to the lip of the stage, in plain view of the entire audience, and gave me the universal finger-across- the-throat sign to cut the show.
I mouthed back to him, "This is the last song."
He mouthed back, "I don't care... Get off the stage."
I tried again, "Okay! This is the last song!"
Now, he yelled, "Get off. NOW!" But only I heard him.
In a pissed-off, embarrassed, impetuous Pete Townshend moment, I full-force kicked my mic stand at the guy.
Within the next 15 seconds, at least three guys from the bar were now throwing our equipment off the stage. Literally picking up amps that were still plugged in, drums, guitar cases, all flying into the audience. The guy who had just missed having his head smacked by my mic stand grabbed me and shouted into my face, "Who the fuck you think you are, Elvis?!"
The fella who ran Coventry, Lenny, walked up to me and said, "You got three minutes to get your equipment outta here. You and your Planets are banned from Coventry. Out! Now!"
"But, our van won't be here 'til one!"
"I... don't... give... a shit! Anything of yours still in this club in three minutes, my guys will destroy! Go! Jesus!" And he walked back to the bar shaking his head.
While the audience stared agog, we gathered up our scattered gear and got ourselves out onto the sidewalk as quickly as possible. This being only decades before cell phones, there was no way to get in touch with our van driver. Consequently, we had to settle down for a two-hour wait with our enormous amps and double bass drum kit stacked up on the sidewalk of busy Queens Blvd.
We'd been out there for an hour when a bright orange Bricklin pulled up in front of the club. Two blatant hoods, one very Italian, one very Irish, got out and swaggered into Coventry.
We stood around admiring the Bricklin, a Canadian Ferrari-wannabe with gull- wing doors.
About 5 minutes after these guys had disappeared into the club, a pale blue VW Beetle came slowly cruising down Queens Blvd. and stopped parallel to the Bricklin. Suddenly, an arm reached out of the VW's shotgun window and into the wide open driver's window of the Bricklin and yanked out a tan leather jacket. I heard cackling inside the VW as it sped away. We all started howling with laughter, and then... we all stopped laughing.
Those hoods are gonna think we did this! Fuck! At that very moment, my pal Jake walked up and said, "I got the license plate number off that VW. You might need it." Thanks, Jake! And then our van guy pulled up, half an hour early. We piled our stuff into that truck as fast as we could, and got the hell back to Manhattan.
The next day, early evening, my phone rang. "Hello?"
"Is this Binky from The Planets?"
"This is Lenny at Coventry. Okay, listen carefully. You can keep the fuckin' jacket, punk! Okay? But, you're comin' out to the club right the fuck now with the address book in the right-hand pocket, understand? You... keep... the... jacket, you little fuck. But, you get that address book back here in the next 30 minutes or you will be very, very sorry, and I'm only calling you this once." Click.
I waited 10 minutes, and dialed the Coventry number. "Listen, Lenny, I just spoke to my lawyer and..."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! Kid, do you actually think I give a shit about a fuckin' lawyer?! You got any idea who you're dealing with, Binky?"
"Wait, wait, my lawyer says I have to tell you the truth. While we were waiting for our van to show up last night, a pale blue VW pulled up and a guy in it reached in and took the jacket. I have the license number, Lenny. Honest, it wasn't us."
"Gimme the number. If this is bullshit I can't tell you how bad things are gonna be for you."
Two days later, I got another call.
"Binky, it's Lenny at Coventry. Hey, you were right about that VW. We got the address book back. Look, we all feel bad about what happened that night. No hard feelings. How's about we give The Planets a Saturday headlining spot next month, that okay?"
"Yeah, Lenny, that'll be cool. I'll call you next week to set it up."
And I never set foot in Coventry again!
Four more quick genuine no-kidding-really-happened New York Mob stories...
Back in the late 70's, Ben, my oldest pal, was getting his law degree at Boston University and bartending weddings, wakes, bar mitzvahs, etc. to help pay for his schooling. He wound up doing several true life gangster weddings... either Irish or Italian. This young kinda chubby but ice fucking cold guy comes up to Ben and says, "Hit me again." Ben says, "I'm really sorry, but I don't remember what you ordered, sir." The guy takes out his wallet, pulls out a $100 bill, smacks it on the bar and says, "7 & 7... and I betcha don' figget all night." Every 10 minutes, Ben made a new 7 & 7 for the rest of the night, would pour out the 10 minute old one and make a fresh one. Oh, you betcha!
My promo company, Bink Inc spent 10 years on the second floor of 322 8th Ave. Richie, was one of the custodians. He had this job strictly for the benefits. He actually made many thousands of dollars almost every weekend as a stone-pro wedding singer.As in a, driving a Lexus, 5 bedroom house in NJ 30 minutes from NYC, wedding singer.
So, one Sunday, he's singing with the 16 piece orchestra that normally backed him up at what was clearly a very 'connected' wedding. Richie gets the cue that the food's ready, he announces that they're taking a break...As the band is putting down their instruments, a little guy, bald with a cigar, a total cliche, who'd been sitting at whatwas obviously THE most dangerous table of the wedding, walks up and says to Richie...
"Hey, when yizz start up again, can you make it louder?"
Richie says... "Really! Wow, we don't usually don't get that request."
The bald cigar says "Yeah, well, that way, we can all go fuckin' deaf!"... glaring, he turns and walks away.
Richie's orchestra was more fortissimo when they next took the stage.
My friend, Keith, was an actor... looked a lot like that young guy with the long stud-ly hair on "Taxi" years ago, Jeff Someone? He'd been working in a bar just north of Little Italy in lower Manhattan for several months. Keith got to be chummy with this young sorta tough looking guy named Johnnie. They had a ball calling each other names...
"Hey, jerkoff, gimme a Bud..."
"Okay, one Bud for the gay bastard..."
That kinda crap.
One day, after about a three week absence, Johnnie comes in and my pal Keith says something like, "Hey, where you been, asshole?" Johnnie just looks at him, as blank as a snowdrift, and walks straight into the back room where the owner's office was.
About 30 seconds later, the bar's owner comes out of the back room, opens the register, counts out about $1500, turns to Keith and says, "Here's some pay in advance... you got 30 seconds to get outta here before he comes out of that room and puts a bullet between your eyes. John wasn't in the mood tonight, Keith... I'll call you when it's safe to come back"
Two weeks later, the owner called, "Hey, Johnnie told me he misses you. You can come back now."
Keith actually worked there another 3 months before he got a job at a record store in the East Village... which is where I met him. But, he never called Johnnie anything but Johnnie from that point on.
Finally, speaking of record stores...
It was another pleasant Friday afternoon, and two out-of-place guys had just walked in. Both had dark curly mullets. Both were at least 6' 3". Both must've weighed close to 300 lbs.Both wore short-sleeve white-on-white shirts open halfway down their enormous cast- iron bellies.
Both had hairy chests and at least 3 gold chains around their necks and, for good measure, each actually wore a pinky ring.
"You're gonna save my life today, my friend."
"I am?" I replied.
"I gotta weddin' tuhmarruhh and if I don't have "Your Precious Love" by The Moments onna play list, I'm a dead man. You unnuhstann? I been to twelve fuckin' shops tuhday. Ya gonna have dis rekkid fuh me, right!"
Remarkably enough, about an hour earlier, I'd actually put a sealed cut-corner copy of a double album, "The Moments Greatest Hits" under "M".
I told these two "soldiers" to follow me.
We walked back to the "Soul" section of the store, I pulled out the album, flipped it over, found "Your Precious Love", and handed it to the one who had done all the talking. "Look at side three." I said.
"Holy shit! Gino! He's got it. He's got the goddamn song!" Gino, the larger quiet one, beamed and nodded his approval.
"I'm tellin' ya, kid, I been lookin' all over the fuckin' city fuh dis rekkid. Unbelieeevable! Ya got it!"
Feeling cocky, and digging the fact that I was dealing with blatant authenticity, and had just made the real deal's day, I leaned in towards the guy and said, doing Brando to the best of my ability, I rasped, "So, why didn't you come to me first?"
The instantly air changed. I have never in my entire life experienced as drastic and frightening a mood swing.
The talkative one's smile slid off his mouth in less than a second. Suddenly, he was looming above me, and with his face about 10 inches from mine, he quietly asked, "Any puhhtickuluhh reason you said that me like that just now?" with a cool hard menace in his voice that I've never encountered before or since.
His eyes had truly gone dead, just like you always hear.
Behind him, Gino, not knowing what was happening, but sensing something was up, came around and stood next to his boy, and I realized for the first time that Johnny was more like 6' 6"... and the one I really needed to be frightened of...
"What's goin' on, Bobby?"
With my voice literally cracking, I stammered and squeaked like Jerry ("Nice lady") Lewis, "Well, you, you, ummm, you said that you'd... ummm... gone to all these other stores and ummm... I had the record and ummm... I coulda saved you a lot of time and I..."
Richie held his hand up, I slammed on the brakes of my yammering, and he said, as cold as dry ice, "Lemme pay fuh dis."
I quickly walked back to the register, moved the cashier aside, rang the record up, full price with tax, took his money, handed him his change, said Thanks.
He and Gino turned and started walking out the door. Then, Bobby turned and stared at me for about 4 seconds, like he was trying to make up his mind about something. Then, while Gino held the door open for him, they both walked out... and within about three minutes, I was able to start breathing again.