New York -- Like many people, I grew up with an almost mythical idea of New York's Greenwich Village. Arriving to the party late, my early nineties introduction was nonetheless filled with sights reminiscent of the freewheeling past for which the neighborhood was known. The style cycle having repeated, Washington Square Park was still bustling with young people, some wearing puffy afros and bell bottomed pants. On Bleecker Street, just east of 6th Avenue, there were still multiple used record and book stores where crate diggers and antiquarians spent lazy hours reclaiming the past. Further down the block were torch-carrying music venues, then frequented by musicians playing classic rock covers to patrons downing buffalo wings and $12 pitchers. Much had changed, but much had stayed the same. Missing from this mix, but more than present in spirit, was the Café Au Go Go -- the seminal music club located at 152 Bleecker, which for five short years introduced many of the biggest and most influential acts in American cultural history to the then-bourgeoning New York hippie scene, and to the world at large. That's what I felt and witnessed twenty years ago. Thirty years before that, the winds of change were quickly advancing.
Change may be defined as transformations occurring over time. It is sometimes hard to discern how far and wide that change will reach, and what it will bring about. Movements grow from seeds planted far away with their influences sprouting as vines over the continents. Such was the case with Mississippi born, Rachel Black. Several years after my own sojourn, Ms. Black, a classically trained actor and musician, traveled halfway across America to the cultural mecca that is New York City, where she landed the enviable position programming for Central Park's SummerStage. A lifelong music fan, and steeped in tradition and knowledge, the position afforded her the opportunity to learn and navigate the live music scene of the city making contacts with some of the best and brightest that our modern times had to offer. Today, she is the director of the venerable Greenwich House Music School -- a perch that offered her yet another opportunity -- to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Café Au Go Go, which had also indirectly led her to Greenwich Village.
It's important to understand the place the former venue holds on the landscape of American cultural history. Starting in 1964, Howard and Elly Solomon, then barely into their twenties, were the proprietors of the small, cramped space that was home to a largely teenaged crowd drawn to the diverse lineup of genre-spanning musicians and comedians. These were the days when the blues of the then unborn Ms. Black's native Mississippi were just reaching the mainstream ears of the north after having been popularized and re-introduced through our cousins in the United Kingdom. Eager young fans were privy to performances by artists such as Muddy Waters, Otis Spann or John Lee Hooker. Jimmy James played in the house band before he went overseas, only to return with new duds and the new name, Jimi Hendrix. Comedians, such as a young Lily Tomlin or George Carlin regaled the crowd with their yarns, and Richard Pryor made them laugh without using four letter words. And of course, there was Lenny Bruce.
Lenny Bruce was perhaps the reason the Café Au Go Go attained the very fame and recognition that it did. After battling with the city to secure the notoriously elusive cabaret license, and thus operating a club that served no alcohol, the Solomons contracted Bruce to a six week engagement. This gave hope to ending the financial struggles the business had endured. The popular Lenny Bruce was a new kind of comic. Jamming as if he were an improvisational jazz musician, he often spoke his lines much quicker than he had the time to think them. Riffing on race, being Jewish and politics, he was always edgy and daring with his material. Two days into his run, his daring having veered into the profane, he was arrested, along with the Solomons, on charges of obscenity, and taken away from the venue in cuffs. In mid-sixties America, being a much more staid society than one would think, the ensuing legal battle became a cause celébrè for First Amendment rights with the effects of their victory ultimately occurring six years later, reverberating to this day in the form of greater freedom for artists and free speech.
There is a long and celebrated list of artists that would get their start at the Café Au Go Go. To commemorate the last fifty years of enduring legacy, Rachel Black will continue her ordained New York mission, as she will host a series of events at the music school on Barrow Street. Starting with a screening of the award winning documentary, 7 Years Underground: A 60s Tale, directed by the Solomons' son, Jason, and followed by nine separate performances, each represents the breadth and scope of the original venue's mission. And I, too, ordained as I was, will follow the same winds of change, right past the Bleecker Street address, now an empty storefront divided by a commercial bank kiosk, to take in the musicians and comics playing at the music school. Same as it ever was.
Greenwich House Music School is part of a larger non-profit settlement organization Greenwich House, whose mission is to help its community members lead more fulfilling lives. The Music School offers music education for children and adults, dance and visual art classes, as well as early childhood education. For more information and event schedule visit www.greenwichhouse.org