It was October 29th, and the first anniversary celebration for Cafe Nine’s new owners was happenin’. That night, the second of nine anniversary nights, was dedicated to Beatnik 2000, bartender Ed Leonard’s weekly open mic and acoustic gig, and all the spoken word poets and singer/songwriters who performed with him regularly were bumping shoulders at bar. Guitars were stacking up in the right corner, behind the aged wooden phone booth and in front of a dusty cigarette vending machine. “Small dressing room, eh?” I heard one man say to another.
Ed, graying ponytail swinging as he bobbed in rhythm, popped a loud beat on the bongos from back inside the raised platform nook that served as a stage. Smack in the momentous gap of time that followed, Susan Gustafson delivered her line.
“It’s all (small pop)
And it was. The crowd gathered in the low light of Cafe Nine hooted back its approval. The Nine is a place where you can have yourself a drink and a fine time, and it’s the place you can come to hear a good rhyme. It’s where much of the audience, poets and musicians themselves, plays original music and networks with other creative people, and it’s the only place in town where you can do that, even if you’re a no-name amateur stringing along a day job. The lone Yale student, I was awkwardly perched on a stool right before the stage area, my view half obscured by a large wooden beam.
Susan, large earrings swinging before the microphone, which had been lowered to her height, read more of her toast to the Nine, this fabled “musician’s living room,” where everybody knows your name, and, more importantly, they get your music. They believe in you. They feel your music. They know you’re gonna make it big.
“the Nine (pop)
is not (pop-pop, de-dum)
The new owners, Paul Mayer and Gary and Michele Mezzi, are bringing a new diversity of musical styles to Cafe Nine, which has rocked this corner off and on since 1972. Besides the poets and songwriters of Beatnik 2000, which began performing four years before the changeover, and the jazz and blues that had been present from the first, Mayer and the Mezzis are welcoming punk, rockabilly, funk and bluegrass performers into the bubbly brew of Cafe Nine’s lineup.
Everyone here has a day job. Paul, in fact, owns a painting business and has thrown himself into running Cafe Nine for what he called, in a tender tone, “the love of the music.” A rocker with tattoos on his arms, a tough-guy face and just enough of a belly to give the aura of a big brother figure, Paul’s been around the local scene since his late 20s. He met my naive questions with a wry chuckle: “We all strive for this to be more than a hobby,” he said. “There are these people who are phenomenal musicians. Phenomenal.” He threw his hands up in the air. “But they’re all struggling.”
“There’s a guy here who’s a New Haven fireman,” he told me when I asked if anyone did this for a living. “And there’s a guy, Eddie, who makes pizzas at BAR — you can probably find him there tonight, even — who’s in a punk band.” He squinted and managed to list maybe 15 to 20 people he knows that live by their music, paying the bills by teaching lessons and working part-time.
How did Paul end up owning a mainstay of original music in New Haven in his spare time? “Fate played a big part,” he said. It had always been a dream of his to own a music club, and he thought he could never afford it. Little did he know, one day when he came to poster Cafe Nine for his band’s album release last July, the owner stopped him as he turned to go.
“Mike Reichbart, the old owner, he said ‘Paul, you know, I’m selling this place, and you’d be a person I’d be interested in selling it to.'” Paul brought a fellow musician and his wife in on the deal, and three months later, they started the New Order at Cafe Nine. The musicians had taken over.
“I think now is a good time to be a musician in New Haven,” he said. “There’re a lot of bands popping up all the time. In other years it can get very cutthroat, when everyone’s jealous of each other, but right now everybody’s pretty supportive of each other.” And Cafe Nine plays a big part in all of that.
Paul and the Mezzis get small bands, the ones who haven’t made it big yet, but who are touring across the region and across the United States, building a fan base. They’ve all been there, so “we try to make it good; we feed them a good meal and everything,” said Paul. And the networking pays off. Local instrumentalists get up on stage and jam, finding new collaborators. They get numbers, set up gigs in different cities. And that’s they way you get a scene. That’s the way you go on your way up.
James Velvet, singer/songwriter and proud former member of the Mockingbirds (“the Mox”), brushed his white hair aside before starting his first acoustic number at the Beatnik celebration, a song titled “I’m Still Here.” He applauded the new “democratic revolution” that was taking place in one of New Haven’s only original music venues. A retired local legend who released several albums of original music and toured with his band, Velvet, now 53, worked as a bartender for Mike Reichbart, the founder of Cafe Nine, when the Mox were just getting together. They were the first band ever booked.
“Mike was having a party for his friends,” he told me later, “and he asked us to play there. It was so successful that within a month he had live music there five or six nights a week.”
So Velvet has no hard feelings for Mike, despite his attachment to old-timey jazz and blues, and in fact calls him a “good friend to musicians.” He’s excited that I’m going to talk to him, because he’s just way too cool. He’s like Jack Kerouac’s brother.
“Most bar owners don’t like musicians,” Velvet explained. “They’re like minimum wage employees to them. But Mike made that commitment to live music, and he treated us right.” Velvet should know, because the Mox played regularly at Cafe Nine all 12 years of their existence. Their performances on the last Saturday of each month were what made Velvet, the songwriter and vocalist of the band, legendary.
The story of Cafe Nine is a little bit of a legend in itself, right from when it started as BluBartz Cafe in November of 1972. It opened as a haven for “young radicals.” Mike Reichbart, just out of college in 1971, took a gamble and bought a property that quickly, as he says, became a “vortex for all sorts of people.” It’s not me, he says, it’s just something about the place that brings together people of different backgrounds. This was a friendly place, a place to engage in symbiotic relationships, share the love. You’d get a biker dude and a surgeon from Yale meeting up at the bar, and all of a sudden the biker is the godfather of the surgeon’s baby, the surgeon gets his own bike and everyone lives happily ever after in the United States of America.
Music was almost an obvious choice. So many of his friends were musicians, and he was growing up in New Haven, and music, he thought, was the only way to really share an experience fully. You get people up there, never met before, graphing their souls to each other. Sometimes you’d get Bobby and then Eddie Buster, brothers, who played in the Count Basie band, coming down for the Saturday afternoon jam, and then you have the young musicians, maybe 16 or even 20, who all knew they had chops but were a little shaky. And some people say, oh musical exchange is like a battle of the bands, but Cafe Nine is an ego-free zone, Mike always said. So you have these amazing guys, the Busters coming back to New Haven, wailing on the corner of State and Crown, this music that you couldn’t hear even at Lincoln Center, it was so good, and after the jam they’re over there in the back saying to the young fellas, you gotta hike up that third note or smooth that over there and catch that cue.
And it’s sort of a wholesome atmosphere we had going, Mike said, especially with those Saturday afternoon jazz jams. It’s like those girls, those two little white girls 11 and 13 who used to come to the jams to play the saxophone, real sophisticated, right out of milkin’ cows in Wisconsin, and you’d think their role model would be Kenny G or something, but without even batting an eye, and no prompting from their mom, they tell Mike that their role model is Sonny Rollins. Sonny Rollins! Mike would be proud to call them his own daughters. This is how you pass the torch. You just have to live it. You just have to feel the music.
And Mike has had more than his fair share of glorious music. If he and his wife were to die tomorrow, and going to heaven were based on the good music you had heard while you were alive, he says, they’d be going to heaven several times over. He never regretted it for a minute.
It was never really for the money. In fact, Mike would say most of his time they lost money — although when Jimmy Velvet and his Mox played, that was always a good night, financially. It’s funny, you think about how many people are in New Haven, and a space like Cafe Nine with space for 100 people should be packed every single night, because there’s music every night, but no, mainstream America goes to New York for the live music. They don’t appreciate, or don’t understand or they’re afraid of coming down and commingling with humanity, you know, because it’s such a diverse space, and even before Sept. 11 people had problems thinking on a communal level. And they’re missing out because the music is always exceptional, always honest. The world just doesn’t know. Mike loves the people of New Haven, but they just don’t know these things. They just don’t hear the priceless music that you couldn’t buy, that you couldn’t hear again if you wanted to. And you admit that you’re bitter, because the music is such a wealth, but in the end the world doesn’t know.
“I don’t understand why these people aren’t famous,” Ed Leonard said to me. It was a Monday night, the first Beatnik 2000 after the anniversary bash. Only a few early birds were at the bar, and we could hear Chuck Costa’s smooth, sweet voice singing out of the speakers, soaring over the empty Cafe and the old wooden floor. It was Chuck’s second album, a mellow folk affair. He would be playing that night with his band.
“There were too many cover bands before, and the attendance was going downhill,” he continued. “But the New Order saw that there was a void to be filled. There’s lots of original, new music going on here.”
“New Haven is truly a mecca for artists,” he added. It’s always been a progressive town because it’s been a college town, and it’s something of a jumping board for people stopping between Boston and New York.
A musician himself, Ed started bartending for Mike five years ago and quickly started up Beatnik 2000 on Monday nights. His idea: open-mic-style poetry, backed by improvised drumming for a stronger rhythmic edge, alternating with original acoustic music, which is often based on words.
“You have this rhythm and impromptu jam goin’ on behind, and in front you have sometimes these geniuses or just people working things out.” His excitement is contagious. It’s like his drumming, a force that keeps the poetry going when it falls flat and drives it up to exalted heights of adrenaline with snare drumbeats and cymbal crashes when the moment is right. Ed’s pleased with the crowd that’s starting to gather, especially on a Monday night, but he’s always looking to spread the word. If you have a great thing, why don’t you share it? He asks me why, in my opinion, there is “a wall” between Yale and the Cafe Nine scene. “I’m sure there’s quite a creative community at Yale, too,” he said.
I get my shout-out in the middle of the evening, as I am chatting with some poets in the back of the bar about how there is no performance space in New Haven for poets, and how every coffeehouse open-mic event is packed. True enough: the Cafe was starting to feel a little crowded, more like a good Thursday turnout than a Monday.
“Evelyn — is Evelyn out there?” Jarred out of my anonymity, I look up to the stage and wave nervously. Heads turn in the dark. “For years we’ve been trying to get Yale people to come here,” announced Ed, “and Evelyn is here from Yale, and she’s writing a piece on the Cafe for — what is it called — the Yale Bulletin?” I cringe.
“The Yale Daily News,” shouts one of my new friends for me.
“‘Zat the Yale Daily News? So I just wanna thank her for everything she’s doing.”
“Yale used to be a lot more involved in the local music scene. There was an interchange going on.” I was sitting in Koffee Too? with Dan Greene of the Butterflies of Love, and lately also of the Mountain Movers, in the early Friday afternoon student buzz. He had finished early at work that day because he was a teacher at a Jewish school, “and they like to get home early on Fridays.” His attire consisted of a sweater with a small moth-hole on the front inside, a thin suit coat and a wool hat with a baseball cap brim. “My teaching get-up,” he called it, crinkling his premature wrinkles in a smile. I try to imagine his tall frame in a rockstar stance and his concerned, lucid eyes killing the ladies from behind a microphone.
This is a man who went on seven tours of England, Paris and Ireland as the lead vocalist of a rock band. This man’s voice was blasted over the British Broadcasting Corporation radiowaves on the recommendation of John Peel, the popular British show host. He has a cult following.
So, what, exactly, is he doing in New Haven?
Dan had come to New Haven in 1992 to attend Yale Divinity School, in hopes of getting closer to a Religious Studies doctoral degree. His college friend, Jeffrey Greene, had also put down temporary roots in New Haven, and the two began to write songs together. By the time he’d been in the program for two years, Dan had become “disillusioned with the corporate feel” of the doctoral program, but he had some new roots in New Haven and decided to stick around. He quit graduate school and began to teach.
Between 1994 and 1995, the Butterflies in Love started to show up everywhere on the New Haven music scene. They morphed from a three-person band frequenting bars and coffeehouses into a “five-piece, full throttle rock ‘n’ roll band” with two guitars, a bass, an organ and drums. They began to have larger ambitions.
The Butterflies, all post-grads interested in the arts, decided they were “too old” to do the usual band thing, which was to tour all around the United States, “play for three people in Kansas or Wisconsin,” and then come home exhausted to work a day job the rest of the year. So they decided to try a shortcut. They sent a copy of a single to John Peel, a man who has played a key role in deciding who’s new and hot since the ’60s. The next thing they knew, they were on tour in Europe.
But when they got back to America, they went back to being relative no-namers.
“We’re the most self-defeating, self-destructive band ever,” said Dan with a wry face. “We even had a great review in the London Times saying what a great record, but we just have too many long delays between albums. I guess our Achilles’ heel is that we don’t strike while the iron is hot.”
The Butterflies are settled in cities as far apart as Philadelphia, New Haven and New Jersey. Some of them drive six hours to a practice. But they all do their own thing. They teach art in prison. They edit films. They install art exhibits, write freelance or teach at a Jewish school.
Dan’s way of keeping himself busy was to start the Mountain Movers. “I have a lot of excess songs, so it’s a sort of conduit for bringing them on stage,” he said. “And I wanted to make a record very different from the Butterflies.” It’s an exciting new project that gets back to some of Dan’s obsessions, co-opting religious language into songs.
But it means starting over again, which seems almost anticlimactic after a European tour. So Dan is back in New Haven and playing again in New Haven venues like Cafe Nine. Because working the local scene, Dan believes, is how you make it.
“You play for about a year in New Haven, and that really opens up the possibilities of playing in New York City, and then that leads to albums,” said Dan. “It’s about the same size, those bars and coffeehouses, a little cooler maybe, but you know.”
Dan doesn’t understand why Yale students stopped playing at Cafe Nine. He’s not quite sure what happened, but through the ’90s there was a constant Yale student presence on the music scene. The Butterflies even had two drummers, two Yale girls, at some point in time. But now, Yale bands are rare, and if one were to make an appearance, everyone would stop and take notice.
For the Butterflies in Love, and now the Mountain Movers, New Haven is a place where amateurs can meet other musicians, write their music and slowly work their way up to something big time. There are small venues such as Cafe Nine that give them a chance to play, and when they’ve earned their chops, they can make a short drive to New York or Boston and get more impressive gigs. If they continue playing and gain some recognition in a world where “everyone and their uncle has a band and is maybe playing in two or three,” they can decide if they want to make the commitment to traveling six months out of a year and playing practically every night.
For Christine Ohlman, known as the Beehive Queen in homage to her notorious beehive hairdo, it has always been a clear choice. Coming out of the coffeehouse performance scene in New Haven, Christine made it in New York and is now a singer with the Saturday Night Live band. Singing is her chosen career. But she reserves a special place in her heart for Cafe Nine.
“It’s one of my favorite places to come back to. I have lots of out-of-town commitments, obviously, but this really is the musician’s living room. I consider it my hometown, my home base. Out of all the places I’ve played, it really is unique.”
To Christine, “the economics of it” are pretty clear, too. “Mike worked very hard, and Paul continues to work to make Cafe Nine a viable venue. He can snag people on the touring trail between Boston and New York, and get people to come in and listen with some national acts.”
Paul and the Mezzis, she says, have been on the grueling tours, so they know what it’s like. They’ll provide a stage for bands that need a gig. They feed the performers and try to make things as easy as possible.
You shouldn’t kid yourself that there is a great scene in New Haven, she told me. Too many live bands are only cover bands, and they hardly count. “But,” she said, her tone becoming more optimistic, “there’s definitely something going on, maybe something Paul and them have started. There just isn’t anything like this in Hartford.”
Mike, too, had hope. “It’s a different time and space,” he said. He grew up in a New Haven where people played music on the streets, music so good that when the Beatles came to town, no one was terribly impressed. It was a New Haven where you could smell the perfume of revolution and anarchy, and where jazz wasn’t just music for old-timers.
“But maybe Paul’s got something going again,” he told me. The communal spirit of Cafe Nine isn’t dead. Even if the music is transvestite heavy metal instead of the good old blues, you can still see all the Nines hung up on the stage and above the bar, gifts from various patrons over the years, vibrating along with the bass sounds of the booming new speakers. Wooden nines, metal nines, a nine drawn in bottle caps on an old violin sitting above the clock. An athletic number nine. A nine written in coins and stuck on a wooden board in the shape of a beer glass. A nine strung together, like pearls on a string. “If you have diverse clientele, the place will decorate itself,” chuckles Mike.
A year ago, Mike decided it was time to pass on the Cafe. And a year later, Paul is bringing in new musicians and new crowds. What will the first new Nine look like? When will it come? The old wooden walls, first nailed in place at the end of the 19th century, are waiting for a new legacy to begin.
“I’m Still Here,” the song Velvet played at the anniversary celebration, is actually a pretty existential song, he told me when I asked him about it. He’d picked it to perform at the event because one night he’d been sitting right there at the bar, talking to some guy, and the lyrics came almost verbatim from what he said.
I lived my whole life right here where we are
this is my town
I almost moved away some years ago
I was shufflin’ around.
“The bar’s a great place to shoot the shit, hang out and talk about your next record, which may or may not happen,” he said. “It’s not a great scene, but it’s better than what you have in other Connecticut towns, I guess.”
They have this saying, about arts in New Haven, said Velvet. It imports its art and exports its artists. Most people here are on their way out, and then for theater or dance you see people coming in to perform at Yale or the Shubert from out of town. The good ones always move on.
I moved to the city, put some new roots down
I said good-bye to this town
I came back for a visit, and I never got away
I thought I left, but I stayed —
And I’m still here.
“I don’t understand really why the original music scene gets such coverage, really,” he said suddenly. “It’s really a small slice of live entertainment. Most people go to dance clubs with DJs and canned music. The kids flock in from the suburbs for that.”
But I know for a fact if I found myself
in some brand new far-away land
I would rise above all this little town stuff
I could become a whole new man —
And I’m still here.
Velvet perks up quite a bit when I ask him about his radio show, “Local Bands,” on WPLR, 99.1 FM. “It’s got 50,000 watts, which is amazing, because it reaches all of Connecticut and some parts of Long Island and Massachusetts,” he said. He and his friend Rick Allison take submissions from bands based within the listening range and play the cream of the crop on Sunday nights.
The good news is there are plenty of them, and most of the musicians are pretty good instrumentalists. Some are even great. The bad news is there aren’t that many great songwriters in the area. Yet despite his misgivings about the rising talent, James Velvet does not seem ready to move out of New Haven any time soon.
Raise your glasses, here’s another toast
to the best people I know
take your time, what’s your hurry
we’ve got no place to go.
Since the Mox played their last show last December, James Velvet has performed in a back-up band called The Nortons. He plays at Beatnik 2000 and at small local art galleries and coffeehouses. He doesn’t stop writing songs, and you shouldn’t be surprised to hear some of them popping up around New Haven. Because he’s still here.
And I dream and drift through the Milky Way
I travel alone in time and space
I lose myself where I can’t be found
and when the morning sun comes ’round —
I’m still here.
I’m still here.