Fannie's Oyster Bar
This is my homage to New York City and to the blues. I lived in the city for more than two decades, and it didn’t feel right to let it go without continuing the long tradition of a goodbye essay -- in this case both written and sung.
I want to thank Billy White, one of the best all-around keyboardists in America, for taking me under his wing, holding me up in the studio, and producing the album. If there is anything to like in these tunes, it’s because of Billy’s pianistic brilliance and his patience and dedication as a producer.
Nino Moschella runs the best studio for indie musicians in the Bay Area -- he went above and beyond on this one and my thanks to him. And finally two thumbs up to Eric Moffatt, a true craftsman of mixology, who put up with interminable requests from me and Billy.
“There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something." ― EB White, Here Is New York
In 1989, a couple of months after I moved to New York, David Dinkins won a hard-fought election against Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani trumpeted his track record as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York -- how resonant that title is, conjuring up images of grim men in fedoras implacably pursuing the cause of justice -- and still lost. The Koch era came to an end.
1990 represented the murder peak of New York's history. Dinkins is unfairly blamed for that, just as he receives little credit for his contributions to the remarkable renewal under Giuliani who finally won four years later. But there is no gainsaying the fact that during his mayoralty New York was the one of the most violent cities in the U.S., indeed in the world.
The snippets of memory that I am about to share suggest, then, an unreasonable affection for what the facts indicate was a terrifying time and locale. But that is nostalgia's privilege, for I mostly recall a wonderful and exciting place. A place that is now, like all of the past, a foreign country.
I remember the music; and of all the music I heard, it is the blues that captured me and still stay with me, and that I miss most about that old, violent, decaying New York.
“Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last--the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York's high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.” ― EB White, Here Is New York
The city's soul was unchanged from the mid-century heyday of Charlie Parker (immortalized in Clint Eastwood's best film as a director): a place where itinerant musicians could find a gig or two, and where audiences were knowledgeable about the nuances and prepared to listen with care.
New York never had a legendary patron of the blues as the picaresque Baroness Nica had been in the '50s and '60s for jazz; just a motley audience of old and young, black and white (and the rare brown), who found their way to small smoky bars -- yes, you could smoke in New York City bars once! -- whose indulgent owners allowed amped up blues bands to play. And there was a long list of blues bars -- Manny's Carwash, Mondo Cane, Chicago Blues, the Louisiana Country Bar and Grill, and many more. My favorite spot, weekend after weekend, was Fannie's Oyster Bar.
If you looked up "hole in the wall" in the dictionary, you might find a photograph of Fannie's, at 765 Washington Street, a block up from Automatic Slim's and right next to Tortilla Flats (both, amazingly, still around as of this writing). The instruction to a cabbie was always "West Twelfth and Washington", for it was in that section of the West Village at the bottom of Manhattan where the grid gets warped and precise coordinates are required.
The owners, Charlie and Darryl, were living a May-December romance; she was Cajun from Louisiana, and he was from parts unknown. At the door was Jimmy, a bear-like man who behaved and sounded as though he wouldn't hurt a fly, but was large enough to cow the rowdiest patron. Behind the bar downstairs was a succession of women of great charm whose names I rarely knew but all of whom treated the regulars as regulars want to be treated.
The bar spanned almost the entire length of a tiny claustrophobic basement, with a space cleared in between the front door and the bar for the band of the night. The back of the basement opened out onto a small outdoor space, and by one in the morning that back door needed to be propped open as the cigarette smoke permeated everything and everybody.
Sometime into the second set, the packed audience would start shouting for their favorite songs. I had mine; top of the list was usually "Red Rooster", having been completely seduced by Howlin' Wolf's electric London sessions. The bands would always oblige.
We'd leave reluctantly after the final set. Perhaps stop at Slim's and climb onto the bar; then head to Delia's and finally, rarely, Save the Robots (both these long gone as Alphabet City transformed itself). The music would echo in my head all through the weekend.
“It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” ― EB White, Here Is New York
In 1991 the New York Times wrote that the blues scene in New York had never been stronger. But the city gentrified at an astonishing pace, and is today very far from that time in the early '90s when entire neighborhoods were out of bounds, where you were in a state of high situational awareness one hundred per cent of the time, and taking the subway on a weekend night was a thrilling adventure.
With the upscaling the blues clubs disappeared. When I was in New York a few months ago, I looked and found almost nothing. The 55 Bar puts on the blues some nights. There is another place in the Village, Terra Blues, that's been around a long time. So two are left. Rule number 7 of an internet meme tells us that New York City is on the list of places where you can sing the blues. No longer, apparently.
Who could possibly complain that the city is safer, neater and cleaner? Not I. Yet upscale, safe-for-families, and mall-ized cities might just dampen creativity, for creativity in the arts requires a setting with many undesirables. And so most of New York's blues musicians, noble artists all, vanished.
Some can still be found, plying their trade elsewhere. Steve Lucky plays thumping boogie woogie piano over on the left coast, twenty years and more after his band introduced me to top-flight blues piano. I can still hear him play "Blue Light Boogie". Popa Chubby appears to have carved out a steady career for himself. So has the gorgeous Christine Santelli, who sang with a world-weary tone even in her youth. Dan Hovey made his way to D.C., and has written movingly about how all these little musical islands disappeared, one by one. Felicia -- I have no idea what happened to Felicia. All those years ago, they and many others played at Fannie's, late into the night.
My life acquired the increasing complexity that comes with age. The friends who joined me on musical excavations scattered all over the world, and it was much less fun going solo. It was time for other stories.
Still I headed down to 765 Washington Street, alone, must have been one night in '95 or '96 although those years blur together now.
The place was empty and Jimmy wasn't around. Charlie was at the door and told me, tearing up, that Jimmy had passed of AIDS. Don't think I ever went back.
The city is frozen in amber when I think of it: a drizzly winter's night, unkempt streets and derelict buildings, a hand raised for a cab, hunting for music. I will always have the music.
“After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die.” ― EB White, Charlotte's Web