The Roots of Indie: The Cafe Wha?
The music map is dotted with magic addresses: the Whisky a Go-Go, the Fillmore, the Hollywood Bowl, Max's Kansas City, CBGB. But only one address connects Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, and -- get this -- David Lee Roth: 115 Macdougal Street, Greenwich Village.
The Cafe Wha?
It all started with an Army vet named Manny Roth, son of an Indiana grocer. After the war he kicked around the theater community in Germany, Miami, and eventually New York, where he opened his first club, the Cock and Bull. Then, as Douglas Martin wrote in Roth's New York Times obituary:
In 1959, someone told Mr. Roth about a garage that used to be an old horse stable on Macdougal between Bleecker and West Third Streets. You had to go down steep stairs to reach the dark, dank basement, which was bisected by a trough once used as a gutter for horse dung. Mr. Roth immediately recognized it as an excellent site for a coffee house ....
What Roth built in that basement was the hub around which the Village music scene would turn for the next several years. Mary Travers of 'Puff the Magic Dragon' fame was a waitress for a bit, and folk legends like Dave Van Ronk were regulars.
But the Cafe Wha? went from dank little basement to future historic landmark one winter evening, when a teenager walked in and asked Roth if he could play. Martin continues:
“Name’s Bob Dylan. I’d like to do a few songs? Can I?”
Sure, Mr. Roth said; on “hootenanny” nights, as he called them, anybody could sing a song or two, and this was a hootenanny night, a bitterly cold one, Jan. 24, 1961. And so Mr. Dylan took out his guitar and sang a handful of Woody Guthrie songs.
Dylan worked at the coffee house for a bit after that, backing up regulars on harmonica "for a dollar a day" as he put it in 'Talkin' in New York.' Roth let him go after he showed up late for three gigs, but when all was said and done Bobby Z. got some experience, a place to sleep, and some meals, and Roth got the biggest fish tale in modern music.
The young performer released his first album the following year, and in 1963 he dropped 'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan,' one of those flashpoint albums that influenced everybody. The Beatles, especially John Lennon, loved Dylan. The folk revival, once a basket-passing phenomenon in little clubs like the Wha? went mainstream.
Out on the Chitlin' Circuit around that same time, a young guitarist was serving his apprenticeship with the likes of King Curtis, the Isley Brothers, and Little Richard. He was also a huge Dylan fan.
He was a shy kid, but eventually he screwed up the courage to step out of the shadows and front his own band, the Blue Flames. The band picked up a residency at the Cafe Wha?, their leader's mentor's point of origin, where just like in Dylan's day they played for tip money. At the time the guitarist went by Jimmy James, but soon we'd know him as Jimi Hendrix.
Randy California was also a member of Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. He would later form the band Spirit, who had a huge hit with 'I Got a Line on You,' but in the current news cycle California may be best known as the author of 'Taurus.' California's family (the musician died in 1997) are currently embroiled in a lawsuit with Led Zeppelin, their claim being that 'Stairway to Heaven' plagiarized 'Taurus':
Without even breaking a sweat, we can trace the rise of folk rock, psychedelia, the most famous song in FM radio history, and the "mature" Beatles to the little club Manny Roth started in Greenwich Village back in '59. Unfortunately, notoriety doesn't pay the bills. Even a young Bruce Springsteen playing all ages shows with the Castiles in '67 wasn't enough to keep the bills paid, nor were appearances by an unknown comic named Richard Pryor.
The Times obituary continues:
Ultimately, revenues from coffee, light food and a cover charge that climbed to $5 — high for those days — could not cover expenses. In 1968, Mr. Roth walked away from Cafe Wha?, essentially penniless, according to his daughter.
The Cafe Wha? remains open, still in the same location, still with the marble floor Roth laid himself back in '59, but it isn't the Cafe Wha?, if you know what I mean. Still, in a country that places so little value on the importance of places, it's nice to know that such an important part of contemporary music history remains.
And speaking of remains, there's one little footnote we should mention before we wrap this up: Diamond Dave, Van Halen's David Lee Roth was Manny's nephew, kicking around the joint as a 7-year-old kid. When the band reunited a few years ago, they played a warm-up gig at Uncle Manny's place. His stage patter from that night seems like the right way to wrap this up: