July 13, 2017

New York City blackout

Today is the 13th of July, 2017, forty years to the day that New York City experienced a complete electricity blackout. It happened in the early night, I think sometime after nine. In print and film it is being cast as a moment of truth, when we finally saw the city for what it had become: a pit of filth and a harbor of iniquity. The blackout brought us looting and ravaging hooligans who had been gathering and lurking on the mean streets until that moment when the lights went out and anarchy reigned.

I say it's just too convenient to create such a watershed in New York history. First of all, as the actress said to the Bishop, "You ain't changed all that much, Big Apple." Oh, there are new buildings and it's probably a better tourist experience than it was 40years ago, but that's true of every era of New York's spotted past. It's had to become more competitive and it's come through again. It's (still) the most interesting American city to visit.

It's too expensive, as always. I couldn't live here any more on the money I make, though it was the same feeling forty years ago. I lived near the City Hall on Chambers Street during the 1970's but I was forced out by someone who could afford the rent for the loft I had converted from a work space. I moved to Hoboken and paid $250 a month for a very suitable apartment. Then I went West and that's a story I'm not telling now. I'm talking about my blackout.

The Happy Trails Dance Band, of which I was the rhythm guitarist and principal singer, was playing a gig at the Lone Star Cafe on 5th Avenue at 13th Street. It was a low slung building with a giant armadillo on the roof and all the popular Texas musicians played there when they came to town. Most nights they hired local bands, and it was a prestigious gig for a New York country musician. In those days there weren't a lot of places for a cowboy to play, though there was a kind of Western fad going on. Even Andy Warhol had hired our band to play a gig at a defunct old bank building, downtown. Now there's some historical irony for you.

The summer of '77 was a particularly good one for me, monetarily. A little bar at Penn Station was hiring country musicians for about ten hours a day on weekdays. There were two shifts: the afternoon one began at 1 pm and ended at 7 pm. The the evening shift was 7 to 11. I liked playing in the afternoon: it was a single,  a weekday, a half hour on, a half hour off, and you could still do an evening job with the band, if one came up. Also, I had a regular gig at the Blue Ribbon Inn in Elizabeth, NJ.

Not every musician could play out-of-town gigs because of transportation difficulties, but I had an old Dodge van that had belonged to Ma Bell before me, and I managed to keep it running for years. Anyway, it was about half-an-hour's drive from Chambers Street, through the Holland Tunnel, and out to the Blue Ribbon Inn, which was owned by a colorful character named Freddie the German Cowboy. That's another story. I had two gigs a week there, Wednesdays and Sundays. I mostly played for men who were fans of country music and alcohol. As you might expect. Decades later I thought of this gig whenever I watched the opening credits to "The Sopranos."

The other regular gig I had was just around the corner from where I lived: Morgan's on Duane Street (or was it Reade St.) near West Broadway. Morgan's was two businesses, a grocery and a bar and they were into the meat trade, too, if I recall correctly. I played on Thursday nights and a guy called Bob Horan played Fridays. (Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-Bob Horan. And yes, he'd heard that "joke" before.)

Morgan's was a family-run enterprise and while there weren't really any country music fans in the neighborhood, I was tolerated and sometimes appreciated. My biggest fan was a truck driver who ran an eighteen-wheeler between Wisconsin and Manhattan. He wore a ten-gallon hat and delivered cheese to certain Italian customers. One time his rig full of cheese was stolen while he was listening to me sing. The story made the papers and after a day or two, the cheese was quietly returned. I guess somebody found out whose cheese it was and gave it back.

These regular single gigs each paid about $50, and the Sweet Sue's was a real windfall: you might get three or four of them each week. (We knew that couldn't last forever.) I was there for the commuter crowd the afternoon Elvis died and I played every Elvis song I knew. It included "A Fool Such As I" and "Long Tall Sally," both of which I learned from Elvis albums, though they're not strictly his songs. I knew lots like that.

Then there were the band gigs. They usually paid $200 or less, so I'd make less money but the places we played were more prestigious, and playing with a band was a hoot. O'Lunney's on 2nd Ave. in the 60's, I think, was the number one real country bar; Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin used to come in there with their Yankee pals. O'Lunney was a leprechaun and his bar was long and thin and he always maintained that I was better value as a single than with one of my "experimental" bands. (That's another story, too.) It was a good place to play, as was the City Limits, which came later, like 1978, maybe. The City Limits was a dance hall in Sheridan Square, downtown.

Anyway, we were taking a break after the first set at the Lone Star Cafe, when the lights went out. When the news came that the whole city was black, my friend Carl Lowe and I decided we'd better protect our pay by playing some songs on acoustic guitar and fiddle; the employees brought out some candles and we held onto our crowd; maybe built on it with the addition of passersby looking for something to do. Our bass player was a new addition that very gig and I didn't like the way he'd played in the first set. What a relief that the blackout happened, and what a service we provided to the Lone Star, really. Helped us get more jobs there, too.

So, I loved the blackout. I loved New York in those days. I had a long walk home through Washington Square and Soho and what is now known as TriBeCa. The Triangle Below Canal. But it was a nice quiet summer night and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. In winter this would happen when there was a big snow. Looting? In our sparsely-populated area of artists and lofts, I never saw it.

We got our only mention ever in Rolling Stone Magazine, and we were real proud of it. During an article on what happened to the live music when the lights went out? "The Happy Trails Dance Band" played an acoustic set at the Lone Star Cafe.

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