My first apartment in New York was at the corner of Bleecker St. and MacDougal St. That was the epicenter of folk music in the 60s, but – by the time I showed up in the mid-90s – it had regressed: cover singers in the former basket houses and dime-bag dealers instead of hootenannies in Washington Square Park. Two of those pot dealers lived on the landing right outside our toilet, which was inconveniently located in the hall. Our bathroom trips were often disconcerting and sometimes perilous, since their relationship was not harmonious.
Our landlords, Rudy and Phyllis Andriani, didn’t sweat little things like people living in the hall. What they did sweat was the rent, which Rudy collected in person every month despite serious deficiencies in the lung department. We got their attention with a rent strike that lasted several months and generated some extraordinary voice mails; let’s just say I stopped feeling bad about the time I blew out the power in half the building by plugging an A/C unit into the antiquated wiring. By the time we moved out, we had a classic New York experience under our belts, buttressed by a handful of great anecdotes.
One nearby refuge was The Bottom Line, a 450-capacity music venue at 15 W. 4th St. with a storied history that includes some legendary Bruce Springsteen shows in 1975. When I haunted the place in the mid-late 90s, it was grooving along behind high-credibility singer-songwriters and bands that didn’t turn up to eleven. My first show might have been Steve Earle on the Train a Comin’ tour in August 1995. Steve was an established country/rock artist with actual hits; normally, he would have played with a louder band in a bigger room. But he’d just gotten out of jail and was easing back into the rock-and-roll lifestyle with an acoustic album. So, The Bottom Line was a reasonable choice, but it was packed to the gills and crackling like you wouldn’t believe.
That period of musical discovery was fueled to a great extent by word of mouth. I owe the Steve Earle experience to my songwriter pal Lisa J. Cornelio, who’d mentioned him as someone worth checking out. Lisa J. also made me a cassette with Lucinda Williams’s Sweet Old World on one side and a Jimmie Dale Gilmore album on the other. I remember slapping that cassette into my yellow walkman and strolling into Central Park, where I was thoroughly mesmerized until the batteries ran out after two or three songs. I also remember my friend Peter giving me the first Elliott Smith solo album on a cassette with Big Star #1 Record. Heady times!
I saw two Townes Van Zandt shows at the Bottom Line, and – although he was far from his peak as a performer – neither was a disaster. I feel privileged to have watched/heard him play, and I can’t remember being more blown away by an individual song than I was by Two Girls. It’s not one of the more well-known Townes songs, but the playful/serious approach opened my eyes to new possibilities. Of course, Townes is better known for extreme heaviness, which may be why Guy Clark said “Y’all have fun with Townes?” when he came out for the second half of a split bill. Allen Pepper, one of the owners, once told me a story about Townes trying to gamble for his guarantee, which is harrowing but “on brand.” Sadly but upliftingly, The Bottom Line hosted an absolutely extraordinary tribute concert soon after Townes’s death: Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Margo and Michael Timmons from Cowboy Junkies, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Tom Russell, and David Olney.
I always had good experiences at The Bottom Line as a fan and artist, but they were rigid about their policies. For one thing, you could only have two guests, no matter what. The one time I played there as an opening act, I had to choose between my girlfriend and an industry type who had agreed to check out my act. Another time, a sideman who’d driven down from Boston almost turned right around when his band’s two slots were spoken for and they wouldn’t admit his wife and child for free. Then there’s the story I heard about a prominent headliner who was charged for a cup of coffee at the end of the night.
One defining characteristic of The Bottom Line was that there were always two shows, which some artists disliked because it could be hard to get fired up for a second show shortly after giving your all in the first one. I guess the artists who could move all 900 tickets knew what they were getting into when they chose The Bottom Line over a larger venue; full-house late shows could transcend. Really, it was those who were only moving, say, 600 tickets that suffered under the weight of smaller audiences and comparatively-dead late shows.
I certainly had no complaints the three times I performed at The Bottom Line. The first time came out of the blue, when Richard Meyer asked me to participate in the annual Fast Folk Musical Review in 1997. I’d started to infiltrate the Fast Folk scene via open mics at the short-lived Fast Folk Café and Jack Hardy’s weekly songwriter’s meetings, but wasn’t one of the cool kids. In fact, Jack himself probably wouldn’t have selected me, but he was burned out and on a leave of absence from everything. Luckily, Richard liked what I was doing, and invited me to sing an early song about an altar boy who gets drunk on holy wine. I have vague memories of rehearsals at the 1-800-PrimeCD studio, and a vivid one of sound check on the night of the show during which the mandolin player told me I couldn’t use the band unless I could keep better time.
I participated in another Fast Folk show a year or two later – there’s proof in the advert on the right if you have a magnifying glass – and once played my own set as the opening act for Suzanne Vega. While settling up after the Vega show, Allen Pepper complemented my droll warm-up ditty about being the opening act and said he would have me back. That pronouncement, along with the Townes Van Zandt story referenced above, kept me going for months. Alas, the next gig never materialized. It’s even possible that was the last time I was ever in the room, since by then I no longer lived in New York.
I’m happy I got to play at The Bottom Line, but I think of myself more as a patron: standing in line, being shown to a seat, enjoying the show. There was the Greg Brown show where a member of the audience accompanied him on tin whistle. It was kind of funny/cool at first – the guy was competent – but eventually security had to get involved. I saw X on an acoustic tour under the influence of a joint that was forced on my by a friend’s mother. I’ve never been a pot smoker, but it worked well that time.
Another memorable evening was a Son Volt show in February 1996. It was broadcast live on the radio, which may have been why they made a rare exception to the two-show policy. This was early Son Volt: their classic album Trace had only been out since September 1995, which means that interested parties were very interested indeed. The room was packed, but I either got there early or got lucky because I sat at one of the front tables. Here’s what it sounded like:
The Bottom Line closed in 2004 despite heroic efforts by the artist community. In addition to benefits, there were negotiations that called for financing by Sirius Satellite Radio and Bruce Springsteen himself. In the end, they couldn’t come to an agreement with NYU, who turned the legendary music venue into classrooms.
Shows I Saw at The Bottom Line
Alison Krauss & Union Station
Eddie From Ohio
Jimmie Dale Gilmore
John Wesley Harding
Loudon Wainright III
Peter Rowan & Jerry Douglas
Robert Earl Keen
Townes Van Zant