NIGHT OWL CAFE, 118 West 3rd Street b/w Macdougal Street and Sixth Avenue. I have no idea what businesses occupied this space before the Night Owl era, nor have I been able to ascertain the Night Owl's exact years of operation. Seems like it was open through much of the decade, though--specializing in folk, blues, and jazz at first in the early '60s, and gradually evolving into a rock club by '64/'65. The most vivid description of the joint by far is on Peter Sando's website--he performed there frequently with the Rahgoos, who later metamorphosed into Gandalf. These links are must-reads, but I can't resist quoting a pertinent excerpt on the club's atmosphere:
It was a very unique room, a long and narrow storefront. The stage faced straight at a wall in the center with one church pew at the foot (the "crotch watchers bench"), an aisle, and then another pew against the wall. All the other seating was to the left and right of the stage, giving a side view. The PA was very trebly and faced to the sides. The music crashed into the wall and died, leaving the vocals very bare to the bulk of the crowd to each side. You had better sing on key or else it was a disaster. Good harmony went a long way at the Night Owl! The cast of characters: "Jack the Rat" at the door, a frightening cat with teeth missing and dirty clothes; Joe Marra, the owner; Annie, head waitress (very bossy)...The waitresses all used four letter words that we had never heard from girls before...shocking to four straight, naive, suburban rockers! There was Pepe, the openly gay cook (we had never seen anyone "openly gay"); and of course, all of the great bands! An interesting and happy family indeed...Joe Marra would blink the stage lights on and off, kind of a poor man's strobe light effect...Waitress Shelly Plimpton appeared in the original cast of "Hair." [And later had a daughter with Keith Carradine--peerlessly cool actress Martha Plimpton. -Ed.] Every Thanksgiving the Night Owl had a huge feast. Everyone was there past and present--even The Spoonful...and The Mothers of Invention served the food! Yes, we "believed in magic"!
Indeed, the Lovin' Spoonful was unquestionably the most successful band to emerge from the club. Richie Unterberger traces the twisted roots of the group in this excerpt from Turn! Turn! Turn!: The '60s Folk Rock Revolution (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2002); elsewhere in the book he discusses their early '65 Night Owl residency:
The Night Owl, a narrow room of about 75 by 20 feet with a stage so small that [drummer Joe] Butler had to play on the floor, was the Spoonful's equivalent to the Byrds' residency at Ciro's, giving the musicians time to refine their sound and develop material as they lobbied labels for a recording contract. When they weren't at the Night Owl, they were rehearsing at the Albert Hotel, where they lived in a single room that also included all their instruments, dodging the rent by having their friend Denny Doherty sweet-talk the female bookkeeper.
They soon fielded offers from Elektra and Kama Sutra, but ultimately opted for the latter's rock & roll teen appeal over the former's folkie street cred. The band's Top Ten potential was realized later that year with a song inspired by a twinkle-toed gal in the Owl audience, according to this quote from John Sebastian:
"We were playing pretty steadily for the local people from Greenwich Village who were part of the Jazz scene or part of the kind of downtown 'in crowd.' They were 'finger poppers,' guys who played chess, 'beatniks.' But there was this one particular night as we were playing, I looked out in the audience and saw this beautiful 16-year-old girl just dancing the night away. And I remember Zal and I just elbowed each other the entire night because to us that young girl symbolized the fact that our audience was changing, that maybe they had finally found us. I wrote 'Do You Believe In Magic' the next day."
An instrumental entitled "Night Owl Blues" appeared on their first album, and Sebastian later recorded a song called "Night Owl Cafe" on his '93 solo album Tar Beach. A 1965 live set recorded at the club was supposed to be released on Varese Vintage in the late '90s, but remains in the can.
Other Night Owl notables may not have reached the same lovin' lofty heights of stardom, but most are no less esteemed by '60s garageniks and folkfiends. Here's a brief list:
The Magicians were named after the aforementioned Spoonful hit, if the liner notes to An Invitation to Cry on Sundazed are to be believed. Various Village denizens made up the band--but unlike the Spoonful, the Magicians were assembled as a recording unit first (by Bob Wyld and Art Polhemus of Longhair Productions), and actually got a contract with Columbia before settling into a regular Night Owl gig. Their alliance begat the great songwriting team of Bonner and Gordon. Garry Bonner still sings with doo-woppers Kenny Vance and the Planotones. Alan Gordon, also still in the biz, frequently contributes to the Spectropop yahoogroup, always signing his informative missives as "That Alan Gordon." Guitarist Allan "Jake" Jacobs stayed active in music through the years as well.
The Blues Magoos also made it to the Longhair Productions stable, but they did so the old fashioned way by gigging around first. And after gaining a fan base at the Night Owl, they managed to become the club's second most commercially viable success story. Here's an article about them from the February 24, 1967 issue of Billboard. Also check out Peppy Castro's site.
The Strangers are often cited as being an outstanding Owl band, but what little they recorded apparently has not been comped, and thus I cannot judge. Regardless, you can't help but dig this photo showing them, the Magicians, and the Blues Magoos (utilizing the original spelling, Bloos) all listed on the Night Owl's entrance awning. Strangers drummer Eric Eisner was the boyfriend of Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora; the two collaborated on one of the most bizarre songs of a decade filled with 'em, "Emily's Illness"--read an excellent article about that record here.
|I've been told the fella in the center is Steve Martin from the Left Banke.|
I'm no big James Taylor fan, but I'm nonetheless impressed that he paid his initial dues as part of the Albert Hotel/Night Owl scene. Following stints at a strict private boys academy and a mental institution, teenaged Taylor moved to New York in 1966 and soon formed a band called the Flying Machine. Despite an Owl residency and a recording contract, the band went nowhere, and the emotionally volatile Taylor succumbed to a heroin addiction. The experience did provide fodder for his future direction, however. In "Fire and Rain," the line "sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground" (or as The Simpsons would have it, "flying machines flying safely through the air") is a reference to his old band. You can hear some Flying Machine sound samples here (including "Night Owl," later covered by erstwhile wife Carly Simon--the club may have inspired the title, but the lyric has nothing to do with the place). I was hoping their material would be in straight-up garage mode, but they're not far removed in wimpiness from Taylor's later output. Keyboardist/Flying Machine fan/all-around character Mark "Moogy" Klingman offers some memories of the band here and here.
Taking a break from their standing residency at the Cafe Au Go Go, the Blues Project played the Night Owl from October 7-9, 1965. [Coincidentally, I'm currently reading Al Kooper's Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards (New York: Billboard, 1998)--highly recommended!]
Fred Neil was a frequent fixture on the Night Owl's stage--here's a 1966 article about him from Hit Parader.
Circa '64-'65, Tim Rose, Jake Holmes, and Richie Hudson comprised an early folk-rock trio with a steady Night Owl gig. They called themselves either the Feldmans or Tim Rose and the Thorns, depending on which source you trust. The band was short-lived, but Rose and Holmes later regularly performed at the club as solo acts.
After being discovered at It's Boss on the Sunset Strip, Tim Buckley was booked for his first New York engagement at the Night Owl in mid-1966. That August Jac Holzman signed him to Elektra posthaste. Here's a picture of him performing there; the same Buckley fansite also has a great photo of the front of the building.
Lothar and the Hand People's New York debut was booked at Trude Heller's, but they were soon fired for "talking too much between numbers," according to this article. Fortunately they found a more receptive environment at the nearby Night Owl. San Francisco's Sopwith Camel later opened for them there in early '67 (and soon toured with fellow Owl alumi/Kama Sutra labelmates the Spoonful).
Other performers with Night Owl connections include Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Dino Valenti, the First Foundation Blues Band, the Ginger Men, the Fifth Avenue Band, the Myddle Class, Random Concept, "Big Mike" DeVita, Tom Pacheco (with the Ragamuffins), Stan Penridge, Stephen Stills, and of course all the names listed on Peter Sando's page. You can read some audience member reminiscences here, here, here, and here. And here's a 1967 Tiger Beat article that mentions a visit to the club paid by Micky Dolenz and some members of the Raiders.
Not sure when the Night Owl closed, but I have not found any post-1967 references to the place. Following a '70s stint as a poster/button/head shop, for close to three decades now the storefront has been occupied by Bleecker Bob's Records. It's perhaps the most overpriced record shop in town, but apparently Bob at least has the common decency to keep a picture of the Blues Magoos onstage at the Night Owl displayed in the front window.
UPDATE 5/25/2010: I recently made the tumblr acquaintance of Hip Toad and cheapocheapo, two young ladies who are positively obsessed with '60s teen mags, vintage NYC, and the Lovin' Spoonful. In turn, I'm obsessed with many of the photos and mag scans they post, including these two rare interior shots of the Night Owl. Oh yeah, the pics also happen to feature Peter Tork and Buzzy Linhart.
UPDATE 1/24/2013: The Night Owl Cafe Tribute Page has just been established on Facebook--please join and share your stories and pics. Here are some more images I've gathered over the last couple of years, mostly from my pals on tumblr.
|Menu--pretty sure this scan came from "cheapocheapo."|
|John Sebastian relaxing between sets.|
If you can deal with the Evil Getty Watermark, there are some cool exterior shots of the club on the Getty website. I haven't seen the Jeff Buckley/Tim Buckley biopic yet, but I hear it includes a scene depicting Tim performing at the Night Owl, which was shot at Sophie's bar. A few months ago I read two memoirs which contain some Night Owl stories--Carole King's A Natural Woman, and Kathy West's A Song for You: The Quest of the Myddle Class. And as you've no doubt heard by now, the closure of Bleecker Bob's is imminent.