Celebrating the Inn Square Men’s Bar (Ladies Invited)

In September 1984 when I heard the Inn Square Men’s Bar was closing, my friends and I decided to attend the closing auction. My friend Dave bought the ice machine. I scored a Budweiser “Bowtie” neon sign, some beer mugs, a barstool (with an impressive array of dried chewing gum stuck under the seat), and a hand painted sign: “Positive Proof Required.”

Inn Square barstool and sign, part of my auction haul.

Last year I wrote a blog post about The Idler, another bygone music club in Cambridge. I had fun interviewing former staffers and some of the musicians who played there. The fact that decades have passed hadn’t dimmed people’s fond memories.

Although it closed decades ago, The Inn Square Men’s Bar (Ladies Invited) also brings back fond memories for former staffers, guests, and musicians who played there. The Inn Square remains an important place, not just for rock ‘n’ roll, but as part of the history of the Boston area music scene.

In 1979 the readers of Boston magazine voted the Inn Square Men’s Bar “Best Neighborhood Bar.” Three years later, the Inn Square was voted “Best Dance Club, Neighborhood.” And in 1983, “Best Bar for Live Music, Rock.” But according to Didi Stewart of Didi Stewart & the Amplifiers and Girls Night Out, “It was the most eclectic music club ever. What you could see there was just wildly varied.”

The long, narrow room had a small stage opposite the bar. In front of the stage, a long stage-high table included a low row of red topped, lunch counter style stools. The bar walls were covered in dark brown faux wood that looked like rec room paneling. A large bar logo served as the visual backdrop for the stage. There was only one television on a shelf above the bar, which was lined with a row of ladder-back barstools with black Naugahyde seats. Neon signs advertised Budweiser, Narragansett, Guinness, and Miller Light. Red letters on a thin wood sign stated: “Positive Proof Required.” A Wheel of Fortune spinning wheel offered customers the chance to spin the wheel and win a free drink.

The Inn Square originally started as a men’s bar in 1964 and was frequented by Cambridge Public Works Department employees. But by the ’70s it was under new ownership, and the bar soon evolved into one of the most well-loved music clubs in town. Journalist Doug Simmons wrote, “Owned and managed by Marshall Simpkins, the Inn Square was almost too good to be true: a small, warm neighborhood bar with good taste in music. The best and the brightest of the local bands played for Simpkins; so did national acts (generally unadvertised) like the Iron City Houserockers, Garland Jeffreys, George Thorogood, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Roches, and the McGarrigle Sisters…the Inn Square was a triumph of personality—a kind of honky-tonk that was perfect because of its imperfections.”

View of bar looking toward front door, stage far left. Photo courtesy of Julie Keay.

In 1973 when Simpkins and business partner Harvey Black first looked at it, the bar business had slowed. “In those days they had men’s bars,” Marshall told me recently. “Women were not allowed. It was basically a men’s meeting place. It was open from 8 a.m. until 10 at night. They had a rule in the Department of Public Works that as soon as you finished your job, you were done for the day. So the guys would get in there early. Sometimes they’d be done by noon and they would come into the bar, have lunch, and stay ‘til like 3 or 4. That was like a standard thing.”

Bartender Bobby Keay has good memories of working the Inn Square. During the day, he told me, the clientele tended to be older and mostly locals. But by six or seven o’clock, the place would be transformed into a hard rock bar. “It was a very, very unique place. I miss it. The television was a big black and white, up in the left-hand corner above the bar. The ‘remote control’ was a ladder. You had to climb up a ladder to tune it or turn it on—or change stations. To give you an idea of what the entertainment was during the day, some of the regulars down at the end of the bar would want The Three Stooges on, so we’d put that on for them.”

Bartender Bobby Keay. Photo courtesy of Julie Keay.

For staffers, the daytime shifts weren’t the most coveted because the tips were better at night. Bobby recalled, “The staff was very close. We all went out together and did things together. It was a real family during the day and more of a business enterprise at night. The vibe there was like no place else. People got married there. We had drama there: somebody ran away with somebody, or somebody got shot. It was like a Damon Runyon kind of place, something you’d read about in the tabloids. Marshall was a terrific guy to work for. He had very good instincts about music. He was very generous. He threw parties for the staff once a year and ran a tight but at the same time very friendly ship.”

When the Department of Public Works extended the workday until 3 p.m., there were fewer visits by city workers and the guys didn’t stay as long. “Business was definitely down,” Marshall told me. But instead of being put off, he and his business partner saw it as an opportunity. The early 1970s was a time when lines at the gas pump were long and inflation was high. “It seemed like a good time to have a bar,” Marshall recalled. And he wanted a place to have music. “Music was always my thing.”

After graduating from Boston University in 1963, Marshall had worked as a film coordinator at television station WFIL in Philadelphia, home to the popular show American Bandstand. Along with friends from the station, he hosted area dances. He also worked for music magazine Crawdaddy, a precursor to Rolling Stone. During this time, Marshall worked with Philadelphia-based concert promoter Larry Magid, co-founder of Electric Factory Concerts. In 1985, Magid, along with partner Allen Spivak, produced the first Live Aid, held at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium.

As the new owners of the Inn Square Men’s Bar, Marshall and Harvey wanted to change the wording on the green metal sign out front, but they’d put every dollar they had into buying the place. So they added: “Ladies Invited.” They wanted to keep the bar’s original name, but “make sure that women were allowed and comfortable,” according to Marshall. Staffing changes were also made, creating a more balanced mix of men and women tending bar, serving food, and working security.

Inn Square logo on stage. Photo courtesy Julie Keay.

The first performer to appear on stage at the Inn Square was folk legend “Spider” John Koerner. Koerner also designed an early version of the stage. “At that time, we had the longest bar in Cambridge,” Marshall told me. There was a little room used as a green room for the performers, and a small office for Marshall. A back door opened onto Hampshire Street.

Marshall handled the music bookings. “Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, we had the real good bands. During the week, we would have bands that would play for the door. The place was very unique. It had great sound. Because the audience was close, it was great for bands to play there.”

The McGarrigle Sisters caught a show, then they signed up to perform at the club. Boston blues stalwart Bonnie Raitt sat in with them. “That was one of our first big music experiences. It was very exciting—very fun,” Marshall recalled. “It was written about and got a lot of attention.”

The Inman Square neighborhood was home to a variety of shops. The Inn Square Men’s Bar shared a wall with the S&S Restaurant, which opened in 1919. In 1968, Legal Seafoods opened their first restaurant nearby, an outgrowth of their Legal Cash Market, a grocery store opened in 1904. A fire in 1980 permanently closed the restaurant.

Building at 1350-1354 Cambridge Street with The Inn Square Men’s Bar sign. Cambridge Historical Commission. Community Development Department collection (1978).

There were other places to see music in Inman Square. Joe’s Place featured Bruce Springsteen in an early gig. The Ding Ho, a Chinese restaurant on Springfield Street (now the site of Ole), presented music. In between sets at “the Ding,” stand-up comics appeared including Jimmy Tingle, Paula Poundstone, and Jay Leno. The 1369 was located on Cambridge Street, and Ryles, a popular jazz club, was close by.

A short list of Boston bands that played the Inn Square Men’s Bar in its heyday reads like a core sample of the rock and roll firmament: The Del Fuegos, Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, The Incredible Casuals, The Stompers, The Dream Syndicate, and ‘Til Tuesday.

Writer Virginia Aronson told me the following story: “Sometime in the early ’80s, I went to the Inn Square Men’s Bar for the first and only time. A friend who looked like Rod Stewart, so much so that everyone told him that, invited me to see a local band perform. I’d never heard of them before, but he promised me they were worth seeing. We squeezed into the packed barroom and somehow got ourselves beers. Then we found a sliver of space in front of the stage just as the band appeared. ‘That’s Aimee Mann,’ my friend informed me. ‘Her band is called ‘Til Tuesday.’ This was before Voices Carry made Aimee a household name. And before her star turn in Hollywood—including Academy Award fame for Magnolia and an appearance in one of my favorite movies, The Big Lebowski. So I didn’t recognize her, but I would never forget her: beautiful despite hair almost totally shaved, and that powerful voice. The band rocked. The crowd loved them. I loved the bar. I planned to return, but sometime after that I heard it had closed. The Inn Square Men’s Bar will always be entwined in my memory with Aimee Mann.”

Writer Brett Milano highlighted the band in Boston Globe Magazine: “’Til Tuesday was one of Boston’s success stories—and with the photogenic Mann upfront, the band was one of Boston’s first MTV stars with 1985’s Voices Carry. Its elegant sound wasn’t typical of Boston—but then, the city’s music scene was growing in every direction. Alternative country was a good decade down the road, but well ahead of the herd were the Del Fuegos and Scruffy the Cat. Fellow roots lovers Treat Her Right rocked the blues, and Barrence Whitfield wailed some wild R&B. The Neats were big on muttered lyrics and jangly guitar sounds about a year before R.E.M. got the same idea.”

During the 1970s and ’80s, Boston radio stations WFNX and WBCN dominated the airwaves and promoted the Boston area music scene. ‘BCN’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble, a battle of the bands, was at the Inn Square Men’s Bar in 1978 when winner La Peste took the top slot and The Mechanics took second. Other bands to compete that year included Baby’s Arm, Lazers, Marc Thor, Thrills, Unnatural Axe, and The Stompers.

Stompers frontman Sal Baglio has fond memories of playing at the Inn Square. “People were right up in your face in that place. They were right there. In a lot of ways, it was a positive thing—that it was so small. It made you play right to the people and work hard. Whenever we played there the place would be packed, and I’m sure that most of those people there hadn’t heard of us yet. So we were going after them. We wanted them to come back and to follow us. That was the whole deal back then. And we worked the room… And like many people before me and after me, one of [my] great memories is jumping up on that table that was just in front of the stage and doin’ a good Chuck Berry duckwalk up and down that thing.”

After playing the Inn Square, The Stompers went on to tour with the J. Geils Band and The Beach Boys. The Stompers had numerous hits including their song “Coast to Coast,” which was used in the soundtrack for John Sayles’ 1980 movie The Return of the Secaucus Seven. “We had a good run. We were really fortunate,” Sal told me. “The shows with Geils were in New England. So we went from playing the Inn Square Men’s Bar and the other clubs to places with twenty thousand people.” After that: “the next time we played a club, you couldn’t get in. With Geils, it was a built-in audience. ‘Here’s another band from Boston!’ —and the place went crazy. Our whole approach was to burn the barn down when we went up and played, which is what J. Geils did…The Beach Boys—that was just too heavy. I’m a Brian Wilson fan and a Beach Boys fan, so when we got those gigs…I say this to a lot to different people: My life has been like a rock and roll fantasy come true. And it’s just amazing. Those shows were a lot of fun.”

Billed as a solo artist, Robert Ellis Orrall also has fond memories of playing at the Inn Square from 1979 to 1984. Originally from Winthrop, Orrall moved to Nashville, eventually coming full circle and returning home to Massachusetts. “I can tell you unequivocally: It was my favorite place to play. No doubt about it.” In 1980, Orrall signed with RCA, and he continues to work with his bandmates of more than forty years. His numerous albums include: Fixation (1981), Special Pain (1983), Contain Yourself (1984), and Flying Colors (1993). As a singer-songwriter, he penned numerous Top 40 hits. His songs have been recorded by Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Lindsay Lohan, and Katzenjammer, and he’s written number one hit songs for Shenandoah and Clay Walker. He also co-produced Taylor Swift’s multi-platinum debut album, and garnered a CMA nomination for Duo of the Year with Orrall & Wright.

Robert Ellis Orrall and David Stefanelli. Photo courtesy David Stefanelli.

Yet playing the Inn Square “was instrumental in getting us to the point where we were ready to get a record deal. It was the best atmosphere to play in.” Like others who played the club, Orrall loved that the audience was so close to the stage. “After my first or second gig, I figured out that the table that ran all the way down the middle of the room was bolted to the floor. So I could jump from the stage on to the table and use it as a stage. I started telling our sound guy, ‘Hey, give me another forty feet of microphone cable.’” One night when the place was packed and there was a line outside waiting to get in, Orrall went out the front door and sang on the sidewalk while the band kept playing inside.

“The other thing that made the Inn Square special was Marshall. The guy loved bands—and he understood. He just got it. The guy has a rock ‘n’ roll heart. You put that together: the room, the crowds, Marshall—and I thought it had the best name for a club: The Inn Square Men’s Bar (Ladies Invited). I always loved that name.”

Drummer David Stefanelli grew up a few blocks away from the Inn Square Men’s Bar. When he was fourteen, he started playing in local bands. With access to the greater Boston area, he was exposed to a wide variety of music. When he was twenty, he joined Robert Ellis Orrall’s band.

David Stefanelli at the Inn Square. Photo courtesy of David Stefanelli.

“The music business in Boston at that time was just a plethora of unbelievable creativity. I went from just a local guy playing in basic, local bands to playing with someone who was about to do something that was very important. Inman Square was this hidden gem. In those early days in the ‘80s, it was a short window for the Inman Square Men’s Bar. Right across the street from the Inn Square Men’s Bar was the Ding Ho comedy club. I gotta say that I put Marshall Simpkins in the same category as Barry Crimmins, who started the Ding Ho.” Both venues were springboards for talented artists, conduits to bigger audiences and, in many instances, national or global recognition. “They were very similar places. That whole time right there was like a special thing: Here ya go. This is gonna be magical for however long it lasts.”

When Orrall’s band got their first gig at the Inn Square, David met Marshall. “Right from the get-go, this guy was like a happy uncle or something. He was so nice to everybody. I remember that first show vividly. Our band was like a power pop band…it was like a bunch of nerdy collegiate people. Bob wrote some really cool, kind of Elvis Costello-y songs. And that place…the audiences were always so into it. It was like being a superstar. People just went nuts. It was wonderful. Everyone that worked there –all the bartenders, the waitresses, Marshall—they were all fantastic.”

After becoming a well-known presence on the Boston area music scene, Didi Stewart & the Amplifiers changed musical direction. Driving home from the movies one night, the band decided that forming a satirical all-girl group seemed like a fun idea. Girls Night Out “was just gonna be a one-night thing. Nobody thought it was going to be any more than that,” Didi recalled recently. The bandmates made a trip to the local Salvation Army “to get really bad mini dresses,” supplemented with fishnet hose.

Some of the regulars got together as a gag, calling themselves “The Excessive Social Drinkers.” Faye Wolfe is the sax player with hat and fur stole. Photo courtesy Julie Keay.

They had all played the Inn Square before “in different aggregations.” And Marshall was open to the idea, giving them a night for Girls Night Out. He gave them many chances to develop a following. “And that’s what set him apart from everybody else.” He brought bands in and “let them have several tries with the idea of developing the band and developing the following, which was good for everybody. It worked for the band, it worked for the audience, and it worked for him. I thought that was real vision.”

The debut of Girls Night Out got rave reviews. Didi’s songs “Affair of the Heart” and “Matter of Time” were part of the set list, along with covers of songs by Mary Wells, the Ronettes, the Velvelettes, and Dusty Springfield. The place was packed, the audience went crazy. “It was just screaming and yelling from the beginning of that night until the end,” Didi told me. The wild hair idea had turned into a viable rock and roll vehicle, and the band spent several years touring throughout New England, even making stops in New York City. “But that night at the Inn Square was probably the best night of all, just because it was so raucous and so much fun.”

When new owners purchased the building, the club’s street level spot was up for grabs. There was some discussion of moving the club to the basement, but Marshall knew that was not going to work. The S&S next door had long objected to the noise. “We tried to get the old Legal [Seafoods] building and the city wouldn’t allow it. So, we just said enough and got out of the business.”

The end came in the fall of 1984 when the club’s liquor license expired. In a Harvard Crimson article, Mary C. Calnan, the licensing board’s chairman stated that, “the main ground for the license denial was the fierce opposition among area residents, who feared that the bar’s new location would increase noise in the neighborhood and require extra parking.”

Soon after the beloved bar closed, the S&S Restaurant took over the space. Sometimes I sit on my Inn Square Men’s Bar barstool and stare at my Positive Proof sign and remember the good times. Let me know if you have any memories you’d like to share.

Vintage fake front page of the Boston Sunday Globe. Courtesy of the David Bieber Archives. http://www.davidbieberarchives.com

An Appreciation: Nanci Caroline Griffith (July 6, 1953-August 13, 2021)

In her songs, the landscape Nanci traveled through drew on many influences, including literature. Books featured prominently on her album covers and in her songs. She admired great writers. Her songs were expertly rendered stories.

Like all great storytellers, she brought us along with her to show us what she was seeing. Through her eyes and ears, listeners met and got to know her characters, whether they be dreamers, oil rig workers, loving friends, farmers or daredevils. Nanci observed and wrote about it.

Truly, she was of the people and for the people. In the best way, she was a unifying force, a reflection of our common bonds. In their August 15 YouTube tribute, Pete and Maura Kennedy of the duo The Kennedys—both former bandmates of Nanci’s—observed that Nanci was “able to empathize with struggling people” and that she was “an advocate for the voiceless.”

A good example of her poet’s sensibility and insight is her song, “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret).” Capturing the emotions of friendship and loss, Nanci also eloquently expressed the fleeting sense most of us can identify with about the passage of time—and what becomes of us—and our dreams.

But that light, the one that exists within each of us, also illuminates our shared history and our human connection to each other. Like all great music, it endures, both as the light within Nanci’s songs and within each of us too.

I still have a newspaper article, my ticket stub and set list from when Nanci and the Blue Moon Orchestra played the Carefree Theatre in West Palm Beach on December 1, 1995:

Nanci and her superb band were in town as part of their tour for the album Flyer. That night’s show at The Carefree, an intimate room of less than a thousand seats with remarkably good acoustics and an appreciative audience, was stellar. (In the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma, The Carefree was later demolished.) At the merchandise table, I bought a large format promotional booklet in support of the tour, chock-full of photographs, band bios and Nanci’s notes. On the back page, there’s a lovely photo of Nanci:

The inscription on the back of the booklet reads:

“It’s a fly by night traveler’s life I have led”…

How’s Business Been at Record Stores During the Pandemic?

In reading the newsletter from the producers of the excellent documentary film Vinyl Nation, I was sorry to see that Bop Street Records was closing. This was mid-pandemic 2020. Seattle had been home to Bop Street since 1979.

The news wasn’t good. But was it a trend? I worried about what other stores were doing to stay afloat. Were they going to suffer a similar fate?

I called Bop Street’s business manager Bob Jacobs, a friend of owner Dave Voorhees. He filled me in on the details: Dave was selling the entire contents of the store to the Internet Archive in San Francisco, where the vinyl would be converted to digital files that would be made available online.

Next I heard about Amoeba Music: the Sunset Boulevard location was closing. Oh no.

It turned out there was no cause for alarm. Amoeba was moving to a new location. Turns out Amoeba’s mail-order business had helped sustain them through the pandemic. A GoFundMe campaign contributed additional support.

Amoeba opened at their new location in April. The store at 6400 Hollywood Boulevard still requires masks and social distancing for customers. To protect the employees, customers are asked to limit their time in-store.

This was reassuring. And with some research, I found the news for independent record stores was better than I expected.

 Bill Plaster, owner of Dr. Strange Records in Rancho Cucamonga, California, was quoted in the Orange County Register in March. He said store business was strong. “People have all the time in the world, they have nothing else to do, they’re bored and they actually have extra money. They’re just coming out of the woodwork, so for me it’s been super, super busy.”

Photo Courtesy of Dusty Groove

From Chicago, Dusty Groove co-owner Rick Wojcik told me much the same thing. He said, “Given the rules here in the City of Chicago, we were forced to stay closed for quite some time. But they extended that by a period of months, just to keep everyone safe. Because so many other record stores were closed and because we’re primarily an online retailer, our sales went way, way up. We did a huge takeout business with local customers, many of whom were glad for the opportunity to shop safely and get what they wanted without risk. Over twenty years ago we established a feature on the Dusty Groove website that allowed customers to order online and pick up in person, and that feature really came in handy during the past year. Everything in the store is also simultaneously listed at dustygroove.com so customers could shop easily, including [for] new arrivals, just as if they were in the store. We had also put in a side takeout window for local online orders back in 2001; it was hardly used at the time, but was there last year, ready to be reopened, and it’s continued to do a very good business. We’re now almost back to normal, but the increase in sales has stayed. And we’re really grateful to all the customers who supported us during this very tricky time.”

Logo Courtesy of Radio-Active Records

In Ft. Lauderdale, Radio-Active Records’ Sean Kayes said much the same. “In late February [2020], as the news reports started coming in, it seemed pretty obvious that covid-19 was not going to be something that would be easily contained. I told [staffers] Natalie and Gunther that I was going to order disposable gloves and masks just in case they became necessary. I also suggested that we beef up our online sales presence and that we should work out a system for curbside pick-ups in case lock-downs were ordered. It turned out that all of these ended up being pretty good ideas. 

“We closed the shop on March 7th after it became clear this thing wasn’t going away and that remaining open could create a public health hazard. I decided it was silly to wait for some government agency to tell us it was time to close when all the indicators led that way. Although revenue for those three months of lock-down was off by about 60%, we managed to survive with the help of a Paycheck Protection Loan that allowed me to pay my employees and meet my other monthly obligations. That loan, and our loyal customers who continued their support through online and phone orders, and curbside sales and pick-ups, provided just enough revenue to allow us to get by for that period. 

“We also used the down-time to make improvements at the shop. We did some painting, commissioned some new artwork for the walls, reorganized product, and in general just spruced up the space so that when we did re-open customers would recognize that we were at work even while the shop was only in semi-operating order.

“When we finally opened again on June 15th with coherent and pretty strict anti-covid protocols in place, it only took a few days for word to get out and people who had rarely left their homes for over three months began pouring in. It seemed people were just happy to do something fun and to get new music from a non-digital source. We stayed busy throughout the summer and then three Record Store Day drops in August, September, and October helped keep the ball rolling. Black Friday and Christmas brought another rush of business. 

“Even with all the hell that was 2020, we managed to have one of best years of the 25 years we ‘ve been in business. Fortunately, although things have levelled off somewhat, we are still doing very spritely business. We have gained scores of new customers and have retained our loyal following. Business has remained strong enough that we even hired a fourth full-time employee. We all feel fortunate and grateful that we have been able to provide people with a safe, fun, and exciting place to go during what many people will remember as one of the worst years of their lives.”

And from Phoenix, store owner Kimber Lanning of Stinkweeds had a similar experience. She told me, “Stinkweeds has been busier than ever. It turns out that everyone needed more music during the pandemic. Turntable sales were booming and both new and used vinyl sales skyrocketed. Our team added vinyl subscription services and more online sales through shop.stinkweeds.com. Curbside pick-up is still favored by some, but overall the store is getting back to the new normal—which is a blend of in-store, curbside, and mail order. Overall, our customers were pleased we took health very seriously and enforced mask-wearing while limiting the number of people in the store. We have a ton of new customers who found us during the crisis, and our regulars are standing with us as well. We’re feeling very fortunate and hoping to see everyone out and about very soon.”

So my mind is relieved. It looks to me like independent record stores may have made it through the pandemic intact. And their creative methods for making changes to meet their customers’ needs is impressive. Due to flexibility and loyalty, record stores have been able to please their customers while keeping the business alive.

Revisiting the Back Room at the Idler

With Special Guests: Patty Larkin, Janie Barnett, members of Bijou Link and Company Creek, Kari Estrin, Barbara Phaneuf, Spider John Koerner, Bob Franke, Lenny Rothenberg, and Paul Rishell, and a tribute to Mr. Bones

This photograph was taken by Christopher Hail in 1983, a year after The Back Room at the Idler closed. The Blue Parrot is the doorway on the left. The Idler was in the basement space beneath. Ferdinand’s is on the right. Photo courtesy Cambridge Historical Commission.

The Back Room at the Idler

Community, a sense of belonging, is important to most people. As humans, we need “third places”—those destinations out in the world and other than our homes and workplaces. And when it comes to third places, the greater metropolitan Boston area is loaded with them. Or it used to be.

One of those places was the Back Room at the Idler in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Back Room was a short walk west on Mt. Auburn Street from Harvard Square, beyond the MBTA bus tunnel. The three-story wood frame building which extended from Mifflin Place to the next alleyway west housed the Blue Parrot. The entrance to the Idler was beneath the Blue Parrot, a few short steps below street level. The Idler was part bar, part coffeehouse/restaurant, and part music club. The dark room seated about sixty people under low ceilings, and the stage was small. In its prime, the club was an amazing place to be—as a performer or audience member.

The Idler story reflects a place and time that was special for a variety of reasons. One reason is that the Idler was more than a gathering place, and not just a folk music club. The Back Room served as a nexus, a crossroads, a point of connection on the acoustic music map where locals and travelers, audience and performers met and hung out together. Where stories, news of the day, and good times were shared. And where music dues were paid.

Early on, the basement space that would later become the Idler hosted music. Then, in 1979 Lenny Rothenberg arrived and began handling performer bookings. He built the venue into what it became known for: a small, intimate room where appreciative audiences came to listen. Along with a bunch of other devoted people, Lenny put his heart and soul into the place. All that hands-on energy transformed the space into one of the way-stations on the Cambridge and Boston live music game board.

If you were a folkie just starting out, you could audition for a steady gig at the Idler. If you were an established act, you could play in front of a respectful and unusually reverent crowd. Energy became magic.

Sure, there were other bars, clubs, or places to go to play or hear live music: Jack’s, Plough and Stars, Cantab, Inn Square Men’s Bar, 1369, Ryle’s, Passim, Oxford Ale House, Jonathan Swift’s—a long list of locales, those spots all located in Cambridge. And you never knew what kinds of great musicians you might find playing (busking) on the street or in the subway.

Good music was everywhere in those days, and the Idler was part of the scene.

123 Mt. Auburn Street

After reading Mo Lotman’s book Harvard Square: An Illustrated History Since 1950, I was struck by the fact that no photographs of the Idler appear. No Wikipedia entry exists for the Idler either. I contacted Mo, who graciously tried to help me find photos.

Subsequent internet inquiries eventually brought me to Stephen Baird’s Buskers Advocates website, a vast trove dedicated to street performers. Alan Lewis’s article there about Mr. Bones mentioned the Idler. Stephen provided me with the names and Facebook links for several key Idler people, among them Patty Larkin and Barbara Phaneuf, and the Idler booking and venue manager Lenny Rothenberg.

This set the stage for Revisiting the Back Room at the Idler. My hope is that with the added background provided here, readers can reconnect, as I have, to some great musicians and find out more about what made the Idler important and iconic.

The performers and other key people I talked to about the Idler generously shared their thoughts and memories. In an effort to provide visual as well as written context, I’m including here their Idler calendars, promotional flyers, band photos, and a poster promoting an Idler gig.

An early Idler calendar. Courtesy Janie Barnett.

Patty Larkin (singer-songwriter, guitar, vocals)

I remember auditioning for a slot at the Idler. There were five or six acts in the room that afternoon, and we each did one or two songs. I wanted the gig because it would get me in front of a listening audience on a regular basis. I was thrilled when I learned that I got the gig.

Thus began a sort of once-a-month residency for me, one that included meeting and hearing other songwriters who were living in the Cambridge/Boston area, or who were passing through on tour. Lenny brought in Tom Paxton, Rory Block, Spider John Koerner, Paul Rishell, among others. The Idler connected the dots between the ‘60s and the ‘70s and early ‘80s in terms of keeping the Cambridge music scene alive in a raw, organic way.

I began to use the small stage as a place to try out new material, and to develop my act. It gave us a literal sounding board. Bill Morrissey, Bob Franke, Cormac McCarthy, all of us caught each other’s shows when we could, and we considered it home in a way. Simultaneously, the Boston Globe and other print media, college radio, WGBH (Saturdays and Sundays with Dick Pleasants), all combined to create a groundswell of support for the Boston singer/songwriter scene.

Passim was a vibrant venue too, but Bob and Rae Anne Donlin booked only established national acts. The Idler was our training ground. 

Once The Idler had been up and running for a while, Lenny and Kari Estrin [talent manager at Black Sheep Productions] took the bold step of producing concerts in larger venues—some on the Harvard University campus, some in public theaters. So I was able to go from the Idler to opening concerts, then to doing my own concerts.

That said, some of my favorite memories are from the Idler: raffling off an abandoned Christmas tree I found on the side of the street in Somerville on the way to the gig; singing a “Patsy Parton” bit in a blonde wig; trading sets with Janie Barnett; singing with the Raisinets. 

The key for me was having a regular gig that I could plan for, rehearse for, write for. It was a rare opportunity during a unique time.

Janie Barnett (singer-songwriter, guitar, vocals)

The Back Room at the Idler was the very first real gig I booked in Cambridge/Boston when I moved to town. Lenny held honest to god auditions, one performer after another, maybe two songs. I feel like we were all in the room at the same time, but I could be wrong about that. You just felt completely comfortable right away among this community.

My recollection is that once I got in, I played there every month without fail. Lenny was a sincere and well-meaning curator—a wine connoisseur as well, if I remember correctly. The Idler was home.

I auditioned the same day as Patty Larkin. We had met at the Stone Church in [Newmarket] New Hampshire, and through the Idler/Boston years we got to be good friends. Lenny let us do two nights together and, boy, that was a lot of songs to figure out! In addition to our originals, we added old Motown, paired down pop songs, whatever. Lenny didn’t care.

One year, he threw a New Year’s Eve party by special invitation, and since I would NEVER do a New Year’s gig, I jumped at the chance to be there, with amazing Middle Eastern food and friends.

One night I let my friend Bill Morrissey play during my break—another Stone Church pal. Bill hadn’t yet broken into the Boston/Cambridge scene, so it was a big favor. I remember he didn’t quite have the crowd with him for a few songs, and I said to a music biz guy who had come to see me, “Uh-oh, maybe this was a mistake…” The guy turned to me and said, “He’ll have them in a minute, and watch out he doesn’t outshine you.”

I will forever be grateful for those years. Among the many lessons I learned: community in this business, people you can trust, is essential.

Bijou Link flyer for an Easter gig at the Idler.

Me and the Idler

I played drums and sang with the Boston-based band Bijou Link in the late ’70s, early ’80s. When Bijou Link got the gig playing at the Idler, it felt like we had been accepted into the larger Boston-area music community. During my time with the band that community seemed vast, with many points of meaningful, deep connection.

In the band, we were all friends. On stage, we joked around quite a bit. Some of that was nerves—or kibbitzing between songs. We weren’t against making jokes about each other. We wanted to have a good time. I liked those moments on stage when we weren’t trying to take things too seriously.

Bijou Link’s Bob Blum (bass, vocals)

Playing at the Idler was a ball. We enjoyed ourselves and went over very well. I think we played there once a month (or a weekend a month).

Downstairs, tucked into the right-hand corner of the room along the back wall, there was a small, six-inch high stage. Other than onstage, there was no place to do vocal warm-ups. So we found a place to gather on the concrete stairs leading from a fire exit to the street.

Our repertoire was cool—from Bob Wills to the Cats and the Fiddle, bluegrass to out-and-out country, and a touch of folk music. The Idler crowd was always right there with us. In one of the Idler promotional blurbs, they called us an “irrepressible” band.

During one gig, as Doug was switching mid-song from banjo to fiddle, he and I had an instrument neck collision. My bass almost amputated the neck of his fiddle, but we laughed it off.

You know, as a band we got along pretty well. The loss of you [me, the blogger] and Doug in the line-up was fatal to the good times, and after that, the band moved more toward rock and roll. The move toward rock got us much more work, but we were not as cool or fun as a band. Although we worked much more after you guys left and lasted maybe another year, going through two drummers and three instrumentalists.

The original unit was probably better than we thought: irrepressible.

Bijou Link at Drumlin Farms in October 1980. Left to right: Rick, Doug, Celia, Bob and J.P. Photo by Lynn Tanner.

Bijou Link’s Rick Chadwick (guitar, vocals)

It warms my heart to know there is a story about the lovely community we were part of while orbiting the Idler. I have vivid memories of the bar as you walked in, with the music venue in the back, with big columns in the middle of the room and a six-inch-high stage that we barely fit on. There was a closet off the hallway between the bar and the music room that I would sneak into to do last minute guitar warm-ups. I wonder if people walking by heard guitar sounds [and thought] it was just part of the infrastructure of the building.

Lenny was the sweetest and most supportive of all the agents I’ve worked with. When asked by Charles Christopher [of Christopher’s in Porter Square] which band he would recommend for the Grand Opening for his new bar/restaurant venue, Lenny said Bijou Link. Clearly, his loving nature was the glue that kept the vibrant Idler scene together.

Bijou Link’s Doug Tanner (fiddle, banjo, vocals)

I always enjoyed playing at the Idler.

In retrospect, we were a pretty good and interesting band. “Miles and Miles of Cambridge”—what a hoot [a rework of Asleep at the Wheel’s “Miles and Miles of Texas”].

I remember the posts between the tables in the audience, and the low ceiling. One time I was fortunate to have the opportunity to accompany Spider John Koerner at the Idler. He had to duck to keep from hitting the ceiling. 

Spider was an idol of mine as I was growing up in Cleveland. When I was a teenager he was already a touring musician and well-known in Cleveland. So it was a major thrill to have the opportunity to play with him for a night in the Back Room. I thoroughly enjoyed playing the tunes with him that I had heard in his recordings for so many years. I was pleased that I could play well enough to keep up.

1980 Idler calendar. Courtesy Jim Rohrer.

Company Creek’s Jim Rohrer (guitar, mandolin, vocals)

When Company Creek first started playing at the Idler in 1979, we were a four-piece group. Our line-up was myself on mandolin, Steve Storch on banjo, Joe Lutz on bass, and Michael Bloomfield, guitarist. We all sang at some point, and when Joe left the band we brought in Marty Sachs on bass and later, Carol Hamm. Katie joined us in late 1980.

Lenny was our contact at the Idler. He was the person that booked us and he was our boss when we played there. Back then, Kari [Estrin] was involved with Cambridge River Fest and I think she also booked us into that event.

Company Creek was a mix of traditional bluegrass—things like the Louvin Brothers and Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs-type songs—along with very contemporary takes on songs like “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “Midnight Rider.”

We knew how to please an audience because we had played on the street a lot in Harvard Square. We knew how to work an audience, and I think that’s what Lenny liked about us. We knew how to work a crowd because we had played as a quartet on top of the kiosk at Out-of-Town News. I can prove it! We had to climb up a ladder to get there. It was our Cambridge Arts Council thing—and we actually got paid for that.

In this photo taken by David Lubarsky in September 1979, Company Creek plays for the crowds in Harvard Square.

We liked to wear cowboy hats when we were playing. And at the Idler, the stage was on a platform and the room had low ceilings. We couldn’t wear our hats because they would hit the ceiling. And our bass player, Joe Lutz, who was very tall, used to have to stand offstage.

I did enjoy the free beer. That was a good thing.

Company Creek’s Katie Hickey (vocals)

We were also very young and very good looking—all of us. That helped a lot. We were a very cute band.

Jim Rohrer and Katie Hickey. Photo courtesy Jim Rohrer.

One thing that stands out in my mind about playing the Idler is that the gig was $60—and there were five of us. We each made $12 that night. It was way less than what we made on the street.

Kari Estrin (Kari Estrin Management and Consulting)

Going to the Idler was like being at Cheers [bar from the hit TV show], though that song was written later. The Bull & Finch Pub [setting for the TV show] was only a few miles away on Beacon Street. But when you walked into the Back Room, it was true: “Everybody knows your name.”

My friend Kevin Bradley was one of the bartenders. And before I had gotten through the door I heard, “Hi, Kari!” What a way to feel like one belonged. Then you’d hang with some friends and have a good chat, even if you weren’t there to see the music. Even though I didn’t drink much, Kevin would occasionally surprise me with a new concoction he was thinking up. I really felt I belonged and was part of the family of misfits that we all were.

It was a small venue, maybe sixty-plus seats, maybe more. But, depending on who you went to see, sometimes you knew about ten to twenty people in the audience; everyone greeting each other, pulling up chairs to share the latest and catch up, then sitting in reverence when someone we came to see was performing.

I remember each time Patty Larkin performed, I felt like I was in “folk church”—a reverent hush fell over the room. Of course, she was funny too, but those were special nights.

Regulars were Geoff Bartley, Paul Rishell, and Bob Franke. I remember early gigs with Shawn Colvin, who played the Fast Folk Series in NYC. I think Fast Folk knew about the Idler and sent people up to Boston.

The Idler was a bar and coffeehouse integrated into one and they also served food. But you went to listen and socialize with friends while there.

From the entrance, people walked downstairs into the front room at the Idler. Once you entered the front room, you walked straight back to the opposite side of the room and on the right was an open doorway into the Back Room.

The stage was carpeted, and I think the floor was also carpeted. It was small. When I would perform in a trio, there was just a little more room on each side! There were small tables and padded chairs, and we pulled all the chairs around those small tables to sit with our friends.

I spent several nights a week there. My hang, a lot of our hangs. At Passim there was a cover. At the Idler we didn’t charge a cover. So we all gravitated there for our social lives. The bar probably provided the guarantee for the artists.

I was young when I started out in folk music, playing guitar by age twelve. As a senior in high school and in college, I was booking shows in coffeehouses. In my senior year of college, I produced a folk festival featuring artists like Hedy West (“500 Miles”) and Boys of the Lough. That’s also where I first met Geoff Bartley, whom I also booked at the festival.

When I first moved to the Boston area I lived in Somerville. The next year I moved to Cambridge and lived in a group house on Dana Street with five others. I was working as the first national promotion person at Rounder Records in 1978; then by 1979-’80, I moved just blocks from Sanders Theatre. Later, I secured the affiliation with Harvard University (at legendary Mitch Greenhill’s suggestion) in order to produce the first folk concert series there. With Black Dog Productions, I also published The Black Dog Rag, a free four-page newsletter which not only publicized our concerts but others around New England.

In 1979, when I initially announced my intention to produce major folk shows, Lenny Rothenberg and Sandy Sheehan of Sandy’s Music both volunteered to be my partner. I chose Lenny as my partner (he stayed a year). I eventually changed my company name to Black Sheep Concerts & Publications, Inc., and Sandy’s Music became one of Black Sheep’s ticket outlets, along with the Music Emporium. Sandy also lived in a group house in Cambridge called “Old Joe Clarks” along with Orrin Star, who opened my first concert with the John Renbourn Group with his own musical partner Gary Mehalick. Since that first concert, we had many Black Sheep after-parties at Sandy’s house. 


The first year of Black Dog, we sent out concert flyers to our mailing list, and that eventually was supplanted by The Black Dog Rag. The next year, those four pages turned into the initial thirty-six-page edition of The Black Sheep Review, which I published for a total of three years, uniting the New England and Northeast folk scenes and being subscribed to nationally and internationally.

In 1986, six years after producing over sixty concerts in Sanders Theatre, Paine Hall (at Harvard), the Berklee Performance Center, and Boston’s Symphony Hall, with legends ranging from Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie to Doc Watson and Steve Goodman to Nanci Griffith and Steeleye Span, I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where I continue to book city-wide festivals and venues, artist and tour manage, and continue my holistic music career consulting business.

Idler poster courtesy of Kari Estrin.

Barbara Phaneuf (singer-songwriter, guitar, vocals)

My best memories of the Idler are having the great fortune of meeting so many incredible singers, songwriters, and guitar players. I lived in an apartment on Gerry Street right off of Mount Auburn. The Idler was across the street. It was my second home, the “Cheers” bar. We all had our places. I became a regular.

And the shows! In came Spider John Koerner with his umbrella hat, Paul Rishell killing the guitar, Patty Larkin with her amazing guitar work and songwriting. Carol Goodman wrote and sang with an intensity that really moved me.

When she was just getting started, Lenny booked Lucy Kaplansky. What a show that was! 

A Tribute to Mr. Bones (John Alden Burrill, 1930-1993)

Mr. Bones was a large man who stood tall onstage, although hunched due to his spinal condition and arthritis. Often dressed in a patterned or flannel shirt, he had a warm presence, his kind eyes reflecting joy, his bearded face smiling, his body moving in time with the music. Soft-spoken and easy to talk to, Mr. Bones represented the openness and camaraderie that was part of what made the Idler special.

Rhythm bones used in music were once actual animal bones, but these days are made of wood or plastic. To create the distinctive clacking sound, they are played with a steady downward wrist action, followed by an upward movement, which is repeated in time with the music.

An article from 2002 titled “My Mr. Bones Contribution to the Old Boston Rock and Roll Museum” appears on the Buskers Advocates website. Writer Alan Lewis pays tribute to the man and his music. He explains how, for musicians—both lesser known and world famous—Mr. Bones was unique, a true folk music original. Those who sang his praises include Spider John Koerner (Mr. Bones appears on Koerner’s album Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Been, which was recorded in Koerner’s home town of Minneapolis); folk icon Pete Seeger; blues slide stylist Bonnie Raitt, who, as writer Steve Morse put it, was John Burrill’s greatest champion; Zydeco legend Clifton Chenier, who brought Mr. Bones onstage during the 1986 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; and Doc Watson (when he asked Bones what key he wanted to play in, Bones jokingly replied, “the skeleton key”).

Mr. Bones told writer/musician Elijah Wald that the Idler was like a second home. There, he played regularly with Boston area music groups or street performers including the Brattle Street Players, Foxfire, Steve Baird, the Back Beat Boys, the Fabulous Billygoons, and the Infliktors. When Wald asked Mr. Bones about how he approached other musicians about joining them onstage, Bones told him, “I just ask quietly, nicely, if I can do a few numbers. Some people don’t like the looks of me, or they don’t like the bones. I never push. I know when to hightail it out of there.”

Spider John Koerner (singer-songwriter, guitar, vocals)

As far as I’m concerned, the folk music scene in Boston was better than New York and better than the West Coast. When I was in Boston, I had Chip Taylor Smith and either Robbie Phillips (who had a washtub bass) or Paul Strother on bass—and Bones. The Idler was kind of a dark little place. I played there a lot of times.

One year, it was New Year’s Eve. We were going to play at the Idler. I had a shortwave receiver. And I went out on the shortwave receiver to try and hear different places in the world when it struck midnight. One was a ship that was way out in the ocean. I tried to get a collection of those [sounds] and then take ‘em down to the Idler and play them—a New Year’s Eve Around the World kinda thing.

One night, there was a guy who used to hang out at the Idler who was friends with [Olympic figure skater] Peggy Fleming. He came in with her and introduced me to her: “This is Spider John Koerner.” That was charming, of course.

Bob Franke (singer-songwriter, guitar, vocals)

The Idler was important to me in my pre-Passim days. I have a great deal of admiration for Len, who managed it at the time. He walked a tightrope in trying to put together a listening room that served alcohol.

My favorite memory comes from the time that I recommended he hire my friend Claudia Schmidt, who was unknown in the area then. He hired her sight unseen. Come show time, Claudia walked slowly up to the stage singing an a cappella song and her presence commanded dead silence in the bar. Len thanked me on the spot. Claudia of course commanded the whole evening.

Bill Morrisey was also very successful there and I enjoyed his shows a great deal.  

I learned a great deal about the value of entertainment in my own shows, and drank enough to be on the same page as my audience. But it became clear to me that I preferred to make a living as a street singer, which I did for a few years until my daughter was born.

Lenny Rothenberg

The Idler was underneath the Blue Parrot, and it was a successor to a coffeehouse that had existed under the Brattle Theatre [at 40 Brattle Street]. The people who ran those had gotten together with the guy that owned the building. They set up a French restaurant [Ferdinand’s], then moved the Blue Parrot over to Mt. Auburn Street. They set up the Idler because there was a basement and this back room they didn’t know what to do with.

For a while in the early ‘70s my sister had been a roommate with Bonnie Raitt at Radcliffe. And through her I met Dick Waterman, her manager, who managed a number of black bluesmen. And through Dick, we [got] Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee at the Idler.

I don’t really have a musical background but I knew who to listen to. I’ve gotten a lot of good advice from Dick, and Byron [Linardos], who designed and laid out the Idler calendars and helped a lot; and Kari [Estrin], later. [Sarah Hickler was Byron’s apprentice and also put together the calendars.] I tried to listen to what they listened to—or listened for. And we got a lot of good people that way. People that were brought to us, people that I thought had something particular to say.

So I booked the club and did the promotion, and Kari helped with the promotion. I got a lot of help from a lot of people. Kari helped me a lot and she and I subsequently produced concerts together.

One of the first major acts at the Idler was Tom Paxton. I had never met Tom and I think I was introduced to his agent through Byron. The last time Tom had played in Harvard Square, he played a larger bar that also booked rock music. He came into the room to do a sound check. And the minute he walked in, I could tell he was unhappy. It was a lot smaller venue than he had been playing.

I said “We’re gonna do two shows. Turn the house. How long a set do you do?” And he very defensively said (something like), “Sixty minutes. That’s it.”

I was feeling a little inadequate because this was my first venture into bigger time gigs. “Okay, okay, Tom…Whatever you say.”

And then [that night], we came in and he started playing and it was magical. People just loved him. And you could feel the love coming back to the stage and you could feel him feeding on it. It was a synergy that doesn’t happen all the time. And it was absolutely wonderful.

He came off the stage and came up to me and said, “Thank you very much. Good show. It was great! And I did sixty-six minutes!”

He was proud of himself for doing sixty-six minutes! Here was this guy who wrote about emotion and life and feeling—and he counted the minutes.

There were things we did at the Idler that were on two levels, [with] the bigger name acts that we booked. It was an informal network of small club venues: the Press Room in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Iron Horse in Northampton, and we got to know some of the people at [Gerde’s] Folk City. We did a semi-official exchange with the Press Room: we did a Press Room night at the Idler, and the Press Room did an Idler night. The people who ran all of these clubs would talk to each other.

That’s how we met Bill Morrisey, who became one of the regulars at the Idler. And I got a call from the guy at the Iron Horse who said, “There’s this woman that’s been playing at Folk City and getting a reputation in New York, and she’s looking to play outside of New York. If I book her, would you book her?” It was Suzanne Vega. And that was her first time out of New York. She played the Iron Horse and the Idler. We got to know some of the singer-songwriters at Folk City and we had quite a number of them come up to play.

Passim was a bigger, better known venue than the Idler. Two of the guys in the Fugs wanted to play the Idler. Their agent called me. I was friendly with Bob Donlin, booking Passim—this was kind of early on—so I said, “Why don’t you call Passim?” The agent said he had, and Bob had said, “Oh, no. I won’t book these guys and I have my reasons.” I immediately went over there and asked him why he wasn’t booking these guys. And Bob said, “Oh, they attract a bad crowd. They attract people who drink.” The Idler was a bar. So I went back and booked ‘em for two nights. I will say: We had two very good nights with those guys from the Fugs.

One of the nice things about the Idler: It was one of a number of nexuses around Boston where local people [performers and audience] connected to traveling people—the national people. People would hang out.

And there was a lot of support [for that community] in small media. There was Bay Windows, a gay and lesbian paper. There was a small radio station called WERS out of Emerson [College]. There was a commercial radio station WCAS—Cambridge, Arlington, Somerville—which was predominantly a folk station. There were a couple of alternative weeklies: the Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper, and the people at the Boston Globe were supportive.

There came to be a group of people who were hanging out with each other a lot. It really was a community—and the Idler was a part of it. That was the nice thing about it: community.

Paul Rishell (singer-songwriter, guitar, vocals)

When I got up here [in the mid-1970s], I didn’t really know anything about it. A friend of mine who was going to Harvard said, “Come up to Cambridge. There’s a lot of clubs and you can live cheaply. There’s rent control.” I didn’t know what that was. So I came up here with the idea that I could possibly survive. And it was astounding. It was such an amazing place to be a musician—or any kind of creative person. Rent control made this whole thing possible. It was really cheap to live here. [Cambridge enacted rent control policies in 1970. The State of Massachusetts ended rent control in 1994.]

And everybody you met was an artist, a musician, an actor, photographer, painter, or dancer. Everyone was artistic. You stayed out all night. It was like paradise. So that’s the groundwork.

The Idler was very important for me—and I think it was for everybody. It was a place you could go—you didn’t have to sell drinks. You just could go there and there was no pressure on you… You didn’t have to make enough money to pay for the owner’s girlfriend or something. You just had to go there. And if you could get people to come, then you got a percentage of the door… But it was pretty mellow and it was very Cantabridgian in that it was very egalitarian and everybody had rights and everybody was aware of them; and people were polite to each other for the most part. It wasn’t like some of the other places in Harvard Square.

In the beginning I would get a gig there once a month. My performance at the Idler started with me playing some country blues—I only knew three or four that I could perform. But then I would do covers of tunes, oldies, which I would rearrange. Like “Save the Last Dance For Me” in Drop D tuning; and that was pretty popular for some reason, and I would do that every night. People would ask for that.

Lenny would book the place and it just started to grow day by day and I don’t think it ever really stopped once it started. In the beginning, when it started to become a bar and music club, there were a lot of gay women in the audience. They were a regular audience for me, so I had a great time there.

I had a knack for doing covers, things like “Hit the Road, Jack”—anything that people might recognize. And at the end of the set, I would maybe take out a Robert Johnson song and try to fit it in with the rest of the material and see if anybody would pick it out and say, “Hey, I noticed that was a Robert Johnson song.” It wasn’t until much later that this happened.

I think it was from the Idler that I got the Passim gigs, opening up for a lot of people. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee many times.

One summer, in 1978 or ’79, when they were playing in front of the Brattle Theatre, I saw a group that would become The City Ladies Country Quartet: Leslie Smith on guitar, mandolin; Denya Levine (La-vine), fiddle; Sidney (Sid) Wilks, bodhran (Irish drum); and Freyda Epstein, fiddle. That’s when I first saw and met Leslie. [Paul and Leslie later married.]

The next weekend, I heard them again, and sat and listened to them play a whole set. And Freyda, in this beautiful voice, sang an Irish love song called “Do You Love an Apple?” And I thought, “Man, I can get them to come down to the Idler!” So, I asked ‘em and they said, “Yeah, we’d love to play there.” So I asked Lenny and he said, “Yeah, sure. Great.”

At the Idler, they were great. They were all friendly and had a good rapport with the audience. They ended up being kind of a tragic story. Leslie [Paul’s wife] died in 1993. Right after that, Sid got cancer and died two or three years later. And then Freyda was in a car accident. Denya is still alive and plays music.

 Lenny took the time to call people, to talk to other people, to make arrangements. And nothing would have been possible without Lenny Rothenberg. He was the most important cog in the whole wheel. Lenny did all the legwork and made all the phone calls and stuff. I did have a lot of input. And I did care about it. I recognized that it was something that was part of the times and was going to disappear.

I knew right away that it was going to be a good place, because the people there all had something that they truly wanted to give. They weren’t as concerned about getting as they were about giving. That’s how I felt about it.

On closing night, in October ’82, I played the last song. It was by Peter C. Johnson, who probably played the Idler before I did. It was called “Goodbye, Dear Friends.”

Playbill

I welcome readers’ comments to this post. Do you have an Idler memory you’d like to share?

Here’s a partial list of the Boston area performers who shared my good times at the Idler:

Geoff Bartley, Robin Bateau, Pete Chavez, Bob Franke, Paul Geremia, Bob Halperin, Peter C. Johnson, Reeve Little, Ocasek & Orr (before they were in the Cars), Barbara Phaneuf, Paul Rishell, Fred Small, Chris Smither, Lenny Solomon

Some of the New Hampshire-based performers who appeared at the Idler:

Cliff Eberhardt, Cormac McCarthy, Bill Morrisey

New York City-based performers who appeared at the Idler:

Shawn Colvin, Jack Hardy, Lucy Kaplansky, Christine Lavin, Rod MacDonald, David Massengill, Suzanne Vega

Nationally known performers who appeared at the Idler:

Eric Bogle, Brian Bowers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Michael Hedges, Si Kahn, Connie Kaldor, Spider John Koerner, Dave Van Ronk, Stamfel and Weber (two of the Fugs), Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Tom Paxton, Jesse Winchester


 

Vinyl Hypotheses

As someone who is a long-time fan of vinyl records, I have often looked at one of my records spinning on my turntable and wondered how it fits in to the grand scheme of things.

That may sound strange, but one of the reasons the thought occurs to me is likely due to some of my reading about our recent discoveries in astrophysics.

For instance, I recently learned—in the book Visual Galaxy: A Guide to the Milky Way and Beyond, by National Geographic–that our home galaxy, the Milky Way, spins clockwise.

Is it coincidence that a vinyl record spinning on a turntable also spins clockwise?  

For a record collector like me, reading another factoid in Visual Galaxy was the kicker:

The Milky Way is “shaped rather like a warped vinyl record exposed to high temperatures.”

Imagine that. But from there, the analogy diverges a bit: rather than resembling my scratched and warped copy of Meet the Beatles, the image in the book looks more like a Fedora hat, with its brim folded up in the back and down in the front.

Warped, but not unplayable.

Unlike my beat-up record—which is still playable–a record shaped like a Fedora probably wouldn’t be.

But I take comfort in the notion that a record spins in the same direction as the Milky Way; and that our galaxy is warped. To me, that says a lot.

Furthering the analogy, the spindle on my turntable looks like a shrunken version of the bulbous gamma ray shapes scientists have found projecting out of each side of our galaxy’s center–a massive black hole. And, the grooves and spaces between songs on most records could be said to suggest the Milky Way’s spiral arms; or, more obviously the rings of Saturn.

A few fun facts about our home galaxy:

Disc Diameter: Approximately 100,000 light-years

Disc Width: Approximately 1,000 and 10,000 light-years

Distance from sun to center of galaxy: between 24,700 and 26,700 light-years

Orbit of sun around center of galaxy: between 225 and 250 million years

On a turntable, a long-playing vinyl record revolves at 33 and 1/3 rpm. That’s pretty slow compared to our sun and solar system, rotating at approximately 515,000 mph around the center of the Milky Way.

The next time I play one of my vinyl records, I’ll be thinking about that.

Music Collage

Last year, I put this collage together using a bunch of different photos, many copied from different books or clipped out of magazines. I always like to add sheet music and–if possible–other photos that provide texture. A partial list of performers included (going clockwise from the top left and circling around once): Buddy Holly, Sonny Boy Williamson, Neil Young, Bob Wills, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Pink Floyd, Buddy Rich, Buck Owens, King Tubby, Gerry Mulligan, Bob Marley with the I Threes, Horace Silver, Hank Williams, Lester Young, George Harrison, Paul Butterfield, Joni Mitchell…see anybody else you recognize?

Yesterday, I threw myself a Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen-a-thon

One of the great album covers created for the Cody band by artist Chris Frayne.

In the early-to-mid 1970s, the band led by Commander Cody (George Frayne) was a versatile, fun-loving powerhouse. Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen could rock, do country, truck drivin’ songs, western swing, Elvis, pop, croon ballads…while Cody, with his boogie-woogie piano and creative spoken asides, provided booster rocket torque. The band did tons of cover songs–I’ll bet they could play just about anything–and they also wrote, produced and performed and popularized some of their own material.

So, to revisit all those good times, yesterday, I threw myself a Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen-a-thon.

Due to my changing tastes in music over the years, I have parted company with a Cody record or two. But on my recent trips to one of my favorite record stores (Record Rack in Pompano Beach, Florida), while searching through the (used) New Arrivals bins, I’ve had the urge to replace as much of Cody’s material as I could find. Priced at around eight dollars per album, there hasn’t been much to argue with myself about.

My current Cody count for yesterday’s one-man music festival was six albums. And, a recent purchase added to the bonanza: CC and the LPA’s We’ve Got a Live One Here—two live LPs recorded when the band toured Europe.

One of the manufacturing goofs in this bunch of vinyl is my copy of Hot Licks, Cold Steel and Truckers Favorites with a very photogenic semi-truck with the word JET painted on the door (another great cover by artist Chris Frayne, Cody’s brother); and truck graphics framing the band on the back. That says it all. I found this disk on a trip to Confusion Records in Lake Worth. The songs on Side Two are labeled correctly, while Side One features songs including “The City” by the British band Mark-Almond. I remember hearing “The City” and liking it way back when, but Mark-Almond’s jazzy, bossa nova grooves have no chance of approaching warp speed. So, I’m down a side—forced to go without “Truck Stop Rock”, “It Should’ve been Me” and “Watch My .38”, among others. (I’ve since found a copy of Trucker’s Favorites and righted the situation.)

Throughout the day, while doing early dinner prep and other chores around the house, I kept flipping sides on the turntable in the living room. After a while, I asked myself: How is Commander Cody’s music holding up? Answer: Great! First, the band is super tight–everybody’s musicianship is second to none.

Then as now, there just aren’t that many bands that can cover so much musical ground. Cody and company just rip it up. For me, the best thing about the band is hearing all the fun they’re having. Everybody sure does know how to have a good time.

Snooty critics might dismiss Cody and his pals as just a bunch of stoners. But I challenge anybody to find a better all-round band playing all those different styles of music. 

Another criticism might be that the band recorded numerous songs and re-released different versions of the same songs on many of their albums. But that’s not unusual. Lots of musical artists do that.

Cody recrafted a whole bunch of American originals–and the band put their own unique stamp on such enduring classics as “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)”–originally written by Merle Travis and Tex Williams and first recorded in 1947. In 1972, the band broke through the ozone barrier and held a top ten slot with “Hot Rod Lincoln,”–written by Charley Ryan and first recorded in 1955; a hit in 1960 for Johnny Bond. These great songs—and many others in Cody’s repertoire–have timeless appeal. Cody’s own classics include: “Mama Hated Diesels,” “Lost in the Ozone” and the perennial favorite “Seeds and Stems (Again).”

Until another outstanding band comes along that can hold a candle to Cody, I guess I’ll just have to keep on playing my old (but in very good condition) Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen records—and smilin’ and laughin’ and dancin’ and singin’ along.

A few of my favorite 45s

Recently, I began going through my small (130 count) box of 45s and writing about them. Then, the other day, I read a short transcript of an interview with Frank Zappa, who was a great fan of 1950s era vocal groups.

From Songfacts:

“I didn’t start listening to music until I was about 15 years old because my parents weren’t too fond of it, and we didn’t have a radio or a record player or anything,” he said. “I heard a song called ‘I’ by the Velvets on the Red Robin label and ‘Gee’ [The Crows] and ‘Sh-boom,’ [The Chords] ‘Riot in Cell Block #9,’ [The Robins] and ‘Annie Had a Baby.’ [The Midniters] By accident I heard those things and they knocked me out.”

With that in mind, what follows are my blurbs about nine of my favorite records from that time period. My sources vary: info is either from Joel Whitburn’s Top 40 Hits, Wikipedia or as noted.

The 1950s

“Get a Job,” The Silhouettes, #1, 1958

Talk about go-to favorites! This vocal group tour de force gives listeners an infectious dose of what some might call despairingly doo-wop. In the 1950s, the term carried negative connotations, but remained in use and part of the language. In a way, the slur aspect probably reflects a musical divide. It could be interpreted as both put-down and a form of begrudging admiration. Our language and our music reflect this cultural struggle.

Ultimately, there’s no way to take anything away from the singers, many of whom worked the songs out on street corners. What’s more American (and universal) than that?   

In any case, to my ears, these types of songs—introduced, or, reintroduced to me via American Graffiti, one of my favorite records and movies, took rock ‘n’ roll by storm. Go ahead. Just try to sing like that. It ain’t easy.

“Sh-Boom,” The Chords, #2 (R&B), #9 (Pop), 1954

According to Wikipedia, this song was “the first doo-wop or rock ‘n’ roll record to reach the top ten on the pop charts (as opposed to the R&B charts).” Another group, The Crew Cuts also had a hit with it, performing the song on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town. Sh-Boom was written and performed first by The Chords. It was their only hit.

My copy, on Cat Records (a subsidiary of Atlantic Records) is another song list request filled by record store owner Allen Day at Cheapo Records in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is an original pressing, with it’s maroon label and silver graphics. The lettering features two silhouettes of hip looking dancers. The guy has what looks like a zoot suit on and a pork-pie hat. The gal has a large twirling dress. Both dancers have outstretched hands, as in “swingin!’’’

“Yakety Yak,” The Coasters, #1, 1958

Written by the influential and legendary songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, this song is a classic—and a clever snapshot of teenage life. Leiber and Stoller fully revealed how that life looked during that time through a series of hits too numerous to mention. The collaborations of Leiber and Stoller helped define the 1950s.

“Take out the papers and the trash/or you don’t get no spending cash…”

I mean, what else is there to say?

“School Day,” Chuck Berry, #3, 1957

Answer? Plenty. Chuck Berry.

Here’s another astute summation of teen life, written by one of rock’s original founders. At first maligned and misunderstood, Berry dared to rock. In addition to a driving and infectious rhythm—check Johnnie Johnson’s rollicking piano–School Day catalogues its subject with humor and pathos. Decades on, the song holds up and will likely always resonate.

“Little Darlin’,” The Diamonds, #2, 1958   

Another favorite from American Graffiti, the percussive intro on this song is a real attention grabber.

Listening, I always wonder how everyone worked out their parts. And, with its unusually structured rollicking rhythm underneath the vocal harmonies, the spectacular vocal interplay always gets me smiling. Within the same year, the group had another hit with “The Stroll.”

One day, when I was going through the bins at Top Five in Lake Worth, I saw this one. The title was familiar as was the Old Town label. Although showing signs of wear, the grooves looked pretty clean, so I took a chance.

I had read about Hy Weiss and/or Old Town in a music history book somewhere. Wikipedia mentions that Weiss operated the label out of Brooklyn from 1953 until 1966.

As the story goes, Weiss discovered The Fiestas (who hailed from Newark, N.J.) after he “overheard [them] singing in a bathroom adjacent to his office in Harlem.” According to Wikipedia, bandleader Johnny Otis (1921-2012) wrote “So Fine.” Otis discovered many important music artists. His significant influence and impact on American popular music is difficult to measure.

“16 Candles,” The Crests, #2, 1958   

This reissued recording, on the Trip label, was another addition to my haul on Record Store Day 2019. Although I have this on LP, I like to compare between formats. To use a phrase from the ‘50s, the song is a solid sender.

Like many other vocal group songs, this one features soaring lead vocals. Formed in 1954, the group was discovered two years later while singing in the New York City subway.

“16 Candles” spent fourteen weeks in the Top Ten, propelled by the soaring lead vocals of Johnny Mastangelo (later changed to Maestro). The Crests were (according to Wiki) the first “interracially mixed doo wop group” consisting of three African-Americans (one female, Patricia Van Dross, older sister of Luther Vandross), one Puerto Rican and one Italian-American.

One night around dinnertime, I played this record for my wife. It’s a love letter intended for a young girl who has just come of age. In 2019, my wife said, this song would probably be banned. She wasn’t suggesting that it should be, only that the PC types nowadays would find it offensive. I can understand that. It’s both a celebration of innocence and overtly suggestive, in a 1950s kind of way–and it is impassioned. Different time, different sensibilities. That’s the thing about art.

“Come Go With Me,” The Del Vikings, #4, 1957

Originally issued on the Dot record label, I found a reissued version at Radio-Active Records for $2.95.

The group formed in Pittsburgh in 1955 at an Air Force Serviceman’s Club. Innocence is again in evidence here in this somewhat saccharine love song. There’s a fun, cut loose middle section featuring a lilting saxophone solo, buoyed along with handclaps. Kids on the hit show American Bandstand probably enjoyed this one, which, for me, holds up pretty well more than fifty years on.

“Sixty Minute Man,” The Dominoes, #17 (Pop), #1 (R&B), 1951

I’m not sure where or when I first heard this song. For 1951, it must’ve been an earful. Talk about overtly sexual. It’s downright subversive. Listening to songs like this, it’s no wonder parents were upset. Or that moms and dads across the country were horrified. We come for your daughters. Indeed.

On the flip side (so to speak), the song’s playfulness is infectious. What bottled up housewife or guy in a gray flannel suit wouldn’t be able to relate? It’s two minutes and twenty-nine seconds of dime store novel. It’s also a good example of a form of braggadocio commonly known as the dozens. How many wild and possibly naughty words—or scenes–can you string together, man?

Formally known as Billy Ward and the Dominoes, the group spun-off two phenomenal talents: Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson. “It was an important record in several respects—it crossed the boundaries between gospel singing and blues, it’s lyrics pushed the limits of what was deemed acceptable, and it appealed to many white as well as black listeners. In later years, it became a contender for the first rock ‘n’ roll record.”–Wiki. (Note: Many vote Jackie Brenston’s 1951 hit, Rocket 88 as the first rock ‘n’ roll record. It’s an open question. Interestingly, Brenston’s song was a reworked version of “Cadillac Boogie” (1947), performed by Jimmy Liggins.)

“Devoted to You,” The Everly Brothers, #10, 1957

The 1950s would not be complete without including the enormous contributions to music by the Everly’s, Don and Phil. With more than twenty-five entries in the Top 100, the brothers’ (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees in 1986) influence was felt by countless musicians. With their unique blend of country style instrumentation and harmonies, every Everly song is readily identifiable.

A plaintive ballad, “Devoted to You” is deceptively simple and a good example of what sets the Everly’s apart from many of their contemporaries. Combining folk, country, pop (and probably a few other elements), the two voices heard together have a transformative, spiritual quality. It’s a very good example of what makes a great love song.

The tune and the flip side, “Bird Dog,” were written by Boudreaux Bryant, of the popular duo and songwriting team Felice and Boudreaux Bryant. Felice, explaining how she met her husband, said she first saw him in a dream and had been looking for him for years.

Great Halls: Renowned for Sound

Please note:  It was originally my hope to have the following article published in a music magazine. That didn’t happen. With apologies to those interviewed, I present it here.

What separates good performance spaces from great ones, mediocre venues from superior places? We’re not talking about where you parked the car or how convenient and clean the bathrooms were. We’re talking about acoustics, a word Webster’s says has been in use since 1683. Acoustics is “a science that deals with the production, control, transmission, reception and effects of sound.”

The physical world’s musical and architectural heritage is still intact—and in use. There are all types of new and old places to hear music. Well loved by musicians, audiences and production staff members alike, these venues truly shine.

Nashville, Tennessee is home to one of those standouts. For many years, The Ryman Auditorium—known to audiences the world over as the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry—began its life as a church. Designed by Hugh Cathcart Thompson and named for riverboat Captain Thomas Ryman, the hall was completed in 1892. Designed for preaching in-the-round, the interior delivered maximum sound reception to the assembled faithful, presided over by the famed evangelical orator Sam Bush.

“Pews originally sat where the stage exists today,” Museum Supervisor John Dowell explained via email. “Between that section and the current “Gold Circle” seating area rested a platform from where Reverend Sam Jones and other keynote speakers, stood to make presentations. Off of the platform sat a pump organ on one side and a grand piano on the other.”

Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium

Back then, there was no stage. One was added in 1901 to accommodate the touring company from the Metropolitan Opera. Cost: $750.  Thus, the in-the-round features of the room changed. Later, the over-the-stage section of balcony was removed and a proscenium, curtain system and three floors of backstage dressing rooms were added. “With the baffling from ceiling to wall, the rounded balcony, the curve of the pews on both levels, and the curvature of the crows’ nest at both ends of the balcony, the auditorium appears to be a rounded room,” Dowell continues, “Yet the building itself is rectangular.” These various renovations have reportedly not compromised the sound—once second only to Salt Lake City’s Mormon Tabernacle.

The room is “live”—smooth wall surfaces and hardwood pews and flooring distribute soft sounds from the stage easily to every seat in the house. If anything, visiting acts and crew don’t need to crank the volume like they’re playing a basketball arena, or any other notoriously bad-for-acoustics space.

Resident Sound Engineer Les Banks sometimes explains to crew and talent: “You could actually turn down [the amplification] a bit and the room will sound just as friendly.” And he really enjoys the moments during shows when the room can truly show it’s best acoustic attributes.

“When Tony Bennett or Elvis Costello plays, there’s a moment in the show,” Les says, “when they make their sound guy turn off the P.A. completely and they step to the foot of the stage and just sing a cappella [without accompaniment], and it’s heard.”

Three of the world’s best known halls –revered by acoustics professionals and audiences for their superior acoustic qualities– are: Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal and Boston’s Symphony Hall.

Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw

Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal

Symphony Hall, Boston

Professor Alex Case, Assistant Professor of Sound Recording Technology at the University of Massachusetts and Acoustic Society of America Fellow explained via email that beyond those three, many of the world’s halls are no match. In addition, halls that are designed for specific uses  –“purpose built” for symphonies, for instance– perform differently for other uses.

Our collective group of older halls cannot truly deliver all things acoustically to all people –and neither can new ones. Professor Case explains that both “purpose-built” and “multi-purpose” imply specific limitations. Either way, there is no such thing as perfect sound.

Many older halls  (usually built for a specific use or purpose) might be promoted as having “perfect acoustics,” Professor Case says, but what the people doing the talking mean is: “the acoustic signature of the space is noticeable and they don’t mind it”; and, “the hall is very quiet.”

And truly “multi-purpose” halls require exhaustive amounts of cash. For many communities, this type of building can prove to be extraordinarily expensive. Case explains that what is called “Variable acoustics” offer a less expensive alternative. Curtains and “elaborate systems for moving walls and ceilings and changing the acoustic size of the hall become necessary. Bass Hall, in Ft. Worth, Texas is a rare success on this front.”

That having been said, one of the notable examples of a successful “multi-purpose” room is the 7,100 seat Nokia Theatre L.A. Live, which first opened in October, 2007. Rooms like the Nokia are designed to be sonically efficient—in every way possible. The Nokia was also designed for production efficiencies too: crews can set up and tear down quickly and easily navigate throughout. Designed by the Berkeley, California firm of ELS Architecture and Urban Design, Kurt Schindler, one of the principal architects, explains that new buildings like the Nokia are really “flexible machines.”

The Nokia, part of The Staples Center, Los Angeles

Admittedly, Schindler notes, in many of the performance spaces built from the end of the 19th century through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, “there’s an architectural presence —many of the presenters have to fight that! Places like the Nokia, they can really do anything they want.” In addition to music, the Nokia is used for many televised award shows, among them, the Emmys, The American Music Awards and the ever-popular American Idol.

Ultimate acoustic perfection may be impossible, but that doesn‘t stop architects, musicians, production staffers and audiences from appreciating a wide variety of venues for what they have to offer. But, strictly speaking, –in life and in acoustics–what we all experience and usually accept is often the result of some  form of compromise. “The acoustic expectations for any space depends directly on the type of sound that occurs within,” Case observes. “The acoustics appropriate for amplified music [are] not the same as what would be appropriate for opera, chamber music [or] a jazz trio.”

Does that mean that places to hear live music are obsolete? No. But it does mean that no matter where in the world you go–with about three exceptions– no one space is close to perfect. Any place that we likely enjoy, we do so partly due to it’s imperfections. Audiences still love seeing shows in old movie houses, among them the Fox Theatre, in Atlanta and Detroit; and, The Paramount’s, one in Oakland, California and the other in Seattle, Washington.

Like Nashville’s Ryman, San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium was originally built as a church. Yet, under the auspices of rock impresario Bill Graham and others, The Fillmore became one the world’s finest rooms to hear music. The Fillmore possesses a truly unique sound– one that can’t be easily described, but one that can be heard on numerous recordings.

Chips Davis, acoustics consultant for the Nokia project, likes a lot of different venues –including The Fillmore and Oakland’s Paramount. For him, a successful show owes a lot to what the people in the Sound Department do. “Good [sound] mixers and sound people that are able to set up the way they should set up and mix the show the way it should be mixed can get some great sounds with just about any type of show.”

Davis cut his teeth in Las Vegas at venues like Caesar’s Palace, running sound for Frank Sinatra and many others. “It takes a lot of design and a lot of [acoustics] modeling to get this stuff right,” he says. Different venues present different challenges.

“Acoustics doesn’t just happen,” Davis emphasizes, “It’s a lot of physics behind this.”

The challenges posed at outdoor venues add another dimension to the work of sound engineers and production staff. Again, there’s no perfect outdoor venue, but there are a few that, for many, come close. The Gibson Amphitheatre, located in Universal City, California is one.

Another excellent example of an outdoor venue for great sound is Red Rocks, a spectacular and acoustically notable place to hear music. The 9,450 seat amphitheatre, designed by Burnham Hoyt, was officially dedicated in 1941. Carved out of ancient sea-bed sandstone, today Red Rocks sits in the hills near Denver at 7,000 feet above sea level. A show at Red Rocks is pretty hard to forget. The scenery is gorgeous  –and the acoustics, for anyone who’s seen a show there– can easily be called second to none.

John Dowlen has been running sound at Red Rocks since 1984. “Red Rocks is truly a unique place because it wasn’t built for anything other than natural acoustics. It’ll work just fine without an amplified system.”

“A lot of concert halls,” Dowlen continues, “especially orchestra places that are ‘purpose-built’ for symphonies—completely disintegrate as soon as you put a sound system in it. If you have the symphony on stage—that’s fine. A sound system just completely overwhelms the room and the sonics go to pieces.”

For Dowlen, Red Rocks does not suffer from the addition of a sound system –in any way. The two most challenging aspects of his job are pitching the sound system up steeply enough to get to the back row; and, making sure that production crews are aware of what it takes to navigate the approach to and from the stage’s loading dock.

Dowlen’s first gig at Red Rocks was in 1984, running sound for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  For that show, he simply placed three AKG 14’s  –microphones that are ultra sensitive across a full dynamic range–  on the stage.

Back then, “There were no grids or overhead frameworks to suspend or ‘fly’ speakers from.” Dowlen says. “Before [we had] the ability to fly we had to stack.  We’d stack…and pitch it back and aim it up the hill. I had an old stacking rig that we could put a 4×4 under the front edge of the subs [subwoofers] and then we’d stack it into the bays—that worked real good.”

For the Run-DMC and Beastie Boys shows in 1987, Dowlen’s system was awesome. “That thing crushed,” he says. “In ’84, we proved [sound] could go up the hill. In ’87, we proved [sound] could go up the hill loud,” he laughs.

The awe-inspiring Red Rocks Amphitheater, near Denver.

Dowlen did the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s sound when they were on top. During a Dirt Band show, he had the good fortune to meet balladeer John Denver, who showed up one day as a guest, and Dowlen, already with a good rep growing the business, later ran sound for Denver’s summer shows. “Those stick out ‘cuz they really had a Colorado connection.”

One other acoustical challenge at Red Rocks is adjusting for atmospheric and temperature changes. Weather can be tricky. The first show of the season at Red Rocks is usually Easter Sunrise service, a tradition first started in 1947. The venue continues to host shows into the first week of October. After that, acts are taking their chances. By Halloween, in the Rockies, it’s usually snowing.

Engineering the shows, Dowlen says, “You have to pay attention to how things are behaving. A typical summer evening, the temperature changes about 20-25 degrees. But in the fall, you can actually see it go from 80 degrees during the day to the 50s by the end of the show.” Thinning air means “You need a lot more P.A.” he explains, “And I’ve had to come up with different tunings than I would at sea level, because the time alignments [sound arrival times throughout the venue] sometimes shift at this altitude.”

In his college days, Dowlen studied electrical engineering at the University of Denver. His many years of experience mastering both the electronics and mechanics of his job have given him a unique perspective. “It all has to be one cohesive piece,” he says.

“As far as Red Rocks goes, it’s perfect. It’s a beautiful place to see a show. Everybody who’s played there has enjoyed it.” He’s appreciative of the opportunity to work in this special place, in a setting once known as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. “Everyday I get to work there is a great day.”

Another popular and well respected venue for music is back east, in Boston. Established in 1630, the Bay State city is renowned for its many fine educational institutions, among them Berklee College of Music. The Berklee Performance Center, one of five performance halls on campus, seats 1,200.

Housed in what was once known as the Fenway Theatre, the 37,500 square foot building was originally designed by architect Thomas Lamb. Purchased by Berklee in 1972, extensive renovations were completed in 1975. The interior was gutted—down to the brick walls—and converted to an auditorium, with Cavanaugh Tocci Associates handling the acoustics.

A view from the stage, Berklee Perfomance Center

Production Manager and Berklee professor Brad Berger began teaching Sound Reinforcement classes at Berklee in 1982. At that time, he recalls, “There was really no sound system. There was a little central cluster that was installed in ’75, just for voice. We installed the first real sound system in ’86, ’87.”  That system was unchanged until 2008, when Berklee installed a Meyer M’elodie line array system coupled with Galileo, “a system controller,” Berger explains. “It’s designed to go with the Meyer speakers. It’s basically a crossover, equalization and dynamics control.” For all things related to amplified sound, different venues employ different systems.

At Berklee and other venues,  another popular devise is used by sound crews to adjust or ‘tune’ the room. The “Tablet” as it is known, is a wireless, portable PC, that may be used to monitor, adjust or “tweak” the system while an engineer or an assistant walks the room.

At Berklee, “Horn” shaped walls project sound effortlessly from the stage outward. “You can whisper on stage and hear it in every seat of the theatre,” Brad says.  Parallel walls begin at about 25 feet from the stage. Surprisingly, all the auditorium’s wall surfaces are covered in hardwoods. Acoustical panels and “clouds” reflect sound from the ceiling; and angled walls in the back of the hall eliminate standing waves. Since the room is covered with sound absorbing materials, Berger terms it “pretty dead.”

Two other examples of well-loved performance spaces call New York City,  home: Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall. Among the multitude of places to hear music, Carnegie Hall is an unrivaled beacon of international cultural excellence. Unlike Carnegie  –occasionally noted for it’s ‘dry’ (also known as ‘dead’ sound, particularly once an audience has been added)– Avery Fisher Hall has been plagued with many acoustic problems from the start.

While specific designs and ‘variable acoustics’-type features help, Avery Fisher Hall remains an acoustics albatross. Ironically, this acoustically-challenged performance space bears the name of one of the world’s preeminent high-fidelity electronics manufacturers.

A graduate of N.Y.U., Avery Fisher began his career first in advertising and later publishing. From a musical family, violin was his chosen instrument. Though he never turned professional, he counted numerous musicians as his friends and devoted much of his more than generous philanthropic efforts toward furthering their careers, notably, pianist Emmanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, among many others.

The rise of the Fisher companies in the late-1930’s paralleled improvements in sound reproduction technologies. Beginning with his own refinements to existing radios, Fisher’s attentions soon included speakers, tuners and other components –custom crafted at the request of many of his friends. In 1969, Fisher sold his pioneering electronics company, returning to his alma mater to repay “old debts.” There, Fisher underwrote the Avery Fisher Listening Room within the Bobst Library.

At Lincoln Center, Fisher devoted much of his resources to the Avery Fisher Artist Program, something he was especially fond of. Later, the performance space then known as Philharmonic Hall, built in 1962, was named in his honor. With continued investments in musical artists, Fisher also agreed to direct funds toward improving the acoustics in the hall named for him, originally designed by architect Max Abramovitz. The firm of Bolt, Beranek and Newman handled the acoustics, with the end result including another irony: Beranek and company modeled much of their design on one of the world’s top performance spaces, Boston’s Symphony Hall.

The acoustically-challenged Avery Fisher Hall

The acoustics team was pressured to make allowances for additional seating, which was feared to have unknown acoustical consequences. Excessive cost overruns were also a factor. The modified design complicated matters  –the intervening years resulting in various plans to straighten out the acoustics.

Four different teams have attempted to revise the space for the better, to no avail. Noted acoustician Cyril Harris tried, as did venerated architect Philip Johnson –of glass house fame– with mixed results. Seating, sidewalls and ceiling panels continued to negatively impact sound.

A proposed merger of Carnegie Hall and Fisher Hall failed to gain traction in 2003. Discussions continue regarding what to do with the hall. Currently, there are plans in place to try another re-design, scheduled to begin in 2010.

By contrast, one of the acoustical highlights contributing to Carnegie’s hallowed sound include this significant fact: the building was constructed utilizing the Guastavino process, a structural masonry design featuring walls more than five feet thick. The principal architect was William Burnet Tuthill, an accomplished cellist, with consultants Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan and Richard Morris Hunt. Adler specialized in acoustics and had closely studied the Mormon Tabernacle design, shaped like an upturned boat –also called a “turtle back form.”

Carnegie Hall was initially envisioned as a home for both the Symphony Society and the Oratorio Society. Prior to Carnegie being constructed, these organizations vied for time and space in the Metropolitan Opera House, one of the only available venues in town –usually reserved for the Met’s resident company. Waiting in second position, The Philharmonic Society took precedence over other takers. The Oratorio Society was usually left out and resorted to giving performances within neighboring piano manufacturer showrooms, among them Chickering and Steinway, located on 14th Street.

Prior to its opening in the spring of 1891, streets adjacent to Carnegie’s site on  Seventh Avenue were as yet unpaved. The location, at the edge of Goat Hill, near Central Park, was so far uptown it was considered suburban.

Carnegie Hall in New York City

The hall’s storied past encompasses a wide range of musical performances and includes artists from the classical world as well as folk, jazz and rock. Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Rubenstein and Van Cliburn have graced the stage, as have Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills and Marion Anderson. Also, jazz icons Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, John Coltrane have been heard here, as have folk legends Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Rockers The Doors, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles too. Carnegie was their third tour stop in February, 1964.

In 1938 and ‘39, promoter John Hammond brought his “Spirituals to Swing” program to Carnegie. Originally, bluesman Robert Johnson was scheduled to appear along with Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Sonny Terry and Mitchell’s Christian Singers–the all-star line up illustrating the many different influences fueling swing. Robert Johnson died in August of 1938,  and promoter Hammond found a suitable replacement: Big Bill Broonzy.

Recordings of the concert were not originally issued. The liner notes to a 1970’s era re-issue (on the Vanguard label), written by Charles Edward Smith, state that: “The original disc acetates from which this recording was made were privately recorded for Mr. John Hammond as a memento of the concerts. They were played and replayed many times at his home. Then with the passage of time it became apparent that these recordings were of great historical and musical significance, making it imperative that they be preserved for posterity.”

Posterity, preserving what is important for future generations, is a noble goal. The cold facts surrounding acoustic perfection will likely never dampen our enthusiasm for music, enjoyed in some of our favorite places.

Even if a few tolerable compromises may be required, the world’s performance spaces retain their power to captivate us and transport us. Through the synergies of architecture, acoustic design and sound technology, great rooms can deliver great sounds. Paraphrasing Chips Davis: “It all comes down to who’s mixing the show.”

Here’s to Russ Solomon (Sept. 22 1925-April 4 2018)

Note: This piece was originally posted in June, 2010.

Well, word is in: longtime retail record pioneer Russ Solomon has officially retired from the retail music store business.

Solomon began his career in music retail at age 16, working the aisles and counter of his fathers drug store, Tower Drug, in downtown Sacramento, California. The year was 1941.

Following World War II, Solomon returned home to find that his father had expanded the music section of the store devoted to records.

In 1960, Tower Records was formally established. With added stores in Sacramento, San Francisco’s North Beach, the famed Sunset Strip in L.A. and beyond, the Tower brand and “deep catalog” concept swept the globe. If there was anything you were looking for in music, chances were good Tower had it.

Those were exciting times, Solomon explained with a laugh during one of several telephone interviews in 2007 and 2008. Of the early Tower Records–particularly the North Beach store–he said: “Those were the great years, man. That joint jumped!”

(During my various telephone interviews with him–for articles in Elmore Magazine, The Audiophile Voice, and my book Vinyl Lives–Solomon’s relaxed candor and comprehensive knowledge of the inner workings of the music business always impressed me. His ability to retain this avuncular nature, combined with a hands-on management style, endeared him to many associates, employees and a number of his fellow record store owners. Like many leaders, his stature within the record retail community includes the respect of  many of his competitors–and enemies–within the larger music industry).

To his detractors, Solomon gets flak for not staying ahead of the curve–and for not being able to prolong the relevancy (and solvency) of Tower Records.

The formula for the store stayed the same, they said. Also, when digital came along, he missed the trend. In fact, Tower embraced the idea of (in-store) digital storefronts early on. But, by his own admission, Solomon never warmed to digitals’ purported benefits. The rise of file sharing didn’t help.

The solvency facet of the Tower story reads like an all-too-familiar-nowadays corporate yarn. The record store chain over-expanded globally, borrowed too much money and over-leveraged its assets. Eventually, banker/managers seized the reigns and–literally–drove Tower into the ground.

In my book Vinyl Lives, Solomon explains: “The new management that came in and forced us out–we were there physically, but we had no say in it–mismanaged it rather badly, and it just fell apart. They forced us to sell Japan, which was the only overseas market that was making any money. The American company all by itself, isolated and without debt, was making good money, but it couldn’t sustain the debt that was left over. The people that were managing it simply didn’t know what they were doing. And they wouldn’t listen to anybody. I mean, they’re bankers. Bankers can’t run businesses.”

To those who lost money, who feel that Tower stiffed them, Solomon responds:  “Tower didn’t do anything. When the management was running Tower, and allowed it to go into bankruptcy, people lost money. There’s no question about that. In fact, even today, it still hasn’t been settled out. And it’s going to be settled out for pennies on the dollar. Yes, Tower did stick people. But it wasn’t my fault, I can tell you that.”

Following the re-structuring, several Tower (franchise) stores remained open in Japan. The Tower website also continued.

In 2006, Solomon returned to Sacramento to open a variation on the Tower theme: R5 Records. With that event, his path in the music business had come full circle.

In May 2010, I learned that Solomon had recently remarried and planned to close R5, possibly by the end of the end of the month. Dimple Records (also based in Sacramento) would take over the R5 location, situated across the street from the current Tower Cafe. Housed in the original Tower Building, the Cafe resides in what was once the home of Tower Drug.

At age 85, Solomon closes the music retail sales chapter of his life with almost (rounding up only slightly) 70 years in the music business.

For those who experienced the presence and powers of Tower Records–their extensive and rich catalog of music, the ambience of a bustling and caring store that meant so much to so many–there’s an emptiness in knowing that Tower–and now Tower and R5’s founder–have been consigned to history.

Friday, June 11, 2010, was R5 Records last day.

Notwithstanding the negative feelings of many of those people adversely affected by the Tower failure–and the sizable drag of leftover debt on us taxpayers–Solomon’s many positive contributions to the music world remain.

Perhaps history will reflect this more positive side of Solomon’s story: Pioneer, visionary and gentle giant, Solomon’s legacy left an indelible imprint on the hearts and souls of music lovers everywhere. When the music industry surf was up, Russ Solomon was there, riding the biggest wave and making good things happen.