Jay Meehan: The forbidden fruit
January 20, 2015
They warned us! Nearly everybody! Don’t go there! They’ll chew you up and spit you out. They’re a different lot altogether. They’re bloodthirsty. They’ll suck the marrow right out of your bones and leave them scattered on back alley asphalt like someone throwing an I Ching.
We were at Lindy’s on Broadway across the street from the Winter Garden Theater leaning like locals against the bar while Martin, the elegant and witty raconteur and barkeep, dazzled us with yarns from the ’30s. The year was 1964 and, despite the warnings, we had come to New York City to take a bite out of the Big Apple.
"His table sat by the window right over there, looking out on the street," he mused. Just behind Martin’s eyes, it was April of 1932, and the lyricist Yip Harburg, between slugs of bootleg whiskey, long draws on his cigar, and reaching for memories he never had, was putting words to music.
The week prior, Harburg’s collaborator Vernon Duke had come up with the melody on an old upright piano at a speakeasy a few blocks down Broadway. By the time Yip had knocked back his second coffee cup of booze, the song that became "April in Paris" would be finished.
Telling Martin we’d be back after the show, we loped across Broadway. We were pretty sure the twenty-one-year-old chanteuse, Barbra Streisand, wouldn’t go on without us. I remember thinking, when she was about halfway through "People," a big hit of the day, that this must be what it feels like to get chewed up and spit out.
Upon returning to Lindy’s, Martin greeted us with an overly modulated "The usual, gentlemen?" Heads turned and it would be a few moments before house banter returned to its former level. We wanted to kiss him!
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We stopped at Jack Dempsey’s joint to see if he was in before heading off on a pilgrimage to the ’40s BeBop scene of 52nd Street. Birdland was voted down because they were featuring a blues group rather than a jazz combo. Someone should have shot me right then!
Greenwich Village soon beckoned and we were off to see the wizards of Washington Square and "Bleecker and MacDougal" and see what "the Beats" were up to. This would be our last full day in the city and we didn’t want to leave too many stones unturned.
Two days, and nights, previous, we had hopped the Long Island Railway out to Flushing Meadows for a day at the World’s Fair and an evening at the relatively new Shea Stadium across the tracks. In that I spent about a half-hour in the presence of Michelangelo’s Pietà and almost three hours watching Willie Mays (the left-coast Giants were in town), I’d have to say it was a pretty good day.
We were far from finished, however. Soon a train back to Penn Station, a subway to 10th street, and a cab to Bleecker and Thompson had us jogging down the stairway to the Village Gate nightclub. Thelonious Monk, Mongo Santamaria, and Flip Wilson were awaiting our arrival. The boys back at Ft. Benning weren’t going to believe this.
But it would be the following night we had firmly affixed in our crosshairs. The great Nina Simone was in town and playing not far from our hotel at Basin Street East, another now-gone intimate nightclub of legend.
The dream continued unabated. We walked right in without reservations and were seated directly in front of Miss Simone’s microphone. The upright one. The one at her piano rested comfortably slightly off to one side.
To put the evening in context, we three GI’s were stationed in Georgia, right smack in the middle of the Jim Crow South. The height of the Civil Rights movement loomed over everything. And less than a week before, the bodies of three missing civil rights workers were found in an earthen dam in Neshoba County, Mississippi.
Something told us that Nina Simone, who had only recently written "Mississippi Goddam!" in response to the assassination of Medgar Evers and the bombing deaths of four black girls while they sat in their Birmingham Sunday School, would have something to say.
"The high priestess of Soul" didn’t disappoint! The sermons were succinct and mostly in song. Among other anthems that had us on our feet most of the evening, we got "Sinnerman," a chilling rendition of Billie Holiday’s classic "Strange Fruit," plus "You Can Have Him," with that dazzling keyboard arpeggio.
I can’t wait to see the Liz Garbus biopic "What Happened, Miss Simone?" Friday morning at the MARC Theater. That is the true subject of this column. It just took a while to get there.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.