The Bitter Finish: Same As It Ever Was

 The Bitter Finish: Same As It Ever Was

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The push carts that peddled vegatables and fruits are lengthy gone. So are the Italian nonnas who haggled with the pushcart distributors and stored a watchful eye on the neighborhood. Gone, too, are the espresso homes, cafes, and notable evening spots that helped to ascertain this avenue because the bohemian enclave sung about by Peter, Paul & Mary, Simon & Garfunkel, and Bruce Springsteen. That is Bleecker Road—the central vein that runs by way of New York’s Greenwich Village, the place, for a lot of many years, music worshippers have made their pilgrimage.

South African singer Miriam Makeba acting at The Bitter Finish in 1961. (Credit score: Sigmund Goode/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Pictures)

Rising up in Greenwich Village, I attended faculty on the west finish of this avenue, steps from the place my great-grandparents settled originally of the twentieth Century. My grandmother typically joked that she was by no means involved with me working away from dwelling as a result of I used to be “already right here.” She was proper. With pretend I.D. in hand, I spent many a weekend evening on Bleecker Road, sipping a Sloe Gin Fizz whereas listening to among the biggest performers of our technology. I used to be too younger to know that I used to be witnessing historical past.

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As Bleecker Road establishments like The Village Gate, The Gaslight Cafe, and Kenny’s Castaways ultimately closed their doorways, the musical mecca at 147 Bleecker Road by some means handed the check of time. The Bitter Finish, initially opened as a coffeehouse by club-owner-cum-film-producer Fred Weintraub in 1961, attracted a phalanx of younger musicians needing to be heard. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, David Crosby, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Surprise, and Patti Smith discovered their approach there, and so did then unknown comedians Joan Rivers, Albert Brooks, and Steven Wright. Even I had a second of glory on that stage, showing with a fledgling comedy improv group within the early ‘80s. It’s no surprise nostalgia hit me further onerous once I revisited the room, this time to satisfy with the membership’s intrepid proprietor, Paul Rizzo.  

Joni Mitchell in 1968. (Credit score: PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Pictures)

Save for the smoke-filled ambiance that disappeared with Mayor Bloomberg’s 2002 smoking ban, little has modified inside The Bitter Finish for the reason that Nineteen Seventies. Although it’s 3:30 within the afternoon, it’s “magic hour”—that transient time period when the room is empty, darkish, and quiet, but alive with the anticipation of the evening forward. 

As I make my approach down the lengthy picket bar towards the again of the room, I see Rizzo on a sofa under an outdated poster promoting the Linda Ronstadt-fronted trio Stone Poneys. I instantly really feel the ghosts of performances previous prompting me to ask Rizzo how his previous led him to his current.

“I used to return right here once I was in school again within the ‘80s. I’d come into the town, do a few the golf equipment on Bleecker Road—Bitter Finish, Kenny’s [Castaways], Village Nook—then go to Wo Hop’s, decide up like $500 value of Chinese language meals, then return to Stonybrook at 3 within the morning and provides out the orders to folks within the dorms.”

Allen Ginsberg after which Bitter Finish proprietor Paul Colby (with buddy) on the membership on September 21, 1977. (Credit score: Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Even then, the person knew easy methods to please a crowd. “However my associates at all times stated I had no style in music as a result of I favored all the pieces. Listened to all the pieces. I didn’t like every explicit sort of music. I used to return to see simply bands generally. I liked stay music.”

Stage fright prevented Rizzo, who ran lights for concert events and nightclubs on campus, from forming his personal band. “I used to be like a piece chief in highschool however I by no means took solos as a result of I simply bought nervous.”  

So how did he come to personal the oldest repeatedly working rock membership in New York? It all started in 1974, when Weintraub exited and Paul Colby—proprietor of the adjoining The Different Finish—took over.

“I used to be a bartender at Kenny’s from ‘88 to ‘89. Pat Kenny was the working proprietor of The Bitter Finish at the moment, so the golf equipment had been linked. I left to run my very own place in Brooklyn. I left after a 12 months, my companion stayed, and I went again to work for Pat at a spot referred to as ‘Launch’ after which began working within the workplace upstairs at The Bitter Finish. I used to be mainly working the membership, and Kenny Gorka was the reserving agent. Paul Colby would are available in as soon as every week, and in July of 1993 he got here into the workplace and stated, ‘I’m throwing Pat out’ as a result of he wasn’t working the membership correctly. So he requested us if we needed to purchase in. I stayed on as an operator, and when Paul handed away, Kenny and I purchased his shares. When Kenny handed, I bought his shares and ended up with the entire membership and began doing bookings. I had one other reserving agent to do the weekends, however when the pandemic hit, we shut down operations for a 12 months. Since we opened up, it’s simply me. I grew to become the face of the membership, which I by no means was actually good at as a result of I hate that crap.”

The Stone Poneys–Shep Cooke, Linda Ronstadt, and John Keski–performing in 1968. (Credit score: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Pictures)

Whereas different golf equipment have folded, Rizzo has succeeded in holding the room alive and kicking.  

“Like I stated, I’m shy and this and that. Nevertheless it retains my relationships with the bands. And I’m getting higher high quality music asking to play right here, a extra established stage of musician. I’m getting California bands which might be listening to about it too. I’m additionally getting these youthful musicians to play within the place and herald a youthful viewers into the room. I had Eric Anderson the opposite evening, however I can’t do Eric Anderson and Steve Addabbo each evening. So except you enchantment to a youthful crowd, you’re going to exit of enterprise. So that you begin bringing in these youthful gamers so that they perceive The Bitter Finish they usually play the stage they usually really feel the vibe they usually wanna come again they usually benefit from the room.” 

What does the Bitter Finish viewers need to hear?

“Music is like artwork. It’s very subjective. As a result of I used to be a singer, I attempt to guide issues which might be melodically good, so I pay attention for that. And I’m a Deadhead so we bought a bunch of that stuff too. I’m into fusion and jazz, in order that will get in right here as properly. Final evening, I had the Kidbrass Classes. It’s all jazz. All younger children. So if I’m placing Eric Anderson on the stage, I’m going to have everybody of their 60s consuming tea and soda. And if I put this different band on the stage, I’m gonna have all people 21 consuming tea and soda.”

Tracy Chapman on Could 4, 1988. (Credit score: Rita Barros/Getty Pictures)

“Has everybody stopped consuming?”

“The going-out angle has modified. There’s much more pot people who smoke than there was once as a result of it grew to become authorized. After which the youthful crowd is consuming at dwelling earlier than they exit, so that they’ll purchase one or two drinks and never spend 100 {dollars} as a result of it’s an costly endeavor to exit. Numerous the older folks have stopped consuming. But in addition the generations developing don’t drink as a lot.  However you gotta get the youthful children in to know in regards to the place.”

I ask Rizzo what he attributes to the longevity of the membership.

“Two issues. First, we’ve by no means actually tried to be something however what we’re. Second is the continuity of the entire thing. When you stroll in right here 20 years after being right here, it’s the identical. And that’s what folks need as a result of they’re coming again to stay that very same expertise that they’d earlier than. I don’t have televisions as a result of that will destroy the entire vibe. We simply stayed the trail. Location has rather a lot to do with it as properly. It helps that I’m on Bleecker Road.”

The hallowed corridor on Bleecker Road begins to return alive because the sound engineer brings up the home lights and units the stage. Like magic, bustling bartenders seem. A blast of chilly air strikes by way of the membership because the entrance doorways open to load within the first band of the evening. Rizzo appears at his watch, telegraphing our assembly should come to an finish. 

I linger a bit, abruptly understanding Peter, Paul & Mary’s revised lyric to Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Practice”:

“Once I die, please bury me deep,

Down on the finish of Bleecker Road…”

To see our working record of the highest 100 biggest rock stars of all time, click here.

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