Steppin’ Out at the Café Carlyle

Carlyle

The summer I was 19, I worked as an intern at Rolling Stone magazine, which has nothing directly to do with the Café Carlyle but hold on and I’ll get you there.

I was one of Rolling Stone’s first-ever summer interns at the then-brand new New York offices. Rolling Stone had just moved to the city from San Francisco. Jim Farber – the future rock journalist, Ira Kaplan – the future indie rocker with his band Yo La Tengo, and I, were Rolling Stone’s maiden intern class.

After the summer I got to stick around and join the payroll. I’d been assisting on a massive, unwieldy project, the first Rolling Stone Record Guide, and they needed me. I fact-checked and proofread reams of copy by an alphabetical Who’s-Who of rock critics; from Altman, Billy through Marcus, Greil to Walters, Charley.

Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone’s records review editor and a legendary early associate of Bob Dylan’s, sat in an office right opposite my door. Dave Marsh, the Guide‘s primary editor and Springsteen’s future biographer, was just down the hall. I had a lot of fun wandering those halls. I even got to write some short pieces for the magazine myself. I remember interviewing Clive Davis in his Arista Records office about the components of his stereo system. I remember interviewing Todd Rundgren about his next album.

The Record Guide project boss who’d hired me, an extraordinary lady named Susanne Weil, had an idea for a book about live music in New York – a guide to every spot in town (pre-Time Out, pre-Google). But Susanne was an editor, not a writer, and she needed help.

That’s how I came to co-author Steppin’ Out: A Guide to Live Music in Manhattan. The book was a gas to research; often Susanne and I would hit three or four joints in a night, together and apart. Imagine: there were enough live music venues in New York City in 1978 to fill our nights, four or five times a week, for months; cabarets, piano bars, folk clubs, jazz clubs, nightclubs. Steppin’ Out was a verite snapshot of a moment in time in NYC with an all-encompassing soundtrack. Of course, it went out of print almost immediately.

A return visit to The Café Carlyle (there we are) recently brought Steppin’ Out back to me. Of all the clubs I covered as a kid writing Steppin’ Out, the Carlyle was the place that intimidated me the most. The Carlyle was for grownups. It was both ritzy-elegant and intimate, a lethal combo that left a young poseur no way out. You walked in and people saw you for who you weren’t, I felt. I lacked the experience, the wardrobe and the wallet to justify my own admittance.

The Café Carlyle belonged to Bobby Short. It was his room. Over the  ensuing years I would get to know Bobby well. He later wrote the Foreword to my book, Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf. I spent many nights at the Carlyle in his impeccable company, absorbing his musical wisdom while often witnessing a cringe-inducing array of offhand slights from the clueless One-Percenters who filled the Carlyle’s tables. Bobby was majestic in his handling of these racist bozos but he was never above it all. Bobby missed nothing.

He actually had the night off the first time I stepped in. His sub was Marian McPartland, soon to become the doyenne of NPR’s “Piano Jazz.” Marian then was tickling the piano nightly in Bemelmans Bar across the hall. Bemelmans remains my favorite nightspot in New York (along with The Village Vanguard), because of the murals that adorn its walls, painted by the glorious Ludwig Bemelmans, author and illustrator of the Madeline children’s books that I grew up on.

I sat down with Marian after her set that first night and interviewed her at a table in the darkened Café. She was fine company but almost drank me under our table, while sharing the Café Carlyle’s history, as best she knew it. Virtually everything Marian told me proved to be wrong (the murals in the Café were painted by Marcel Vertès, not Ludwig Bemelmans), but who cares? We had a ball.

It isn’t easy to replace a Bobby Short or a Marian McPartland. The pianist Barbara Carroll inherited Marian’s piano chair at Bemelmans and ennobled it for an astonishing number of years before moving on herself. Nobody has taken Bobby’s place. No one could. The Café Carlyle has become an untethered anomaly, still as ritzy and intimate as ever but with a rotating cast of headliners, some of whom I’ve seen, filling the room with their talent varyingly. Broadway-trained cabaret artists still fare best, though rockers with a wicked, kitchy taste for the theatrical have worked well too. I’m thinking of David Johansen, who somehow folds his New York Dolls-derived Buster Poindexter persona into the space without missing a sequined beat. I’m also thinking about Elaine Stritch, who actually lived upstairs in the Carlyle Hotel and took over the Café from time to time. The room misses her.

I went back to the Carlyle to see a singer-songwriter named Hamilton Leithauser, who struck me as perhaps the most unlikely performer yet to hold the Carlyle stage. I was eager to check him out. Leithauser is an indie rock icon in certain circles (especially incuding my  niece Jessie). He writes intensely and sings even more so. He created a stir as lead singer for a band called The Walkmen; as a solo, he has recorded evocatively on his own and with Vampire Weekend’s former-multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij.

As ever, the rarified service at the Carlyle was exemplary but the room was half-empty.  A talkative, highly coiffed and pressed twenty-something dandy with an expensive accent maintained the Carlyle’s patron tradition of speaking over the music to his extravagantly disinterested girlfriend, as if there was no one singing his heart out onstage just inches from the young man’s mouth.

Mr. Leithauser, however, soon silenced the guy with the intensity of his performance. He is a no frills character whose only artifice is a stylized lack of pretense. This left a lot of pregnant pauses in the perfumed Carlyle precincts while Leithauser retuned his many guitars and mumbled asides to his two cohorts, a pianist and a lead guitarist. Yet Leithauser’s show worked. His voice is an inscrtutably raw instrument that he commands with astoundingly calibrated control. There was nothing operatic about any of his singing, yet as he held notes breathlessly, diminuendoed and crescendoed volubly and turned hollers into whispers at the drop of a dime, I found myself thinking of an opera singer in recital. It was crazy.

Bravo to the Carlyle for taking a chance on him. I’d love to know what the booking politics were that gained Mr. Leithauser admittance to these sacred precincts. Bobby Short, even at his most refined, could always overpower the Carlyle with some rasping vocalese, when he chose to. I therefore think he might have appreciated Hamilton Leithauser’s vocal presence in his house. Though I might be wrong about that.

 

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