The Bells of Hell was the best saloon I ever drank in.
“And that’s saying something,” nods your man up in Pearl River.
It was opened by Malachy McCourt, noted raconteur, author, scourge of Bush, Giuliani and anyone with a kind word for conservatism.
Malachy may have been long on charm and good fellowship but he definitely never gained an MBA from Harvard. In fact such were the number of slates, buybacks and general dispensing of free drinks to the needy, it’s a tribute to capitalism that the Bells was able to limp through the swinging 70’s before finally expiring in Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America 80’s.
The joint boasted only three rules: all fisticuffs to be conducted on the sidewalk, fornication and drug use confined to bathrooms and basement; and, most importantly, boring your neighbor was strictly prohibited.
This den of literary iniquity was frequented by journalists, poets, musicians, communists, noblemen, libertarians, urban farmers, refugees from the Bronx, defrocked priests and Christian brothers, an occasional bishop, many the radical nun and a healthy sprinkling of young ladies from the nearby Evangeline Residence, along with hard-bitten nurses from St. Vincent’s emergency room who took the occasional lucky young Irishman under their experienced wing.
Thus you could sit between a Clancy Brother and a Hamill, Lester Bangs and a Tipperary carpenter, a politician in drag and a lady of a certain age looking for a husband but willing to settle for the next best thing. To top it all, money, as I’ve said, was no object.
Many of the clientele dwelt in the uncertain past or the unfocused present, few gave much thought to the future. One visionary, however, jumps to mind. And what a past he’s had, not to mention a future that’s so stuffed with goals and ambitions it would turn a teenager off texting.
David Amram will be celebrating his first 80 years tomorrow night in New York’s Symphony Space.
“Who the hell is he when he’s at home,” mutters your man up in Pearl River.
Well, Mr. Amram was chosen by Leonard Bernstein to be the first composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic, he has written over 100 symphonies and choral pieces, mastered an array of instruments exotic and otherwise, but more amazingly, he and his bosom buddy, Jack Kerouac, invented the modern jazz-poetry reading.
And neither of them even wore berets that first night in Greenwich Village back in 1957 when David improvised on French Horn behind the author of On The Road. Then again, David Amram was a fully paid up Karmic member of the Beat Generation himself, along with Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti and Neal Cassady.
But fast forward to the back room of the Bells where Liam Clancy, Turner & Kirwan of Wexford, King Rude, Flying Cloud, Lester Bangs, Mike OBrien & Chris King and a host of others were wont to do their thing.
David never heard a piece of music that he couldn’t add some wonder to. In fact, he may have invented the term World Music; at least he was the first person I ever heard use it and, more to the point, demonstrate that all music is interconnected and will fit together provided you have the pertinent chops and taste.
Take a look at what’s in store tomorrow night. In The Fox Hunt From Cork Meets The Blues From New York, for instance, Joseph Mulvanerty from Black 47 and I will be collaborating with Malachy, John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Amram's Latin/Jazz Ensemble and dancers from the Stella Adler School of Acting.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There’ll be diverse musical and lyrical communal explorations conducted by a man who has collaborated with everyone from Dizzy Gillsepie to Johnny Depp, Willie Nelson to Arthur Miller; it will all be filmed and you never know who will show up. That’s the Amram magic.
But more than anything, the evening will serve as a springboard to David’s next 80 years, and I ain’t kidding.
The Bells, the Beats and Bohemian New York City will live for one more evening in Symphony Space. Be there or be square, man!