Wednesday, 24 August 2011

George Kimball and The Bells of Hell

I recently attended George Kimball’s memorial gathering. I’d hardly call it a service, for George bowed his head to Lady Luck alone and then only at the track.

It was a “round up the usual suspects” crowd of Lion’s Head denizens, drinkers with writing problems, hard bitten journalists, with a leavening of the boxing community led by promoter/MC, Lou DiBella, and a host of Boston scribblers who had shared ink and drinks with George during his long sojourn in the land of the Red Sox.

Everyone looked considerably wiser, hair color tended towards the salt and pepper when not albino Irish white; the ladies, lovely as ever, did George proud, dressing to the nines – no one ever accused the deceased of not having an eye for the fair sex.

The speeches were riotous – many drawn from George’s darkly, hilarious letters and emails; all washed down with fine wines and a generous selection of beers.

I gravitated towards the Bells of Hell veterans. A fairly grizzled bunch, none untouched by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; yet each still blessed with a ribald, if somewhat gallows, humor. As tales were traded, I swear the years tumbled away and a caustic innocence descended on the group.

I’ve hung my hat in many the saloon and yet there was nothing quite like The Bells. It was the mix of people, I suppose, and the times.

It’s hard to imagine the 70’s in New York from the vantage point of today’s overpriced Branson on the Hudson. Don’t get me wrong, I still adore Gotham’s very stones and will only be removed feet first.

Scorsese nailed both town and era in Taxi Driver – not just the outlaw chaos of the city in the 70’s, more the dizzying fatalism – bad things were bound to happen and you had better stay a step ahead.

Your saloon was your sitting room; getting there was often an adventure – navigating your way home always so. My direct route from the Bells took me past the doorway where Harvey Keitel had his East Village encounter with Jodie Foster. It was a rare evening I didn’t encounter some scene just as vivid.

Still The Bells was always worth the trip. The characters were diversely gripping, each one’s flaws usually on display. Cliques abounded. For instance, I’m almost certain that Frank McCourt and Lester Bangs never spoke, although they often stood within earshot of each other.

The egalitarian jukebox united us. I first heard Anarchy in the UK explode from between Ellington’s Take the A Train and The Patriot Game by the Clancy’s - regular patrons themselves.

No one had any idea that Frank even entertained a notion about becoming a writer although he regularly made fun of those who did. An inveterate curmudgeon, he loved to prick the bubble of anyone unwise enough to make a pretentious comment in his presence.

When fame did come, no one enjoyed it more than Frank; he literally lit up, though he never lost his sardonic humor.

Lester, on the other hand, was world famous in those years – at least to Rock cognoscenti. He might show up with Joey Ramone or Joe Strummer in tow, although never as trophies. He fully believed that rock stars should shine only on stage, and never condescend to their admirers.

Mr. Bangs had his demons and they sometimes emerged when he drank – but quietly. Towards the end, he was pushing back against the encroaching straightness that he foresaw strangling New York. I shudder to think what he would make of his city today.

Back at the George’s memorial, Kerouac’s pal, David Amram, jazzily rendered Will You Go Lassie Go – a final farewell on the low whistle. David first introduced us to the concept of World Music in the back room of The Bells – “all music mixes, man; it’s players who don’t.”

Then it was time to go. With hugs and handshakes and promises to stay in touch the grizzled Bells battalion bade farewell. And George Kimball’s spirit set off to join Frank, Lester and The Clancy’s in the ghost of a beloved saloon on 13th Street and 6th Avenue.

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