Unless you are talking about Ricky Ricardo or Bogart in Casablanca, most tales of nightclub owners focus on tax evasion or drugs. While the name Steve Rubel might bring back memories of night life to those who never even set foot in his club, Paul Colby’s will stir few thoughts of nights past. Colby served as manager and eventually owner of The Bitter End on Bleeker Street in Gotham’s Greenwich Village. In “Hanging Out At America’s Nightclub,” he spins a tale of life at the epicenter of the ’60s folk explosion about as bland as the club’s infamous red brick wall.
Famed in both song and story, the Bitter End, and its exposed brick wall, is featured on classic album covers and has inspired an aesthetic which perme-ates open- mike nights to this day. The place is, and has always been, a bit of a dump, but a dump with history.
Folk stars like Pete Seger, Peter, Paul and Mary, and even Neil Diamond got their start there. Comedians including Woody Allen, David Brenner and George Carlin fine-tuned their craft on the same stage that Kris Kristofferson, Neil Young and Randy Newman took the roots of folk into the rock era.
With a cast like this how can an author go wrong?
Somehow, though, Colby’s unfocused ruminations on life inside this nexus of showbiz, repetitive facts, sloppy structure, endless name-dropping and fifth-grade prose combine to reduce the entire enterprise to a self-inflating yawn.
In his efforts to root the Bitter End into the center of the story, he constantly chronicles the careers of performers well beyond the club and its influence. After countless chronologies of the musicians and comedians who passed through the coffeehouse on Bleecker on their way to the big time, its place in the scheme of things seems to shrink in importance. One gets the feeling that the club and its manager were forgotten by most of those who made it.
This is not a tell-all book, so raucous tales of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of the ’60s and ’70s — and even good old backstage yarns — are few. There are a few choice bits, including some early encounters with Sinatra while working in Tin Pan Alley, some insight into the stand-up career of Woody Allen, and a classic New York run in with the Hell’s Angels. But all in all the book is done in by some truly awful sentences. They go from the gimmicky opening line (“‘You’re fired!’ That’s how it all began”) through the amateurish (“My name is Paul Colby and I was born in Philadelphia”) to the just terrible (“unlike the footprints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the footprints of most of these performers were imprinted in sand instead of concrete”).
There is no denying the importance of the Bitter End and the Greenwich Village in nurturing a new generation of musicians and comics. Colby is gener-ous enough to acknowledge the importance of other clubs like the Village Gate, Cafe Wha, and the Village Vanguard as well as their owners as an integral part of the scene.
At the same time, Colby rarely takes credit for discovering or even booking many of the top acts, creating the impression that he was simply managing the right place at the right time, whether or not this is the case. In fact, the way he tells it, it seems as if many acts just ended up there because there was nowhere else to go.