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If These Old Keys Could Talk...
Bob Dylan's Piano Looks Back
by Haven James

I'm gazing at Nell, my old piano. She's a little torn and frayed with age, but actually has survived the years remarkably well. She's had a few drinks poured into her, and a couple of cigarettes have left their mark; the thick air of her former nightclub homes has built a mellow patina, but all things considered, the old parlor Wurlitzer still carries a good tune and rings of the ages she's been party to. She's the piano that once lived at the Cafe Espresso, lo, those many years ago, when dreams were born and Woodstock was still an obscure hide-away for artists.

Early on in the '60s, a scraggly-looking mutt named Bob lived upstairs at the Cafe; he was folk singer, they said. Bob would come down at night to coax the ivory and ebony keys into songs. Fact is, Dylan is said to have composed a good part of his first two albums on my old Wurl'er, and as the years went by an amazing string of songwriters and players followed suit. The legacy that room and that piano shared is the stuff of legend.

Times changed, and with them the ownership of the Cafe changed, too. Marty and Victor ran the Cafe Espresso successfully for the next stint of years with Tommy Wolf at the helm of the bar. The "Festival" had brought the influx of a new economy, and Tinker Street turned into Greenwich Village Boutique Row North. The decline in business started in the '80s as the economic boom bottomed out, but there still was a healthy creative community that kept the music coming. Somewhere in those lost years Nell moved up the street to the Pub, where the Irish welcomed her. She sat proudly in the tavern room, but was really only called on to sing on holidays and special events and those occasional "Woodstock" nights, when the likes of Danko, Manuel, Bell, and many more would wander over to awaken a song, but that's a whole 'nother story. By the end of the '80s Marty had given up on the Cafe Espresso and it had been closed for a year before a couple of guys from the metropolis bought into the dream.

"When we first moved in the walls were talking to us, the lore of the ghosts, and, the spirits of the people who played there," says Freddie Sandel of his beginnings with partner Jerry Mitnick back in 1988. By now it's common knowledge that this era, too, has come to a close, as New Year's Eve saw the last hurrah for the renamed Tinker Street Cafe. Freddie says it was the same spirits that told him to close up shop: "I called Bob Dylan and asked him what he thought and he said, Close it down, babe." Memories still linger in the aftermath of the cafe's closing, and not all of them so crushingly sad. A couple might even qualify for Woodstock's Funniest Town Videos if somebody like Billy Mitchell had been on the case.

With the original piano gone, Fred and Jerry had gone out and bought an old upright for the club. For local folks, toying with the tourists during the summer invasion has always been a great diversion, and it wasn't long before tall tales were being told about the iconic objects that furnished the space. Soon the transients were bidding on a piano they assumed was a treasure revisited, and at one point there was even a plan to cut the upright up into little squares and sell them off along with the t-shirts.

Better yet was the Hendrix legacy. It is said that Jimi had spent some uncomfortable moments leaning over the toilet bowl, and once that story got around it wasn't long till somebody stole the porcelain john. It was a hollow prize, however, as unbeknownst to the thieves, the original "Hendrix puked here" American Standard had been carted to the dump after being smashed one raucous night. Still, people tried to buy the replacement, unwilling to accept the tale of stolen memories ....

Many amazing things did happen along the way, but what was once a neighborhood unto itself and a vibrant center for music slowly turned into a dark hole on Tinker Street. There is plenty of blame to go around. Sandel still grumbles about the wrecking ball administration of Mower and Ragonese and their road blocks. Others site Gen X and the deterioration of the music business. Others blame the veteran crowd for not supporting the scene, but that's a hard one, too, if everyone agrees there simply is no scene.

What happens next is up in the air. Odds are the facility is up for grabs at this point. A major facelift would be required, including the often spoken of plan to enclose the porch. Perhaps a membership arrangement based on the Towne Crier model might fly. Plugging into the well-established touring circuit of blues, folk and Americana artists who play for medium scale could work. For the town's sake, let's hope there's someone out there with ears to hear those walls speak again. It's hard to not to feel that the Tinker Street Cafe as it was wasn't due to close; it's equally difficult to accept that nothing is an apt replacement.

Haven James has been a consistent contributor to the Music & Arts scene around the Hudson Valley and beyond for almost a decade through his column, Werewolves of Woodstock, published weekly in the Woodstock Times

A writer, musician, philanthropist, and Mac addict; he lives reclusively, high atop Overlook Mountain with his son and a menagerie of animals, both wild and domesticated. Though currently unmarried, rumors abound as to his intimate relationships with Madonna, Sandra Bernhardt, and Eli Bach; though he insists these notions to be pure hearsay. His identity has remained a mystery to all but the closest of friends as he often travels in disguise and appears unannounced and undercover at concerts and venues in a dedicated effort to get the real story.

Go to the Werewolves of Woodstock page for more articles by Haven James.
Haven James can be contacted at

Posted on January 9th, 1999

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