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On September 15th, I performed at Roomful of Sky’s virtual “Save The Bitter End” live stream event. This event, hosted by Phil Robinson, ran in junction with Paul Rizzo’s “No Bitter End for The Bitter End” GoFundMe, which at the time of my writing this article, is still live and collecting funds. The goal of these fundraisers is to help The Bitter End, one of New York City’s iconic music venues, stay open despite not being able to function due to the ongoing cornavirus pandemic.
The Bitter End Today
The Bitter End is located on 147 Bleecker Street, between Thompson and LaGuardia, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York. The squat weathered storefront entrance is sandwiched between other bars, on a strip of swanky comedy clubs and trendy watering holes on Bleecker Street. Many of these venues offer music and comedy in spades, and they’re all dwarfed in size by Le Poisson Rouge, which is just down the block. In the absence of indoor drinking and dining, and with the temporary ban on live music – all of these places are at threat of closing.
So, you as the reader may ask, why save The Bitter End in particular? Why all the fuss about one bar, in a string of bars, all equally suffering and unable to function?
What Makes The Bitter End Special?
The Bitter End is the oldest rock club in New York City. It is one of the few surviving venues from the early 1960s. What makes The Bitter End special is not merely is age, however, but its rich history. The Bitter End has proven to be a constant generator of titans of the industry. You can find a list of the legends who have played at The Bitter End on the venue’s website.
The list of luminaries who have taken the stage at the Bitter End includes Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Judy Colins to Taylor Swift. This stage housed wildly famous acts before they broke out. Pete Seeger, Les Paul, Kenny Rodgers, James Taylor, George Carlin, Jay Leno, and many more. The Bitter End has hosted some of the most renowned musicians and comedians of the past 60 years on its stage, and that history contributes to making the venue so special.
The Bitter End is more than just a historical artifact. Prior to the cornavirus outbreak, The Bitter End opened its doors to up-and-coming acts today who hope to one day achieve the recognition that would place them on the list of Bitter End legends. The Bitter End remains a place that is willing to take a chance on growing acts and provide a landing spot for acts on tour.
If you’re a fan of American music, odds are you enjoy someone who made their start at The Bitter End. Check the list. If you’re a musician, and you get a chance to play there, odds are you’re standing on the same stage as one of your idols. For a young and growing performer, that opportunity is priceless and meaningful.
The Bitter End’s Special Place in American Music Culture
The Bitter End opened in 1961, the same year a twenty-year-old Bob Dylan hitch hiked his way to New York City. While he did play there much in his early days, it became more of a home for him in the mid 1970s when the Rolling Thunder Revue began. Dylan, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg and many more experimented with ideas together in a startling haze of immense creativity and substance abuse. The tour was recently documented in an excellent Martin Scorsese film that you can watch on Netflix.
One of America’s treasured musical heroes, John Prine, whom we lost due to the pandemic, also has a Bitter End story. Another country music legend, Kris Kristofferson, offered John Prine a few songs from his set at The Bitter End, which resulted in a newspaper article which propelled him to the front lines, a record deal, and stardom.
You can watch my discussion of what makes The Bitter End special along with my performance at the benefit by following this timestamped link to the benefit livestream.
My Personal Bitter End Story
Although I cannot claim to achieved any level of stardom approaching the names on The Bitter End legends list, I am fortunate enough to have my own Bitter End story.
When I began performing music professionally, my first goal was to play at The Bitter End. After toiling in the smaller bars in the area, I received my first opportunity to take the stage at The Bitter End in 2012.
I still remember vividly how surreal those first steps on The Bitter End stage were. I was hesitant, as if I was expecting the floor to move like the hull of a ship. This may have looked silly to the audience if anyone was paying attention to us loading in, although my general weirdness may have caused those in attendance who knew me to take it for granted. There was a distinct moment when I remember feeling the floorboards tremble under my weight, and I wondered then how many of my heroes had heard that very floor shake. For a brief moment, I imagined myself and all the other acts, big and small, as part of something larger, with that stage as a conduit. Then I straightened up and got to work.
The film footage from that show was what resulted in my band’s acceptance to WNYC & WQXR’s 2013 Battle of the Boroughs. Winning the stations’ Brooklyn championship resulted in a show at The Mercury Lounge as well as Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “BAM Cafe Live.” Because of this, I feel, perhaps like many of my predecessors, that I owe a debt to the venue. That is one of many reasons that I have joined the effort to save The Bitter End.
The Shows Must Go On: The Resilience of The Bitter End
In 1992, the owner of 147 Bleecker Street attempted to evict The Bitter End. A handful of acts, most notably Peter, Paul & Mary, Kris Kristofferson, and George Carlin performed in a benefit that contributed greatly to keeping the venue open. It will always be one of the great honors of my life that I helped stand in the front lines in this next benefit to ensure that the doors of The Bitter End remain open for years to come. The night raised over $16,000, and over $25,000 since Roomful of Sky became involved. As of this article, the GoFundMe has broken $85,000 – only $15,000 shy of their goal.
When the live stream began, a fellow musician and participant muttered, “I can’t imagine life without The Bitter End” in a hot mic moment. Philosophical gold aside, I couldn’t agree more. The emotional outpour from the musicians who participated in the event, and who commented and shared photos and donated, is all genuine. The venue is still just as relevant as it was in its early days and, unlike many other New York City venues, it is kind to the talent.
If you are interested in contributing to the save The Bitter End effort, please visit the GoFundMe page to make a contribution.