I begin with this reminiscence by David Amram for all sorts of reasons.
First, he alludes to a magical time in New York history, which beckoned me when I was a schoolboy in England. I remember an anthology which came out in the late ’50s called The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men. The Beats – Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al. – will be old news to anyone reading this column, but they were a wild eye-opener to my generation of proper English schoolboys. The Angry Young Men were – with a little stretch – their British contemporaries. The “Angry” sobriquet comes from the seminal British play of the 1950s, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which was the first salvo in an onslaught of young playwrights finding a new, liberated – and liberating – voice, ten years after the end of World War II: Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter and a myriad of others. All of this was catnip to me, beginning in my teens to develop what became a lifelong passion for the theatre. But nothing was quite so seductive as the voices from across the Atlantic. Indeed, in my last year in high school (St. Paul’s, founded in 1509 by John Colet, Dean of St. Paul’s), I shocked the judges at an Elocution contest by choosing a passage from Go by John Clellon Holmes – I came in second . . .
Second, David straddles every possible genre of music. He began as a classical French horn player. But that’s like saying Shakespeare wrote sonnets. He will, in the course of a concert, move effortlessly between French horn, piano, diverse flutes, whistles and drums, and dozens of folkloric instruments culled from travels and performances in more than 25 countries. In the ’50s he hung out in the fertile demimonde of Greenwich Village with the Beats and many of the jazz greats. He and Kerouac virtually invented “Jazz and Spoken Word”. In the ’60s he was Leonard Bernstein’s first composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic. He has composed more than 100 chamber and orchestral works, the scores for such movies as The Manchurian Candidate, Splendor in the Grass and (another collaboration with Kerouac) Pull My Daisy. He has collaborated with an astonishing variety of American icons in addition to Bernstein and Kerouac, including, but not limited to, Dizzy Gillespie, Langston Hughes, Willie Nelson, Thelonious Monk, Odetta, Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, Charles Mingus, Lionel Hampton and Tito Puente.
The third reason is more personal.
I came to this country in 1967. My very proper English education had enabled me to go to Oxford and then to teach for a year and a half at a German university (a very complicated undertaking for the son of German Jews who had fled Hitler for London, just in time to be bombed by their erstwhile countrymen). By the age of 23 I was burnt out. “How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, Stol’n on his wing my three-and-twentieth year,” I bemoaned with Milton, another Old Boy of St. Paul’s, in front of my class on Literary Analysis. Drained, I returned to England. To my utter joy and disbelief, I was accepted as an actor at the Sheffield Playhouse, a well-regarded repertory theatre in the North of England, in 1966.
My first professional role – my first paying job since giving up my position as Lektor für Anglistik at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum – was as a bee in the annual pantomime. A bee.
Needless to say I had a glorious time. Dousing the searing intensity of Germany, I found myself now in a community where, since you were perpetually broke, the only currency that mattered was wit, laughter, outrageousness, the ability to corpse your fellow actors on stage and your willingness to buy a round at the pub. We did mainstage productions of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Beckett, Feydeau, Galsworthy, Arbutsov, not to mention Pinter, Wesker and Osborne. We took theatre into the community. I had the opportunity on a small scale to write and direct. But the real lessons were not something I could articulate at the time – or even recognize. They were lessons which have served me well for almost half a century. They had to do with the whole notion of collective enterprise, with a kind of democracy of feeling and talent, the democracy of art. You were a part of a community, you had a job to do that took enormous concentration, cooperation and skill, not unlike putting up a new house every three weeks or, as it later turned out, running a restaurant. And in the heat of battle, deep, intense, intimate cameraderies were formed that shortcircuited the usual polite civilian formulae for friendship. And you found a kinship that transcended kin.
This nomadic, insubstantial life sustained my spirit. But it could not last. The Fulbright Commission and the English-Speaking Union conspired to pluck me out of my impoverished idyll and send me in the hold of the Queen Elizabeth to the New World to write about avant-garde American theatre and pursue a Ph.D.
How that came to pass, how I became involved in the experimental theatre in New York, how, on a lunatic whim, ten years after my arrival, together with two other starving artists, I opened a little one-room café with a toaster-oven in Greenwich Village, is meat for a more substantial meal than this one. Suffice it to say, that suddenly here I am, the last of the original proprietors of the Cornelia Street Café, about to celebrate our 35th anniversary, having graduated to three rooms upstairs, a performance space downstairs, two kitchens, two bars and more refrigerators than I can count.
From the beginning we have been nourished by the spirit of camaraderie that I found first in a Jewish youth group in London and later in the theatre. We have attempted to provide food for the soul as well as the stomach. The three of us were artists, which drew in other artists. Suzanne Vega sang her first songs when we were one room; Eve Ensler fired the first volley of her Vagina Monologues shortly after we excavated downstairs; some of my old Oxford chums, who with their equally rigorous education became Monty Python, performed when they were in town; Senator Eugene McCarthy read his poetry and Dr. Oliver Sacks his prose; we do a monthly Science series with Roald Hoffmann, who writes poetry and plays but more famously won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry; we have done the entire Iliad, the complete theatrical works of Günter Grass, poetry in a dozen different languages and music in almost as many genres as David Amram.
Which brings me back to the beginning. For the last eight or ten years, David has appeared here on the first Monday of every month and, to my delight and continuing astonishment, links this little venture with the whole history and range of music, with jazz, with classical, with folk, with spoken word, with “the most exciting and glamorous city in the world,” New York, and its extraordinary diversity of cultures.
On July 4th, perpetually 201 years behind a slightly larger entity, we will celebrate our 35th birthday with David and his band and a whole host of artists playing on the street. And then downstairs in our cabaret we will show a sneak preview of Larry Kraman’s film, David Amram: the First 80 Years, which ends on the stage of the Cornelia Street Café.
In my beginning is my end, as TS Eliot put it in The Four Quartets (given an awe-inspiring performance from memory here more than 30 years ago by polymath and pianist Rip Keller). Or, to pick up with David where we left off:
I am proud to have been a custodian of some of those diamonds.
For more information, visit corneliastreetcafe.com. Cornelia Street Café’s 35th Anniversary Celebration will be held Jul. 4th with David Amram and guests. See Calendar.Robin Hirsch is the author of the award-winning memoir, Last Dance at the Hotel Kempinski; the solo performance cycle, Mosaic: Fragments of a Jewish Life and, with the collaboration and interference of his children, FEG: Stupid Poems for Intelligent Children. In 1977, together with Irish-American actor Charles McKenna and Argentinean-Canadian-Italian visual artist Raphaela Pivetta, he founded the Cornelia Street Café. In 1987 the City of New York proclaimed it “a cultural as well as a culinary landmark”. It has won numerous awards for its food, its wines, its poetry and, mirabile dictu, its jazz.