CLHP Intern Blog: Alex Becker

Dear 1960s, I never knew you! So, why do I like you so much?

Of the many thought-provoking questions that have surfaced this summer during my work on the Caffè Lena history project, I find myself going back to this one often. It’s no secret that we, at least some of us, and particularly those who never lived through the years, have developed a strong sense of nostalgia for the ‘60s, a decade rediscovered in our culture today on television and in movies, in songs and photographs, in text books, and of course, in stories. As I’ve encountered more and more stories from Caffè Lena patrons and performers over the past few weeks, I’ve begun to piece together a clearer image of Caffè Lena’s important role within the folk music scene and the larger 1960s artistic American counterculture. I am most curious now about how Caffè Lena in 2012 can relate to its history without relying on it. The context has changed, the Caffè remains, so how does it holds its history and tradition close while still staying relevant in a musically-evolved society?

John Gorka addressed this qualm of mine, sharing a thoughtful response to one of Jocelyn Arem’s questions in an interview I was transcribing:

“Are you surprised that the Caffè is still around?” to which he said,

“That’s a great thing, ya know. When places can preserve what’s great about the past and mix it in with the good new parts of the new world, I love that. That mixture. It’s kind of what I like about Italy. It seems like the old and the new, it’s not just a jumble like Los Angeles or Houston.”

“Where things don’t seem to coexist naturally?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

A capable and thriving fusion of past and present – I figured that if John Gorka says you’re synonymous with Italy and nothing like LA or Houston, you’ve probably succeeded… at least if you’re Caffè Lena. So here we are now, in a space that is as charmingly warm and magical as its token chocolate chip cookies taste. What does Caffè Lena bring to the table, (aside from these chocolate chip cookies) that keeps us coming back for more?

Alex Becker filming at Caffè Lena. Photo by Emily Werner

Film still: Caravan of Thieves Interview at Caffè Lena by Alex Becker.

In addition to transcribing interviews of past Caffè Lena icons, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a good amount of time at the Caffè this summer through my work on a video project in which I’ve filmed performances and talked with musicians about their relationship to the place. The combination of transcribing, filming, interviewing, and just existing in this space much more than I ever have before has sparked my interest in exploring this question of time and place – noticing what has changed, how the Caffè copes with these changes, and still is, in fact, completely relevant to today’s world, though in quite a different fashion than it was in the ‘60s.

Mitch Greenhill, in one of his interviews, discussed the loss of real listening in today’s technologically advanced culture. He remembered seeking out a record store in New York City that sold acetates, similar to records with a life of about ten plays, which he bought for “20 bucks in 1960 dollars.” “I’ve lost the intensity of that sort of listening,” he remarked. The Internet has given us immediate access to all types of music from all around the world. We could argue that this has psychologically and physically altered the listening experience. Caffè Lena, then, is not only a space to find music from different genres, different decades, but it also reminds us of how to listen and why to listen to live performance. Robin Haine, in one of her interviews, expanded on this theme, highlighting the importance of artistic education in a place like Caffè Lena. Any artist will tell you that the best kind of education in the arts is exposure. “And I think that’s what happened at Lena’s,” she said, reflecting on her exposure to a slew of influential folk singers she saw at the Caffè in the ‘60s. And so it goes today. I’ve already bought two albums and a t-shirt and have undoubtedly experienced a couple of my most memorable musical performances in the period of a few weeks.

In a time where listening to music is easily taken for granted, since there is so much, and it is so available, I’m happy to be reminded of what real music listening looks like and sounds like, and I thank Caffè Lena for honoring a particular tradition of musical performing and for inviting a contemporary outlook, providing an outlet in which audiences can seek and critique. One of the best types of music education you’ll find, all in good company, with plenty of chocolate chip cookies to go around.

3 Comments

  1. Alex Di Reto
    Jul 24, 2012

    Dear Alex, I knew 1960, I liked it and I’m happy you like it too. I’ve never visited Caffè Lena but I have shared (and still do at 57 also when performing) the magical spirit of many music clubs during those magical years.
    I understand you probably sensed the musical atmosphere still soaked into the walls of the Caffè, it’s like the medieval spirit that still coexits in present Italy (where I live), as John Gorka says.
    At that time in Rome we had the Folk Club, where many not yet renown folksingers performed and the spirit I still preserve in my heart I try to deliver each time I play.
    Glad Caffè Lena still lives, might come to visit sometime, I believe, beside the chocolate chip cookies, it’s the music that keeps it alive. Ciao, Alex

  2. Richard Kavanaugh
    Nov 3, 2012

    Hi Alex,

    At 15 years old I got my first real introduction to live music…at Caffe’ Lena. The year was 1960, and I was a budding guitar player. There was Dave Van Ronk, live and in full color, singing the blues…smoke filled hot room and all. It was August. Wow, it was quite the event. I sat at the window right next to the stage and wondered where I was, as I viewed and listened to the old men across the street screaming obscenities (“dirty commies”) at us from the long porch where they sat. The conservative past had little patience with the new progressive era and especially all the weirdos hanging out at Caffe’ Lena. But, I was hooked…what more can I say…yeah!!!

  3. R Haine
    Apr 27, 2013

    I first stepped foot in the Caffe late december 1973. Missed the Caffe Sixties but got quite an earful elsewhere as a kid,

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