Alive at the Cafe Au Go Go

I grew up in a household that didn't have a record player and was pretty much devoid of music. In high school, I got a little stereo and began collecting records. By the time I entered Brooklyn College, in 1963, my "main man" was Trini Lopez; I also had a couple of Jack Jones albums. In New York, I discovered the Cafe Au Go Go.

The Cafe Au Go Go was in the heart of Greenwich Village, right across the street from the Bitter End. It was a long, rectangular basement room that seated about 300 people. The stage was along the middle of a long wall, so most of the tables were to the sides of the stage. It was open from 1964 until 1970.

Some of the artists were local Greenwich Village folks, Judy Roderick, for example: Everybody was sure she was going to be the next great female folk/blues singer. And Jim and Jean, portrayed a few years ago in the Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, which was set in the Village: I considered them a poor man's version of Ian and Sylvia.

David Blue was an ornery character who seemed to feast on being heckled. Fred Neil was revered as a god on the Village music scene. Dave Van Ronk was a wonderful performer who told great stories; I loved his rendition of "Cocaine Blues." I brought a fraternity brother to the Cafe to see Van Ronk; my friend really took to a particular anti–Vietnam War song. At every fraternity party afterward, he would imbibe a bit then launch into his own rendition of "Romping Through the Swamp."

On a typical night at the Cafe, several acts would perform, including filler acts long since forgotten. One I loved was the Times Square Two, two bright young guys with British accents who combined comedy and music with juggling thrown in.


I wasn't interested in jazz then, so I missed Bill Evans, Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz, and the other jazz greats who played the Cafe.

The house folk singer was Richie Havens; I saw him perform there many times and even engaged in a couple of brief conversations. His wife and young child would come in to watch him perform. He was a wonderful, gentle man. My favorite song of his was "San Francisco Bay Blues."

The house blues/rock group in the earlier years was the Blues Project, led by Al Kooper. I have fond memories of their renditions of "Two Trains Running." Once I brought a date who told me she used to live next door to Steve Katz, a member of the Blues Project who later joined Kooper when he formed Blood, Sweat & Tears. The Blues Project wasn't playing that night, but Katz and Danny Kalb, their lead guitarist, were sitting with lady friends at the next table. The next thing I knew, my date was calling "Stevie, Stevie!" and I got to hang out a bit with members of the band.


I have vivid memories of Howlin' Wolf wearing a little straw fedora, crawling on his knees through the audience and howling into the microphone. I saw the great Muddy Waters, who was always a total class act: No matter how hot it was or how much he was sweating, he would never loosen his tie. Bo Diddley, who performed with a group of eight to 10 people including two curvaceous women singing background vocals and wiggling in skin-tight, sequined dresses, always put on a great show. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band had a kick-ass edge, but oh, how they could play the blues! I loved to watch Mike Bloomfield, Butterfield's lead guitarist. My favorite blues performer, though, was John Lee Hooker, who was a master at engaging an audience. Nobody has ever played the blues better than John Lee.


And then there were the folk singers. My favorite was Tim Buckley—what an incredible voice! He always had a smile on his face and a little-boy twinkle in his eye. A close second was Tom Rush; the hair still stands up on the back of my neck when I listen to his rendition of Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game." Phil Ochs seemed angry and funny at the same time; of all the anti–Vietnam War songs at the Cafe in those days, Ochs's were the most poignant. Eric Andersen was another favorite: His "Thirsty Boots" was one of the iconic songs of that era. Ian and Sylvia always put on a good show.

It was there that I saw the Grateful Dead for the first time; I became a Deadhead and saw them many more times through the 1970s.

Jesse Colin Young and the Youngbloods often played; their "Get Together" was arguably the greatest song of that era.

I recall the time I took my cousin from Ohio to the Cafe. It was a weekday night, and I had no idea who was playing. The Cafe was half-full, and the performers were unknowns from California making their first trip to the East Coast: the Jefferson Airplane.

The Cafe Au Go Go was a cultural phenomenon with an important role in the history of our music. It was an integral part of my life for the time that it was open, and it was a sad day in 1970 when it closed its doors for the last time. A very sad day.

Footnote: Jeff Weiner is a docent at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, a retired distinguished engineer at IBM, and a long-time Stereophile reader.

marklmusto's picture

thanks for this article - takes me back (SF/Berkeley). reading a great book, "Begin Again" by Eddie Glaude, Jr. - the struggles of the 60s continue, after a long submergence; the mind is willing, the flesh less so. 'tis not too late to seek a newer world.

mmole's picture

Thanks for the recognition for this wonderful venue. First night I was there the program was Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Youngbloods, and the Blues Project. One night the crowd was so sparse (forgot who the headliner was) they let us go upstairs to the Varrick Theatre to see the Mothers' "Absolutely Free" show. Saw the Grateful Dead there and peed in the next urinal to Pigpen. His aim was true.

TNtransplant's picture

Wow, feels like I was born maybe about 15 years too late. Did have the privilege of seeing a few of those folks, but many sadly a bit past their prime. Hearing John Lee Hooker at was usually a "new wave" club in Philly was great but kinda weird.

My uncle tells me of attending parties in Queens where Al Kooper used to show up with a guitar pre-Dylan.

Would love to hear about some of the other venues you might have frequented in the 60's. Also a story on the MIM from an audiophile/sound perspective would be cool.