"Unforgettable Crossroads"


by Jessa Piaia

March 1, 1991

[reprinted from SQUAWK Magazine, Issue #43]

Jessa: Lee, what does a coffeehouse mean to you? Tell us about your concept.

Lee: I like the idea of a "coffeehouse culture." I think a whole culture exists, called coffeehouse culture, which is different, but still related to, the overall culture. In the U.S., the overall culture includes mass media, performance places, community halls, and clubs that people go to for various entertainments. Unfortunately, the USA has not yet developed a true coffeehouse culture. The coffeehouses in Europe, however, have great long-standing traditions of being an integral part of the overall culture. Some coffeehouses have been going on there for three to four hundred years.

The Turks had the scene going in the Middle Ages. They grew coffee and tea, which the British started importing from them. The idea of "tea at three" became a tradition in British society, at first in the home, and then later it moved into the pub. Pubs had few places to sit, people mostly stood at the bar or played darts. This was primarily a male thing, with few women present--not exactly a family affair.

Then the French imported this scene across the Channel and created their Gaulic variation. They brought in the physical space where whole families would come to the cafe, and food was served at all hours. Since living quarters in many French cities consisted of small rooms with a bed and no central heating, it was difficult to sit and write at home. So people went to the cafe. There it was heated, and set up with tables to do your thing. It became a substitute home. People could eat meals, entertain friends, and hold court with friends at their own table. Cafes became the crossroads for people to get to know one another. The cafe, or coffeehouse, stands as a place that is always there, that is always open, where everybody will eventually come.

So this idea of a French cafe is the tradition we launched in the United States, during civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, and free speech movements on college campuses in the sixties. Our country had no previous history of coffeehouse culture. It's been a barren place, a pathetic cow-town mentality in most cities. While exceptions exist, like Boston, San Francisco, New York City, and New Orleans, basically our overall USA culture has not yet integrated this enormously powerful coffeehouse culture.

The confluence, the coming together of the scene, happened in many towns and cities across the U.S. during the sixties. This scene centered mostly in the churches or community centers or union halls, which gave us protection from paying high rents. People came with guitars, read poetry, and sang songs from "Kumbaya," to "Union Maid," to "Hey, you, get off of my cloud." These 'new coffeehouses' were sanctioned by the community, but not in the sense of the European tradition of coffeehouse culture. Most of these coffeehouses were lonely outposts, where you went to meet the interesting movers and shakers of that community at that time. People would hitchhike across the country, and some made a living by teaching the latest guitar riffs and finger-picking styles that they learned in these coffeehouses.

Jessa: You've been infused in the coffeehouse scene, since 1963. Tell us how it happened for you.

Lee: This coffeehouse movement of the sixties, coincided with my finishing high school and going to college. The first real poetry that personally moved me was in my church magazine, one Christmas issue. It was San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's wonderful poem, "Christ Climbed Down," about that be-bop hep cat who got hung up on the tree, and everybody thought that was it, but then he climbed down. It was a great new image describing the crucifixion and resurrection, which didn't go down well at all with more traditional mind-sets. Many of the conservative people rose up and caused a big controversy, and that just made me all the more interested. The magazine also mentioned coffeehouses, lots and lots of coffeehouses. I thought, "When I get to college, I'm going to find me one of these coffeehouses and play my guitar."

When I was an undergraduate at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, I found some coffeehouses with exotic, intriguing names, like The SACRED MUSHROOM, The FISH NET, The RUSTY NAIL, The SEVENTH DOOR. I started playing guitar at The CRACKED CUP. This led to a group of us founding The COCKROACH COFFEEHOUSE. It was a great place for people to meet socially. People who didn't fit in at other places enjoyed it, because we made an effort to be friendly and open and non-judgmental. The part that appealed most to me, was that I could perform and always have a new song every week. I was the younger of this group, and when I was becoming a college junior, most of them were graduating and heading to New York City. The ones who were left, asked if I would manage this coffee-house. I took the leap and said, "Yes, I'll do it." I'm so glad that I did, because everything that came together in my life at that point, came out of that COCKROACH COFFEEHOUSE.

A committee of six people ran The COCKROACH very comfortably. Each of us had functions like, making coffee and scheduling acts. Since I was an English major, I went to some of my younger English T.A. professors, and said, "Come read your poetry." It was a real mixing up of cultures because these timid, academic poets quavered at getting out in front of the real people, for fear somebody might say, "That shit, I don't understand that shit at all." But some of them took a chance, and it worked very nicely. A whole lot of people passed thru The COCKROACH, like Phil Berrigan, Dan Berrigan's brother. It was exciting to talk to the predraft trial Berrigans. As a Midwestern Protestant, I wasn't used to Catholics asserting themselves like that--it was thrilling. Also folk singer Steve Gillette came with his friend, John Denver, who was a not-so-well-known folkie in those days with only one album out. Many things happened in that midwestern coffeehouse, both musically and politically.

I remember when Richard Farina was killed, I wrote an article for Folk Strums, a newspaper published by the Stadium Scholarship Dorm at Ohio State. We covered news about coffeehouses, poetry, the music of Dylan, Baez, Steve Gillette, Phil Ochs, Tom Rush, Sonny Terry. These were the people that we really looked up to. We were very open to their message. We certainly listened to them more than to Lyndon Johnson or national politicians or our parents or clergy or anyone of official rank or influence. We felt that musicians were being more truthful than the rest of the culture.

This was the high point, the cresting wave, of the civil rights movement. Instead of going to Daytona Beach for semester break in 1965, I went with a biracial group to Brownsville, Tennessee for Black voters' registration. They designated me the official guitarist of this group. But as soon as we got to the Black churches, I felt over my head. I mean who needs a fuckin' guitar? You just clap your hands and sing--and it sounds better than any guitar could make it sound--that was a big lesson to me. The gospel music in Black churches impressed and influenced me a lot. The civil rights movement put activist white kids smack dab into the middle of the Black culture, and exposed us to a cross-over of Folk and Blues from spirituals, hymns, and the Freedom singers with "We Shall Overcome." All this powerful music from the Black churches was 8000% better than anything we had yet experienced, and we responded very openly. We were also coming off the Free Speech movement in 1962-'63, with Tom Hayden and the Ann Arbor Declaration of Principles, stating what the "new wave" within the universities and the nation should be. The whole scene, coming together was a funky cultural insurgence, which made us want to learn ev'rything, to know all we could.

The Vietnam War was heating up, getting more fierce, and I was to be called up. A campus minister friend, Robin Tetzlof, spoke to me in my senior year, after I had experienced one full year of managing The COCKROACH. He said, "Lee, what are you going to do with your life?" I had been considering getting a Ph.D. in English literature and teaching poetry to undergraduates, until I got into my major far enough to see that all people did in these places was plumbing, writing fist-clenched articles about second-rate minds, which was way worse than the activities I was coming out of. So I told Robin, "I need a new perspective." He said, "Well, even though you may not define it as such, all your activities in the coffeehouse, sound to me like what a minister does. You should really consider the campus ministry as a profession, an arena where you could take a less traditional approach to everything. I'm going to nominate you for the Rockefeller Fellowship for graduate study in theology." This Rockefeller Fellowship is designed to attract students from other fields into the ministry.

Meanwhile I was called to report to the draft because I was nearing graduation. What was I to do? I was against the war. But I wasn't a pacifist. Was I going to leave the country? Would I go to jail? So I asked the Columbus Draft Board to allow me to be called from my home district in southeast Ohio, and they basically agreed. This, I figured might give me a better chance of avoiding turning into cannon fodder for LBJ. So in this crucial four-week window, I got the Rockefeller Fellowship. This one-year Fellowship provided full financial assistance for recipients to enter the university of their choice, and enrollment in theology gave an immediate 4-D deferment for purposes of "national security." While I didn't know if I would like theology, and might want to go back to English literature after a year, I did know I wanted a folk music scene at coffeehouses. So I immediately took an organized trip with five other Ohio State people to investigate schools out East, and decided on Harvard Divinity School.

That's how I came to Boston. My first solo performance of playing-guitar-and-singing was at SARGEANT BROWN'S MEMORIAL NECKTIE, a draft-resister coffeehouse in Central Square. It was the greatest place, where the Red Bookstore used to be, but it's been ripped down since. I played guitar and harmonica there in my first public, for-real-money performance because they let you pass the hat. I made $7.22 on that first gig, and I walked out feeling rich beyond belief--not in the monetary sense, you understand, but because I had just been paid for doing exactly what I liked to do anyway. I also played a lot at The SWORD & The STONE and The TURK'S HEAD, both on Charles Street in Boston. These places were small and low-key, but very alive and exciting as far as I was concerned. CLUB 47 in Harvard Square was only open for six more months after I got here in 1967. It closed for almost two years, and reopened in 1969 as "PASSIM'S." But I never sang there until much, much later--not until the mid-seventies.

Just before I was to be ordained as a Protestant minister, I received a Fulbright Scholarship to study theology and folklore in Spain. In Spain, I had a record offer. I didn't accept because I had no plans to stay abroad indefinitely and become an expatriot. But I got to hang out in the real coffeehouses like I had always dreamed of, in Spain, in Paris, in Rome, in Greece, in Germany, and in Beirut, and I did street-performing everywhere I went. After returning state-side, I decided not to do what I had been trained for, either as a minister or college professor. I knew I wanted something radically different, I wanted to play guitar and hang out and speak endless languages--for the rest of my natural life. Eventually this led to my establishing my own school, which is now called the Intercontinental Foreign Language Program at Harvard Square. Here, over the past fifteen years, I have invented and developed a whole new pioneering method for teaching seven, to eight, to ten foreign languages simultaneously. My QUINTALINGUAL™ method is now receiving considerable national attention, and has allowed me to envision continuing to learn vast numbers of languages for the rest of my life.

When I first returned from Europe with only $14 in my pocket, I had nowhere to stay. After $7 of that went for a taxi from the airport, I crashed with some Divinity School friends for a little while. Since 1969, I had been developing a shoestring survival career as a guitar teacher in the local community. It had started when George Wald passed me one day as I was playing some sizzling blues on the steps of Divinity Hall. He said, "Have you ever taught guitar?" I said, "Well, no, I haven't." He asked, "Would you?" I replied, "Well, I guess maybe I could." He said, "Will you teach my son, Elijah?" He then introduced himself and gave me his phone number. That's how I started teaching guitar. Over the years I had developed my own guitar-playing techniques, so it was easy to arrange them, and teach others. So upon my return, I reconnected with Elijah Wald and some previous students, and built up a considerable clientele in guitar-teaching. I taught both in my apartment, and established a Saturday "Folk Blues Guitar" program at the Cambridge YMCA.

Jessa: You were also playing in bands during this time.

Lee: Yes, this led to my forming an informal band with some students who wanted to practice riffs. We also started a class in how to get lyrics off of records. One of my guitar students, Holly Harris switched to bongos, and found that she played them really well and naturally. And my friend, Ted Kirousis was also in on that. We took it outside to the post office steps in Central Square, and then to Boston Common. About six to nine people played in that Fire-In-The-Street Blues Band at different times. It was this period in '79, that the whole history of street performing was radically revolutionized, because the first amplification with pig-nose amps came out. So we bought a bate of 'em and took our new little "snouts" down to the Common. The mouse amp followed the next year. These newly-invented amps gave street musicians a competitive edge over traffic noise for the first time in street-performing history.

Jessa: How did the local coffeehouse happen for you?

Lee: Ever since I came East in '67, I had been looking for a coffeehouse scene to bring together music, poetry, drama, and political activism, that had been such a formative experience for me at The COCKROACH. But I never found it in the Boston area, never found all that stuff in one place. Then in 1986, Chris Dunn and I showed up at STREET CAFE. Egg A1, Bill Martel, and others had cleared out a basement and made a stage. Not many people came at first, but the idea soon got underway. When I first came down those steps, the poet R.U. Outavit was reading his "Have I Been A Bad Boy?" poem. For me, that was a turning point, because his West Virginia accent is very similar to what I grew up with, and still switch into when I go back home to the dairy farm in southeast Ohio. I thought, "This is it! There's going to be a community of us." We're going to be like the Beats in the '50s. We can create a scene right here and now. I'm going to throw myself into it.

That very same night, Chris Dunn and I signed up to do a joint show there at STREET CAFE. R.U. Outavit, Kasara, Danzr Von Thai, David Brennan, and lots of my language students came. Such a night! It was the first time I had ever read my poetry in a public forum like that. Chris and I were so fired up and excited--but we never had another chance to do it there at STREET CAFE again. Because soon afterward, that whole place was destroyed--they held the Eve of Destruction party on April Fools Day. I also met Mare Streetpeople there, and only later, found out about her talents as a great performer, organizer, and wondrous person.

Chris and I kept practicing music together ev'ry week thru '87, just working out songs, and later writing poetry. From all our hanging out, and our relationship that formed on the language-and-travel trips in the mid '80s, a whole coffeehouse scene has now developed. All this came out of our personal needs--as Chris has so well said in his interview--and it with the forming of The DESOLATE ANGEL COFFEEHOUSE, which eventually led to The NAKED CITY COFFEEHOUSE.

Jessa: Tell us more about your poetry.

Lee: I've been performing music of all kinds for thirty-one years, basically as singer-songwriter with harmonica and guitar. My poetry readings didn't really start until '86 at STREET CAFE. Over the years I had written lots of stuff during my trips, but I did not read publicly. For me, doing a public reading was a big breakthru. I'd always wanted to, but it never seemed to be the right place. Poetry has been my focus since. When "The Traveling Willburys" came out in Christmas '88, "New Daddy Mike" would crank it up in The Tasty, that little vest-pocket diner in Harvard Square, and I started my first excursion into fiction with the RAVENOUS PIGLET CHRONICLES. What I enjoy most about the "Adventures of Ravenous Piglet" Chronicles is that it allows me to write about my friends and myself in a whole new comic way, a way that is much easier and more outrageous than the poetry. So basically I have two modes, poetry and fiction, but I'm not sure if people who hear me performing distinguish between them.

Entertainment value-wise, Ravenous Piglet has a big following at The NAKED CITY COFFEEHOUSE, and he's just started appearing at Catch A Rising Star. While I more value my poetry as the better artistic statement, I've been giving more thought now to Ravenous Piglet since it's more of a social thing--and ev'rybody gets to laugh.

Jessa: What do you see are the functions of a coffeehouse?

Lee: Coffeehouses are unforgettable crossroads. They function as scourges to whip you, in a supportive way, into realizing that you are not that great. They're like cocoons to protect you in the process, but they should also serve a prophetic edge by telling their own attendees to shape up and get it together. They also function theologically as churches, because the church is simply community, with liturgical drama done originally within a circle of chanters. Coffeehouses, I think, are very much that primitive circle. Coffeehouses are primitive and sophisticated at the same time.

Jessa: What are some highlights of this scene for you?

Lee: The most valid part of the coffeehouse is its do-it-yourself format, which has a galvanizing effect on all of us. Each week we look forward to sharing what we've honed during the week, and presenting a performance that is responsibly new. We all want to present our best to each other, and we're exhilarated when our friends that we've come to know, performers like Don White and Raelinda Woad and Tim Mason and R.U. Outavit and Richard Cambridge, get out there and rip it up.

The NAKED CITY COFFEEHOUSE is the hottest thing happening. There are so many people that I would not know, and slowly am getting to know now, as they come to the coffeehouse. We have, as one of America's unsung heroes, Chris Dunn. Chris is a combination of Gertrude Stein and Ghandi--and he's lots cuter than either one. He's a pioneer. He's destined for greatness. We also have our own insurgent publication, SQUAWK Magazine, with multiple editors including Mick Cusimano, the soon-to-be-famous surrealist cartoonist--SQUAWK is now reaching all the way to California, to Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore, to London, to Moscow and the Ukraine, to Paris--all this is very exciting. I also think that Jessa Piaia and Kasara have been doing some pioneering drama pieces in the past six months. I'm a real fan of "The Persian Gulp." Jessa and Cherie Magnello, a trained opera singer, even performed an operatic piece--in German yet. Ray McNiece has also done some great character sketches over the past year. Drama has that way of riveting people. Drama makes the music and poetry totally better because it all juxtaposes against each other--and the night feels fuller. The theater is very important--I hope more and more of us follow Jessa and Kasara's example and write and perform plays ev'ry week.

When Chris Dunn says, "Let's compare records, George Bush. What have we done in the last two years?"--I think he's right on the money. I think we have created something that is slowly transmografying the entire scene in Cambridge-Boston. Because--let's be frank--it's not happening too much anywhere else. There are pockets of really neat people in assorted cities across the country, but it's hard for them to get a continual scene together. To be able to do it consistently once a week, that's a colossal and fantastic achievement. To have had our flourishing coffeehouse scene for two years is quite something. And for Chris Dunn and I, since '84, in terms of what has been percolating up in our writing, singing, and performing--we're hungry for it, we'll never quit. I'm swinish happy to be writing poetry, doing Ravenous Piglet, playing some hot riffs, and doing all this in the same place every week. Ev'rybody should come to The NAKED CITY COFFEEHOUSE.

Jessa: So what about the future of the coffeehouse, Lee?

Lee: Well, look, the future is what I specialize in. I've been designing the future for the last twenty years. On the personal level for my language school, with my method, I have no doubt that this is going to spread throughout the U.S.A. and across the earth. My QUINTALINGUAL™ method will be the way that all languages will be learned in the 21st century. I may or may- not survive to reap all the benefit, but this gargantuan project will be massive enough for me, will allow me to set free the creative juices to write vast amounts of poetry and fiction, and hopefully to write some kick-ass songs.

I think that The NAKED CITY COFFEEHOUSE can continue to be what it is and get even more comprehensive and influential. The idea is that we all got to do our creative thing as much as we can, and have as much fun as we can have while we're doing it. And as long as we're doing that, we can't go wrong. The only way we can go wrong is if we stop doing it.

Who knows how big it can get? This whole thing might result in something like the Beats kicked up in the fifties. Our scene could be the defining force for the '9Os and into the year 2000, and beyond.

So let's all get together and do our very best. We're as good as our dreams are--we're all making history.