Devotees of the Everything Used to Be Better school will love Neil Young’s sorta-new record. ¶ On Tuesday the rock legend releases the latest in his archival concert series, “Live at the Cellar Door.” The recordings are drawn from a six-show solo stand at the Georgetown nightclub in late November and early December of 1970. Alone on stage and switching between acoustic guitar and grand piano, the young Young’s folk-rock brilliance shines throughout a 45-minute set of faithful-to-the-original-recording renditions of many of his classics, including “Tell Me Why,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “After the Gold Rush,” and “Old Man.” The then-25-year-old also played unplugged versions of “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down By the River,” as he makes the latter easily the most beautiful song about a psycho’s gun-murder of a girlfriend ever put to wax. The Cellar Door recordings find the audience so reverent and rapt that staffers at the club obviously had no problems enforcing its famous “No talking!” rule during his stay.
For nostalgic locals, another highlight of this incredible period piece of a record is that it calls attention to the venue where it was made. Plainly, there will never be another Cellar Door. This was a tiny place (legal capacity under 200) at the corner of 34th and M streets NW where music was king, tickets for major acts averaged $3 and six-show stands like Young’s were considered brief stays.
“There’s no happier feeling than being in a room when everybody loves the music,” says Cellar Door founder Jack Boyle, “and we sure had that with Neil Young.”
Boyle got that happy feeling quite a bit at his club. The Youngstown, Ohio, native who first came to the District to attend Georgetown University, founded the Cellar Door in the early 1960s using what he describes as one night of poker winnings. (“About $1,100,” Boyle once said.) He sold the place after just two years and left the country to run bars in Europe, but got homesick for the United States and bought the Cellar Door back from Charles Lawrence Fichman in the fall of 1970. Fichman had established the club as a casual hangout for hardcore folkies, where “hootenannies” were a staple in which amateur local musicians traded licks with nationally known pickers. The casual atmosphere ultimately got to Fichman: Upon selling back to Boyle, Fichman told the Washington Post that a chief reason he rid himself of the club was because “pot had cut into the drinking” revenues.
“People used to come in an hour ahead of time so they could have a few drinks before the show,” Fichman said at the time. “Now they come in a few minutes early so they’ll still be high when it starts.”
Boyle, who was a military vet before he became a club owner, wasn’t about to run a house of ill repute. He instituted a $2 food minimum, which he says more than made up for any hemp-related hemorrhaging of profits. And he was not going to let the talent treat his room as a party palace: “I will not supply dope or broads for anyone in the world,” he told an interviewer in 1975.
In the Cellar Door’s case, size mattered. After strolling over to the Georgetown campus for a post-midnight interview with WGTB DJ John Zambetti, Young, who had played the Baltimore Civic Center a few months earlier as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s first tour, gave a rave review to the club.
“Small clubs are groovy!” Young told Zambetti.
For folks raised with the current 9:30 Club as this town’s premier music hall, the coziness of the Cellar Door must be hard to grasp.
“It was so intimate I’m not even sure how all these bands got on that stage,” recalls Nils Lofgren. “You could see and hear every little thing everyone did. . . . It was just completely real and very visceral and powerful.”
Length mattered, too. The Cellar Door often hosted well-known performers who typically stayed a week, playing two or three shows each night for what now seems a pittance in pay. Boyle called John Denver a “$1,500 a week” act. Lofgren, now best-known for his long stay as a guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, will tell you he owes much of his career to one of Young’s Cellar Door residencies. As a 17-year-old high school dropout from Bethesda trying to launch a rock-and-roll career, Lofgren made the club his hangout. Not only did that let him see many of his musical heroes perform – B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Fahey, Tim Hardin, Young — but he also made a habit of sneaking up the staircase at the side of the club and inviting himself into the unlocked and unguarded dressing room before and after shows to hit up the pros for career advice.
Because the Cellar Door headliners usually weren’t getting on a bus headed for another town at night’s end, many artists simply let Lofgren hang out. Once, he took in a poker game with Waters and his band. Another time, he brought an impaired Hardin home to his parents for a spaghetti dinner. “I just thought he was drunk, but . . .” says Lofgren. (Hardin died of a heroin overdose some years later.) And Young, at the beginning of a 1969 Cellar Door run, handed Lofgren a Martin guitar and liked what he heard enough to buy the kid “a cheeseburger and a Coke and a table for four shows,” Lofgren says. Young invited Lofgren over to his Arlington hotel to talk shop the next afternoon. A year later, Lofgren was part of Young’s stable of studio sidemen for the recording of the “After the Gold Rush” album. His dreams of being able to make a living at music were on their way to being realized.
One of the Cellar Door’s most enduring tales is its role in bringing “Take Me Home Country Roads” to John Denver.
Bill Danoff worked as a doorman and light and sound man at the Cellar Door during his days as an undergrad at Georgetown University (Class of 1968), all while trying to figure out how to launch his own music career. He and his future wife, Taffy Nivert, formed a duo called Fat City, and the pair scored a spot opening for Denver when he did a week at the club in December 1970. (This was just weeks after Young’s just-released disc was recorded.) Danoff and Nivert invited Denver to a musical pow-wow at Nivert’s apartment at 31st and Q streets NW. (More everything-used-to-be-better fodder: “Rent was $100 a month,” says Danoff.)
Denver showed up late with his hand taped up after getting into an auto accident on the short ride over from the Cellar Door. “So we did all the playing,” says Danoff. They sang Denver an unfinished tune they had written while driving through rural roads of Montgomery County. But, says Danoff, “We couldn’t come up with a rhyme for ‘Maryland.’ ” So they substituted a state that Danoff had never even set foot in — West Virginia — tweaked a verse and added a bridge. “John had this exaggerated reaction: ‘Gol-ly! That’s a hit!’ ” says Danoff. Denver debuted it the next night at the Cellar Door using handwritten lyric sheets and got raves from the crowd.
Within a week, Danoff and Nivert were in New York’s RCA Studios helping Denver record “Take Me Home Country Roads.” “I was thinking, I wish I had gotten the song to Johnny Cash first,” Danoff says of his reaction to initially hearing the recording. Denver’s instincts proved more apt: Less than four months after they first performed the song at the Cellar Door, it was on the Billboard charts and on its way to becoming Denver’s signature song and one of two pop smashes co-written by Danoff and Nivert. (The other? Starland Vocal Band’s 1976 hit “Afternoon Delight.”)
The Cellar Door club itself was closed in 1981. Boyle had left for Florida in the mid-1970s, but not before using the tiny venue to launch one of the nation’s largest concert promotion companies, Cellar Door Productions. In 1998, Boyle sold the company for a reported $108 million. Boyle still comes to Washington from time to time, and says he walked into his old haunt a couple years ago, when it was a fast-food restaurant called the Philadelphia Cheesesteak Factory. He says he went in and bought a sandwich, and liked it, though the price of his meal would have paid for admission to two Neil Young shows at the Cellar Door in 1970. The Cheesesteak Factory has since closed; the building is still up for lease if anybody’s interested in owning all this music history.
There are traces of the Cellar Door vibe at the Birchmere, and not by accident. The sounds of silence coming from the crowd on Young’s new record, for example, can still be heard at the Alexandria club on show nights. Patrons at the Birchmere will find cards on each table requesting that they not make a peep during performances. “I stole that from the Cellar Door!” laughs Gary Oelze, who founded the Birchmere in 1966. “I copied the cards that the Cellar Door had on their tables, word for word.”
Oelze also calls bluegrass greats the Seldom Scene “the band that built the Birchmere” through weekly Thursday night gigs that began in 1975 and lasted 20 years. But before taking up residence at Oelze’s club, the Seldom Scene was best known around here for annual December gigs at the Cellar Door. It was at the Georgetown club that the band recorded its breakthrough album, “Live at the Cellar Door.”
That’s still a great idea for an LP.