On Thursday, December 5, two Sidewalk regulars are saying their farewells to the club as well as the coast. Today, Madison Cano shares some thoughts about escaping New York.
People talk about the Sidewalk Cafe as they do an old lover, a rumor, a secret. It is as personal, varied and meaningful for one person as it is for the next. Like a secret society, your’e a part of it. Like a fraternity, your revere the older generations of musicians, artists and poets that came before you with a 2:1 ratio of respect and intimidation. Like a family, you’re always welcomed home-even after long stays away.
The first few times I settled into a chair in the back room, I was a spectator. I lived just a few blocks away on Avenue B, and I’d wander in occasionally to hear live music or watch brave souls take to the stage at the Anti-Hoot. As a transplant from California, I felt like I hadn’t truly met New York in the four years I had lived there until I stepped into the Sidewalk Cafe. It was a room full of vitality, abandon and people doing, singing and saying whatever the hell they wanted. It was one little room in a big city where, for 8 minutes, you could sing a song about anything: political change, love, birds shitting on your hair or even your temperamental kitty. I can still rattle off the names of some of the musicians I saw play there during those first few nights, people who inspired me to play music publicly, without ever knowing they had. Somer Bingham, Carl Creighton, The Fools, Soft Black, Ben Krieger, A Brief View of the Hudson, Debe Dalton, Benjamin Shepherd – each with distinct, pioneering songs that I’ll never forget first hearing.
What I love about the Sidewalk Cafe is that it doesn’t matter when you are a part of it. Sure, the names and faces I associate with that candlelit back room are different than the ones you remember, but the same thing happens to all of us when we are there. We connect, we find a place, we find support and more importantly, we make music and art that matters to us.
It took months of passively watching people play the open mic before a friend finally pushed me to pick my first number. It must have been in the 60s because I remember waiting all night to play my first song. I got my “first time playing the open mic” newcomer applause, and I played to (as Lach would say) the waitress, the walls and the weirdos.
But I went back the next week. And the week after. I kept going back because I realized I had stumbled across a place that was special.
I remember watching the regulars from the back booth in awe, but I soon found myself friends with them, getting feedback about my music. Most of the songs I wrote at that time were, well… better left for the walls to remember. But I did come away with some that I still play at full band shows, and have played across the states and Europe. I met people who became integral to my music there, and I became integral to theirs.
I don’t think I would have ever had a band, a CD, even some of my best songs if it weren’t for Josh Fox. I have the Sidewalk Cafe to thank for that. The first night we met was at the open-mic. He didn’t know me, but he asked me to sing with him when he went up. Maybe it was just his way of breaking the ice to talk to a pretty girl, but we haven’t stopped making music together since.
So then, what does the Sidewalk Cafe mean to me? Jon Berger asked Josh and I to reflect on that question as we prepare to pack up our guitars and leave together for California. It’s hard; it seems too personal, or immeasurable, like asking someone how many freckles they have on their body. But the Sidewalk is in my skin, and if you’re reading this, it’s probably in yours, too. Maybe I don’t need to answer that question because it means the same thing to you as it does to me, simply with different faces, songs and memories.
This isn’t the first time I’ve said goodbye to the Sidewalk Cafe. Moving to Spain for three years proved to me that no matter where I go, it will always be a room I call home – no matter how much the tables, faces or menu may change.
I’m thankful to the Sidewalk Cafe for being a place where I dared to get on a stage and play my guitar publicly for the first time. For being the place that offered me my first real show which I played with Josh Fox, Joe Crow Ryan, and a surprise banjo solo from Debe Dalton. And above all else, for being my first New York family. I wouldn’t have had any of the amazing musical adventures as a songwriter that I’ve had if I hadn’t stayed that first night, all night, to play for the few people willing to remain and listen.
And for anyone reading this who is considering going to the Monday night open mic for the first time: go! You might meet your future there. I did.