A snippet from the memoir by Kathy Life, “How Life Began: A Story of Hope, Love and Huevos Rancheros at Life Café in the East Village of New York City”
Readings were confrontational, fractious and contentious. Art in the East Village was polemical; everyone had an agenda. Dave’s reaction was to open up the doors of the Café to all and to everything. He wanted us to be a salon for creative attitudes and ideas and created an “anything goes” environment.
It felt anarchic and lawless and it was during the poetry readings that the presenters expressed their agendas most powerfully and publicly. People came from diverse locations making the neighborhood a living fusion; a combination of Americans from Hawaii to New Jersey and immigrants from Puerto Rico and Europe blended with a mix of native New Yorkers. A powerful force had called us all to this place and this time, allowing us to set aside whatever identity we came with in order to dance in the cultural crucible. And Life Cafe was the place where it all got mixed together.
Some of the sessions had featured readers like Miguel Piñero, Pedro Pietri and Miguel Algarin (founders of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and Bob Holman (who first brought the Poetry Slam from Chicago to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe) as well as Ed Sanders (of the Fugs), Emily Carter and Hugh Seidman all of whom, to my delight, drew their own audiences who were attentive, and respectful. Once the reading was done though, most of their audience left. Our regulars didn’t mix easily with the serious poetry crowd
The poetry readings attracted lots of attention. People began to approach David to perform, to put it out in front of their peers. Besides the Tuesday night poetry readings, Life Cafe became a performance venue for music, performance art, stand-up comedy, theater, art installations, and fashion shows.
Avant-garde and free jazz notables that played were many. Names I recall include David Murray, Butch Morris, William Parker, Wilber Morris, Don Cherry, Roy Campbell, Denis Charles, Billy Bang, Clarence “C” Sharpe, and Frank Lowe and I’m pretty sure Rashied Ali, (who worked with John Coltrane). Charlie Parker used to live across the street on Avenue B (now also named Charlie Parker Place), well before we arrived on the scene so the Lower East Side/East Village had a strong avant-garde jazz history.
Other musical performers included John Zorn, Bill Laswell. There were art performers like Ann Magnuson, Kembra Pfahler (of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black fame), and Gerard Little. Soft spoken and polite Gerard was the nephew of Frankie Lymon, the fallen 1950s R & B star. He was an entertainer and often billed himself as “Frankie Lymon’s Nephew” performing at the Pyramid Club during its drag-scene heyday as well as at the infamous Club 57 on St. Marks Place and P.S. 122. Gerard was also a costume designer for the theatrical genius Ethyl Eichelberger (a drag performer, playwright and actor) in the 80s. Gerard vogued before it became mainstream as part of his music performance act. On the nights he didn’t perform he mopped floors for us and helped us to close down the Cafe last thing at night.
Particularly memorable for me were the times I served Life food to a couple of cultural icons. To Allen Ginsberg, who was dining alone one very quiet weekday afternoon, I served a cup of my homemade Life Vegetarian Chili. (In fact, every time I did see him in the East Village he was alone and very quiet.) And I placed a Life Sandwich before Phillip Glass, who attended a special Sunday Brunch music series event that we’d hosted and which was organized by Bill Laswell (Mr. Glass lived in a lovely brick townhouse on East 3rd Street at 1st Avenue I was told). I didn’t say a word to either; I just put down their plates and held my breath.