The Gonzo Chronicles

Arthur Yanoff Recalls Coffee Corner

By: - Feb 13, 2014


The artist Arthur Yanoff, now 74 and living in Great Barrington in the Berkshires, insists that we met when we were 18. More likely it was a few years later in the early 1960s before and then after I returned from living in New York from 1965 to 1968. Back in Boston I was an editor of Avatar before joining Boston After Dark and then the Boston Herald Traveler.

It was a surprise a few years ago to reconnect with Yanoff and that earlier hipster period. A couple of years ago he, and the photographer Kay Canavino, collaborated on a Melville Project for the Ralph Brill Gallery and Arrowhead, Melville’s home in Pittsfield.

Often when we meet in the Berkshires or connect by e mail he mentions the legacy of Coffee Corner. It was a gathering place and scene for hipsters, artists, and bohemians during the 1950s and 1960s. In some ways it offered a more earthy and genuine alternative to Harvard Square. A major difference was a more subversive and even criminal element. There were bad scenes and tragic events which he prefers not to discuss.

Mostly Arthur is a cheerful and upbeat guy. One is easily enthralled by his charm and effusive humor.

Almost nothing exists of this ephemeral anecdotal history. So far it has been left out of the official chronicles of the 1960s music scene and alternative lifestyles. It was the spawning pool for gonzo which had navigated upstream and over the rapids of the Beat generation. This phenomenon had a firm foundation among Boston’s hipsters.

The evolution of gonzo has been entirely attributed to Hunter Thompson who adopted the term to his own style and usage. It was a word and concept passed to him by a now unjustly obscure journalist Bill Cardoso. Today, if at all, Cardoso is recalled as the inventor of gonzo. Which both diminishes his contributions and is also entirely false.

The attempt of the Gonzo Chronicles will be to provide an overview of events prior to Thompson. But the origin of gonzo is only a part of a larger, richer and more complex narrative.

We start the saga over lunch with Yanoff lurching along the faulty path of memory.

Charles Giuliano We have often talked about Coffee Corner. Where was it and why was it important?

Arthur Yanoff I first heard of it when I was at the Museum School. It was just down the street off of Huntington. I was told that this was where people in the arts and philosophy hung out. It was across from the New England Conservatory and the Boston University Theatre (now Huntington Theatre). It was at the corner of Gainsborough Street and Symphony Road. Tourist buses used to drive by and say ‘This is the Bohemian section of Boston where artists hang out.’ There were cafeterias like Walton’s and Hayes Bickford, Gainsborough Bar, the Lobster Claw (now Pizzeria Uno on Huntington). Everything has changed.

One of the regulars who had been all over the world, including New York which was famous for this stuff, said he had never seen anything like it in the entire world.

It was an experience for me coming from my background. I grew up outside of Boston in Winthrop. I’m 74 now so it must have been the late 1950s when I was in art school. We’ve known each other since we were about 18. I met you at Speedway Avenue (Brighton).

CG No I was older when we met. It was after college (Class of 1963). I was hanging out until I went to New York (1966- 1968). When I came back I was on the scene.

AY I’m pretty sure we met before then. Boston is small and we were involved with the same sort of things.

CG Who were some of the people from Coffee Corner and what kind of conversations were going on?

AY Actually some very famous people went through Coffee Corner from my understanding. Dylan Thomas and the poet Robert Lowell. I never met them but I heard about them. Sam Rivers the jazz musician. I was friends with him. Occasionally Hyman Bloom the painter came to Coffee Corner.

Larry Poons was at the Museum School the same time I was. (Poons was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1937. He studied from 1955 to 1957 at the New England Conservatory of Music, with the intent of becoming a professional musician. In 1959, he enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and also studied at the Art Students League of New York). When we talked at Coffee Corner we discovered that we both liked Mondrian. His painting at the time was abstract and I was much more into expressionism.

I was very close friends with Bob Neuwirth. (Born June 20, 1939, Akron, Ohio a singer, songwriter, record producer and visual artist. A mainstay of the early 1960s Cambridge, folk scene. A friend and associate of Bob Dylan alongside whom he appears in the documentary Don’t Look Back and Dylan's fantasy/tour film Renaldo and Clara. Neuwirth assembled the backing band for Dylan's 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue.)

Russell Banks the writer. (His writing often complements and/or explores modern American ways. Reviewers have praised his portrayal of the working-class people, struggling to overcome some of the issues they are faced with such as destructive relationships, poverty, drug abuse, and spiritual confusion. He has been acclaimed for his strong-spirited characters and narrators.) We became friends and both moved up to New Hampshire.

I’m naming people you might have heard of. There are numbers and numbers of people who you haven’t heard of. It was very wild times. There was a lot of cultural upheaval in the country. All of us there from various religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds were so close. It was a melting pot. Periodically we would get into terrible fights with local racists. They didn’t like us being together. We were harassed by the police because we had beards and that sort of thing.

CG Was there dealing going on? Could you score at Coffee Corner?

AY Compared to what’s going on today and the current violence it was kid’s stuff. I don’t know if anyone scored inside the restaurants themselves.

We were kind of snotty in a way because we found the Hippies decorative. We identified more with the Beats, the Bohemians and the great writers and painters.

CG How about some of the characters like the Joker (Joe Kerr), Billy Onley, Al the Arab?

AY I was friendly with all of them.

CG Dr. Martin.

AY He was my mentor and advisor.

CG Bunky? Bill Cardoso?

AY Dr. Martin was very involved with literature. He modeled his life after characters in Dostoyevsky.

CG I would have though more Genet.

AY A young woman around our age wanted to be introduced to a guy. She was incredibly wealthy. My friend fixed her up with me. I was walking along Huntington Avenue when a chauffeur driven limousine pulled up. There was a fancy looking young woman in the back seat. She opened the window and asked who I was. When I told her my name she said “Oh yes. You’re the one I was sent to meet.” She said “I didn’t know I was meeting a Hippie.” I was deeply offended. I said “Excuse me I’m a painter and much closer to the Beats and Bohemians. I am not a Hippie.” That was the end of that and she took off.

A lot of the mystical stuff that took hold in America began at Coffee Corner.

CG Tell me more about Sam Rivers. (September 25, 1923 – December 26, 2011. He moved to Boston in 1947, where he studied at the Boston Conservatory with Alan Hovhaness. He performed with Quincy Jones, Herb Pomeroy, Tadd Dameron and others. In 1959 Rivers began performing with 13-year-old Boston drummer Tony Williams. Rivers was briefly a member of the Miles Davis Quintet in 1964, partly at Williams's recommendation. This edition of the quintet released a single album, Miles in Tokyo, recorded live in concert.) Were you listening to jazz? Coffee Corner was just up the road from Copley Square and its jazz clubs.

AY I did. Once I was at the Jazz Workshop (Boylston Street) and heard John Coltrane who was having an argument with his drummer Elvin Jones.

CG I may have been at the same gig.

AY I did hear Sam. I was a friend but not a close friend. We knew each other.

Faye Dunaway was there. She was studying at BU. Later we ran into each other because she married a friend of mine, briefly, Peter Wolf. He was a rock musician (with J. Geils Band and the original rock DJ for WBCN-Fm.)

This feels like name dropping. The famous names.

There were two paraplegics I was friendly with. One died quite young. The other we lost contact with over the years. In those days I was a skinny kid basically and not that strong. I used to carry him up three or four flights of stairs to parties. Later in life when I ran into him I could barely push his wheel chair. One of them was paralyzed at birth the other fell off a roof.

CG What about Al the Arab?

AY Who was not an Arab. He was Armenian. I don’t know why they called him Al the Arab. What everyone remembers about him was how he would walk the streets and go oooh oooh (bird like chirping sound).

CG What did you talk about with Al?

AY We’re going back so far I have no recollection of what we talked about. Did you know him?

CG I knew him really well.

(Albert Hamway was a violinist and collage artist. He had a unique sense of style and was always impeccably dressed with a hand pressed and sculpted hat as well as polished Spanish boots. Often down on his luck and dirt poor he always retained his style and dignity. He was an inventor and passionate musician. During hard times he would occasionally go live with his mother in the projects. On many levels he was a brilliant hipster and role model as well as mentor.)

When I was in New York he was on the lam from a bust in Boston. Living in various flop houses near St. Mark’s Place and Bowery. We would often meet and hang out. Through a music store, where he often went to discuss violins, he got a pair of tickets and together we went to hear Hymie Brest, a violinist, at Carnegie Hall.

I was in Boston for the Holidays and went to see Al. He could be quite theatrical. In his apartment he had a Greek classical column with a mirrored glass ball on top. The assemblage was wound with Christmas lights. Putting his hand on the Globe he struck a grand pose as a hipster Zeus. Then broke into a laugh.

It wasn’t so funny shortly later when the cops broke in and found him with a few pounds. So there was a warrant in Boston preventing his return. He had no means of income in New York. Eventually I believe he returned to lay low in the projects which is the last I heard of him.

When I spent time with him in NY, one of my closest friends at the time, he was obsessed with building a shoulder device for his violin. He would explain in detail the difficulty of supporting the instrument between his shoulder and jaw. He described the pain and discomfort that entailed. He wanted to support the violin and play it at an elevated angle. When the device worked he demonstrated the technique to me. Because of the stresses, however, it was constantly breaking. He repaired it with super glue.

Because he was broke he had no access to a dentist. Al was repairing his teeth using super glue and tin foil.

When I visited his room he would always carefully groom before we went out. Particularly that entailed placing thinning curly hair beneath the custom modified, felt hat which he steamed and shaped. On the street he had a pony like strut. But he would yell that I was going too fast. His pace was slower and more balletic. “You’re race horsing me” he would say as I adjusted my pace. Now I’m the slowest guy on the block.

AY I recall his distinctive walk.

CG What were the people you knew doing for a living? Dr. Martin was essentially a B&E man and thief. I remember him taping one side of slugs which he used as dimes to make phone calls. He reminded me of Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy.

Sometime he would get so strung out on speed that he would get into manic activities. Dr. Cardoso, who adored him, would throw him out from crashing at Speedway. One time Bill told me that Doc Martin was taping frying pans to the ceiling. In those states nothing much he said made sense but in more lucid moments he could be brilliant.

AY He was retired by the time he lived with me. One of my girl friends called me because she had locked herself out of her house. She said “Can you come over with Dr, Martin because I need to get into my house.” He said “Sorry. I’m retired and living off a pension.”

CG He called me and tried to sell me an electric typewriter. I refused because I didn’t want to receive stolen property. He became furious and berated me. It went on and on but I wouldn’t budge. There was a criminal edge to the hipster scene but I always stood by a moral code learned from the nuns. I am always afraid of having to confess my sins even though I don’t believe in God. I had friends who bought hot motorcycles and stole cars but I wouldn’t do that even when I was broke. Buying or selling pot was a different matter. Now it’s become legal as it should have been all along.

AY While Doctor Martin was living with me in Cambridge I painted him and I still have the portrait. I painted him and his sidekick Dr. John Allen.

CG Did you know Mark Mirski?

AY Yes. We had a huge apartment on Newbury Street. Later it became a part of the Mass Pike. Everyone was staying there including a lot of the folk musicians. They had an apartment downstairs. A lot of them passed through that apartment. Some of them became very well known. Like Bob Dylan. Do you remember the Charles River Valley Boys? We were all friends. Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band. I went to Geoff and Maria Muldaur’s wedding.

CG We mentioned Mark Mirski.

AY He was Boris’s son. (Boris 1898-1974 was the most important contemporary art dealer of his generation. The gallery which was established in 1945 represented many of the major Boston Expressionists. The family also operated a frame shop opposite the gallery on Newbury Street.) I was sent to see Boris when I was a teenager. He gave me some really good advice about drawing. He looked at my work and said “You will never run out of subject matter.” That’s been true for my whole life. Did you know Mark?

CG Yes. He was a friend of Bill Cardoso’s who referred to him as Bonnie Prince Junkie. At one point Mark became involved with Bill’s ex wife Marsha. That led to a fist fight that Bill described to me in a rather amusing manner. In the altercation Bill injured his hand on Mark’s jaw. I told him to soak it in hot water where ice was a better idea.

AY When Mark was staying in our apartment he smoked pot but wasn’t a junkie.

CG When Mark was busted Bill told me with some humor that he would take a fall standing before a relative who was a judge. I remember that it caused a lot of pain for Boris and Mark’s sister who ran the frame shop. He was among the many of that time who squandered their considerable talent. Another was Rudy, an African American in para-military garb who hung out at the Sevens on Beacon Hill, where he was gathering signatures to get on the ballot to run for Mayor of Boston. What a shame that never happened. With his granny glasses and high dudgeon demeanor he reminded me of a hipster Rudyard Kipling. Cardoso delighted in collecting eccentrics whom he treated with reverence. Like the piano player Hal Galper and Bunky the bass player. The scene represented an odd confluence of hipsters, junkies, thieves, musicians and artists.

I think it’s importance to talk about drugs and make differentiations. For most of us pot was a common denominator and recreational drug. Dr. Martin was into speed. There were a few but not many into smack. For a time at Speedway we were whiffing ether. It was readily available as a cleaning fluid. Oddly there wasn’t much alcohol. Unless we went out to hear jazz. Or coffee, for cripes sake, on the folk scene. How boring. Imagine hanging out all night on caffeine? I don’t remember any coke but there was opium or O as Al called it. O was around now and then. Also hash was fairly rare. I knew a lot of folks strung out on brown rice and macrobiotic diets. Some were followers of Dr. Kushi including Yoko Ono when she and John were shooting up.

AY I had a musician friend who OD’d.

Did you know Shelly Cohen (and Norman Kunin) who ran Café Yana just outside Kenmore Square? In 1963 the Harvard Crimson reported that “…Several coups of the Cafe Yana include a week of Gary Davis, an upcoming three weeks of Rolf Cahn and reported future bookings of Big Joe Williams and Sleepy John Estes. The Yana has a moderate cover charge of seventy-five cents.” Do you remember all those people who lived there?

For reasons I don’t know eventually I was banned from Club 47 (Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge). Though I never got into any trouble there.

Bobby Neuwirth and I were inseparable companions when I was at the Museum School. He was an incredibly gifted painter. For all of the craziness at Coffee Corner many of us were very serious about what we did. In a strange way, although it may not look that way on the surface, we were highly disciplined. We really cared about books. Of course we were rebelling against our family backgrounds. That changes as you get older.

We called Walton’s, Hayes Bickford and the Lobster Claw the Unholy Trinity.

There was a large group which was involved in Eastern mysticism. I met a friend fifty years later. He had gone off to an ashram. To his great shock I told him that I actually came from a Hasidic background. For a time I was roommates with one of the leading theoretical physicists. He was at Coffee Corner but I won’t mention his name.

CG What do you remember about Cardoso?

AY At the time my girlfriend was friends with his girlfriend (second wife) Susan Sessions. Mostly Bill and I had phone conversations but I don’t remember what they were about. It was all so long ago. Memory.

That’s why in court you can’t trust eye witnesses.

Gonzo Chronicles Part Two.