howl at the moon
It's only recently become apparent to me that I live about five blocks from the best little honky-tonk in New York City. Keenan's Piano Lounge is, admittedly, an unlikely candidate for that title. Squatting on the corner of Broadway and 204th Street in the forgotten neighborhood of Inwood, only half a mile from the northern tip of Manhattan island, Keenan's is one of the last survivors from a time when the Irish, and their proliferating bars, got the borough's northernmost precinct nicknamed "Ginwood."
The neighborhood is mostly Dominican now, with handfuls of everybody else: blacks, Mexicans, bohos, yups and a few silver-haired Irish holdouts. The most famous Inwood natives, after poet Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries), are the wild turkeys that squawk off into the wineberry bushes of overgrown Inwood Hill Park when joggers slap by.
Keenan's Piano Lounge is piano-less, as it happens, although it does boast a strangely looping wooden bar that one denizen swears is the last in Manhattan actually shaped like a piano. What makes Keenan's special — indeed, unique in the soulless wilderness of overpriced Manhattan nightlife — isn't the physical plant per se, but the honky-tonk maestro who has been holding court there every Monday night and most Fridays and Saturdays for the past couple of years. For some inexplicable reason, Orville Davis has decided to make Inwood his home.
Orville Davis is a Florida-born, Alabama-and-Georgia-raised, road-wearied, juke-joint-hardened, take-no-prisoners country singer, songwriter, guitarist and storyteller. He's 52. He wears a big white hat over his silver ponytail. Slim-hipped in faded jeans and cowboy boots, craggy-faced and eagle-eyed thanks to a Cherokee grandmother, he chain-smokes Marlboros, drinks too much, is a former Capricorn recording artist, and was best friends with the Allman Brothers around the time Duane Allman and then Berry Oakley died.
Orville's voice is huge, rich, mellow and twangy. He should be a thousand times more famous than he is, but he doesn't really give a fuck. He lives to write and sing his songs; he'll preach to any crowd, and the regulars at Keenan's are the dazed and grateful beneficiaries. "What's my plan for the future?" he rasped recently. "Hell, to play until I drop dead and they have to pry the guitar out of my cold, dead fingers. That's my retirement plan."
Orville's weekend crowd (no cover charge, ever) is pretty much what you'd expect from the neighborhood: cherry-lipped Dominican girls in tight jeans, several of whom Orville greets with big hugs; their boyfriends (or gay male friends) who don't seem to mind; grizzled Teamsters in Yankee caps nursing Buds; computer-geek couples sharing cigarettes; silver-haired Bill Keenan, alternately chuckling and scowling at his hodge-podge clientele; a barrel-chested black guy in a trucker's cap and thick glasses who gallantly seats his small white wife at the bar, then grabs wrists with Orville — who is strumming and singing, his back to the spotlit pool table — and steps up to the mike to croon "Git Along Little Doggies." The tough, pretty but battle-worn bartender in painter's pants with the unnervingly white teeth looks like nothing so much as a retired Vegas showgirl — and is, in fact, a retired Vegas showgirl, shorn of her blue feathers.
Orville invited me up one night to blow harp on Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do" and Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'," which is how we first became acquaintances. Several months later, on the night of a full moon, I fell helplessly in love with gazelle-limbed Janelle, the Guyanese-American secretary at a music school where I teach, while Orville crooned Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried."
Two weeks after that, my tumultuous new love having deserted me, I dragged myself back to Keenan's and found Orville just unshouldering his guitar. "I'm hurting," I confessed as we slid over to the bar. "I haven't opened my heart like that in a long time." Orville eyed me, sucked on a Marlboro, blew smoke into stew-thick air that scarcely needed more smoke.
"What you are," he drawled matter-of-factly, "is a lovesick fool." That's how we became friends.
I didn't find out Orville's story, though, until the night I told him I was writing a dissertation on Southern violence and blues texts — was just finishing up a chapter, in fact, on juke-joint violence. "What do you wanna know?" he asked. "I've played 'em all. After he told me the story about the Mississippi juke-owner and the machine gun, I said, "Look, can I take you out to breakfast sometime and bring my tape recorder?" That's how I got Orville's story:
"I was born in Pahokee, Florida, in the Florida Everglades. 1949. Pahokee is a Seminole name. A two-spit town: spit twice and you drive right through it. Raised in Clewiston, on the south bank of Lake Okeechobee.
"I got kicked out of kindergarten for fighting. My dad was always moving around, looking for better work. Sugar mill, cattle ranch. Went out to San Diego, came back to Florida, moved up to Alabama. By the time we got to Georgia in '59 — fifth grade — my life was pretty well traveled, and pretty well going haywire. I was an angry kid.
"Georgia was a penal colony for the British. I used to love to agitate my eighth-grade Georgia history teacher by asking what the hell were they so proud about when all they were was a state that was made up of a bunch of convicts? White convicts.
"When you're poor, you can understand what a blues is all about. No matter what color you are. I can remember living in places in the South where we were going to an outhouse, drawing water out of a well. Living in the middle of the cotton fields.
"When I became a full-fledged musician in 1964–'65 in Atlanta, Georgia, as soon as I let my hair grow long, my life changed. Not only did you go out and play and try to entertain people, a lot of times after you finished entertaining those people, you also had to worry about getting out of there fast enough so that that they didn't sober up quick enough to want to come and kill you because now they thought you were a long-haired hippie communist.
"I can remember one time sitting in a little place outside of Atlanta, one night around three o'clock in the morning. We'd played up around Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I'm sitting on a bar stool, trying to order some breakfast. Next thing I know somebody's grabbing my hair from behind, pulling my hair back, putting a knife up to the back of my head saying that they were gonna cut my hair for me. I talked my way out of it by telling this guy I was a musician, and being a musician, part of my job was to have longer hair to fit the image. And he turned around to all of his redneck buddies. 'Aw hell, he ain't no hippie. He's a mewww-sician. That's why he's gotten his hair long like this.' And that's how I got out of it."
In the later '60s, Orville played bass with several different Atlanta-based blues bands, including Brick Wall and Hydra, who put out two records on the Capricorn label, often sharing recording facilities with the Allman Brothers.
"In those days, it was pretty much a blues thing for me. Country music didn't become my full-time endeavor until 10 or 12 years ago, when I decided to retire from playing bass guitar. Hydra was my main gig. We did a lot of Elmore James, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Robert Johnson, Arthur Crudup.
"We were playing Johnny's Smokehouse one night — 1972, maybe. Johnny's Smokehouse ain't in a town, it's in the middle of if-you-ain't-got-a-road-map-to-find-the-place-you-ain't-gonna-get-there, Mississippi. It's about 10 miles out of Mobile, Alabama, off Interstate 10. Out a little side road, back into the woods until you came to a little place in the middle of nowhere. Good food, wild people. White and black crowds. Down in those areas, black and white did commune together quite often. Because there was the one common denominator drawing people in: music. Let me rephrase that: the first denominator was booze. The second was music. And the third was women.
"So we were playing Johnny's Smokehouse, and we had finished for the night, and the owner of the place said, 'Hey, you boys come on over here, I got sumpin' I wanna show ya.'
He was standing at the back door to the club, which faced into nothin' but woods. And all of a sudden he shows us this machine gun and starts blasting away into the woods. I'm talking about a Thompson .30 calibre machine gun, with a clip. We looked at each other and said, 'Let's get the hell out of here and go to the hotel.'
"The next night we come back, finish up playing, get ready to leave, and all of a sudden we see the guy standing in the front door, holding the machine gun again. We look out the window and there's a Mississippi State Patrol parked outside, and they're telling him, 'Hey now, you can't be shootin' that machine gun out there. Somebody might get hurt.' And he yells, 'Nobody can't tell me when and how I can do what I wanna do in my own club!' And he's holding the machine gun. They were just kinda standing there, patting the air, going, 'Now, look. You know you can't.' There was a bit of tension there, but they were also fishing buddies, stuff like that. And Johnny's Smokehouse was very well-known throughout the area.
"I won't carry a gun. Never have, never will. But I do carry sharp knives. Big knives sometimes. How big depends on where I go. I also make sure that I've always got an exit. And I always sit with my back to the wall. I learned from the couple of experiences where I nearly had my hair cut.
"One night I was playing at a place near West Point, Georgia. This was about 1968, and there's a guy who'd come in at the beginning of the night with his girlfriend, parked her at a table right in front of the stage, and he proceeded to leave her there and go spend the rest of the night in the back of the club, hanging out with a bunch of buddies. So of course we're playing, and she's eyeballing me, and I'm eyeballing her, trying to entertain her … not necessarily trying to take her away from her boyfriend.
"But, as her boyfriend kept drinking throughout the night, he was noticing what was going on. During the third set he comes up and starts screaming and yelling at me, and he's a pretty big boy, too. He's gonna kick my ass and all this and that. And me being all of five-foot-eight-inches and 125 pounds, I'm lookin' at him and goin, 'Yeah? You wanna piece of me?' I finally aggravated him enough that he wanted to climb up on the stage. But the stage was about waist-high, so in order for him to get on the stage, he had to climb up on his hands and knees. And I just waited until he got up on the stage, and as he started to stand up, I unhooked my bass guitar and let him have it right upside the head. Knocked him off the stage. Apparently he was unconscious and needed a few stitches.
"I started playing Keenan's two years ago. I had been evicted from my apartment in Stuyvesant Town. My girlfriend Tamara and I wound up driving up here, staying for a couple of months on a friend's floor until that ended. Then we lived in my Jeep for about three weeks — on the corner of Broadway and 204th, right by Keenan's. And I had gone into there to talk to 'em about doing a Monday night open-mike, and Bill Keenan asked me about playing there on Friday and Saturday. The Irish gentleman with white hair. He took me in, in a way, and gave me a place to play. It started as a Monday night thing. We found an apartment after living in the Jeep for three weeks. I've been here around two-and-a-half, three years. My next move is out to somewhere where there's grass and dirt.
"Howl at the Moon [Fountainbleu 21003-2] is the name of my current CD. It's also the title cut — all about hanging out in honky-tonks and juke joints on a Saturday night and dancing and carousing."
As Orville and I shook hands outside the Capitol Restaurant, our local breakfast place, I glanced down the block at Keenan's Piano Lounge and asked him if there was anything else about Manhattan's greatest unknown honky-tonk — some telling detail — that I ought to put in my column.
He was quick on the draw. "There used to be a funeral home next door to Keenan's. And where the pool table is — right where I play — is where the carcasses were. So I'm trying to resurrect the dead."
— Adam Gussow