Walking Woodstock: Bopping with Butterfield at Bearsville

Paul Butterfield

Paul Butterfield

Summers in the late Seventies when the day’s writing had gone well, the flaneur would think of Bearsville, and of sitting at the bar of the Bear Cafe sipping a martini as the late afternoon sunlight played its dappled magic on the room.

He jumped on his bicycle and headed down the Glenford-Wittenberg Road, past Yankeetown Pond, and then down Wittenberg, to coast into Bearsville, where music impresario Albert  Grossman had built an oasis for good food and drink. One Friday afternoon the flaneur had an appointment with a writer, formerly famous, who was living in one of Grossman’s properties.

Al Aronowitz was a legend on the music scene for having introduced Dylan to the Beatles. He was music critic for The New York Post, and had put together a collection of his best work in a Xerox manuscript he wanted the flaneur to review for High Times.

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So they sat at the bar and talked, the flaneur paying just enough attention to keep Aronowitz telling stories.

He told them well, and the flaneur was soon caught up in the latest Rolling Stones gossip. The shadows lengthened as he listened to the writer, and he realized it was time to pedal home. They stood up to leave, and at the door bumped into the Baron of Bearsville, the legendary Albert Grossman, a round man whose white hair was tied in a pony tail, accompanied by his friend Barry Feinstein, who sported a luxuriant white mustache that made him resemble a shy walrus.

Outside, Aronowitz told the flaneur that Feinstein was a great photographer of rock stars and  film actors. Grossman was Grossman: Dylan’s manager. And The Band. He insisted that the flaneur have a bite and another drink in The Bears, a large house converted into a Chinese restaurant across the way. It was where the musicians hung  out when they were recording at

Bearsville Studio. The flaneur had met the manager, an American who spoke perfect Mandarin Chinese, and was curious about the place. There had been rumors of parties in the small private rooms upstairs, where the coke was laid out on Lazy Susans for the table.

They walked into the bar. It was empty except for a famous face staring out the window. It was

Paul Butterfield, the great bluesman (and a Bearsville resident) known as “Butter” to Aronowitz, who introduced the flaneur. Butter was obviously in a serious bad mood.

He glowered at them. The flaneur thought of his bicycle, and wished he’d refused the second martini. Instead, he mentioned Butter’s wife Kathy, who had joined a photography cooperative, Cheese, that the flaneur had helped start.

Butter smiled. The ice was broken. The flaneur guessed that the bluesman was nursing a hangover. He listened to the two men talk, and thought about the long ride home. Dusk was blurring the outlines of the trees outside the large bar windows. He had nothing to say to Butterfield, so he kept silent. Then he remembered an article he’d read about Frank Sinatra which had told a disturbing story: leaving a club in Vegas, the singer had spotted a comely young woman he  fancied. He sent some persuasive friends to ask her to join him in his suite. Trouble was, she was seated with her husband, and they were newlyweds. He objected to Sinatra’s attempt to claim droit de seigneur, and a little later, when he went to the restroom, the persuaders followed and taught him a lesson about celebrity.

The flaneur in those days was fascinated by the idea of celebrity. He told the story, and posed the question: did fame cancel your sense of shame? Aronowitz looked uncomfortable. Nervously, he stuck his finger in his collar to loosen it. Butter glared coldly at the flaneur. “I don’t think that happened,” he said. “Frank doesn’t need to do that. Whoever wrote that garbage is pathetic.” The flaneur stood his ground; he knew the author of the piece, Harlan Ellison, and Ellison didn’t make things up. Sinatra could sue.

“Look, let me tell you something. I know Frank, and he wouldn’t do that. He’s always helping people.”

The flaneur must have looked skeptical. Butter got angrier, and raised his voice. “I say you writers make this stuff up.”

The flaneur decided it was time to leave. Butter looked angry enough to bop him one. The flaneur bade them goodnight. “I’m a friend of Frank’s. I know him. You don’t,” Butter called after him.

It was a long, slow ride home.

 

Walking Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

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