FROM NIGHTBIRDS TO LABAMBA

 

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My friend Sarah who lives at 172, the building I’m doing a 2-week stint in said she loved the Yuppiefacation of Ave A, which I posted on Saturday. She said she liked reading about how the neighborhood used to be.

The night I “trained” with the night guy, George I had to listen to George tell me all about the history of the building, where he’s worked for 31 years. I finally told him I used to live on Houston Street in the 80’s and was familiar with the building.

I didn’t tell him that I had friends who lived in the building back then and that I remembered him, the little Ecuadorian immigrant with thick glasses that sat in the big black chair by the door.

Of course, I had no idea he was Ecuadorian, I’ve just found out, but I do remember George. Luckily he does not remember me. The boss and one of the other guys can’t figure me out; they think I’m a spy for the management company or something.

But talking to George brought back a lot of memories, like the first friend I had that lived here, rather it was his girlfriend that lived here and he lived with her; Dave Buck.

Dave was a singer and a trumpet player, he played for the B-52’s as well as being their road manager. He also had his own band, the Swollen Monkeys.

Dave bought his girlfriend Mary Jane (no joke) flowers everyday. I remember going to the flower shop on Ave A on the ground floor of 172 and watching him order flowers and fill out the little cards for MJ.

Dave introduced me to another guy, Knox who was the guitarist in the Swollen Monkeys. We all became fast friends and hung out a lot. Knox eventually moved into 172, I know it was an apartment on the 4th floor facing the schoolyard. MJ lived on the 4th floor also, but she faced Ave A and moved out when she broke up with Dave.

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But Knox and his wife Laura stayed, and the Swollen Monkeys played on.

Dave was very enterprising and a great promoter, and he scoured the East Village for places to gig.

We used to hang out at a bar on Second Ave between 4th and 5th called Nightbirds. A Chinese guy named Tony who was rumored to have been the head of the narcotics unit of the Hong Kong police until he retired with enough money to buy a bar on Second Ave owned it.

Tony was a thin man in his early 60’s who wore a cigarette perpetually pasted to his upper lip, wagging up and down as he spoke and dropping ash everywhere. He reminded me of the Vietnamese guy in The Deerhunter who took bets on the games of Russian roulette.

I wondered why there were two owls on the sign in front of the bar sandwiching the word NIGHTBIRDS until I figured out that’s what owls are called in Chinese, night birds.

Nightbirds was a dive bar with a pool table and cheap drinks. There was a guy named Sammy, an ex-marine who always wore marine-issue camouflage fatigues with white Addias sneakers and had a shaved head who played pool there every night. I told him I was an army vet but he wasn’t interested in being friends.

Dave wanted to play at the bar, but Tony didn’t think it would work. Then Tony bought another bar, a place up on 12th Street that was a notorious transvestite prostitute hangout called LaBamba. This was where the Swollen Monkeys could play.

I spent many a weekend there watching Dave and Knox and the rest of the band play raucous sets with little more than their friends and bored drag queens that refused to be displaced as an audience. But I loved them; Dave was a wonderful front man, a sort of punk-rock Fred Astaire with his widow’s-peak short-cropped hair and zoot suits. There was a song I’ll never forget, “On Vacation From Vacation.” I can still hear it in my head on occasion.

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I had another set of friends, and one of them, Steven was a big fan of the Pyramid Club, which was fairly new to the neighborhood in the early 1980’s. When it opened it was basically a Punk-New Wave venue. One night Steven dragged me down to the Pyramid to hear a new band from Texas called The Butthole Surfers. I already didn’t like the name, so I was prepared not to like the band, which I am now sorry for. I left after a few songs; they were just too crazy for me. Now I have Pepper in my iTunes library.

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The Butthole Surfers

I did frequent the Pyramid for a while, scoring drugs for people and such, listening to what I could of the music, but the scene I really liked was at LaBamba.

There was trouble; the cops were always trying to bust the prostitutes, noise complaints, liquor license violations, the list goes on. My life went on and changed direction, going out to hear music was not one of my big priorities after a time. In 1987 my wife got pregnant and I stopped going to LaBamba, or any other place for that matter.

Dave was killed in a hit and run accident in 1988 and Knox left the band and became a member of the Psychedelic Furs around the same time.

Tony sold LaBamba and somewhere in the 90’s it became Dick’s, an ordinary Gay bar. But if you walk by you can still see where the letters “LaBamba” were attached to the panel above the door.

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LaBamba

The Pyramid is still there and thriving.

I can’t for the life of me remember exactly where Nightbirds was, except that it was on Second between 4th and 5th on the east side of the street. But I know the ghost of Sammy the ex-marine is still playing pool there somewhere.

About xaviertrevino

I like to write, take things apart and put them back together, turtles, and my lovely wife Danusia.
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3 Responses to FROM NIGHTBIRDS TO LABAMBA

  1. Madelon says:

    great, Xavier. its so fun to have my own memories jogged of NYC back in the 80’s! I first came to the east. village in 1984. My friend, Samantha lived on 11st and bartended at la Bamba! Ten years later i rented an apartment on 11th that turned out was THE same apartment where i used to stay with Sam. I am still awed by the magic of New York.

  2. Thanks, Madelon. It’s such a different scene today, and now I realize what older people though of us back then.

  3. Ennis Carter says:

    What a great memory. The jukebox at Nightbirds was the BEST and there wasn’t a better spot for hangover brunch with bloody marys

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