Storytelling at Scratcher
BY PUMA PERL | Early last fall, this guy named Bicycle Joe told me about some writer guy he thought I should meet. “He does spoken word just like you,” said Bicycle Joe. “And he’s opening for Television in a couple of months.”
“Hold on,” I replied. “He’s just like me except that he’s opening for Television? Who the *&^%& opens for Television? Who is this %$&# guy?” “Oh yeah, and they’re flying him out to San Francisco to do it,” added Bicycle Joe.
Although consumed with envy, I was rabidly curious about who this &%$# writer was and how he had pulled off getting a gig like that. Some dude named Dennis Driscoll, I was told. I threw a few more f-bombs around in my head, then went about my business, which included prepping for a show at the Sidewalk Café the following week.
Inwood boy Dennis Driscoll brings the neighborhood alive
Saturday rolled around, and Puma Perl and Friends did a one-hour set, which included ten of my poems and two original songs from musician Joff Wilson. During the turnaround time for the next band, a pleasant, rather reserved gentleman who’d been watching from a front table extended his hand and introduced himself, remarking that he’d enjoyed the set, and offered me a CD of his own. Between my post-performance distraction and difficulty hearing in loud clubs, I never caught his name but accepted both the compliment and the CD. He seemed to totally understand my momentary spaciness, and I promised to give his work a listen.
The next morning, the CD fell out of my bag as I was putting my books away, and I studied the cover. It was the guy. Dennis Driscoll. That &$%*& writer guy. I had to hear this. The album is titled “Inwood Stories” and he’s definitely an Inwood boy, both in his inflections and in his ability to bring the neighborhood alive. While reminiscent of Jim Carroll in his tone and subject matters, the stories and voice are clearly his own. As far as recording goes, his use of music was distinctly designed to support him and provide atmosphere, while Jim Carroll transitioned from poet to front man of a post-punk rock band. What they share, in addition to their uptown urban roots and drug-induced experiences, is the ability to identify and engage excellent musicians who are able to tune into their sensibilities.
The first piece, “Grand Union,” recalls the way he supported his “weekend warrior junkie routine” as a sixteen-year-old bagging up groceries, and describes his first get high buddy DJ, who used to mainline heroin, throw up between parked cars, and periodically yell out, “Don’t look at me! Don’t look at me while I’m puking!” I was taken. By the time I was halfway through the second one, “What a Difference a Day Makes,” with its teenage glue hallucinations and a near fatal overdose, I was over my case of writer envy and too busy either listening intently or laughing to curse much.
One of his strengths is his self-deprecating brand of humor — his conversational tone and Inwood accent add to the effect. I sent him an email. “Don’t look at me while I’m puking!” I wrote. Not only did we become friends, we even went to see Television together several months later. Turned out, he was joking with his old friend Fred Smith about opening for them and it morphed into reality. I started polishing up a few routines for Keith Richards, just in case we happen to be chatting.
On the last Sunday in June, Dennis played a set at Scratcher, a bar located at 209 E. Fifth St. (btw. Second and Third Aves.). It was the first time I’d heard him do a full set, as well as the first time I was visiting the venue. The Scratcher Sessions are a weekly Sunday event primarily featuring musicians, and this was the final show before summer hiatus. The Sessions began in 2008, and are run by Brendan O’Shea and Pete Olshansky. One of the bar’s owners, Karl Geary, was previously at Sin-e, and they are dedicated to continuing the legacy of great live music in the East Village and supporting a community of music lovers. Olshansky described Dennis as a dear friend of the Sessions and stated that they love his stories.
Dennis performed with one of his musical partners and friends, Mark Sewall, who not only played on the album, but also recorded the first five tracks on a digital recorder in his apartment. At Scratcher, Sewall played guitar and utilized a drum kit that produced a rolling bass line, creating a fullness of sound, but remaining unobtrusive. Adding to the subtlety of the work was the anonymity of the musician’s appearance and body language—he positioned himself in the darker corner of the stage and often had his back to the audience while adjusting the equipment. Rather than alienating the crowd, it served to keep the spotlight on the storyteller.
The ease and shared sensibility between the two artists in this blending of words and music was clearly apparent. As Dennis said, “I don’t rehearse or tell anyone anything but ‘go with the feelings.’ We get up there and do it. There are no mistakes. I think of the musicians who accompany me as company on the stage.”
On a beautiful summer Sunday evening, it’s hard to draw a large crowd but there was a warm feeling and a good vibe in the room. The audience seemed to consist mainly of regulars and pals of Dennis’, who appeared relaxed and able to maintain the same familiar, conversational tone he had presented on the album, whether talking about “The Wrong Bum” being arrested on the subway, or relating more of his near-death heroin tales, which often involve dubious guys with names like Sully, random bullets, and/or dancing chickens. A new one is titled “Junkie Jews with German Guns.” One of the things I most appreciate is his ability to end a story. There is always a snappy punch line, and he turns away with a conspiratorial smile before going on to the next.
The following Sunday, I met up with Dennis at Otto’s Shrunken Head over a couple of club sodas. Although he is a lifelong Inwood resident, he has been present on the downtown scene for decades, starting out as a musician and eventually opening a neighborhood restaurant. He started playing bass at the age of nineteen because “before I ever even played bass, I was into the bass. It fits my personality. Some people don’t even hear the instruments individually, but if you’ve got the music in you, you listen differently.”
His first of many bands was Pop Decay. He went on to play with musicians including Richard Lloyd of Television, and formed the Lowriders with Dee Pop and Deer France, a friend from early childhood. He has continued to play with a wide variety of musicians, both in bands and while performing his stories. Recently, he travelled to Joshua Tree and performed at a festival in the desert, backed up by Chris Goss and Dave Catching of Masters of Reality. He’s also become fairly well-known in Ireland, where he often works with songwriter/actor Glen Hansard of The Frames.
I had previously asked him about his collection of stories and how that started, and he’d told me that he’d been taking inventory and talking about his life. I misunderstood and thought he was speaking twelve-step lingo, but he was actually being very literal.
From 1994 until 2008, he owned and operated a popular East Village restaurant called Old Devil Moon. To pass the time while taking weekly inventory with his partner, he started telling stories. It was suggested that he write them down, and he decided to try telling them onstage. Involving some of his musician friends in the project was a natural progression.
The reader may note that I have used the word “friend” throughout this piece even more often than the ubiquitous &$%. Dennis is a truly likable guy who, in his low-key way, has developed friendships and collaborations in all facets of his life, and these qualities come through in performance.
SPOKEN WORD | THE SCRATCHER SESSIONS
Sunday nights 7:30 p.m. At The Scratcher Cafe 209 E. Fifth St. (btw. Second & Third Aves.) Sessions resume Sept. 14 with Steve Bartolemoi, followed by John Rush on Sept. 21. The events usually start at 7:30 p.m. Visit facebook.com/pages/The-Scratcher-Sessions/185847498886
Before he left to catch the subway Uptown, I asked him if there was anything else he wanted people to know about him. “A guy from the Irish band Hothouse Flowers once said that I should keep doing what I’m doing because it’s important. If I’m really doing something important to people, that makes it all worthwhile. It makes me feel valid.” Refreshing to hear, since humility can be hard to come by — but I guess that’s another reason the &$^% guy has so many friends.
Dennis Driscoll’s CD, “Inwood Stories,” can be purchased through his website, dennisdriscoll.com. He is currently preparing to record a new album. Puma Perl is a widely published poet and writer, as well as a performer and producer. She is the author of two chapbooks and two full-length poetry collections: “knuckle tattoos” and the recently published “Retrograde” (great weather for MEDIA press). “Puma Perl’s Pandemonium,” a quarterly event, brings spoken word together with rock and roll. As Puma Perl and Friends, she performs regularly with a group of excellent musicians. Perl’s video links and event updates can be found at pumaperl.blogspot.com.