By James Maher
Name: Eric Paulin
Location: Tompkins Square Park
Time: Thursday, Nov. 3 at 6:30 p.m.
I’ve been coming down here a really long time, almost 50 years. I was born in the West Village. A few months after I was born, my parents moved to the Upper West Side, and we lived there until 1964, but at that time there was a lot of really bad crime coming down from Harlem, mostly related to drugs, so we moved to Forest Hills.
I’m a musician. I’m a drummer. My parents weren’t musicians, but they were very creative people. My mother was an abstract painter in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and my father was a photographer and artist. They were taking me to art galleries, to live concerts, to photographic exhibits, and to museums when I was 3 or 4 years old, in the late 1950s. My mother and father were very big on exposing us to that.
I moved into the East Village, down a block from here, in May 1979. I’m very appreciative of being able to live in a neighborhood like the East Village. I was playing a lot of gigs, rehearsals, and sessions down here, and I was very attracted to the modern jazz movement.
When I was in my late teens, I started to study and hang out with jazz musicians more, and that’s what got me into it. I appreciated all the people here. I had a lot of knowledge and history of this neighborhood, of the great jazz musicians, because I was always reading and asking questions to people who were a lot older than me.
The thing is that even after Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus lived down here in the 1950s because there were so many places to play, you had a lot of great musicians who recorded for Blue Note Records, Riverside Records, Prestige Records, Debut Jazz Records ... They were living down here because of the low rent and the opportunity. Their next-door neighbor was a guy they just did a record with for Blue Note Records in New Jersey a week before; the guy across the street is the new drummer who just came to town; the woman downstairs was a dancer; the guy above you was a poet. You were around all these creative people. This is the embodiment of the East Village for me.
My first experiences in the East Village were in the summer of 1968 at the Fillmore East. I was coming into Manhattan a lot with my older brother or my mother to see shows. People talk about the East Village being rough in the ‘80s and ‘90s. They have no idea how rough it was – it was very dangerous in the ‘60s. If you stood out and you looked like you had money or were an affluent person of any kind, you were targeted.
I have a lot of stories about seeing things in the street, scary stories about friends of mine coming here to buy records or see music or do creative things, who were hassled or physically accosted. Fortunately, none of that ever happened to me, but I saw a lot of music down here from ’68 until the Fillmore East closed in ’71.
I had a couple interesting experiences with the late, great promoter Bill Graham. I would see Bill quite a bit when I was either here to see a show or I would come early in the morning to get a concert ticket before I went to school.
He was a very tough guy, but he did a lot for music all over the world. He exposed a lot of people who went to the Fillmore East to great music... not just the classic rock and blues rock of that time, but he would also have, for instance, the Grateful Dead with Miles Davis opening for them, or some other rock group with the great Rahsaan Roland Kirk Quartet opening for them.
There are a lot of stories about Bill, but I have a lot of respect for what he did. He also did a lot for the neighborhood. He wasn’t just a concert promoter who made money and got in a limousine and went back to his townhouse. He cared about the neighborhood. The Fillmore East did a lot to keep us safe and to keep it clean, and he had a lot of pride in what he did. He was a good human being, but if you crossed him or if he thought you were being disrespectful to him, he could really let you have it.
There was a very organic and open feeling about the neighborhood. You could meet interesting people in a coffee shop or on the street. I would be walking down the street with my cymbal bag and my snare drum on the way to a gig, and a guy would stop me and say, ‘Oh, you’re a drummer, yeah my wife and I knew Charlie Parker in the early 1950s,’ and you end up talking for 10 or 15 minutes.
For me [this neighborhood] was part of the whole picture. It was not only that they were such great musicians, but it was where they were living, and what their life experiences were at that time. I appreciate being able to live in a neighborhood like this.
In part 2 next week, Eric talks about busking in Washington Square Park in the late 1970s, playing in Tompkins Square Park in the 1980s, and loving the neighborhood today.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.