To continue the exploration, I strolled along what turned out to be the aptly named Winter Street. Outside Macy’s Department Store, a tall black saxophonist was playing ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ as snowflakes settled on his shoulders. Steam rose from the subway vents.
It was early dusk as I reached the Old Granary Burial Ground on Washington Street and the darkening sky gave an added gloom as I wandered amongst the littered tombstones. In the centre there was a small column bearing an affectionate tribute to his parents by Benjamin Franklin. Though walled by office towers, there was something very simple about the place that reminded me of old rural English graveyards.
There was another reminder of England at the Colonial Theatre on Boylston Street – a brass plaque recorded that Noel Coward had once performed there. Wilde had given his talk on January 31st 1882 at the Music Hall, Boston, but I couldn’t find that one.
On Boylston Street I noticed a bar called Remington’s. Underneath the sign there was another notice: ‘Dick Docherty’s Comedy Vault’. There was a show tonight at 9 30pm and also on Sunday night – and there was an ‘Open Mike’ spot on both occasions. The thought struck me that this might be the answer to the venue problem. I decided to return later.
It was about 10pm when I walked down into Docherty’s Vault. It was a cellar with a tiny stage and about twenty-five audience members sitting at tables. A comic was already on stage. He was ultra-cool, sprawling on a stool, leaning his back against the rear wall, and toying with his hand-held microphone. However his delivery was over-relaxed; he stretched his timing so far that you lost interest. A comedian has to have some electricity, some rapport; this guy seemed to have drifted off into some stoned meditation. The audience were tolerant though and eased him along with dutiful titters.
The atmosphere changed abruptly as a large thickset man in a tartan windcheater, a baseball cap, and a bushy moustache clattered down the stairs, glared around the audience, and shouted:
“Ah’m Cheech! And ah’m here!!”
Shaken from his torpor, the comic blenched. Cheech turned his baleful eye on the stage and started to heckle him. The comic tried to retaliate but it was impossible to shift from his bored Lenny Bruce style to a persona that could have coped with this. He tried a few put-downs but it didn’t work. Cheech was irrepressible. Then the comic tried to ignore him and addressed the rest of the audience:
“Hey, did you have a good time last Halloween?”
“No,” from Cheech.
Reluctantly, the comic turned and asked: “Oh, why not?”
“I was in jail.”
To which there was no tactful answer and sensibly the comic didn’t try.
Cheech stood up in a chest-beating stance: “I’m from the PRO-JECTS! In CHARLESTOWN!”
An indulgent, if nervous, chuckle rippled round the cellar, Charlestown presumably being a notorious ‘hood’. Giving up, the comic retreated as soon as he decently could.
Then the compére, an older man in a bow tie and florescent sports jacket, arrived on stage. He announced:
“Hi, kids, my name’s Troy. I’ve just spent three months on a cruise ship”.
“Well, fuck off back on it,” chipped in Cheech helpfully.
Troy gave a flustered giggle, introduced the next act, and scuttled to the wings. The next comic was a svelte man called Paul wearing false eyelashes and a bouffant hairstyle. He hastily informed the audience that he was not gay. Cheech grunted, obviously not convinced, and loudly demanded more beer from a waitress. Paul managed to scramble through his act without too much interruption, as Cheech was busy leering at a large blonde sitting with her husband.
Troy returned to the stage to be promptly roasted by Cheech. Troy reminded me of a bamboozled schoolteacher in a 1950s film trying to quell the rock and roll band at a high school prom. Admittedly, his attempted put-down of Cheech was never going to be a winner:
“Why are bad manners like bad teeth? You should keep your mouth shut”.
Not even the audience liked it, while Cheech slammed down his beer mug, stood up, and bellowed:
“Ah’m from dah PRO-jects!!”
The last comedian had straggly long hair and the face of a hippie axe murderer. He had sized up the situation and oozed confidence. Announcing that he had just come from filming a bit part in ‘Die, Punk, Die’, he unleashed an onslaught of hardcore swearing. He even had some decent jokes, mostly drug references but also about snow (apparently a staple of New England humour). Cheech was so enthusiastic about the newcomer that he thumped the table and announced that he was going to buy drinks:
“Fer da whole bar. Dat’s cuz Ah’m working, see!”
I returned to the hotel and sat in the Piano Bar. On either side of me, Massachusetts couples chatted in their flat circular-saw whine of accents. Anybody who’s ever worked in a timber mill would feel at home here. Another noticeable quirk is that you are offered the choice of drinking beer from a glass or from the bottle. I thought it might be a not-so-subtle way of defining status here. But either way you get kudos – with the first, you’re Class; with the second, you’re a Regular Guy.
At midnight, there were just a few couples left sitting round the Piano Bar. In a corner two elderly men in black tie and dinner jackets were playing Gershwin numbers on piano and guitar. They had announced themselves as ‘the Sunshine Boys from Lillulililee’ and were quite good in a slick old-pro way. The sparse audience were ignoring them in the cocktail lounge fashion, so as they finished I clapped them. One of them nodded, strolled over, and shook hands.
“Thank you, my friend. Where you from?”
“You don’t sound London. You a Cockney?”
“Well, no. You could say I’ve got an Oxford accent”.
“Oxford? Is that a suburb of London?”
“No, it’s about fifty miles away”.
“Oh, so it is a suburb.”
“Er…. sort of.”
“I do a one-man show on Oscar Wilde”.
“No, never heard of him. We’ve been performing for fifty years”.
I nodded with respect. We discussed bookings and I mentioned playing a gig in Iceland.
“Ice Land. Yeah. Is that near Fin Land?”
“Near enough, I suppose.”
More hand shaking.
Back in the bedroom I drank whisky and listened to the car horns, the distant yells, the police sirens, and the bass drum thump of a Good Party.
Weighing up the options, it seemed that Docherty’s was a no-hoper. To play there would be suicidal – there was no way that Oscar Wilde could survive against Cheech from Charlestown – and a compére called Troy? In an English context it would be like Gore Vidal playing a benefit gig at Millwall Football Club. On the other hand, where else was there? Bob and Betsy were the only hope.
1997 November: Saturday
The snow had faded by the next morning and the day bloomed crisp and bright. As I was at a loose end till the evening, I decided to travel to the neighbouring city of Cambridge, reputedly the intellectual capital of the USA and also home to Harvard University. Wilde had been given a rough ride there when he tried to give a lecture. The students all arrived dressed in Oscar’s distinctive ‘aesthetic’ fancy dress and applauded every time he took a sip of water. He’d responded: ‘As I look about me I am impelled for the first time to breathe a fervent prayer – save me from my disciples’. He also presented the college with a plaster cast of the Hermes of Praxiteles – it was stolen in 1892.
This was my first encounter with the subway system, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, known as the ‘T ’. I found a station on Tremont Street, bought a token for 85 cents, then got stumped over how to get through the turnstile. The ticket clerk guided me through, explaining the technique as he would to a child.
It is an entirely true cliché that travel infantilises you. When they are abroad, the most dignified of statesmen, the most respected of scholars, the hippest of hipsters, can be humiliated by ignorance of the obvious. I remember hearing of a hugely successful businessman, a multi-billionaire on whose whim the livelihoods of a million people rested, whose slightest desire would be pandered to by a surfeit of lackeys at home, being reduced to baffled and highly uncomfortable impotence over his inability to work out how to gain entrance to a Paris pissoir.
Duly swallowing my pride, I climbed aboard the trolley car and headed north through Park Central, then on to the Red Line at a busy interchange. Surprisingly, unlike the London Tube, the platforms were level with the trolley track, so that you could easily walk across the rails to the opposite platform. A notice read: ‘No Smoking. Punishable by up to ten days in jail’.
The trolley car emerged into the open and rattled across the Charles River Bridge. The sunlight rippled on the water and glinted off the silver skyscrapers of Boston – quite a sight. Then down underground again for three more stations till we reached Harvard Square.
In comparison to the Oxbridge colleges, the Harvard University campus was understated to the point of anonymity. While certainly equalling the tranquillity of their neat lawns and quadrangles, the Harvard buildings themselves were unadorned brick-lined blocks, presumably reflecting the tight Puritanism of the founders. As Oscar commented: “The Bostonians take their learning too sadly; culture with them is an accomplishment rather than an atmosphere.” Oxford, it wasn’t (except possibly Keble College).
Passing the Widener Library, I noticed it had been erected in memory of a victim of the Titanic sinking.
I left the main campus and strolled through what Bob Dylan once described as ‘the green pastures of Harvard University’ – Cambridge Common, Radcliffe Yard, and the pretty area of the Appian Way and Brattle Street, each lined with trees and clapboard pastel-painted houses.
An elderly professorial-looking woman strode down the opposite sidewalk, lustily singing the Beatles ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. Then an attractive girl, about twenty, smiled and said hello as she passed me. It was that sort of place. To complete the time warp, a Joan Baez song floated out of an open window on Mount Auburn St. Somehow, this place had retained a trace of that Sixties, early Simon and Garfunkel, innocent bohemia. I found it utterly charming.
About 2pm, I returned to the subway. On the platform, a black busker with an amplified guitar played Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’. It was a great send-off from a place – and possibly a time – to which I wanted to return.