As songwriters, we all talk about getting into the songwriting groove and writing more songs — constantly working to improve, consistently putting pen to paper. But very, very few of us could ever hope to walk-the-walk — and not just talk-the-talk — when it comes to writing songs as Jack Hardy did.
An institution in New York City’s Greenwich Village and famous in folk/acoustic music circles worldwide, you might never have heard of Jack — but you might have heard about some of the songwriters he inspired, from Suzanne Vega and John Gorka to David Wilcox and Richard Shindell and The Roches.
He was famous for his Monday night pasta dinners/songwriting feedback gatherings at his little (very little) apartment on Houston Street in Greenwich Village, where over the years hundreds of songwriters spent cozy evenings eating, drinking, sharing songs and getting feedback on their tunes which were supposed to be brand-new works-in-progress — ideally, less than a week old. I did a little Q&A blog post with Jack in October of 2009 — we exchanged e-mails and he answered some questions about the ”Songwriter’s Exchange,” which started back at the Cornelia Street Cafe in the mid-70s.
Unfortunately, Jack passed away today, after a sudden diagnosis of lung cancer.
The “Houston Street Hilton”
I didn’t know Jack well personally — hardly at all, in fact I’m certain he would not have recognized me out of context or remembered my name. But I attended what his regulars called the “Houston Street Hilton” probably eight or ten times over the past seven years or so; three of those times were just in the past two months. During all of those last three times he wasn’t there — around New Year’s he was still on vacation in Ireland; and then the last two times, at the end of January/beginning of February, I was told he was dealing with some caregiving issues regarding his parents. That sounded a little odd and I kind of wondered about it, but I didn’t have the heart to pry — he has such a close group of friends and loyal regulars that I felt like a distant acquaintance asking about personal family business.
Still, I was genuinely saddened and shocked when I heard the news about Jack’s death today. Those first few times I attended the Songwriter’s Exchange some years back, I felt slightly intimidated by the close-knit group that seemed vaguely folkie-hipsterish and hung on Jack’s every word — it was not exactly unwelcome, I guess, since there was a complete open door policy as long as you brought a song and a monetary or food/drink contribution for the evening’s festivities, but it wasn’t exactly a huggy-touchy-feely sort of environment either for the new faces that showed up at the group. And those thumb snaps instead of clapping! How…beatnik, I thought.
“Shut up and sing the song”
When I interviewed Jack for the blog post mentioned above, however, a wave of sentiment and significance and admiration washed over me. After all, no one walked the songwriting walk more than he did — he showed up each week with lyrics scribbled on a piece of paper, and you could tell he wasn’t particularly attached to anything he brought, it was all just about the work and the more work you did, the better songwriter you became, and the more songs you wrote, the more you could cull a dozen great tunes from the bunch. Over 30 years…who knows how many songs he brought to the group that then got tossed aside to make room for the really good ones?
I realized that he had seen hundreds of songwriters come and go through his squeaky front door, and it was the ones that stuck around, week after week, that he got close to and became part of his inner circle — he had little patience for the ones that came by just to see if Suzanne Vega would be there or to share a song they wrote six months ago, typed neatly on a piece of 8×11 paper. Oh, and you’d hear about it if you were excessively precious about your own tune in advance of sharing it…”Shut up and sing the song,” he’d say. He wanted to know if you were really, truly dedicated — whether you really wanted to walk the walk for the art of it, not the commercial success of it. There was a black and white school notebook on the center table and you were supposed to sign in — Jack kept track of everyone who stopped by.
Oh, and those thumb snaps — “No, we are not being cool beatniks,” Jack said in his e-mail to me. “It is just that finger snaps make far less noise than clapping and we are trying to be considerate of our neighbors.” Yup, I felt pretty silly about that!
The real songwriting deal
The truth was, Jack was the real songwriting deal. He had been opening his home to songwriters and making that pasta dinner every Monday night for three decades or something like that — sure, sometimes he was out of town and he had one of his regulars make the meal, but when he was in town, he was there, holding court and sharing a song. Whether or not you dug his folk music style (and he really was an amazing songwriter, objectively speaking, in my opinion), you had to admire his longevity and consistency, and the fact that he shared that regular weekly gathering with so many others for so many years. I realized I wanted to be a part of it again.
So, after posting that blog post, chastened by my original rush-to-judgments about the Exchange, I headed back to Houston Street in October 2009 with a bottle of Bordeaux in hand (since Jack said it was his favorite) and, given my nature to always be early, I was the first one to arrive at his apartment. He was still making pasta and he was thrilled about the Bordeaux. “My favorite!” he exclaimed — and I said, “I know.” We sat for over a half an hour before anyone else showed up, and Jack waxed rhapsodically about wine, the state of the music business, his second home in the Catskills, and how Greenwich Village wasn’t like it used to be. I enjoyed the evening immensely and have no memory of what song I brought to play — but I remember getting lots of interesting feedback and promising to be back very soon.
Life got in the way — so much for dedicated consistency — and a year went by before I showed up again this past New Year’s. But, this time there was no Jack, as there was not the next two times I came by. Still, I was moved by the open friendliness of the regulars that were there during those cold winter days I attended recently, including Chris, Jeremiah, Frank, Kirk and John. I enjoyed their imitations of Jack’s gravelly voice, which they said they liked doing sometimes in his absence; and it was easy to feel Jack’s presence surrounded by dozens of photos on the walls in which he stood smiling — or not smiling — or singing — with famous as well as semi-famous and not-famous-at-all musicians. I sure am sorry that I won’t get to see Jack again in person, holding court at the Songwriter’s Exchange.
Jack Hardy promoted songwriting by writing lots of songs and encouraging other people to write lots of songs. So, I’m planning on writing a new song, and hopefully follow that one up with more new songs. Perhaps you’ll write a song, too?