Barstool Stories: Aaron Lee Tasjan & 11th St. Bar
We’ve partnered with Lagunitas Brewing Company to bring you tales from some of the legendary neighborhood dives that have been integral in their city’s creative culture - all from the perspective of the artists and bartenders who know them best. Read more from our Barstool Story with Aaron Lee Tasjan below.
It started in a bar...
It's a weekday afternoon, the bar is nearly empty. Aaron Lee Tasjan saunters through the nondescript doorway and takes a deep breath as if he's home. In a way, he is. Tucked away between Avenues A and B in the heart of New York's “Alphabet City”, the 11th Street Bar is evocative of the landmark spots that made the East Village a sanctuary for counterculture; the stomping grounds of the likes of Patti Smith and Lou Reed.
As other beloved neighborhood dives slip into memory – transitioning overnight into sleek coffee shops and craft cocktail bars – 11th Street Bar prevails as an ostensible living room for the creative community. Where artists can be artists. Where everybody knows your name.
One of many songs to come out of this bar is Tasjan's “12 Bar Blues” from his 2016 album Silver Tears: “There's four bars in this town I can't even go into // My friend Kenny used to tend bar at the 5th one // still tends bar at the 6th one, too.”
Kenny O'Connor is a legend. Ask anyone. Dan Sweeney – a former patron who took ownership of the bar last year – recalls, “Kenny was always the man to see behind the bar. And he had every bartender, musician and actress and waitress in the neighborhood here until 4:30 in the morning.”
Working at 11th Street since it opened in 1997, Kenny has been instrumental in giving musicians a sense of community: A space to shoot the shit or play a set; where patrons become friends, and friends become family. Aaron Lee Tasjan is family.
On the release day of Tasjan's latest album, Karma For Cheap, Aaron ended up back at the bar. Kenny poured him a beer, and the two old friends recalled their barstool stories.
Kenny O'Connor: I remember that one night here, when we were blasting Tom Petty until 4 or 4:30 in the morning. I think that's the one that inspired James Maddox to write “Sunrise On Avenue C”
Aaron Lee Tasjan: Yeah, that's right, man. I guess the first time I ever came in here was to see James and Leslie (Mendelson). Weren't they playing here every week for a while?
KO: They were doing it here for a while. He played here last week – we needed a guy and called him, and he said, 'yeah!'
ALT: We all did that, man.
KO: It was a good hang – and you've said it before. There was always a good crew of musicians and sidemen hanging out. At that time, we all used to go down to that place on Houston. What was the name of that place?
ALT: The National Underground.
ALT: Oh, Keith Cristopher [current Lynyrd Skynyrd bassist; Georgia Satellites], man. I remember Keith walking out of the National Underground one time and he said ‘let's just keep this between the two of us' and I just remember thinking 'what the hell is this guy talking about?'. And he starts pulling – like a magician would – pulling this long scarf out of his pocket. But it's, like, toilet paper. Kind of wadded up. And he's unpeeling it, and I swear to god...he pulled it out, opened it up, and took a lit cigarette out; took a puff; flicked it away and walked back inside.
KO: Even at that time – how long had you been in town?
ALT: I got to town in 2005, I'd been here for about four years at that point.
KO: I remember when Aaron was starting to play and all these well-known side people – like Kelly (Looney) from the Dukes and Keith and the songwriters James Maddox and Roscoe (Eric Amble) were all fans of this guy – he was a nipper back then – and recognized his talent and wanted to play with him. And Frank Murray the old Ponies manager was there and also a big fan of Aaron's. And we saw that: 'This guy, ten years before that, wouldn't be looking for a record deal. He'd be snapped up.' But at the time record deals were, and still are, hard to come by. I remember Kelly saying 'I hope he's not too late.' The talent was there but the record deals weren't. It's a hard town to get noticed in.
ALT: This place...I met so many...I met Justin Townes Earle here. And that was great. You'd come here and meet these guys like Eric, Kelly, Keith. And they were encouraging of the young musicians. I've been to a lot of other places in New York where you kind of felt like you were bothering the musicians if you talked to them. And here, it was kind of like a family. They might give you some shit, but then you'd call your friend up from back home and say, 'man, Eric Amble just gave me some shit.' It was really cool.
We all grew up idolizing the same people, even in a different generation. Like, I grew up with the story of Bob Dylan coming to New York...finding Woody Guthrie and playing all these dive bars, and really figuring his thing out. And that's what the Madison Square Gardeners [Tasjan's former project] got to do here. To be a part of that community and know that there are other people out there that are tremendously talented...like Leslie Mendelson, who's now playing with Roger Daltry and Bob Weir. And it all started in this little place. This place is not meant to be overlooked, because so much time is spent in our culture now looking at these big things. But it's really the little things that the magic is coming from.
ALT: I think it's the fact that this entire part of town has changed – it's completely different than what it was. And this place hasn't changed a bit. And that's why I like it. You come in and they still play the same music on the stereo and Kenny still pours a great beer. In so many ways the world is changing now. And the changes we're making socially and, hopefully, politically are the right changes to be making. But there are certain things that are beautiful and don't need to change. And those familiar feelings and places that stay with you forever sometimes just end up in your memory. And it's nice to have an actual place to come back to where the people are the same; and the room looks and sounds the same; and the music is the same; the drink menu is the same. That makes it special, because that oftentimes in this day and age doesn't exist in a physical form.
KO: “Where everybody knows your name...”