An addition to our ‘Lost Institutions’ series, Neil Cooper sings the praise of a much missed music venue – Henry’s Cellar Bar. But is it really lost -is that the way it works with the subculture -does it ever get stuck on one place? Is Utopia a material. or a performance. or …?
The Marvellous Mrs Maisel is Amy Sherman-Palladino’s hit TV drama about a 1950s New York housewife who becomes a stand-up comedian. Much of the show’s early action is set in New York’s Greenwich Village, where Rachel Brosnahan’s eponymous Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel cuts her performing teeth at The Gaslight Café.
The Gaslight was a real-life basement club, which, as well as comedy, in the 1960s played host to early performances by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Tom Paxton, and many more riding high on the era’s folk revival. Jazz bassist Charles Mingus played the Gaslight, as did civil rights legend Odetta, and blues singers Son House, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and many more.
Exteriors for Mrs Maisel’s depiction of The Gaslight were filmed, not where the real Gaslight was, over on MacDougal Street, but on St Mark’s Place, in the doorway of a tenement building previously photographed for the cover of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 album, Physical Graffiti. A few years later, St. Mark’s found Mick Jagger and Keith Richards hanging out on the steps of the same doorway in the video of The Rolling Stones’ 1981 single, Waiting on a Friend, before the glimmer twins decamped up the street to meet the rest of the band at local dive bar, St Mark’s Bar and Grill.
Four decades on, real-life residents of the now gentrified block on St Mark’s Place were apparently not best pleased by the disruption of having The Marvellous Mrs Maisel filmed on their doorstep. In the show itself, midway through season 3, Midge’s estranged husband Joel, whose own fledgling comedy career crashed and burned with his marriage, decides to open a nightclub of his own.
Joel finds a dilapidated room in Chinatown, and takes on the lease. As he embarks on extensive renovations, however, he opens a door that leads to a basement downstairs, where he discovers his new landlords are actually running an illegal gambling den. Joel opens what he christens The Button Club, anyway, playing host to a hip crowd while his landlord’s business carries on regardless.
Half a century on from this fictional scenario, and on the other side of the real world, a club called Henry’s Cellar Bar in Edinburgh has spent almost thirty years sharing its premises with a Chinese restaurant and bar above it. While anyone who visited either will know how easy it was to take a wrong turn after coming out of the club and restaurant’s shared downstairs toilet and end up in the wrong place, it is extremely unlikely any similar skulduggery to that depicted in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel would be going on behind closed doors.
It nevertheless illustrates how, in clubland, different worlds co-exist, with one unseen by, and sometimes at odds with, the other. Occasionally, those worlds collide. The drawn-out demise of Henry’s as one of the city’s most long standing small live music venues might well be an example of this, despite every effort by those running the place to continue its tenure as such.
As it is, while its new guise retains the Henry’s name, it is about to be rebranded as a karaoke bar. Or, if you check the new sign, ‘Muisc & Karaoke’. The easy to miss spelling mistake may or may not be a pointer to the place of music – or ‘Muisc’ – in the pecking order of entertainment at nouveau Henry’s, but my, how things change.
Since the mid-1990s, Henry’s has provided a late-night home for leftfield artists of all kinds, first as a jazz club, then for seventeen years as an eclectic, anything-goes speakeasy for bands, solo artists and wayward experimentalists attracted to its low-lit interior and late license. The complex network of ownership that prevails in the building that houses Henry’s, however, left the club increasingly vulnerable to closure.
So far, you might think, so Edinburgh, a city effectively run by property developers, with grassroots arts labs such as Henry’s generally seen as collateral damage to make way for student housing and Airbnbs. See the thwarted decimation of Stead’s Place on Leith Walk, home of Leith Depot, which survived a cull by developers while every other business on the block was forced to move out.
Only latterly has City of Edinburgh Council developed any kind of civic will towards live music in the city. Indeed, as far as Henry’s’ is concerned, for once, the local authorities are not to blame. The seeming end of Henry’s as we know it wasn’t because of noise complaints, which have seen numerous other venues squeezed out of existence in recent years. Nor was it down to new-build housing developed around it, thus increasing the likelihood of noise complaints.
It wasn’t Covid that did for Henry’s either, despite its necessary closure alongside every other music venue during the pandemic enforced lockdown. Neither was it down to dwindling numbers before that, nor management, staff or promoters. Truth is, the noises off that caused the changes are hard to fathom. For now, all we have are the ghosts of Henry’s past.
I Know A Place
I can’t remember how I first heard about Henry’s. It was the mid-1990s, and small venues in Edinburgh were thin on the ground. While there was a thriving underground club scene, any music working at micro level had to make do with more ad hoc venues.
Cue something calling itself Lindsay Cooper’s Free Underground, which advertised as a much-needed home for the sort of out-there improv you were unlikely to find in Saturday and Sunday afternoon pub jazz sessions. I knew the name of Lindsay Cooper, though what I didn’t know is that there were two of them. The first – a woman – played bassoon with 1970s English avant-prog provocateurs, Henry Cow. Given her old band’s name, Cooper would have been an obvious presence in Henry’s, however unlikely it might have seemed.
It was more likely, however, that this Monday night event at this new place called Henry’s was hosted by the other Lindsay Cooper, the bass player from Glasgow who played in London with the cream of the 1970s scene, including Evan Parker, Keith Tippett and Kenny Wheeler. He even played on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.
I’ll never know whether that was the case, alas, as from the best of my recollection, no-one ever played at any of the Monday nights I went to Henry’s. Maybe Lindsay Cooper’s Free Underground had already been and gone by the time I turned up, who knows? Either way, Henry’s still seemed like a pretty interesting place to be, from the moment you stepped into its low-ceilinged interior, ushered into its cramped confines by 1960s jazz. There was a bar to the right, and a floor lined with small round tables to the left facing a tiny stage area. At the centre of each candle-lit table sat a plate of prawn crackers, a gesture of sorts from the restaurant upstairs.
All this was overseen by someone named Kulu, who had apparently taken over what became Henry’s after it had been used briefly as a less formal meeting place for musicians. Once in charge, Kulu ran the place with a low-slung charisma that dominated the room. Kulu was a towering presence, a stringbean Zen master with goatee and ponytail, who seemed to know every jazz record ever made. As for Henry, the real Henry, who ran the restaurant upstairs and who the place was named after, perhaps to soften him up to the idea of having a jazz club in his basement, he made his presence felt through the prawn crackers and the shared bar staff.
Of course, I went back. Despite the confusion over Lindsay Cooper’s Free Underground, for a wide-eyed white boy with romantic notions of what a jazz club should be, it was clearly the place to be.
At some point I must have started writing bits on it, because Kulu started putting clippings of reviews by myself and others on a little noticeboard by the door.
“All the funky writers come to Henry’s” Kulu said one night, beaming with pride. “It’s like Greenwich Village.”
“Do you think so?,” I ventured. “I thought it was more like Lothian Road.”
Still high on his own Beat scene, and perhaps recognising that I needed to expand my horizons enough to see what he saw, Kulu clasped my hand with his and pressed something against my palm. Looking down at what he’d left behind, I saw what looked like a gold credit card. In a couple of years, credit card shaped PR material would be all the rage in a post Trainspotting Edinburgh, but at the time even the idea of such an accessory in my back pocket seemed exotic.
What Kulu had given me was in fact a Jazz Joint Pass, which I told everyone was a Gold Jazz Card. It wouldn’t give me money, but something far better. Having a Henry’s Gold Jazz Card, it seemed, allowed me free entry to Henry’s any night of the week. Kulu hadn’t given me the key to his kingdom, exactly, but a passport to late night paradise, and I was going to use it.
My nights in Henry’s are a bit of a blur after that, but I was in there a LOT. Especially on busy weekend nights, when, not just jazz, but funk, hip hop and other assorted club friendly musical hybrids brought the place alive. The East Coast Project was a night co-run by Kulu and DJ/producer/singer/composer Joseph Malik, who brought in his loose-knit collective of soul brothers and sisters to tear the place up.
Malik and others were running the Lizzard Lounge, a much bigger club on the other side of town at Café Graffiti, in the former Catholic Apostolic church off Broughton Street that is now the Mansfield Traquair Centre. As well as Malik, The East Coast Project featured the likes of singer Niki King, keyboardist Stevie Christie and many others who played late nights at Henry’s.
There were others. A just-found flyer from August ’98 for what was then styled in keeping with my Gold Jazz Card as the Jazz Joint lists names such as Ugly Groove Movement, Basic Collective and Altered Beats ’98 Phase 1.’
The result was a euphoric mood-lit blur of energy that filled the tiny dancefloor with a young crowd, while after-hours night owls like me who stumbled in from the local boozers and theatres packed the bar area, or else clung to the corners. That’s how I remember it best from those days. The place was rough and ready enough so as not to worry about messing up the paintwork, and with the music and the chat, everyone could relax. Henry’s had a vibe. That’s how scenes happen.
After a couple of years, Kulu left for a bit, and ran nights out of an old strip joint at the West End. Then I think he came back, then left again. I don’t know what that was all about, but heard there had been some kind of dispute with Henry or something; then I heard Kulu had come into some money after his mum died, and he’d moved back to Hong Kong. I don’t know if either of these things was true.
Whatever, the next time I saw Kulu was when for some reason I found myself in the travel section of Waterstone’s book shop flicking through the Rough Guide to Hong Kong, and there he was, peering through his round glasses on the Nightlife page, having made a prodigal’s return home to play in some Hong Kong version of Henry’s. As far as I know he’s still at it. You can find pictures of him posing in fashion mags as well, still the coolest of dudes.
A Cellar Full of Noise
After Kulu moved on, Edinburgh International Jazz Festival promoters, Assembly Direct, moved in for a while, and things became slightly more formal. The only gig I remember seeing during their tenure was by Harry Beckett, the great Barbadian trumpeter and flugelhorn player, who can be heard on records by Robert Wyatt, Working Week and many more, as well as his own records, which latterly included a collaboration with Adrian Sherwood and his On-U Sound crew. I’d last seen Beckett about twenty years earlier, playing his then just released album, Pictures of You with a youth orchestra.
In Henry’s, Beckett was playing with Raymond MacDonald and George Burt’s Quintet. Sax player MacDonald and guitarist Burt were stalwarts of Scotland’s bijou free improv scene and co-founders of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, and completed their band with vocalist Nicola MacDonald, bass player George Lyle, and drummer Alan Pendreigh.
MacDonald and Burt made a habit of bringing stalwarts of London’s jazz scene up to play with them, and assorted collaborations with the likes of sax player Lol Coxhill, pianist Keith Tippett and vocalist Maggie Nicols can be heard on their ever-expanding discography. Beckett was getting on a bit by then, and his tone was maybe not as clear as it once had been, but I remember the gig overall being a joy.
It might have been around this time as well that Le Club Foot ran at Henry’s, with numerous appearances from rap/funk outfit, The Abdominal Showmen. I swear I was there, but I’m hanged if I can remember when.
Assembly Direct eventually moved out, and Henry’s stopped being a jazz bar. The place closed down for a while for some kind of refurb, and it was touch and go if it would be ready to reopen for its first gig. This was set to be by Lucas Abela, who performs as Justice Yeldham.
An Australian provocateur aligned with the Noise scene, Justice Yeldham’s shtick is putting a sheet of glass wired up with contact microphones against his face and manipulating it with FX pedals until the glass gradually splinters and shatters. This usually leaves both the glass and Abela’s face smeared with blood, with Abela receiving minor flesh wounds.
Things weren’t quite finished for Henrys’ not so grand reopening. Wires were still poking out of the ceiling, there were holes in the floor, and the smell of paint lingered in the air. This all seemed oddly appropriate for Justice Yeldham’s routine, fleshwounds and all. As a spectacle of auto-destructive DIY in reverse, Yeldham’s act was the perfect bridge between Henry’s eras, and set the tone for the shape of things to come.
The new booker at Henry’s was Claire Grandemange, aka French Claire, who put on her first show the week after Justice Yeldham performed at its housewarming. Claire had become an Edinburgh fixture by this time, putting on some of the most interesting shows in town at Subway in the Cowgate, both the main room and smaller upstairs venue at Studio 24, and other places.
Her own tastes were eclectic enough, ranging from the likes of latter-day rock in oppositionists, Guapo, and former Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris’ industrial electronic project, Scorn. She put Damo Suzuki from Can on at Studio 24, and Faust on at the Bongo, both long before they gained currency with a younger generation. Claire was also pretty open to other people’s ideas as well, which is why over the next seventeen years or so when she was there, Henry’s was arguably the most important venue in town.
Initially, at least, I didn’t go to Henry’s nearly as much as I did in Kulu’s day (my Gold Jazz Card was no longer valid, natch). At weekends, for a while, at least, Henry’s morphed into an anything goes dive bar that played rock and metal, but still opened late enough to bring in the barflies. Gradually, you could feel a newkind of vibe developing. Everyone in there was using the place as a musical playground, trying things out with little risk of losing their shirts, and just playing music for the sake of it.
During the week, on Claire’s watch, veterans from bands based around the Cas Rock and Tap O’Lauriston – which had both closed – as well as some from the old days of Edinburgh Musicians Collective, played alongside a new generation of young artists. Nights such as Papi Falso brought together burgeoning Edinburgh micro scenes. Steve Kettley’s Click Clack Club took up residence at Henry’s, as did anti-folk founder Lach, who after moving to Edinburgh, and ran his weekly Monday night Anti-Hoot open mic night. Annual Cramps homage, Lux Lives, also became a feature, as did umpteen club nights.
With out of town touring bands coming in as well, it felt like no two nights at Henry’s were the same. As someone on social media said the other week as well, the great thing about Henry’s was is that it always felt like it was open, and after everywhere else had called Time it was still somewhere to go that only occasionally seemed to attract dickheads. There was the time one of the bar staff from the restaurant had a minor pagga with some lippy guy who also happened to be one of the Noise artists playing that night.
Henry’s was full of incident and colour in other ways. There was the night when Finley Quaye invited everyone down to Henry’s from the stage of a sold-out gig at the Ross Bandstand on Princes Street. This resulted in the venue being overrun by Quaye fans to the extent that the night’s scheduled gig had to be pulled in order to not cause a riot. And both Leo from nouveau post punk fabulists The Low Miffs and Owen, former drummer with art school wonks The Pineapple Chunks, have posted about water coming through the ceiling and down onto the stage, dangerously close to assorted electrics while the bands were playing.
Far from an isolated incident, a Papi Falso night was shut down on the stroke of midnight after buckets started falling plague-like from the ceiling as everyone in the room jumped in to save the house gear from drowning, exploding or both. Coincidentally, that also happened to be the final night of Henry’s tenure of the restaurant. The free prawn crackers of yore, alas, were long gone.
My personal memories of Henry’s from this time are as late-night hazy as they are about the Kulu years, with different time periods all mixed up in a fug of after-hours excesses. Early on there seemed to be a whole load of shows from the local Noise crowd based around Giant Tank. When American drummer Chris Corsano was living in Edinburgh moonlighting from Bjork’s touring band, it felt like you could see him play at Henry’s every week. At others, one of Claire’s favourites, Carla Bozulich, formerly of The Geraldine Fibbers, seemed to stop off every few months. One time, Bozulich and Corsano even played as a duo.
John Peel favourites Dawn of the Replicants played on what turned out to be the night the decades-long champion of underground anything-goes pop died. Sara and the Snakes ripped up some reinvention of the blues with Sara Sidewinder unleashing this HUGE voice over big Andy Anaconda’s meticulous guitar stylings and Mike Mamba’s impeccable backbeat honed with a million garage bands.
I remember begging Claire to let me in to Uncle John & Whitelock’s sold out final show, and buying a CD from the singer of a band called Boyfriend/Girlfriend, who I much later realised was Lauren Mayberry, who by that time was filling arenas as singer with Chvrches.
Then there was Orchestre Puissant Marcel Duchamp, a fusion of European avant-punk and marimba-led African styled rhythms who featured drummer Wilf Plum, formerly of 1980s Edinburgh band Dog Faced Hermans, making a prodigal’s return of sorts. Dominic Waxing Lyrical played the same night, another veteran of punk folk roots. Jeffrey Lewis did a not terribly secret show to a packed room after he’d just supported Jarvis Cocker down the road at the Picture House as part of the Rough Trade 30thanniversary tour.
Around the same time, everybody fell in love with former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine, who’d just started playing music again after a couple of decades off-radar, and who played a last minute solo set of raw material that had clearly been waiting to burst out of her for years.
And then there were all the ones I missed, not to mention the ones I was at but can barely remember. There were a lot of them. But this is just me, and everyone else who was there will have a million and one stories of their own.
The definitive unfinished history of Henry’s so far can be found in Claire’s wonderfully evocative writings published for a select few on social media. Sourced from endless late nights on the front desk, Claire writes hilariously of the assorted bar staff, customers, sound people, performers and what she calls ‘good cunts’ who passed through the doors of Henrys over the years. Some of the names are changed to protect both the guilty and the innocent, but no matter.
If ever collected, Claire’s words should provide a tragicomic warts and all account of what it’s like on the frontline of a scrappy grassroots venue, with all the raging drunken egos and pratfalls that go with it. If these ever end up on the proposed online archive of Henry’s that Claire is apparently working on, it should make quite a read.
Downtown (Slight Return)
The last time I went to Henry’s – I think – was for Betamax, Angus McPake and Chris Fast’s post punk club night, which had taken up a monthly residency there. This was following the closure of its previous home at Studio 24 on Calton Road a couple of years earlier, when the once lively street was being converted into the dreary dormitory it has now become. I’d been elsewhere before Henry’s, and arrived at that moment of lateness when things have been brewing for a while, and that special chemistry between the music, the people and the vibe were starting to synch into an atmosphere of carefree abandon.
It was a perfect Henry’s kind of night, and, though we didn’t know it then, a great way to go out. Given what happened next with the Covid pandemic, everyone who ever went out to a club like Henry’s probably felt pretty much the same.
Whatever happens next for the basement premises on Morrison Street, the legacy of Henry’s is guaranteed, even as it leaves a void in its wake. Oh, sure, there are other places that will come and go as they all do, and they’ll keep on keeping on as the energies of people putting stuff on for the hell of it wax and wane, and that’s fine. But, as others have observed, they’ll never be Henry’s.
And in a few years time, people will start saying how great Henry’s was, and how important it was for Edinburgh’s live music scene. And maybe some latter day Led Zeppelin will be charmed by its basement facade, and use a picture of it on the cover of their album. Then perhaps some Rolling Stones wannabes will be equally smitten by the authentic scuzzy charm of the same frontage, especially once the karaoke bar shuts up shop or becomes something else, and they might film a video there.
Then maybe the area on the street outside Henry’s will be used as an exterior location for a period TV series set in and among the cellar bars and basement dives that made live music great in Edinburgh and everywhere else before cities had their heart and soul ripped out of them. If that happens, then everyone walking past it will go, “Oh, Henry’s! I remember the place. I went there once. It was a good night.”
Then they’ll pause as they’re quietly overcome by a little Proustian moment, and smile inwardly at the memory they thought they’d lost. “It’s a shame it closed,” they’ll say, recovering themselves. “I wonder what happened. It wasn’t quite Greenwich Village, but it wasn’t far off it.” Then they’ll walk on, remembering Henry’s some more as the very special kind of mess it once was.