It was — at the time — the most important gig of my life. Early-to-mid 90s. The Bitter End on Bleecker Street in New York City. The place where the legends played. I earned it in a roundabout way. A friend who studied with the same vocal teacher as I couldn’t play his show, so he convinced Kenny Gorka, the Bitter End’s booking agent, that I could fill his slot. It wasn’t the best night, a Sunday, and not the best time, around 11 p.m., but the Bitter End was always good for a tourist crowd and walk-in traffic. I was 21, and after some years of playing as part of a band, was striking out on my own as a singer-songwriter with my own band. My bass player couldn’t make it for some reason, and my drummer, who was 16, couldn’t get the go-ahead from his parents to make the trek from New Jersey into New York on a school night. I’d have to go it solo.
I was terrible.
I forgot lyrics. Flubbed guitar parts. And in a particularly emotive moment, guitar slung low, head down and creeping back toward the front of the stage like a true artist, slammed my head into the microphone, creating a loud thump and almost knocking the mic and stand off the stage. The most important gig of my life turned into the worst gig of my life.
My friend called me the next day.
“Joe, what the hell happened last night? Kenny’s pissed at me for recommending you. He said you were terrible and couldn’t touch you for a few months.”
I tried to explain, but knew the only solution was to redeem myself. I called and begged Kenny to give me another shot. He reluctantly offered me another gig. A couple of months later, on a random weekday night, with the full Joe Pagetta Band in tow, I returned to the Bitter End and kicked ass.
Kenny loved us and called me the next day to ask us back in a few weeks. We continued to do this, working our way toward a coveted weekend slot. At the Bitter End, though, redemption was never guaranteed. At least two more times, Kenny threatened to never book us again.
There was one time when we invited a keyboard player and soon-to-be-band-member to sit in with us on the house piano. The result was a mess. Paul, who was Kenny’s right-hand man and eyes and ears, was furious when we got off the stage.
“Joe, what the hell was that? You sounded terrible. This is the Bitter End. We have a reputation to uphold. You wanna pull that shit, go around the corner to (lower east side club) the Orange Bear. Now go back to fuckin’ New Jersey and practice.”
I called Kenny the next day to book our next gig. “Joe, I can’t touch you. I heard you brought up a piano player and it sounded like shit.”
We rehearsed with our new keyboard player, and returned, triumphantly, once again.
It went on this like. Getting it right, getting it wrong. But always redemption.
Except for maybe that one time Kenny found out we played at another club on Bleecker, a block or so away. It lacked the history and respect of the Bitter End, but we were desperate to play anywhere and anytime.
“Joe, did you play down the street?” Kenny asked the next time I called him. “I can’t touch you for three months if you play there. It makes us look band. That place is for amateurs.”
I begged for forgiveness, but I was also nearing the end of my need for redemption and plotting my move to Nashville. I don’t recall if we ever played the Bitter End after that. I called Kenny once years later. I was now living in Nashville and putting together a Northeast tour. I wanted to include a stop at the Bitter End. We couldn’t find the right date, but he remembered me and was kind.
The best thing about those years, and the on-again off-again relationship with Kenny and the Bitter End, was that he never once talked to me about draw. Return engagements had nothing to do with how many people we brought out to see us, or what the bar take was. It was always about how good we were and how well we played. Anyone who’s ever played in a band that worked bars and clubs knows how rare that is, and important it can be in your development. In his own cantankerous, but always caring, way, Kenny made me a better musician and performer. For that, I and the thousands of other musicians he gave gigs to, will always be thankful.
Kenny Gorka died on March 19, 2015, in New York City. He was 68.