It’s a wonderful life
This month, the True Love Coffeehouse will close. The venerable Midtown venue will be missed.
Remember the 1946 Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life?
Of course you do; every year around the holiday season, it’s inescapable. As the story went, George Bailey, a stand-up resident of the fictional town of Bedford Falls, played by everyman actor Jimmy Stewart, got set up to take a fall by an unscrupulous businessman. So, in a desperate move to save face, he staggered onto a bridge, ready to make that goodbye-cruel-world leap into the icy waters below. Just before letting go, another man nearby jumped, so Bailey followed him into the water and grabbed him, pulling him to safety. The “man” Bailey rescued turned out to be his guardian angel, Clarence.
Clarence then showed Bailey what life would have been like in Bedford Falls had Bailey never lived. The town would have been renamed Potterville, after the unscrupulous businessman, and it would have been a far less pleasant place to reside.
Of course, there are a few significant differences between the fictional story of Bailey and the real tale of Kevin and Allyson Seconds, the proprietors of the True Love Coffeehouse at 2406 J Street in Midtown. For one, the Secondses are not desperate, even though their beloved venue will be closing its doors at the end of the month.
Instead of an unscrupulous businessman, the culprit was a landlord they could not come to an agreement with when they went to renegotiate the lease. The couple originally had signed a sublease from SereniTea, a tea room that had occupied the space until early 2001, when it went under. When that sublease expired this year, the Secondses were forced to work things out with the landlord directly. Things didn’t work out—for starters, he wanted to raise the rent by 65 percent—and now the True Love will close its doors at the end of this month.
And unlike Bailey, the Secondses aren’t in any danger of jumping off the Tower Bridge. But like Bailey, their plight has attracted the goodwill of the community, or at least the goodwill of the music community. There even may be a guardian angel or two waiting in the wings to help.
As cornball as it may be, the underlying message of It’s a Wonderful Life is that life is special, and we touch people in unimaginable ways. According to the residents of Bedford Falls, Bailey touched people by living his life and doing things in his own unique way—enough to rally those fellow citizens to his aid.
And anyone who thinks the True Love Coffeehouse hasn’t made a difference since it opened in the spring of 2001 hasn’t spent any time there.
It was a Wednesday night, and Kevin and Allyson were seated at the table just inside the door, next to an alcove occupied by the venue’s minimal sound board. Deep inside the club, the stage was empty, although there were a smattering of people seated at the tables, and the line at the food and beverage counter on the right stretched halfway to the door.
Usually, singer, songwriter, producer and longtime scene fixture David Houston can be found at the table, along with songwriter Warren Bishop, who has worked the sound board when Kevin’s band 7Seconds was on the road, and perhaps writer and musician Cary Rodda. But on this night, Houston was outside at another table, having a powwow with Jackie Greene (whose new album he just produced) and Sal Valentino, the 62-year-old former singer for the Beau Brummels and Stoneground (whose new record Greene will produce and Houston will engineer).
A young man approached the Secondses, who were pecking away at laptop computers. “Are you gonna reopen it somewhere else, hopefully?” he asked.
“We hope so,” Kevin replied.
“Sign our e-mail list,” Allyson told him.
“I used to go to Café Paris when you hosted the open-mic there, all the time,” the man continued, before apologizing for showing up there really drunk. “Thanks for puttin’ up with me,” he said.
Kevin laughed. “That was a long time ago,” he said.
Running an open-mic night takes a special skill, and Kevin was especially adept at that, particularly at encouraging the kind of raw, unpolished talent that tended to show up. He had hosted the open-mics at Cafés Montreal and Paris, both in the same location a block over on K Street, and also at Capitol Garage and Old Ironsides. Wherever Kevin would go, the open-mics developed a special character. Call it magic, really; there was something different about them when he was running the show.
At some point, Kevin and Allyson started talking about running their own cafe. They wanted to buy Café Paris, but the owner kept reneging on the price or on other details. Finally, they stumbled across the SereniTea location.
Interestingly, the True Love’s Tuesday-night open-mic had been hosted, at least recently, by Matt Woodcheke of the band Radio Cure. For Kevin, running and booking a club, along with the occasional 7Seconds tour, must have gotten in the way of doing the small stuff.
Of course, some of the people who began playing those open-mics graduated to opening the True Love’s weekend shows. For any local club hoping to nurture the indigenous talent, this is critical, and the True Love served that function better than most clubs.
Some of the open-mic acts were quite young—Christopher Fairman and Adrian Bourgeois, to name a couple. The True Love was one of the few venues to cater to an audience under 18, a safe place where young people could go, hang out and see music.
As David Houston put it, “Where else can young kids go and be safe? No place that I know of. For me, as funny as it is, it’s very cool that it’s a mixed crowd—young people and older people. I think that’s really important; it kind of breaks that isolation gap, where you go to one place, and you see [nothing but] your kind of crowd. And this is wide open.”
Houston, who played the True Love frequently, watched the cafe evolve into what it became. “At first, it obviously was important to the musical community,” he said. “It was a place where musicians could almost know that other musicians would be there—they could meet each other, go to the True Love and talk and run into other musicians. It was a central point. Over time, it became more.”
Besides its open-mics, the True Love offered weekend music, frequently by touring artists. Among some of them, the cafe had acquired a cachet similar to the old Palms Playhouse in Davis. “It’s one of my two or three favorite places to play in the entire country,” Los Angeles singer-songwriter Eleni Mandell once told me.
Other cafe features included the after-hours “waffle music” on the weekends, when Knockoffs frontman Tom Hutchinson would whip up tasty waffles, and performers would play impromptu sets. During the week, the club offered Monday-night crudo (or wrestling), a Wednesday-night “Nobody Show” hosted by Eric Bianchi, a themed movie night hosted by Deathray frontman Dana Gumbiner, and many other special features.
The True Love featured a limited but quite tasty menu, along with a number of light dinner and dessert items, and many coffees, teas, soft drinks, beers and wines. And, aesthetically, its walls usually were graced by paintings and other art, most of them by local musicians. For many people, the cafe was a home away from home.
The True Love Coffeehouse’s final days, musically, will take place the weekend of August 13-15. Following a Friday-night performance by Daisy Spot (with Clubber columnist Christian Kiefer opening), a 24-hour musical marathon will take place, featuring a number of performers, which will culminate in a Saturday-night set by Ghetto Moments— Kevin and Allyson with Houston—and Anton Barbeau. The following Sunday, August 16, will be the cafe’s final musical performance, featuring the Ross Hammond Trio. The venue will stay open for goodbyes until 2 a.m. on Saturday, August 28.
“I think the day after we move everything out, I’m gonna go, ‘Oh my God,’” Allyson said. “After we close this cafe, we’re going to Scrabble it up late nights at Lyon’s.”
Allyson and Kevin plan to find a replacement venue, but they aren’t in a hurry. Kevin likely will be busy with 7Seconds and with a solo album project; Allyson will be pursuing a new career as a personal trainer at Body Tribe, the gym at 920 21st Street owned by St. Simon 3 drummer Chip Conrad, where the True Love occasionally will host Saturday-night performances as a venue in exile. Eventually, a new True Love will open, sometime in 2005. “There’s no timeline,” Allyson said. “We want it to be right.”
In a town that already hurts for decent places to see live music, especially for anyone under the age of 21, the absence of the True Love Coffeehouse will be keenly felt around the community.
With all the transplanted spores of glamour blowing into town on the tailwind of our movie-star governor, and with all the fabulous new places popping up to cater to this glitzy new clientele, it’s important to remember what makes this city special. The True Love Coffeehouse is something that grew here organically, from local seeds of character. It wasn’t hatched in some marketing lab in far-off Los Angeles or New York. It is uniquely homegrown. It is ours.
And if we are fortunate, a Clarence-the-guardian-angel or two will pop up to make sure that our own local version of George Bailey continues to live a wonderful life.