The Dom, a book recently published in Poland, covers the untold story of Lower East Side’s counterculture in the period of time just before the events in Please Kill Me, which inspired the writing of it. The author, Jan Błaszczak, offers a capsule history of the place where the Velvet Underground played as part of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and a portrait of Stanley Tolkin, the driving force behind the legendary venue.
It all started on page 29 of Please Kill Me, the oral history of punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. There I found a spark. It was neither a spicy anecdote nor a groundbreaking revelation. It was more of an annotation really, a very unspectacular quote in a book made of bon mots and blasphemies. The quote was from Andy Warhol and it went like this: “’It’s like the Red Sea’,” Nico said, standing next to me one night on the Dom balcony that looked out over all the action, ‘paaaaarting’.”
What a long, skippable sentence! I wonder: was it really necessary to add all this information? What is this: an oral history of punk or Elizabethan theater? Who needed stage directions in a book like this? Apparently, I did. At the end of the day I managed to turn it into a book. So, long live stage directions!
“Dom” means “home” in Polish. The Dom was also the name of the club on St. Mark’s Place. The venue was situated in a building previously known as Arlington Hall, which had been a longtime backdrop for Jewish and Italian gangsters exchange of bullets. Then Polish immigrants inhabited the Lower East Side with their churches, bakeries and butcher shops. They also established a Polish National Home – the place where they could dance to traditional songs, commemorate national feasts and stick together.
Within a few decades it became apparent that these things didn’t appeal that much to the younger generations of Poles, who were focused on earning money so they could leave cramped, bug-filled and cold apartments of the Lower East Side. When the Polish National Home was in decline in the mid-1960s, an investor appeared. His name was Stanley Tolkin and he had already made a name for himself in the neighborhood, running Stanley’s bar on 12th Street and Avenue B.
Since the late 1950s, Tolkin had been serving alcohol and snacks to the Polish hard hats of the Lower East Side. He was doing just fine. However, as soon as the district became popular with jazz musicians, beatniks, black poets and various groups of countercultural youth, he decided to embrace them all. Even though he wasn’t an activist or artist himself, Tolkin was interested in their way of living, and he supported their right to speak freely. He also was against any kind of racial discrimination. He welcomed them all, even though his approach resulted in declining number of Polish regulars for whom these new loud and extravagant clients were just too much.And to be frank, I can’t blame them.
Being brought up in the neighborhood that used to be called “Hail Marx Place,” Tolkin was willing to take the risk and support these poor young people. He had also foreseen that they were the future of the Lower East Side. They were, in fact, much more than that.
In the early 1960s, Stanley’s bar was packed on a nightly basis. Ed Sanders was there distributing FUCK YOU, his arts magazine, and, following the Cuban Missile Crisis on TV, Walter Bowart started the antiestablishment East Village OTHER and fell in love with a member of Mellon family. Ishmael Reed was taking part in poetry workshops and severe fights. The venue was buzzing with excitement. In order to house all these people, Tolkin had converted the basement of his bar into a club where a small jazz line-up began to perform regularly.
Still, it wasn’t enough, so when he learned about the possibility of buying out the declining Polish National Home, he didn’t hesitate. Starting in 1964, Tolkin became a shareholder and finally an owner of the building on St. Mark’s Place. To acknowledge its history, he named his new club The Dom. At the beginning his venue coexisted with spacious rooms located one floor above that were often rented by the Polish minority for its national feasts or traditional dance classes. Tolkin was managing those rooms too, leasing them not only to his compatriots but to some of the newcomers too. Soon mazurka lovers had to compete with Albert Grossman and Andy Warhol. And they never stepped down.
Even before Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol brought The Velvet Underground to The Dom, Tolkin had had his impact on the world of music. Mainly on jazz, as his venue was frequently visited by the greatest virtuosos of the era (it helped that many of them lived next door) and had it own house band led by clarinetist Tony Scott.
Footage of the Velvet Underground at The Dom, 1966:
As Ed Sanders told me, The Dom was where The Fugs came to live. And you can’t underestimate the influence of The Fugs on rock, even punk-rock music. Eventually it was the Fugs who the FBI called “the filthiest and most vulgar thing the human mind could possibly conceive”—high praise indeed. Deeply rooted in poetic environment of New York’s downtown, The Fugs helped to build the bridge between the Beat scene and experimental rock music. Their songs were full of irony and absurdity that one would associate with Frank Zappa; however, Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg were at the same time ruthless in their critique of Vietnam War, corporate America and police brutality. Even though their music consisted of elements that made it sound closer to the hippies than The Velvet Underground or MC5 (all in all it was Ed Sanders, along with Allen Ginsberg, who coined the term “Summer of Love”), I would put The Fugs among punk’s godfathers. If you are not convinced, listen to “Nothing” – even Jeff Lebowski’s antagonists weren’t that nihilistic.
The most important period in The Dom’s short history began in April 1966. This was when Tolkin was approached by Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol who wanted to rent the first floor of the building he managed. They were attracted by its size and location (Morrissey lived nearby). The fact that the address was familiar among people interested in various forms of art must have been helpful as well. In the end, Warhol and Morrissey were going to present a multidimensional show. Their Exploding Plastic Inevitable performance consisted of film, dance, lights and – of course – music. The Velvet Underground performed on stage, standing still, while Gerard Malanga danced among them and Warhol’s crew experimented with lights and screened movies directly on the band.
In his typical fashion, Morrissey told me they decided to include all the multimedia in order to distract people from an extremely boring band. Danny Fields, famous manager and the ultimate punk-rocker, said just the opposite: the only thing that mattered there was The Velvet Underground. Every evening the Exploding Plastic Inevitable was presented the venue was packed. Even though virtually no one had ever heard of the Velvet Underground before, the performance attracted crowds due to electrifying name of the artist behind the event – Andy Warhol. For that reason, the building on St. Mark’s Place was visited not only by Stanley’s regulars but also the young people from the neighborhood.
After April 1966, The Dom became the place to be for Manhattan’s elites. One could meet Jackie Kennedy, Walter Cronkite or Salvador Dali there. It is said that the poet John Ashbery burst into tears after experiencing Exploding Plastic Inevitable, screaming miserably that he didn’t understand a thing. I guess his attitude was just simply wrong. It wasn’t about comprehension; it was about experience. And people wanted to take part in it. That place was crowded. After a fruitful month, the $2,500 rent that Warhol had paid seemed like a bargain.
At that time The Velvet Underground were performing with Nico – German model, actress and singer. Since her presence in the band was inspired directly by Warhol, Lou Reed and John Cale treated her as a foreign body. Every time the tension within the group was unbearable, Nico walked one floor below to play at The Dom. On some occasions, she performed on her own; otherwise she appeared on stage along with Tim Buckley or Jackson Browne. The latter was performing at The Dom on his own. One of the bartenders, whom I had met while working on the book, still has the menu on which the guitarist wrote him the lyrics and tab for his song “The Fairest of the Seasons”. The bartender is Hollywood actor Tobin Bell.
Exploding Plastic Inevitable might have continued its success, but Warhol and his crew were obliged to leave the venue after a month. Stanley had already rented it to some Poles from the neighborhood, who had planned some national celebration there. Therefore, Exploding Plastic Inevitable went on tour to California – the capital of hippie movement and, as a result, Reed’s least favorite place in America. To make things worse on the West Coast, the band was taken care of by Bill Graham – manager of Jefferson Airplane, the band Lou Reed might have hated even more than California.
A short film about Exploding Plastic Inevitable by Ronald Nameth:
Exploding Plastic Inevitable never returned to The Dom. Nor did the Velvet Underground. When the band came back to New York, the space on the first floor had already been rented to Albert Grossman who unsuccessfully ran a club called Balloon Farm. After he had moved out, Stanley was approached by Jerry Brandt (who got fame) and Stanley Freeman (who got money). The results of the meeting were positive, so the men opened their psychedelic venue named Electric Circus. They sold coffee instead of alcohol and presented funk, psychedelic rock and avant-garde electronic music (it seems surreal but Morton Subotnick was their music director for a while). The music was accompanied by spontaneous performances of clowns or fire-eaters. What makes me feel that coffee wasn’t the only ingredient of Electric Circus audience’s diet? Whatever they ingested, their presence made triumphant return of The Velvet Underground impossible.
For some reasons, though, Stanley Tolkin – uneducated, down to earth, middle-aged guy – had a fondness for Lou Reed and his harsh, noisy music. Or maybe he just associated them with his greatest success? We would never learn. No matter the reasons, he invited the band for the opening of Gymnasium – his short-lived club in Uptown. The club was located in a former gym and Tolkin decided to leave some of the equipment, so people could work out while hanging around—an idea that might have felt too bizarre even for Electric Circus’ clientele. What is important is that this was the surreal scenery where “Sister Ray” was recorded for the first time. The bootleg titled Psychedelic Sounds from the Gymnasium is now a classic and a part of official White Light / White Heat super fancy reissue.
One year later, Tolkin suddenly died. He was only 50 years old and his only addiction was to hard work. Probably too hard. Even though I examined his life for years, reading through archives and conducting dozens of interviews, he remains elusive to some degree. He wasn’t into art but he supported artists. He was a middle-aged white man, feeling solidarity with young African Americans. He would support young writers or musicians with a meal or some money, but at the same time he was fine with his ruthless bouncers beating clients who dared to cheat on him. He is said to be suspicious or unwelcoming towards homosexual clientele (it’s worth remembering serving gays was illegal for some time in the 1960s New York) but somehow Allen Ginsberg or Danny Fields were among his beloved regulars. He was more a New Yorker to the Poles and a Pole to all New Yorkers. And he ran the Dom. Which means “home” in Polish but was home to everyone really.