New Heathens

‘This Reporter’ Spent a Lot of Great Nights at the Lakeside Lounge

As seen in the New York Times.

For 16 years, the Lakeside Lounge employed a formula that never changed: a handpicked band every night, a jukebox loaded with classic songs, a cadre of quick-witted bartenders working under strings of colored lights, and an old-time photo booth that spat out strips of pictures shot using real film.

While the bar, on Avenue B in the East Village, held true to the rock ’n’ roll vision of its co-founders, Eric Ambel, a guitarist and record producer, and James Marshall, a disc jockey, the neighborhood gradually acquired a new personality. Upscale restaurants replaced drug dens, seedy gave way to hip, and hangouts for musicians and artists vanished. With rent and expenses rising relentlessly, the party at the Lakeside Lounge will end on April 30.

“The economics of the new East Village caught up with us,” said Mr. Ambel, 54.

Many music fans are mourning the passing not just of a nightspot, but of an era. “We learned how to be a band here, and so many others did, too; where are we all going to go now?” Mo Goldner, 43, asked as he leaned against the bar for a farewell toast. Mr. Goldner’s band, Spanking Charlene, has for years played a monthly gig on Lakeside’s small side-room stage.

The Lakeside Lounge opened in April 1996, taking the space previously occupied by a rehearsal studio and a Jamaican restaurant. The bar’s name was an allusion to the summer trips to Wisconsin that Mr. Ambel made with his family while growing up.

Mr. Marshall, 52, who had worked for WFMU-FM in Jersey City, helped fashion the ambience by installing the photo booth. He filled the jukebox with a collection of music far enough from the mainstream to function as what he called “a self-cleaning oven.”

“If someone wasn’t cool enough to spend a quarter hearing Howlin’ Wolf, we didn’t want them in there anyway,” he said.

In 2009, Van Morrison was interviewed by The New Yorker at the Lakeside Lounge because, he said, of the jukebox. This month, Elvis Costello dropped by for a listen. In December, the Alabama Shakes, an up-and-coming band, played a secret gig between sold-out New York shows.

“This is the machine I heard stories about,” said the band’s singer, Brittany Howard, as she flipped reverently through each selection on the jukebox, which glowed like a beacon in the dark space.

Mr. Ambel, who had toured with Joan Jett and Steve Earle, strove to make Lakeside a pleasure for its performers. Unlike New York rock clubs that cram in several acts a night, Lakeside made its one nightly band the star attraction. Musicians played on quality house gear, including warm-sounding tube amps and solid drums. Mr. Ambel personally booked each act and fostered a scrappy community of garage rockers, soul belters, country weepers and urban bluesmen. (This reporter played there with various bands over the years.)

“Making sure the bands had a good experience and were treated really well has always been real important to me, because I’m a musician,” Mr. Ambel said.

In its earliest days, the Lakeside was a musical beachhead at a time when Avenue B still bristled with danger. Once, as Joey and Dee Dee Ramone played, audience members watched the police raid a nearby crack house and line suspects up against a picture window beside the stage. Iggy Pop was a neighbor for a time and also an occasional patron. The owners recruited a roster of bartenders from their circle of friends who were savvy enough to handle Lakeside’s dynamics.

“There are certain things you don’t want to have to tell a bartender,” Mr. Marshall said. “Like, ‘Don’t charge Iggy for a drink.’”

Alex Feldesman, 39, a bartender at Lakeside for 13 years, said, “if you like the bar, the bar likes you.” Another bartender, J..D. Hughes, 47, described working there as, “like bartending in your dad’s basement.” Erick Hartz, 50, likened it to a “clubhouse.”

Some of the place’s color came from the regulars as much as the bartenders and musicians. Danny Ly, 50, enjoyed a pint of beer and a shot of whiskey at Lakeside almost every night since 1996.

“When I’m in Lakeside it’s like I’m Frasier Crane from ‘Cheers,’” he said, enjoying a couple of his last.

Leslie Day, who worked at Lakeside since it opened, said she loved its characters, but noted, “there aren’t as many as there used to be.”

And there are fewer places for the characters to go. The Life Café, which was next door, closed last year, as did the nearby music nook Banjo Jim’s. So, too, did the Mars Bar, an artists’ hangout on Second Avenue. Mr. Ambel said rent and expenses had more than quadrupled since the mid-1990s, forcing him and Mr. Marshall to face the prospect of deviating from the formula that had served Lakeside, its musicians and its patrons so well.

“I can’t raise drink prices too much, I don’t care to have a D.J. in there, I don’t want to have five bands a night — that’s not what we’re about,” said Mr. Ambel, who will play with his own band at the closing party.

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