Lakeside Lounge has been sold and will be closing at the end of April. After just over fifteen years in business, the bar that defined oldschool East Village cool will be replaced by a gentrifier whiskey joint, no doubt with $19 artisanal cocktails and hedge fund nebbishes trying to pick up on sorostitutes when their boyfriends are puking in the bathroom – or out of it.
Lakeside opened in 1996 [thanks for the correction, everybody] in the space just north of the former Life Cafe on Ave. B north of 10th Street in the single-story building between tenements that had previously housed a Jamaican fried chicken takeout restaurant. It was an instant hit. Owners Jim Marshall (a.k.a. The Hound, an astute and encyclopedic blues and soul-ologist with a great blog) and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (of the Del-Lords, and eventually lead guitarist in Steve Earle’s band) had a game plan: create a space that nurtures artists rather than exploiting them as so many venues do. And they stuck to that plan. Before long, Lakeside had become a mecca for good music. For several years, there was literally a good band here just about every night with the exception of the few holidays when the bar was closed. Artists far too popular for the back room would play here just for the fun of it: Earle, Rudy Ray Moore, Graham Parker, John Sinclair, the Sadies, Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby all had gigs here, some of them more than once. Dee Dee Ramone hung out here and eventually did a book signing on the little stage in the back, with people lined up around the block. Steve Wynn had a weekly residency here for a bit (which was amazing). The place helped launch the careers of countless Americana-ish acts including Laura Cantrell, Amy Allison, Mary Lee’s Corvette, Megan Reilly, Tom Clark & the High Action Boys, Tammy Faye Starlite and Spanking Charlene and sustained countless others through good times and bad. And as much as most of the bands played some kind of twangy rock, booking here was actually very eclectic: chanteuses Erica Smith and Jenifer Jackson, indie pop mastermind Ward White, punk rockers Ff and several surf bands from Laika & the Cosmonauts to the Sea Devils all played here.
As the toxic waves of gentrification pushed deeper into the East Village, Lakeside never changed. You could still get a $3 Pabst, or a very stiff well drink for twice that. Their half-price happy hour lasted til 8 PM. The jukebox was expensive (two plays for a buck) but was loaded with obscure R&B, blues and country treasures from the 40s through the 60s. Countless bands used their black-and-white photo booth for album cover shots. Their bar staff had personalities: rather than constantly texting or checking their Facebook pages, they’d talk to you. And they’d become your friends if you hung out and got to know them. Some were sweet, some had a mean streak, but it seemed that there was a rule that to work at Lakeside, you had to be smart, and you had to be cool.
But times changed. To a generation of pampered, status-grubbing white invaders from the suburbs, Lakeside made no sense. The place wasn’t kitschy because its owners were genuinely committed to it, and to the musicians who played there. It had no status appeal because it was cheap, dingy and roughhewn, and Ambel refused to book trendy bands. Had they renovated, put in sconces and ash-blonde paneling, laid some tile on the concrete floor, kicked out the bands and brought in “celebrity DJ’s” and started serving $19 artisanal cocktails, they might have survived. But that would have been suicide. It wouldn’t have been Lakeside anymore.
There won’t be any closing party, but the bands on the club calendar will be playing their scheduled shows. Ambel plays the final show at 9 on the 30th. Before then, stop in and say goodbye to a quintessential New York treasure.