By the early 1960s, Greenwich Village was the epicenter of beatnik counterculture – and the Gaslight Cafe (116 MacDougal Street) was one of its most influential venues.
Opened in 1958 as a coffeehouse that featured beat poets such as Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso, the Gaslight Cafe was sold three years later and became a haven for musicians, until closing in 1971. Among the legendary artists who've performed in the 110-capacity club were Bob Dylan, Link Wray, and Bruce Springsteen. A recording of 10 songs from early Dylan performances, Live at The Gaslight 1962, was released in 2005.
Rock journalist Al Aronowitz recalled how John Mitchell, the Gaslight's original owner, converted a small cellar below a bar (The Kettle of Fish) into a haven for the Beat Generation. “At 116 MacDougal, John noticed that there were gratings in the sidewalk. That told him there was a cellar underneath, but when he went downstairs to take a look, he could hardly stand up. The ceiling was too low. John couldn't raise the ceiling, so he lowered the floor,” Aronowitz recalled. “It was all dirt, and he shoveled it out by hand. Except, the city refused him a building permit, and he had to load the dirt into sacks and get rid of it as if he were tunneling his way out of prison. At night, he would carry the sacks out into MacDougal Street and dump a little dirt into each of the garbage pails on the block.”
Instead of paying the musicians who performed at the Gaslight, “a small basket was passed around for audience members to make donations to the bands. This manner of paying musicians was actually a clever manner of circumventing neighborhood restrictions which disallowed unlicensed entertainment facilities within a primary residential area.”
The coffeehouse cleverly avoided confrontations with the police in other ways, as well. According to the Folk Music Encyclopedia: “The Gaslight was weird then because there were air shafts up to the apartments and the windows of the Gaslight would open into the air shafts, so when people would applaud, the neighbors would get disturbed and call the police. So then the audience couldn't applaud; they had to snap their fingers instead.”
These days, there is no trace of the Gaslight Cafe nor the Beat Generation writers and musicians who colonized the Village then. There is now a tattoo parlor where the iconic coffeehouse once altered/reshaped/transformed American culture. But the legacy endures. Gaslight Anthem singer Brian Fallon has said in interviews that the coffeehouse was the inspiration for his band's name.