Recalling Neil Young, Cellar Door

A new release wakes up memories of an iconic music club



Devotees of the Everything Used to Be Better school will love Neil Young’s sorta-new record.

On Tuesday the rock legend released the latest in his archival concert series, “Live at the Cellar Door.” The recordings are drawn from a six-show solo stand at the nightclub in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood in late November and early December of 1970. Alone onstage and switching between acoustic guitar and grand piano, the young Young’s folk-rock brilliance shines throughout a 45-minute set of faithful-to-the-original-recording renditions of many of his classics, including “Tell Me Why,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “After the Gold Rush” and “Old Man.” The then-25-year-old also played unplugged versions of “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down by the River,” as he makes the latter easily the most beautiful song about a psycho’s gun-murder of a girlfriend ever put to wax. The Cellar Door recordings find the audience so reverent and rapt that staffers at the club obviously had no problems enforcing its famous “No talking!” rule during his stay.

Another highlight of this incredible period piece of a record is that it calls attention to the venue where it was made. Plainly, there will never be another Cellar Door. This was a tiny place (legal capacity under 200) where music was king, tickets for major acts averaged $3 and six-show stands such as Young’s were considered brief stays.

“There’s no happier feeling than being in a room when everybody loves the music,” says Cellar Door founder Jack Boyle, “and we sure had that with Neil Young.”

Boyle got that happy feeling quite a bit at his club. The Youngstown, Ohio, native, who first came to Washington to attend Georgetown University, founded the Cellar Door in the early 1960s using what he describes as one night of poker winnings. (“About $1,100,” Boyle once said.)

He sold the place after just two years and left the country to run bars in Europe, but he got homesick for the United States and bought the Cellar Door back from Charles Lawrence Fichman in the fall of 1970. Fichman had established the club as a casual hangout for hard-core folkies, where “hootenannies” were a staple in which amateur local musicians traded licks with nationally known pickers. The casual atmosphere ultimately got to Fichman: Upon selling back to Boyle, Fichman told The Washington Post that a chief reason he rid himself of the club was because “pot had cut into the drinking” revenues.

“People used to come in an hour ahead of time so they could have a few drinks before the show,” Fichman said at the time. “Now they come in a few minutes early so they’ll still be high when it starts.”

Boyle, who was a military vet before he became a club owner, wasn’t about to run a house of ill repute. He instituted a $2 food minimum, which he says more than made up for any hemp-related hemorrhaging of profits. And he was not going to let the talent treat his room as a party palace: “I will not supply dope or broads for anyone in the world,” he told an interviewer in 1975.

In the Cellar Door’s case, size mattered. After strolling over to the Georgetown campus for a post-midnight interview with WGTB DJ John Zambetti, Young, who had played the Baltimore Civic Center a few months earlier as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s first tour, gave a rave review to the club.

“Small clubs are groovy!” Young told Zambetti.

For folks used to today’s bigger music halls, the coziness of the Cellar Door must be hard to grasp.

“It was so intimate, I’m not even sure how all these bands got on that stage,” recalls Nils Lofgren. “You could see and hear every little thing everyone did. . . . It was just completely real and very visceral and powerful.”

Length mattered, too. The Cellar Door often hosted well-known performers who typically stayed a week, playing two or three shows each night for what now seems a pittance in pay. Boyle called John Denver a “$1,500 a week” act.

Lofgren, now best-known for his long stay as a guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, will tell you he owes much of his career to one of Young’s Cellar Door residencies.

As a 17-year-old high school dropout trying to launch a rock-and-roll career, Lofgren made the club his hangout. Not only did that let him see many of his musical heroes perform — B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Fahey, Tim Hardin, Young — but he also made a habit of sneaking up the staircase at the side of the club and inviting himself into the unlocked and unguarded dressing room before and after shows to hit up the pros for career advice.