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Young’s Latest Sparks Cellar Door Memories

The Cellar Door in Washington there was austere on the outside and had fewer than 200 seats inside; in the fall of 1970, 25-year-old Neil Young  had a six-show solo stand, which became part of his archival concert series, “Live at the Cellar Door.” Illustrates MUSIC-YOUNG (category e), by Dave McKenna, special to The Washington Post.  Moved Tuesday, December 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by John McDonnell.)

The Cellar Door in Washington there was austere on the outside and had fewer than 200 seats inside; in the fall of 1970, 25-year-old Neil Young had a six-show solo stand, which became part of his archival concert series, “Live at the Cellar Door.” Illustrates MUSIC-YOUNG (category e), by Dave McKenna, special to The Washington Post. Moved Tuesday, December 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by John McDonnell.)

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 weed-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 a night for what now seems a pittance. 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 ’n’ 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.

Young, at the beginning of a 1969 Cellar Door run, handed Lofgren a Martin guitar and liked what he heard enough to buy the kid “a cheeseburger and a Coke and a table for four shows,” Lofgren says. A year later, Lofgren was part of Young’s stable of studio sidemen for the recording of the After the Gold Rush album. His dreams of being able to make a living at music were on their way to being realized.

One of the Cellar Door’s most enduring tales is its role in bringing Take Me Home, Country Roads to John Denver.

Bill Danoff worked as a doorman and light and sound man at the Cellar Door during his days as an undergrad at Georgetown University (Class of 1968), all while trying to figure out how to launch his own music career. He and his future wife, Taffy Nivert, formed a duo called Fat City, and the pair scored a spot opening for Denver when he did a week at the club in December 1970. (This was just weeks after Young’s just-released disc was recorded.) Danoff and Nivert invited Denver to a musical gathering at Nivert’s apartment. They sang Denver an unfinished tune they had written while driving through rural roads of Montgomery County, Md. But, says Danoff, “we couldn’t come up with a rhyme for ‘Maryland.’ ” So they substituted a state that Danoff had never even set foot in — West Virginia — tweaked a verse and added a bridge. “John had this exaggerated reaction: ‘Gol-ly! That’s a hit!’ ” says Danoff. Denver debuted it the next night at the Cellar Door using handwritten lyric sheets and got raves from the crowd. Within a week, Danoff and Nivert were in New York’s RCA Studios helping Denver record Take Me Home, Country Roads.

“I was thinking, I wish I had gotten the song to Johnny Cash first,” Danoff says of his reaction to initially hearing the recording. Denver’s instincts proved more apt: Less than four months after they first performed the song at the Cellar Door, it was on the Billboard charts and on its way to becoming Denver’s signature song and one of two pop smashes co-written by Danoff and Nivert. (The other? Starland Vocal Band’s 1976 hit Afternoon Delight.)

The Cellar Door club itself was closed in 1981. Boyle had left for Florida in the mid-1970s, but not before using the tiny venue to launch one of the nation’s largest concert promotion companies, Cellar Door Productions. In 1998, Boyle sold the company for a reported $108 million.