The Stephen’s Talkhouse Musical History

Written By: Peter  Honerkamp

Its storied history of hosting music legends and work with the local community have made The Stephen Talkhouse an Amagansett institution.

“We went there for everything we needed. We went there when thirsty, of course, and when hungry, and when dead tired. We went there when happy, to celebrate, and when sad, to sulk. We went there after weddings and funerals, and for something to settle our nerves, and always for a shot of courage just before. We went there when we didn’t know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or for someone who had gone missing, because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.” —Excerpt from The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

That was written about a different bar in a different place, but it could easily apply to The Stephen Talkhouse. For 27 years, we’ve been a local bar that doubles as a sanctuary. It’s a place where everyone is equal and everyone is accepted. There are lots of places out here populated by people born on third base who think they hit a triple, but the Talkhouse is laid-back, unpretentious, and populated by a group of friends uninterested in proving anything to anybody. A gay man or a single woman can come here alone and feel completely at ease. For those of us who work here, that egalitarian spirit infuses our relationships. There are two signs over the bar. One, from It’s a Wonderful Life, reads: “No man is a failure who has friends.” The other says: “Customers come and customers go. Here at the Talkhouse the employee is always right.”

The Talkhouse had always been a great saloon, but it was closed when I bought it with a few friends and relatives in 1987. We opened on August 1 of that year. My cousin, Klyph Black, and a friend, Eddie Mac, started playing every week that September. I got the idea from them that live music on the East End could work. I knew the bluesman, John Hammond, and he was the first national act to play there. We had a six-channel sound board and a stage that was about eight feet wide by six feet deep. We charged $10 and sold out.

Since then, more than 50 artists and bands that are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have played here, including such megastars as Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Buffett, Jon Bon Jovi, Paul Simon, and Sting, though those six did so for charity or fun.

The musicians come from all musical genres—folk, blues, soul, jazz, country, and rock ’n’ roll. This year some of the acts are Luka Bloom, Southside Johnny, Buster Poindexter, 10,000 Maniacs, Loudon Wainwright III, Judy Collins, Taj Mahal, Steve Earle, The English Beat, Leon Russell, Big Head Todd, Ingrid Michaelson, Collie Buddz, and Rufus and Martha Wainwright. We are the smallest club in the world hosting this kind of talent.

The Talkhouse is also home for a lot of local artists. Klyph Black still plays here along with The Nancy Atlas Project, Rubix Kube, The Lone Sharks, Little Head Thinks, Booga Sugar, Mama Lee Rose & Friends, Inda Eaton, and Peter Michne, aka Bosco, who has performed here more than any other artist.

Everyone here has their favorite shows, but I’d have to choose from over a thousand to pick one. I do remember, however, getting to sing “Can’t You See” on my birthday with Toy Caldwell, who made the song famous when he sang it with The Marshall Tucker Band. I also remember Buddy Guy walking outside with his guitar and getting into a passing car still playing his guitar. And before we had a generator, we lost power three times during shows—Rick Danko of The Band, Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, and Martin Sexton all played acoustic guitars by candlelight when that happened.

Of course, we lose some of our favorites as time goes by: Rick Danko, Luther Allison, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Tito Puente, Toy Caldwell, Albert Collins, Laura Nyro, Nicolette Larson, Richie Havens, Kenny Rankin, Jeff Buckley, and Chris Whitley all played here. Roy Buchanan, who turned down playing for the Rolling Stones after Brian Jones died, played here in June of 1988. I paid him $2,000. After the show, the crowd was demanding a third encore. I went upstairs and asked Roy, but he said no. I offered him a $500 bonus. His bass player begged him to take it. Roy looked at him and said, “You still don’t know anything about the blues. If a guy in a club this small asks you for an encore, you do it for free.” He played another half hour, then was found hanging in his cell a few weeks later after being arrested for public intoxication.

But it’s the staff, more than anything, that gives the Talkhouse its flavor. Paulino Collado, Larry Wagner, Klyph Black, Phillip Vega, and I have been here 27 years. Twenty employees have been here over 15 years. and 30 employees over 10 years. It’s a motley collection of pirates, each of them unique, but united by a common desire to have fun. They are a key component of the entertainment we provide.

I’m known for pranking my staff. I’ve hired look-a-likes of Madonna, Joe Pesci, and Jack Nicholson. I’ve appeared in drag on more than one occasion, once arriving as the drunken (I did not have to rehearse) sister of a famous director. The highlight of that night was when a friend asked me to dance. One year, I hired three transvestites to bartend at a staff party. The “girls” served in their underwear, which did not please the women in the crowd until one took off her bra, revealing she was a he. The women then loved me, while the men who had been flirting with the bartenders hated me.

We’re also proud of the many benefits we’ve hosted for people in our community in need, donating the place, the staff, and the bar profits. It’s much easier to give than receive, but you actually are being given a gift by the person you help. In 2003, we organized a benefit concert for a Long Island soldier who was traumatically injured in Iraq. One of our bartenders, Chris Carney, came up with the idea that he would bicycle across America to raise money and awareness for a fledgling organization called The Wounded Warrior Project. At the time, it had one employee and had raised about $10,000. We put a beer pitcher outside and raised enough money to send Chris and a support vehicle driven by Tek Vakalaloma (who still works here) 4,400 miles. We raised millions along the way.

Chris did it again the following year, only this time he was accompanied by two soldiers. Ryan Kelly, a single amputee (whose prosthetic hangs from the wall), and Heath Calhoun, a double amputee on a handcycle, biked from LA to Montauk with a stop-off at the White House for a meeting with President Bush. We not only raised more millions but realized our Soldier Ride was more than a fundraiser—it was a rehabilitative tool. We revolutionized how we treat wounded soldiers. Instead of being relegated to a hospital bed, where their only contacts were loved ones and doctors, these men and women were getting on bikes with their fellow wounded, empowering themselves and each other, setting the example for the incoming wounded, and going out into the communities they sacrificed so much for. It’s part of their rehabilitation to be thanked, and it’s something we should and need to do. It’s the least we can do, especially in light of our collective failure to properly welcome home the Vietnam vets. The Wounded Warrior Project now raises over $200 million a year, employing 450 people in nearly 20 offices nationwide. It has 19 programs that help our wounded and has touched the lives of more than 45,000 soldiers.

There are places of concentrated evil in the world, like Auschwitz and the Roman Colosseum, but the Talkhouse is a place where a roaring party continues through time. That’s what we sell—a good time. The owner of Mulates, a famous Cajun music club and restaurant in New Orleans, told me the other day that there never was a bar like the Talkhouse and there never will be one again. I have the best job in the world. I get to make people happy for a living.