Jon Michaud’s Last Call at Coogan’s is a remarkable elegy for an iconic uptown Manhattan bar.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
“An ambitious overview of the forces that batter the individual as they do the collective: gentrification, homogeneity, displacement.”
Every first Sunday in March for the better part of two decades, Coogan’s, the New York City saloon that is the subject of my new book, hosted a footrace called the Salsa, Blues & Shamrocks 5K. Coogan’s created the race in the late 1990s as a way of bringing the community together and taking back the streets (at least for a day) from the crack cocaine dealers who operated brazenly and very profitably in the nearby blocks. The name of the race was intended to be inclusive of the major ethnic groups in Washington Heights, where the bar was located. In the race’s early years, local bands representing those styles of music and more—gospel, klezmer, garage rock—would be stationed along the route to serenade the runners.
This should give you some idea how important music was to the bar’s owners, Peter Walsh, Dave Hunt, and Tess O’Connor McDade, as well as to their patrons. From the thrice-weekly karaoke nights to the carefully curated jukebox to live performances by Peter and his network of talented musical friends, the bar used music as a unifying force. This playlist is intended to capture some of the range and depth of the offerings at Coogan’s as well as a few of the songs I listened to while working on this book.
“The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by Dave Van Ronk
It says something about Coogan’s that for many years the bar’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were led by two Jews. The first was Dr. Michael Cohen, a cardiologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital who, beginning in 1992, would buy breakfast for anyone who recited a Yeats poem. The other was Larry Siegel, a guitarist, banjo player, and composer who performed regularly at Coogan’s over the decades, especially during the week of St. Pat’s. Siegel had a deep knowledge of Irish traditional music and could play obscure county-specific songs as well as foot-stomping crowd pleasers. (He earned his free breakfast by singing this number for Cohen.) Numerous artists, including Donovan and the Waterboys, have recorded versions of this poem, but I chose Van Ronk’s because he was once a regular customer at Jimmy Day’s, the Greenwich Village saloon where Coogan’s co-owner Dave Hunt worked in the 1970s.
“In the Heights” by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Buried deep in the recesses of YouTube is a grainy phone video of a young Lin-Manuel Miranda freestyling with friends at Coogan’s on his 26th birthday. The Miranda family were regulars at the saloon and Lin-Manuel and his father Luis were instrumental in saving the bar in 2018, when an extreme rent increase nearly put Coogan’s out of business. This panoramic, seven-minute overture to Miranda’s Tony Award winning musical captures the neighborhood through another of its essential institutions, the bodega. The song refers directly to the threat of gentrification faced by so many small businesses in the Heights: “Our neighbors started packin’ up and pickin’ up / And ever since the rents went up / It’s gotten mad expensive, but we live with just enough.” But above all else, it is a celebration of the intimate networks that make up the Washington Heights community.
“Alternative Ulster” by Stiff Little Fingers
One of the reasons I was drawn to the story of Coogan’s was my own experience growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where I spent the bulk of my teenage years. (My father was the American Consul General there.) Northern Ireland during the Troubles faced many of the same challenges that beset Washington Heights during the worst of the crack years: ethnic tensions, political dysfunction, and extreme violence. Belfast’s bars were a place to escape from all of that; Coogan’s offered a similar haven for its neighbors. This ferocious punk banger, written by a band made up of Protestants and Catholics, is widely known as the unofficial national anthem of Northern Ireland. Released in 1978, it offered a vision for a better future.(“What we need /
Is an Alternative Ulster / Grab it and change it, it’s yours.” I often played this and other SLF songs at the end of a writing session to shake myself back into the world.
“It’s Raining Men” by the Weather Girls
Karaoke was first introduced at Coogan’s in the mid-1990s, and became a crucial outreach tool for the bar, drawing in members of the Washington Heights community who were initially skeptical of an Irish bar frequented by cops and politicians. Before long, however, karaoke was a three-nights-a-week staple of the bar’s success. People would show up an hour or more early just to get a good seat. This song was especially popular, not least because whenever karaoke hostess Terry Odell sang it, a muscled bartender named Chirs Feci would jump up onto the bar and tear off his shirt to wild cheers and applause.
“House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals
This classic was the signature song of Coogan’s co-owner Peter Walsh. At any musical performance at the saloon-–including karaoke—Peter was apt to get up and perform this number in his distinctive voice, which Larry Siegel once described to me as a “roaring baritone.” It never failed to bring down the house. When I asked Peter what drew him to the song, he replied that it “speaks to all of us and offers just the right spacing for virtuosity. You can modulate, taking the song from subtlety to wailing heartbreak. And then there are the lyrics all sexy, homeless, and in between. It’s what I call an IMPACT song. One song, one chance to own the room. You admit you’re a sinner and everyone understands.”
“No Frontiers” by Mary Black
Released in 1989, just before Dave, Peter, and their partners took over Coogan’s, this song became a favorite on the bar’s jukebox. Lyrically, it could not be more apt. The song considers the possibility that “life is a bar room in which we must wait / ‘Round the man with his fingers on the ivory gates / Where we sing until dawn of our fears and our fates.” The title expresses the unwritten ethos of the saloon, which was to bring down the barriers of suspicion and distrust that separated the neighborhood’s ethnic enclaves. Plenty of fears and fates were discussed inside Coogan’s over the years.
“Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers
Northern Manhattan was a hotbed of doo-wop music in the 1950s, producing not only Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (who sang on the corner of 165th and Amsterdam Ave., just blocks from where Coogan’s would later stand), but also such acts as the Chevrons, the Schoolboys, and the Spirals. Coogan’s embraced that history, hosting doo-wop performaces, including one by Frankie’s younger brother Lewis Lymon who enjoyed success with his own group, the Teenchords. This song, however, remains the iconic standard from the neighborhood’s golden era of vocal-group talent.
“Wonderwall” by Oasis
The first time I drank at Coogan’s was on a quiet weekend afternoon in 1998, with my future brother-in-law, Jansel Botex. I liked the place so much that a few weeks later when my brother Josh and his girlfriend Jessica were visiting, my girlfriend Zoraida and I took them to Coogan’s for dinner. It was karaoke night, the bar jammed and effusive. My brother, who has a good singing voice and a strong stage presence, performed this number, earning a resounding ovation from the tough audience at the bar. After that, I was Cooganized.
“Bendita Nena” by Edilio Paredes
As I noted a dozen years ago on this site, bachata is the soundtrack of Washington Heights. The lilting, catchy, bittersweet songs seem to pour out of every cab and apartment window in the neighborhood. No playlist about the neighborhood would be complete without a bachata number. Paredes, one of the pioneers of the form, used to perform at the 27 de Febrero Restaurant on St. Nicholas Ave., about four blocks north of Coogan’s. “You can’t do business in Washington Heights without having live music,” the restaurant’s owner Omar Santana told WNYC in 2010, a truism that Dave, Peter, and Tess well understood. It’s unknown whether Paredes ever had a drink at Coogan’s, but several other Latin music stars—including José Alberto “El Canario” and Joseíto Mateo—did cross the threshold and received adoring welcomes from the staff and owners. Their photos were soon added to the gallery on the walls.
“Carrickfergus” by Van Morrison and the Chieftains
This is another song that Peter Walsh sang frequently at Coogan’s. In its yearning for home “Carrickfergus” speaks directly to the immigrant experience of separation and longing which would be familiar to both the Irish and Dominican residents of Washington Heights. (“But the sea is wide and I cannot swim over / Neither have I wings to fly.”) When Van Morrison played the nearby United Palace Theater in 2007, he took some of his meals at Coogan’s. Aware of Morrison’s reputation for being ornery, the bar’s owners gave him a wide berth in the dining room, but, they later recalled, once he’d had a cup of tea, Morrison was perfectly pleasant, posing for photographs with staff. I also chose this song because Carrickfergus is the hometown of the Northern Irish writer Adrian McKinty, who was the first to offer me a blurb for the book. McKinty’s sister owns a pub in Carrickfergus called the Joymount Arms. I plan to have a pint of Guinness there the next time I’m in the North of Ireland.
JON MICHAUD is the Collection Management Librarian at the Millburn Free Public Library. His novel When Tito Loved Clara was named a best book of the year by the Barnes & Noble Review and a finalist for the Writer’s Center First Novel Prize. He was previously head librarian at The New Yorker and the Center for Fiction. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Washington Post, Tin House, and elsewhere. The recipient of a 2022 fellowship from the NJ Council on the Arts, Michaud lives in Maplewood, NJ.