“black in colour and made by infusing the powdered berry of a plant that flourished in Arabia. Native men consumed this liquid all day long and far into the night, with no apparent desire for sleep but with mind and body continuously alert, men talked and argued, finding in the hot black liquor a curious stimulus quite unlike that produced by fermented juice of grape.”
– Aytoun Ellis. 1956. The Penny Universities; A History of the Coffee-houses
Alcohol-free venues like Café Wha? and The Gaslight in Greenwich Village and The Upstage Club in Asbury Park have passed down into legend as places which provided early opportunities for some of the greatest musical talents of 20th Century America.
I’m sitting here at my laptop sipping my morning brew and contemplating a passage I read yesterday in Dylan’s excellent autobiographic tome Chronicles (volume one). In said passage, Dylan speaks of first encountering the New York Greenwich Village live music scene in the early 60s. Many of the places he played were no booze joints.
“I probably played all the places at one time or another,” Dylan writes. “Most of them stayed open ‘til the break of day, kerosene lamps and sawdust on the floor, some with wooden benches, a strong-armed guy at the door—no cover charge and the owners tried to offload as much coffee as they could.”
“Talent scouts didn’t come to these dens. They were dark and dingy and the atmosphere was chaotic.”
This could be a description of an English coffeehouse from three hundred and sixty years ago. Europe only discovered coffee in the mid 17th Century and the very first Coffeehouse to open in England (in 1650) was situated in the academic capital of Oxford. This and other coffeehouses established in Oxford came to be known as penny universities because they offered an alternative form of learning to that being taught in the universities proper. Very quickly, this stimulant became the drink of choice for the fashionable, the philosophers, the intellectuals, and the revolutionaries.
The English coffeehouse was an significant venue for one very particular reason, it quickly became an important centre for the dissemination of news. Most modern historians associate English coffeehouses with the flourishing of the printed news sheet and these fashionable dens were where people came to drink coffee as they read and discussed the events of the day.
In fact, so popular did these places become, that King Charles II grew nervous that they might be hotbeds of sedition and ordered them all shut down. So paranoid was he of any potential threat to his shaky throne, that he issued a proclamation to end the legality of coffeehouses. And this did not just affect the estimated three thousand coffeehouses either, he also banned people from selling coffee, chocolate, and tea(!) from any shop or house.
Suppression of Coffee-Houses.
Whereas it is most apparent, that the Multitude of Coffee-Houses of late years set up and kept within the Kingdom, the Dominion of Wales, and the Town of Berwick on Tweed, and the great resort of Idle and disaffected persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous effects; as well for that many Tradesmen and others, do therein mis-spend much of their time, which might and probably would otherwise by imployed in and about their Lawful Callings and Affairs; but also, for that in such houses, and by occasion of the meetings of such persons therein, diverse False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm; his Majesty hath thought it fit and necessary, That the said Coffee-houses be (for the future) put down and supressed, and doth (with the Advice of his Privy council) by this Royal Proclamation, Strictly Charge and Command all manner of persons, That they or any of them do not presume from and after the Tenth Day of January next ensuing, to keep any Publick Coffee-house, or to Utter or sell by retail, in his, her, or their house or houses (to be spent or consumed within the same) any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea, as they will answer the contrary at their utmost perils.
And for the better accomplishment of this his Majesties Royal Pleasure, his Majesty both hereby will and require the Justices of the Peace within their several Counties, and the Chief Magistrates in all Cities and Towns Corporate, that they do at their next respective General Sessions of the peace (to be holden within their several and respective Counties, Divisions and Precincts) recall and make void all Licences at any time heretofore Granted, for the selling or retailing of any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea. And that they or any of them do not (for the future) make or grant any such Licence or Licences to any persons whatsoever. And his Majesty doth further hereby declare, that if any person or persons shall take upon them, him or her, after his, her or their Licence or Licences recalled, or otherwise without Licence, to sell by retail (as aforesaid) any of the Liquors aforesaid, that then the person or persons so Offending, shall not only be proceeded against , upon the Statute made in the fifteenth year of his Majesties Reign (which gives the forfeiture of five pounds for every moneth wherein he, she or they shall offend therein) but shall (in case they persevere to Offend) receive the severest punishments that may by Law be inflicted.
Given at our Court at Whitehall, the Nine and twentieth day of December 1675, in the Seven and twentieth year of Our Reign.
God save the King
This draconian law was passed on December 29, 1675, to take effect on January 10, 1676, but it was unceremoniously revoked on January 8. As it transpires, several of Charles’ own ministers were themselves coffee devotees.
Thus, the coffeehouses survived Charles’ paranoia and continued to flourish well into the 18th Century. They never ceased, however, to be regarded with suspicion by those in power.
I find this connection between coffee and revolutionary thought (real or imagined) fascinating. The great protest movements of the 50s and 60s centred initially around folk music and the coffeehouses in which it was played. Beat poetry too found a ready audience in such places.
We associate pot and acid with the anti-war movements of the mid to late 60s but that other drug of choice, caffeine, played just as great a role.
Who would have thought that something as innocuous as the morning cuppa could be so steeped in controversy?
As a side note, on Friday night, Jersey and I will be heading down to Asbury Park to view a new documentary about the Upstage Club, that other famously alcohol-free venue which played such a pivotal role in the formation of Springsteen and the E Street band (as well as a good many others). The main beverage on sale at this all-night venue was – you guessed it – coffee (the second floor was a coffeehouse called the Green Mermaid).
Springsteen has famously said he was a non-drinker in those days but coffee can’t take any credit for his early hi-octane success either as he revealed in his autobiography, Born to Run that he cannot abide the taste.
The Boss’ personal preferences aside, however, it can be argued that the humble coffee bean has had a significant impact on the development of our society and culture.
Words and images (except where otherwise stated) are my own.