It’s been said many times over the years in Amagansett, “The easiest way to make it to the dawn is to spend a night at the Stephen Talkhouse.”
Half roadhouse blues joint, half no-frills saloon—with the possible exception of the wide array of nude photos that cover the walls of the back bar and bathrooms—the Talkhouse has become the live music stalwart on the East End, and has joined the ranks of other iconic music venues like The Stone Pony, the Asbury Park, New Jersey, club where “The Boss,” Bruce Springsteen got his start, and CBGB, the Bowery nightclub that gave rise to the punk and New Wave movements in the late 1970s.
Sitting on softer ground in the hamlet of Amagansett, the actual structure of the Talkhouse was built by a local whaler, Erastus Barnes, in 1832. Over the years, it has gone from a whaler residence to an Italian restaurant to a “swingers” bar in the ’70s—the latter also went by the name Stephen Talkhouse.
The Stephen Talkhouse gets its name from Stephen Taukus “Talkhouse” Pharaoh, a Montaukett Indian whose image has been staring out from behind the stage for many years, keeping an ever-watchful gaze on rock stars and partygoers alike, almost as if to say “two shots good, four shots bad.” These days, most affectionately refer to this local music shrine as, simply, the Talkhouse.
For the past 30 years, the venue’s owner, Peter Honerkamp, has been the club’s omnipresent, gleeful and sometimes brooding mustached cherub. Call it serendipity or fate, but Mr. Honerkamp and the Talkhouse, have, for many, become synonymous.
The same could be said of longtime bartenders Larry Wagner and Phillip Vega, two gentlemen with strikingly different personalities who have been there to put a smile on patrons’ faces, to share a wildly inappropriate joke, and, yes, to pour the libation of one’s choosing.
For some, spending a night at the Talkhouse has been described as dancing on the third rail. The dance floor at the Talkhouse practically demands intimate shaking of money-makers, complete strangers sharing the often visceral and tribal aspect of communal dance.
Back in the late 1980s, Mr. Honerkamp was at a crossroads in his life. He was a struggling writer and was looking for the next adventure.
“I had just finished writing a pretty bad book, and was in the middle of writing a second book that sucked just as much. I realized I couldn’t write anymore,” he recalled.
“One day, I was sitting around getting drunk with the author Clifford Irving—who had written a bogus autobiography about Howard Hughes and actually did some prison time for it. So, Clifford asked me, ‘Peter, what do you want to do?’ To which I said, ‘I’d like to own a bar.’
“We were sitting across the street from the Talkhouse, which was closed at the time, because the owners were fighting over some litigation or whatever. And Clifford simply said, ‘Well—buy that one.’
“So I bought it,” Mr. Honerkamp said with a big, infectious laugh.
One of the first performers to play the Talkhouse was Klyph Black, a multi-talented musician who created one of the most memorable cover bands to play the Talkhouse, Rumor Has It.
“Back in the early days, the idea of turning the Talkhouse into a music joint was on all of our minds,” Mr. Black said. “Up until then, the only real music venue in town was a place called Snugglers Cove, where Felice’s/Astro Pizza now sits. I use to play there with this guy named Monte Farber, and he was the guy responsible for getting me established as a full-time musician out here.”
However, it was Mr. Honerkamp, through a chance meeting with legendary blues guitarist John Hammond, who planted the seed to make the Talkhouse a venue for world-renowned acts to come and perform.
“I had a friend who knew Hammond, so, I called Hammond’s agent to book him for a gig at the Talkhouse, and Hammond’s agent said, ‘Okay, how about five hundred bucks?’ To which I said, ‘How about $750?’” Mr. Honerkamp said with a curious smile. “So I charged 10 bucks admission, and the place was packed.”
It wasn’t long after that gig that Mr. Honerkamp realized there was a market for people who wanted to see great musicians in the intimate environment that the Talkhouse provided.
“We’ve always been this place where top acts like Sting, Bon Jovi and Paul McCarthy get up on stage and people are blown off their rockers,” Mr. Honerkamp said. “If you wanted to see these guys in the city, it would cost and arm and a leg.”
However, it hasn’t all been spin and tonic for the club. Through the years the Talkhouse has gone through some growing pains to make it to icon club status.
“Back in 1989, we booked Los Lobos—a successful recording and touring rock band from East Los Angeles—and the stage at that time was very small, postage-stamp size. The PA system wasn’t very good. We were just getting things started,” Mr. Black explained.
“Well, when Los Lobos’ manager walked into the side entrance of the Talkhouse, on the day of their gig, he yelled out to me, ‘Hey, Klyph where’s the stage?’ I turned around and said, ‘You’re standing on it!’” Mr. Black said with a wide-eyed glow.
Since then, 55 Rock & Roll Hall of Famers have performed on the Talkhouse stage, and others have been in attendance, such as Mick Jagger. Bo Diddly, Paul Simon, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Buddy Guy, Billy Joel and Donovan have all played, to name just a handful, as well as future Hall of Famers Taj Mahal and Coldplay.
When Mr. Honerkamp began booking acts at the Talkhouse, he would often put bands up at his house to keep costs down.
“One night, Taj Mahal stayed at my place, and my dog ate his prescription medicine. Another time, some members of a band that had done a gig at the Talkhouse went out to my front yard and started picking leaves off the dogwood tree to smoke,” he said, laughing while holding his head in his hands. “It was all very rock and roll.”
The things that have made the Talkhouse work over the years have been straightforward. “We have an incredibly intimate space where people can dance or stand literally feet away from some of the best-known artists in the world in a laid-back environment,” Mr. Honerkamp said. “So you’ve got the audience feeding off the vibe of the performers, and the performers picking up on that vibe. There is an energy, or rather a synergy, that makes the Talkhouse so unique. In fact, we’re the smallest club in the world that offers the kind of entertainment that we do.”
For Mr. Black, it is a bit more personal as he described the Talkhouse as a “musical” home away from home, not only for him, but for the thousands of bands and artists that have performed there.
On Monday, August 14, starting at 7 p.m., the Stephen Talkhouse will celebrate its 30th anniversary. To mark the occasion, local musicians who have defined the Talkhouse over the years—Nancy Atlas, Gene Casey and Mr. Black—will perform, sharing the stage with other local talent throughout the night, and quite possibly, till dawn.
Admission is free, but donations will be accepted for James Pellow, a bartender of 28 years who is recovering from a blood clot in his heart and other medical issues,
For more stories about the Talkhouse over the years, visit peterhonerkamp.com. And for more information about the 30th anniversary bash, visit: stephentalkhouse.com
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