Joe Cecala on Bob Dylan, the Marines Corps, and growing up on Avenue B
Although it seems like the music of the Village during the ‘60s has been revisited many times before, the documentary “Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation” goes where no other filmmakers have gone in capturing that crucial piece of history.
Taking us down a musical memory lane, the film features present-day interviews with singer/songwriters like Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow, and Kris Kristofferson, who played down in the Village from 1961 to 1973. The scenes literally come to life with archival footage of Washington Square Park back then, filled with young people strumming their guitars and genuinely enjoying each other’s company.
Because of his warm and friendly nature, Joe Cecala, the general manager at the Holiday Inn on 57th and 10th, can meet close to 200 people a day at the hotel. One of his guests happened to be Laura Archibald, the director of the documentary. When he heard her idea, he was immediately on board. “Don’t forget it’s about the ‘60s, I’m a child of the ‘60s, and I am in my ‘60s,” he said.
What was your goal in making the documentary?
In our documentary, the process was to make sure the word got out what it meant to be a part of that era. It’s all of the people who came out of that era, how they started, and where they eventually wound up. The whole point of the film- [singer] Eric Andersen says it best-he says, “I don’t think there’s ever been a film done about this.” And if you look at the film, that’s actually the way he reacts to it.
How did your collaboration with the director, Laura Archibald, come about?
She had written a book several years ago called “The Cats of Grand Central.” It was her first book. And she was staying here at the hotel. She would come back a couple of times a year and with this project, when it was underway, I was excited about it. And I said whatever she needed, I’d do. We needed a lot of money for the soundtrack, you have to buy those songs. I didn’t need it to satisfy my ego, that I can tell you. It’s not about me, it really isn’t. The key to this whole thing is Laura Archibald. The director is the strongest portion of what happened. Money men are one thing- the characters that we are- but it’s really Laura.
You were a Marine Corps officer, so the music of that time had a different meaning to you.
My Marine Corps fellow officers, we weren’t aware of what was going on in the States at the time. They just wanted to hear the music. These people were giving us that music. We didn’t think they were against us. We came to find out later, yes. But they weren’t against us, they were against what was going on in Washington. Although I remember in uniform being spit on and a lot of fights when I got out of the service. But it never bothered me. You’re not going to take on the world with one person. But the music meant something to us even though we were on different sides of the political spectrum.
The movie stressed that the musicians then weren’t making music for the money.
They weren’t. They didn’t know where they were going to take it, but they were having a good time on the journey. To paraphrase Robert Lewis Stevenson’s quote, “Sometimes the journey is far better than the final destination.” I can say that relates to when I was a young man with foreplay, back in my early twenties. But they didn’t know where it was going to take them and they weren’t concerned about it because they were enjoying each other. Even during the interview process for the movie, you never got the impression they were competitive with each other. That was an amazing thing.
Bob Dylan wasn’t interviewed, but the memoir of his ex-girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, was quoted throughout.
Well, Dylan was a major factor in what went on there. And if you notice, he was not in the movie at all. He didn’t want to take part in it. He was one of the major ones that weren’t. That’s why we wanted to make sure he was covered in it. His song was, and I can’t go into the details about how wonderful it was to get “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and what he did for us in getting the entire soundtrack. The price we paid, I’ll leave it at that. He was instrumental in that.
And it was a nice addition to hear Susan Sarandon narrating.
Everything with a documentary is voluntary. Nobody gets paid except the crew. To have Susan come and do that was instrumental.
You’re a native New Yorker. Tell us about how you grew up.
I never thought I would be where I am today, growing up on 13th Street and Avenue B, sleeping in half a railroad flat with a bathtub in the kitchen. I slept in the same bed with my brother, truthfully, in a 6 by 10 room, his head to my feet. My parents slept in the living room on a couch that opened up every night and closed every morning.
You must meet so many people at the hotel.
I do. I talk to probably 150 to 200 people a day. I meet, easily, 10,000 people a year. I’m the type of general manager who talks to everybody. My name’s on every elevator.
What are your favorite restaurants around the neighborhood?
This is the one that wins it all, Bello, on the corner of 56th and 9th, an Italian restaurant. For steaks, Quality Meats. And now I ate at Quality Italian which was exceptional. Last Thursday, I had one of the top 25 dinners of all time there. I sit at the bar at [D.J.] Reynolds and drink my Diet Coke and watch the games.
When you were in the garment business, you got to work with Michael Jackson. What was that like?
This is one of my favorite stories of all time. After Michael Jackson did “Thriller,” he was doing the tracks for “Bad.” I was in the garment business at the time, and the people I was involved with had him under contract for Michael Jackson clothing. We flew out to California and Michael Jackson was wonderful; he was a sweetheart. He lived in Encino, not in Neverland yet. He had a house full of clocks. You walked in and every 15 minutes the house would go off. He had a guest house, you thought it was a doll store, supposedly for Elizabeth Taylor if she came to visit. He took us out to the animals, the spitting llama, everything. And he had Bubbles, the chimpanzee with the diaper. I’m holding the monkey, and I’m thinking, ‘I got this new linen jacket on, if this monkey spits on me…’
Learn more about the film at www.greenwichmusicdoc.com
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