Dan Rattiner's Stories

Who’s Here: Peter Honerkamp of The Stephen Talkhouse

The Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett is a legendary, nationally known club where great popular musicians perform. Paul Simon has played here, so has Paul McCartney, Suzanne Vega, Bon Jovi, Sting, Billy Joel, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Jimmy Buffet, G.E. Smith, and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Judy Collins, the Wailers, Southside Johnny and Jimmy Cliff.

If you get the postcard in the springtime, listing all the dates and times that people will be playing in the upcoming year, printed in the tiniest lettering imaginable, it adds up to hundreds of musicians. That the venue is only about 20 feet by 20 feet in size in the main room—making it up close and personal—seems even more remarkable. It probably helps that nearly all the musicians listed above have homes in the Hamptons. It might explain it, or it might not.

Peter Honerkamp founded the place as a music club in 1987—it had been a dance club before that—and he has been here since and has seen it all. He knows absolutely everything about Stephen Talkhouse. And I thought he would make a good interview for Dan’s Papers this week. There are stories to be told.

Peter was not born and raised in the Hamptons, and he was not someone who was fascinated with music when he was young. He was, instead, supposed to go into the family lumber business in the Bronx. This business had brought an upper middle class life to his parents, who had a nice home in Douglaston, Queens. And as they had inherited Honerkamp Plywood from their parents, whose grandparents had founded it in the 19th century, they thought it would naturally be passed along to their son. Fortunately, they had three sons. So one of them, Peter, did not feel so obliged to go into the family business. He was more interested in the printed word. A good student, he went to Columbia University, where majored in History and minored in English. He continued along in graduate school there—he had moved into his own apartment in Manhattan by this time—and then proceeded on toward getting a Ph.D. He was heading toward being a professor.

“I had completed the classes and had started on my thesis which was ‘Why was North Carolina the last state to join the Confederacy when South Carolina had been the first,’ when I thought—this just doesn’t feel right.”

So he left school and became a reporter for The New York Post. He remained there three years. These were in the days when that paper was owned by Dorothy Schiff, with reporters on the staff such as Murray Kempton and James Wechsler. It was as solid as The New York Times. But then it got sold to Rupert Murdoch and became a scandal sheet.

“So I left,” he says. “There were stories they assigned me that were abhorrent. I wouldn’t do them.”

“For example?”

“The paper was supporting Republican Senator Al D’Amato, the incumbent in a race against Bess Myerson. The story was to suggest that Myerson’s parents were very ill and Bess was caring for them while she ran her campaign. I spoke to her. She pleaded with me not to write anything that suggested her parents’ illnesses was hurting her campaign, as it would break their heart and embarrass her father. So I wouldn’t. Instead, I quit.”

“What did you do then?”

“I decided I wanted to write the great American novel. I’d get a job where I could keep my own hours. And in between I would write.”

The job he got was interesting. It was with a company that sold ambulances. He’d drive one into town to a fire department. He did this driving all over Long Island and New York and he was good at it. He worked on a commission basis. He did this six years.

“During the first part of this period,” he tells me, “I would sell ambulances and write on the side from my apartment in the city. I had a crush on a girl but it didn’t work out. I was very depressed. All I had was my manuscript. I thought, well, I’ll move to Colorado. It’s nice and quiet in Colorado. But among the places I sold ambulances was to the fire departments of the eastern end of Long Island. I sold Montauk, Greenport, Amagansett. And then I thought well, the East End is beautiful and the dunes in Amagansett out of season are all quiet, probably like Colorado. So I moved to a cabin on the beach in Amagansett and continued to sell ambulances all up and down the Island. And two months a year, I’d move to Ibiza.”

Three years went by. He got married. His book, titled Self Sabotage, was about a man who thinks his way of life will never end but it does.

“I put all my friends in the book,” Peter says.

It ran to 1,800 pages. But he knew it wasn’t good enough to sell. So he started another book, but after a while realized his heart was no longer in it.

“I was a friend of a successful author named Clifford Irving, who sometimes lived in the Hamptons. I went to see him. He said, well, what would you like to do besides teach or write? And I said, oh, own a bar.”

“What made you think of that?” I ask.

“Growing up in Douglaston, I had a friend who had a music club that used to be his dad’s bowling alley. It was called My Father’s Place. Everyone played there. I thought I’d like to
do that.”

So that’s what he did.

The bar in Amagansett was called The Stephen Talkhouse. It had been founded in 1970 by Buddy Pontick, the son of an East Hampton veterinarian, and the name of the bar came from the name of a Montaukett Indian who in the 19th century famously made a living by walking from Montauk to East Hampton every day delivering notes and letters. Six years into owning this bar, Pontick was having trouble with partners and wanted to sell. That year, 1987, he hadn’t even opened.

“He gave me a price. I went to my father, my in-laws, and I got the money in about a week.”

In fact, he didn’t change Stephen Talkhouse much. One side of the room had an elevated stage where the band played. There was a bar at the other end. But he got rid of the dance floor. In its place, he put in more chairs and tables, seating for about 50. They all faced the stage. And he began to book musicians.

“I’ll tell you something I am most proud of,” Peter told me. “Ten of our employees have been with us for 20 years. Fifteen have been with us for 15 years and 30 have been with us for 10. Now isn’t that something. My two exes still work there.”

Peter remembers the first act he booked. It was Chris Schwartz, an unbelievable guitar player and a friend of his wife’s. Then came John Hammond, who’d played with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and was now living out here. And he said he’d play for $750.

“We charged $10 a person. We had a line down the block waiting to get in.”

The next year, Taj Mahal sold out the venue. And Billy Joel and his wife Christie Brinkley came by to listen to Loudon Wainwright perform. Joel then played with Taj Mahal.

And so it began.

At this point, I realized that if I was looking for stories about rock stars playing there, the stories would look pretty much the same. Place would be packed. A local performer would do a set. In the middle of the set Paul McCartney would come join in. Everyone would cheer. But then I thought to give it a shot anyway.

“An interesting story? I could tell you about the time when Jimmy Cliff played there and the police came and waited around to see if they were going to arrest one of the band members for murder.”

“That sounds good,” I said.

Stephen Talkhouse
Stephen Talkhouse

“Well, Jimmy Cliff in his big bus pulls up and the door opens and this guy jumps out and runs into the bar. He’s one of the band members. ‘Have you got some Band-Aids?’ he asks. He’s all bloody. I look at him. He’s got several big cuts on him. ‘You’re going to the hospital,’ I told him, and Jimmy Lawler, who worked here, drove him to the hospital.

“After he was gone, Cliff and the rest of the band came in and set up, and soon they began to play. Then the East Hampton Police came in. Turned out the story was that two of the band members had begun arguing on the bus about the TV remote. One took out a knife and stabbed the other. The cuts were quite serious. One stab was close to the heart. They weren’t sure he’d pull through. If he didn’t, the policeman told me, they’d be arresting the other band member for manslaughter.”

“What happened?”

“In the middle of the second set, the guy who’d got stabbed came in from the hospital. He high fived the guy who stabbed him, and they continued on playing. The cops left.”

“Another story?”

“This was from the second year I owned the bar. It was late in the day. Three women from Montauk, very drunk, showed up. They stayed a little while, but then I asked them to leave and they did, but then the third pleaded with me to let her come back. She wanted to hear Jesse Colin Young perform. He was a folkie—sang ‘Let’s get together, love one another, right now.’ She’d go out, have some coffee, come back. I said fine.

“So I’m upstairs in my office and Jesse Colin Young is onstage playing his guitar, and somebody comes up and says, ‘Peter, it’s that lady, this is not going to work.’ So I go downstairs and there she is, onstage, her arms around his legs while he is playing and he’s struggling with this. And she says ‘Oh Jesse, I was at Woodstock and you let me make love with you. Let me do it again.’ And Jesse says, ‘I never went to Woodstock,’ and we peel her off and escort her out.

“Half an hour later, the sash on a window behind the stage snapped and the window came down. The wind blew in on Jesse and he stopped playing. So I go out the front door and down this narrow alley between our building and the one next to it, and I lift up the window. But there’s no sash so I have to hold the window up. Then she comes down the alley and starts punching me, and the crowd can of course see this—me fending off this drunken dame with one hand. The crowd starts laughing. Jesse stops playing. Then somebody came out and rescued me and the show went on.”

Jettykoon with Michael Mazzaraco taking over the drums while drummer Abby Levin switches it up for a few tunes with her guitar.
Jettykoon performs on the Talkhouse stage, Photo: Daniel Gonzalez

“Any more?”

He thinks for a minute. “Oh there are so many. Should I tell you about the time we all got naked?”

“Hmm.”

“I was behind the bar. My girlfriend at the time was there and we were arguing and just for fun I lifted the front of her shirt to give the other bartender a good view, and she got angrier and I said, I’m sorry, look I’ll tend the bar nude. And so I took off all my clothes, and she started to laugh and then everybody else in the place began to take their clothes off. It was terrific.”

“Who was playing?” I ask.

“Eric Burdon of The Animals.”

“What happened?”

“Eric took his clothes off. The new bartender from Ireland walked in. It was his first day in America. He dropped his bags, looked at all the naked girls and shouted ‘this is the greatest country in the world,’ and after awhile, we all got dressed again.”

These days, Peter Honerkamp is very involved with the Wounded Warrior Project. He’s been involved with it from the beginning.

“I had a bad year in 2003. I was having money trouble. I was working out in the gym out here with Chris Carney, and along with Nick Kraus, Reg Cornelia and Tek Vakaloloma, we realized there a lot of people are in a lot worse trouble than us. So we hatched the plan for Chris to bike across America to help raise money and awareness for our wounded. Chris did it twice, the second time with two amputee soldiers.”

We revolutionized how we treat the wounded. Instead of sitting in a hospital bed, soldiers were empowering themselves and each other. So the idea of the Wounded Warrior Project is for these men and women to bike across America, helping each other by raising money to buy supplies and equipment for one another. He put a pitcher on the bar for people to donate money. And he is now very involved, and he’ll be there in Amagansett on Saturday, July 18, when hundreds of civilians and 60 wounded soldiers—American, British and Israeli—will be coming to Amagansett to cycle to Sag Harbor and Montauk.

“There’s now 31 rides in 31 cities in America each year involving 1,500 soldiers. There are 20 other programs to help the wounded. We should raise nearly $400 million this year for The Wounded Warrior Project. It’s the largest veteran advocacy group in the country. I hope you’ll put something in your paper.”

So here it is.

A group shot of the Wounded Warriors at the 2014 Soldier Ride the Hamptons.
A group shot of the Wounded Warriors at the 2014 Soldier Ride the Hamptons. Photo credit: Daniel Gonzalez
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