Before Stephen Talkhouse became the iconic, legendary performance venue and bar that it is today, it was an iconic, legendary juke box bar. Some of us remember both iterations of the place through the hazy portal of smoke, drink and noise (full disclosure: that’s my demographic).
The transformation of which we speak took place nearly 30 years ago, when an aspiring writer and Long Island native, Peter Honerkamp, along with a small band of family investors, acquired the establishment with a very specific vision: build a big stage directly in front of a long bar and invite the country’s greatest rock & roll, blues, soul and reggae performers, as well as the East End’s finest homegrown talent, to play. “Build it and they will come,” as the expression goes. And come they did.
From R&R Hall of Fame legends Buddy Guy, Patti Smith, Jimmy Cliff, David Crosby, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and dozens more…to local legends, Nancy Atlas and Klyph Black, the Talkhouse has been home to more brilliant musical talent than any joint on the eastern seaboard.
So how does a genuine, true-to-the-roots roadhouse bar come to exist and thrive at the epicenter of the toniest resort community in the east? We caught up with Peter for a talk at his “house” on Main St. in Amagansett to get the backstage story, along with a few wild tales.
So Peter, in 1987 you were writing novels…suddenly you’re running a live music bar in Amagansett! How did this happen? An epiphany? A dare?
I had spent seven years writing a really bad novel. I was about 300 pages into my second novel, told in the first person feminine, when I knew I was in trouble. One night I was getting drunk with the author Clifford Irving. I told him my writing had stalled. He asked me if there anything else I always wanted to do. I told him I always wanted to run a bar. He pointed at the Talkhouse—which was closed at the time—and said, “Buy that bar.” So I got some relatives together and one week later we did.
You grew up in Douglaston, in Queens. When did you first come to the East End?
I followed a woman out here around 1977 and liked the place, so when I quit my job as a reporter for the NY Post, I came out here to write my brilliant novel in the fall of 1980. Except for a few stints on Ibiza, I have been here ever since.
Did you hang at Stephen Talkhouse in the juke box days?
Yes I did. It was the best bar I had ever been in. It still is.
Hurricane Irene had knocked out the power in town. We had a generator so the show could go on. The Secret Service checked the club out and positioned themselves throughout. The Clintons walk down a dark ended street. Jimmy Buffett is on stage. After the first song there is a loud pop, and the lights go out.
Who was the first big name you booked, and how did you convince them to come to an unknown place 110 miles east of New York City?
John Hammond lived out here and we had mutual friends. I paid him $750 and charged $10—the place was packed. The next few months we had Mose Allison, Loudon Wainwright III, Richie Havens, Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, and Jesse COLIN Young. I convinced them by paying them. No one came for any other reason.
Was Stephen Talkhouse successful from day one?
Yes. Some years were better than others, but that’s how life works.
The Talkhouse is famous for the unannounced appearances of some of the biggest artists on the planet—McCartney, Billy Joel…I once saw Keith Richards in the audience, but he didn’t look like he’d be, um, wanting to climb on stage. Who was your most memorable walk-on?
Hard to pick just one! That’s like comparing the women you loved. Every year, people come up to me and say this or that act was the best they’d ever seen. When you’re in that moment it seems like the best moment you can remember! Paul Simon is in the pantheon for me. So is Bon Jovi, and of course Jimmy Buffett. No one has done more for charities, local or national, this bar, his fans, and me, than Jimmy. He tops the list.
How has the Talkhouse survived the changing scene here? New heat-seeking clubs and attractions every year…yet here you are!
We have great national acts in the smallest venue in the world. We have a great layout—three different environments in one space. We have great late night bands. We have a staff that stays the same and that makes people feel welcome. And we do it consistently—we don’t disappear after Labor Day, or Columbus Day.
I walked in a few summers ago, and seated in the first banquette were Bill and Hillary Clinton & friends, on stage was Jimmy Buffett, stationed around the room, large men in black suits. Free drinks for the Secret Service guys? What was it like dealing with all that?
Bizarre. Hurricane Irene had knocked out the power in town. We had a generator so the show could go on. The Secret Service checked the club out and positioned themselves throughout. The Clintons walk down a dark-ended street. Jimmy Buffett is on stage. After the first song, there is a loud pop, and the lights go out. I wouldn’t be surprised if they thought it was a gun. It was the power in the street coming back on, which overrode the generator causing it to go out. Then the power flashed back off. We sat in total darkness till the generator slowly came on over 10 seconds later while I prayed they weren’t whisked out. Getting a headache just thinking about it again!
From your perspective, the most memorable Talkhouse concert ever…
Ah, that “Who do you love?” question again! Okay, it’s another blackout story. Before we had the generator, power went out for three shows: Glen Tilbrook, Martin Sexton, and Rick Danko—they all played acoustic by candlelight! Of course Phil Vega as Cher and me as Sonny Bono singing “I Got You Babe” eclipses them all.
A few weeks ago Coldplay took the stage with Jay Z and Beyonce in the audience and Jimmy Buffett behind the bar…what the..?
A Sirius XM party—they treat us so well. We owe that to Scott Greenstein, who lives here and is the president [at Sirius XM]. It was amazing, if stressful. The band was great, but seeing Jimmy Buffett and John McEnroe bartend was the best. Hilarious, and they fit right in—both drank on the job. Which is a requirement at the Talkhouse!
I’ve seen bachelorette parties walk in on a Friday night in spike heels and little Trixxi party dresses. Anyone ever get married here?
I did, about six years ago. We’ve had at least 50 “encounters” that led to engagements…and god knows how many babies.
Biggest last-minute cancellation you’ve ever had?
Virtually none. Janis Ian had her flight cancelled. Rory Block cut her finger badly. Buckwheat Zydeco had to cancel twice this year due to illness.
Peter, you’ve hosted hundreds of benefits at the Talkhouse, from friends in need to the Surfrider Foundation to the Wounded Warrior Project, for whom you’ve helped raise millions—tell me about your passion for the Wounded Warriors, how that came about.
I have enormous respect for the American soldier, the true hero of this country who puts his or her life on the line for our nation, way of life and freedom. In 2003, we did a benefit for a young man from Rocky Point who was injured in Iraq. A group of us wanted to do more. Chris Carney, who bartended here, came up with the crackpot idea to bike across America to raise money and awareness for wounded soldiers. The rest is history.
Broad statement: the Talkhouse is in the “hospitality industry,” in a seasonal resort town, where staff turnover is the rule, not the exception. Yet your people stay with you year after year after year. What’s the secret to that level of loyalty?
I let them drink on the job, an example I consistently set. It’s easy. Treat people as you want to be treated. Trust them—and they will be trustworthy. Sure, it helps that they make money, but we are a family and each of them has a stage on which they get to be the star and perform. We back each other up. If someone who works here makes a call, then that is the call of the bar and no one, including me, can overrule it.
I let them drink on the job, an example I consistently set.
There is a sign over the bar that reads, “Customers come and customers go. Here at the Talkhouse the employee is always right.” We took a pretty big hit from Hurricane Irene. But so did the staff in tips lost, hours working the door and the sound. It took me awhile but the bar reimbursed everyone for what they lost. Treat people as you want to be treated. And let them drink on the job.
Okay, a bar with live music is still a bar, and bars have stories—tell me one the public has never heard before.
I may have told this somewhere. Jimmy Cliff showed up to play. A guy in the band came into my office and asked for a bandaid. His white t-shirt was covered in blood. I told him he needed a hospital, not a bandaid. He begged me not to call one, insisting the wound really wasn’t bad. He’d cut himself on a metal cabinet edge on the bus. He said he’d get in trouble if he made a scene. I asked one of our guys to drive him to the hospital. A few hours passed. As Jimmy Cliff was about to hit the stage some East Hampton detectives showed up.
Turns out the guy was stabbed by another band member, his best friend, over what show they would watch on TV! He didn’t want to press charges. However, one wound was potentially serious. They told me if he died, they had to go on stage and arrest the other band member. I told Jimmy Cliff. The show went on. Midway through, our man shows up with the wounded musician, who walks on stage and starts playing, standing next to the guy who stabbed him.
What’s the most popular drink poured at the bar?
If you could book one artist that you haven’t yet booked, who would it be?
The Rolling Stones, though Bobby Keys, Ron Wood, Mick Taylor and Marianne Faithfully have played here and both Mick and Keith have seen shows here.
If you could have a drink with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
Hmmn. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Churchill, Ben Franklin, Cleopatra, Lincoln, Washington….no, it would be Jesus Christ. I would love him to teach me that water into wine trick.
And the drink?
Five kegs of beer and a dozen cases of wine—I would like the conversation to last.
Can I join you?
Yes, but raise your hand if you want to say anything—I hate being interrupted.
Keep up with Peter and the East End’s most iconic music venue via the Talkhouse Instagram, and see all their upcoming shows over to the Stephen Talkhouse website. If you’re interested in diving deeper into the Talkhouse’s origins, check out Emily Siegel’s History of the Talkhouse article on our site.