Local bartending legend and musician Brother Cleve was integral to the craft cocktail revolution in Boston, but he earned his drinking chops in dives, where he began his love affair with bar culture in the early ’70s. We caught up with him ahead of Thirst Boston, the cocktail festival that’ll have him leading a number of events, including dive bar tour The Ghost of Cocktails Past: A Historic Walking Tour on April 29.
What defines a dive bar? In the real Boston sense, it was a place where you only went if your father and maybe his father before you went there. It was a neighborhood place where outsiders were not necessarily welcome.
Do you think that they still exist in that form today? No. The real estate market has killed off most of them. For instance, places like Dorchester and South Boston used to be hotbeds of places like that. I lived in Southie in the early and mid ’80s and there were places I just couldn’t go. … So, to an extent, the true classical meaning of the term doesn’t really exist in Boston anymore, and I think probably throughout the country, because of real estate and people moving back into the city. Boston has always been a city of bars. If you look at old photos in the Harvard Achieve—or my friend Jim Botticelli has a Facebook page called Dirty Old Boston—any street in downtown Boston there could be five bars to a block, and now that’s all gone, really. I was in Chicago three weeks ago, and that era is gone out there too. It’s cocktail lounges and cocktail bars—I guess I’m partially responsible for a lot of that. [Laughs.] But you know, what are you going to do? At least I can get a good drink anywhere.
Any dives you were sad to lose? I was personally bummed when T.C.’s Lounge burned down. Yeah, I used to spend a lot of time in there. Actually, I think my wife and I got banned from there, back in the ’90s. [Laughs.]
Really? What did you guys do? Well, it obviously had something to do with too much alcohol, but I think the pinball machine might have been part of it. I don’t know—I’m going back to the early ’90s, so it’s a little fuzzy. [Laughs.] … There was another place like that I used to really like called the Arch Tavern. You got your 25-cent, 7-ounce beers in those little beer glasses and a shot, and it would probably cost you a dollar or something. I’m going back to the ’70s here—all those downtown places always had a bookie that hung out near the phone booth. He had his fedora and his sort of raincoat/topcoat thing, and he sat there, like, all day.
What’s one of your favorite bar stories? This isn’t in Boston, but in New Orleans, there’s probably my favorite dive bar on the entire planet—it’s called the Saturn Bar. The owner was a friend of mine; he unfortunately died cleaning up after Katrina had flooded his place. … One night, Jimmy Buffett was there. And John Goodman was standing at the bar, and they were talking to each other. Then Eric Burdon from the Animals came in! It was just this neighborhood place, but it got discovered by other people, like me, who didn’t even live there. It was just this really cool place with neon lights on the ceiling that were supposed to be the rings of Saturn and a mummy hanging from the ceiling and, like, panties that had been silk-screened and penis squirt guns and all sorts of weird stuff. The jukebox was pretty much all old ’50s country records. … Nicolas Cage used to hang out in there as well. [But] in Boston, I was playing in bands in bars when I was 15, and there was one night—this was actually in Everett, a place called Tiny’s Cafe—two women were dancing and just got completely naked. And I was like, “Wow, maybe show business is the job I’m looking for!” [Laughs.]
You were only 15? Yeah! And you know, you just meet a lot of people… I met a lot of mobsters in my time.
Did they tell you they were mobster or you just knew? You just knew. Or somebody would tell you that that was one of the Angiulos or something like that—or Whitey Bulger.
Did you ever meet Whitey Bulger? Not personally, no, but I did get into some bars in South Boston when I was living there, and I knew some of the people that were, we’ll say, associated with that. He was a little more underground back in those days than post-The Departed or whenever.
Was it really the way it’s portrayed in movies like that? It’s Hollywood-ized to an extent… Gone Baby Gone was probably the best one I saw [that demonstrated] it. I lived in Dorchester around the corner from the bar that they used in that movie.
In Boston if you want a good cocktail, as opposed to a good dive, where do you go? I pretty much like them all! I mean, I have to visit my friends out there. I’ve known Jackson Cannon for 24 years or something like that, so I try to go visit him in his little empire in the Hotel Commonwealth whenever possible. … Backbar is always great—Sam [Treadway] does an amazing job over there. That’s the thing; there are just so many really talented bartenders and really great places to go. … Trina’s—any place that Josh Childs has his finger on—is always great. Hojoko is great fun.
There are too many places to drink! Jeez, I know, exactly. My liver—I’m not getting any younger.
There are worst jobs. There are! There are.
What’s your go-to drink order? You know, my grandmother gave me my first Manhattan when I was 8! I didn’t drink the whole thing. But I was very fortunate in that I turned 18 in 1973 and a week later they lowered the drinking age to 18 in Massachusetts. I was still in high school, and I grew up in Medford. There were no bars in Medford, but Somerville had bars. So I immediately started to hang out in places like the Cadillac Cafe in Davis Square and other fairly notorious old Somerville bars where gangsters in the Winter Hill mob over there [would hang out]. I still like a good Manhattan, although nowadays I’ll probably add a half an ounce of amaro to it and make it a Black Manhattan. I like the classics.