There is nobody in the otherwise irreverent East Village who can control a roomful of drunken musicians like Lach. Testosterone Kills, who headbang and make signs of the devil during the set of an aging crooner named Dwayne, giggle like groupies around him. The band Drew Blood looks wide-eyed and eager when he introduces them.
Mondays are open mike night at the Sidewalk Cafe. But people really come to see Lach, the master of ceremonies.
"Hey, Dwayne, does your mike work?" Lach prods the slightly retarded looking singer beaming into his microphone. "Talk into it, buddy. That's how we do it here. If it was a smile check, you'd have all points."
Lach, who is in his late 30s, passes for the average East Village hipster. He wears the prerequisite clunky glasses, his dark hair looks slept on, and his clothes seem carefully chosen for their rumpled nerdiness. For the past three years, he has brought style and showmanship to the Sidewalk Cafe on Avenue A.
The Sidewalk was once just a run-of-the-mill restaurant/bar. Lach turned the grubby back room into a club where bands play every night to a packed house. Today, that back room, or The Fort, as it is better known, is one of the bigger draws in the East Village, especially for new musicians struggling to get a foothold in the New York music scene.
Lach, who has turned bland bars into scene-defining clubs for the past two decades, breeds musicians loyal to the anti-folk movement, a style that claims to fuse the aggressive punk style of the Sex Pistols with the acoustic, poetic lyrics of early Bob Dylan. It was at Fort nights that Lach introduced musicians like Beck, Michelle Shocked, and King Missile to the New York scene.
He's now a downtown celebrity, a local hero for many in the music scene. Lach first booked Tony Hightower, fresh from Toronto, when he arrived in the city last year. "Lach is a king-maker in this town," he said. "He's the songwriter emeritus, the tenured professor of the New York music scene."
When Lach moved to New York from Rockland County in the mid-80s, he immediately began playing at folk clubs like Speakeasy and Folk City in Greenwich Village. "I read that Dylan walked into a Folk City open mike and played his strappy guitar and was an instant star," he said. "I was like, 'Cool, I can do that.'" He was booed off the stage for being too loud and abrasive.
"You had these white singer songwriter kids who were playing their boring little songs," spat out Lach. "They had their teeny little kingdom and they weren't going to let anyone in who didn't kowtow or bow down to them. So I had to create my own club, my own revolution."
He opened an after-hours club on the Lower East Side on Rivington and Clinton streets; a decade before the neighborhood would become chic to hipsters hanging out on Ludlow Street. He gutted an old loft and blacked out all the windows. The club opened at 11 p.m. and kept going until noon. He slept on the stage during the day.
"One night the cops came in to close down the place," he remembered. "But these guys were Irish and there happened to be a guy on stage singing Irish folk tunes. The cops looked around, grabbed a beer and said, 'Nah, there ain't no problem here.'" But eventually, the buzz grew too large to ignore and the cops gave Lach two weeks to shut down.
He moved on to Sophie's Bar (originally on 6th st and A and then on 5th St. and A). "I walked in and said, 'Give me your worst night and I'm going to run the Fort over here.'" They gave him a Tuesday night, and that quickly stretched into Tuesdays and Thursdays. It was out of Sophie's that Michelle Shocked catapulted to fame, lending credence to the antifolk movement and Lach's star-making potential.
There would be Fort nights at East Village clubs like Tramps, Nightingales, Finian's and the Chameleon Bar. Each would follow the same pattern.
Lach holds a weekly open mike night, called an "Antihootenanny." If a young band survives the heckling of the antihoot initiation, Lach gives them their own show. He'll position their act between bands that already draw audiences. He'll teach them how to develop a following by circulating mailing lists and putting up fliers.
When Curtis Eller, a 30-year-old whose rock banjo band now plays at clubs like the Sidewalk and CB's Gallery, first started playing gigs, he couldn't draw more than five loyal friends. But Lach kept booking him. "Lach is up front that his musical tastes dictate the club. But he runs one of the few places in New York where you get booked because of taste rather than bar receipts. If he likes your music, he'll tell people to come out. The audience will soon pay attention to him," said Eller.
If Lach doesn't like the music or the musicians themselves, they either get criticized harshly or don't get welcomed back at all. He trusts his instincts and expects others to respect his tastes. "It matters 100 percent if I like you," he said unapologetically. "Listen, if I walked into a poet's circle and I was getting heckled by Bernie Taupin I'd think that place sucked. But if I was getting heckled by Edgar Allen Poe, I'd be like 'this place is cool.'"
In 1990, Lach, who'd long paid his dues at shepherding rising stars, was on the brink of basking in the limelight himself. Gold Castle Records, who shepherded stars like Nirvana and Bonnie Raitt, offered him a record deal. Within three months of his the release of his album, "Contender," the label went bankrupt and his tour was canceled.
"I had thought that would be my ticket," he laughed. "Within a matter of weeks, my record deal went bust, my girlfriend left me, and I lost my apartment. If I had a dog it would have died. I was a walking bad country song."
Within months of his record label's collapse, Lach packed up his guitar and said goodbye to the New York music scene. He sought quiet in San Francisco.
"There had just been so many disappointments in music," explained Geoff Notkin, Lach's best friend and bass player for 15 years. "So many musicians had gone down into the gutters and become junkies, and only a few had gone on to be very successful. He needed a break."
For the first time in years, Lach didn't play in clubs or pay attention to the industry. "Each night I'd write out a set list and light candles all over my apartment," he said. "I'd take off my glasses so things were a little blurry and play to my room of candles. I totally rediscovered the joy of playing music just for playing music, not for 'is my manager in the audience? How come the record's not selling? How come the reporter said he was going to show up?'"
With renewed energy, Lach decided to go to Europe to promote "Contender." In what was supposed to be a brief layover in New York to celebrate his mother's birthday, Lach stopped by the Sidewalk to visit an old friend who was bartending. The owners offered him the back room.
"I tried saying 'no, no, I'm not booking anymore, I don't do booking, I'm just a musician,'" he said. "But they offered me full rein, a new piano, a good PA system, and I started the next day."
Today, Lach lives in a small one-bedroom apartment on Avenue C and 12th Street. From these cramped quarters, he books desperate bands for the Sidewalk, writes his music, and runs a small independent record label called Fortified Records.
Amidst the KISS and Star Wars action figures on top of his computer is a small plastic man. It's an action figure of Lach himself, wearing a mini-version of his signature leather bomber jacket and oversized glasses, with a smirk on his little face.
The action figure made the cover of his CD, "Blang!." A laminated Billboard review of the album hangs on the wall near the front door. Concluded the review, "This is a wholly enjoyable voyage into a strange and brilliant musical mind."
The album generated some positive reviews, most applauding his lyrics and charismatic shtick. He took off time from the Sidewalk to promote the album around the country. But while on a small West Coast tour for "Blang!," receipts at the Sidewalk plummeted. The owners staunchly prefer him rooted in the emcee's chair to ensure a strong audience.
Until a week ago, Lach was introducing bands at the Sidewalk five nights a week. He doesn't smoke or drink, and the club atmosphere was wearing thin. "I'm getting a little tired of all the music. Lately I'll set up sound for the band and then I'll move to the other room and read a newspaper while they play because I just cannot hear any more music."
Notkin has mixed feelings about Lach's devotion to the Sidewalk. "On the one hand, he always has a place to play," said Notkin. "But he is better known as a scenester, an emcee club impresario. I love it when people hear about Lach and say 'man, I love that's guy's music.' But usually they say, 'oh, the Sidewalk guy.'"
If running a club can be considered his daytime job, Lach needs to spend more time moonlighting. "He's happiest when he's writing stories and singing on stage," said Anu Poldaru, 26, Lach's girlfriend of four years.
He's trying to cut back his Sidewalk nights to Mondays and Fridays. He's got a new band to rehearse with and is trying to get away from his Sidewalk solar system by playing gigs in Boston and Philadelphia.
"Songwriting is what I see as my personal calling. But it seems the universe's will to have me be a scene organizer, a booker. And it's harder for me to do things for myself than for others. It's easier for me to promote Major Matt Mason's new CD than my own."
And Lach can be found promoting others every Monday at open mike night at the Sidewalk Cafe. Some of the bands are downright horrible, like at most open mikes around the city. And some actually hint at budding talent. But the real show is Lach, who jokes and heckles and charms the crowd. He's the entertainment.