From the outside, Sunny’s Bar is the very picture of unassuming. A lonely building, identified with a yellow “BAR” sign, on a dark cobble-stone street at the very tip of Red Hook, a Brooklyn neighborhood cut off from the rest of the borough by the roar of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the lack of any subway stations. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the bar, you can smell the salt in the air, hear the water of New York harbor lapping against the shore.
Walk inside and you’ll feel, forgive the cliche, like you’ve stepped back in time. The wood floor is worn to the point of unfinished, the chipped walls burst with nautical kitsch–a model of a clipper ship, a neon anchor in the window–that befit a bar that was a hangout for longshoremen back when longshoremen still worked the docks in Brooklyn.
The customers are a mix of old neighborhood folks and the bearded, flannel-draped kids who have begun to encroach on Red Hook’s lofts. This isn’t your artisan cocktail bar: Drinks are simple, and wonderfully affordable: Four dollars for a bottle of Bud, three dollars for a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, even on Saturday night, prices now unheard of in most parts of New York City.
As you move through the front room, you begin to hear the music. Step down into the back room, the walls back here hung with paintings from local artists, and on the small stage you’ll often find someone performing. Norah Jones’ guitar player, Smokey Hormel, has a regular gig on Wednesdays. But you don’t go to see Smokey. You go on Saturday night, to the jam. Starting around ten o’clock, bluegrass, country, fold, and old-time musicians file in. Guitars, banjos, mandolins, harmonicas, an upright bass, the piano against the wall, an autoharp, a pedal steel. You never know exactly what you’ll get, but you know the players will be fantastic. They’ll sing gospel tunes, the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers, songs from O Brother Where Art Thou, twelve-bar-blues numbers, maybe a Dylan or a Neil Young cover. The audience, which packs the hallway out to the front room and the smoking patio outside and the seats along the wall, sits awestruck, applauds the songs, shouts requests, sings along, sometimes stomps their feet and dances, though they might get a curt, disapproving glance from one of the saltier musicians for loud outbursts (Saturday night is about the music, first and foremost). Outside of the price of their drinks, they don’t pay a dime for this show, where they see some of the best musicians in New York, many of them professionals–I’ve seen Steve Martin’s backup band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, show up and absolutely shred for a couple of hours.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Sunny’s changed my life. I first went there about four years ago, when I was in town from the Bay Area, visiting my uncle in Brooklyn. I’d been playing guitar for seven or eight years at that point, but had gone through a long plateau period in which I hadn’t improved, and had mostly quit practicing and dedicated my time to other things. My uncle took me to the jam, and I was instantly enchanted. This is what music was supposed to be: people playing together, feeding off one another, creating something greater than the sum of its parts, something that lifted your feet from the ground and your ass from the seat, something that made you feel like you could find some greater joy or meaning in life.
I wasn’t good enough to play in the jam at the time. But I was hooked. I went home and rededicated myself to practicing. A year later, I moved to New York. I still wasn’t good enough to play in the jam. But I kept practicing, and eventually I got the balls to head down to Sunny’s. I still wasn’t good enough, not really, but I sat and played and sang, and was made to feel welcome. I started spending more and more Saturdays at Sunny’s.
Life went off the rails for me for awhile, and I left New York. But I always felt the pull to return, and a year-and-a-half after leaving, I did so. When people ask me why I went back east, I usually say, “I missed New York.” What I mean when I say this is that I missed Sunny’s. I’m not the only one who loves this place. Just ask Anthony Bourdain, who visited for the final episode of No Reservations.
Now comes the sad part of this story: Sunny’s, being at the very tip of Red Hook, right next to the water, was devastated when Hurricane Sandy struck New York last fall. Tone Johansen, one of the bar’s owners, and the person most responsible for the continuing Saturday night jam, was sealing off the basement when the floodwater burst in, and narrowly escaped with her life. The basement flooded completely, and the barroom took on five feet of water, wreaking havoc on the hundred-year old establishment.
The bar was closed for months. A Kickstarter program started and quickly reached it’s $50,000 goal, which allowed the owners to replace fixtures and make a number of long-awaited updates. And they were able to reopen the rear half of the bar, so the Saturday night jam has returned, with those in the know entering through a side-door. But the front of the bar still needs massive repairs, including concrete work, and Sunny’s is embarking on a new fundraising campaign so that they can reopen the bar in full.
This fundraising drive begins on May 1, with a benefit show at the The Bell House, a cool concert venue in Brooklyn. If you live in New York and you care about things like awesome music, down-to-earth community, preserving a real slice of Brooklyn, and Justin still being able to go to pretty much the only place that makes him happy, you should come down. Tickets are available here, and at $30 are a small price to pay to help a few good people fight the good fight.
And next time you’ve got a free Saturday night, come down to Sunny’s. I’ll sing you a song, or get one of the good musicians to do it. And I’ll buy you as many three-dollar PBRs as you can drink.