David Cheney: "Oh, the coffee house days! I played at every one."
  • David Cheney: "Oh, the coffee house days! I played at every one."
  • Image by Michael Murphy

The hanging fans continue to rotate at their varied speeds, and lightly jar the ferns and ivy. The Thursday night regulars drift in, along with newcomers, and gather around small tables that face the stage, or lounge on the velvet-cushioned couch that forms the boundary between the bar and restaurant. You order a beer, a coffee, or a brandy, and settle into Art Deco surroundings. Restaurant sounds back there somewhere mingle with the tuning-up of a guitar. The spotlight flashes on, and it’s David Cheney night at the Swan Song.

Q. How did you first get the idea to.go to Spain and study Flamenco?

A. Oh, I was a surf bum, y’know? I'm a bum all the way - I mean, I finally figured that out. And so I was in the islands surfing and I ran into a Flamenco guitar player over there — I was at the time washing dishes in a coffee house (it was the Beatnik days) - and this guy was working up the street in a nightclub. So I talked to him a while and got interested in it, and came back here and really started playing a lot, and buying records and just doing the normal trip that everybody does, nothing serious. But then I got to where it was not a bad way to make a dollar, being a bum, y’know. Anyway I came up against .. you can teach yourself so much out of books and off of records, and then you need a teacher. So I went down to Mexico City - I couldn’t go to Spain, didn’t have any money — on the bus from Tijuana, because there’s a big Spanish quarter there, and I found a good teacher, a Spaniard. I really got into it then, and he said, “Yeah, you have to go to Spain.” I came back and went, money or no money. And, since I had no money, I had to get into a scene like go hang out with the gypsies, because they’re bums too. They were sort-of right down my alley, life-style-wise.

Q. Where did you find a teacher, or was he just around?

A. Yeah, he worked down the street in a cave, and he was one of the hot guitarists of the place and had a style I really dug.

Q. Did you see him every day?

A. Yeah, from about 10 a.m. ’til about 2 p.m. every day except Sunday. He’d come in the morning and we’d go have coffee and then we’d practice - he didn’t show me anything really. I only learned four or five falsetas (melodies) from him, but he would rap and tell me what to do. In the afternoons we’d walk around and listen to records and jukeboxes and stuff. Then at night I went up and worked there ’til about one or two. I’d come home and play for a few hours, go to sleep, wake up and practice again, then he’d come -every day. That was the deal. But, see, he wouldn’t teach anybody. He had one son he was going to teach and he was going to become the guitar player in Spain.

Q. How did he teach you if he didn't teach you?

A. He taught me what it’s all about, y’know? It’s a self-taught music; you can’t go learn it from some one else. It’s your own stuff you’re playing and that’s what he taught me, which is incredible; somehow he managed to impart that. I mean, he’s still my teacher although I can play circles around him. The second time I went back, I sort of blew him out, and the last time I went, I didn’t even play for him. But that doesn’t matter. He’s still whatever it was that gave me the whammy; that took about eight months to do. So it was a good experience. That was my good experience.

Q. When you came back here, where did you play?

A. Su Casa was probably the longest place.

I worked there about two years, and Mission Valley ... Then I used to play at the White Whale down in Bird Rock. I played there for about three years every Wednesday night. It was a long time; I saw about three or four owners ... it changed from motorcycle people to you-name-it.

Q. Are there any places in San Diego where you haven't played, but would like to?

A. No, in fact I don't know any places where I’d truly enjoy playing. I'd like to see ’em make one, though, another Espana, but made well. One of the best places I’ve played is in Arizona, Don Quixote’s, but that’s what the Flamencos call a tablau — it’s one of the best in this country.

Q. When there used to be places here where they just had music, that weren’t bars or restaurants...

A. Oh, the coffee house days! I played at every one.

Q. The Heritage?

A. Yeah. Yeah, well, see this is why Flamenco ... the coffee houses came out of the beatnik days, the bohemians, and Flamenco flourished in those days. You could always go down and get a job in coffee houses if you were a flamenco guitarist because that kind of music is very bohemian, being mostly gypsy, it suits the whole atmosphere. It’s right in there. Every place there’s ever been a coffee house, there’s always been a flamenco guitarist. But they don’t exist any more; there’s no more beatniks, no bums.

Q. Do you miss the coffee house days?

A. No. No, it’s a thing of the past. I don’t think there’s any room for them nowadays. I don’t think they’d be patronized if one opened up. People wouldn’t go to them; there’s no need for them.

Q. How do you like playing at the Swan Song?

A. It’s a nice place to play. It’s built nice; that’s the reason. The people are the same as any restaurant, but it’s because that restaurant is built so well for entertainment that it’s a nice place to play.

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