by Kevin Callan
The folk enthusiast in 57-year-old Mike McNichol lies dormant while he relaxes and watches Sunday afternoon football with his son Frankie on his ex-wife’s couch. His casual appearance of a polo shirt and cargo shorts and disinterest in what remains of his hair resemble an aged Bob Dylan.
Yet a sudden bright and beautiful cheerfulness shows in his expression when he recalls the old concerts he’s played and the bars where he used to spend his time. Memories of the Rusty Nail in Havertown (where he grew up), performances at the Dawson Street Pub in Manayunk, and even the occasional open mic at McKinley’s Tavern in Elkins Park rush back to McNichol.
“Performing is a real rush,” he says often, like punctuation.
Known as the host of open mic night on Fridays at the Mermaid Inn Bar, the guy with the occasional cover song on the Gene Shay Folk Show on Sundays, or simply as a friendly, Glenside local, McNichol’s easy-going attitude is easily recognized by all who cross his path, especially those who have had the opportunity to hear him narrate with his music.
Since his fascination as a junior in high school with the realistic issues and musical imperfections of Bob Dylan’s first album, “Bob Dylan,” McNichol has been a dedicated writer, player, and listener of folk music.
“I just wanted to play Dylan songs,” he said, later adding, “Bruce Springsteen made me want to be a guitar player.”
He recalled a concert he saw with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, which was a small coffeehouse venue on Lancaster Avenue famous for its small, intimate atmosphere and low ticket prices. Small venues like the Main Point heightened McNichol’s folk enthusiasm because of their emphasis on clean playing and easy listening rather than showmanship.
He also credited shows by David Bromberg and Billy Joel, shortly after his “Piano Man” hit, as influential. They were performances that made him want to do the same.
McNichol also recalls his first Philadelphia Folk Festival in the same year that he saw Springsteen, making 1975 an extremely influential year in shaping his musical interests.
“There are just so many great songs out there – there’s no end to ’em,” he said as he recalled the serene environment of the folk festival.
Although his visits in recent years have soured his opinion of the annual event, noting that the — “folk festival’s not what it used to be – it’s not as intimate,” McNichol chooses to remember a folk festival where people came from all around just to listen and nothing else.
He seemed to draw influences for his original songs from the many different people who grabbed his interest. About 30 years ago, McNichol went to see a woman who he had seen once at the folk festival named Susan Vega. Proclaimed by many to be the “female Bob Dylan,” Vega’s songs have been sampled by a variety of hip-hop artists like Drake and Snoop Dogg, and – appropriately enough – her concert would inspire one of McNichol’s first original songs.
Immediately after seeing Vega perform, McNichol returned home to 814 Penn St. and began his normal song-writing routine: He would bring his two dogs to the park near his house and let them run on the polo grounds while he watched them and played guitar on the bench.
Sitting there, McNichol began to think of some old friends who had passed away. Soon, pieces of old clichés his mother used to say started rushing through his head, and a particular one happened to stick.
After putting some chords together, which he admitted sounded much like a Vega song, he constructed the chorus to “814 Penn Street” that night using an old Irish grace that his family used to say before dinner: “Bless us, and bind us, and tie our tails behind us. Stick us in the crack where the devil, he won’t find us.”
With such deep lyrics relating to a rich back story about old friendships, one would assume the title has roots to the stories behind the lyrics as well, but it’s not the case.
“That’s just where I was when I made up the song,” he said. “People still request 814 after 30 years.”
After starting a family many years later, the time he spent practicing his music became restricted to the occasional time he spent alone in his room, much like how he began his musical journey as a teenager listening to his first Bob Dylan album.
“Once [eldest daughter] Katie was born, I didn’t have as much time to play as I used to,” he said, only to reveal later that his first-born would push him to take a new step with his music.
The idea of recording an album had never occurred to him until a few years ago when his now-teenage daughter Katie spoke up one day.
He had been taking music lessons from his talented friend Richard Drueding every week while Katie took art lessons from a woman just one floor above in the same building. After overhearing the slow melodies and distant lyrics of the original song “For Only a Dream,” by her father, Katie suggested that he record some of the songs he had been playing with Drueding.
Taken back by this unexpected proposal, McNichol rattled off the obvious financial reasons why he could not record an album right then, but Drueding quickly chimed in with a proposal to have the two of them record for cheap using the equipment available in his basement.
Responsible for the vocals and rhythm guitar on the album “For Only a Dream” McNichol would go to Drueding’s to record about three songs a day, and Drueding would add his expertise on lead, bass and pedal steel guitars to create a unique folk album consisting of three original songs and nine covers.
“I wanted to pay tribute to guys I admired the most,” McNichol said, explaining that the number of covers in his arsenal bordered on triple digits.
His covers of Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” and local singer songwriter Tom Gala’s “Old Shackamaxon Street” gained the most recognition by the folk show on 88.5 WXPN, hosted by Gene Shay, along with occasional plays of Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” and Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.”
“I love listening to the folk show,” he said. “That’s where I get a lot of my ideas and inspirations.”
Shay’s show was one of his longest influences, McNichol said.
Nowadays, McNichol can be seen Friday nights at the Mermaid Inn , 7673 Germantown Ave., hosting open mic night. He remembers when the Mermaid first opened in the late 70s as a “bothy” folk club, bothy meaning a place of shelter to those who needed it. His introduction to this bar occurred right around the time he began listening to folk artists.
“You could go out and play and perform – anybody could go play,” said McNichol, his bright expression recurring as he comes to a realization about this bar as a major turning point in his life.
McNichol’s first experience with an open mic goes back to his late teens, growing up in Havertown near a bar called the Rusty Nail. There was music Tuesday through Saturday, and a guy a year ahead of him named Denis Chiccino started the open mic night there.
“I learned a lot from him,” McNichol said. “We had a blast, it was great.”
Shortly after his experiences with the Rusty Nail, McNichol found himself saying, “I want to do all of the folk places.”
The sound of the Mermaid has not diverged much since its opening, but McNichol admits that the more popular genre among those who attend is better described as folk rock. He did a special performance for open mic with Drueding and Jim Callan on pedal steel guitar about a month ago as a trio and had an encore performance with them on Dec. 13. In McNichol’s experience at the Mermaid Inn, this was “the most people they ever had.”
“There’s so much talent around Philadelphia,” McNichol said, later referencing a band called the Planets who recently performed on Oct. 5 and Nov. 9. The magnetic pull that the bar has on up-and-coming bands in the Philadelphia area and a few musically-inclined locals has maintained McNichol’s love for the Mermaid over the decades.
McNichol never chose the music path in hopes that it could someday support him financially. The sheer enjoyment he got from the writing process and the occasional performance was enough for him to maintain music as a constant aspect of his life.
“I don’t see myself as ever being a professional musician – doing it for a living is hard,” McNichol said. “Alls I wanted to do was just play.”