Scene & Heard

The pull of the Plough

Cambridge pub marks 40 years of music, memories, and a neighborly seat at the bar

At the Plough, (from left) chef Stephanie Costa, music booker Jim Seery, drummer Larry Dersch, co-owner Jennifer Lockwood, and saxophonist Dana Colley. At the Plough, (from left) chef Stephanie Costa, music booker Jim Seery, drummer Larry Dersch, co-owner Jennifer Lockwood, and saxophonist Dana Colley. (Photos By Aram Boghosian/For The Boston Globe
By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - Like most other people who step inside for a quick drink and stay for a lifetime, ex-Morphine saxophonist Dana Colley claims it feels like forever since he first set foot inside the Plough & Stars.

“I was 8 years old when it opened and I started coming here,’’ Colley deadpans as he sips a stout on a Saturday afternoon that’s already beginning to crowd with revelers inside the pub. “No, I’m joking. I’m 48, and this place opened in 1969. But my kids have been in here running around.’’

Since first coming to the cozy little corner bar as a customer around 1980, Colley has frequented its cramped cosmos innumerable times, many of those in one musical configuration or another. It was here that he met fellow Plough regular and future Morphine bandmate Mark Sandman when Sandman was leading Treat Her Right. Colley says he’s been at the bar ever since.

“Well, not consistently,’’ he adds. “I have gone home.’’

More than a few folks - the famous, semi-famous, and famously eccentric - have called 912 Mass. Ave. home over the years. Philip Roth wrote and drank within its red walls. Bonnie Raitt played guitar and forgot her keys here. The esteemed literary journal Ploughshares even nicked its name from its founders’ favorite haunt (one of the Plough’s longtime owners, Peter O’Malley, is on the journal’s editorial board).

“The history of this place is phenomenal,’’ Colley says. “I think this location is pretty unique in the city and maybe the world, when you consider the fact that essentially anybody could come from anywhere and fall into this place - and never leave. You can tell when somebody’s discovered it for the first time. There’s this ‘glowing-ness’ about them.’’

To mark the pub’s 40th anniversary, the Plough is hosting a three-day birthday party commemorating the myriad musicians and musers who have crossed its threshold.

“I wanted to honor the 40 years,’’ says booking agent Jim Seery, who also works as a chef at the Plough, which, since reopening under new ownership in 2006, has served a dinner menu in addition to its lunchtime fare. Assembling this weekend’s performance schedule was no small feat, Seery says, given the sheer volume of artists who have set up shop at the back of the bar over the decades. “If we tried to get everybody,’’ he says, “we could have had a party for six months.’’

Co-owner Jennifer Lockwood grew up among the Plough’s people. Her mother, Margo Lockwood, a poet, contributed to Ploughshares and hung out with O’Malley back in the ’70s. When the bar closed in 2005 for nine months its denizens would prefer to forget, everybody wondered whether memories were all that would be left.

But a series of coincidences led O’Malley to ask whether Lockwood and her boyfriend, Brendan Curtis (both restaurant business veterans), would be interested in taking the reins of the financially troubled venture. Lockwood says they did not take the mandate - to preserve the bar’s history and honor its tradition - lightly.

“I had no idea how many thousands and thousands of people considered this their favorite bar in the world,’’ Lockwood says, talking at a table over the midday din. “It’s a sociological phenomenon that one little place like this can belong to so many thousands of people - in their memories, in their relationships. People come back and bring their children, and their grandchildren.’’

As a musician, Colley says he’s always appreciated the Plough’s engaged, intently listening audience. “It’s a pleasure to play here because everything you give the audience comes back, and that is the most important thing, as far as what this place means to me as a musician.’’

That said, Colley smiles and adds a caveat: “Being a horn player, I was usually stuck by the bathroom. In the old days I developed a certain dance step that allowed people to get by me while I was playing. In many cases, the bathroom door would come and knock you in the back of the head as someone was coming out - or in the teeth. You have to develop a ‘scrum mentality’ when you’re up there.’’

“These little rooms, there’s a magic in them,’’ says Swinedells singer Sean Coleman, standing under a cluster of stars hanging from the ceiling. “It’s not a manufactured cool. People are drawn to the neighborhood appeal and this has definitely always been my neighborhood, even when I didn’t live here. Now that I actually live here, this is like my Cheers.’’

Veteran drummer Larry Dersch was heartsick to see the Plough shutter its doors because of noise complaints (the walls have since been soundproofed) and tough financial times.

“I live across the street, and it was a big part of my life,’’ says Dersch, a regular for 20 years who will be behind the kit as house drummer for Saturday’s all-star lineup. “I’m like my cat. I don’t like change, so I was skeptical [of the new ownership]. But I can’t say enough about how they’ve kept this place going as a neighborhood institution. Now, that whole nine months it was closed doesn’t even exist in my life anymore.’’

THE PLOUGH & STARS 40TH ANNIVERSARY PARTY Featuring Family Jewels, Andrea Gillis, and more, begins tonight at 9 and continues through the weekend. Free. Go to for details.

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