Chuck E. Weiss, one of the coolest cats ever to escape Denver, is back in town to "take care of some business" and visit his mom. But although he's got a new record out, Weiss doesn't want to talk music. No, he wants to jawbone about his other love: diners.
"There's a whole culture behind diners and coffee shops," Weiss says, slipping into a booth at Pete's Kitchen. "I'm very much a part of that culture. I still like to hang out in diners and coffee shops."
This will be his third meal at Pete's -- a sixty-year-old joint at 1962 East Colfax Avenue -- in as many days. "A diner is about being able to kill a lot of time and people-watch and have the camaraderie with your friends," he explains. "A diner's like an office in a way. You can get a lot done in a diner, if you have to do some writing or meeting with somebody. You can use it for anything."
Weiss looks out from under a devil's mop of black hair, his bangs interrupted by thin-line shades glued together at the bridge. He speaks in a bluesman brogue he picked up while playing Denver dives and hanging out in Five Points and lower downtown (when it was skid row, not LoDo). A Jewish kid who wrestled for Smiley Junior High, by the early '70s, Weiss was backing such blues greats as Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins and Willie Dixon in long-gone music rooms. But in the late '70s, he moved on to the City of Angels, joining forces with another Denver musician-who-got-away, Tom Waits. Collaborating on tunes and tours, they became two of Los Angeles's more revered musician hipsters. ("Spare Parts," one of the pair's first co-writes, appears on Waits's appropriately named recording Nighthawks at the Diner.)
Waits went on to earn fame as a singer-songwriter, character and performer, his gruff voice and street-urchin persona recognized around the globe. Weiss settled into his role of L.A. scenester and arbiter of cool, a cult figure who played up and down the West Coast. But even if you haven't heard Weiss's "alternative jungle music" (and you can correct that sin by grabbing his latest gem, Old Souls and Wolf Tickets, a satisfying collection of junkyard blues, swampy jazz and back-alley mojo), you've heard of Weiss in music: He's the lovestruck Chuck E in the Rickie Lee Jones hit "Chuck E's in Love."
Back in D-town, chatting over egg-and-meat platters, choice patty melts and egg-stuffed gyros, Weiss swaps stories with a friend. Their talk stretches from Johnny Depp -- Weiss says he helped "the last of the real hep cats" open the famed Viper Room -- to coke-snorting record-company executives, to Weiss's deaf cat, Sweetie. There's also some discussion of Ebbets Field, the 400 Club and other long-extinct local venues. But invariably, the conversation returns to diners. Pete's Kitchen, Weiss notes with relief, "is pretty much exactly the same as it always was."
Zaidy's Deli, at 121 Adams Street, is another old haunt -- "the most authentic deli in the city," according to Weiss. "You get scrambled eggs with lox and onions in it, man, with pumpernickel. Oh, man! That's another thing they don't have in this town anymore. You go to any restaurant now and ask for pumpernickel, they don't know what the hell you're talking about."
Weiss takes his restaurants seriously. He chose his first L.A. address (the seedy Tropicana Motel) based on its proximity to Duke's, a legendary joint he'd frequented so much on visits that he decided to move nearby. The establishment served as a home away from home for many artists in the '70s, including Waits, the Ramones, Blondie and playwright/actor Sam Shepard. "In those days at Duke's, you could smoke," Weiss says, lighting a budget cigarette now that he's polished off his eggs.
Those days are gone in California, of course. But they're fast disappearing here, too. Squinting through smoke, Weiss bemoans the passing of great diners that once dotted neighborhoods around the country. The real ones are gone, replaced with fake, corporate eateries -- Gunther Toody's, for example -- that aim to cash in on America's watered-down appreciation of the past. "I hate 'em," Weiss says. "They spend a fortune making new stuff look like old stuff. I hate that.
"But you get into that with everything, not just restaurants," he adds. "It's in music, too. Moby, he sampled a whole song that I used to love, by the Landoliers -- this old spiritual called 'For a Long Time.' Sampled the whole song. People think that's him singing. It's the same thing as Gunther Toody's. Rather than pay for the real thing, they'll pay five times as much for a copy."
Weiss laments the lost treasures of Denver's past. Like Blake Street: "I used to be afraid to go down there. Now it's all yuppified." He misses downtown's old cast of con men, too. "I heard the greatest con ever heard down there," he recalls. "He told me, 'You go down to 23rd and Stout with $5,000 in yo' pocket. You be high, dead drunk, layin' in the gutter -- it don't matter. You'll wake up the next mornin' on a nice, clean leopard-skin pillowcase, wit dat same $5,000 in yo' pocket...if you tell 'em Pork Chop sent you.' Right! You'd see characters like that everywhere, man."
Talking to Weiss, you quickly realize that when he split town, Denver lost one of its greatest characters.
"There are diner games," he says now, describing a game that involves placing a wet napkin over the moistened rim of a cup of coffee, and placing a coin in the center. "Each of you have a cigarette, you burn holes without stopping, taking turns, flicking your ashes in the cup," Weiss explains. "You don't wanna be the guy that makes the nickel go in, or you gotta drink the coffee with all those ashes in it." His face lights up at the thought, a sandpapered "shee-hee-hee-hee" slips from his lips.
Done with diners for a minute, Weiss talks a little about his music, which some critics have mistakenly deemed a Tom Waits knockoff. "Well, if Tom wasn't my best friend, that would bother me," he says. "As far as what we do, our friendship and musical relationship has rubbed off on each other. We've influenced each other quite a bit."
In fact, Weiss's eighty-grit vocals are much more enjoyable than Waits's, and what he lacks in Waits-ish songwriting depth, he makes up for in soul and a giddy sense of lyrical gibberish. "People used to think more of music," Weiss says. "It was a bigger deal to younger people than it is. You never thought about what the person looked like. You'd dig their music for what it sounded like."
As Weiss gets up to leave, a waitress asks him to sign a placemat. "To Pete's, thanks for all the good eats," he writes, pleasantly stunned by the first autograph request he's ever received in a greasy spoon. "All kinds of things," he notes, "can happen in a diner."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.