Photo courtesy araceli.g, Flickr
PODCAST Modern American rock music would have been a whole lot different without the rundown dive mecca CBGB’s, a beat-up former flophouse bar that made stars out of young musicians and helped shape the musical edge of downtown Manhattan. Owner Hilly Kristal may have initially envisioned a place for ‘Country Blue Grass and Blues’, but the music spawned by this little hole in the wall would define the contours of American punk and new wave.
The Ramones, Blondie, the Talking Heads and hundreds of others bands would never have been the same without this dank little club with the most notorious bathroom stalls in New York. Tune in to hear a tale of the club’s rather inauspicious start and find out why, even as a venerated music icon, it was forced to close its doors.
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The Bowery Boys: CBGB & OMFUG
Hilly Kristal, back in the day. CBGB’s was originally Hilly’s On The Bowery, a spin-off of a far more successful West Village venue that frequently hosted performers like Bette Midler and Jerry Stiller. Hoping to draw a more music oriented crowd, Kristal changed the name to reflect broad tastes: Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers.
Initially unimpressive by any metric of musical quality, the scraggly group of guys from Forest Hills, Queens who formed The Ramones soon become a staple of the CBGB stage and the one of the most influential acts of the American punk style. If there’s a voice to 315 Bowery, most likely it’s that of Joey Ramone. (Photo by Allan Tannenbaum, from here)
(Photo from here)
Deborah Harry and Chris Stein debuted on the CBGB stage as members of the Stilettos used the club to make their transformation into Blondie, the most successful group borne of Hilly’s Bowery club. Chris and Debbie are seen below with Arturo Vega, 1978. (Photo by Lisa J Kristal, photo from here)
Hilly in later years. The club become a high-profile victim of Bowery gentrification and had to shut its doors in 2006. It lived on briefly as a St. Mark’s clothing shop, even as its old location become home to a John Varvatos menswear boutique. Photo by Peter Sutherland (here)
Check out the official CBGB blog for lots of great stuff associated with the club, including lots of old photos and that full color ‘walk-through of the club. You might want to take a shower after viewing it.
September 9-10, 1963: Future member of the Velvet Underground John Cale, as well as a dozen other pianists of varying talents, took to the stage at the Pocket Theatre at 100 Third Avenue, to perform the 1893 piece Vexations by the French composer Erik Satie.
Allegedly, according to Satie’s own wishes, the short piece was intended to be performed 840 times in succession. As this is patently absurd, it took the music experimentalists of 1960s East Village to perform it properly. Under the direction of young musician John Cage, the pianists performed all 840 renditions over the course of 18 hours.
And then, because this is the early 1960s, Cale and audience member Karl Schenzer, aka the only person to sit through the entire thing, were invited onto the game show I’ve Got A Secret to reveal their folly to celebrity guest stars Bill Cullen and Betsy Palmer (later to play the mother of Jason Voorhees on Friday The 13th):
To get you in the mood for the weekend, every other Friday we’ll be celebrating ‘FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER’, featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse spaces of the mid-90s. Past entries can be found HERE.
At Max’s Kansas City, there was not a Max, and it wasn’t in Kansas City. What you would find, however, was the birth of celebrity nightlife in New York City, a collision of culture greats before they became cliches, glamour with a tattered cuff.
There were certainly nightclubs in downtown Manhattan that became magnets for revolutionary musicians and artists well before Max’s. But I maintain that no place organized and fetishized its celebrity clientele quite like this little club on 213 Park Avenue South (between 17th and 18th streets), providing canvas aplenty for Andy Warhol’s pop art crowd and underground music’s biggest pioneers. Nights at Max’s begat the culture of Studio 54.
Max’s was actually Mickey’s — Mickey Ruskin that is, a lawyer who opened a string of cafes and bars in the early 60s, eventually cultivating relationships with Greenwich Village artists and writers who would pop in to showcase their talents. His first, the 10th Street Coffeehouse (between 3rd and 4th Aves.), became a poets corner, with standing-room audiences listening to beat and experimental poetry. In another venture, a bar called the Ninth Circle, Ruskin began attracting painters and artists, quickly becoming, in his own words, one of New York’s leading “middle-class beatnik bars.”
Successfully moving from coffee to liquor, Mickey now wanted to try the restaurant business. He bought the failing Southern Restaurant near Union Square, and on December 6, 1965, transformed it into Max’s Kansas City.
The mysterious name purportedly comes from one of Ruskin’s more famous clients from the Ninth Circle, poet Joel Oppenheimer . According to a documentary on Max’s Kansas City, Oppenheimer heard Ruskin wanted to open a steakhouse and claims, “When I was a kid, all the steakhouses had Kansas City on the menu because the best steak was Kansas City-cut, so I thought it should be ‘something Kansas City.'”
Although people have suspected the ‘Max’ comes from fellow poet Max Finstein, Oppenheimer claims a more logical origin. “Wouldn’t you eat at a place called Max’s? I said, ‘Mickey, believe me, it’s Max’s Kansas City.’ Two days later, he called back again and said, ‘I don’t know why, but I mentioned the name to some people, and they all loved it.'”
Whatever the story, the restaurant soon became more known for its crowds than for its simple menu. All of Mickey’s writer and artist friends migrated to Max’s, a loyal crowd but not enough to keep the doors open. Then Andy came.
Ruskin is unsure of the date, but Andy Warhol soon became a regular, and with him came his entourage of geniuses, models and freaks. And with them came reputation and notoriety. The biggest names generally camped out in Max’s backroom, which soon gave way to music and photography, attracted like moths to the nightly absurd mixture of the beautiful and the famous.
“I met Iggy Pop at Max’s Kansas City in 1970 or 1971,” recalled David Bowie. “Me, Iggy and Lou Reed at one table with absolutely nothing to say to each other, just looking at each other’s eye makeup.”
William Burroughs smoking in a corner with Allen Ginsberg. Twiggy and Mick Jagger and Dennis Hopper — dancing to live performances upstairs like the Velvet Underground (performing at Max’s during their last days), Bob Marley or a young Bruce Springsteen on acoustic guitar.
Meanwhile, in the front room gathered artists and writers, many of whom were too broke to pay their checks and occasionally paid for their meals with original art. Imagine having a meal paid for with an original work of art by William de Koonig or minimalist Carl Andre!
A staple of the late 60s, Ruskin weathered the following decade for only a few years before closing its doors in December 1974. But the story was not over.
The name and location was snatched up by club owner Tommy Dean Mills, who revitalized Max’s as a viable punk club, restoring a bit of its prior glamour, booking hot punk banks like Blondie and the Ramones, glam acts like the New York Dolls and before-they-were-famous performers like the B-52s, Devo, and Madonna.
Most notably were the post-Sex Pistol shows by Sid Vicious, messy and unforgettable; three months before his death, Sid attacked Patti Smith’s brother Todd inside the club and was thrown into jail. (Or maybe not; see notes below for a possible correction.)
That incarnation of Max’s closed in 1981. Believe it or not, there have been later, ill-advised attempts to reopen Max’s, but best it remain gone. I would hate to see it become a Las Vegas attraction like that other 70s staple.
Please check out this colorful website tribute to Max’s , as well as Max’s latest incarnation as a non-profit lifeline “to financially distressed individuals in the creative and performing arts for housing, medical and legal aid.”
BELOW: Those wacky boys of Devo
To get you in the mood for the weekend, every Friday we’ll be celebrating ‘FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER’, featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse spaces of the mid-90s. Past entries can be found here
No Chipotle burrito and taco restaurant has ever made me as sad as the one that sits on St Marks Place. I can’t be overdramatic and say that every instance of gentrification is a bad one, but this particular case, standing next door to a gourmet grocery store, is a bit more notable than most.
For it stands in the place a former clubhouse and dance hall built all the way back in the 1830s but reached its culture preeminence just over 40 years ago.
The building’s backstory sets a juicy notoriety for its later events, as it was a rowdy 19th century meeting place for political and ethnic dissents, throwing yearly carnivals in the street (often mocking the political giant of the day, such as Boss Tweed) and sparking at least one bloody gunfight in 1914 between rival Italian and Jewish gangs!
It sat through some of the 20th century as the Polish National Home (Polski Dom Narodowy), a community hall and restaurant for Polish New Yorkers (whose influences can still be seen all around this area of the East Village). At a certain point in the 1960s, part of the space was opened as a small bar by Stanley Tolkin, whose watering hole Stanley’s Bar at 13th and Ave B was already a huge magnet for the bohemian set.
The bar at St. Marks Place attracted the same crowd and, now being 1966, eventually drew the interest of Andy Warhol who, with his film-making collaborator Paul Morrissey, rented the upper rooms from Tolkin, fancied the original Polish name (Andy was of Polish descent) and its new moniker “the Dom,” moved in on April 1966 for a series of legendary events he would collectively called “the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.”
It became the East Village fuse box for Warhol’s talents and those of his entourage, in particular the Velvet Underground and Nico. The dazzling synthesis of psychedelica and glamour, of the Velvet’s strange atmospheric music and Warhol’s performance displays of lights and costumes, immediately attracted the scenesters to this odd little street — according to the New York Times, “everyone from hippies to Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton” — way before St. Marks would make its reputation in the 1970s with the punk scene.
Warhol moved on, and the name would change for a short time to the Balloon Farm. The next year it was sold to Jerry Brandt, who decided to take the avant garde (but rather elitist) Warholian approach and mainstream it into the Electric Circus. The new incarnation helped define the wild visual and colorful aesthetic of the hippie 60s, a virtual overload of light machines and live music. Sometimes it took its name seriously:
“A young man with the moon and stars painted on his back soars overhead on a
silver trapeze, and a ring juggler manipulates colored hoops and shaggy hippies
who unconcernedly perform a pagan tribal dance…Stoboscopic lights flicker over
the dancers, breaking up their movements into a jerky parody of an old-time
— Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties (New York:
Abbeville Press, 1990)
And while audiences pulsated to the swirling lights, in the throes of LSD, bands would materialize onstage, often in long jam sessions. It should be no surprise to find out that early incarnations of the Grateful Dead and the Blue Oyster Cult got their start here.
Much as the psychedelic revolution itself died out once the next decade started, so too did the Electric Circus. In March 1970, a bomb exploded on the dance floor (!) injuring 17 people, which couldn’t have done much for its waning popularity.
It was eventually turned into a church-run craft center and a community center for substance abusers and the homeless through the 80s and into the 90s. As gentrification swept through the East Village, most of St. Marks remained intact; you can still find rows of punk tee-shirt shops, tattoo and piercing parlors, St. Marks Comics and Kim’s Video.
What you can’t find is the remnants of the Electric Circus. The building is now the aforementioned Chipotle and a grocery store. And in one corner — in a move that is either a throwback to its old days or the biggest slap in the face in the world — is a gift store that sells branded products from CBGB’s, another legendary East Village rock club that has since been closed.
Here’s what it looked like when I first moved to the city:
(I apologize, I have a few links to post where I got some of my information, but I can’t do it from this computer. However some information was obtained at the excellent New York blog: http://streetsyoucrossed.blogspot.com. I’ll post the links when I get back on Monday. Have a great weekend!!)