‘Same As It Ever Was, Same As It Ever Was,’ a lyric by the Talking Heads, former regulars at Max’s Kansas City, caught the mood at the Bowery Electric during their celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of that long-defunct club.
Max’s was on Park Avenue South, and from 1965 to the early 70s had been a crucial nightly haunt for New York’s small, intense, artworld.
This event, though. was a four nighter celebrating the second incarnation of Max’s as a Punk venue and it looked just right.
Ageing hippies tend to have wandering hair and benevolent expressions. Punks now have pretty much the vibe they did back then and benevolence is seldom on the menu.
Consider Joey Kelly, a mountainous singer, who took the stage with his band, former regulars at Max’s, on the opening night.
Wikipedia informs us that Kelly, aside from singing, has taken part in such endurance competitions as the Ultramarathon, Ironman Triathlon or Tough-Guy-Race and the Ultraman competition in Hawaii, 1998, where he was disqualified for kicking somebody in the head.
In 2008 he was in a 250-kilometer desert race, coming in fourth, first in his age group. I doubt whether anybody from the Grateful Dead, the Strawberry Alarm Clock or Country Joe and the Fish can match that.
Mickey Ruskin, the creator of Max’s, had sold up in December 1974. Tommy Dean Mills, a New York club owner, read abut the closing in the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune and figured that the famous dive might make it as a disco.
Mills learned that Con Ed had a lien on the place for the electricity bill, settled, bought the place and installed a disco cover band.
Other performers were booked. Walter Steding, an assistant in Warhol’s Factory who plays a mean violin, did a gig for instance. But business was sluggish. “People still talk about the night that Sid Vicious sang I Did It My Way at Max’s,” Steding says. “But I was there! And there weren’t any people there. People just didn’t go there. Even if it was to see Sid Vicious.”
Peter Crowley, who had just turned around Mother, a failing gay bar opposite the Chelsea Hotel, was now aboard. “The artists hadn’t come back,” Crowley says. “The Warhol people went to Studio 54.”
He brought in what he says is “erroneously called Punk rock. It’s Underground Rock. When Punk magazine came out Dee Dee Ramone said to me hey! They are calling us punks! I am going to kick their arses! But a few weeks later they were cool with it.”
That was 1976.
Max’s was very much part of Punk but some clubgoers were aware of its art worldly history.
The singer Cristina Monet-Palaci had a childhood memory of her mother arriving home in a fury after a confrontation at Max’s with the Warhol Superstar, Viva. “She’d seized a baby from Viva’s arms because she was smoking a joint and my mother was worried that the ash would tip onto the baby’s head,” Monet says.
Max’s was a Punk club when Monet first went. She was fifteen.
“I went with Antonia di Portago and T. Rex,” she says.
T. Rex was a giant Brit band. Were they playing at Max’s?
“Perhaps we were just there. I remember my outfit vividly. I sneaked out in a spandex red-sequined t shirt with my navel showing and a pair of platforms.”
In due course, she would marry Michael Zilkha, whose Z records label put out the likes of James Chance and the Contortions and Kid Creole. And she made two excellent albums herself.
Max’s, once the white-hot center of the art scene, never duplicated that success as a music venue, The Mudd Club and CBGB being way too formidable for that. And the lesson is that legends do fade.
“We went because we thought it was hilarious that our friends could ever get booked,” says Elyn Wollensky, an indefatigable Club Kid not that much older than Manet-Palaci. “But it didn’t matter to us that it was Max’s. It had lost that cachet.”
The place closed in November 1981. Some records say the headliners were the Bad Brains.
The Max’s Kansas City of the artists is springing back to life though. Yvonne Ruskin, Mickey’s widow, is organizing an auction of their substantial art collection to endow a foundation to help artists in trouble.
And a documentary is now being put together by Martin Torgoff, co-writer and co-director of Planet Rock: The Story of Hip Hop and the Crack Generation. Max’s lives on!