By Glenn McDonald
The strange alchemy of the nightclub is a recipe that cannot be written down. Every town has its hot spots, and every era has its legendary venues. But those hot spots can change from week to week, and the ones that survive, thrive and make it into the history books—such as New York’s CBGB, L.A.’s Whisky A Go Go, San Francisco’s Fillmore West—emerge from the pop culture scrum through an unknowable process of attrition.
Marketers and coolhunters have been chasing this phenomenon for decades, in every industry, really. Questing for the hot new film, new sound, new look. But in the rock venue business, it’s a live spectator sport. It happens in real time. Entrepreneurs can book the right bands and input some of the other data—location, promotion, décor. But that elusive phenomenon known as buzz is generated by the swirl of people that come out each night, and the billion random factors that collide to generate ten billion more. Sustain that for a decade, and you have a shot at the hall of fame.
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On the other hand, sometimes you can cut a few corners. For instance, if you book the Velvet Underground as your house band, court Andy Warhol as a regular and employ a young Debbie Harry as a waitress, your place has a good chance of making the scene.
Such was the case with Max’s Kansas City, the New York nightclub and restaurant that was a locus for an unlikely procession of significant musical and artistic scenes in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Among the names Max’s would be affiliated with: Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, the New York Dolls, Blondie, Andy Warhol, Betsey Johnson, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Devo and the B-52s. For more than a decade, pop art, glitter rock and punk partied together at Max’s Kansas City and invented a new kind of glamour.
Located at 213 Park Ave. South near Union Square, Max’s was one of several restaurants, coffeehouses and nightclubs opened by businessman and art house raconteur Mickey Ruskin in the ’60s and ’70s. Max’s opened its doors in 1965 and was initially associated with the New York School—a loosely affiliated avant-garde movement of NYC artists and performers.
Ruskin knew the city’s art scene, and Max’s was designed as a haven for its cutting-edge crowd. The aphorisms of baseball don’t often apply to the fickle art world, though. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come.
Happily for Ruskin and rock history, they did come, in droves, led by New York’s mad pied piper—Andy Warhol. Max’s fast became Warhol’s reception hall, and he would hold court nightly from midnight to dawn at a corner table in the back room.
Warhol brought Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground with him. The band performed there regularly, even holding a two-month two-sets-a-night residency in 1970. That famous engagement would later be immortalized on Velvet Underground’s 1972 album Live at Max’s Kansas City, recorded on a portable mono cassette player.
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In the years that followed, Max’s Kansas City became the go-to venue for the U.S. edition of the glam rock scene that originated in London. Reed waved the flag, of course, and other acts to perform (or just hang out) there included the New York Dolls, T. Rex and Jobriath. In one rather historic summit, Iggy Pop met David Bowie under Max’s famous red-tinted lights.
Boundaries were notoriously blurry in those heady days of New York art, music and fashion. By the time the first incarnation of the club closed in 1974, Max’s had hosted many up-and-coming acts that would later break through to wider acclaim. Aerosmith played its first New York show at Max’s. Bruce Springsteen delivered a famous acoustic set there and returned later with a promising opening act called Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Ruskin sold Max’s in 1974. After a brief hiatus, the club re-opened in 1975 with a new focus. Along with CBGB, Max’s shifted its emphasis to the city’s exploding punk scene.
For CBGB—initially opened as a country and bluegrass club—the switch to punk was largely extemporaneous. Punk was the new game in town. But for Max’s, the shift was more organic. Bands like the New York Dolls straddled both incarnations of the club, and it wasn’t a huge leap from Warhol’s jittery pop art to the spiky art rock of the Talking Heads.
Regulars at the old Max’s Kansas City, such as Patti Smith and Debbie Harry, returned with their own bands. Most of the usual suspects from that first wave of New York punk played at Max’s—Blondie, Television, the Ramones, the Heartbreakers, the Misfits, the Cramps, Suicide, the Dictators and others. Max’s was a bit more tony than the other punk clubs of the day, and it continued to be a destination for New York hipster celebrities and out-of-town jet-setters.
Max’s continued as a successful venue throughout the 1970s, and toward the end of the decade became something of a landing place for out-of-town acts looking to catch a break in New York. Devo, a brilliant band that home state Ohio didn’t know what to do with, broke big after a run of shows at Max’s (at their debut show, David Bowie introduced them as “the band of the future”). The B-52s played their first New York gig at Max’s.
As post-punk morphed into “college rock,” Max’s stayed open through 1981, when the original site finally closed for good. Bad Brains headlined that last show, along with some weirdo opening act called the Beastie Boys.
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Very little video footage survives from the heyday of Max’s Kansas City, but with all those artists and scenesters hanging around, there is a rich photographic record. Coffee table book Max’s Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll contains hundreds of glossy photos, and thousands of images can be found online.
The digital age being what it is, Max’s also lives on virtually as a commercial brand, a non-profit (Max’s Kansas City Project provides emergency funding and resources for artists), and occasional exhibitions and documentary projects. The building itself still stands at 213 Park Ave. South. As of late 2013, it’s a Korean deli.
By dint of its long list of associated artists and luminaries, and of its place in New York’s ever-intriguing 1970s music scene, Max’s Kansas City has earned its place in the pantheon of historic music venues. The very phrase has become a kind of signifier. It evokes a time when art, music, fashion and youth culture collided in a glorious mess that was both glamorous and authentic.
In a recent interview with The New Yorker, industry veteran Danny Fields—onetime manager of the Ramones and a longtime Max’s regular—recalled the particular nature of the venue during the heady days of the 1970s in New York.
“To get into Studio 54, you only had to look fabulous,” Fields said. “To get into Max’s, you had to be fabulous.”