Max’s Kansas City is famous for hosting acts like the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Television, Suicide, and the whole downtown punk scene of the mid-1970s, but it also was the venue for an early gig by Bad Brains, the legends of DC hardcore. The original location of Max’s Kansas City on Park Avenue South and 18th St. closed in 1981. It’s said that Bad Brains and the Beastie Boys played the final gig at that location, but the evidence is mixed: this exhaustive page on the venue states that that lineup was scheduled but cancelled.
Bad Brains were there two years earlier, however, and fortunately for us the gig was exhaustively documented. The date for the show is commonly listed as February 1979, but that’s not correct. The date of the show was Sunday, December 16, 1979, a fact that is corroborated by two pieces of information, the poster above and the comment by H.R. during the show that it was drummer Earl Hudson’s birthday that day. (Also H.R.‘s younger brother, Hudson turned 22 in 1979.)
Mixing a 1940’s style noir detective film with the grittiness of mid 1970’s New York City is the peanut butter firmly engulfed in the sleaziest of chocolate. Throw in the then still-fresh punk movement and you will have the bittersweet treat of Carter Stevens’ 1977 film Punk Rock. Wade Nichols aka Dennis Parker, whom would go on to both disco cult fame with his 1979 song “Like an Eagle” (courtesy of Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records) and for appearing on the soap opera The Edge of Night for a number of years, stars as ex-cop and current gumshoe Jimmy Dillinger. His most recent case involves finding Jenny (Susaye London), whose rich family have been looking high and low for her. Jimmy has found her—oh, has he found her, six ways to Sunday—but as soon as his back is turned, she is kidnapped yet again. With the friendly dame on his conscience and her wealthy daddy still footing the bill, he has got to find her again and soon.
Someone is clearly really wanting Jenny back and this second time around puts the hard-bitten with a heart of semi-precious gold Dillinger on a trail brimming with forced prostitution, junk, punk rock music and the oldest trick in the world—-the unforeseen double cross. Don’t worry. In this age of fast-food information and meme-blips, I refuse to spoil the ending of this impactive film. Shouldn’t your eyes be pure for something in this age of “if it bleeds, it leads?” Our souls might be a lost cause, but at least your peepers can be clean for this. It’s one hell of a surprise ending.
Punk Rock works on two different but very key levels. The first one is the fact that it succeeds as an unlikely but tight retro-noir-punk-rock hybrid. It has all the right crime elements, even involving a girl-sex-ring led by a whip-wielding musician/pimp played by none other than Elda Gentile aka Elda Stiletto from Elda & the Stilettos! (A group that is probably better known now for once featuring a pre-Blondie Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. According to director Stevens, Harry was initially considered for the part, but took a pass.) There are truly grimy-looking drug pushers, suave pseudo-old-world-mobsters and one really fantastic underworld figure named Igor, played fabulously by Bobby Astyr. Talk about used-car-dealer meets pimp-goombah-sleazeball charm, Astyr is all of this and more.
At the center is Wade Nichols, whose old school matinee idol good looks and acting chops made him a perfect private detective fit for the 1940s meets 1970s. Nichols innate charisma and strong masculinity without being too macho, were traits that fit him into this role like a glove. Robert Kerman, billed here as Richard Bolla, is also good as the wise-ass police inspector foil to Nichols’ Dillinger.
The second level is a fascinating historical peek into a New York City pre-gentrification, pre-Guiliani and pre-gummed up TGIFridays/Disney Store neon hell. Grime, trash and dirty melting piles of snow line the streets and even the legit storefronts look grungy. 42nd Street is shown in all of its electric candy store of sordid delights glory and thrumming with pure mutherfucking vice. Even better is you get an inside peek of one of the birth places of New York punk, Max’s Kansas City, a club so great that Jayne County once wrote a song about it!
In fact, it’s the scenes set in Max’s that are the most historically important, especially for a music fan. In Punk Rock, we get to see three different bands play. The first two acts, The Squirrels (no relation, from what I can tell, to the Seattle novelty band of the same name), The Spicy Bits (a super obscure band from the scene that did at least warrant a name check in Dead Boys’ guitarist Cheetah Chrome‘s autobiography) and most importantly, The Fast. Every movement has its stars that should have and could have made it huge, but yet, never quite did. The Fast not being household names then or now is still a smear of injustice on the music industry. (And trust me, that’s a structure that has more stains on it than a port-o-potty on the last day of Sturges.) Formed by brothers Armand aka Mandy and Miki Zone and later on joined by their younger brother Paul, The Fast were a power-pop band with a punk/hard rock edge whose energy, stage presence and bizarro rock image set them apart from anyone else on the scene. Need proof? Watch their renditions of “Kids Just Wanna Dance” and “Boys Will Be Boys” in Punk Rock. (Plus, the latter features the most rock & roll use of Cheerios, ever.)
Interesting note about Punk Rock is that there is an X-rated cut where instead of the musical sequences, you get explicit sex scenes. Not to underrate the joie de vivre of things like visual insertion, I would still take The Fast over that any day. Though that said, this film is proof that directors and actors from the X-rated world could act and make a pretty great little film if they wanted to. It’s not all pizza delivery boys and horny housewives.
Watch the scene from ‘Punk Rock’ with The Fast, after the jump…
Recently I posted what is surely the earliest professionally shot full concert by The Patti Smith Group, a gig taped in Stockholm in 1976 for Swedish television, but a few days ago some even earlier Patti footage surfaced. It’s not exactly professionally shot (it’s likely to have been lensed by rock photographer Bob Gruen), but taken as a whole the clips might represent the entire performance.
Smith, then 27, performs nine numbers backed by Lenny Kaye and Richard Sohl, including both sides of her “Hey Joe/Piss Factory” single as well as Rolling Stones and Velvet Underground covers. Within a year Clive Davis would sign The Patti Smith Group to Arista Records and they would be recording Horses with producer John Cale.
On record, Smith’s cover of “Hey Joe” begins with the addition of a spoken word bit about Patty Hearst (“Patty Hearst, you’re standing there in front of the Symbionese Liberation Army flag with your legs spread, I was wondering were you gettin’ it every night from a black revolutionary man and his women?”) but this was before that became a part of the song.
“Piss Factory” is a powerful soliloquy about Smith’s horrible job working on a baby buggy assembly line when she was sixteen and dreaming of what her life was going to be like in New York City..
Below, in this brief (mildly NSFW) clip from the Kino Library, we see a typical evening at Max’s Kansas City with the likes of Candy Darling, a topless, insane-looking lipstick-smeared Brigid Berlin, Paul Morrissey, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, Taylor Mead, Ray Johnson, Marisol and others. That’s Warhol’s Factory assistant Gerard Malanga who we see smoking as the voiceover reader says the word “pretentious.”
Early B&W video footage of Bruce Springsteen performing “Growin’ Up” at Max’s Kansas City on August 10, 1972.
David Bowie happened to be there that night and this is what he had to say about the then unknown Boss’s performance:
“So this guy is sitting up there with an acoustic guitar doing a complete Dylan thing. My friend and I were about to leave when he started introducing a band who were joining him on stage.”
“The moment they kicked in he was another performer. All the Dylanesque stuff dropped off him and he rocked. I became a major fan that night and picked up Asbury Park immediately.”
In 1973 Bowie recorded “Growin’ Up” as part of the Pin Ups sessions. The song didn’t make the cut, but it would see Bowie record the very first Bruce Springsteen cover. Two years later, during the Young Americans sessions, Bowie laid down a soul version of Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to be a Saint In The City” with the Boss in attendance for the mixdown at Philadelphia recording studio, Sigma Sound.
Below, another song recorded at Max’s that same night (actually the set’s opening number), “Henry Boy.”
Ciao! Manhattan director David Weisman claims that this is “the only known footage of the inside of Max’s Kansas City.” Of course, he’s not including all the films and videos of performances shot at Max’s. But those don’t reveal what the club as a whole looked like.
A brief glimpse into New York’s epicenter of cool when everything and everyone seemed larger than life.
Viva, Richie Berlin, Ara Gallant and Paul America make fleeting appearances. This was shot in the late Sixties. Weisman narrates.
Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin and Tim Buckley at Max’s Kansas City, 1968
In 1998, High on Rebellion, the definitive oral history of Max’s Kansas City, the bar/restaurant/nightclub that was THE in-spot of New York’s rock/art demimonde, was published. Written by Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin (once the wife of Max’s founder, Mickey Ruskin) it’s a classic book, one that should rightfully be as well-known as Edie: American Girl, Please Kill Me or POPism: The Warhol Sixties, one of a handful of truly must-read volumes if you want to understand what was happening culturally in New York City during the Sixties and the Seventies. Sadly, the book is obscure, but hopefully it will be republished one day.
At Max’s, the regulars would include names like Alice Cooper, Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, William Burroughs, Larry Rivers, Tennessee Williams, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Philip Glass, Halston, Jackie Curtis, the New York Dolls, Candy Darling, Iggy Pop, John Waters, Salvador Dali, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Rauschenberg, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, John Cale, the list could go on and on. Devo, Tim Buckley, Aerosmith, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Bruce Springteen, Tom Waits, Sid Vicious, the B-52s and Gram Parsons all played Max’s and Debbie Harry and Emmylou Harris were waitresses there. As Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler said, “You knew even the assholes would be famous one day. It was that kind of place.”
He’s right about that. Abrams Image has just published a gorgeous new coffee table book of photographs and ephemera (menus, newspaper ads, notes from an art auction) from Max’s, titled, appropriately enough Max’s Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll. Edited by NYC gallery owner Steven Kasher with contributions from Lou Reed, Lenny Kaye, Danny Fields, Lorraine O’Grady and Steven Watson, this oversized volume is one of the best books of this sort to come out in a long.long time. It also makes a nice, decade-late companion to High on Rebellion: If the earlier book was primarily anecdotal, Kasher’s volume takes the opposite approach of a picture being worth a thousand words. When the subject is a place like Max’s—once described by writer Terry Southern as “the lower circles of Dante’s Inferno filled with Bosch and Breughel characters—a well-framed photograph communicates more than words ever could...
For instance, a big part of Max’s legend was the infamous “back room” VIP area where anything could—and apparently did—happen. (The line in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” about drag queen Candy Darling: “In the back room, she was everybody’s darlin’” refers to Max’s). Not only is there a shot in the book of a man (identified as poet/artist Rene Ricard, although you can’t really see his face) giving another man a blow job right in the middle of the restaurant—tell me that’s not context, people!—there is also a photograph of someone standing on a table in the foreground, with people laughing, but in the background, where the camera wasn’t pointed, we see Warhol superstar Taylor Meade, bare-assed naked. Casual nudity seems like the way it was done at Max’s, if these photos are to be believed.
Max’s was open on Park Avenue South from 1965 until 1974 and reopened under different management in 1975. That incarnation lasted until 1981. 213 Park Avenue South, the building that once housed the insanity that was Max’s Kansas CIty is now occupied by a Korean deli (that I went to often). Mickey Ruskin died in 1983.
Below: Some (mostly silent) footage from the heyday of Max’s Kansas City shot by Anton Perich featuring Warhol actress Andrea Feldman (who killed herself at the age of 24), Taylor Meade, Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, a gorgeous young Mary Woronov and towards the end (with audio) Max’s owner, Mickey Ruskin himself.