Disco Punk Rock Documentary
Nightclub: the birth of punk rock in New York
The story goes that when Mickey Ruskin opened his restaurant and bar Max’s Kansas City at 213 Park Avenue South in Manhattan in 1965, the name had something to do with a poet named Max and the belief that all the best steaks came from Kansas. City. True or not, this story made as much sense as the logic behind the name of Max’s latest competition for the city’s musical underground scuzzball, CBGB OMFUG (“Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers”). It was a strange time in New York, the 1960s and 1970s. People were still doing Quaaludes and didn’t understand why the Velvet Underground wasn’t in the Top 40.
We had a house in Mickey [Ruskin]the playroom, this extension of his psyche, his home. He was interested in artists. He loved them. He wanted them to have a place. He wanted them to survive. Lots of people at Max got me in trouble, but so many others helped me. Few regulars have lived long enough to be a nostalgic memory. It was a fast world – New York – and revolutions were happening there – art, life and rock and roll. It was palpable and exciting. We were a reckless young nocturnal band. The black brigade that has never seen the sun.
Lou Reed, High on Rebellion: Inside Max’s Kansas City Subway (1998)
The period is recalled in vivid and warmly nostalgic hues in Danny Garcia’s documentary: Nightclub: the birth of punk rock in New York (playing with the court Sid Vicious: The Final Curtain at the Sound Unseen Minneapolis Film and Music Festival on August 10 (and other venues later). Garcia rounds up a line of killers of punk-glam luminaries (Jayne County, Alice Cooper, Billy Idol, Bob Gruen) to recount all the drunken, drugged revelry and musical exploration that made Max more than a steakhouse in the name inexplicable.
Nightclub applies a kind of non-fiction cinema that has become increasingly common: identify a connection to the cultural ferment of the mid and late 20th century, gather as many participants as possible and ask yourself what was so special at that time and in that place. For viewers of a particular genre – those who know the names of more than three Andy Warhol “superstars” and have strong opinions about Malcolm McLaren – these films are nuggets of lore from an increasingly distant. They, and anyone who thinks they really missed witnessing the revolution as it happened, will find much to love in Nightclub.
Garcia’s film is based on the belief that Max’s Kansas City was just as important to the evolution of art and music as Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon or the Algonquin Round Table. Although the argument is stretched a bit from time to time, Nightclub has a preponderance of evidence on its side. Among the bands nurtured by long stints at Max’s were the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, the Heartbreakers, the Stooges and Alice Cooper. It’s hard to imagine a more fertile vortex of glam, garage, avant-garde and proto-punk happening in the right city at the right time and in the right place.
Max’s has been placed on the cultural map thanks to its location. Located at the south end of Park Avenue near Union Square, it was right next to Warhol’s Factory, whose residents turned Max’s into something of a clubhouse. Like so much else in New York in the late 1960s and 1970s, the people of Warhol—and the freewheeling experimentation, fucking with stars, drug use, and thirst for finding that edge of expression they brought with them – helped open the doors. of possibility. The superstars who held court in Max’s back room booths may not have created much in the way of art (the debate over the value of Warhol’s cinematic legacy may take place a another day), but they certainly seemed to help lay the groundwork for this.
The Maxes represented in Nightclub is that of an avant-garde clubhouse. The back room was a hub of downtown scene-makers, with drag queens, drunks and hustlers (a number of whom were also broke artists and musicians) rubbing shoulders with celebrities looking for a more avant-garde evening. It also featured live bands doing original material, still an anomaly in the 70s, when even New York bands only had to do covers.
The musicians came not only for the chance to play in front of an interested and interesting crowd, but also for Ruskin’s habit of offering free food during happy hour and letting talent crank up obscene tabs. He was “a passionate artist”, remembers Alice Cooper, one of film’s best storytellers, always enthusiastic for half a century about how Ruskin nurtured creativity and makers. One person after another Nightclub affirms the idea of Max’s as a welcoming place where art could be midwifed, ideas exchanged and creators could go to the bathroom for a date.
Unlike some documentaries from the New York scene, Nightclub has a chip on his shoulder. The most common argument in documentaries like Mandy Stein’s 2009, Burn down the house: The history of CBGB, was that ground zero of the New York underground music scene was CBGB. Garcia’s thesis, and that of some of his guests, is that punk has really started again with Max. Some interviewees say CBGB only gained this reputation because it lagged so long after Max’s, which closed in 1981.
Max’s was where glam and trash rock (a la Cooper and the Dolls) coalesced around an aesthetic that inspired punk. But it was also a more curated experience than the raw, beer-soaked grunge of CBGB. Max’s booker Peter Crowley had a keen eye for raw new talent, while CBGB owner Hilly Kristal had no sense for punk as music and was famous for knowing who hit the stage. CBGB was in the Bowery’s no man’s land, while Max’s was an easy taxi ride from Midtown for industry suits. Clive Davis signed Aerosmith and Bruce Springsteen to Max’s, which would hardly qualify the place as New York’s punk HQ. Yet on the other side of the ledger is this electrifying bit of footage that Garcia digs up of Sid Vicious playing at Max’s house with his short-lived band (which incredibly included The Clash’s Mick Jones on guitar) shortly before Nancy’s death. Spungen; punk credibility is rarely so well packaged.
There were tensions between the clubs. Garcia highlights this by asking the ever-trashy trans glam rocker and Max regular Jayne County to describe the stunning fight she had with Dictators frontman Dick Manitoba (a CBGB stalwart). The dispute over the club that gave birth to punk, however, is less relevant to most people Garcia speaks to than celebrating the falling star of a place that used to be Max’s. Just hearing the youthful enthusiasm that jaded warhorses like Cooper and Idol still talk about taking to the stage speaks volumes about his place in the rock firmament.
As such, Nightclub is a solid and necessary addition to the documentary canon of underground music. Animated interstitials can be amateurish and somewhat disorganized in structure. But Garcia’s determination to snatch the limelight from the over-mythologized CBGB is for good cause, as is his focus on lesser-known bands like the Testors, Stimulators, Dead Boys and Bad Brains.
Perhaps most important, Nightclub shows the need for a home base for the pioneers of music. As performance artist Penny Arcade notes, “Culture and fashion don’t come out of thin air.”