down at max’s
When I first discovered rock and roll – or rather, when I moved beyond just listening to the radio coming in across the lake from WLS, and wanting to know more — everything — about the music I was listening to, I immediately felt like I had missed it ALL.
I don’t remember at what point I learned that the 60’s were not just about Woodstock, hippies and flower power, but I do remember feeling relieved, as I didn’t really like long hair and fringe and have always, always hated the Grateful Dead. But suddenly, the longing for the past was painful as I discovered the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol and, as the past caught up with the present, Max’s Kansas City.
This condition was only exacerbated when, on a trip into the city with my parents, I spied a magazine at a newsstand that had the Ramones on the cover. Buying a magazine was something that didn’t require permission, I could afford it with babysitting money, and saying to my parents, “Oh, it’s a music magazine” was all the explanation that was required.
Of course, this was the infamous Rock Scene, the brainchild of Lisa Robinson and Richard Robinson. I devoured it from cover to cover, and every time my father went into New York, I would beg him to please stop at a newsstand on the way home and see if they had any issues. Sometimes I got lucky, sometimes I didn’t; but when I did, I felt like it was my passport to another world. The Ramones help Danny Fields move; Cyrinda and David Jo go shopping; and of course, the endless scene photos of CB’s and Max’s. I would sit on the floor of my very purple room in Connecticut, and pray for the day I was old enough to go be part of all of this.
The first time I went to Max’s was completely accidental. It was the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, and I had spent the summer going to the Dr. Pepper concerts up at Wollman Rink. I don’t know how I managed to convince my parents that I could go to these shows all by myself (and sometimes I went to more than one in a week), but somehow I did. I know I had a friend help me buy the tickets (or at least told me about the concerts and took me up to Alexander’s on 59th Street to buy them).
It was either the night of the Talking Heads or the B52’s (or some other show that week) and like I always did, I made friends with the people sitting around me. During intermission, one of the girls (they were from Brooklyn, if I remember correctly) asked me, “Oh, we’re going to Max’s after the show, do you want to come with us?”
Simultaneously, I said “Yes” while my heart flew up into my mouth. Of course, I tried to act as though I had done so a million times already, and then snuck off to a pay phone to inform my parents that the concert was running late that night so I might be on a later train. I had no idea whatsoever how I was going to get into the club, or how I would get back to the train station afterwards, but I wasn’t going to let such minor details get in the way of my ticket to fabulousness – even though I knew, very very well, that it was 1980 and those days were long passed. Still – it was MAX’S!
Getting out of the cab in front of the awning on Park Avenue South for the first time felt like a dream. Clearly, the people I was with had actually been there before, as they knew whoever was at the door, and this was probably the only reason I got in without them asking for my ID, because I know I did not look old enough for one second (as much as I liked to pretend the opposite was true. I also did not yet have a fake ID). I knew I wasn’t going to run into Nico and Lou Reed and Iggy and Bowie and Sable Starr or anyone else, it was, after all, 1980; but the fact that they had been there and that this was Max’s, and the Dolls and JT and even, heck, Bruce Springsteen had been on that stage, was more than enough for me. It felt like I was visiting a shrine, I was in the place that I had daydreamed about for all those years.
Someone I was with bought me a drink; I favored Seven and Seven at that time of my life, so that is what I ordered, and stood there, trying to look as bored and cool as it was possible to do when ones heart is pounding a million beats a minute. I was at MAX’S! I was drinking at MAX’S KANSAS CITY! In my head, I tried to imagine the Dolls onstage, I tried to imagine Iggy and Lou sitting in a booth, I tried to imagine the drugs and the debauchery, and Patti and John Cale and the VELVETS, and Jim Carroll, here as a teenaged Velvet Underground fan and giving drink orders you could hear on the “Live At Max’s” album (which I didn’t own yet, but knew about from a Jim interview in Creem).
And then I looked at my watch, and realized I had to get to the train station in 15 minutes or I would, literally, turn into a pumpkin (and a pumpkin the day after Halloween at that, by the time my father got done reading me the riot act for missing the last train home), and went downstairs, jumped into a cab, and ran into the last train to Stamford just as the conductor was standing at the platform, waiting for the Friday night stragglers to come running through the doors from the terminal.
The whole way home, I sat there, thinking: I was at Max’s Kansas City!
Once I moved into the city to go to college, I went to Max’s a handful of times before the glow diminished, and the novelty of going to Max’s just because I could wore down. The truth was that there were very few good bands that played there any more, and never anything great. Most of the time, the place was half-empty, or filled with Japanese or German tourists. And then, although it seemed impossible and at the time we were up in arms over it, the club closed its doors for good. And then, one night, taking a cab uptown, I suddenly realized that the sign and the awning were gone.
So, in case you were wondering what sparked this whole reverie, last week I got a freelance editing job, and the client was at 215 Park Avenue South. I didn’t think anything of it, until I went downstairs to get some air and sun and food and call the boyfriend. It was sunny but cold, so I ducked into the entrance of the building just next door, and I’m talking to him and all of a sudden I look through the glass door, and exclaim: “Oh, my god!”
“This is 213 Park Avenue South.”
I stop, and realize he will not have instant recognition of that address (okay, who would, really, besides crazy, obsessed maniacs).
“This is where Max’s Kansas City used to be.”
Now, I knew that, of course, but not ever really spending a lot of time in Union Square, I had not consciously stood there and thought: that short building inbetween the W and that office building, that is where Max’s used to be. Or at least not for the last 10 years.
Below is what caused the yelp. I guessed they were Bob Gruen and research has validated this guess:
And this made me happy, that it had not been completely forgotten, that there was still some tangible presence of Max’s in this building, even if the ground floor is now a deli, even if there is no more magic in the building. Because there was, once, and there always will be for everyone who remembers it.
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