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, that story made as much sense as the logic behind the name for Max’s later competition for the city’s scuzzball musical underground, CBGB OMFUG (“Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers”). It was a weird time in New York, the 1960s and ‘70s. People were still doing Quaaludes and didn’t understand why the Velvet Underground weren’t on the Top 40.
We had a home in Mickey [Ruskin]’s game room, this extension of his psyche, his home. He was interested in artists. He liked them. He wanted them to have a place. He wanted them to survive. Many people in Max’s got me into trouble but so many others helped me out. Few of the regulars lived long enough to be a nostalgic memory. It was a speedy world—New York—and revolutions were taking place in it—art, life, and rock and roll. It was palpable and exciting. A young reckless nighttime bunch were we. The dark brigade who never saw the sun.Lou Reed, High on Rebellion: Inside the Underground at Max’s Kansas City (1998)
The period is recalled in vivid, warmly nostalgic hues in Danny Garcia’s documentary: Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC (playing with the short Sid Vicious: The Final Curtain in Minneapolis’ Sound Unseen film and music festival on 10 August (and other venues later). Garcia brings together a murderer’s row of punk-glam luminaries (Jayne County, Alice Cooper, Billy Idol, Bob Gruen) to dish on all the drunken, druggy revelry and musical exploration that made Max’s more than a steakhouse with an inexplicable name.
Nightclubbing applies a kind of non-fiction filmmaking that has become increasingly common: Identify a nexus for the cultural ferment of the mid-late 20th century, gather as many participants as can be found, and ask what was so special about that time and place. For viewers of a particular stripe—the kind 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 halcyon time. They, and anybody else who thinks they really missed out on witnessing the revolution as it happened, will find plenty to love in Nightclubbing.
Garcia’s film is predicated on the belief that Max’s Kansas City was every bit as important to the evolution of art and music as Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon or the Algonquin Round Table. While the argument gets stretched a bit thin from time to time, Nightclubbing has a preponderance of evidence on its side. Among the bands nurtured with lengthy stays at Max’s were the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, the Heartbreakers, the Stooges, and Alice Cooper. It is hard to imagine a more fertile vortex of glam, garage, avant-garde and proto-punk happening in just the right city at just the right time and place.
Max’s was placed on the cultural map by dint of its location. Being at the grottier southern verge of Park Avenue by Union Square, it was just around the way from Warhol’s Factory, whose denizens turned Max’s into a kind of clubhouse. Like so many things in New York during the late 1960s and ‘70s, Warhol’s people—and the freewheeling experimentation, star-fuckery, drug-taking, and hunger for finding that knife’s edge of expression they brought with them—helped blow open the doors of possibility. The superstars who held court at the booths in Max’s back room might not have created much in the way of great art (the debate over the value of Warhol’s cinematic legacy can be had another day), but they certainly seemed to help lay the groundwork for it.
The Max’s portrayed in Nightclubbing 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 dead-broke artists and musicians) rubbing shoulders with celebrities looking for an edgier night out. It also featured live bands doing original material, still an anomaly in the ’70s, when even New York bands were expected to only do covers.
The musicians came not just for a chance to play before an interested and interesting crowd but also for Ruskin’s habit of putting out free food during happy hour and letting the talent run up obscene tabs. He was “an artist aficionado”, recalls Alice Cooper, one of the film’s better storytellers, still enthusing a half-century about how Ruskin nurtured creativity and creators. One person after another in Nightclubbing affirms the idea of Max’s as a welcoming place where art could be midwifed, ideas exchanged, and creators could nip off to the bathroom for an assignation.
Unlike some documentaries of the New York scene, Nightclubbing has a chip on its shoulder. The more common argument in documentaries like Mandy Stein’s 2009 documentary, Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB, has been that ground zero for the underground New York music scene was CBGB. Garcia’s thesis, and that of some of his guests, is that punk really got its start over at Max’s. Some interviewees argue that CBGB only got that reputation because it hung around for so long after Max’s, which closed in 1981.
Max’s was where glam and trash rock (ala Cooper and the Dolls) coalesced around an aesthetic that punk drew from. But it was also a more curated kind of experience than the raw, beer-soaked grunge of CBGB. Max’s booker Peter Crowley had a keen eye for raw new talent, while CBGB’s owner Hilly Kristal had no true sense for punk as music and was famously laissez-faire about who went on stage. CBGB was out in the no-man’s land of the Bowery, while Max’s was an easy cab ride from Midtown for the industry suits. Clive Davis signed Aerosmith and Bruce Springsteen at Max’s, which would hardly qualify the place as New York punk headquarters. Still, on the other side of the ledger is that electrifying scrap of footage Garcia digs up of Sid Vicious playing at Max’s with his short-lived band (which incredibly included the Clash’s Mick Jones on guitar) not long before Nancy Spungen’s death; punk credibility rarely comes so neatly packaged.
There was tension between the clubs. Garcia highlights this by having the ever-trash-talking glam trans rocker and Max’s regular Jayne County describe the knock-down fight she had with the Dictators’ lead singer Dick Manitoba (a die-hard CBGB guy). The argument over which club birthed punk, however, is of less interest to most people Garcia talks with than celebrating the shooting star of a place that was Max’s. Just hearing the youthful enthusiasm that jaded warhorses like Cooper and Idol still talk about getting on stage there speaks volumes about its place in the rock firmament.
As such, Nightclubbing is a solid and necessary addition to the underground music documentary canon. The animated interstitials might be amateurish and the structure somewhat disorganized. But Garcia’s determination to snatch the spotlight away from the overly mythologized CBGB is a worthy cause, as is his focus on lesser-known bands like the Testors, Stimulators, Dead Boys, and Bad Brains.
Perhaps most importantly, Nightclubbing shows the necessity of a home base for musical trailblazers. As performance artist Penny Arcade notes, “Culture and fashion don’t come out of nowhere.”