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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Max's Kansas City

The "in" place for pop, punk, and glam rock, steak, and seafood.
Virtually every art era and every major city having a sophisticated art scene has had its own nightspot hangout frequented by artists, poets, musicians, writers, and their "hangers-on." The Impressionists in Paris during the mid-1800s had their Café Guerbois. Picasso and his friends, before he moved on to Paris, chose Barcelona's El Quatre Gats (The Four Cats). Florence, Italy had the Café Michelangelo, London the Fitzroy Tavern, van Gogh and Gauguin the Café Alcazar, and In New York, during the height of the Abstract Expressionist era of the 1950s, the favorite watering hole was the Cedar Tavern at 24 University Place. There were others, of course, most of them too inconsequential or short-lived to be noted.
No one seems to have ever questioned where the name came from. There was no Max and it was a long way from Kansas City.
However, by the 1970s, another such club stood out, Max's Kansas City at 213 Park Avenue South, located in the New York City area known as Lower Manhattan between 17th and 18th Streets. There the likes of Andy Warhol and his entourage, Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Kosuth, and Roy Lichtenstein, mixed and mingled with "old school" names such as painters, Willem de Kooning, and Barnett Newman, critics, Clement Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg, as well as art dealers Leo Castelli, and David Whitney, whose gallery was just across the street.
Just to name a few...
As illustrious as the artist clientele may have been Max's Kansas City was far more noted for its rock bands and as a launch pad for solo acts such as Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Billy Joel, Sid Vicious, Bonnie Raitt, Charlie Daniels, Bo Diddly, Jimmy Buffet, Charlie Rich, and Emmylou Harris. Among the bands were Aerosmith, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Devo, Manhattan Transfer, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Hall and Oates, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and such well-remembered groups as The Cramps, The Psychotic Frogs, The Dead Boys, and Elephant's Memory. Even some of the staff became notable. Fashion designer Carlos Falchi was a busboy, as was artist, publisher, and filmmaker Anton Perich; Deborah Harry (later Blondie) was a waitress.
Max's Kansas City became the subject of art as well
as its melting pot.
From 1965-1982, Max’s Kansas City held court in New York City as a social club and melting pot for the creative world’s most talented and revolutionary personalities. Now considered one of New York’s most important cultural landmarks, it was where some of rock’s most raw and iconic moments took place, as well as the birthplace of punk, glam-rock, and pop art. The original curator of Max’s Kansas City was Mickey Ruskin. He understood artists, but most of all he understood the importance of artists and their art to the rest of the world. In the same way that kings surrounded themselves with artists, acrobats and troubadours, Mickey let the cream from the New York City's culture kingdom exist in his castle on Park Avenue South. The artists Mickey found worthy of his royal treatment spent almost every waking moment–when they were not in their studio—at Max’s.

Mickey's clientele as captured by photographer,
Leee Black Childers.
Whether painters or musicians, their basic needs were met with the potent cocktail of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. When they came off that high Mickey gave them chicken wings to fuel another night of productions. Some understood the club's importance in history--when the signs of the times were atom bombs, assassinations, and government run wars, spiced up with a revolution of sex and drugs. People from all over the world came to Max’s. A few of them succeeded very well. David Bowie soaked it all in and created his alter ego Ziggy Stardust. Jim Morrison found his leather style; Warhol his superstars, Anton Perich his painting machine; Roger Vadim his sexual energy for Barbarella; Oliviero Toscani his attitude and Bob Marley his first stage outside of Jamaica.

No wonder many of the artists and entertainers dabbled in alcoholism.
The establishment likely served more than just chicken wings. The sign outside mentioned steak, lobster, and (for some unknown reason) "chick peas." Though no food menu survives, several autographed drink menus have become collectors' items, each item associated with one of the club's entertainers, such as Wayne County Punch, a Patti Smith, The Ramones (beer molested by a shot of whiskey), and a Mink Deville (a high-powered blast of orange rum-flavored Coke). Most drinks ranged from two to three dollars. By 1974,however, Max's had lost popularity among the art crowd and the glam era was in decline. That year the club closed down. A renovated Max’s II reopen in 1975 and managed to last until 1981. Today a coffee shop called Fraiche Maxx occupies the former location of the club.

Some of the Max's Kansas City alumni.
In the years that followed Mickey Ruskin tried operating several other New York City restaurants and clubs with varying degrees of success. He died there in 1983 at the age of 50. In 2001, Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin established the Max's Kansas City Project, in memory of her late husband. In the spirit of Ruskin's philosophy of helping artists in need, the non-profit organization provides emergency funding and resources for individual artists and performers in crisis, while also empowering teens through the arts. In 2015 a Max's Kansas City 50th Anniversary Reunion was held at the Bowery Electric Club featuring alumni entertainers from the "good ole days" of punk rock 'n roll.

The Max's Kansas City quilt
from a 2012 reunion.


1 comment:

  1. Well done! Rings true to my experience of the place in 1970-1971. I think it did not have music then. My first time there was in the Summer of 1970. Neil Williams invited a friend of mine and my friend brought me along. Neil Williams was not there but 'his table' was. So we had dinner and drinks and hung out. It was like musical chairs. People shifting from table to table. Smile, shake hands, kiss, hug, chit-chat. Pleasant chaos.

    I'm not sure how long we were there before Neil Williams turned up. He was into my friend Barbara but she was playing him, and I guess brought me as a shield. The woman with Neil was hitting on me. After a half hour Neil split. I asked Barbara what the deal with the table was and she explained that Williams had that table for the 2-3 days he was in town, and that Neil (among others) would give Ruskin a painting to cover the tab. I wonder what Ruskin's collection was like. Eclectic I guess since it was the artist's choice.

    One key difference between now and then is the openness of society. It was no big deal to encounter a celebrity. At least in Manhattan. If you had something interesting to say people would listen. Sure, almost everybody was hustling something, but conversation was cheap, and good. There were always parties to go to, or someone's place to visit.

    Draft beer was 50 cents during happy hour (5-7) at Max's in 1971. There was a round table by the front door that sat 8 people. Nearby were the happy hour freebie munchies - chili, wings, and ribs. I often took advantage, sharing the table with strangers.