‘Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in New York’: Vital Punk Nostalgia
Punk-rock nostalgia has an oxymoron quality. Ah, the good old warm and cozy days… of filming yourself in the CBGB bathroom as the Dead Boys devastated Western civilization on stage! Sid Vicious, we barely knew you! Yet the nostalgia for punk, as contradictory as it may seem, has only grown over the decades. That’s partly because punk, with its aggressive immediacy and defiant unkindness, now seems to be the epitome of the pre-digital world. In these times of pandemic and social media, direct human contact is something many of us crave, and punk was a human contact bumper car. The bands were in your face, you were in their face, and everyone was in the face of the beer-hungry lackey next to them. It’s no surprise that this is what some people are looking for now.
If you’re a person who gets watery-eyed when you think back to what it was – or must have been – to walk out of a seedy rock club at 4 a.m. after having your eardrums blown out by a band of anarchists who may or may not have played their instruments, you’ll want to go out of your way to see “Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC.” This is the first documentary about Max’s Kansas City, and it’s doing a summer run of US tours, as well as a few European venues (here’s the date schedule); after that, it will be accessible online. Directed by Danny Garcia, who over the past decade has amassed a canon of punk music documentaries (he’s made films about Johnny Thunders, Stiv Bators, The Last Days of Sid and Nancy and The Last Days of the Clash), “Nightclubbing” is a raw slice of punk nostalgia and punk history. (It airs with the 20-minute documentary “Sid Vicious: The Final Curtain.”)
It’s also the perfect movie for anyone who thinks CBGB was 10 times bigger than any other punk club – a misconception that’s easy to have, because that’s how it is. generally described. Since about 1977, every aspect of CBGB has been not only chronicled, but mythologized. The fact that it started out as a biker bar and is located along the Bowery, a legendary sketchy boulevard where there was a kind of karmic continuity between street bums and dissolute patrons of CB. The fact that the club was a sweaty, claustrophobic rectangle described by critic James Wolcott as a “subway train to hell”. The fact that the bathrooms were sordid bacteria pits with apocalyptic spitting of graffiti.
And, of course, there was the legendary list of great bands that played there, like the Ramones and Talking Heads and Blondie and Television and Patti Smith, as well as the not-so-great but even more dedicated bands that helped define the club. . destructive psychosis tone, like the Dead Boys and the Plasmatics. When I first walked into CBGB the place was so iconic it felt like I walked into the Cavern Club. In its own unpresentable way, CBGB has arrived at just the right time to become a media meme.
Max’s Kansas City was different. In New York, it was just as formative and famous as CBGB, but opened in December 1965, when the media and rock ‘n’ roll were still oddly close friends. And so even though the club has become a magnet for hip celebrities, it has retained its underground quality. As ‘Nightclubbing’ shows, Max’s was like CBGB with some of the Studio 54 exclusivity – which may seem like the ultimate contradiction, but you can’t begin to understand punk unless you recognize just how much it is. was a snob. You had to be the right kind of waster to fit in. Located on Park Avenue South, a block from Union Square, Max’s was a garish-fronted restaurant. But the VIP action was in the legendary back room, and to get in you had to have the approval of owner and club owner Mickey Ruskin. That the first punk club essentially had a velvet rope is essential to what punk was. Max’s was about the aristocracy of debauchery.
Once inside, you could see anyone from Frank Zappa to Elizabeth Taylor to Janis Joplin and Jack Nicholson, and especially Andy Warhol (the factory was just three blocks away), bringing his entourage every night, doing much to establish Max’s as a nexus of fame that would draw inspiration from the merging worlds of art, fashion, music and film. This was embodied in the direction of the Velvet Underground by Warhol, who became a fixture at Max’s (in 1970 they recorded a live album there). Forget the MC5, which had the abandon shipwrecked spirit without the flair; punk was born in the shadow of Velvet throttle and driving.
In “Nightclubbing,” Jayne County, the acid-tongued transgender singer, DJ, and storyteller who used to be part of Max’s (she looks like a John Waters character), tells us that the fundamental fact about the club is that every person who was there was high, all the time. However, once in the back room, they talked. The place is described as a sleazy version of the Algonquin round table counterculture, which sounds like a stretch – but Max’s didn’t host any musical acts until 1969, and imagine how much you wish you were a fly on the wall for some of those conversations, even as David Bowie once remarked: “I met Iggy Pop at Max’s Kansas City in 1970 or 1971. Me, Iggy, and Lou Reed at a table with absolutely nothing to say to each other, just looking into each other’s eyes putting on make-up.”
There was cross-pollination going on. Bowie, after all, was not a punk. But Max’s was the petri dish where ‘rock’ became ‘punk’ and ‘punk’ infused ‘rock’, all through the distortion drive of glam. Iggy played there, as did glam rocker Marc Bolan and electronica pioneers Suicide, as well as Alice Cooper and Bob Marley and Phil Ochs and Aerosmith and 22-year-old Bruce Springsteen. (Bruce and Aerosmith were signed by Clive Davis to Max’s.) Alice Cooper is interviewed at length in “Nightclubbing,” and he testifies to how the club was an epicenter of cool that broke down categories even as it created them.
By the time the New York Dolls arrived, in their reckless, carefree glory, they looked like an organism created in Max’s lab. Malcolm McLaren met the Dolls at Max’s and made his first attempt at Svengali punk image management by trying to show them off to wear the fashions he marketed. The plan failed, but McLaren learned from his mistakes, returning to London to pack the Sex Pistols, which he envisioned as the Dolls meeting the Ramones in Richard Hell’s clothes. It’s part of Max’s lore that Debbie Harry was a waitress there, which sounds like a holdover from a sexist world, but Harry, trying to break into an all-male rock establishment, had found a way to do it. Everyone knew she was meant for more.
“Nightclubbing” is packed with incredible, gritty archival footage and interviews with a host of musicians, managers and Max survivors that make for a vibrant oral history. After the Sex Pistols broke up, Sid Vicious played gigs there, and I always assumed (based on a scene from “Sid and Nancy”) that his performances were dissolute excesses. But we see long clips from his last gig there, when he was backed by a band that included Mick Jones and Arthur “Killer” Kane, and guess what? Not only was the group tight; Sid was good! I came away thinking that if he hadn’t destroyed himself with heroin, he could have had a career.
But the glamor of self-destruction was part of Max’s texture, as was a certain right to do whatever you want. The film is full of invaluable anecdotes that testify to the two impulses. We hear about Warhol superstar Brigid Berlin shooting amphetamine through her jeans. We hear about how George Harrison would bring a clutch full of rubies and place one in front of a woman he wanted to date. “If she picked up the ruby,” Alice Cooper recalled, “it was a done deal.” We hear of Iggy walking around on tables and rolling around in broken glass until he was dripping blood all over the club, at which point he had to be taken to hospital. We hear about the club closing in 1974 for unpaid bills and how after Tommy Dean reopened it a year later, Max’s became a crazier place, with Dean running a counterfeit currency operation from the basement.
At this point, CBGB was now in the headlines. Still, Max’s and CBs became the yin and yang of punk performance, with famed bands CBGB shuttling between the two clubs, many of them actually preferring to play at Max’s, where Hilly Kristal didn’t skim their profits. Max shut down for good in 1981, but not before helping start the movement that would become ’80s hardcore, with seminal gigs from bands like Bad Brains. The club had lasted 16 years; in the rock era, it spanned three or four revolutions. What all the witnesses of “Nightclubbing” testify to is that you had to be there. You had to feel the noise.