Originally published in Spinner, September 15, 2010
If you were at New York nightclub Max’s Kansas City back in the mid-’60s through the ’70s, there was a likely chance you might have seen some famous and future stars. On any given night, Andy Warhol and his entourage could be in the back room. An up-and-coming musician from New Jersey named Bruce Springsteen once played upstairs at Max’s. And somewhere inside the establishment, abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning would sit at a table, cigarette in hand.
Those artists are featured in a recently-published new photo book, ‘Max’s Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll’ (Abrams), that tells the story of the nightclub, which closed nearly 30 years ago. Also coinciding with Max’s 45th anniversary is an exhibit at New York’s Steven Kasher Gallery, beginning Sept. 15 and running through Oct. 9.
Formerly located on 213 Park Avenue South, Max’s was a melting pot of art, celebrity and music. Among those who have been at or played at Max’s are Mick Jagger, the Ramones, Iggy Pop, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, David Bowie, Aerosmith, the Beastie Boys and Madonna. “Its legacy is a symbol of what could be when creative artists come together in a space and interact with each other,” Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, a spectator and performer at Max’s, tells Spinner. “It was a special moment where the culture meets the people who will take that culture forward.”
Danny Fields, the former manager of the Ramones, was a regular at Max’s. “It was a lusty world of people of all sexes and all levels of sexuality and artistic and professional things in common or not,” he remembers of that time. “How did it feel? It felt like, ‘Hey, I know that one.’ ‘The waitresses are cool, the busboys are cute.’ ‘I’ve seen these people before at other bars.’”
Opened in 1965, Max’s was a meeting place for artists and Fields has been credited for later bringing musicians into the establishment. “[Founder] Mickey [Ruskin] always said I brought music people there,” he says, “by having a breakfast press conference for Brian Jones or Cream to an audience who had never heard of them. I suggested they might feel comfortable. ‘Would you like to come with me or meet us there?’ I would say ‘Come and sit here.’”
One of Max’s highlights was when the Velvet Underground played a residency in the summer of 1970 when Fields was a witness to Lou Reed’s final performance with the band. “I turned around and saw him storming out,” he recalls. “Brigid [Berlin] was sitting way back like far from the band and she had her tape recorder. I knew that they owed Atlantic a record. They gave us $10,000 the next morning. [Brigid and I] shared $5,000.”
Kaye remembers playing at Max’s upstairs with an early version of the Patti Smith Group. “We were still moving from a cabaret poetry infused with jazz standards act to start exploring with songs such as ‘Land,’ ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Piss Factory.’ We played for about two weeks in the end of the summer 1974 with Television. It gave us an opportunity to figure out who we were.”
As punk music arrived in the mid-to-late ’70s, Max’s became a venue for acts such as Sid Vicious and X. For Fields, it was a new era. “Studio  took over,” he says. “Now it was really hot, really rich, really gorgeous, really drunk, really drugged — the exclusionary image of the velvet rope and the good tables. New York was getting way bigger. It couldn’t be contained at Max’s anymore.”
Max’s closed for good in 1981. It now survives through a website that tells its history, and as a part of a non-profit project that helps musicians in need of medical, housing and legal assistance.
When asked about Max’s legacy, Fields responds: “Glamour. The dark glamour of the ’70s. From the ’60s into the ’70s, those years were really great, transitional, wonderful times. It wasn’t the only star in the galaxy, but it sure was a star.”