Kansas City, New York

New York Press
August 31, 2010

In 1990, a 13-year-old who wanted to know what went on inside of Max’s Kansas City during the late ’60s and early ’70s would have to search for clues. He would pour over passages in Jim Carroll’s Downtown Diaries enough times and listen over and over to the Velvet’s Live at Max’s, recorded in 1970, pausing especially for the few snippets of unmuffled dialogue (Lou Reed telling the crowd to dance; Carroll asking a waiter for “a double Pernod”). He would take a walk up to Park avenue South and East 17th Street, see what was there and try to blot it out with an imagined black-and white marquee moon. If he did all that, a mental picture might begin to come into focus: Andy Warhol’s red-lit court and its swirl of artists, drag queens, superstars and speed freaks.

Fast-forward 20 years and the mystery is gone forever. a similarly-minded teen— who hasn’t already OD’d on Max’s related reminiscence from websites, books like Please Kill Me and rock mags—can plunk down $25 for Max’s Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll, a photo history out this week of the club’s two main iterations, which together lasted from 1966-82. The book is edited by gallerist Steven Kasher and features essays by a number of the club’s regulars. Besides photos of the usual suspects like Warhol and Reed, readers can get a glimpse of all sorts of Max’s related errata: tranny Rene Ricard getting blown by an “unidentified” who looks curiously like a young Steve Rubell, a picture of the restaurant menu (steak and lobster tails for $11.95) and a seating chart as zealous as anything created by Monkey Bar’s staff. Photos of the superstars and painters who made Max’s the focal point for the late 1960s art and fashion worlds are prefaced with a hagiographic essay penned by Factory hand Steven Watson. as the Warhol era gives way to glitter-rock, we are treated to glam icons like Bowie and Iggy, while would-be famous punks (a notch-thin Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine; a pre-Ramones baby-faced Dee-Dee) signal the beginnings of another period still. Mick Jagger makes an appearance covered in an ascot, fedora and shades. There are odder choices: a photo of Bonnie Raitt looks like it could have been taken inside any venue in the country.

To be sure, Max’s wouldn’t have been the magnet for artistic talent it was if it didn’t leave a few choice curiosities for this new volume. Even the most vapid of the club’s scenesters are more seasoned and interesting looking than the hottest poseurs who fill today’s party photo blogs. I couldn’t help wondering what later life brought an unidentified glitter kid—her long brown hair framing an enticing faraway gaze. You can chart a secret drug trend history by examining the scenesters’ eyes: from sleepy drunk in the beginning to speed-dilated pupils in the later ’60s, the Quaalude stupor of glam then into the hard-edged heroin constricted pupils of late-’70s punks who played the club’s second, more rock-centric incarnation. It’s interesting to note that already by then, Max’s cool-factor was created by nostalgia for the Velvets-era. For all of the venue’s purported musical influence, its crowd capacity never exceeded a hundred.

A sketched proposal of Forrest Meyers laser beam installation is compelling still, but most enlightening of all is an interview of Max’s first owner Mickey Ruskin conducted by iconic scenemaker Danny Fields shortly before the club closed for the first time in 1974. “Our Max’s-centric new York would never be the same,” Fields writes by way of introduction. already, the tone of prelapsarian longing had set in as the two go over a closing era. But Ruskin knows a thing or two about the club business. He thanks Warhol for making Max’s a success, while acknowledging that he also doomed it to obsolescence by attracting the Factory’s legions of “followers’ followers” who stayed when the kingpin left. a truly hot nightspot has always been lightning in a bottle, but the most valuable insight found in the book is Ruskin’s answer to Fields’ question, “What is commercial?” His reply: “Taking a situation and draining it.”