MANHATTAN, NY—Max’s Kansas City was a primary New York hot spot for live music from 1965 to 1981. Located at 213 Park Avenue South, just off of Union Square, the street floor was a restaurant that catered to a business crowd in the day and an art crowd at night. The upstairs room featured live music. I was a teenager in its earliest days, when The Velvet Underground played upstairs almost every night. I would see the small advertisements for the shows in a local newspaper and longed to attend, but the drinking age was 21 at the time, and so I never attempted to go.
I was already fascinated by Max’s by the time I became a regular in the early 1970s. I would go with rocker friends to the back room at Max’s, order a large salad, eat the raw, salted chick peas that were placed in small bowls on every table, and star gaze. At nearby tables and booths we would see the mingling of budding rock stars, managers and publicists with artists such as Andy Warhol and Salvatore Dali. One night, my friends and I took over a couple of tables in the center of the back room, and saw Alice Cooper again at a side booth. When Cooper and his company prepared to leave, he could not find his coat; he stormed out, clearly annoyed that his stolen coat made him another New York crime statistic. When my friends and I left, we took our coats from a pile on a chair, and underneath all of our coats was an unclaimed navy pea coat. We alerted the waiters, but we never again saw Cooper at Max’s. I still owe him an apology.
Logistically, the upstairs room was awkward. The kitchen for the downstairs restaurant was situated in the side center of the upstairs room. Not only was it sometimes noisy there, but the kitchen significantly blocked the sightlines to the stage. Music fans wanted a table near the front, because there were perhaps only 50 good seats; as the seating area narrowed alongside the kitchen, the sightlines became poorer and poorer until you could see no more. Often it was better to stand in the aisle outside the kitchen.
Throughout the early 1970s, artists usually were booked for a full week, Tuesdays through Saturdays, performing two sets each night. Often I would go on Tuesday night, which was the least crowded night, and if the show was good, I would come back and see it again multiple times. The historic shows were countless; seeing Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band open for Martin Mull; seeing Bob Marley & The Wailers open for Springsteen; seeing Gram Parsons shortly before he died introduce a then-unknown Emmylou Harris in his band.
Concerts in general became more popular, and the much larger Bottom Line’s opening in 1974 started to draw all the major acts. Max’s then featured local glitter rock and glam bands like the New York Dolls, and Wayne County became the house disc jockey. Peter Crowley was hired to book bands at Max’s, and he helped usher in the punk rock era with the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, The Heartbreakers, Television, Suicide, Blondie, Talking Heads, The Dictators, The Cramps, Mink DeVille, the Misfits, The Fleshtones, The B-52’s, Suicide, Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers, The Runaways, The Damned and Sid Vicious. In 1977, David Bowie introduced Devo there as “the band of the future.”
Bad Brains and the Beastie Boys performed at the closing night at Max’s in November 1981. The building then became a Korean deli.
The Bowery Electric celebrated Max’s Kansas City’s 50th Anniversary on June 4-7 with concerts booked by Peter Crowley. These four nights featured some of the surviving artists from the early punk rock years as well as newer artists that continue to live the spirit of that era.