Credit: Velvet Underground

A look back at the legacy of iconic New York venue, Max’s Kansas City

Max’s Kansas City was more than a venue for spectacular music of the time, it was New York City’s epicentre of art. If you can imagine a time when one could experience art and anything cultural, without having to spend boatloads of money; or a time when artists and bohemians ran the show — if anything, it was a time when corporate America hadn’t taken over yet — New York City grew spontaneously from moment to moment with passion and creativity to become a cultural Mekkah. 

The art found on the walls, ceilings, windows, and the painted faces seen on the stage, behind the heavy smoke of cigarettes, all belonged to the organic make-up of Max’s Kansas City — it’s structure and the people who frequented. As the Croatian photographer, Anton Perich, who was responsible for taking a lot of the great photos associated with the venue, said, according to Flashbak: “There were three epicenters at Max’s: Bar, Back Room and Upstairs. Each zone had prominent art. You didn’t have to go to MoMA to see contemporary American art.

“Mickey was the top curator of that time,” continued Perich. “The Bar had a hovering sculpture by Forest Myers. The window was by Michael Heiser. At the Long Wall was Donald Judd. The Passageway had a crashed car by John Chamberlain; it had sharp ends, so all waitresses had bruises. The Back Room had the legendary bloody neon cross by Dan Flavin as well as Myer’s ‘Laser’s End’ – probably the most immaterial sculpture ever made. Upstairs had some Warhols. My photograph hung over the cashier by the entrance. I was elated to be in such a company. Those are the real secrets of Max’s.”

Initially opened by Mickey Ruskin, a Cornell University graduate, the venue was located at 213 Park Avenue South. It opened its doors in 1965, undergoing various phases of episodes involving different casts of people — three acts if you will. Although the restaurant and nightclub’s reputation would far remove itself from any connection to its given name, Ruskin decided to maintain the name from its previous affiliation, after one of his more illustrious clients, poet, Joel Oppenheimer, commented: “When I was a kid, all the steakhouses had Kansas City on the menu because the best steak was Kansas City-cut, so I thought it should be ‘something Kansas City.”

Perhaps there was something appealing about the whimsical nature of the name that attracted the creative types. While the initial crowd that frequented, were Mickey’s friends, the older and the more academic types of writers also found some space at the grimy bar. According to Boweryboyshistory, this would prove to not be enough to keep the doors open. Eventually, Andy Warhol and his fanatical crew from the Factory began showing up.

Going into the 70s, Max’s began to see droves of glittered rockers; the likes of David Bowie, New York Dolls, Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop, and others such as Candy Darling, Patti Smith and her lover at the time, Robert Mapplethorpe. Bowie once spoke to the importance of a venue such as this for rising stars, “I met Iggy Pop at Max’s Kansas City in 1970 or 1971,” recalled David Bowie. “Me, Iggy and Lou Reed at one table with absolutely nothing to say to each other, just looking at each other’s eye makeup.” Agent of the Interzone, William Burroughs, was seen chatting to the infamous Howl author, Allen Ginsberg, in a dark corner. Mick Jagger was seen dancing with Dennis Hopper to the Velvet Underground. All of the rock dreams were coming true right here.

As a matter of fact, The Velvet Underground even recorded an album there, aptly named Live at Max’s Kansas City. David Byrne of Talking Heads, prior to moving to New York City, would find his way there to catch a glimpse of the then rising Ziggy Stardust-clad Bowie practising his charm among Warhol’s crew. To add even more to the talent pool, albeit unknown at the time, Bob Marley would open up for a slightly less unknown Bruce Springsteen in one of the more unusual moments in the venue’s history.

One of the greatest highlights of this iteration of the venue happened in ‘73 when Iggy Pop and The Stooges played to a tightly packed room. Iggy Pop, prime and within his element, with nothing to lose and fully embodying his truest punk spirit; a cautious Bebe Buell, the Ford Agency Model and girlfriend of Todd Rundgren, commented, “‘There was that element of danger because everybody had heard about his antics on stage.” This would be the night that prompted Iggy Pop to start cutting himself with glass.

According to Paul Trynka’s book on the new york punk, Iggy Pop: Open up and Bleed: The Biography, the story went as such: “The second night, the club was again jammed, and as Iggy walked over the tables and chairs, glaring at the crowd, one chair either wobbled or was pulled from under him; he slipped and fell onto a tabletop full of glasses, which shattered under his weight. As Iggy got up again, Nite Bob saw cuts on his chest and chin, and a puncture wound by one of his ribs; as Iggy staggered to the side and crashed into him, Bob noticed his own shirt was covered in blood and shouted, ‘Let’s pull it. Let’s stop it, man. You can’t do this!’ Iggy kept singing, the blood dripping down his chest. He discovered that if he pulled his left arm back, blood would spurt out in a continuous stream.”

By 1974, the glam rock scene was in decline and much of the crowd began to dwindle, and so Mickey Ruskin had to shut the doors. The venue reopened soon after, a year later, by Tommy Dean Mills who capitalised on the explosion of the punk scene. The first act was over.

CBGB’s had, of course, opened in ‘73, and by this point, there was certainly a fierce competition between the two venues. According to Ron Hart of The Rolling Stone, who explains the division very well: “Whereas East Village landmark CBGB famously launched the careers of the Ramones, Talking Heads and Television, Max’s – located roughly a mile uptown at 213 Park Avenue South – was home to a freer, often campier strain of punk that was more Rocky Horror than Marquee Moon.”

According to Ron Hart, under the guidance of music director, Peter Crowley, a punk enthusiast, who had the innovative idea of producing an album as a form of advertisement, which CBGB’s were quick to retaliate with, by doing their own album. The former’s album is titled, Max’s Kansas City: 1976, which included incredible acts such as The New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, Sid Vicious and the Idols, and Johnny Thunder. It is an essential piece of listening

This incarnation of the venue would come to a close by 1981. And just like that, the second act comes to an end followed by a very short-lived third act, which essentially saw a few valiant attempts to capitalise on the venue’s prestige. Mills attempted to reopen the venue in 1998 but to no avail. 

All of which, ultimately, saw the iconic haunt shut its doors for good on December 31st. Perhaps a fitting metaphor, for all the brilliant artists who walked in and out of Max’s Kansas City, some of their flames burned brightly but only for a short while.

Watch footage of Johnny Thunder and The Heartbreakers live in 1977, performing at Max’s Kansas City

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