Members of Bad Brains, Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, and more remember Max’s Kansas City. An excerpt from NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980–1990, by Tony Rettman.
The following is chapter 2, “Max’s Kansas City: Punk Thursdays,” from the bookNYHC: New York Hardcore 1980–1990, by Tony Rettman (available Dec. 30, Bazillion Points).
Peter Crowley (talent booker, Max’s Kansas City): The person I’m aware of who first used the word hardcore was a journalist by the name of Pat Wadsley, who worked at the SoHo Weekly News. She wrote a review of the New York rock ‘n’ roll scene that read, “CBGB has mellowed with age. Hurrah is Macy’s punk. Only Max’s remains hardcore.”
Denise Mercedes (guitarist, Stimulators): Max’s is interesting, because when we began playing there fairly regularly and became popular, hardcore slamming didn’t exist. People were just jumping around—I guess they were pogoing. A lot of movement and a lot of energy came out from the audience. Tables and chairs were getting broken. Whenever the Stimulators played, Max’s had to take out all the furniture. I always think that’s a little badge of honor. “The Stimulators are coming! Get everything out of here!” That’s a fond memory for me.
Jack Rabid (editor, The Big Takeover fanzine; drummer, Even Worse): The scene where I really thrived as a full-fledged member was those Max’s Kansas City gigs.
Vinnie Stigma (guitarist, The Eliminators, Agnostic Front, Madball; vocalist, Stigma): I used to play Max’s Kansas City a lot with my band the Eliminators. I hung out at Max’s and ran around with a leather jacket on with no shirt on underneath in the middle of the summer. It didn’t matter! You had to have the leather jacket on! I was a punk rocker.
Richie Birkenhead (vocalist, Numskulls, Underdog, Into Another; guitarist, Youth of Today): Back then, the clubs I used to go to were Max’s, the Mudd Club, and the old Peppermint Lounge. I think Max’s was the first to really have hardcore.
Al Pike (bassist, Reagan Youth; coeditor, Straight Edge fanzine): Max’s had this overpowering darkness. The walls were dark. Seats and tables were pushed to the side. A lot of the loud, fast people hung there.
Keith Burkhardt (vocalist, Agnostic Front, Cause for Alarm): I came into the city from Nutley, New Jersey, and went to Max’s Kansas City. Instead of being at the hole-in-the-wall pizzeria where I worked, now I was at Max’s, where you could run into Mick Jagger or Andy Warhol. There were all these punks. It was a totally surreal scene.
John Joseph (Vocalist, Bloodclot, M.O.I., Cro-Mags): I went to Max’s in ‘77, and me and my boy got beat up. He stole some motherfucker’s money off the bar downstairs on the ground floor. We were stoned on Tuinals. We were crazy and just living on the streets. Then I met this punk rock chick who became my first girlfriend. She was a little older than me, and she took me back to Max’s. She was down with the whole punk shit and all that early stuff.
Sean Taggart (vocalist, Shok; artist, Cro-Mags, Crumbsucker): There were two versions of Max’s. There was the Max’s that was the artist hangout that was filled with downtown movers and shakers in the early ’70s. The initial idea was for Max’s to be like the Cedar Tavern, a place where artists hung out and drank. The Factory was right around the corner, so it was taken over by the Warhol crowd and became this celebrity fuckfest. That Max’s closed in ‘74. Mickey Ruskin sold the place. He was a friend of my parents, because they were artists. When Max’s reopened in ‘75 is when they started having punk rock, art rock, and all this weird shit—but I don’t think it ever had the same pull as it did in the beginning.
Doug Holland (guitarist, Apprehended; Kraut, Cro-Mags): I used to go down to the Fourteenth Street Park and I would run into Bobby Snotz. He was Joe Punk Rock when I met him. I was listening to the Grateful Dead and Thin Lizzy and that wasn’t in his groove, man. He was known for throwing a garbage can through Max’s window. I remember going into Max’s at fourteen years old and ordering a Heineken and I’d have to reach up to grab it from the bar! I never had problems. I always got served because I dressed right. Black engineer boots, black denim, black shirt, and black leather jacket. I had my hair done back like Joe Strummer.
Johnny Carco (bassist, The Misguided): I remember seeing Rick Rubin’s band the Pricks play Max’s when there were video games and pinball games downstairs where the bar used to be. I’ll never forget how the lead singer, Billy Syndome, jumped off the stage during a guitar solo. He ran downstairs and put a quarter in a pinball machine and started playing pinball. Then he ran back upstairs and jumped back onstage and finished the song. I think they were covering “Whole Lotta Love.”
Bobby Steele (guitarist, The Misfits; vocalist, The Undead): I was banned from Max’s in ‘79 when I was still in the Misfits. It was the end of the set, and we were just about to go into “Attitude.” One of the bouncers came up on the stage with four glasses of water. He put them down next to me. We go into “Attitude,” and tables and chairs are getting busted up and thrown around. It looked like a prison riot. So I wanted to douse people with some water. I picked up this glass of water and it was so cold and I was so sweaty, it was like K-Y Jelly. The glass went flying, hit a table, broke, and a big piece of it went into the arm of this guy. The guy went to the emergency room, and when they asked him what happened, he said he was stabbed. So, by law, if there’s a stabbing, they have to report it to the police. I’m hanging out in the dressing room, we’re partying, and two cops come in. They come up to me and ask if I’m in the band that played that night. I said yeah, and they arrested me for assault and battery. They cuffed me and took me out. The cop who arrested me ended up hiring my lawyer, because he didn’t want to do the paperwork. A week later, I was smoking a joint with his partner in front of Max’s.
Dave Scott (drummer, Adrenaline O.D.): At Max’s, there was a combination of older drug addicts and this younger scene that was coming up that no one knew what to make of. I think the older people were not very impressed with us younger kids. They didn’t want the infiltration.
Darryl Jenifer (bassist, Bad Brains): Max’s was most likely the place where New York punk started. It felt more like drug rock as opposed to the punk rock that we embraced as youth in D.C. Our scene was fueled by the youth movement and culture: anti-Babylon and anti-Reagan. New York City was dope, Johnny Thunders, and the like.
Parris Mayhew (guitarist, Cro-Mags): It was a real odd place. In front there were motorcycles parked all the way down the block, because it was a Hells Angels hangout. Downstairs, it was all Hells Angels. Upstairs is where you went to see music. You walked up these old, moldy, worn-down wooden New York stairs—every step you stepped on felt like you were going into the steps.
Ron Rancid (vocalist, the Nihilistics): I have to give the most credit to Peter Crowley, who booked Max’s Kansas City. We played there a lot, including the last three nights that Max’s was open. People would scream, “Go back to Long Island, you hippies!” but he always put us on the bills.
Denise Mercedes: Peter Crowley was a true genius of his time for allowing us to do our thing.
Jack Rabid: We got booked into Max’s Kansas City thanks to the Bad Brains. After their set, they handed us their instruments and said, “Go up there and do it!” Peter Crowley was right there as soon as we got off the stage and asked, “Do you guys want to do your own gig? I’ll book you.” That was a quantum leap, to get a gig at Max’s every month.
Steve Wishnia (bassist, False Prophets): Peter Crowley would give you a letter grade, and that was actually really good, because you knew where you stood. You’d play a Thursday night and he’d be like “A-minus. If you do another one like that, I’ll give you a weekend”—or “You guys were fucking about a bit too much onstage, that’s a B.”
Jack Rabid: Even Worse got B-pluses and A-minuses all the time.
Peter Crowley: I wasn’t grading them in the way regular clubs would do. I wasn’t worried about consulting the bartender to see who sold the most drinks or any of that stuff. Even at the end, when I should have been doing that, I didn’t.
Paul Cripple (guitarist, Reagan Youth): Since the drinking age was eighteen when I was a kid, and due to the fact that I looked older than fifteen—not to mention that my older sister would take me along with her hot friends—made it too easy for me to go to a venue like Max’s and knock back beers at the age of fifteen! Then I’d hang by the jukebox and play songs and act like I was cool. But like all good things, Max’s Kansas City was coming to an end.
Peter Crowley: As 1981 progressed and Max’s went down the drain, the restaurant downstairs closed. The restaurant was the thing that allowed me to put anything on the stage, regardless of how much money it was going to make, because there was tons of money in the register by the end of dinner. Then we would open up at ten o’clock at night. It wasn’t like CBGB, where you had to make money from the show. We didn’t have that situation. But once the restaurant went under, I was pressured to try to make money upstairs, which was close to impossible. The owner was in love with the white lady and totally neglecting the club. Competition was terrible, and we didn’t have a restaurant anymore. It was a mess—a terrible mess.
Jesse Malin (guitarist/vocalist Heart Attack, D-Generation): Max’s was crumbling in the last year. Peter Crowley would take me into the office and say, “Call your friends in Queens and book a few bills.” So I’d get on the rotary phone and put on these bills, and he was very supportive of this new thing.
John Watson (vocalist, Agnostic Front): Peter Crowley was absolutely essential in getting the early NYHC scene up and running. He booked the early shows, and then with my suggestion made it into “Punk Thursdays.” Every week there were great shows featuring the early bands on the scene. He was really an amazing personality, and an unheralded player in the early growth of the NYHC scene.
Peter Crowley: We had a very young audience that didn’t spend any money. Allowing them to play was an act of charity. The bartenders wanted to kill me. They would line up glasses of water on the bar before the doors opened, and then go and sit on the beer cooler, giving me dirty looks. Kids who were drunks were drinking out in the cars. There was no justifying the bands at Max’s except as art.
Johnny Carco: I saw the Bad Brains play in November 1981 during the final week of the club’s existence, along with Billy Syndrome, Alex Totino, and Danny Reich. We started collecting money at the door at the top of the stairs as if we worked there. This happened because we were standing at the top of the stairs, and three new wave kids who were walking up the stairs sheepishly asked how much it was to get in. We looked at each other and said, “Five bucks.” These kids gave us fifteen dollars. We took the money and gave them Max’s buttons that were in a box on a table as a sort of entry stamp. We ran out laughing and went to a diner near Fourteenth Street and bought cheeseburger deluxes with the money. Danny and I just recently confessed to Peter Crowley about doing this some thirty years ago, so now my conscience is clean!
Ron Rancid: We beat up the Beastie Boys at Max’s Kansas City. They were sitting there telling us how they hated their parents and how much they loved the Nihilistics. Then Mommy and Daddy came with catered food and hot chocolate from some deli. When Mommy and Daddy left, we beat them up and took their dinner.
Paul Cripple: It has to be one of my favorite memories: going to Max’s right before it was about to close down forever, not having to pay to get in, buying a quart of beer, and sparking up some herb with Jimmy G and Harley Flanagan while watching the Bad Brains, the Beastie Boys, Kraut, and Heart Attack. The original NYHC scene was as cool as cool could be. The Bad Brains allowed Reagan Youth to use their instruments so we could play a couple of songs the last night Max’s was open. Like I said, cool as cool could be.