It makes sense that a city like New York, with its complex mix of cultures in a small geographic space and its constant sense of forward momentum, would create a fertile environment for music – punk, disco, hip hop, jazz, doo wop, folk rock, indie rock, freestyle, and salsa were all largely (if not entirely) born here. But of course, that same momentum and geographic density can often result in an unsentimental approach to history. Landmarked buildings and plaques are few and far between; old buildings are regularly demolished to make way for new ones, or are drastically repurposed beyond recognition.
A handful of the city’s major music landmarks remain intact – Electric Lady, the studio built by Jimi Hendrix and used by everyone from David Bowie to D’Angelo, continues to operate in its original location at 58 W 8th St. The Chelsea Hotel – once home to Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, and Sid Vicious; commemorated in song by Leonard Cohen – has been stuck in renovation limbo for years now, as its new owners have struggled to transform it into a luxury hotel despite a handful of long-term tenants who refuse to be kicked out.
Some shuttered spaces maintain a small degree of commemoration. The John Varvatos store that now occupies 315 Bowery has proudly coopted several remnants of the space’s previous incarnation as the legendary punk venue CBGB & OMFUG. The irony of a venue that once nurtured struggling artists on the margins of society being repurposed to sell prohibitively expensive designer clothing seems to be lost on them, but hey – at least its not a Starbucks, right? Similarly, the notorious 90’s dance club the Limelight is now home to a gym called, you guessed it, Limelight Fitness.
Still, many of the buildings that housed the city’s most significant musical developments go totally unacknowledged, and many of their current tenants presumably have little to no clue about the hallowed ground on which they stand. Here are four that I find especially extraordinary.
Max’s Kansas City (213 Park Ave South)
Opened in 1965 by restauranteur Mickey Ruskin in 1965, Max’s Kansas City first attained notoriety as the regular hangout spot for Andy Warhol and his cast of proteges and hangers-on (“superstars,” he called them). In 1967, Warhol moved his studio, the Factory, from its initial midtown location to 33 Union Square West – conveniently, a mere block away from Max’s, which Warhol and his superstars populated on a nightly basis.
In 1969, the restaurant started hosting concerts on its second floor, in a space previously reserved for unhip tourist diners that Ruskin wanted to hide from his chic regulars. The first band to play Max’s was probably the Silver Apples, a groundbreaking duo whose mix of homemade synthesizers and repetitive four-on-the-floor drums lay the groundwork for much of the electronic dance music to follow (Mayor John Lindsay was a fan). In 1970, Lou Reed played his last shows with the Velvet Underground at Max’s, and a recording of the final night was released a few years later as, naturally, The Velvet Underground Live at Max’s Kansas City.
Though the early 70’s, the venue hosted everyone from Tom Waits to Kiss to Cheap Trick to Big Star to Steely Dan to Patti Smith to Hall & Oates. Bob Marley played his first American shows there, opening for Bruce Springsteen. Billy Joel opened for Merle Haggard, and was reportedly booed off stage. David Bowie was first introduced to Iggy Pop at Max’s, and Aerosmith were signed there. Debbie Harry and Emmylou Harris were waitresses.
Ruskin closed Max’s in 1974, but it was re-opened the following year by new owner Tommy Dean Mills. In its second incarnation, Max’s bookings drew heavily from the city’s emerging punk scene – Talking Heads, Ramones, Television, Blondie, the Cramps, the Heartbreakers, the Misfits, Devo, Suicide, the Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, the B-52s, the Feelies, and Klaus Nomi were all regular acts. Max’s closed for good in 1981. The final show was headlined by Bad Brains; the opening act was an unknown band of teenagers called the Beastie Boys.
Since its closure, the space has been home to a series of unremarkable delis. The current occupant is Fraiche Maxx, whose name is presumably just a funny coincidence and not a loving tribute to its former tenant.
Danceteria (30 W 21st St)
There were multiple Danceteria locations between 1979 and 1993, but the most celebrated was its multi-story second incarnation on 21st St, open from 1982 to 1986. Punk, hip hop, and dance music were all flourishing in the city during that time, and those seemingly disparate subcultures were brought together and cross-pollenated at Danceteria. Booker Ruth Polsky welcomed everyone from Run DMC to Sonic Youth to New Order to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to R.E.M. to Depeche Mode to Sade, while DJs like Mark Kamins, Anita Sarko, and Johnny Dynell all brought their omnivorous tastes to the club’s multiple dance floors. LL Cool J, Keith Haring, and the Beastie Boys were all employed there at various times, but Danceteria’s best-known former employee is one Madonna Louise Ciccone.
Madonna started out working coat check at Danceteria, before making her live solo debut there performing her single “Everybody” as part of doorman Haoui Montaug’s “No Entiendes” cabaret night in 1982. Madonna would perform there regularly during throughout 1982 and 83, including an opening slot on the Smiths’ first American show. When she starred in the 1985 movie Desperately Seeking Susan, she repaid the favor – a key scene takes place on Danceteria’s second floor, in which Madonna (as Susan) dances to her own song, “Into the Groove.”
The ground level of the 21st St space, where the bands would play, is now a tile shop called New York Stone; the other floors have inevitably become luxury residences.
Big Apple Studios/Greene Street Recording (112 Greene Street)
Electric Lady is probably New York’s best known recording studio, but if any other building could make a case for being the city’s answer to Abbey Road, it’s this one. As Big Apple Studios, the space was a petri dish for some of the edgiest experimental music coming out of the city – much of Philip Glass’ best known work was recorded here, as was the seminal Brian Eno-produced No Wave compilation No New York. But the studio really made its mark after it was rechristened Greene Street Recording in 1983. Kurtis Blow recorded “The Breaks” here (which was the first hip hop single to go gold), and Run-DMC recorded their self-titled debut shortly after (which was the first hip hop album to go gold). Shannon’s “Let the Music Play,” widely acknowledged as the first freestyle single, was recorded at Greene Street as well.
In 1988, Public Enemy recorded their masterpiece It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back at Greene Street with engineer Nick Sansano; just a couple months later, Sonic Youth came here to record their groundbreaking album Daydream Nation, also with Sansano. Both acts returned to Greene Street to record their follow-up LPs as well – Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and Sonic Youth’s Goo. Other classics recorded at Greene Street include A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s Return of the Mecca, and Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. New Order, Chaka Khan, Africa Bambaataa, Raekwon, Mos Def & Talib Kweli, Jungle Brothers, and Tricky all used the studio at various points as well.
Greene Street Recording ultimately closed in 2001. For several years now, it’s been the SoHo retail outpost for fashion designer/Beatle daughter Stella McCartney.
The Loft (645-647 Broadway; 99 Prince Street)
On Valentine’s Day 1970, DJ David Mancuso threw a party in his apartment at 645-647 Broadway that he dubbed “Love Saves the Day.” Mancuso spun a mix of soul, funk, rock, Afro-Cuban music, and jazz; a blend that would shortly come to be known as “disco.” The party was a success, so Mancuso began throwing them regularly in his loft – which quickly became known among his invite-only crowd as “The Loft.”
It is not a stretch to say that dance music and the culture that surrounds it would not exist without Mancuso and the Loft. After being evicted in 1973, Mancuso relocated to a large two-level space at 99 Prince Street. At Prince Street, Mancuso installed an awe-inspiring high-end stereo system, filled the room with balloons and streamers, and offered food and fruit juice to his invited friends and their trusted guests. That exclusivity, and the sense of trust that accompanied it, helped maintain the Loft as a safe space for its dancers, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Mancuso took great pains to ensure that the Loft remained uncorrupted.
David Mancuso’s disciples would go on to DJ at many of the city’s better-known clubs, like Studio 54 and Paradise Garage, but he stuck it out on Prince Street until 1984, after which he again relocated the Loft to Alphabet City. Mancuso sadly passed in 2016, but the Loft continues to this day as an invite-only party in a secret location. The Broadway apartment remains residential, while the Prince Street space has been subdivided into a restaurant called Mercer Kitchen and several high-end boutique.