Living in New York City in the late 1970's, participating in the punk rock scene at the time, was to be exposed to a seedy, dark decay. It was my (mis)fortune to stumble into the middle of it all one seemingly hopeless Thanksgiving. It had been my young experience (I was a wide-eyed and/or stupid 21 at the time) to find that most family and food oriented holiday to be alot of neither. The year before I was a transient at Bard College (upstate NY) staying secretly at a friend's dorm while he was home. My turkey ended up being a tuna sandwich and nothing else that day. This time around I had become suddenly unemployed only the day before. Again I was living at the edge, a NYC theme. I stumbled into Max's Kansas City, a recent watering hole of mine where I hung out more than I drank. That evening, some old schoolmates from Bard happened to be there as well. I sat with them as the restaurant/bar buzzed with moderate business and the juke box pounded out some punk/new wave/rock 'n' roll tunes. I laid out my unfortunate story on some acquaintance at the table. I don't remember names, never being good at remembering such things. I remember one guy named John whose father was a successful attorney whose clients included Timothy Leary and Baba Ram Dass. He himself was a photographer of I don't know what quality or success. Like many ex-students of Bard I think the success of his father gave him more of the creature comforts of every day living than his own success. Anyway, this acquaintance who was not John, having heard of my misfortune and the bad timing of it, being that this was just Thursday of a 4 day weekend, suggested I talk to an older woman sitting at the cash register. She turned out to be Laura Dean, co-owner of Max's along with her husband, Tommy, and another gentleman named Mike (who ran the daytime businessman bar with a MOR juke box now sitting quietly beside the late night punk one). Of course I knew nothing of this at the time!
When I approached her, telling her of my vast experience as a bus boy (over a years worth at a couple different venues) and even suggesting she could see a letter of recommendation, she told me to come in the next day to start work. Wow. Just like that. She asked if I had anything black I could wear, pants and shirt. I told her I would put something together, and that was that. I remember the first outfit was some woman's shirt, kind of like a T-shirt but sort of long sleeved (me being 6'6'' rarely is a borrowed long sleeved shirt really a long sleeved shirt) and with some ruffled texture formed into three or four stripes around the torso. It was definitely punk. I can't remember if I started getting my tight black jeans from Trash & Vaudeville right away. I do know I lived in them and my Max's T-shirts (they had their own soon enough and eventually had 'staff' printed on the sleeves) for the next two years (until, as was my way in NYC, I was fired).
During my two years at Max's, (& even before, when I was hanging) I encountered a wide assortment of Rockers. Everyone from Frank Zappa and Lou Reed to Rockpile to Robert Gordon to Peter Criss to David Byrne to David Johanson to Markie Ramone. Many of them flashed by, like Mr. Reed, who sped through the restaurant like a fly dodging some Uber-swatter, probably nervous from strange old memories of the Velvet Underground's residency or the twisted and contorted times in the back room where, when Mickie Ruskin owned the place, Andy Warhol held court over an abundance of speed freaks, queens, transvestites and high gloss hipsters. He zoomed back there and zoomed right out again. It reminds me of another little guy who I saw flash by me and my friends at another club, Danceteria, zipping up to the ticket office and then disappearing inside: Iggy Pop. What was it about these diminutive rockers who in a sense had combined to create the scene I was working in. Maybe it was the flash which leaves the pile of burnt-out ash which we were stepping in at Max's. Some of the people I dealt with directly. I waited on them. Zappa would play at the Palladium, just three blocks down the road, back when it was a concert venue, and a great one at that. He played there every Halloween for I don't know how long. And he would eat at Max's before the shows (he usually did three or four nights there). He would have a plain hamburger, lots of coffee and lots of cigarettes. There was always a major group of hangers on who would buzz around him like a bunch of nondescript gray moths who acted like he was the filament and some invisible bulb or something would keep them near by but never touching. Zappa never seemed to talk to anyone, head down, perhaps in thought, perhaps in defiance, a callused defiance brought on by many years of fame. A table away from him sat a huge black man. He was one of the more friendly people to set foot on this earth. Surrounded by lovely girls and chatting away, he sat upon Frank's money, his cash and cards. When the bill came, the black man, Frank's bodyguard, brought forth Frank's card and signed the receipt. Another name dropping service occurred when I served Rockpile. It was Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Terry Williams and Billy Bremner. They were having a great time getting well soused. I remember several screwdrivers and whiskeys being served by me. When they were ready to pay, I didn't add the service charge (we always added service charges because the mostly young clientele had no clue how to tip) forgetting that Englishmen expect to be charged service and thus got no tip. Oh well. The things you remember. I guess I'm revealing my cheapness.
I guess what I'm getting at is two things diametrically opposed to each other. On the one hand when you are a waiter in a restaurant, you are not really meeting or getting to know those you serve. On the other hand, there is an opportunity to view aspects of these people's lives which, though superficial, hint at deeper things.
Though never having any direct contact with two famous characters, it was interesting witnessing them and the way they would stand at the bar. In the case of David Byrne, I would see him occasionally, maybe two or three times. He always stood near the bar. He was always still. And he watched. The eyes would move about the room and then transfix. I would rarely see him leaning down to talk. I'm sure, with his height and the constant noise of Max's he would have to have leaned down to be heard. The other character I saw a few days before I started working at Max's. Sid Vicious had just been released after being arrested for the murder of Nancy Spungeon. He was standing completely still at the bar. I mean he was catatonic. The strangest thing about it was it was probably one of the last times he would be seen. That very night he went up to a club on the upper west side called Hurrah and beat up Patti Smith's brother who I guess, though it seems strange in the circumstances, was, in Sid's mind, making moves on the girl Sid was with that night. Sid was arrested for assault and put back in jail. The next time he was released he copped himself enough dope to get himself beyond high. I don't know if he planned it. I do know he must have been alone, because if anyone had been around he could have been revived.
A few people I knew well enough to say hi when I saw them sitting in one of the booths along the left wall of the restaurant. Often they were with a few people. They were regulars. At least one of the waitresses was dating them, which probably added to the frequency of their visits. These famous and less famous rockers included Tony Machine, Ty Styx and Mark Bell (Marky Ramone). Those three were all drummers and played with several bands. Tony played and plays with David Johansen from a late incarnation of the New York Dolls to the present Johansen transformation, Buster Poindexter. Ty played on the Heartbreakers Live at Max's LP (now CD) and Mark was in the Voidoids with Richard Hell and of course the Ramones. I think one of the waitresses (can't think of her name) had a thing for drummers. Another frequenter of Max's was Alan Suicide (as I knew him then) or Alan Vega. I don't think he was a drummer, he was Suicide's singer, but you never know. Maybe in a past band. This whole drummer thing is funniest when I consider the fact that the only really famous and probably really wealthy mainstream (so to speak) rocker I saw sitting and getting drunk was the goddamn drummer of Kiss!
Speaking of Johansen, I only remember seeing him at Max's twice. One time he pulled a Lou Reed, zipping into the back room and zipping out. He probably had the same kind of nerves as Lou, having also been a part of a resident band a few years before (the NY Dolls). Actually I saw him a couple times upstairs in the club where he jammed with Johnny Thunders and the Senders (a great local R&B band), but for this essay I'm focusing on the downstairs. If there are future installments, one will focus on the scene up there. The second time he brought Peter Crowley, the band booker and the great juke box programmer, a new 45 off his second solo LP, In Style. Melody was the song, a great one. He was beaming, plenty satisfied with the single.
Finally, to rap up this installment of life at Max's, I thought the most ironic moment of name-drop-dom was the VIP treatment given Robert Gordon. I mean, don't get me wrong, the guy is great, especially when Link Wray or, as in the case of his New Years Eve show at Max's, Chris Spedding is playing guitar for him. And he looked great with his high pompadour rockabilly haircut towering over his already tall head. But compared to some of the other names I was dropping, his whole high falutin attitude and star treatment seemed excessive. I thought so then and I think so now. It was the rock 'n' roll show. He was the big star on the big night and we played it up and he played too.
As I said before. If you want it you got it. I got lots of Max's stories to tell... As they come out too, maybe I'll actually prove the decadence which was so pervasive. Who knows?
From The Johnny Thunders Cyber Lounge
Last modified: September 25, 1997
Managed by: Chris Ridpath