Contemplating the Closure of Beloved New York Music Venues

by delarue

Bad Cop: RIP Rodeo Bar.

Good Cop: Rodeo Bar didn’t close. They just stopped having music.

Bad Cop: That’s a tragedy. Rodeo Bar was Americana Central in New York for decades. Bands relied on that place for a living. It was one of the few remaining scenes here. It’ll be missed, badly.

Good Cop: I hate to burst your bubble, but you’re romanticizing. And you can still go there for the food. Which is pretty good, believe it or not.

Bad Cop: It won’t be the same. The Rodeo was my local back in the day when I was rolling in the dough and living in Gramercy Park. Drinks weren’t all that expensive and the bands were great. Big names would come through on a regular basis: the Hot Club of Cowtown, Wayne Hancock, Rosie Flores. Big Lazy actually played there a couple of times. Might have been the best show I ever saw there. And so many New York bands made the place their home: the Hangdogs, Buddy Woodward’s band, Simon & the Bar Sinisters. A slice of prime Manhattan real estate like the Rodeo can’t be replaced.

Good Cop: But it’s not prime real estate. Prime real estate for a music venue now is Bushwick. Manhattan isn’t a destination anymore. And crowds just weren’t coming out to the Rodeo for the music, and hadn’t for a long time. And that’s not to say that they ever really did anyway. OK, I did get to see a bunch of good shows here, but there was always some issue, having to dodge crowds of drunk Baruch college kids, screaming and hollering and not paying any attention to the band. And as a business model, it just didn’t make sense for the Rodeo to keep paying bands when they weren’t bringing a crowd.

Bad Cop: But the Rodeo could have made a go of it if they’d really wanted to. You know what they did that was really dumb? Rockabilly on Saturday nights. That’s just pandering to a Long Island and Jersey crowd. Why not put New York bands on Saturday nights and create a scene?

Good Cop: Because the Saturday night crowds there are so loud that it made no sense to book a good band because nobody would have listened.

Bad Cop: Not true. I remember going to see the Hangdogs there on more than one Saturday and the place was packed, and, sure, it was loud, but people were there for the music.

Good Cop: Another reason that wouldn’t work these days is that the New York bands are all playing Brooklyn on Saturday nights. You yourself can vouch for this: if there’s something happening in your neighborhood, or at your local, aren’t you going to stay put rather than going into Manhattan, especially on the weekend when the trains are all fucked up?

Bad Cop: It’s not like the Rodeo was Roseland. You brought fifty people, you packed the place, at least on the side with the stage. That’s not unrealistic, even now.

Good Cop: I think that’s wishful thinking. And another thing, the Rodeo was never able to keep up with how the music scene here changed. Maybe back in the 90s, when you were going there, there was an audience for honkytonk, and alt-country, and heartland rock. But that was then. Now if you’re playing Americana, you’re probably playing more or less acoustic – country blues, or bluegrass. And if you tried to do that at the Rodeo, the crowd would drown you out. So you’ve got a situation where the new crop of Americana players wouldn’t play there anyway – and those people are the ones with a following – and the older bands draw an older crowd that doesn’t drink much and just keeps getting smaller and smaller. And to be honest, I thought that the quality of the bands at the Rodeo in the last couple of years wasn’t all that good anyway.

Bad Cop: That place actually had to fight to stay in business more than a lot of people realize. Remember a few years ago when they got shut down by the health department and had to spend a fortune on new ductwork? There was something fishy about that, like maybe somebody didn’t get paid off enough. Or maybe it was just another Bloomberg anti-nightlife crusade. I still think it’s a horrible shame that we’ve lost another good venue.

Good Cop: You can always go to Hill Country…

Bad Cop: No way! Completely different crowd. If you think the crowd at the Rodeo didn’t listen, you haven’t heard the din at Hill Country. The one in Manhattan’s a tourist trap, the one in Brooklyn’s totally ghetto. Nobody pays any attention to the music. Talk about a lousy business model! The only reason I can imagine why Hill Country would continue to hire bands is that they’re making such a killing on the food that they don’t feel the pinch.

Good Cop: But the restaurant at the Rodeo always seems to be pretty full…

Bad Cop: They don’t have anywhere near the markup that Hill Country does. The markup for barbecue is four or five times higher than what it is at most every other kind of restaurant, sometimes more. Paying the band three hundred bucks when that’s how much one party of four is going to spend there is a drop in the bucket, profitwise.

Good Cop: I never realized that. I guess that makes sense, considering the prices…

Bad Cop: Now that we’ve lamented the loss of the Rodeo, at least as a venue, let’s move on to Roseland. [to Good Cop]: When was the last time you went to Roseland?

Good Cop: I never went to Roseland.

Bad Cop: And why not?

Good Cop: Um, they really didn’t have a lot of music there anyway. Once a month? Once every couple of months? And when they did, tickets were insanely expensive.

Bad Cop: My point exactly. As far as the loss of a venue is concerned, Roseland barely qualified as one, at least since around 2000. I personally hated the place. [to Good Cop]: You would have really loved this place. The bouncers would grope you as you went in.

Good Cop: Really?

Bad Cop: They’d feel you up, all right. Your tits, your ass. I had a guy grab my balls there once.

Good Cop: What did you do?

Bad Cop: Ordinarily I would have decked the guy but I was with a bunch of people. A Wallflowers show, I think. And I didn’t want to get separated from them, plus, I’d dropped twenty-five bucks or so on the ticket.

Good Cop: Do you have any good memories of Roseland?

Bad Cop: Actually I do. I saw the Sex Pistols play their first ever New York show there. That was pretty amazing, even though the sound was ass, like it always was there. And I have a recording of their show there the following night, which I actually didn’t go to. But those shows were the exception rather than the rule, and as the years went by, the place was empty most nights of the week. You wanna know what the deal with that place was? It’s the one commercial property in a large residential portfolio. The scion of this particular real estate fortune would use it as his living room: he’d book the Eagles or the Rolling Stones for a private show, that sort of thing. Strictly a vanity operation, at least at the end.

Good Cop: I think it’s a shame to lose such a big space, one that’s so easy to get to.

Bad Cop: But remember what you just said about the Rodeo not being prime real estate! And also remember that Roseland really wasn’t functioning as a music venue, and hadn’t, for a long, long time.

Good Cop: Since I never went there and don’t really have anything to contribute to that discussion, let’s move on to Maxwell’s, who closed last year. Now I think that’s a great loss…

Bad Cop: It was. Maxwell’s was to Hoboken what CBGB was to Manhattan, except better. It’s unbelievable how many great bands played that little space. I loved that place. The sound was fantastic, the people who ran it were nice, drinks were cheap and the food was good. And where CBGB phoned it in, lived off its reputation, past its prime, for a long, long time, Maxwell’s booked a ton of good bands. And different kinds – Americana, garage rock, punk, songwriters, you name it.

Good Cop: Again, I hate to burst your bubble, but in the last couple of years at Maxwell’s, there weren’t more than a half a dozen bands I would have wanted to see.

Bad Cop: I think that’s more a function of a sea change than a reflection on the venue. I know, it did get really indie towards the end, which is why it pretty much fell off my radar. But back in the day I went there a lot, considering that I was coming from here. I remember walking those long twelve blocks from the Path train, and then back, in the middle of the winter and freezing my ass off. But it was worth it. Did you know, I saw Richard Thompson there?

Good Cop: Whoah! That doesn’t surprise me. I saw the Saints there. And Madrugada, I think it was their first American show.

Bad Cop: Notice how nobody’s tried to replace Maxwell’s? That’s because it can’t be replaced.

Good Cop: Now that’s a function of gentrification. I don’t think that had anything to do with Roseland or the Rodeo though…

Bad Cop: Oh yes it does. Without gentrification, there’d be no explosion of uber-pricy Brooklyn barbecue joints, for that matter, no proliferation of Brooklyn venues and the Rodeo would still be a viable spot.

Good Cop: Well, ok, I see your point. Next on your list is Max Fish, which I didn’t even know had live music.

Bad Cop: Max Fish hadn’t had live music in a long time. I think they stopped having it in around 2001, 2002 or so. But before then, a lot of great bands played there. Douce Gimlet, who I know you never saw, had a monthly residency there….

Good Cop: I know, I’ve heard you talk about them. But Max Fish was a tourist trap, wasn’t it?

Bad Cop: Not in the beginning. Back in the 90s there were two bars on the block, Max Fish and the Ludlow Street Cafe, which also had live music. The Fish was basically a local bar, and a music bar because, hard as this is to believe, a lot of musicians lived on the Lower East Side because – I know this is almost comical to say – rents were cheap. At least relatively cheap.

Good Cop: That’s hard to figure. To be honest, I didn’t like the place. It was the kind of bar you’d go to on a Monday, maybe..

Bad Cop: Every bar is a good bar on a Monday. Monday is professional night…

Good Cop: It was too crowded and too shi-shi for me. The crowd, at least. And a meat market, from the looks of it…

Bad Cop: Yeah, there was plenty of that too. But back in the day, it was the kind of place where on any random night, Elliott Smith could be chatting with Chan Marshall, and so many other good players would be hanging out. You’d meet all your friends there because there weren’t a lot of other places to go down there, and the Fish was probably the first place you went to the first time you went out in that neighborhood. Back in the day, they had the best jukebox in town, all these great obscure New York bands. The Tom Otterness sculptures on the bar, the trippy polka dots on the walls. Yeah, I know it got crowded, and as the neighborhood went to hell, so did the Fish, but I still have a lot of good memories of the place. I miss it.

Good Cop: It’s too bad I missed out. Are you going to the new one when it opens on Orchard Street?

Bad Cop: Hell no. That was a time and a place and it’s over now. Next on our list here is Kenny’s Castaways…you have got to be kidding. Kenny’s Castaways?!?

Good Cop: Hey, they had a good sound system…

Bad Cop: But the bands sucked! And it’s on the Bleecker Street strip! C’mon, when’s the last time you went to Kenny’s Castaways?

Good Cop: I went to see my friends’ band play there once.

Bad Cop: Did you have a good time?

Good Cop: Actually, yeah. Although I remember there was a big posse of Jersey girls with ironed hair that came in at the end and started yelling.

Bad Cop: We needed Kenny’s Castaways like we needed a hole in the head. If that whole strip turned into a mini-mall tomorrow, that would be an improvement.

Good Cop: Still, it’s too bad to lose another Manhattan space…one with a good sound system, too…

Bad Cop: Give ya a little history. For a blip back in the late zeros, or maybe the mid-zeros, this would have been around 2006 if I remember correctly, Kenny’s Castaways suddenly because a really good venue. Dave Foster from Bubble booked the place for a few months and all of a sudden there were a whole bunch of good bands playing there. And then they fired him. Must not have been what the Jersey tourists wanted.

Good Cop: Wow, I never knew that. Working backwards, roughly speaking, next on our list is the National Underground. Now this place never made any sense to me…

Bad Cop: Me neither. Remember when they first started, they were trying to be a country bar?

Good Cop: Yeah. Lots of Jalopy people, as I remember. But that space is cursed. It’s a tourist bar now.

Bad Cop: Again. Do you remember when it was that airplane theme bar?

Good Cop: Before my time.

Bad Cop: You didn’t miss anything. And I get the impression that the owners never gave a damn about the place, they were just using it for seed money to start a branch in Nashville. You know who owned it, right?

Good Cop: No, who?

Bad Cop: This guy Gavin DeGraw. A sappy corporate singer-songwriter prettyboy.

Good Cop: Never heard of him. Must have been busy with his sappy corporate gig because the bar was a trainwreck. The last time I was there, there was a huge rat in the corner. Didn’t the health department close it down?

Bad Cop: Come to think of it, yes! And the sound was frightful. Drink prices were absurd especially for such a scuzzy space. And there was this one time I was there when there was somebody playing onstage but the bartender left an album, or his phone or the radio or something, playing over the PA during the show. As you can tell from how this conversation has evolved, I’m usually the first to lament the passing of a viable space for music, but the National Underground wasn’t one of them.

Good Cop: Next on the list is Zirzamin. Which I don’t understand. That place had so much going for it, and it closed so soon…

Bad Cop: I don’t want to betray any confidences – let’s say that there are structural issues with the building which preclude the use of the space for any purpose, really. Things may have gotten worse in recent years, but it’s still pretty amazing how long Zinc Bar, and then the frat bar that followed it, managed to last in that space.

Good Cop: They were so dedicated to good music. Where else could you see a weekly residency by Gato Loco, or Beninghove’s Hangmen?

Bad Cop: Barbes, for one. It was sort of Barbes Manhattan. But there were legal issues, related to the building, that nobody knew about, basically from day one. And that pretty much put a damper on any kind of long-term strategy for the place – other than the weekly salon that this blog hosted there, of course.

Good Cop: The sound was incredible. It was so intimate and so Twin Peaks back there in that room…

Bad Cop: And you remember how the air conditioning would suddenly cut out, and how some days the kitchen would be open and then it wouldn’t be, and the bar would be out of this and that…it was a great scene while it lasted, and considering what they were up against, it’s a miracle it lasted that long. A year and two months. I was just walking past the corner of Houston and LaGuardia the other day and they were finally clearing out the basement. All the fixtures and furniture were still there. Sad.

Good Cop: Did you take a souvenir?

Bad Cop: I did, right before they closed. I took some silverware. One of the knives fell down behind my stove and it’s still in there somewhere.

Good Cop: Next on the list is Bar Four. Which as I see was in Park Slope. I never went there so you have the floor for this one…

Bad Cop: Thank you for that introduction. And this is where I get to vent about everything that’s wrong with the live music scene in New York. Bar Four was a nice enough neighborhood bar. Kind of a small place, little stage in the back, pretty friendly, not very expensive. And as it turned out, they had a surprisingly good songwriters’ night there. Too bad I never heard about it til after they closed.

Good Cop: Did you ever go there?

Bad Cop: Once, to hear a jazz group. Who were great. I would have gone back if the bar had made the slightest attempt to publicize what was happening there. But they didn’t.

Good Cop: It was pretty small, right? Maybe they figured they didn’t need to, that the bands themselves would bring a crowd…

Bad Cop: My point exactly. Or rather, sort of. None of these venues seem to want to grow, to create something that’s going to expand beyond where they are. They’re just content to have enough of a crowd in the house so they can pay the rent. Nobody has any ambition. In the case of Bar 4, part of it is the fault of the musicians. You want to know what that songwriters’ night was called? Local Correspondents…

Good Cop: Sounds like a news organization. Bad branding, if you ask me…

Bad Cop: That’s part of it. But as you know, I have from time to time been known to pitch in and help with putting together the monthly live music calendar at this blog. So when I’d go to the Bar 4 website and I saw “Local Correspondents,” I assumed it was something like what you just described. Did the bar even bother to mention who was playing? Or that it was a music event at all, instead of the guys from the tv trucks on their night off? No. And that I blame on the venue. I don’t know if it was a lack of bodies, or the end of a lease, or what it was, that put the bar out of business, but they didn’t do themselves any favors by not telling the world what was happening there.

Good Cop: But do you really think that people went to their website to see what was happening? Maybe they just figured, you know, we’ll do a twitter feed and leave it at that…

Bad Cop: Maybe so, and that speaks for so many other venues that still are in business. They take and they take from musicians and give back nothing. Max Fish was front and center in the rock scene ten, fifteen years ago. Kenny’s Castaways was part of the West Village folk scene back in the 60s. Maxwell’s was Ground Zero for New Jersey bands, Yo La Tengo and the Feelies and the Bongos and a whole lot of other bands got their start there. Roseland was a hotspot for latin dancing in the 50s and 60s and for big band jazz before then. And the Rodeo we already talked about. Will any of the latest crop of Brooklyn bars be remembered after they’re gone? I doubt it.

Good Cop: Neither will most Manhattan bars. I think you’re romanticizing. Again. Max Fish just happened to be the one bar on the block where all the musicians went. For the longest time, Maxwell’s was the only club in Hoboken. Kenny’s Castaways just happened to be there when Bob Dylan was coming up. And there were a lot of dance halls for big band jazz, Roseland wasn’t the only one. I think that people with ambition and the desire to build a scene are the exception rather than the rule and have always been. Most bar owners just want to make money, they don’t care how and there are plenty of ways to do it other than having bands on the weekend.

Bad Cop: We forgot the Living Room.

Good Cop: Ha, you can have that one too…

Bad Cop: Did you ever go to the Living Room?

Good Cop: Yeah, once or twice. And I can honestly say that I hated the place. I remember the waitress swooping down on me, like a vulture, the minute I walked in. And security was really tight, just getting inside was like going to the airport. Which was weird, and off-putting. And the sound was bad, and drinks were expensive. Which is why I didn’t go back..

Bad Cop: Let’s be completely fair about this. The Living Room, in its original space at the corner of Stanton and Allen Streets, was a perfectly OK place. Back in the day, if you were a singer-songwriter, there were two main places to play on the Lower East Side, CB’s Gallery and the Living Room. There were other places: the original Sin-e, which was a tiny little joint, but then they closed. And there were Fez and the Bottom Line, but both of those places had a cover charge and expensive drinks, and bad reputations for not paying bands. So if your music was on the quiet side, or if you were doing what the Jalopy bands are now, you’d probably end up at the Living Room sooner or later. And it wasn’t a bad little spot: drinks were on the pricy side, but there usually wasn’t a cover and a lot of good people passed through there. I went there a lot. Then when they moved to Ludlow Street, the place went completely to hell.

Good Cop: What was better about the Allen Street location?

Bad Cop: Everything. The sound was ok – it isn’t a huge space, anyway. And there wasn’t the security gauntlet that they suddenly had at the location on Ludlow. What I always found so ironic is that Cake Shop, next door, had such a relaxed atmosphere and such nice people working there, while the Living Room was like a Nazi death camp. Let’s wrap this up with a true story, this would have been around 2006 or so: guy with his guitar onstage at the Living Room, and he’s not young, probably in his 40s. His dad is sitting in the audience, trying to figure out how to work a digital camera. He’s got to be at least 70, maybe 80. Finally, the old guy figures out how to work the camera. From out of nowhere, the sound guy leaps out of the sound booth, sprints down the aisle and snatches the camera out of the old man’s hand. The old guy is mortified: he thinks he’s being mugged. Sound guy snootily confiscates the camera and tells the old man that there’s no unauthorized photography at the Living Room. Which speaks for everything that was wrong with that place.

Good Cop: I recorded a show there and never had any problem…

Bad Cop: Yeah, I did too, but after I heard that story I was more discreet about it. And then it just hit me, why even bother with this shithole. All the good acts who played there would also play Pete’s, or the Rockwood, where the sound would be good and you wouldn’t be treated like shit. I’m cynical about venues in general, but the Living Room was my least favorite club in the world. I’d rather get my balls fondled at Roseland than spend another minute at the Living Room.

Good Cop: Blog Boss had a funny quote about that place. Remember Mike Dukakis? Ran for President against Bush I? Dukakis said that a fish rots from the head down, and that’s why the Living Room was what it was. Supposedly the owner there was a nightmare, and everybody who worked there was miserable, and that’s why they treated the customers like shit.

Bad Cop: Clubs in general have a lot of turnover, but I knew a lot of former Living Room employees and not a single one had anything good to say about that place. Good riddance.

Good Cop: I hope this is our last requiem for dead venues…

Bad Cop: I’ve been bugging Blog Boss to do a dead venues page. For history’s sake. Are you down?

Good Cop: No thanks. You can have all the nostalgia. I’m in this for the here and now. Wait – we didn’t even mention Lakeside!

Bad Cop: I don’t have it in me to talk about that. That was really sad, even though you could see the end coming a mile away. And anyway, there were a couple of things about Lakeside closing here, back around the time it happened. They’re here and here.