Guitarist/Denise Mercedes Interviews
PETER CROWLEY The man behind the music of historic and trend-setting Max’s Kansas City circa 1975-1981
Starting in 1975, Peter Crowley, an edgy visionary and rock style-maker, did the talent bookings in an upstairs office of the most iconic and important cultural venue in NYC at that time: Max’s Kansas City. Under his musical guidance, the club presented some of the most innovative, ground-breaking and often very strange, underground artists. Unlike more traditional clubs where you bought a ticket and sat down to a show, a trip to Max’s was usually an eye-opener and sometimes a mind bender - due to the wide ranging assortment of upcoming bands and nonconforming entertainers whom Peter Crowley loved to present.
Max’s Kansas City (1965-1981; formerly located at 213 Park Ave. South) – was THE iconic NYC watering hole and absolute “in” place to be part of the mid-60’s and 70’s. Its alumni include an enormous roster of now-world-famous artists, rock star musicians, literary greats. Crowded inside the restaurant/bar and upstairs music venue were also slumming royalty, flamboyant & creative members of transgender & gay society, punk rockers, junkies, jet setters, fashionistas, local rock bands, journalists, groupies -- and anyone else who stepped through its hallowed life-changing doors enamored to be in the presence of greatness and wierdness. Max’s was the centralized meeting place of the exciting, the imaginative, the daring and sometimes dangerous, with ideas springing to fruition from every direction and walk of life, inspired by feeling part of the contagious energy, power and freedom that very special place nurtured and appreciated.
This abbreviated list can give a small sense of how important Max’s was in its earliest days, with cliques of intellectual patrons busy helping reshape the avant garde world of the arts -- pop culture as we now know it: Andy Warhol & entourage, the Velvet Underground, William Burroughs, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Larry Rivers, John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Maplethorpe, and so many many more world class contemporary artists.
It seemed like every visiting rock superstar, and those treading and clawing up the ladder to stardom, put in an appearance at Max’s – to hang out, hob nob, or to play onstage: Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, rock pioneer Link Wray … plus an endless list of well-known movers and shakers in the wild and wily music world. Max’s was the spot of Aerosmith’s first New York show, while a starting out Bob Marley & the Wailers played support to a young Bruce Springsteen there.
My early punk band The Stimulators were Max’s regulars both onstage and off. In fact I met the band’s somersaulting, back flipping frontman/singer Patrick Mack (who hailed from Kansas City!) at Max’s. We have treasured memories of playing there, with pre-teen sensation 12 year-old punk rock drummer Harley Flanagan kicking over his drum set at every show’s end. I have always considered us a ‘Max’s band’ and know those times and experiences were some of the most formative and important not only in my musical life, but in those of my peers as well. Peter Crowley wrote the wonderful liner notes to our Stimulators Loud Fast Rules! album on ROIR Records.
Untaught styles were born, new ground-breaking ideas were flying everywhere -- and originality was everything under Crowley’s domain.
Through Peter Crowley’s taste sensibilities and support, Max’s became almost a home base for many local bands to play, aside from international recording stars that performed there as well. It helped give rise to the mid-70s coalescing NYC rock scene and provided an established platform for all kinds of musical experimentation with a wide range of inimitable characters at the forefront of the rock & roll madness unfolding. Peter Crowley had fully embraced underground 'punk' and its subcategories, and ultimately by the club’s end, helped lead in the thrash/hardcore outgrowth of the punk movement. Max’s closed in 1981 with the Bad Brains headlining and the Beastie Boys supporting them it is recorded. ***There are online resources which detail the many famous and charming infamous who are parts of the Max’s Kansas City legacy**
How did you become the talent booker for Max’s Upstairs?
I was promoting shows at MOTHERS when Tommy Dean, the new owner, reopened Max’s Kansas City in 1975. He'd redecorated in the style of an airport lounge, and was featuring a live disco cover band upstairs. So, after everyone had taken a look, the joint was empty and Tommy set out to discover what he'd done wrong. When he asked Jayne County, she referred him to me and, after consultation; Tommy hired me to straighten out the mess he'd made.
Photo by Eileen Polk*
You probably worked with every single person and band in NYC trying to make it in those days. How did you determine who got to the stage and who didn’t? What were your criteria for putting on shows?
If I liked a band, or thought others would like them, I'd give them a shot on a weekday. It helped if they weren't too commercial. Those I liked a lot got to work weekends, and, from there it was the audiences who determined success or failure.
Can you provide readers with a list of the bands you worked with thru the Max’s years? It will be long – but extremely fascinating!!!
I'd be typing all night. Somewhere on a website, there's a list of every Max's show. I'd offer a link if I knew where it was located.
I’ll take the liberty of filling in some names of bands that performed at Max’s under your direction from internet searches and memory. ** This is a sampling and by no means a complete list of performers**
Alan Vega Band, Alex Chilton, Bad Brains, Blondie, Bush Tetras, Cheap Perfume, Cheetah Chrome, Cherry Vanilla, Chris Spedding, Contortions, Cramps, Damned, Devo, Diamond Dupree, Dictators, Emmy/Madonna, False Prophets, Feelies, Heart Attack, Heartbreakers, Helen Wheels, Joy Rider, Justin Trouble, Klaus Nomi, Kongress, Legionaire’s Disease, Lenny Kaye Connection, Levi & the Rockats, Mink DeVille, Nasty Facts, Nihilistics, Patti Smith Group, Pere Ubu, Pure Hell, Ramones, Red Transistor, Ronnie & the Jitters, Roustabouts, Sick F*cks, Sid Vicious, Siren, Sirius Trixon & the Motor City Bad Boys, Spicy Bits, Stimulators, Stray Cats/Brian Setzer, Suicide, Talking Heads, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, The Addictions, The Attack, The B-52s, The Blessed, The Brats, The Fast, The Heros, The Idols, The Influence, The Knots, The Mad, The Misguided, The Mob, The Passions, The Planets, The Possessed, The Pricks, The Rattlers, The Senders, The Violators, Tuff Darts, Undead, VON LMO, Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys, Wayne County and the Electric Chairs, Zantees … amongst many others.
What was it about the NY bands of that time that separated them from say, bands from Long Island or other areas?
Actually, many members of NY bands came from the suburbs and even further. Some of their parents had fled the City in the 'white flight' years and their kids came back as soon as they were old enough. With rare exceptions, bands in the city were exposed to hipper influences than those who stayed in their home towns.
You were fearless in booking shows. What were some of the most extreme and outrageous acts you ever put onto that stage? I’m thinking Wayne County and the Electric Chairs … Suicide … Sid Vicious … even The Mad, with abrasive singing, horror-themed frontman Screaming Mad George, who went on to Hollywood fame crafting his shocking special effects talents on blockbuster films such as Predator, Nightmare on Elm Street, Dream Master, and so on …
All of those acts were tame compared to KONGRESS with GEOFF CROZIER.
*Geoff Crozier (1948-1981) a/k/a The Mad Magician a/k/a The High Priest of Magik a/k/a the High Priest of Mystery and Madness -- was a professional magician from Australia with the soul of a rocker who fully incorporated his skills and theatrical flair in performances. The band Kongress, with VON LMO, the uncontainable wildman of rock - and no-wave mastermind, coupled with Otto Von Ruggins 666 on synthesizers, was an avant-garde free form pre-Goth experimental band that provided background noise for the consummate illusionist-showman Geoff Crozier during his time in New York. Interestingly, while here in New York and penniless, he had a roommate in Staten Island and lived with an assortment of animals including a monkey named Sarcophagus Mayhem.
Dressed in conjuror garb with startling mystical ornamentations and using the stage as an Altar, he performed bizarre, arcane-looking and spooky rituals with possessed-looking movements that were downright freaky … sometimes involving his animals e.g. a large rat emerging from a golden egg, or as in the 2nd youtube provided here “The Right Place for Mad Magicians: – performing with a Rooster sitting atop his head during his fiery incantations. Crozier’s shows were deemed chaotic / spectacular and implemented magicians props (fire, guillotines, smoke, etc.) and as much creative homemade technology as was possible for him to invent during the 70s on no budget whatsoever. Magician/showman/rocker Geoff Crozier was a vitally important seed and major contributor to the concept of theatrical/shock rock.
VON LMO, considered a monumental No-Wave innovator with a large cult following, is an experimental, radical conceptual musician/composer who plays guitar, vocals, and special effects. He was a member of mid-70s no-holds-barred Kongress with the ‘High Priest of Magik’ Geoff Crozier for a while. He is also known for and still highly praised for his 1977 band Red Transistor, formed after leaving Kongress. VON LMO’s extreme shows could involve the smashing of guitars, tables being hacked to death by a chainsaw - preceeding the Plasmatics in the use of power tools being implemented on a rock stage - and other acts of intensity and violence that could frighten an audience. His then formed the over-the-top sci-fi ‘space rock’ futuristic group VON LMO.
VON LMO, Max’s Kansas City 1979, from Paul Tschinkel’s Inner TUBE Archives
People thought I'd lost my mind when I first brought THE CRAMPS to Max's, but it didn't take long for them to catch on. The Cramps: Nothin’ But A Gorehound, Live at Max’s Kansas City, January 1977
What were some of the best or most unforgettable shows you ever put together there? I’m sure the readers would love to know some of this?
So many... Heartbreakers, on a good night, seized the title ‘World's Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band’ from you-know-who.
Members of the Heartbreakers included Johnny Thunders (RIP) on guitar and Jerry Nolan (RIP) on drums, both formerly of the New York Dolls. Other’s who played in the Heartbreakers included Richard Hell - cited as having the ’original’ punk look of spiky-ish short hair and torn t-shirts that was the de rigueur punk look for years to come - and was formerly of Television. Walter Lure, guitar/vocals and Billy Rath, who replaced Richard Hell, were amongst band members. Along with other recordings, there is a Heartbreaker’s performance album “Live at Max’s Kansas City (1979). Heartbreakers: Born to Lose, 1977
Wayne County (Jayne County) always put on a show that rivaled the biggest stars.
Was rock’s first transgender singer with a campy, often bad-mouthed, and always a very unpredictable stage show. “Fuck Off” was one of her singles. Also performed as Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys. Wayne/Jayne County is the underground star most often associated with Max’s Upstairs. Wayne County: Max’s Kansas City song, Max’s Reunion, 2012
Suicide took us to the future every time they played.
Alan Vega, vocals, and Marty Rev on synthesizer & drum machine, were the forerunners of the industrial and electronic movements. Period!! Their shows verged on terrifying, with fierce droning intensity and the piercing, sometimes confrontational and uncomfortable stage persona of Alan Vega. They were the most misunderstood musically -- coming up in the era of NY glam punk. Many owe their careers to the raw innovations of Suicide. Suicide: Ghost Rider 1977 0r 78
Cheap Trick performed like it was Madison Square Garden for an audience of about 35 people. The Senders, Tuff Darts and The Planets were also ready for the big stages. Madonna tore the joint up with her futuristic, industrial band Emmy (pay no mind to the demos on YouTube. Live, they sounded nothing like that).
In regards to my band, the Stimulators, we have treasured memories of playing Max’s somewhat frequently. I remember whenever we were to perform, all furniture – the tables & chairs - had to be removed in advance from being trashed by a very enthusiastic punk audience. What do you remember about any of our gigs there?
I remember the early mosh pits, full of kids knocking about and having fun with you guys, The Mad and the Bad Brains ... before jocks and other bullies spoiled the scene.
Did you keep a record of the bands you showcased during that time? Have you ever considered doing your own book on that subject – who played Max’s and when – and your retelling of those events?
I foolishly tossed out my calendars every month, and didn't start keeping a record of shows until 1980.
What was the first show you produced there? And what was the last?
I'm pretty sure we started with Wayne County & the Backstreet Boys, probably supported by The Fast or Blondie.
There's a bit of controversy about the last show. On Friday, Dec. 4, 1981, the line up was The Mob, Heart Attack, The Nihilistics, The Misguided and The Pricks (Rick Rubin's band). Saturday was supposed to be The Heros with Cheap Perfume, but both called me Friday night and cancelled, so I held over the Friday bands (The Posessed replacing The Pricks) and before the night was over, Tommy called Rob Gem who told me to collect my personal belongings and leave because the club was out of business. I spent the next two days at home cancelling all the bookings I'd made for December and January, and never returned to Max's until 1997, when Tommy attempted a new one opening on 52nd Street. However, years later, I've been informed that the cancelled Dec. 10th, 11th and 12th shows actually happened. If so, then the final show was The Rattlers with Ronnie & The Jitters. (Heartbreakers and The Knots may or may not have played on Thursday; Bad Brains, Beastie Boys and The Influence might have performed on Friday. I don't know. I wasn't there.)
With your level of rock expertise, how would you compare the music scene and sounds of today as compared to the days of Max’s? e.g. the impact of the internet, the excess of tribute bands/cover bands…just your take in a general comparision?
It's such a different world, it's hard to compare. In the '70s, there were far fewer bands and only a handful of venues. Therefore, it was much easier for an original band to be noticed. It seems the cover band situation remains the same. Most people relate only to songs they know and so, bands that play the hits will always be in demand.
Mr. Earl, DJ
There is a surge of curiosity for all things ‘NYC of the 70’s’ – that gritty, irreplaceable and ultra creative time you were such a huge part of. What do you think is spurring this growing public demand for remembrances & documentation of that era? There are books coming out, forgotten photographs, films of bands – some who do not even exist anymore – of their early performances surfacing, gallery exhibitions like Marcia Resnick’s “Punks, Poets & Provocateurs,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s highbrow exhibition on Punk (snicker) clothing, a large article/photo array appearing in the prestigious Wall St. Journal, the Vinyl tv series, vinyl itself on the return! Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring 2016 runway show featuring aging grey-haired mohawk’d punks, and so forth… how would you explain this renewed interest in all things NY 70s?
I think it's a combination of nostalgia and, for younger people, a desire to experience some of what they missed. Many youngsters have told me they were born too late. We were lucky to have enjoyed what's now seen as a golden age ... of sorts.
Peter Crowley has had a tenuous connection to the music business since the early ‘60s when he managed ‘beatnik’ coffee houses in Greenwich Village. Retired, he currently volunteers as the DJ on Sunday afternoons at Earl’s Hideaway Lounge, playing a wild mix of blues, country, rock’n’roll and punk when bands take a break.
Photo credits given when known*
Artist Endorsed by Hagstorm Guitars of Sweden
Currently Guitarist of Girls Girls Girls & Bible Black NYC
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