A million years ago, I arrived in NYC and fell, like Alice, into a rabbit hole that took me on an adventure that continues to this day.
The “rabbit hole” was a hole in the wall, dive bar/club housed in a loft building on White Street. The building was owned by the artist Ross Bleckner and both Julian Schnabel and Barbara Kruger had studios on respective floors. But the bottom (three) floors were the home of the Mudd, an exclusive enclave that was never easy to penetrate, even once on the inside.
The brainchild of Steve Mass, (with Diego Cortez and Anya Phillips), a stone intellectual, eccentric philosopher who was obsessed with the Weimar Republic – the culture and art that it spawned prior to Hitler’s destruction of freedom and democracy – and determined to emulate it in his club.
Inside the Mudd Club, Steve managed to recreate the vibe of the decadent dance of Germany’s descent into tyranny, and from this particular, political vantage point, his vision was prescient to say the least.
The Mudd Club was not for everyone (a lot of people preferred the glitz and glamour of Studio 54), nor did everyone get in. The sacred entry to the nondescript building on White Street was fiercely guarded by the door keeper Richard Boch and his cohort, Gretchen.
Richard wielded extraordinary power deciding who would be allowed to enter those doors, opening the ropes and quickly closing them behind the chosen few. The night I first came to the Mudd was a night like any other – a huge crowd gathered outside while Richard pointed at one person here, another there, beckoning them to enter the sanctuary of sinful decadence that awaited them.
I had just moved to the city with a friend from Atlanta. Anita Sarko had recently been fired from her job at a local radio station and I’d just divorced my first husband; the Program Director of another radio station, where I too had played at working in one capacity or another. We decided to try our luck in NY and right before we left, we ran into Fred Schneider of the B52’s who said “you gotta go to the Mudd Club.”
It was the winter of 1979 and the Mudd hadn’t been open very long but already it had a reputation of being the coolest place around, bar none. And the hardest to get into. What lay behind those doors? Curiosity alone drove hundreds to Downtown Manhattan’s most desolate neighborhood (at the time), to find out. Ourselves included. Richard looked right through us as we looked hopefully at the door behind him.
It wasn’t looking good for us until we saw Lenny Kaye confidently approaching the ropes. Clearly he had carte blanche on the scene, being Patti Smith’s long time musical collaborator and guitarist. We both knew Lenny a bit from the touring circuit – the music biz was relatively small back then – and pounced on him like two cats in heat.
Within minutes we were walking through the doors after he informed Richard that “these are friends of mine and they’re with me.”
We never had to wait outside again.
Within a week or so, Anita had been hired by Steve Mass to join his small stable of DJ’s and I found a job at a boutique in SOHO to pay the bills while I moonlighted as Music Editor at Addix Magazine (the Editor in charge was the late, great Glen O’Brien and the Art Director was my dear friend Nancy Dorking), and served on the Mudd Club’s Party and Event Committee, under the tutelage of Dr. Mudd AKA Steve Mass, and Tina L’Hotsky; she who practically invented the current “It Girl” syndrome. Together with Brien Coleman, Gary Indiana, Vicky Pederson and a handful of others, we came up with often quite bizarre ideas for art installations, theme parties and other events, which were staged in great seriousness by the participants.
The Dead Rock Star Party for example, featured a live person (Nick Berlin), as the “corpse of Rock And Roll,” in a coffin that was driven around Tribeca in a hearse. “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around, this ain’t no Mudd Club…” The Talking Heads hit became an anthem, and yeah, they were all there too. Along with Bowie, Eno, John Cale, Patti Smith’s band, Blondie, Andy Warhol, Legs McNeil, Arturo Vega, the Ramones, Jim Jarmusch and Amos Poe, Jean’Michelle Basquiat, John Lurie and too many more to mention, but now you can read all about it, and step behind those doors – at least in your imagination – while turning the pages of The Mudd Club, Richard Boch’s new book, the New York Times called a vivid tell all
Yesterday afternoon, I walked from my nephew’s apartment, where I am staying in the West Village, to Cafe Dante on MacDougal Street, on my way to Richard’s book publication party at Howl on the Lower East Side. I was meeting a couple of old girlfriends for a coffee before the event. Lisa Lowell and Sherryl Marshall are professional musicians; talented singers who have been on the scene ever since I first arrived in the city and have been my friends almost as long. They’ve lent their voices to everyone from David Johannson to Bruce Springsteen along with many others and are still standing and singing!
Sherryl is married to Cid Backer’s best friend Harlan, who once lived in Taos, and for whom my soon to be son in law (Harlan) Lee is named. It’s a small world in the rabbit hole. We had the waitress take the shot of us you see here, to commemorate the moment and the fact that here we still are, all these years later, alive and kicking.
Not so everyone who hung out at the Mudd. Amongst the hundreds who gathered last night to support Richard in this spooky reunion of sorts, were the ghosts of those since passed on; Glen O’ Brien, Jean-Michelle Basquiat, Richard Sohl, Klaus Nomi, Anita Pallenberg, Anita Sarko, Tina L’Hotsky, David Bowie, Anya Phillips, Cookie Mueller, John Belushi and others were all notably absent and missed. Others still alive but who didn’t show – were talked about fondly and not so fondly.
For two hours Richard signed the books that came to his table, one by one, in the hands of former patrons of the club called Mudd. The line seemed to be without end, just like the rabbit hole as I chatted to a few folks I knew and recognized – William Coupon who was leaving for New Mexico, where he’s relocating, right after the event – Lynette Kral, Tom and Jill Goodkind, Lenny Kaye and his wife Stephanie, Vicky Pederson, Bobby Grossman and Marcus Leatherdale, the artist Jo Shane, Dolette Mcdonald among them.
As Dolette and I were talking, a young couple in their twenties walking by, stopped and asked us what the gathering at Howl was for. When we told them they asked if they could go in. I saw them a little later, with books in hand. She was in tears as she told me how she wished she coud have lived here, in NY, when it was still authentic and not tainted or tarnished by overexposure.
Suddenly in a surreal moment, fitting for a night like this, Oscar and CeeJay Burnett, the sons of my old friend, Janie Romer (who lives in Taos with her husband Mark Barker), appeared at my side. Fitting because their mother too, hung out at the Mudd and they were her perfect proxy. Oscar is making art in NY and CeeJay divides his time between Taos and NY these days. Although the boys grew up in England, they have strong ties to the city through their father, the Producer Jay Burnett.
Even so, I found myself feeling sad that Steve Mass was nowhere in sight. I lamented the fact to Gary Kanner, Richard Boch’s friend and former partner, as we walked over to the after party at the Bowery Bar.
There, at the bar was Dr. Mudd. It was as if no time at all had passed, he handed me a drink ticket and we picked right up where we’d left off all those years ago, when I said goodbye to the Mudd Club for the last time and headed to Taos to birth my youngest child Genevieve in the Land of Enchantment where the adventure continues and the magic is real.
Richard Boch’s book, The Mudd Club is available for sale at Amazon – linked below this post. It’s a must read for anyone wanting to know about NYC in the 80’s before AIDS and gentrification, when artists could still afford to live and create here.
I walked to Elizabeth Street with Sharon D’ Lugoff to catch a cab and there was this brand new mural of Debbie Harry’s enigmatic face smiling down on the street like a modern day Mona Lisa. It seemed a fitting end to the night, and this post.
NB: I have corrected the mistake I made regarding who/what was in the coffin, thanks to Nicholas Petti’s comment below.
All images thanks to Richard Boch except for the one of the girls and I taken by the waitress on Sherryl’s phone, and the (Shepard Fairey) mural of Blondie on the Bowery taken on my iphone.