‘Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC’ Review: A Punk Nostalgia Documentary Captures How Max’s Kansas City Was as Seminal as CBGB

Punk-rock nostalgia has an oxymoronic quality. Ah, the toasty, cozy good old days…of shooting up in the bathroom at CBGB as the Dead Boys lay waste to Western Civilization onstage! Sid Vicious, we hardly knew ye! Yet the nostalgia for punk, as much of a contradiction as it can seem, has only grown with the decades. That’s partly because punk, with its assaultive immediacy and defiant not-niceness, now seems like the quintessence of the pre-digital world. In these pandemic and social-media times, direct human contact is something many of us are starved for, and punk was a bumper-car ride of human contact. The bands were in your face, you were in their face, and everyone was in the face of the beer-guzzling stooge next to them. It’s no surprise that this is what some people now crave. 

If you’re a person who gets misty-eyed when you think back on what it was like — or must have been like — to stumble out of a dingy rock club at 4:00 a.m. after having your eardrums blasted by a band of unwashed anarchists who may or may not have been able to play their instruments, you’ll want to make every effort to see “Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC.” It’s the first documentary about Max’s Kansas City, and it’s doing a summer road-show tour of America venues, as well as a few European ones (here’s the schedule of dates); after that, it will be accessible online. Directed by Danny Garcia, who over the last decade has been assembling a canon of punk music docs (he’s made films about Johnny Thunders, Stiv Bators, the last days of Sid and Nancy, and the last days of the Clash), “Nightclubbing” is a raw inside slice of punk nostalgia and punk history. (It’s being shown along with the 20-minute documentary “Sid Vicious: The Final Curtain.”)

It’s also the perfect film for anyone who thinks that CBGB was 10 times more important than any other punk club — a misperception it’s easy to have, because that’s how it’s generally been portrayed. Since 1977 or so, every aspect of CBGB has been not just chronicled but mythologized. The fact that it started out as a biker bar and was located along the Bowery, a boulevard of legendary sketchiness where there was a kind of karmic continuity between the bums on the street and the dissolute CBs patrons. The fact that the club was a sweaty claustrophobic rectangle described by the critic James Wolcott as a “subway train to hell.” The fact that the bathrooms were squalid bacteria pits with apocalyptic spews of graffiti.

And, of course, there was the fabled roster of great bands who played there, like the Ramones and Talking Heads and Blondie and Television and Patti Smith, along with the not-so-great but even more devotedly raucous bands that helped set the club’s tone of destructive psychosis, like the Dead Boys and the Plasmatics. When I first walked into CBGB, the place was so iconic that I felt like I was entering the Cavern Club. In its unpresentable fuck-the-mainstream way, CBGB came along at just the right moment to become a meme of the media.

Max’s Kansas City was different. In New York, it was every bit as formative and famous as CBGB, but it opened its doors in December 1965, when the media and rock ‘n’ roll were still strange bedfellows. And so even as the club became a magnet for hip celebrity, it retained its underground quality. As “Nightclubbing” captures, Max’s was like CBGB with some of the exclusivity of Studio 54 — which may sound like the ultimate contradiction, but one can’t begin to understand punk unless one recognizes how snobby it was. You had to be the right kind of wastrel to fit in. Located on Park Avenue South, a block up from Union Square, Max’s was a restaurant with a garish exterior. But the VIP action was in the fabled back room, and to get in there you had to have the approval of the club’s owner and proprietor, Mickey Ruskin. That the first punk club basically had a velvet rope is essential to what punk was. Max’s was about the aristocracy of debauchery. 

Once inside, you could see anyone, from Frank Zappa to Elizabeth Taylor to Janis Joplin to Jack Nicholson, and most importantly Andy Warhol (the Factory was located just three blocks away), who brought his entourage every night, doing much to establish Max’s as a nexus of fame that would draw from the now-merging worlds of art, fashion, music, and movies. This was incarnated in Warhol’s shepherding of the Velvet Underground, who became fixtures at Max’s (in 1970, they recorded a live album there). Forget the MC5, who had the spirit of wrecked abandonment without the talent; punk was born in the shadow of the Velvets’ throttle and drive.

In “Nightclubbing,” Jayne County, the transsexual singer, DJ, and tart-tongued raconteur who was a fixture at Max’s (she’s like a John Waters character), tells us that the fundamental fact about the club is that every person there was high, all the time. Yet once they were in the back room, they talked. The place is described as a squalid counterculture version of the Algonquin Round Table, which sounds like a stretch — but Max’s didn’t host musical acts until 1969, and just imagine how much you would like to have been a fly on the wall for some of those conversations, even as David Bowie once remarked, “I met Iggy Pop at Max’s Kansas City in 1970 or 1971. Me, Iggy, and Lou Reed at one table with absolutely nothing to say to each other, just looking at each other’s eye makeup.”

There was a cross-pollination going on. Bowie, after all, wasn’t a punk. But Max’s was the Petri dish where “rock” became “punk” and “punk” infused “rock,” all by passing through the warp drive of glam. Iggy played there, and so did the glam rocker Marc Bolan and the electronica pioneers Suicide, as well as Alice Cooper and Bob Marley and Phil Ochs and Aerosmith and the 22-year-old Bruce Springsteen. (Bruce and Aerosmith were signed by Clive Davis at Max’s.) Alice Cooper is interviewed extensively in “Nightclubbing,” and he testifies to how the club was an epicenter of cool that broke down categories even as it was creating them.

By the time the New York Dolls came along, in their freakish gender-bending reckless glory, they were like an organism created in the Max’s laboratory. Malcolm McLaren met the Dolls at Max’s and took his first stab at punk Svengali image management by trying to showcase them so that they would wear the fashion he was marketing. The plan went bust, but McLaren learned from his mistakes, returning to London to package the Sex Pistols, who he envisioned as the Dolls meets the Ramones in Richard Hell’s clothes. It’s part of Max’s lore than Debbie Harry was a waitress there, which sounds like the remnant of a sexist world, but Harry, trying to break into a rock establishment that consisted entirely of men, had found a way to do it. Everyone there knew she was destined for more.

“Nightclubbing” is full of grainy amazing archival footage as well as interviews with a host of Max’s musicians, managers, and survivors that make it a vibrant oral history. After the break-up of the Sex Pistols, Sid Vicious played gigs there, and I’d always assumed (based mostly on a scene from “Sid and Nancy”) that his performances were dissolute washouts. But we see extended clips of his final gig there, when he was backed by a band that included Mick Jones and Arthur “Killer” Kane, and guess what? Not only was the band tight; Sid was good! I came away thinking that had he not destroyed himself with heroin he could have had a career.

But the glamor of self-destruction was part of the texture of Max’s, and so was a certain do-what-you-please entitlement. The film is full of priceless anecdotes that testify to both impulses. We hear about Brigid Berlin, the Warhol superstar, shooting amphetamine through her jeans. We hear about how George Harrison would bring a pouch full of rubies and place one in front of a woman he wanted to hook up with. “If she picked up the ruby,” recalls Alice Cooper, “that was a done deal.” We hear about Iggy walking around on tables and rolling around in smashed glass until he was dripping blood all over the club, at which point he needed to be taken to the hospital. We hear about how the club closed down, in 1974, for unpaid bills and how after Tommy Dean reopened it a year later, Max’s became a crazier place, with Dean running a counterfeit-money operation out of the basement.

By this point CBGB was now grabbing the headlines. Yet Max’s and CBs became the yin and yang of punk performance, with the famed CBGB bands shuttling back and forth between the two clubs, many of them actually preferring to play at Max’s, where Hilly Kristal wasn’t skimming their proceeds. Max’s closed down for good in 1981, though not before helping to launch the movement that would become ’80s hardcore, with seminal gigs by bands like Bad Brains. The club had spanned 16 years; in rock time, it straddled three or four revolutions. What the witnesses of “Nightclubbing” all testify to is that you had to be there. You had to feel the noise.