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Rock Meccas of NYC: What Are They Now?

Written by: Frank Mastropolo

In the 1960s, New York City was the center of the recording industry and home to a wealth of small clubs and theaters that hosted the cream of rock music. Fans could catch bands on their way up at smaller venues with moderate ticket prices.

But 1969’s Woodstock festival changed the industry and superstars began to demand huge fees to appear. Small venues could no longer compete with huge arenas and stadiums for name acts. In a 1971 letter, promoter Bill Graham explained that he would close both Fillmore East and West because of  “the unreasonable and totally destructive inflation of the live concert scene.”

“I continue to deplore the exploitation of the gigantic-hall concerts, many of them with high-priced tickets… it turned into the music industry of festivals, 20,000-seat halls, miserable production quality, and second-rate promoters.”

Most of the rock venues of the ‘60s and early ‘70s are now gone; some demolished, others occupied by businesses that could afford New York’s rocketing rents.  Rock Cellar Magazine visited 10 of the sites where so much memorable music was performed to see what they’ve become.

[All Recent Photographs are by Frank Mastropolo]

TRUDE HELLER’S

Trude Heller’s started as a swinging Greenwich Village discotheque in the early ‘60s; go-go dancers lined the walls as glitterati like Salvador Dali, George Hamilton and First Daughter Lynda Bird Johnson frugged on the dance floor. Run by tough-as-nails entrepreneur Trude Heller, rockers like Duane and Gregg Allman, Cyndi Lauper and Peter Criss of KISS got their starts here; headliners included Otis Redding, Ben E. King and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. By the late ‘70s the disco craze fizzled and the hot spot shuttered.

Today Lenny’s, the popular NYC sandwich chain, has taken over the site on the corner of 9th St. and Avenue of the Americas.

Photo: Frank Mastropolo/Rock Cellar

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CAFÉ au GO GO

For a 375-seat basement club that didn’t serve liquor, the Café au Go Go featured an impressive roster of stars, including the Doors, Cream, Blood Sweat & Tears, Procol Harum, Jefferson Airplane, Richie Havens, Moby Grape, the Youngbloods and Them.

The club opened in 1964 as a place to hear folk, jazz and comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Bruce’s infamous bust for obscenity almost put the Greenwich Village club out of business soon after it opened in 1964; as electric rock grew in popularity in 1965, more rock bands were showcased. When the much larger Fillmore East opened in 1968, the au Go Go’s influence diminished; the Bleecker Street club closed its doors in 1969. The au Go Go site today is a Capital One bank.

Photo: Frank Mastropolo/Rock Cellar

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NIGHT OWL

The Night Owl on 3rd St. near MacDougal St. was another Greenwich Village music mainstay. The Lovin’ Spoonful apprenticed here before signing with Kama Sutra Records; the folk-rock band’s debut album featured the instrumental Night Owl Blues as a tribute. James Taylor worked the cramped club with his first band, the Flying Machine; the Blues Project and the Blues Magoos also appeared.

Photo: Frank Mastropolo/Rock Cellar

The Night Owl survived the ‘60s, but not as a music venue; it became a head shop and sold buttons, t-shirts and comic books. Bleecker Bob’s Golden Oldies, where Paul Simon, Keith Richards, David Bowie and Robert Plant shopped for records, took over the site in the 1970s but may be gone by the time you read this. Named for irascible owner Bob Plotnik, this last refuge for vinyl disc lovers can no longer pay the rent and is scheduled to close in 2013.

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ACADEMY OF MUSIC / PALLADIUM

After decades as a movie theater, the Academy of Music in the mid-1960s began to stage rock concerts. The 3,500-seat venue on 14th St. at 3rd Ave. attracted big names; the Stones played here in 1965 during their first US tour along with other British Invaders like the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits and Manfred Mann. In the ‘70s, the Academy picked up for the shuttered Fillmore East as The Band, KISS, and Genesis appeared.

Renamed the Palladium in 1976, the hall hosted U2, Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, the Clash and Ozzy Osbourne. Studio 54 owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager recreated the Palladium as a nightclub in 1985; by 1998 it was devoured by the voracious New York University, flattened and rebuilt as student housing; Trader Joe’s now occupies the retail space.

Photo: Frank Mastropolo/Rock Cellar

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MAX’S KANSAS CITY

When Max’s Kansas City opened its doors in 1965 on Park Ave. South at 17th St., New York’s art and literary crowd made it their clubhouse.

Regulars included Roy Lichtenstein, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Running a bar that caters to artists is a good way to go broke but when pop art’s Andy Warhol and his celebrity posse set up residency at Max’s, its success was ensured. Max’s was Ground Zero for the Glam Rock scene, with David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls in attendance. Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground regularly played Max’s; Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Country Joe McDonald also performed there.

When Glam Rock faded, Max’s lost its cache and closed in 1974. Max’s soon reopened as a punk rock club, with acts like Sid Vicious, the B-52s, Devo and Madonna, but by 1981 its doors closed for good. The site is now Bread & Butter, a panini shop.

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CBGB

In late 1973, Hilly Kristal opened punk rock mecca CBGB in a cramped space under a Bowery flophouse.

CBGB was originally supposed to showcase the music that gave it its name, Country, BlueGrass, Blues, but soon featured bands like the Ramones, Blondie, Television and Talking Heads, who name-checked the club in Life During Wartime: “This ain’t no Mudd Club or CBGB.” A rent dispute led to CBGB’s closing in 2006 with a final concert by Patti Smith. Fashion designer John Varvatos opened a store in the East Village space in 2008; its walls display original posters and graffiti from CBGB’s toilets.

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ANDERSON THEATER

The Anderson Theater, on 2nd Ave. at 4th St. in the East Village, sporadically staged rock concerts in the late 1960s. The old playhouse hosted big-name groups like Traffic, the Grateful Dead, the Yardbirds and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, but it ran out of steam in the early 1970s and closed. In 1977, Hilly Kristal revived the hall for a few more years as CBGB’s 2nd Avenue Theater with acts like Talking Heads and Patti Smith. Most of the theater space was later demolished to become apartments. The marquee is gone but the 2nd Ave. façade remains; the empty retail space below gives no hint of the site’s history.

Photo: Frank Mastropolo/Rock Cellar

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GREAT GILDERSLEEVES

Great Gildersleeves opened in the late 1970s, giving punk rockers like Iggy Pop, Public Image Ltd (PiL) and Johnny Thunders an alternative venue to the already established CBGB a block south. Gildersleeves also featured Elvis Costello, the J. Geils Band, Marshall Crenshaw and the Beastie Boys. After the club closed in the early 1980s, it became one of the most notorious flophouses on the Bowery. Renamed Kenton Hall, it was taken over by Project Renewal and in 2001 converted into a shelter for homeless men on methadone maintenance.

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BOTTOM LINE

Musicians and fans loved the cozy confines of the 400-seat Bottom Line in Greenwich Village at the corner of 4th and Mercer Sts. The club opened in 1974 and for three decades stars like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Hall and Oates, Carly Simon and Dire Straits appeared. Lou Reed recorded his LP Live: Take No Prisoners there. In the end it came down to the bottom line; its owners couldn’t pay more than $185,000 in back rent to its landlord, New York University, and closed in 2004. NYU expanded its Village footprint by turning the site into more classrooms.

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FILLMORE EAST

The list of rock royalty that appeared at the Fillmore East belies the fact that it was only open for three years. The 2,700-seat hall on 2nd Ave. at 6th St. in the East Village, once the Loews Commodore movie theater, opened in March 1968. Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Allman Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Joe Cocker, the Byrds, Derek and the Dominos and Van Morrison performed there. At its closing, Bill Graham said, “In 1965 when we began the original Fillmore Auditorium, I associated with and employed ‘musicians.’ Now, more often than not, it’s with ‘officers and stockholders’ in large corporations – only they happen to have long hair and play guitars.” Graham, who died in 1991, didn’t live to see the Emigrant Savings Bank take over the Fillmore’s lobby area in 2007.

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