Perfect Sound Forever

Lost Music Venues of Manhattan

interior of the Tin Palace

by Andy Schwartz
(October 2008)

When I returned to New York in the fall of 1977 after five years in the Upper Midwest, it was mainly to hear live music. That's not to say that there wasn't any music of note playing in Minneapolis, or that I didn't have other, non-musical reasons for relocating. But it was the promise of Lower Manhattan's fabled punk/new wave scene that brought me back. For many of those who'd been there since its inception circa 1974, the appeal of that scene might have faded or died in the intervening three years. For me, the neon beer signs hanging from the ceiling of C.B.G.B. seemed to cast an irresistible glow halfway across the continent, luring me like the proverbial moth to their flame.

In the course of the next five years, I saw more live music than I will ever be able to recall (since I didn't keep a diary) in a dizzying profusion of (non-classical) styles and a multiplicity of venues large and small, high and low. In this period, it would not have been unusual for me to see 20 different live performances in a week. On some nights, I caught four or five different sets in two or three or four places, racing by cab from Hurrah on West 62nd Street near Lincoln Center, all the way down to Tier 3, on West Broadway below Canal Street.

The music wasn't all good, of course, but there was a hell of a lot more of it than had been playing in Minneapolis. And more often than not, the coming of night held the promise of somebody, somewhere, delivering a transcendent performance. Keith Richards once said: "On any given night, the greatest rock and roll band in the world is playing"--and he wasn't just talking about the Stones.

That was nearly 30 years ago, when you could count on two hands the number of New York venues available to unsigned and up-and-coming rock bands. Today, there are more such joints than perhaps at any time in the city's history, with a sizeable portion of the Manhattan action having spilled over into Brooklyn. Approaching 57, I still live in Manhattan and still venture out to gigs (more jazz, less rock) several times each month. But there are some significant differences between the scene I came up in and that one that prevails in New York today. Three factors immediately come to mind:

(1) The rent. There is hardly an area of contemporary life in New York City not affected by the value of real estate, and that includes live music. When Verna Gillis opened SoundScape in 1979, she was paying $225 per month for some 6,000 square feet of space. I couldn't tell you what clubs like Mercury Lounge on East Houston Street or the Music Hall of Williamsburg are paying in rent these days. But when the venerable Second Avenue Deli closed on New Year's Day 2006, after more than 50 years at the corner of 2nd Avenue and East 10th Street, the monthly rent on this 2800-square foot storefront (plus finished basement) was $24,000 and due to rise by another nine grand in two years' time--not exactly chopped liver. (Source: New York Times, 1/05/06)

So how are the clubs making it? One way, I suspect, is by selling a lot more alcohol at inflated margins; the second way, I know, is by paying musicians a lot less.

In the heyday of punk/new wave, a popular New York band like James Chance & the Contortions could--without a major label deal or much of a reputation west of the Hudson River--earn several thousand dollars for a night's work at Danceteria or the Peppermint Lounge. Even a barely-remembered fringe-rock outfit like Mofungo could score $500 for a show--this, at a time when the rent on my East Tenth Street studio sublet was $200. My guess is that many of the unsigned area bands filling the schedules at the Mercury Lounge, Living Room, Pianos, Southpaw, and the rest are lucky to earn $150-200 while they compete for NYC bookings with performers from around the country and even the world (needless to say, nobody's paying $200 for an East Village studio anymore, unless it's been rent-controlled for decades or is shared with a dozen roommates).

(2) The competition. I don't mean just competition from the movies or from other forms of live entertainment (the theater, professional sports, etc.) but also from household appliances. Personal computers, videocassette recorders, and even cable TV all were in their infancy in the late Seventies. If the evening's musical menu showed any promise, there were three fewer reasons to stay home than exist, ubiquitously, today.

(3) The crowd. Is it just me or are today's audiences--particularly in the larger (500-plus capacity) venues--less attentive to and less involved with the act they've presumably paid to see? I've stood on the floor at the Bowery Ballroom or Webster Hall, transfixed by T-Model Ford's droning Mississippi blues or Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's towering wall of guitar sound. All around me, meanwhile, other "fans" pursue their own agendas: sending/receiving text messages, snapping photos with cell-phone cameras, ordering more drinks, discussing jobs or relationships or vacations--anything, it seems, other than actually listening to the music.

These (non-) responses even to a galvanizing performance may be the fallout from "an excess of access," in the words of English journalist Jon Savage. "Thanks" to Internet technology, today's fans have downloaded the songs, eyeballed the photos, read the set lists and Web commentary--all before they've ever set foot in the venue. What's left to discover, really, in the live show itself?

The new wave era in New York was also a boom time for palatial discos such as Studio 54, and for corporate concert venues up to and including Madison Square Garden. But in terms of musical innovation and building an audience from the ground floor, the real action was in smaller independent rooms like the Tribeca new-wave rock club Tier 3, the Bowery jazz haven Tin Palace, and the genre-spanning Hell's Kitchen loft SoundScape.

In contrast to Max's Kansas City or the Village Vanguard, none of these venues is much noted in the official rock and jazz histories; the people who created them didn't go on to found a chain of franchise restaurants, design a line of t-shirts, or promote a Rod Stewart world tour. Paul Pines, Verna Gillis, and Hillary Jaeger weren't in business to lose money, but music came first--and not just any music (such as the "tribute" acts and "rock & roll karaoke" defacing the New York scene today) but the music that they themselves wanted to hear and to expose to a wider audience.

In the parlance of the business, these individuals would have been called talent bookers. But their rooms were not so much "booked" as curated, with a level of taste and discernment that would be notable in any era and in any city. Their efforts paved the way for today's much larger and (for some, at least) more prosperous live music scene. New York City owes them a debt that can never be repaid.

See Part 1 of the series: Tin Palace

See Part 2 of the series: Tier 3

See Part 3 of the series: Soundscape

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER