Max’s Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll

Elliott Landy: Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin and Tim Buckley at Max’s Kansas City, 1968: Courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery, New York.Elliott Landy: Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin and Tim Buckley at Max’s Kansas City, 1968: Courtesy Steven Kasher Gallery, New York.

By Joanne Huffa

Max’s Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll
Edited by Stephen Kasher
Abrams Image, New York (2010)
160 pages, hardcover
$24.95 US

One interesting element of gallery owner and curator Steven Kasher’s book about famed New York restaurant/nightclub Max’s Kansas City is the reprint of the food and drink menus. It’s amusing to imagine Max’s notable clientele such as Andy Warhol and his Factory gang snacking on herring in cream sauce or David Bowie downing a cocktail named for Patti Smith, which was comprised of a blend of champagne and stout, and is described on the menu as “making poets horny for years”.

Kasher’s love letter to one of New York’s most celebrated hangouts for artists, writers and, later, musicians, relies heavily on photographs to tell the story. Primarily black and white, the photos are a combination of portraits and candid shots of the famous and the infamous, along with numerous well-dressed unknowns.

It’s unfortunate, actually, that so many of the faces in this book are labelled ‘Unknown’ because some of them – such as the woman with a cigar and heavily lined lips, wearing a sequinned beret – look like they’d have some pretty great stories to tell. However, it’s a treat to see figureheads of the 60s and 70s, including Bruce Springsteen, John Waters and Fran Leibowitz looking so baby-faced and relaxed. Many of these shots are so candid that it’s like looking through a family album – that is, if your family included Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop and disco icon Sylvester.

Musicians eventually took over the upstairs area of Max's, but the downstairs, specifically the back room of Mickey Ruskin’s establishment, was the domain of artists. In the early days, Warhol unofficially took over Max’s back room and, long after it had stopped being his venue of choice, people continued to flock there in the hopes he’d arrive.

But, Max’s Kansas City, which opened in the late-60s and operated until the early-80s, was much more than just Warhol’s domain. It provided a refuge and showcase for a generation of New York artists and their work: Brigid Berlin’s Polaroids, Dan Flavin’s minimalist light sculpture and Anton Perich’s photo portraits of the clientele helped create Max’s mystique. There was also Forrest “Frosty” Myers’ laser sculpture, which he called From My Place To Max’s a/k/a Good Vibrations, in which he ran a laser beam from his studio two diagonal blocks to Max’s, where it hit a mirror attached to a speaker wired to the jukebox. When the jukebox played, the mirror vibrated and created a light show on the back room wall. The book includes Myers’ diagram depicting how the light would look bouncing off the wall.

Although there isn’t much text to accompany the visuals, the few essays are illuminating, including an interview that writer/manager/music impresario Danny Fields conducted with Ruskin in 1974. There’s also a review by Lorraine O’Grady of an early performance by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – with opening act The Wailers – that was rejected by the Village Voice because, at the time, the editor didn’t believe either band would become famous. Brief as they may be, these words bring this legendary scene to life.

Joanne HuffaJoanne Huffa contributes to Now Magazine's music section, and spends a lot of time thinking about the relationship between rock ‘n’ roll and growing old.