An Interview with Peter Crowley:
Booking Bands at Max's Kansas City and Making Punk Rock History!
by Lee Sobel
Max's Kansas City was already of great historical importance to the New York City arts and music scene before Peter Crowley started booking bands there in the mid-1970's. Opened in 1965 by restaurateur Mickey Ruskin, Max's was made famous by the Andy Warhol crowd hanging out there and it quickly drew everyone who was hip in New York and beyond. Unfortunately for Mickey who had a truly generous heart, Max's ran into financial trouble and Mickey had to sell the place. This is known as the end of Max's I and the beginning of Max's II when new owner Tommy Dean Mills bought the place and hired Peter Crowley to book bands upstairs at Max's. Crowley had
already established himself as a savvy booking person at a Manhattan bar called Mother's and he brought with him all the bands he was already working with: Blondie, Jayne County, and so on.
Trying to explain the importance of Max's Kansas City can be frustrating. CBGB's has somehow gotten all the credit for being the birthplace of punk rock in New York City and somehow Max's seems to have fallen out of the picture, despite its importance being equal to if not greater than that dump on the Bowery where the owner let his dog shit inside the club wherever it wanted to. Countless famous bands played the Max's stage before and after Peter Crowley's time: then unknown Cheap Trick and Aerosmith both got signed to record deals there; Bruce Springsteen performed there on the same night as Bob Marley; The B-52's played their first New York debut there; David
Dee Dee Ramone and Peter Crowley - Photo by Eileen Polk
Bowie introduced Devo on stage; early shows by bands like Misfits, Beastie Boys, and more. I was lucky enough to be a teenager in the late 70's and kids were allowed to see shows at Max's. To me, the place was like a rock 'n roll museum, with very cool large framed photographs of famous bands that had played there, and it's a travesty that the place was torn down in the 80's and now there is a Korean deli where once Sid Vicious performed solo on their stage after the breakup of the Sex Pistols. Would somebody please make a documentary feature film about Max's already? It's certainly deserving of one!
This interview with Peter Crowley I did dates back to 2011 when I was working on a book I ended up aborting about NYC in the 70's. This interview has remained unpublished and unseen by anyone, until now.
Lee Sobel: When I walked into Max’s it felt so historical... great framed pictures on the walls of The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls, Iggy Pop...
Peter Crowley: That was the Leee Black Childers’ contribution. I think there were some Roberta Bayley pictures, too, and a couple of the other photographer stars, but it was mostly Leee. Leee talked Tommy Dean into doing that.
Lee Sobel: I was a teenager when I went there and kids even younger than me used to go to Max's. We'd get served booze and I was never even carded. You told me about how a cop came into Max’s and there was all this pot smoke and underage kids, what did you say the cop said?
Peter Crowley: He didn’t say anything to any of us, he turned around to the other cops who were coming up the stairs and he said "Go back, go back, there’s nothing happening here, it’s just a bunch of kids smoking pot."
Lee Sobel: Today what would happen to a bar if that was going on?
Peter Crowley: I’m sure everybody would be arrested, even the bar owner might be held responsible or whatever, I’m not sure how that works. They’re very, very strict now about the 21 drinking age. Back then, there were all these little stores, mostly on 42nd Street that sold fake IDs that looked very real but that the bar could say, "Well I saw an ID." There were college IDs for colleges that didn’t exist back then. But the police didn’t feel they were there to be the hall monitor. They were there to apprehend criminals, perhaps stop murders and things like that. If you're on your stoop having a beer quietly, they’ll arrest you now. That would never have happened in old New York.
Lee Sobel: Everybody always talks about how CBGB’s was more hetero and Max’s was kind of more gay-straight-bi friendly…
Peter Crowley: That had more to do with dress code than anything else. I
think there was just as much sexual ambiguity at CBGB’s, but there weren’t… you didn’t have the glitter crowd there, so you didn’t have the obvious sartorial gayness that you saw at Max’s with some people. CBGB’s was more lumberjack shirts and/or motorcycle jackets. The people at Max’s basically were… they were people with short hair, people with long hair, people with spandex, people with Levi’s, people with… everything. You didn’t see a uniform. You couldn’t go to the mall and buy clothes to look cool, you had to figure something out yourself. You make it or go to a resell shop and find old things to wear and whatnot. The bands, for the most part, were the leaders, although some of the kids that just hung around were very good at finding cool things to wear and stuff like that and the bands would copy them. There was something rural about CBGB’s almost. Look at Hilly and Merv. Merv there with the hard hat. Hilly's dog was a saluki and it wasn't trained. It just
L-R Johnny Thunders, Peter Crowley, Tommy Dean, Sparkle Moore, Leee Black Childers (London, 1977)
Photo by Laura Dean
shit wherever it felt like shitting. Saluki's are very pretty, but stupid. That little tiny narrow head with no room for the brain and it just did its business wherever it happened to be at the moment and then liquid's coming down from upstairs so you wondered, did they spill something or is the guy pissing on the floor and it’s dripping on your head. It was a toilet with a stage.
CBGB’s was first, not in the sense of the big history because obviously Max’s had Iggy and all that stuff. As far as the mid-70s explosion of New York City punk rock, CBGB’s was first. Now how did it become first when you have an owner who didn’t then have a clue or ever get a clue? Well, it happened because the kids themselves colonized it. When I say kids, they weren’t so young anymore. They were already well in their 20s and some in their 30s. Before them (Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine)… see that’s the myth that they were the first, but that isn’t true. The first ones to go in there were Elda Stiletto, Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps, Jayne County was in there long before Television. It was kind of "We don’t have anywhere to go anymore, can we come and play in your club" type thing. There were a number of shows before that famous Television thing. The Television story is not a
Peter with Wayne (Jayne) County
lie, but it isn’t the beginning. It was the Max’s backroom crowd going there because before I started booking bands at Max's there wasn’t this general openness at Max’s to new bands starting out. So the bands were looking for somewhere to go and they talked Hilly into letting them use his stage such as it was at CBGB's.
Lee Sobel: I went to see Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers play Max's a number of times. Do I remember things correctly that, at one point, they really were amazing and then gradually came apart?
Peter Crowley: They were really amazing about every 10th
Billy Idol performing on stage at Max's Kansas City
Photo by Justina Davies
show. The other shows, they were less than amazing because John would try to tune up, that was his main problem. What he needed was to hand it to a roadie and get a fresh one that would have worked a lot better, but he thought that he could tune it and he couldn’t. John got up and played up with the Dolls one time… not the New York Dolls, but the Dolls of Sylvain and David and the Staten Island guys, and John came up for a guest thing and at the end David thanked him and said, "You’ll note that the song was played in Johnny Thunders special tuning." The guy was so horribly out of tune and John had a tin ear so if his guitar was tuned by a machine or somebody with a good ear, he would sound great,
The Speedies performing live at Max's Kansas City
Photo by Marcia Resnick
but if he reached up and touched those tuning pegs, that was it, it was all over. But, the people watching the show, for the most part, didn’t mind that. It was only us music nuts that would be disgusted by it. The shows went over well, they just didn’t sound very good when you listened to them back on the recording later so if you’re watching those videos… one of the things that I did when we were recording the Heartbreakers for the purpose of making records is I erased all those tapes that sucked so that they would never appear on bootlegs. Unfortunately, the people who were in the audience with a video camera didn’t do that editing. That’s what you’re seeing on YouTube, those bad performances, which were okay at the time while you were there, but in the sober light of day when you listened to them, you go, "Oh my god, they sound horrible." Well, it’s because the band wasn’t on. There was either tuning problems or they were just too stoned to play very well. Those shows were not worth preserving and it would have been very nice if the people who had done the videos had said "Oh, I guess I’d better erase that."
Lee Sobel: Was Johansen trying to distance himself from the Dolls?
Peter Crowley: I don’t think so. Well, there was pressure to be commercial, that’s true, but I think it’s more just the matter of his and Syl’s taste
Debbie Harry of Blondie at Max's Kansas City
Photo by Marcia Resnick
was different from John’s. Jerry Nolan being missing wasn’t such a bad thing because you had Tony Machine, who was an equally fabulous drummer, but John being not there, you lost the swagger. You didn’t have that punk rock attitude that made the Dolls be more interesting than Aerosmith. Aerosmith and the New York Dolls were both attempting to take over that space that was dominated by The Rolling Stones. They were not Rolling Stones imitators; they were doing what the Rolling Stones did as opposed to copying The Rolling Stones. They were doing Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, in a modern context. The David Johansen group is a lot closer to Aerosmith, if you think about it. There wasn’t that wild insane attitude danger that Johnny Thunders brought to it. That slash and burn sound that just… that’s what caught everybody’s ear in the New York Dolls. Without Johnny Thunders, they’re just another good R&B band, but nothing to separate them from a hundred others. They could be J. Geils Band or whatever, there are so many of them all over the place. It was Johnny that made it. Then, when The Heartbreakers, by some fluke, got Walter Lure, who came out of The Demons (which was a kind of mediocre R&B band/punkish R&B band), and somehow worked a magic with John, between those two guitars. You have a lot of reviews and stuff that talk about the intricate guitar playing of Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, and
A very young Madonna live at Max's Kansas City
of course, that’s Walter. John never played anything intricate in his life. But, because Walter was able to play better, in terms of musicianship, and yet without losing the attitude, so the two of them both had the total "fuck you" attitude.
Lee Sobel: Some people who went to shows I was at thought Thunders might die on stage or something.
Peter Crowley: Maybe there was an audience that came for the spectacle. A possibility, not so much that he would die, but that it was similar to going to the coliseum to watch the gladiators and the possibility of death was definitely a part of the attraction.
Lee Sobel: Do you think people romanticized heroin, too?
Peter Crowley: Sure, there was a lot of stupidity going on…
Misfits live at Max's Kansas City - Photo by Eileen Polk
a lot of misplaced hero worship, including John himself, thinking it was really cool to be like Keith Richards. So, it’s like, "No, it’s not cool," and secondly, you look at Keith Richards and he didn’t do it until he was rich. It’s hard enough to pay your rent in life. Why would you sell yourself to this enormous expense to maintain your habit if you weren’t a millionaire, it’s stupid.
Lee Sobel: You were pretty generous with these bands, weren’t you? Couldn’t the Heartbreakers pull like a thousand dollars on a show?
Peter Crowley: Or more, yeah. Top pay for Thunders one Saturday night was $1,200. John got it all (the money). How did John get it all? He spent it before they played. He would come up and say, "Tommy, I need a couple hundred dollars," "Tommy, I need a thousand dollars."
Sid and Nancy at Max's Kansas City - Photo by Allen Tannenbaum
All-Star Punk Band at Max's Kansas City (l-r): Mick Jones, Jerry Nolan, Sid Vicious, Arthur Kane, Steve Dior - Photo by Stephanie Chernikowski
Lee Sobel: So Tommy would pay them, you wouldn’t?
Peter Crowley: Right. I didn’t have anything to do with paying them.
Lee Sobel: So you would book them, you would tell Tommy what it was going to cost. What about when bands would try and negotiate with you? Like the scene in the movie Sid and Nancy where Nancy is sitting in an office at Max’s and is trying to haggle to get more money for Sid Vicious, did that happen? Was that you?
Peter Crowley: I remember that and then being very kind of insulted at the stupidity of it all. She did haggle about money and was definitely a bitch in the first order and those are the
only shows that I feel ashamed to have even had anything to do with because it was all based on Sid’s spectacle and there was no hope that the music was going to be much of anything. He was a passable singer. In fact, my theory about the Sex Pistols is that if Malcolm had had half a brain, when Rotten quit, he would have promoted Sid to vocals, got him off the bass, got the old bass player, and kept them out on the road. Half the American public or probably 90% of the American public thought Sid was the main guy anyway, so at that point he could have been the vocalist and they could have pulled it off. But for me, those shows were embarrassing. Much of the reason they sucked was because poor Sid was sick, physically ill, with flu like symptoms probably caused by using the toilet for his water for his shooting up. Who knows what kind of horrible germs were in his blood stream. He was barely able to stand up at that time.
At Max's Kansas City (l-r): Robert Gordon, Tommy Dean Mills, Bruce Springsteen, Dee Dee Ramone- Photo by Bob Gruen
Lee Sobel: Didn’t he have to be revived before he went onstage at Max’s?
Peter Crowley: Kind of like that, yeah, he’d come off and he’d lie down on Tommy’s couch. We didn’t make Sid use the actual dressing home; he got Tommy’s office, a nice couch. Tommy was very impressed by fame, way more than me, so he just kissed Nancy’s ass like you wouldn’t believe. I never found her the slightest bit fascinating; I found her annoying. She whined about everything. They booked a Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and she whined like mad because Thursday didn’t do the business that Friday and Saturday did. With the choice of Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the vast majority of people came on Friday and Saturday. This could be predicted no matter who the hell you booked. But, it was my fault that they didn’t come on Thursday as far as she was concerned. I mean, I couldn’t deal with that kind of stupidity. She was mentally ill.
Lee Sobel: Did anybody have rehab in the 70s?
Peter Crowley: Yeah, we sent John off to rehab. Tommy Dean did. It lasted about one day, I think. John came to Tom and said, "I want to get off the heroin, it’s killing me, it’s miserable, it’s horrible, I’m not enjoying it anymore." So Tommy sent him upstate to this place that rehabs junkies and John was back in two days later saying "I hated that place, it was full of low life junkies." Tommy goes, "Well, see, now you should have become addicted to a rich man’s drug like me, you do cocaine and you would have hung out with a bunch of rich people, but you did heroin so you’re gonna hang out with a bunch of low life poor people."
Lee Sobel: There was a battle between you and Hilly at CBGB's, right? Wouldn’t you limit the bands how often they could play?
Peter Crowley: No, no, my thing that I begged every band… those bands that had any draw… I didn’t care when a band played on Tuesday and didn’t have any fans yet anyway,
they could play CBGB’s the next day. Two biggest offenders were Blondie and Mink Deville. Blondie would play anywhere, anytime, for anybody who would hand them $50 (and the reason for $50 was because that’s about what it cost them to go rent a van and move their equipment). Mink Deville would pretty much play anywhere at the drop of a hat, and I would always be fighting with Willy and with Chris Stein about "Please do not book into CBGB’s during the same period that you’re playing at Max’s." In other words, keep the shows two weeks apart so that we don’t open up The Village Voice and see that you’re playing on Friday at Max’s and Saturday at CBGB’s because all you are accomplishing is dividing your audience in half. You’re fucking over your show at Max’s and you are fucking over your show at CBGB’s. They interpreted this as me saying, they shouldn’t play CBGB’s, which is just… either they did that out of some sort of way of attacking me in some kind of conscious way or else they were just stupid, I don’t know which. But, I never told anybody don’t play CBGB’s, I said don’t play CBGB’s within two weeks. Come back and forth. This way, the audience won’t be going, "Well, maybe I’ll skip tonight and I’ll go to the other club tomorrow night" whichever way it happened to work. Hilly didn’t have any problem with that. Bands that Hilly managed played at Max’s. That was more in the audience where you had people who go, "I’ll never go to Max’s, it’s full of gays" or "I’ll never go to CBGB’s, it’s full of dog shit." People in the audience have their reasons for picking one or the other, but I
would say the majority of the audience was fluid, as were the bands. They went to both. I never felt unwelcome at CBGB’s. Hilly was always absolutely nice to me.
Lee Sobel: Why do you think Max’s has this kind of legacy and why do people continue to write books about it and talk about it?
Peter Crowley: In the first incarnation and the second incarnation, you had owners who allowed different kinds of artistic people to have a free reign. In the Mickey Ruskin era when the Warhol crowd held court there, Danny Fields, who doesn’t get a lot of credit for it, brought in The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, and Alice Cooper. Also Sam Hood, who came up from The Gaslight. When The Gaslight on MacDougal Street lost its lease,
Hanging out At Max's (l-r): David Johansen, Dee Dee Ramone, Alan Vega - Photo by Anton Perich
The Man Behind the Music at Max's: Peter Crowley
Photo by Gloria Robinson
Sam Hood went to Mickey and asked if he could do shows upstairs, and that would have been around 1970 or ’71. Then, the next four years or so is when you had people performing like Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, and an endless list.
Lee Sobel: Did you go there before you worked there?
Peter Crowley: Oh yeah, I was a regular in the 60s.
Lee Sobel: So you knew it was a special place? You definitely had your sights on working there?
Peter Crowley: Never had my sights on working there. It hadn’t occurred to me until Tommy Dean came around asking, "What have I done wrong?" at which point I said, "Well, I can tell you what you’ve done wrong and if you’d like me to straighten it out, I’ll straighten it out to the best of my ability." There was no way
we were going to recreate the first Max’s. I tried at least to make sure that the music was good and I fought constantly about such things as the décor, which was a trifle bizarre in 1975 when Tommy first opened. I won some of those battles, but not all.
Lee Sobel: They tried reopening a new Max’s on 52nd Street, which I think you had something to do with, right?
Peter Crowley: Well that’s a great historical music street. Downtown isn’t downtown anymore, so it doesn’t matter. 52nd Street would have been fine. There’s a Southern comedian named Brother Dave Gardner who became very famous in the very early 60s and then suddenly totally
B-52's played their first New York show at Max's Kansas City
Mick Jones of the Clash, Nancy Spungen and Sid at Max's Kansas City
disappeared after he got arrested for smoking pot. But, he had many, many wise sayings and one of them was, "You can never do anything again; you can do something similar." And that’s what I tried to do on 52nd Street, but unfortunately, Tommy Dean had a partner who led him in the wrong direction, so the venture failed.
Lee Sobel: Where is Tommy Dean today?
Peter Crowley: He may have gone to live with the angels
Lee Sobel: What about all these interesting stories about him, for instance in Please Kill Me, there is this great story
where Jerry Nolan beats the shit out of this mobster and Tommy Dean drags him upstairs and says, "This guy is mafia, I’ll deal with him my way."
Peter Crowley: You’ve got the gist, but with a little bit of inaccuracy there. What happened was that some guy took a swing at Jerry at the downstairs bar over a spilled drink or something and then Jerry, who’s a good street brawler, knocked the guy down. The guy fell to the floor, there was a broken beer bottle on the floor, and the guy picked it by the neck and stabbed Jerry in the femoral artery. He was looking to stab him in the nuts, obviously, he missed by an inch or so. Jerry’s blood was pumping out at a scary rate… he was going to die. Tommy Dean grabbed a bunch of the cloth napkins and pushed them into that wound to stem the blood flow somewhat, picked Jerry up bodily, threw him into a taxi, and said, "Take him to St. Vincent’s," not knowing that we had a closer hospital nearby, but Tommy just knew about St. Vincent’s and the doctor sewed Jerry up and saved his life. He
had very little blood left, they had to pump a lot of blood into him, but he survived. Later on, in the 90s, St. Vincent’s killed Jerry, but that’s a whole other story. They misdiagnosed him and he died.
Peter Crowley: Tommy didn’t drag anybody upstairs. He dragged Jerry out to the curb and put him in a taxi. Later on, we asked Tommy, can anything be done about this guy and Tommy said no because he’s got connections and he’ll get away with it and all we’ll get out of it is aggravation if we pressed it, so just leave it be. That was that. But, Tommy Dean definitely saved Jerry’s life. If we waited for an ambulance, Jerry would have died. There was no time.
Lee Sobel: My understanding is that Tommy Dean was also a counterfeiter while running Max's.
Peter Crowley: Unbeknownst to me, around 1979 or '80, Tommy and his wife Laura had decided that the best way to make money was to make money. Laura figured out how to bleach out $1 bills, and they bought a state of the art color Xerox machine to do the printing in their garage. They used the $100 bills they printed to buy chips at casinos, and got away with it for years until Laura slipped up by purchasing a pocketbook in a casino gift shop in Atlantic City. The FBI had her on tape and to clear her from going to prison, Tommy took the rap for her and did about five years in a federal pen so his wife wouldn't have to go to prison. Tommy Dean had a lot of heart.