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In 1970s New York City, uptown had the glitz of Studio 54 and downtown had the Mudd Club: a legendary, punk rock venue known for pushing the boundaries of what nightlife could be. The space was home to the arts and creative expression—in other words, a natural collision of fashion, art, music, and literature. And the list of guests who walked through the front door reflected that scene: musicians like Grace Jones, Madonna, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry, Fab Five Freddy, Marianne Faithfull, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, and Nico; fashion people such as Anna Sui, Betsey Johnson, and Gia Carangi; artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Andy Warhol; and literary stars like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
The Mudd Club stood at 77 White St. at the corner of Cortlandt Alley when the area below Canal St. was considered an unsafe, no-go zone. As Richard Boch, a former doorman for the venue, wrote in his memoir, “I’ve always referred to the Mudd Club as the ‘scene of the crime’…It was the night that never ended: the day before never happened, and the day after, a long way off. There was nothing else like it.”
Aspiring filmmaker Steve Mass, art curator Diego Cortez, and punk-rock-girl-about-town Anya Phillips opened the Mudd Club together in 1978 with an alleged budget of only ,000. According to music journalist Legs McNeil, Mass was “the only person at the time with an American Express card.” The three founders named the space after Samuel Alexander Mudd, the doctor that tended to John Wilkes Booth after Abraham Lincoln was killed.
Initially, the Mudd Club opened its doors with a concert by the band The B-52s, with tickets selling for .52 dollars. The six-story loft space had high ceilings painted black with exposed pipes and ductwork, gray walls, and graffiti in the gender-neutral restrooms. Next to the dance floor was a makeshift DJ booth. On the fourth floor—above all the music and ambient noise away from the crowds—Keith Haring curated a space for artwork. As for the second floor? Boch described its feel: “[It] was a whole other story when it came to vibe and appearance. Diner style booths, grammar school desks, and some ratty upholstered furniture scattered around for additional seating. There was a human size steel cage in the middle of the room built by artist Ronnie Cutrone. The second floor bar started out as a couple of folding tables. An ice filled claw foot tub chilled the beer.”
Eventually, word traveled around and the Mudd Club became a downtown destination, especially after seeing a show at other famed venue CBGB. The spirited atmosphere only got started well after midnight, and it was the ideal place to end the night.
Once inside, the venue welcomed diverse club goers in an “anything goes” environment for indulging in drugs, dancing, and seeing new art or listening to live music. Photographer Marcia Resnick said in Boch’s book, “It was a democratic society once you got inside.” And some of the theme nights—where partygoers got dressed up accordingly—attracted lines out the door: The Joan Crawford Mother’s Day Celebration, The Puberty Ball, and The Dead Rock Stars Rock N’ Roll Funeral Ball were just a few.
This year, the Mudd Club would have celebrated the 40th Anniversary of its inception. Like many nightclubs of the past, it lasted only a short time. By 1983—after five years—its fame started to wane. “The Mudd Club limped into 1983,” Boch said. “There had to be an expiration date, given how crazy hot that place burned from the day it opened in the Fall of ’78 and through a good part of 1981. By mid-1982 it started a slow fade.”
But the club still manages to live on in songs immortalized by Frank Zappa, The Talking Heads, The Ramones, and Nina Hagen. At the end of the night, it was all about the guests who made it what it was. Boch said it best: “It was when people showed up that the magic got made. Often times, it was just a beautiful mess.”END
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