Nothing made sense about Max’s Kansas City. In the first place, there was no Max. (The poet Joel Oppenheimer, a friend of the club’s owner, Mickey Ruskin, made him up.) It had nothing to do with Kansas City, except that it served steaks. And then there was the location: on a colorless stretch of Park Avenue South office buildings near 17th Street, with no street life, barely any residents, and zero cachet. Ruskin, a journeyman restaurateur, had wanted to open a bar for his downtown artist and poet friends, like Donald Judd and Larry Poons, and the place—a lunch joint called the Southern Restaurant—was vaguely near the Village, and he could afford it, and that was that. Max’s opened on December 6, 1965.
What happened next was one of those peculiar chemical reactions that occur once per nightlife generation, and you can see it fizz and sparkle in the pages of Steven Kasher’s new photo collection, Max’s Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll. Poons and Judd started dropping by right away and traded art for food. (The artwork—a Judd sculpture over the bar, Dan Flavin fluorescence overhead—would eventually pay off far better than the restaurant business.) Pretty soon, Andy Warhol started coming in. He wasn’t quite the megastar yet, just a well-known artist who’d sit in the back room at a table full of friends. Some of them were rock stars, and in the coming months, Ruskin would routinely seat people like the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones without recognizing them. The Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls played on the small stage upstairs, becoming regular presences, followed by many others, including a youngster named Bruce Springsteen in 1972. Within a few years, the clientele was an encyclopedia of what we now think of as downtown cool: Debbie Harry, John Waters, Iggy Pop, various Ramones, even more various transvestites. The Warholian merger of art and celebrity, of high culture and low, already gassed up and ready to go, took off in this unprepossessing couple of rooms. Even the wait staff’s uniforms were a predictor: Ruskin had everyone wear black.
It couldn’t last, of course. Like the Cedar Tavern before it and a hundred other clubs afterward, Max’s soon attracted not just bright creative lights but their hangers-on, driving away the stars. Max’s went bankrupt in 1974, and Ruskin sold the name and the space. After a few years under new management, the space at 213 Park Avenue South eventually ended up housing a Korean deli. Ruskin opened a couple of other successful places (like Kipling’s Last Resort on University Place) before his death at 50 in 1983. He was smart enough, though, to grasp that Max’s had been a once-in-a-lifetime lightning strike. The new book includes a previously unpublished interview the rock journalist and talent manager Danny Fields did with Ruskin in 1974. When Fields asks him to offer advice for aspiring restaurateurs, Ruskin says, “There is no Santa Claus, but there may be an Andy Warhol.”