Reviews & suggestions for punk rock fans.

Who, What, When, Where, and Why of Max’s Kansas City

Max’s Kansas City, Mickey, & Punk Rock

Max’s Kansas City is another establishment in a long line of environments claimed to have given birth to punk rock. Raised in the late 1960s and filled with the top creative influencers of the era, Max’s Kansas City was a restaurant turned art scene hangout become venue. Its location was perfect for the who’s who of the art world to frolic, thrive, and misbehave. In its final years, it would be one of the top venues in New York City to see some of the most talented musicians the world has ever seen including some punk rock favorites.

Mickey Ruskin was the man who ran Max’s Kansas City when it first opened its doors in December of 1965 at 213 Park Avenue South, between Seventeenth and Eighteenth Street off Union Square. As found in the book High on Rebellion: Inside the Underground at Max’s Kansas City by Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin it can be described as:

“… the longest-running party in history and the home away from home for an influential group of artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers, poets, photographers, models, movie stars, and socialites.”

High on Rebellion: Inside the Underground at Max’s Kansas City by Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin

One aspect of why Max’s Kansas City would appeal to these “influential” people of the time is that Mickey Ruskin would work the door as the gatekeeper of who could come in and who couldn’t. This would be one of Max’s one of its most appealing qualities – exclusivity. Plus, Mickey was one of the first in the industry to give artists credit, allowing them to have tabs to encourage meetings and return visits.

Location is everything, of course, and one of the most important figures, and regular to Max’s Kansas City, would be Andy Warhol who had an office space (The Factory) near the restaurant. Warhol and those in his circle, like Danny Fields (one of the most important figures in the early punk rock scene), flocked to the backroom and created one of the most important scenes in art history. Here’s a quote to give you an idea of the atmosphere within the notorious backroom: 

“… that room was permeated in red. The blood-redness of it. The atmosphere was thick in Max’s. I always used to feel a little bit like I was swimming. It was almost like that sense of chlorine that you feel when you’re in a swimming pool. It was warm, thick feeing – the physical setting of the place, the gray carpeting up the walls, and the blood-redness.”

– Steve Gaines in High on Rebellion: Inside the Underground at Max’s Kansas City by Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin

A baby elephant, sex in the phone booth, a strip-tease game called Showtime, and more crazy shenanigans would all play out in the backroom of Max’s Kansas City. To put it simply, the various participants comprised of misfits and characters could get away with anything they wanted in the perimeters of Max’s Kansas City, which in turn gave them space to flourish as creative individuals. Who were these individuals? Glad you asked. Fran Lebowitz, Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, William S. Burroughs, Jack Nicholson, Jim Morrison, Alice Cooper, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Bowie, and Elizabeth Taylor would be some of the household names that hung out in the backroom of Max’s.

By 1969, Max’s Kansas City would open the upstairs to host music. Sam Hood organized the talent at the beginning inviting a range of artists to try out their stuff. Folk, country, and rock all played out on its stage. The artists who got their start there is a jaw-dropping. You have Billy Joel, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, and Bruce Springsteen who all claim Max’s as where their music career began. OH! And Bob Marley and the Wailers started their United States music career at Max’s.

But that’s not why you’re here. You see, before there was CBGBs, Max’s Kansas City was the initial venue in New York that lit the fuse for punk to explode. Velvet Underground held a residency upstairs at Max’s. Plus, acts like the MC5, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith Group, and a glass-cut Iggy Pop all helped spread madness to various people around the city inspiring them to think – if they can, why not I? Thus allowing places like CBGBs to house up-and-comers when it opened its doors in 1973.

By 1974, Mickey Ruskin begins to want out of Max’s Kansas City. And by 1975, Mickey declares bankruptcy allowing Tommy Dean to take over. Under new leadership, Peter Crowly would take over booking bands for the upstairs. Cherry Vanilla, Wayne County & the Electric Chairs, Ruby and the Rednecks, The Offs, Suicide, the Mumps, the Ramones, Blondie, Television, the Dictators, the Cramps, Mink DeVille, Misfits, The B-52’s, and many – many more would all be booked by Peter. And that’s why Max’s is considered the birthplace of punk, simply because it was one of the first venues to inspire and house the talented bands who initiated the genre. 

Unfortunately despite Tommy Dean’s experiences as a restaurateur in New Jersey, Max’s Kansas City was never the same once Mickey Ruskin stepped to the side. The upstairs thrived, but the art scene that was created and ultimately made Max’s, Max’s filtered out and never formed again. By 1981, Max’s would close its doors having Bad Brains perform its final show. I can only imagine a final night filled with mayhem ensued for the legendary restaurant turned venue, especially with Bad Brains at the helm.

Related Posts:

Discover more from

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading