Peter Crowley worked at the Living Theatre well over a decade before he began booking the Ramones, Blondie, and other punk bands at Max’s Kansas City; in both venues, he witnessed the dissolution of barriers that separated audiences from performers.
The theater’s jack-of-all-trade’s Larry Kornfeld was given Jack Gelber’s script for The Connection and immediately fell for it, so he brought it to Malina. She directed the play, which centered on a group of men waiting for their drug connection named Cowboy (played by Carl Lee, who became Shirley Clarke’s longtime companion). “The Connection broke down the wall between the audience and the actors,” recalled Peter Crowley, who worked at the Living Theatre. “The realism of it was pretty radical at the time. They had junkies playing junkies. I mean, not that every actor there was a junkie, but some were. And then a real jazz band was part of the show.” The Connection was framed as a play within a play. A man who introduced himself as the show’s producer told the audience that he brought in actual heroin addicts to improvise on the playwright’s themes for a documentary they were shooting. In exchange for their cooperation, he explained, the men were promised a fix. The show’s first act consisted of the junkies waiting for the heroin, and during The Connection’s intermission the performers wandered into the crowd and bummed change. “It had the actors, still in character, haranguing the spectators for money during the intermission so convincingly that they left profound doubts in the audience as to whether or not they were the real thing,” recalled Elaine Dundy, whose sister Shirley Clarke directed the film adaptation of The Connection. “It was, to use a word just gaining favor, a Happening.”
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Fittingly, one of the Living Theatre’s workers, Peter Crowley, spent time there well over a decade before he began booking the Ramones, Blondie, and other punk bands at Max’s Kansas City. In both venues, he witnessed the dissolution of barriers that separated audiences from performers. After running away at the age of seventeen to join the circus (literally: Crowley worked for Clyde Beatty–Cole Bros. as a sideshow laborer), he moved to New York in 1959 and got involved with the Committee for Non-Violent Action. Crowley met Malina and Beck at a demonstration and began working in the theater’s lobby and bookshop, taking acting classes on the side. “The Living Theatre’s involvement with the peace movement was an attraction, and the plays themselves were fascinating,” he said. “They did The Connection and The Brig, those are the two famous ones.”
Between 1961 and 1964, MacDougal Street was crawling with coffeehouses that catered to the tourists who came downtown on weekends. Peter Crowley—who later booked Debbie Harry’s and Patti Smith’s bands at Max’s Kansas City during the 1970s—ended up working at one of these tourist traps in 1963 after a stint at the Living Theatre. He was walking down MacDougal Street one day and saw a sign on a coffeehouse window that said Drag Wanted. Crowley inquired inside, wondering what in the world that sign meant, and was told, “Oh, we need somebody to stand outside and drag the tourists in.” “Well, I could do that,” he said, so the manager hired him on the spot. There Crowley was, hustling tourists in front of the Why Not Café, across the street from the more famous Café Wha. “The coffeehouses were fake, where you would just drag the tourists in with the sales pitch, almost like a carnival,” he said. “The opposite was done by the manager of the Café Rafio, who would stand out in front. He looked like a Viking with really long red hair and long red beard. He dressed all in black and would glower at the tourists. So having gone past all these places that tried to drag them in, tourists would see this guy standing at the doorway, giving them dirty looks, and they’d say to each other, ‘Oh, this must be the real place,’ and they would go in there.”
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
When the Holy Modal Rounders’ Peter Stampfel arrived on the Lower East Side in 1959, the midwesterner was a bit leery of living in a slum. Is it dangerous? he wondered. Is there trouble? Yes, it could be a bit sketchy, but this was counterbalanced by the incredibly cheap rents. Bibbe Hansen—who lived at 609 East Sixth Street, between Avenues C and D—recalled that it was an extremely poor neighborhood. “It was more about poverty than anything else,” she said. “There were artists living around where I was living, but mostly because we were poor. There are so many important people that were part of the everyday landscape that are now these monumental, awesome giants of alternative culture and experimental art.” Agosto Machado had always found the West Village to be a little expensive, so he mostly lived on the East Side. “Now, we’re talking thirty-, forty-, fifty-, sixty-dollar-a-month apartments,” Agosto Machado said. “That allowed a generation of people to come to New York City and spend, like, three-quarters of their time being an artist and a quarter of their time doing some sort of pickup day work to pay for your rent.” By the mid-1960s, the social and economic dynamics in the neighborhood were shifting—as was the Lower East Side’s name. “The landlords changed the name to the East Village so they could make a little more rent,” recalled Peter Crowley. “That began in the early sixties, and by the mid to late sixties it was like a gold rush.” Richard Meyers was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and landed on the Lower East Side in late 1966; within a few years he had reinvented himself as Richard Hell. As a child, he and his mother had visited his grandmother in the West Village every three or four years, so he already had an impression of the city. “The West Village was—in terms of New York—deceptively quaint and peaceful and beautiful,” Hell said. “It wasn’t until I actually came here that I got exposed to Fourteenth Street and Forty-Second Street and the East Village—the real New York, which is much more squalid than this isolated Village where my grandmother lived.”
From Chapter 7 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
When Mickey Ruskin sold Max’s Kansas City in 1974, it was renovated by new owner Tommy Dean, who made it resemble an airport lounge, complete with a bad disco band. “He asked Wayne County, ‘What have I done wrong? Why is my club empty?’ and Wayne referred him to me,” recalled Peter Crowley, who booked bands at Max’s from 1974 to 1981, after working at the Living Theatre and managing coffeehouses in the 1960s. “I told him everything he did wrong. At first he gave me Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, and I started bringing in all the CBGB bands. Basically I just stole all Hilly’s acts—Television, Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, all the usual suspects.” During this time, Zone became the new house DJ at Max’s, along with Wayne County (who changed her name to Jayne in the late 1970s). “Wayne was heavily focused on early British invasion, but also played comparable American records,” Crowley recalled, “and the same more or less with Paul.” Zone added, “When I was the DJ with Jayne at Max’s in ’74, ’75, ’76, the only music we were playing was sixties music and glam music. There was no other music. There were no punk records yet. All we played was sixties girl groups, British Invasion, Beach Boys, and we were playing the Dolls and some other glam, T. Rex and Bowie. Or I would play disco songs I thought were really good, like ‘Waterloo’ by ABBA and things like that.”
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Even though the Zone brothers were oddballs, their family was still very supportive—especially their mother Vita Maria, who was the Fast’s biggest fan. “We started growing our hair long,” Paul Zone said, “and that was a big thing back then, when a lot of kids could have been ousted from their family for that. But even aunts and uncles, they just never really thought of us as strange or outcasts.” Still, they knew suburban life was not for them. “As long as I can remember,” he added, “we wanted to get to that train as quick as we could to get to Manhattan. It was only a few stops away.” When they started seeing ads in the Village Voice for an odd-looking band that turned out to be the New York Dolls, the brothers began frequenting the Mercer Arts Center, Club 82, and other venues. Peter Crowley began booking bands at Max’s Kansas City in 1974, and the Fast were among the first to regularly play there. “I met them hanging out at Max’s, a little bit before CBGB’s,” recalled Chris Stein. “We met Jimmy Destri, our keyboard player, through them, and we did a lot of shows with the Fast at CBGB’s.” In 1976, Paul Zone debuted as the Fast’s new frontman, and Debbie Harry introduced them at CBGB by waving a checkered racing flag. “We had a pretty good start because the name was established,” he said, “so people knew who the Fast were.” The future looked bright when they recorded a single with 1960s pop producer Richard Gottehrer, who helmed Blondie’s first international hit singles, but the Fast were done in by a combination of bad management and bad luck.
From Chapter 32 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore