The Gritty Club at the Heart of ‘This Ain’t No Disco’

NEW YORK — On a scorching July day, Peter Yanowitz peered through the entrance of 77 White St. in Manhattan, as if looking for ghosts.

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Jim Farber
, New York Times

NEW YORK — On a scorching July day, Peter Yanowitz peered through the entrance of 77 White St. in Manhattan, as if looking for ghosts.

The Tribeca building, the former lair of the scuzzy Mudd Club, which opened on Halloween 40 years ago, now houses condos that go for $3.6 million. “It looks like such a random, rich person’s place now,” Yanowitz said. “It’s hard to believe so many amazing things went on here.”

Those things hold such deep fascination for Yanowitz that he and his writing partner Stephen Trask have spent the last eight years developing a new rock opera set in the New York club scene of 1979. Titled “This Ain’t No Disco,” after the Talking Heads lyrics that name-checks the Mudd Club, the musical toggles between that downtown punk-rock dive and the chic midtown club it is often contrasted with, Studio 54.

The production by the Atlantic Theater Company, which opens at its Linda Gross Theater in Manhattan on Tuesday, arrives amid a surge in projects about the nightlife scene of the “Ford to City: Drop Dead” era.

Over the last year, three books illuminating that lost world have been published, including “The Mudd Club,” penned by its discriminating doorman, Richard Boch. The Museum of Modern Art recently dedicated a show to Club 57, a zany contemporary of the Mudd Club; and a documentary on Studio 54 and a biopic of Robert Mapplethorpe are on their way to U.S. releases.

Yanowitz, 50, and Trask, 51, were too young to take part in that scene. Still, Trask said, “The fantasies of it were formative for me.”

The men, who co-wrote the music, lyrics and book, have ample histories in rock and theater. Trask created the music and lyrics for the hit “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” while Yanowitz played drums in productions of that show after performing in Jakob Dylan’s band the Wallflowers and backing artists including Natalie Merchant and Yoko Ono.

Their rock opera, directed by Darko Tresnjak, a Tony winner for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” centers on the friendship between a gay hustler and aspiring graffiti artist (Peter LaPrade) and an African-American punk singer (Samantha Marie Ware), whom Trask described as “a mash-up of Patti Smith and Nona Hendryx.”

The music takes influence from new wave and disco, as well as Paul McCartney and Benjamin Britten. Both Steve Rubell, a co-owner of Studio 54, and Steve Mass, the owner of the Mudd Club, are depicted, but the second act focuses on the downtown outpost, approximating its most avant-garde sounds. “I’m pretty sure nothing like that has been presented in a rock musical before,” Trask said.

Still, the play is hard-pressed to beat the creativity and grittiness of the Mudd Club itself. Howie Pyro, of the band D Generation, said it was “like a Velvet Underground song come to life,” while Johnny Dynell, a key DJ at the club, described it as “Caligula’s lair.”

Inspired by the 1963 experimental film “Flaming Creatures,” Mass had originally wanted to create an underground film studio in the space, in the then-desolate area of Tribeca. The club was meant to finance this dream. But “no landlord would rent you space if you said you wanted to open a rock club,” Mass said. “So, I lied and said I was going to open a really cute Parisian cafe.”

His day job — running an ambulance service — provided the funds to rent the space for $500 a month from the artist Ross Bleckner and his father, who owned the building. After attending shows at the punk epicenters CBGB and Max’s, Mass found himself thinking, “Who needs all these bands? They’re just a distraction from the audience, which is just as interesting.”

For his club, he focused on the crowd, despite the many artists who performed there. From Studio 54, which had opened 18 months earlier, he swiped the idea of an exclusive door policy, a heretical idea within the egalitarian world of punk. “It enraged people, which generated more interest in the place,” Mass said. Instead of a velvet rope, the club employed an S-and-M chain. And, in a highly attention-getting stunt, Mass claimed he was going to exclude celebrities. Excluded, in fact, was anyone who asked, “How long do I have to wait?” Also denied were large groups of rowdy straight men, and, according to Boch, Paul Simon, “because he said the worst thing you could possibly say, which is, ‘Do you know who I am?'”

To keep things spontaneous, Mass came up with perverse new door policies. “One night he said, ‘No one gets in with a leather jacket,” Boch said. “Of course, everyone on line was wearing one.”

The opening night featured the Georgia-based B-52’s, who stayed in the Eighth Street apartment Mass shared with Brian Eno. Sam Shepard honored the band’s song “Rock Lobster” by turning up in the Lobster Man costume from the play he wrote with Smith, “Cowboy Mouth.”

“The place was instantly fun and different,” said Fred Schneider of the B-52’s. “The Mudd Club had a darker edge than any other disco.”

DJs broke the mold by offering an unusually catholic mix of music, from vintage soul to surf rock. Dynell said that Mass instructed him to mess with expectations by tossing in a recording by Alvin and the Chipmunks or spinning a record mutilated with a scissor.

The bands who appeared, like the Bush Tetras and ESG, advanced new trends in askew punk-funk. The club even hosted a series showcasing new minimalist composers from the classical world. “The music, and the tone of the club, went way beyond the cliché of a scowling punk disco,” said Tim Lawrence, the author of the book “Love and Death on the New York Dance Floor.”

Mudd was not the first “punk-disco” in New York to reintroduce rock fans to dancing. Hurrah, on West 62nd Street, beat it by six months. But that space was slick while the Mudd Club was proudly sleazy; and Hurrah was centered on the bands who performed.

“Mudd was more about a social gathering,” said Richard Barone, whose band the Bongos played some of their earliest shows there. “It was a place for artists and designers and musicians to merge and trade ideas.” And it pioneered gender neutral bathrooms, though Barone said, “you’d do your best never to go into them.”

A place of transgressive mirth, Mudd reflected the whims of Mass and his creative partners, art curator Diego Cortez and downtown fixture Anya Phillips. They dreamed up increasingly daft theme nights, like “The Joan Crawford Mother’s Day Celebration,” an instillation that included an actress handcuffed to a chair; and “The Puberty Ball,” headlined by the teenage band the Blessed.

“We got to take drugs and go home with other underage people and nobody cared,” said Pyro, who, at 17, was the oldest member of that band at the time.

The most elaborate theme night was “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Funeral Ball.” The club took over White Street to create an immersive funeral procession, complete with coffins holding artists who played the corpses of dead rock stars, including Janis Joplin and Sid Vicious. Mass also littered the club with syringes he got from his earlier ambulance business.

“We fed on the idea of making mothers’ hair turn gray,” he admitted.

Beneath the whimsy, serious connections were being made among designers like Anna Sui and Jasper Conran and artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, whose works decorated the building’s upper floor. And Mudd brought the Bronx hip-hop scene downtown when Fred Brathwaite, aka Fab 5 Freddy, co-curated a graffiti-related art show there in 1981, titled “Beyond Worlds.”

The particular mix of art, music, fashion, dancing and drugging at Mudd presaged clubs like Area, Danceteria and the Palladium. Mass closed Mudd in 1983 because of the competition. “When people saw that an idiot like me had such success,” he said, “they flooded the market with new clubs.” Today, as his musical prepares to open, Yanowitz views Mudd’s era as “the last moment before the total corporatization of New York started to happen.”

As moneyed as the current city might be, Trask sees parallels between then and now.

“We’re in a moment of humongous political change just as people were when they were entering the Reagan era,” he said. “They went from Studio 54 and the Mudd Club into AIDS.”

“Once again,” he added, “things don’t seem at all good and nobody knows what’s going to happen next.”

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