Boch to the Future: The Mudd Club’s Doorman as Artist Today

Any trip down the memory lane of nightclubs must pass by the Mudd Club. It opened in October 1978 and was the best joint in town — some say the best ever. When it closed in 1983, it had morphed from the chicest of places to a punk/hipster haven. Any visit to the Mudd, even as a memory, must go through a door manned by Richard Boch. Mudd was located below Canal at the end of an alley at 77 White Street. At the time it was unimaginable that people could live down there, as it was a domain of rats and bag people with frequent visits from the new culture of graffiti artists. The music was rock and roll, and the crowds were punks and rock stars and rock stars who were punks, plus an uptown crowd slumming for flesh or drugs. Movie stars came through with their apricot scarves and that rarest of commodities: cash. It was a time before we thought of AIDS, and only Betty Ford went to rehab. Orgies and drugs in tenement squats were a common end to an evening on the town. There were few designer labels, save for Trash & Vaudeville or Natasha or Levi’s. But everybody wanted to get into the Mudd Club.

The Mudd was packed out at 500 people, but it was really “the” 500 people. It’s hard to describe a time when you wouldn’t break a sweat when a David Bowie or Iggy or that ilk would walk by. I somehow managed to get in … I was hanging hard with the Ramones back then. It was my bar rap and a very effective one. I made the place my home. Richard Boch let me in — maybe the only mistake he ever made out there. A downtown god for so many years, Richard has gone back to his passion — painting — and lives in upstate New York. He occasionally pops into New York City where he still maintains an apartment. We ate poor omelets while we poured through hours of memories. Richard helped define nightlife during an anything-goes era that seems as long ago as my youth.

When I did my top five clubs in New York, I got a lot of flak because I didn’t include Mudd Club. But if it’s not in my top five, it’s at least in my top seven. In my memory of the Mudd Club, the difference between it and the clubs now was that Mudd was a club based on artists and culture as much as any club that ever was. It was always based on the creativity of its crowd, which seems to be lost in the clubs today. You worked in the nightclub scene for a long time. How do you feel about what I’ve just said? I think it’s true what you just said about the Mudd Club being very important to the art scene in New York, especially in lower Manhattan. I started working there in the late winter of ’79, and I stayed for about two years. I came a little less than six months after it opened. I had been working at a cabaret in SoHo and had been hanging out at CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. going to shows and being in love with music all over again when CBGBs started happening. It was one of those happy accidents that I wound up at the Mudd Club.

There were many other people at the door at Mudd Club (you were the doorman) that I remember: Robert Molnar, Hattie Hathaway. Who else? Gretchen, who took money on the inside; there was a guy name Joe Kelley who was a door/security person. ChiChi Valente. She was such a revelation. The first time I ever really met ChiChi, we just connected. I was so amazed by her.

When you were working the door, what was it you were looking for? I was given essentially no direction by Steve Maas, the owner, when I started working there. My interview consisted of me coming to the bar one night and interrupting him. He had called me up to come and talk to him. So, I said hello, and he said, “Be here tomorrow night,” and he used me two nights a week, Saturdays and Sundays. He hired me because certain people weren’t able to get in, and he was under the impression that I knew everybody, which was not really the truth at the time. I knew who a lot of people were, and I had a lot of friends downtown, but I went the next night and I wound up working seven nights a week for the next two years. Maybe five nights a week after the first year.

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From an insider’s point of view, what was the Mudd Club like? Who were you letting in? What was the crowd like? You know, I wasn’t looking for name recognition. That was one of the things that Steve Maas warned me about. He didn’t want that. At the beginning, he specifically mentioned people who actually became nightly regulars as people he didn’t want to be there. He didn’t want people who were getting out of limos to be there. He didn’t want big-name rock and roll stars to be there. He wanted the artists, the band members from people who played at CBGBs and Max’s to be able to get in. That was his big concern. I sort of took it upon myself to basically go through what I felt. I let in my friends, of course I let in people who I liked. If I got a bad vibe from somebody, a bad gesture or a single word, the door would be shut. It’s a weird thing to say now, but I learned very quickly. Steve had a vision. He didn’t have a business plan. He had a vision of creating this scene every night, and it was based on just letting things happen. Sometimes he would set the stage with those themed parties. There were times when I would arrive for work at midnight, and I wasn’t sure what was going on. We worked without a guest list in those days. I didn’t have a clipboard or sheet of paper or anything like that. Maybe a friend would write down a name for me, asking to let them in. It was more of a free-spirited go-with-your gut kind of thing.

Who were the specifically named people Steve Maas didn’t want in there? He listed among them Bowie and Mick Jagger. He just didn’t want the place to be about them or be the kind of place defined by those sort of celebrities. He wanted the artists, the new rock stars to define the Mudd. Of course they ended up coming frequently, and once Steve saw how naturally they interacted with the crowd, it was all good.

I’d like your opinion of why Max’s Kansas City was important and who Mickey Ruskin was. Well, Mickey Ruskin set it up, and to me he is the greatest entrepreneur on the downtown club scene of the last 50 years. He started some dive over on Avenue B in the late 50s, then he went on to open the Ninth Circle in the early 60s. He opened Max’s in the mid-60s. He opened a steakhouse essentially at that location with a partner. He moved on in ‘65 and started Max’s Kansas City. I think he allowed things to happen, too — I think he got himself into everything by accident at that time. A lot of the artists started hanging out there because they had studios around there, and they brought their friends. The Warhol crowd started hanging out there. I mean everybody was there then. We’re talking about the 60s. I think I read a quote by Debbie Harry that she was so thrilled that she had waited on Jefferson Airplane one night, or that Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty had come in after the Bonnie and Clyde premiere. That was when I was a junior in high school. That’s before my Max’s, too. But I mean that’s the kind of history it has. That’s the kind of legend it is.

So you ended up working for Mickey. I worked for Mickey after the Mudd Club. He’d moved down to 1 University Place, right off the north corner of Washington Square Park. Before that, he was at the lower Manhattan Ocean Club on Chamber Street, way ahead of its time in the 70s. In the mid-70s, he was in Tribeca. I had left the Mudd Club based on a reaction and a bad decision. I went to work at the Peppermint Lounge for six months or so. They offered me a lot of money to come and work there, but it didn’t happen the way it was supposed to happen. A fellow Mudd Club DJ, David Azark, went there and encouraged me to come with him. From there I wound up working for Mickey in the fall of ‘81. I was at the Mudd Club through most of ‘79 and most of ’80, and then I left and went to Peppermint Lounge, and then I picked up and went to Micky’s.

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So you emerged from all this club life and became an artist. Were you always going to be a painter? That’s what I went to school for. I went to art school at the University of Connecticut. I studied art and art history. I studied printmaking. I came to New York after spending a little bit of time in Connecticut at UConn, and I intended to go to NYU as a grad student in ’75. I went and signed up for my classes while I was also going to CBGBs almost every night, and I never went to a single class. That was the end of my academic career. I wound up getting a job as a bartender in SoHo at the cabaret, and I was there through ‘76 and ‘77. Going to them and working at them. The biggest struggle for me as an artist is promoting myself, so I don’t’ know. I’m certainly informed by everything that I experienced in clubs. Mudd Club was the biggest mark of all. Mickey Ruskin was the kindest guy that I had ever met. He was the most wonderful person to me. The Mudd Club is what left its mark on me. It sort of defined me at the period in time. I still run into people in upstate New York who new me at Mudd Club, and I’ll even run in to people in Paris. I experienced people at the Mudd in a way that would never have happened anywhere else.

Is what’s happening in clubs now relevant anymore, or have we just outgrown it? Well, I’ve outgrown it. Right now, if someone were to say to me, “There’s a band that has piqued my curiosity. Do you want to go?” I might say, “OK let’s go,” or might say “No way.” Or if there is a milestone birthday being thrown for somebody. I need to have something put in front of me that I will be attending in order to get out of the house and stay out until one or two in morning. And this sort of sounds ridiculous because there were times when I didn’t leave my house until one or two in the morning. It’s interesting to talk about how late things used to go and how early my schedule is now. I remember the first year at the Mudd Club … he crew would go out afterward somewhere, we would leave the Mudd Club at like 7am and go to the Nursery or something. I mean, I have stories about those places that make me laugh today. They may frighten some people. It’s amazing. Some real funny stories.

Let’s talk about your art for a minute. What are your paintings like? You do have a hard time promoting yourself — what’s important now? I was going to come into this interview and say that everything’s cool whatever we say, as long as I’m identified as an artist. The paintings I do now are done mostly on paper. I think that has a lot to do with my background as a printmaker. I do a lot of large-scale drawings — I have a couple hanging up in Hudson, New York. I work on a grid. I do writing that was certainly informed by the graffiti that I lived with for so many years in lower Manhattan. Sometimes the writing is made of actual letters, sometimes it’s made of abstractions or mark-making that I use to speak. That’s how I speak. I do have a hard time promoting myself. I find if I’m going to promote myself, the work has to speak for itself. I can’t sell it verbally. But you know I now have the freedom to paint. I have a beautiful studio upstate. I can work. I can go out in the morning with my Buffy. I can go out and do errands and come back to it in the afternoon. I have the luxury of coming down the city a few days a week because I have a place in the city. So that’s basically the life I have today. It’s very different than it was 30 years ago.

A lot of people have not seen you in 25 years — if you asked them now, they would say, “Oh, I remember Richard Boch!” Do you have a couple of sentences for those people who stood outside and watched you at the door? I have several one-liners — I fondly regard the Mudd Club as the scene of the crime. I fondly refer to myself and others as Mudd Club survivors. Not because there was a darkness about it, but because it was how we lived for years. Yeah, people died, but there was also such an innocence about it. It was naïve. I spoke for someone at a memorial service recently who dates back to that era, who dates back to being an every-night Mudd Club person, and I said that in a very brief little speech that I really do, at that point, believe that we were sort of, half-jokingly half-seriously, the last innocent group of all of them.

Industry Insiders: Spencer Sweeney, Your New Santa

Spencer Sweeney, artist and one of the forces behind Santos’ Party House, talks community boards, sketchy after-hour clubs, and why he’s changing his name to Santa.

Point of Origin: I came to New York about ten years ago from Philadelphia where I was an art student. I started DJing when I moved here at a sketchy after-hours spot on Ridge Street. Looking back, it was a pretty significant place culturally. My first party there was with Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello. The club was basically some guy’s apartment, and he got arrested every weekend. I think he had an incarceration fetish. There was this party at Standard Notions on Ludlow, which was a big hangout. Every week you’d have the guys from A.R.E. Weapons, Chloe Sevigny, Ben Cho. That’s where we all came together. At the time, DJing was very genre-driven. If you went into a record store, everyone would ask what you spun, and you’d have to be like “Organic Deep House,” you know?

Occupation: I co-own Santos’ Party House with Andrew WK, Larry Golden, and Ron Castellano. I had been DJing at the Hole, and the owner was basically raping me, paying me in pennies. And I thought how cool would it be if we could have our own space. It took us three years to build out Santos. Part of the impetus behind the club has to do with the Dadaists and the Futurists, which were artistic movements that had very strong social legs to them. We started with the stage and sound system, getting the best we could. And the idea of calling it Santa’s Party House was to try to make the most radical departure from nightclub naming as it currently exists. It was originally Santa’s, and then we were advised by our lawyer not to go with Santa, because if someone really wanted to fuck us, they could say it’s like Joe Camel trying to appeal to young children. So Andrew came up with the shift of Santa’s to Santos. But I found a way around it. I’m actually legally changing my name from Spencer to Santa. Really. I will be Santa Sweeney. It’s gotta be called Santa’s. It’s perfectly absurd.

imageSide Hustle: I’m an artist. I have solo show coming up at the Jack Hanley Gallery in San Francisco. I was in a performance art troupe called The Actress with Lizzi Bougastsos of Gang Gang Dance and some others. I wanted to move into visual art. I had just quit my job as an artist assistant — I was a terrible assistant — and I was walking down the street, I had heard about Gavin Brown and the bar Passerby and I thought that would be a good place to do parties and performance. We had a lot of good stuff — Fischerspooner and Andrew WK — it worked out great. Then I did a solo show for Gavin.

We’re going to be working with a lot of artists at Santa’s, have more live music and a theater group too, that Kembra Pfahler of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black is going to direct. Our liquor license took a year. Our neighborhood didn’t have a community board, so we were thrown to Tribeca by default. We were like “we won’t even be in your neighborhood,” and they’re like “we don’t care!” It was a bunch of angry old ladies. We had all our friends at museums write letters on our behalf, saying it would be a place for artists and culture. The board was like “what kind of artist is gonna be up at two in the morning have a drink?”

Favorite Hangs: I liked Lit on Mondays and Wednesdays. And I like … uh … I guess that’s the only place I go. Erik Foss, the owner, is a nice guy. Of course there’s also Max Fish which has been a great place for 20 years now.

Industry Icons: I don’t want to emulate anyone else’s career. But there’s definitely inspiration. Mickey Ruskin at Max’s Kansas City. I mean everyone went there. And Steve Paul who owned a place called the Scene. And the biggest inspiration was Arthur Weinstein, who I was very good friends with, who just passed away a few months ago. He owned one of the first discos called Hurrah. They were really hot for a season, then Studio 54 opened up. I learned a lot of lessons from him.

Known Associates: I’m collaborating at Santos’ Party House with a great choreographer named Maria Hassbi. Who else do I want to give shout-outs to? Andrew WK. Gavin Brown. Elizabeth Peyton. Agathe Snow, Carol Lee at Paper magazine, Ben Cho, Chloe Sevigny, Meredith Monk — we hope to have her perform. Will Oldham — him too.

What are you doing tonight? Going to a reggae party. I’m excited.