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Much of Manhattan is a secret city, and few secrets are better than this: Below venerable dive Max Fish, behind grated steel doors that often vibrate with noise, is an old brick-walled basement room, pipes snaking overhead, a sweet smell of subterranean sweat mixed with old beer and cigarettes hanging in the air. Contained within: musical detritus built up over a generation—assorted amps, drum kits, microphone cables, and one stand-alone toilet shrouded by a Mickey Mouse bedsheet. This is the last great music rehearsal space on the Lower East Side. It will soon cease to exist.
Covered in a patchwork of concert posters, throw rugs, instruments, and vinyl records, the basement rehearsal space below Max Fish on Ludlow Street has been managed by Sal Principato for 27 years; predating the bar above, famous for being one of the first nightlife establishments in a neighborhood now overrun with them. Arwen Properties, owner of 178 Ludlow Street, has told the owner of Max Fish and Principato that they'll both need to vacate the building by early summer.
"They're in no mood to bargain because they stand to make a killing in the anticipation of the hotel," says Principato, referring to the Hotel Ludlow, the latest boutique hotel that will soon open next door to Max Fish. "We're a liability. Who's gonna pay those big bucks with a bunch of musicians in the basement?"
Since 1986 hundreds of New York City musicians have found refuge in the basement of Max Fish, paying a small fee to practice music, store gear, or just hang out. Sal says 17 keys for the space exist, and key-holders are welcome to come by anytime, as long as somebody else isn't scheduled to be there. Most other NYC rehearsal spaces charge by the hour, ask for additional storage fees, and don't allow for impromptu socializing.
"The first time I walked down there the hair stood up on my arms," says Joseph King, lead singer of the rock band Deadbeat Darling. "I was in awe of the whole thing because this is the underbelly of the Lower East Side subculture."
King and the other basement tenants at 178 Ludlow use words like "community," "family," and "collective" when talking about the rehearsal space that's so much more: a social club, a party spot, or a quiet place to reflect, write lyrics, or nap. Many of its key-holders have been using the space for more than 20 years, including Patrick Seacor (aka "Paddy Boom"), the original drummer for Scissor Sisters, and Felice Rosser, longtime NYC musician who sings and plays bass for Faith. "It's very convenient. We're a group of friends," says Rosser. "You can show up at 7 a.m. and stay until midnight if you want. It gives you a lot of room for creativity and freedom."
The space has seen its share of impromptu jam sessions over the years, with Fred Schneider of the B-52s, N'Dea Davenport of the Brand New Heavies, and Manu Chao among the musicians who've made appearances below Max Fish.
"[Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist] Flea came down and jammed for four hours," says Rosser.
Kaleta Jaa, bandleader of 13-person ensemble Zozo Afrobeat and former Fela Kuti collaborator, also uses the space. Other key-holders include the Deadbeat Darlings, who've sold out the Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge, and are the spaces' newest tenants. All will have to find new digs, and all doubt they'll be as special.
"Its like the Lower East Side preserved," says Principato. "It's like time hasn't changed down there over all those years."
"At one time there were five spaces on that one block of Ludlow between Houston and Stanton," says Seacor. "They've been shutting down one by one, and we're the last holdout."
Bands pay $25 per day to use the space. Other NYC rehearsal spaces might charge $25 an hour. "It's the best bargain of any sort I've ever experienced in New York City," says King. "I used to not even tell anybody; it was so ridiculous." Turnover is infrequent, and when a slot does open up, Principato fills it with another friend from his vast personal network of NYC musicians. (Principato isn't just the owner, he's also a client, the frontman for Liquid Liquid.) Typically, musicians get one day a week to rehearse, and at any time the basement of 178 Ludlow might be shaking with the sounds of dub reggae, jazz, or rock. The rent money doesn't completely cover costs, so Principato runs the space as a collective, and asks bands to perform in benefit gigs to pay for repairs or come in to help mop up sewage after the pipes back up.
In 1979, Principato moved to New York City and thrust himself into the emerging downtown music scene. He found the basement location after being run out of a couple other spots due to noise complaints. Max Fish didn't arrive until 1990. "There was just this guy upstairs who sold lotions from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.," he says.
"The neighborhood was working class, lots of bodegas and lots of drugs," Principato continues. "I remember Fridays there would be people in single file on each side of the street, the most diverse crowd in the world, all waiting for their heroin dealer to show up."