There Is a Light That Never Goes Out of Style


I’ve always loved Lit, the cozy den of iniquity on Second Avenue and East 5th Street. I’ve loved it long after it was profiled in the Times Style section and discarded as yesterday’s news. There’s something about the place that makes it seem like it’s always been there, like a neighborhood bar that just grew out of the cement. Whenever I’m feeling restless and bored on a Friday or Saturday night, the solution is easy. It’s always fun, and unlike so many other downtown bars, it’s escaped certain death. Pianos . . . Dark Room . . . Fat Baby . . . Fontana’s . . . all hip for a minute, then abandoned to the bridge-and-tunnel masses.

So it’s hard to believe the place is already five years old. Owners Max Brennan, Eric Foss, and David Schwartz celebrated their anniversary with a bash last Thursday night featuring an all-star DJ lineup befitting of a bar that’s equal parts rock and art. On the decks, ghosts of Lit’s past and present: Paul Sevigny, Interpol‘s Paul Banks, Jason Consoli, Beauty Bar’s Mike Stuart, and artists Matt Damhave, Josh Wilman, Sean Dack, and Tim Biscup, plus an impromptu performance from Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, who patted the CD in his pocket and quipped, “I got my whole set right here.” As balloons floated over everyone’s heads, I listened to Gang Gang Dance member Brian Degraw‘s amazing set of reggae and dance music with Banks, who remarked in admiration, “That guy’s a way better DJ than me.” (Banks had just come from a recording session for Interpol’s third record; as far as they know, they are still on Capitol Records, having survived the label’s merger, unlike Fischerspooner, who an inside source tells me have been dropped.)

Looking at the motley, truly unpretentious crowd that night—a mix of college kids, skater boys, and hipster girls—it’s easy to understand why Lit has survived. “That sort of thing happens to other bars: They are cool for a few months, then they turn into frat bars, because they are designed by a designer, and there are all these outside investors invested in the bar,” says Brennan, an Aussie import. “Whereas Lit is totally owned, run, and promoted by the owners. We’re hands-on. There are not too many bars that are hands-on like that.” Brennan, who plays in a band, does all the band booking, and is so dedicated he even works while on vacation. “Even though I just went to Austria for a week, I was on the Internet booking bands,” he recalls with an embarrassed laugh.

Maybe, though, it’s the art and the artists Foss brings in that keep Lit alight. Over the years, Lit has hosted shows by H.R. Giger and Replacements drummer Chris Mars, whose art career exploded after showing there. “His pieces sell for $15,000 now, but we were lucky enough to get him few a years back before he got too big,” Brennan says.

Maybe it’s the music—the bar pioneered rock ‘n’ roll dance jams, a rare commodity five years ago. (Hard to imagine, isn’t it?) Or maybe it’s the star-studded after-parties, like the one following the StrokesWhite Stripes double bill at Radio City Music Hall in 2002. “All the bands came, and all the supermodels came—Sophie Dahl and all the rest of them, Kate Moss,” Brennan says. But his favorite Lit moment? When Elliott Smith played an unplanned set downstairs, christening the new stage. “He died a few months later,” Brennan says. “It was his last concert in New York. He had bought some artwork from us in the gallery, and I mentioned to him, ‘Why don’t you play a solo show?’ off-the-cuff. The Strokes came down with Drew Barrymore and Juliet Joslin, and it was just packed with press and people. He played all his songs and was talking to the crowd and would stop songs halfway through and say, ‘Sorry, I forgot the lyrics.’ ”

Or maybe Lit’s attraction is the cave-like basement—as a friend of mine says, “It makes me feel like Mom and Dad are out of town, and I’m gonna go craaaazy!” Yes, that too.

Or maybe it’s just that Lit gets me lit. I raise a glass, or three. “I don’t think I want to be thought of as aninstitution,” Brennan says. “I hope people keep wanting to come back. I hope there’s another five years.” He laughs. “That’s so weird. My lightbulb just went off when I said that.”

Disco D’s passing deeply saddened the dance-music community. The 27-year-old Detroit booty-bass and ghetto-tech musician, whose real name was David Shayman, was bipolar, a fact he openly discussed in interviews; he took his own life on January 23. His friends and family rallied in the weeks that followed, throwing a series of Disco D benefits to raise funds for Neutral Zone, a teen center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that aims to help troubled youth via different skills programs, including one centered on music. The lineups would have made Dave proud: In New York,
Godfather, Max Glazer, and others at Delancey, and Assault, Spank Rock, Stretch Armstrong, Annalyze, Funk, and Derek Plaslaiko at Studio B—an event that raised $2,000, says Studio B co-promoter
Lauren Flax.

Disco D made the rare jump from the underground to the mainstream with “Ski Mask Way,” a track he produced for 50 Cent. “The last time he got out of the funk, he came out and wrote the best things of his career,” recalls Sam Valenti IV, a friend who owns Ghostly International Records and helped organize the benefits. “Dave took a regional style and pushed it to the limit. It was incredible to me that Dave made this leap. It’s hard to do, going from electronic music to mainstream hip-hop production.” And for that, I raise three beers to Disco D, too.

Finally, I raise no beers to our city’s continued bashing of nightlife. Two weekends ago, MARCH (Multi-Agency Response to City Hotspots) marched into the Annex and raided the club at 3 a.m. on Friday night. Annex owner Jason Baron says they didn’t get any violations, so the ritual of turning on the lights and turning off the sound—thus ending the party—was performed for naught. Nothing like 20 law enforcement officers to kill your buzz. Apparently they had just come from Tonic, which wasn’t so lucky. They had a line outside the door for a packed Matthew Dear show, so they got nabbed with an overcapacity violation, I’m told.

And meh to the ruling made by the State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division last week to uphold the absolutely stupid, completely unnecessary cabaret law. The 80-year-old law that requires a license for dancing serves no purpose but to give the city another tool to harass nightclubs out of business. The argument that it’s necessary for ensuring safety in clubs is erroneous and misguided—there are other laws that perfectly handle fire and safety codes, not to mention noise violations. There is no language in the original law that says anything about safety or zoning; it’s an outdated law with racist origins that should be overturned and burned to the ground. It’s simply an embarrassment to our city.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 20, 2007

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