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.”
A couple of weeks ago the basement tenants gathered and were informed by Principato of the landlord’s letter asking them to leave. “Everyone was really upset, especially the ones who’ve been there a long time,” says Rosser, a basement-dweller since 1988. “Some of us have a lot of history down there.” As the meeting continued, the basement that had witnessed so much music was now the scene for a discussion on real estate law. “Everyone was saying, What if we do this, What if we do that, How long can we hold out?” says Rosser. “No one wanted to face the fact that we’re a commercial tenant and that we don’t have much to stand on.”
“Sal created a community of artists in a basement and has kept it going for 27 years,” says King. “You can feel on the walls the number of artists who’ve played in that space.”
For Jaa the eviction is especially difficult. “It was such a large place for us,” he says. “One room where we could keep all our equipment.” He compares the Ludlow basement to Fela Kuti’s legendary Shrine nightclub in Lagos. “It was like bringing Africa here and keep doing what you were doing. Losing Ludlow is like taking Africa from me. Like leaving Africa all over again.”
Not all of Jaa’s Ludlow memories are rosy. He wrote a song, “Shit Music,” after a practice session was interrupted by a raw sewage leak. “I was rehearsing with my band and suddenly there was this foul odor. We say, ‘What’s going on?’ We check everywhere and then we can see the raw sewage coming down,” says Jaa. “I say, ‘Oh my god, this is shit music,’ and someone says, ‘That sounds like a song.’ It took me only two months to record that song. That was inspiration.”
Each musician of 178 Ludlow seems to have their own sewage horror story to tell. “Once it was literally a shitstorm: The toilet was like Old Faithful, the geyser, and it was not pretty. It was spewing all over the place,” says Seacor. “Sal and I got a case of pizza boxes and used them like sponges, throwing them all over the floor but then not realizing how heavy they were gonna get. I remember thinking, ‘This is rough.'”
“It could be real nasty,” says Rosser. “We would burn sage to cleanse the vibes.”
In addition to being a rehearsal and storage space, the Ludlow basement hosts parties, giving the key-holders access to a makeshift after-hours venue in one of the city’s trendiest nightlife neighborhoods. “You know when Greg Brady gets freaky? It’s been Greg Brady’s basement for me for 22 years,” says Seacor. “My best behavior is probably not in the studio after midnight. I’ve crashed quite a few times on the couch, much to my chagrin in the morning.”
“Parties [here] would make the ’70s blush,” says King, who would often invite friends and hold court after a sold-out gig at Mercury Lounge or Bowery Ballroom. “I’ve woken up on that disgusting-ass floor. And I’ve woken up on the couch next to women who—God bless ’em—are brave enough to sleep in that rehearsal space.”
Parties aside, the basement residents of 178 Ludlow say that the swell of new stores, restaurants, and hotels on the Lower East Side long ago rendered their neighborhood unrecognizable. “NYC-style Disneyland being built on top of the Lower East Side,” says Principato. “Time has passed, and it’s just not my neighborhood anymore.”
“This is like the last of the original artists being kicked out of the Lower East Side,” says Ken Caldeira, an early partner with Principato on the space. “It’s a personal tragedy because Sal has kept this thing going. For the people directly impacted it’s like, ‘Hey, where am I gonna do my music? Where am I gonna do my art?'”
Principato hints at a move to Brooklyn, where the neighborhood’s old hive of rehearsal spaces decamped to long ago. However, even if a new space in a Bushwick warehouse becomes available, one can’t help mourn the legacy of 178 Ludlow. “It’s been the biggest constant in my life,” says Principato. “Nothing else in my life has been going on this long.”