On January 14, the Max’s Kansas City Project — a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation serving the arts and youth communities — will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the legendary nightclub from which it got its name with a benefit concert at the Cutting Room. The concert is paying tribute to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and on the bill is a “Max’s All Star Band” featuring musicians who played with Reed over the years, such as Mike Rathke, Michael Suchorsky, and “Moose” Boles. Additionally, there’s a long list of notable names scheduled to make an appearance, many with direct ties to the Max’s legacy, including Jenni Muldaur, Garland Jeffreys, Lenny Kaye, Marshall Crenshaw, Bebe Buell, Donna Destri, and Anne Waldman, as well as “anticipated” special guests.
Fifty years ago, Mickey Ruskin, a lawyer-turned-restaurateur, opened Max’s Kansas City at 213 Park Avenue South. There was no “Max” — it was just a patchwork of nouns that sounded good together. But those three words quickly came to have a specific meaning in popular culture, one that implied the trend- setting, the outrageous, the fabulous.
There’s a long list of legends: Max’s Kansas City is where the Warhol Factory crowd hung out after work. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe stood outside the joint, longing to be allowed in. Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, and Roy Lichtenstein hung out here with other visual artists, who were grateful for the free lunch buffet of chicken wings and chili Ruskin provided for starving artists — and, later, the ability to cash out their tabs in exchange for artwork, before that artwork might have been worth anything (if in fact it ever would be). Anyone who was anyone (and anyone who wanted to be someone) in the Seventies hung out “down at Max’s.”
The announcement of the anniversary fundraiser came around the same time as the revelation of the latest chapter in the legacy of CBGB: that the famed spot would now be lending its name to a theme restaurant at a New Jersey airport. Although CBGB lasted longer than Max’s (Ruskin’s era ended in 1974, and the club would continue only until 1981), right now one brand is hawking “Marquee Moons Over My Hammy” sandwiches at Newark Liberty while the other is helping artists in distress pay rent and doctors’ bills.
The Max’s Kansas City Project was founded by Yvonne R. Sewell, Mickey Ruskin’s second wife. For her, the project is a calling and a labor of love, one that began with her own crisis, after a dishonest financial adviser turned her life upside down. “I went from being wealthy to thinking I might be homeless,” says Sewell. At the same time, she had been disputing the trademark with the last owner. “I stepped up to protect the family from exploitation,” she explains. When the dust had settled, her attorney informed her that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board had decided in her favor, and the Max’s Kansas City name was back in her hands.
“I got this letter from my attorney saying, ‘You won, the name is yours.’ And that was the epiphany for me. That’s when I said, ‘I’m obviously supposed to be doing something good with this name.’ And I was given these lessons of compassion and humility so that I would understand the plight of other people who are going through some sort of a rough patch, knowing that things happen in life and can change your life in a second. That is what inspired me to start the nonprofit organization, once I had the name…. The name provided me a vehicle for…being able to do what I think I was meant to do in life.”
The Project’s ethos came straight out of Ruskin’s philosophy of supporting artists. “I clearly remember when Larry Rivers’s mother passed away,” Sewell recalls, “and he was somewhat distressed and coming in [to Max’s]. We were having dinner and he came over and said, ‘I have to get to — somewhere,’ I don’t know if it was her funeral or something, and he said, ‘Can you give me $100?’ And Mickey, he would just hand him $100, and that was just his nature, he would always do that. He was just a very supportive art patron…. In one fashion or another, he was always involved in inspiring, and motivating, and supporting.”
There’s a half-dozen testimonials from grateful grant recipients on the Project’s website, but Sewell can easily recall many, many more, as well as their tales of how easy it is to fall into crisis. “We’ve had one [artist] who lost all her artworks in a flood when we had Hurricane Irene. And then you get visual artists who have to be on chemo because they have cancer. Now all of a sudden they can’t be around chemicals, certain chemicals that they use in the paints that they’re using.
“These are no slouches. These are not people who just want to live off of disability or whatever it is; these are working artists in all art disciplines, who love doing their art, who live for it, and something happens, and they just keep going. Being able to lift somebody’s spirits and give them that little bit of sense of hope when they’re starting to feel hopeless — it’s very humiliating for a lot of them to have to ask for help.”
In addition to the benefit on January 14, there’s a February event at the Chelsea Hotel that’s billed as “Max’s Reunion Party.” The ultimate goal with both events is to raise enough money to keep the Project moving forward. “The main reason that I chose to use the vehicle of the fiftieth anniversary of Max’s [is] to bring awareness to what we do and to our programs…so that we can find a larger organization or an organization that has more resources and new energy in 2016. I’m going to switch to ambassador and do some traveling,” says Sewell. She’s also working on rereleasing her out-of-print volume on Max’s (High on Rebellion: Inside the Underground at Max’s Kansas City) as an e-book on the new Factory Books imprint.
Sewell notes that you might see the Max’s Kansas City name used elsewhere in the future. Trademark law protects trademarks, obviously, but only if a trademark owner both uses and enforces it. “Truthfully, I have to tell you, I sold the trademark about seven or eight years ago…for my family, after I had that horrendous experience,” she says. “I found that I was constantly policing it. I was spending money on attorneys because you had to go after this person and that person. I’m a Buddhist. That’s not the way I want to live my life. I got an opportunity — someone happened to step into the picture. It was just one of those serendipitous situations.” Sewell offered the new owner some suggestions as to how the mark could be used in a way that would maintain the club’s spirit, but ultimately, the decision is up to them. “I kept certain rights; I kept the rights to the film, the nonprofit, and my book. So I don’t have much say as to where that’s going to go,” she says.
Right now she’s focused on the fiftieth-anniversary events to move the foundation to its next step. “It’s very important that we keep this going. With the changes to the city, all these artists have so many challenges that they’re dealing with, and they really need an organization like this,” Sewell says. “The reason it has to be carried on — that’s the most important thing that I want to see happen — that some great organization will come along and say, ‘Yes, we’ll carry the torch.’ ”
Max’s Kansas City’s 50th Anniversary Benefit: A Tribute to the Velvet Underground & Lou Reed takes place at the Cutting Room on January 14.