MUSIC

96 Tears Raises a Glass to the Late, Beloved Punk Stalwart Howie Pyro

The two-level Lower East Side bar boasts a free jukebox, themed craft cocktails, and covetable displays of Pyro’s tchotchkes and posters.

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The term “safe space” doesn’t usually conjure up images of a black-ceilinged bar and a vintage Seeburg jukebox packed with vinyl that includes “Have Love Will Travel,” by the Sonics, and “What a Way To Die,” by the Pleasure Seekers (15-year old Suzi Quatro’s all-female family and friends band). Not to mention steep stairs presided over by collectible Ramones “Demented Dollz” and an Iggy Pop photo for patrons to ogle as they descend to the cozy Cabin Down Below basement bar. 

The once-sketchy “Alphabet Avenues” are now populated by giggly suburban bachelorette bar crawls of puke-ready partygoers who don’t know their “Goo Goo Muck” (also a 96 Tears house cocktail) from the Goo Goo Dolls. The weekend scene belies the area’s gritty cultural bona fides.  

But at 7th Street and Avenue A, 96 Tears is taking back the night. Jesse Malin, the cool, kind, and hardworking godfather of the LES club scene (which he began playing as a young teen with his band Heart Attack, in the early ’80s), has co-created 96 Tears in homage to his bandmate and best friend, Howie Pyro, who died in May 2022 of Covid-related pneumonia, following a long battle with liver disease. 

 

Whether “96 Tears” is the first punk song may be up for debate, but the title was tattooed on Pyro’s neck. And that O.G. aesthetic translates into the bar.

 

The November 16 opening of 96 Tears saw a packed house of former Coney Island High (Malin’s iconic ’90s St. Marks concert/club venue) regulars, record execs, and scene staples sampling the incredibly quaffable Jet Boy (tequila, raspberries, peppercorn syrup, and lemon) and Sex Beat (rum-based, with pineapple, ginger, and bitters) cocktails. They’re as delicious as drinks as they are as songs. The Goo Goo Muck cocktail is a combo of tequila and green chartreuse, and true insiders will know that the Cramps’ song title was also Pyro’s email address. 

As Malin glad-hands friends old and new, patrons take iPhone snaps of a poster touting The Great Rupert, the “world’s worst magician,” along with a 1971 “Babylon” concert poster advertising a show with the Stooges, the GTOs, and the Cockettes at Hollywood Palladium. (The gig was canceled due to the first break-up of the Stooges.)

“A lot of the places I’ve been involved in, we did it initially not as a business,” Malin explains to the Voice. “We did it for fun and for the music that we loved. It really was always about having a place to go where you’d hear something that you didn’t hear in other clubs or on the radio. Over the years, to be honest, the weekends in Manhattan got taken over, and my friends faded into their lives and middle-aged middle class. [We’re now] playing a lot of mainstream pop in our clubs on the weekends. So 96 Tears will be a safe place where anybody can go any night of the week, even Saturday, and hear only music that’s out of Howie’s collection.”

Whether “96 Tears” is the first punk song may be up for debate, but the title was tattooed on Pyro’s neck. And that O.G. aesthetic translates into the bar. “It’s an experience without feeling like you’re in a junk store or museum,” describes Malin. “There’s stuff where you feel Howie’s presence in there. It’s not just rock and roll. There’s Warhol. Big Daddy Roth Rat Fink stuff. There’s monster stuff, Bela Lugosi autographed things, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. It just goes all over the map.”

Of particular note for music purists is a promotional ashtray featuring a graphic of an overripe banana, with the catchphrase “Don’t you like a banana?” Howie found it in an LES junkshop in the ’80s and wondered if it could have been the image Andy Warhol appropriated for the first Velvet Underground album—quite the artifact for scholars to pore over. “I mean, the man collected his whole life. So we have about 5% that we cherry-picked from his collection,” says Malin of the cornucopia of cool. 

While Pyro had lived in Los Angeles for years, where he’d initially moved to play with Danzig, the musician/DJ was a true New Yorker. He’d expressed to both Malin and 96 Tears co-owner Jonathan Toubin that something akin to the new bar was on his wish list. (Johnny T., from Niagara and Bowery Electric, is the third partner in the venue.)

Pyro and Malin, best friends and D-Generation bandmates, were a ubiquitous duo for a long time; Malin has already honored his friend with benefit concerts on both Coasts. Now there’s something more permanent that serves as both homage to Pyro and respite from the homogenization below 14th Street, where gentrification has shooed away too many ghosts of hardcore glory and post-punk revelry. As a press release for 96 Tears points out, the new venue is looking to capture a bit of lighting in new bottles, noting that the area’s “tightly-knit community has long been in need of an uncompromising underground rock and roll bar worthy of its quirky neighborhood mythology; a hangout with a decor, soundtrack, and spirit that embodies the unconventional cultural history that made downtown internationally famous.”

In other words, an unpretentious outlet for those outside the Billie Eilish generation. “Like, my friend Butch Walker was in town, and he asked me, ‘Where can we go after the gig Saturday?’ I get that a lot. I was like, ‘To tell you the truth, the Gremlins have taken over here,’” admits Malin. “So this is a place with both floors where fans can now come again. And I can actually sit there on any night and feel the music and feel Howie’s presence, like a celestial partner.” 

Katherine Turman has written for Entertainment Weekly, SpinBillboard, and other publications, is the author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, and produces the classic rock radio program Nights With Alice Cooper. She lives in Brooklyn.

96 Tears, 110 Avenue A, opens daily at 6 p.m. The Cabin Down Below is open from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m., Thursday through Saturday. The kitchen will be open until 4 a.m. on weekends, with cuisine including offerings from the Black Market Burger and Roberta’s Pizza.

 

 

 

 

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