Raising the Bar

Words by Carlo McCormick Photos Wyatt Neumann and Steve Pyke

Max Fish has been, over the course of its nearly quarter century-long tenure on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side, a landmark for more than a few generations. It could well be that time will bestow upon it some bit of posterity, as it has for other legendary watering holes where the insatiable urgency of creativity somehow outweighed the vulgar necessities of commerce. Sentiments aside, only fools predict the future, and even such a legacy is of a relative history — few today know about the former glories of White Horse Tavern, Max’s Kansas City, The Scene, The Electric Circus, The Mudd Club, Club 57, Tin Pan Alley or 8 BC, let alone where they actually were. What is fundamental to the experience of artists in any given time, however, remains of enduring significance to those who value the ephemeral energies from which spring those aspects of cultural production that gain market value. 

We should all be wary of nostalgias — those false glory days that demean the present — and especially so in New York, where mythic lore is lorded over its initiates like phantom shadows. But there is a tangible reason for oral history in the city; it is its very fabric, a template for collective notions of identity, a resistance against the oft-damning forces of greed, and the localized idiom that binds neighborhoods and communities. Think of this as the latter then, the kind of recollection you might get if you chose the stool next to an old-timer and offered to buy them a drink. There are as many stories as there are memories born in Max Fish — these are merely those conjured by one for whom this was his local for its entire epic duration on Ludlow, and who happened to enjoy its employment for more than a decade of extended adolescence.

Born on the wrong side of the tracks, the first bar of its kind south of Houston Street when the East Village just to the north was yet a dubious real estate term of gentrification, Max Fish grew up on a pretty rough block, where heroin was sold openly on the street by kids who had no patience for being fucked with. Its relatively unlikely path to survival, longevity and ultimately success was from the very outset predicated on a determined and carefully monitored ongoing negotiation with its unpredictable surroundings. Just as much as it offered sanctuary at nocturnal hours that could be less than hospitable, if not perilous, it would not rank as a particularly safe place.  Why it wasn’t all that dangerous and violent in even those worst of times was precisely because, while so many different types might consider it their home, few were ever so foolish as to presume ownership over the room. Always relaxed as any place that eschews pretention will be, being there still meant exercising a level of alertness, something now bygone in Manhattan we used to call “street smarts.”

A depository of innumerable memories, there has been many Max Fish’s.
It began as an artist bar, and always has been that, even when it was known most for the musicians who hung out there, or the skaters, or for whatever clientele have made it their home at different points in its history. This was perhaps almost an inheritance, since Ludlow had the odd distinction of housing so many artists — the likes of Ellen Berkenblit, James Casebere, Juston Ladda, Taylor Meade, Tom Otterness, Tony Oursler, Izhar Patkin, Walter Robinson and Kiki Smith all living there at the time the bar opened its doors — but as the bar was more about the generations after that, the adaptive mission to serve the artist community was more like a raison d’être. Demographic circumstances aside, Max Fish’s proprietor, Ulli Rimkus, had an epic pedigree in the downtown art scene, from long before the Fish and has always been guided primarily by aesthetics in her business practice there.

Though it would seem a natural, organic evolution, the mandate of art over commerce was never quite so easy or simple as most would have imagined. For years, before it became so familiar as to seem a part of the patina or aura of the place, many we knew would shun the bar because it was simply way too brightly lit, especially in the context of a time when nightlife invoked the darkest bordering on anonymity. Of course the obvious reason was that the art should always be illuminated, but much in the same way that the bar always kept its jukebox at decibels lower than any other establishment, the implicit message was that no matter how much people may come to a bar to lose themselves, they had to somehow stay engaged. Rimkus believed above all else in this, that providing a place where actual conversations could occur, that ideas expressed could be heard and all those involved could actually see one another clearly, was fundamental to how Max Fish would create and best serve its community. For all these apparent differences, however, far more radical decisions were frequently made that few but those who worked there would ever know about. When the bar was at its apogee of hipness, Ulli frequently got offers from the chic and deep-pocketed to rent out the place for a private party. If the word “private” meant that they could have the place to themselves, however, it was a deal-breaker. Max Fish would always be open to anyone who ever walked to its doors. And then there was the time I was sitting at the bar and Ulli answered the phone — after some long extended bit of yammering from the caller, she said how much she appreciated the support, and how great it would have been to get this call a month ago, but sadly now the bar had failed and was closing next week. Terrified, I asked her if this was truly the case, to which she responded, “of course not, that was the New York Post wanting to do a story on the place and I don’t want all those readers coming here.”

Photo of the historic bar Max Fish interior from Mass Appeal's 'Raising the Bar,' featured in Issue 53. Photo by Scott Pyke.

At one point, the majority of the bar staff was made up of so many eccentric visual artists — Joe Ben, John Drury, Harry Druzd, Karen Luner, Meryl Smith, Mike Osterhout, Greg Woolard and Jason Wright. Each quirkily craft-based and somehow addressing the physical and psychic detritus of bar life, we would come to call them the School of Fish, a non-movement of peculiar affinity. The ethos they shared, of making magic from the quotidian by visionary dint, like cocktail alchemists, inspired the show, “City Folk,” at Holly Soloman Gallery in SoHo, where many of them were included along with the convergent and intermingling group of artists (including Thomas Campbell, Shepard Fairey, Phil Frost, Mark Gonzalez, Chris Johanson, Barry McGee, Mike Mills and Andre Razo), passing between the bar and its then-neighbor, Alleged Gallery. In fact, despite all the infamous incidents that occurred there, none have become bar lore, nor have any of the innumerable celebrities who have frequented the place ever had their pictures grace the wall. No, the history Max Fish tenders is the art that has somehow stayed there, accumulated out of an endless succession of monthly exhibitions and ongoing relationships with artists: the windows painted by Rita Ackerman, Toby Halleck’s supersized, hand-forged spike in the wall, the bust and statue by John Ahearn, Greg Woolard’s hand-crafted, curved wooden bar, the bronze Tom Otterness monkey bolted into it, Fredini’s hand-painted plates, Brigitte Engler’s mirror-shard collage, Leo Fitzpatrick’s mordant gravestone painting and, most famously, Mark Flood’s Julio Iglesias light box, more recently joined by a tribute piece to it by Andrew Kuo.I think I promised you some stories — pardon the old man for rambling on and, well, I’ve been sitting on this same stool here since before a lot of you were born, so my memory ain’t what it used to be. Some stuff was so bizarre I suppose I’ll never forget it as much as I might like to, such as the time a crazed fan bit Johnny Depp in the face or when Bob Dylan came by with our pal, Ratso, in some boring old van with tinted windows and, seeing that the bar was too crowded for his liking, made me deliver him drinks there while he decided not to come in. But most of what I do recall is that which happened with such frequency that it became a kind of leitmotif for the insanity that we all collectively took for normal:

Taylor Meade stumbling out drunk, proclaiming “I’m never coming back here” night after night; Iggy Pop stepping in to ID flabbergasted patrons at the door when I’d be too drunk to do the most meager of my duties, young kids star-struck to see old legends like Allen Ginsburg, Billy Name or Candida Royal, starting out thrilled to be introduced to them, then turning brilliant shades of embarrassment after we’d happily sit them next to their idols to watch them fend off the inevitable advances. Stylish Malaysian barkeep Su carrying yet another bucket of soapy water to wash away yet another puddle of vomit when the dope in the neighborhood proved strong enough to set off rounds of hurling, muttering under his breath “chicken, why they always eat chicken;” countless hours of watching skate videos on the TVs beholding the sublime grace before gravity, while silently acknowledging how different this was to being in a sports bar; Shane McGowan dropping pint glass after pint glass of vodka on the floor as his drool somehow always hovered feet from his chin without ever falling. Nick Cave looking like a shark at the pool table, even if he didn’t quite play like one, and so many truly great musicians behaving so unbelievably badly that we’d hate them until they played some big venue the next night and, despite all the drugs and drink of their prior eve in the Fish, perform so amazingly that all would be forgiven.

There’s a lot more stories for sure in this once-naked city, but if you want to hear them, you just might have to pick up the next round…

This story appears in Mass Appeal Issue 53. Read more stories from the issue here.

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