There’s a great line in the new book “The Mudd Club” by former doorman Richard Boch noting that the streets of lower Manhattan in the 70s “looked like Rauschenberg paintings” with their colorful, battered jumble of street signs, cardboard wrapped metal banded bales of fabric, dead pigeons, buckets of paint, and discarded stainless steel sinks.

Lost and found, the litter and debris of the gritty streets was primo material for artists, scavengers and pioneering-on-the-fly, loft-dwelling vagabonds. As Boch writes: “The sink became part of my kitchen, the rest of it became art.”

If the streets looked like Rauschenberg paintings to Boch, it might be because he was a budding artist himself, and writes of a brief affair with Rauschenberg during the heady, druggy, sex and alcohol fueled 21 months he worked at the club.

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Richard Boch in Mudd's Basement, Jan '80. Photo: Lynette Bean.

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The ’hood was soaked in art. Boch made out with Rauschenberg in a building owned by a current Hamptons resident, the artist Ross Bleckner, who previously rented several of the floors to Julian Schnabel. A club is only as happening as the people inside it, so Boch ushered past the chain link ropes the likes of: Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, James Rosenquist, Pictures Generation art star Walter Robinson, Dennis Oppenheim, Kiki Smith, and the omnipresent Andy Warhol.

Jean Michel Basquiat was a regular, and a photo of him dancing at the club in the book is now the main entrance image of Basquiat’s enormous new show at London’s Barbican. Another regular Boch brought inside the ropes was British artist James Nares, who, like Basquiat, was also in a band as he got his art career started. “Mudd was the place with the most interesting people,” Nares is quoted as saying in the book, “the place where it was happening.”

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Basquiat on Mudd Dance Floor, '80. Photo: Nick Taylor.

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Tribeca’s White Street was a desolate grimy no man’s land in the late ’70s. Started as a way-downtown venue, the club would have a bar, dance floor and be a place for art, performance, film and whatever else happened along the way. The brains and cash behind the club were “aspiring filmmaker and ambulance service operator” Steve Mass along with curator/artist Diego Cortez and the exotic hardcore stylist and scene maker Anya Phillips.

Cortez had spent a summer in a ground floor loft with a basement at 77 White Street, and Mass zeroed in on the Bleckner owned building as the upcoming “scene of the crime.” Bleckner had bought the six-story loft building along an alley for $125,000 in 1976 (he sold it in 2004 for considerably more). The Mudd Club was named after Samuel Alexander Mudd, the doctor who treated Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. According to Boch, supposedly the intention by Steve Mass was to “make people think.” 

It opened on Halloween night in 1978 and almost immediately the club became an underground sensation. There was a performance by the then unknown band B-52s, a flyer that advertised $2.50 drinks and a helpful map to find the desolate place.

Punk as a scene had already peaked that month with the death of Nancy Spungeon, allegedly at the hands of Sex Pistols lost boy Sid Vicious. Things were drifting into New Wave/No Wave territory as East Village galleries sprung up like weeds, and bands lined up to play the new venue that was eclipsing Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs. The difference was that the Mudd Club was focused on dancing and being a bar hang-out, with the dj’s David Azarch and Anita Sarko regularly handed singles that were just barely being released, if you could call it that, and certainly not played on the radio. MTV was years off, and the place attracted old guard boho types like William Burroughs as well as Frank Zappa. It was a mix unlike the city had ever seen anywhere else.

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Klaus Nomi, Mudd Club Door Scene, '79. Photo: Alan Kleinberg.

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Boch started frequenting the club early on. Painting in his large loft by day, he  had been working as a bartender at night, so he knew the vibe the club was looking for. After a “ten-second interview” with Mass he started the doorman job at midnight in spring of ’79. This is where the book gets interesting, morphing into a coming of age, existential angst memoir, with the club and its orbiting satellites of downtown characters as the backdrop.

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He tells the entire story from a pure insider view, lingering on every drag of a cigarette, swig of a beer, snort of a line, hookup in the basement. His art career is put on hesitant hold as he gets deeper into the addictions of nightlife and the high of a scene in the making. No one, not even owner Steve Mass, could have told this story with as much jittery introspective candor. He admits not even really knowing what to do at the door. “I was on my own,” he writes. “Afraid to do much of anything.”

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Richard Boch & Pete Farndon, '80. Photo: Lynette Bean.

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But he learns fast, emboldened by his own gut reactions to the stream of the famous and infamous cult of personality lined up at the door. A sweaty overweight Meatloaf was denied on sight, while the seas parted for a sleek David Bowie. He basically invented the job as he worked it with his tall, lean frame and serious but handsome, take-no-prisoners face and attitude. While the perks of money and drugs and knowing the right people were numerous, he also recalls being the target of bottles, fists, insults and, one night, a dead pigeon.

Boch tells a million mini-bio stories here of the people that he let come through the door. It becomes its own head-spinning, groundbreaking, talent nurturing, addiction-in- the-making world. The book is filled with rare advertisements, flyers, performance shots and black and white portraits, notably by photographer William Coupon, many of which were exhibited in the club. A second floor became a VIP loft of sorts, while an art gallery curated by Keith Haring took over the fourth floor with graffiti and street art.

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Nico, '79. Photo: Dark Ebet Roberts.

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Boch writes of cheapie weekend getaways in then-funky Montauk, and a hysterical story about going home for Thanksgiving in Long Island and trying not to bring his dark underground life with him. His strictly downtown fast lane life finally found him burned out after just under two years. He continued painting and managed to get his work exhibited at One University Bar and in a show overseas. By the mid ’80s with AIDS and gentrification hacking away at the scene, Boch got sober, hung onto his loft for 27 years then cashed out and moved upstate. The book, part memoir and part portrait of a milieu, taps into the current mania for all things ’70s and ’80s in New York City, a time and scene now long gone and impossible to recreate in the current money ruled Manhattan.

The Mudd Club, 2017, Feral House Publishing, paperback, 320 pages. https://vimeo.com/228432751

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