“And when they come downtown from the ruins of Studio 54,
To twist and frugg in an arrogant gesture to the best of what the 20th Century have to offer.”
– Frank Zappa’s “Mudd Club”
Though it was only open for five years, a now residential loft space on 77 White Street once pushed the limits of Avant-garde, exclusivity, and eroticism in New York night life thirty years ago. That space was The Mudd Club and from 1978 to 1983 it ignored any and all boundaries, causing People magazine to say in a July 1979 piece that, “For sheer kinkiness, there has been nothing like it since the cabaret scene in 1920s Berlin.”
With an alleged budget of only $15,000, Steve Mass, Diego Cortez, and Anya Phillips started the space in 1978, naming it after the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre. The club almost instantaneously became an enclave where punks, no-wavers, and A-list musicians mingled with the artists, filmmakers, and fashion designers that would define an era in New York City, as countless celebrities like Dan Aykroyd looked on.
With it’s extravagant and borderline-alarming theme parties, including an infamous Mother’s Day bash where the crowd was split between Joan Crawfords and bandaged, battered daughters, nothing was taboo or off limits at the Mudd Club. It was Andy Warhol’s new home–a place that instantly made Studio 54 seem sterile, and could host an impromptu set by anyone from the Talking Heads to James Chance and the Contortions (who were once managed by Phillips).
Immortalized in song by Zappa, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, and Nina Hagen, the club wasn’t just a frequent stop off for the soon to be icons of the underground, it was an absolute mainstay. CBGB might have been a launching pad for new sounds, but The Mudd Club was where they posted up to indulge and interact. A room that could host Debbie Harry, Betsey Johnson, Vincent Gallo, Lou Reed, Basquiat, and Johnny Thunders, ran a tight door, and still be packed on a weeknight where most clubs couldn’t lure a crowd with comps. The Mudd Club represented a 360-degree view of New York City’s downtown culture.
But what made The Mudd Club unique and legendary wasn’t the excess or pageantry; it was that it welcomed diversity and eclecticism. Keith Haring curated an art space on the fourth floor of the club, and the DJs weren’t bound to a particular genre, spinning sounds as varied as the personalities that filled the room, not caring about how danceable or dissonant they may be. It was a celebration and crossroads for a vibrant New York City, teeming with new ideas, all coalescing in one space – one that was an absolute spectacle.
What truly defined the space on 77 White Street – where a plaque now commemorates the club – despite every description and retelling sounding so damn cool, was that the concept was almost anti-cool, or at least anti-glamour. Yes, the lines were long and there was an element of exclusivity, but the spirit of The Mudd Club was culture clashing, and about creating something new together. As Eric Fretz wrote in his biography about Jean-Michael Basquiat, “It was a different kind of club, the opposite of the 1970s glitzy Studio 54. And unlike CBGB’s and other punk clubs, it was not just a music venue. People went there to mix with other patrons, to be part of the scene, and to be seen.”