Remembering the Bottom Line: Albums Recapture NYC Club's Storied Heyday

'The Bottom Line Archive' series spotlights everyone from Janis Ian to Joey Ramone

A new live-album series commemorates the eclectic roster of artists featured at NYC's the Bottom Line. Credit: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty

In January 1978, I moved to New York from Philadelphia to work at a free Long Island weekly, Good Times. I soon hit the pavement for my first, long night of music in Manhattan with my new editor and immediate friend, future Rolling Stone and MTV journalist Kurt Loder. Our first stop was the midtown offices of Mercury Records. The label was throwing a party for the great roots-and-party band NRBQ and their latest album, At Yankee Stadium, actually a studio record. The cuisine was appropriate: hot dogs served from a Sabrett street cart.

Kurt and I finished the evening on the Bowery — at Great Gildersleeves, where we saw a flamboyant glam-prog act, Novac, a.k.a. Phantom of the Organ; and at CBGB, in time for very late sets by the Nails, four years ahead of their New Wave hit "88 Lines About 44 Women" and singer-songwriter Steve Forbert, then on the verge of issuing his debut LP, Alive on Arrival. But in between the franks and the flaming barrels dotting the Bowery sidewalk, there was the Bottom Line, a 400-capacity club at West 4th and Mercer Streets, where I sat 10 feet away from Muddy Waters, then 64, as he fired his still-feral electric-Chicago mojo around the room.

Founded by Allan Pepper and Stanley Snadowsky, the Bottom Line opened in February 1974 and became a nexus of local rock & roll life: a Fillmore East–meets–the Stork Club where Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith played career-defining stands in 1975 and the stars at the tables often outnumbered those on stage. Lou Reed taped his famously scabrous live album, Take No Prisoners, at the Bottom Line in May 1978, and ex–New York Doll David Johansen's explosive bow as a solo artist that July was simulcast from the club, then issued as a collectible promo LP.

I quickly became a lucky regular, seeing (and frequently reviewing) hundreds of shows at the Bottom Line over the next 26 years, until mounting debt, a changing industry and an unforgiving landlord, New York University, forced the club to close in January 2004. 

"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome ..."

Last spring, the Bottom Line got a new lease — on CD. The Bottom Line Archive is a series of releases issued by the Bottom Line Record Company and produced by the drummer-composer Gregg Bendian from an archive of more than 1,000 performances taped on the premises. Now up to 10 volumes, The Bottom Line Archive has focused — so far — on folk artists and singer-songwriters, an obvious strength given the venue's size and intimacy. (A notable exception: a 1976 set by the robust fusion group the Brecker Brothers that makes you hope Bendian – who played at the club in its late years with his repertory ensemble the Mahavishnu Project — will unleash more jazz gigs from that vault.)

A 1980 appearance by Janis Ian captures the former Sixties folk-rock prodigy in the matured reflection of her Seventies hits — "Jesse," "Stars," "At Seventeen" — with a tenderly apt band. The late Harry Chapin was a Bottom Line favorite — a master of the story ballad with a booming baritone and cheerful, embracing stage manner — who hit a career milestone, 2,000 shows, during the January 8th–10th, 1981, run on his Archive two-CD set, recorded six months before his death. In two shows recorded in March and August of 2002, the North Carolina singer-guitarist Doc Watson is a warm, compelling argument for the original, Village folk revival as a movement without end, in a neighborhood already transformed by gentrification. 

Willie Nile would surely still be working at the club if it was open: The two complete, crackling shows in his Archive package, are from 1980 and 2000 — the first from his concert debut with a full band, a New York–attitude Who with members of Television and Patti Smith's group; the second reflecting the club's loyalty to a good draw and evolving act well after the major labels took their money elsewhere. 

In Their Own Words

On May 24th, 1990, Pepper and Snadowsky opened a series of master classes in songwriting, In Their Own Words, hosted by New York radio personality Vin Scelsa and featuring an interacting cast of artists — typically four a night; ultimately more than 140 across 37 shows up to 1996. In the thick of grunge and alternative rock, Scelsa interviewed top-shelf writers such as Graham Parker, Billy Bragg, Jimmy Webb, Arthur Alexander and Richard Thompson about their methods, struggles and hits, then had them demonstrate their wares, often in spontaneous collaborations.

I saw a few of those nights and can vouch that In Their Own Words, Volume 1 and Volume 2 are illuminating recreations of those gigs-in-the-round, pulling together kindred and disparate voices such as Dion, the Cars' Ric Ocasek, Lucinda Williams, John Cale and Joey Ramone (breaking down the DNA of "I Wanna Be Sedated"). Scelsa also led a Harvard-level evening on May 18th, 1994, featuring Pete Seeger and the Byrds' Roger McGuinn — who met for the first time that day — exchanging recollections of songs like "If I Had a Hammer" and "Eight Miles High," then sharing choruses in "The Midnight Special" and "The Bells of Rhymney." Ted Hawkins and Joe South ("Hush,'"Games People Play") were also on that show but are not included on this two-CD set. With due respect, it is an instance of editing serving a greater, fluid narrative.

Nightclubs by their nature are transitory phenomena. But the best of them leave a mark. The Bottom Line lasted longer than most. Here is some of what you missed — and if you were there, why you kept coming back.