Venerable music venues are often housed in second- or third-generation relocations, but New York City’s Bottom Line has been in business for almost three decades at the same 15 West 4th Street location that opened in February 1974. But the venue is in danger of being shut down, which would rob popular music of a storied stage that has hosted a diverse thirty years of music, from rock (Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed) to blues (Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy) to jazz (Betty Carter, Charles Mingus) to country (Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings) to everything that falls in between and outside.
Like no small number of other businesses, the Bottom Line has been facing economic troubles over the past several years (which worsened after September 11th), with declining audiences visiting the 450-capacity venue. Co-owners Allan Pepper and Stanley Snadowsky (both were principals in New York’s legendary Gerdes Folk City before starting the club) fell behind in rent payments to New York University, which owns the building at the corner of West 4th and Mercer, and the University has started eviction proceedings. The Bottom Line is an estimated $185,000 in debt, and while its monthly rent of more than $11,000 sounds sky-high, the property is considered to be undervalued by as much as fifty-percent.
The club has resumed paying rent, but is struggling to catch up with the amount it is in arrears. Pepper and Snadowsky, who have been operating without a lease for the past three years, would like to secure a new long-term lease before agreeing to a payment plan.
Lest NYU come across as a bad guy, if the Bottom Line is forced out of 15 West 4th Street, a spokesperson for the university said it would likely be replaced by classrooms, not a retail outlet able to pay the $20,000 plus per month that the space is believed to be worth. John Beckman, in NYU’s public affairs office, stressed that NYU was forced to rent a new space on Mercer Street for additional classrooms and that the Bottom Line’s status as a for-profit business forces New York University (a not-for-profit educational institution) to pay full real estate taxes on the property. Beckman also says that if the Bottom Line were to come to the University with back rent and a “a credible, viable plan to pay rent in the future,” the University would be interested in negotiating. “Nobody wants to see the Bottom Line closed, and that includes the university,” says Beckman. “We understand its importance as a cultural resource. It’s an icon.”
That is a sentiment echoed by Pepper, who despite saying, “we have a real fight on our hands, and we’re trying to hang in there,” admits that “there really are no bad guys in this situation.”
“We’re hoping that people will be upset enough to go on record to the university that it would be a mistake to turn this venue into classrooms,” he says. “A cultural institution shouldn’t act like a landlord.” According to Pepper, there has been significant support from former students of NYU, with many of the 400 emails the venue’s Web site has received, coming from alumni. “Some of the happiest memories of their years here are of discovering music at the Bottom Line,” he says.
The dispute will return to a city courtroom next week. In the meantime, Pepper hopes to continue to drum up support and to seek a possible business partner to back a business with plenty of capital in its legacy.
Perhaps most memorable among the Bottom Line’s plentiful legendary moments was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s five-night stand in August 1975. Springsteen had played the club three nights in 1974, but his career as superstar was launched a year later, which the string of sold-out, press-garnering concerts. “Not since Elton John’s Troubadour appearances has an artist leapt so visibly and rapidly from cult fanaticism to mass acceptance as at Bruce Springsteen’s Bottom Line shows,” David Marsh wrote for Rolling Stone at the time.
The Bottom Line never featured a predictable lineup. LaBelle was the first act on the club’s stage, performing at a private, pre-opening celebration on February 11, 1974. The next night, it was open for business with Dr. John headlining and Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Carly Simon, Johnny Winter, Charles Mingus and Bette Midler in the audience; the club charged $3 for weeknight shows, $4 for the weekends.
Punk and New Wave were welcome, as the Ramones and New York Dolls performed at the club in 1974 and the Talking Heads took to its stage in 1977. Having recently ditched Genesis, Peter Gabriel introduced himself as a solo artist in 1978 with a Bottom Line appearance.
Testament to the club’s popularity among performers is the fact that several of the earliest artists to play the Bottom Line continue to do so today. Folk/bluegrass legend Doc Watson, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III and legendary rock producer/keyboardist Al Kooper played at the club during its first year and have also performed there this year. Wainwright is scheduled to play the club tonight and tomorrow.
“Despite the fact that I live in L.A. and lived for some time in London, I consider New York my hometown and the Bottom Line, more than any venue, to be my home venue,” says Wainwright, who was in the audience for the club’s first show. “There was a feeling that first night that it was going to be an important room for a lot of us. It’d be a shame to lose it.”
David Johansen is another musician with a long history at the Bottom Line. In 1974, Johansen and the New York Dolls destroyed their dressing room at the club and were subsequently banned for life. But Johansen made amends and has returned with several other bands and personas: Buster Poindexter, the David Johansen Band, David Johansen and the Harry Smiths and others. In fact, Pepper, beloved among Bottom Line performers, helped Johansen land his current label deal.
As superstar talent began to move to larger confines in the city, the Bottom Line continued to offer a broad array of music on its stage, and the club also investigated some creative outlets to draw listeners to newer artists. The In Their Own Words: A Bunch of Songwriters Sittin’ Around Singin’ series (started in 1990) was a precursor to VH1’s Storytellers. Sometimes the results would offer a new perspective on an old favorite (Joey Ramone’s unplugged “I Wanna Be Sedated”), and other times an obscure songwriter could put his or her face with a song that had been known for the artist who popularized it (Barrett Strong’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”). The club also launched the Required Listening: No Risk Evening of Listening program, which would issue a membership card to listeners for a series of shows that featured lesser-known talent; every fifth show was free to cardholders. The Local Heroes-themed show started in 1984 was fairly self-explanatory, as were annual Bottom Line birthday bases and Christmas celebrations.
Last week, Simon and Garfunkel announced their upcoming reunion tour from the Bottom Line. Though the club was born a decade after the Greenwich Village scene that helped foster S&G’s career, Pepper and Snadowsky’s connection to Gerdes (which was housed a few blocks south west on 3rd Street and MacDougal) made the Bottom Line the closest representative to the old Village scene.
More information about the Bottom Line, including contact information to express support for the club, can be found at bottomlinecabaret.com.