Bottom Line facing another deadline
- Too little, too late to save The Bottom Line?
By SIMON HOUPT, Globe and Mail of Canada
Where's Jackie O when you need her? In the mid-1970s the former Mrs. Kennedy
linked arms with a band of municipally minded rebels to save Grand Central
Terminal from the wrecker's ball. The protest marked a turning point in New
York's relationship to historical landmarks: After the destruction of the
original Penn Station in the early 1960s, the campaign for Grand Central proved
citizens could halt rapacious real-estate interests that had no regard for
But the good guys don't always win. Around the same time that Jackie Onassis
was celebrating her victory, there was a different kind of history being made
downtown. On Feb. 12, 1974, Stevie Wonder, Dr. John, and Johnny Winter jammed
in front of Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Carly Simon and Janis Ian as part of the
opening-night festivities at the Greenwich Village club The Bottom Line.
Through the years that followed, hundreds of superstars-to-be performed at the
club, including Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Jose Feliciano, Lou Reed, Muddy
Waters, James Taylor and Peter Gabriel. It gave shelter to our own Bruce
Cockburn, Anne Murray, Jane Siberry and Blue Rodeo. But this week a civil court
judge is expected to hand down a ruling on a prolonged rent dispute case
between the club and its landlord, New York University, that may bring that
glorious history to a tearful end.
The Bottom Line has been behind on its rent for about three years, and now owes
almost $200,000 (U.S.). NYU wants to collect that sum and raise the monthly
rent from about $11,000 to roughly $28,000. It also believes about $1.5-million
in renovations are necessary.
NYU says it would like to keep the club in place, that it's been a good anchor
for the neighbourhood. The university's actions suggest otherwise, and it has a
track record of showing a voracious appetite for real estate and a disregard
for cultural history that's unseemly in an institute of higher education. Three
years ago, NYU moved to demolish the house in which Edgar Allen Poe wrote The
Raven, saying it needed the space for a new law school building. To calm
protesters, it agreed to preserve the fa$E7ade. The preservation, unveiled this
year, is a mockery of the original.
When the club's woeful financial state came to light in September, Springsteen
and Mel Karmazin, the president of Viacom, offered financial assistance. The
satellite radio operator Sirius pledged to pay the full back rent if the club
could strike a new 10-year lease. And just last week, AT&T pledged $100,000 for
"It's an extremely important venue," said Jian Ghomeshi, who played there with
Moxy Fruvous about 10 times. He spoke of the rare pleasure of playing for
patrons who turn up to listen to music rather than smash their bodies together
to a muddy beat.
There's a grassroots movement afoot. Two Bottom Line clubgoers initiated a
website where they gathered more than 5,000 signatures for a petition to
present to NYU.
This coming weekend, perhaps too late to save the club, a string of popular
acts is scheduled to play benefit shows, including the Indigo Girls, Dar
Williams, Suzanne Vega and John Hiatt.
It's a wonderful show of support. But it frankly feels like a nostalgia trip
for a club that has operated on the margins of the city's music scene for
"In February, we'll hopefully be celebrating 30 years," Jessica Herman Weitz,
the assistant to the club's co-founder Allan Pepper, said to me last week. "To
do what we do, in a business that's changing all the time, is incredibly
She's right: The business of presenting live music is a fickle, brutal mistress
that rewards most proprietors with ulcers rather than fortunes.
It's a rare programmer or club owner who can surf the tidal waves of changing
popular music taste. That's why Max's Kansas City, Brownie's, Tramps, the
Village Gate, the Lone Star and dozens of other city clubs have closed through
But there are other forces at work on The Bottom Line. Like many New York
neighbourhoods that have given way to doughy middle age with fitful
resignation, the Village isn't what it used to be. Sure, people have been
saying that since the eighties, when the folkies who got their start playing in
Washington Square were elbowed aside by Madonna and her co-conspirators. But I
don't know the last time Greenwich Village coughed up a major contribution to
the music scene.
Even parts of the East Village are calcifying in their history. Yesterday, city
officials presided over a ceremony to christen the corner of East Second Street
and the Bowery, half a block from punk palace CBGB, "Joey Ramone Place."
The living ghosts of those glory days, like Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, are
far more likely to be spotted elsewhere, be it the Knitting Factory, Irving
Plaza, the Bowery Ballroom, or Galapagos in Williamsburg.
Only David Johansen remains a Bottom Line fixture. I wonder how many of the
5,000 petition signers have been to the club in the last few years.
It's hard not to notice that few NYU students have raised much of a fuss over
the university's actions; the people rallying around the club are more likely
to be the age of those students' parents. You know them: They're the ones who
raised their fists along with Roger Daltrey when he screeched something about
hoping that he'd die before he got old.
NYU says, somewhat improbably, that if it gets the club back it will turn it
into classroom space. Maybe they could hand it over to the music faculty for
use as a living museum of a brief, shining moment in the city's history, and a
shrine to progress, whatever that means.