Thursday, February 05, 2004
The Bottom Line, a Place Where the Music Always Came First
Critic's Notebook: Modest to the end, the Bottom Line closed quietly on Thursday. There was no big farewell concert, no tearful leave-taking. The owners, Allan Pepper and Stanley Snadowsky, didn't wait for New York University, their landlord, to follow through on its right to evict the club. They packed up and left just weeks before the club's 30th birthday.
The Bottom Line owed more than $185,000 in back rent and could not agree on a new lease with N.Y.U., which was demanding a $1.5 million renovation and an initial 250 percent rent increase when negotiations broke down. Lately the club had gathered sponsorships and promises to pay off its back rent (from Bruce Springsteen, Viacom and Sirius satellite radio, among others) on the condition that it work out a new lease, and it had offered to set up programs for N.Y.U. students. But with eviction looming, the club stopped booking shows in mid-January.
For a music lover the place always seemed too good to last. The Bottom Line was a grand anomaly among clubs: a place where the music came first. In the end, it seemed, its owners weren't greedy enough.
The Bottom Line amply earned its fond place in the memories of a generation of listeners. Discreetly and consistently the Bottom Line put musicians in front of audiences who came for no other reason than to pay attention to the music. The room was dark and high-ceilinged with rainbow-muraled walls, and the stage receded into the background of a performance.
With a capacity of 400, the club was large enough to present nationally and internationally known musicians. Yet it was also intimate enough to confer bragging rights on the fans who saw Mr. Springsteen, Dolly Parton, João Gilberto or the Police perform there.
The Bottom Line did the small but essential things right. Performances started promptly and were heard through a trusty sound system. The audience was comfortable, since the Bottom Line had a fixed number of seats and tables. Yet diehard fans could still get in because the club sold tickets for standing room at the bar on the night of the show. Nearly every seat provided clear sightlines to the stage despite the infamous black pillars holding up its ceiling.
The club maintained good relationships with musicians, some of whom, like the guitarist David Bromberg, came back year after year. And it had a no-smoking policy well before the city's other clubs were forced to do the same.
In the economics of clubs, bands are usually paid from admission receipts, while club owners make their profits on food and drink. It pays to keep people waiting and drinking, and to nurture a bar scene. But the Bottom Line didn't squeeze out its audiences' last dollars. While the club served alcohol and some well-greased food, it wasn't a neighborhood bar with a stage tucked in, or a restaurant with an entertainment annex. It wasn't a lounge, a dance club, a hangout or a posing ground for hipsters, either.
It was, as billed from the start, a cabaret. During performances, conversations stopped, and waitresses became less than aggressive about pushing the next round of drinks. Last call came before the music was over. People went to the Bottom Line to see what was on the stage that night, and they left (or were sent home) shortly after the last encore. On nights when there was no show, the club was closed.
When the Bottom Line opened in 1974, it quickly became a showcase for acts being touted by record companies. Corporate credit cards paid a lot of drink tabs and admissions, particularly in the club's first two decades. Executives, media representatives and freeloaders occupied the reserved tables in the back; fans were in the front, close to the musicians.
It was an era of folk-pop singer-songwriters, and the Bottom Line was perfect for them, although it also presented performers as disparate as Miles Davis, the Ramones, Ravi Shankar and the contemporary chamber-music quartet Tashi (on a daring bill with the avant-garde jazz saxophonist Anthony Braxton).
The Bottom Line was a civilized place to hear music for audiences who wanted to sit and listen. And that may have contributed to its troubles. Most rock clubs have moved away from the cabaret model, as concertgoing has become more of a contact sport.
Folky guitar strummers, pop balladeers and jazz groups still prefer quiet, seated audiences. But they have been outflanked and outnumbered by indie rockers, hip-hop acts, punks, metal bands, rhythm-and-blues acts and jam bands, all of which are used to making their audiences move.
Young music fans don't mind being shoulder to shoulder at a concert, bouncing or even moshing to the beat. The setup turns a performance into a social event. Of course standing audiences are a bonanza for club owners, who can pack more bodies into the same space. That in turn allows a club to offer bigger fees to bands, sometimes with lower admission prices, competition the Bottom Line probably couldn't match. Record-company showcases have moved to clubs like the Bowery Ballroom, which has a handful of tables on a balcony above the dance floor.
In recent years the Bottom Line had less-than-packed houses and an older crowd. Its bookings had been relying on longtime stalwarts like David Johansen, and on series like In Their Own Words, an informal songwriters' roundtable, or Required Listening, a showcase for new songwriters, that it presented with the public-radio station WFUV.
The club didn't latch onto some other performers who might have suited the cabaret setting, like neo-soul songwriters (though it recently presented Anthony Hamilton), and it clung to its longtime routine of two shows a night by the same performer. (Joe's Pub, a smaller cabaret, often has a different performer at its early and late sets, then turns into a disc-jockey lounge after 11 p.m., while Fez, another cabaret, is the basement extension of the Time Cafe, a busy bar and restaurant.) In hindsight the Bottom Line probably could also have sought sponsorships before its back rent mounted so high, or hired itself out more frequently as a broadcast studio.
Fast-rising new bands are likely to appear at standing-room clubs like the Bowery Ballroom, the Mercury Lounge, the Knitting Factory, Northsix, Southpaw, Sin-e or Lit; bigger places like Irving Plaza and Roseland are also standing-room clubs. Yet there should have been room in New York for one major club that was not single-mindedly striving for the cutting edge.
The Bottom Line was still the right place to hear Jane Siberry's mystical pop-folk songs or Ute Lemper's chilling modern cabaret interpretations. With the club gone, New York is considerably less hospitable to folk-circuit regulars as well as to the British trad-rockers that the club never abandoned. Its shows full of local stalwarts, like the annual "Downtown Messiah" and its era-by-era pop retrospectives called "The Beat Goes On," are unlikely to find a more congenial place to resurface.
Like all venerable clubs that close their doors, the Bottom Line takes with it the peculiar confluence of real estate, acoustics, bookings, memories and lingering physical vibrations that added up to transform an empty room into a landmark. I'll miss it, and so will New York.
jaynote: so NYU which has a big music program KILLS OFF a major venue for their graduates, along with one of the few affordable places to see established acts. major, major loss
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