While punk clubs get knocked down, Tribeca’s ‘Knit’ still stands


By Todd Simmons

Last Saturday night, on a block torn asunder by Con Ed crews on Leonard St., the bands Oneida and Trans Am did their part to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Knitting Factory in raucous fashion. With two full, highly-charged sets on the main stage, along with Philadelphia’s Igor’s Egg in the Tap Bar, and These United States in the Old Office, it was one of those nights when all three levels of the “New Knit” were teeming with people of all stripes under one roof.

Uptown, the “Old Knit” is being honored by a star-studded concert at Town Hall this Thursday, March 1. John Zorn, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Mike Doughty, Lee Ranaldo, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Mark Ribot and others will be lending their talents to Knitting Factory founder and former owner Michael Dorf’s unofficial “Old Knit 20th Anniversary.” The show is a high-profile tribute to Dorf’s club, which he opened in 1987 at 47 E. Houston St.

Before the show, Dorf reminisced by phone about the Knitting Factory then and now.

“For about 20 minutes, I was going to call the club Espressoism,” said Dorf, who was 23 when he started the club. At the time, he was the manager of a Wisconsin rock band called Swamp Thing, and a label called Flaming Pie Records, but “in need of a way to stay alive in Manhattan,” he explained. “The desire to open up a performance space and coffee shop was born.

“The only business plan I had was to have a Jack Kerouac, ‘On the Road’ experience intertwined with an avant-garde and cutting edge philosophy,” said Dorf. Out of these vague inklings, he and his then-partner Louis Spitzer found a former Avon office on Houston between Bowery and Broadway and, using the working title of a Swamp Thing album called “Mr. Bloodstein’s Knitting Factory,” opened a smoky coffeehouse club that wove together multiple kinds of performances.

“Within a Tuesday night, we could have a dance performance at 6, a reading at 8 and a jazz concert at 10. In a sense, mixing up these mediums seemed appropriate and relevant to me. It was also true to the name, Knitting Factory,” he said.

It was that loose, improvisational feel that led to so much experimental music being created in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Under Dorf’s watch, the original club, whose ceiling was covered in quilts, had a DIY quality that was anything but contrived. For two years, he even lived inside the club, keeping a futon under his office desk. “I went to Pineapple Fitness to shower,” said Dorf. “They thought I was a freak because I never worked out. But for $19.99 a month it was one of the best rent deals in New York City.”

Bands like Elysian Fields basically formed out of the “Old Knit,” where singer Jennifer Charles worked as an intern and later a waitress and bartender before her band was born. Of her first experience at the Houston St. club, Charles said, “I was struck by the feeling of intimacy. There was little difference between the stage and the chairs set up for the audience. There was this intense energy and almost a feeling of danger that anything was possible, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Future Soul Coughing front man Mike Doughty also worked as a part-time doorman there before starting his band with musicians he met at the venue. Like Jennifer Charles, Doughty recalls the steady flow of avant-garde acts streaming through the doors. “The first night I worked there, Joe Lovano played in a trio with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian, and the second night Bob Mould played solo acoustic. I was so excited to be around that music,” said Doughty, who was 21 at the time. “I also met Marc Ribot there and asked him to be in a band with me! He’s to this day my guitar hero.”

For Dorf, the most memorable concerts at the original Houston location included many John Zorn sets, Beck’s first concert in New York and the early shows of Martin, Medeski and Wood. He continued to live in close proximity of the Knitting Factory, moving first to the upstairs apartment on Houston, then across the street and then to Leonard St., where he relocated the club in 1994 after it outgrew the original space. In the first few years in Tribeca, the Knitting Factory retained its “warm, mom and pop feeling” and continued to host a spectrum of experimental and contemporary musicians.

“Once,” said Dorf, “the Fire Department came, and we were very, very crowded — safe, but tight. The chief came in full dress, went up to the balcony, started trying to count heads and then, with me at his side, got on his walkie-talkie. I was very nervous. He then tells his fellows in the big trucks outside, ‘Guys, David Sanborn is on sax.’ Five more firemen came in and enjoyed the rest of the show.”

Within a few years, however, as Dorf took on outside investors to help with the club’s various enterprises, like its own record label and its satellite club in Hollywood, his ownership was diluted to 31 percent and he began to lose creative control. Then came Sept. 11.

“Living Downtown, like many people, I thought about what was meaningful to me. I wanted to do something more significant.” He decided that one of the gifts he could give Lower Manhattan was to “present art and present it in a more dramatic and elegant environment.” His vision was, and still is, a 1,000-seat performance center near the World Trade Center. Officials still have plans someday to begin raising money for a performance arts center at the W.T.C., but the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. picked the Joyce and Signature Theaters to run it.

“For three and a half years I played the game with L.M.D.C. and was given a lot of lip service,” Dorf said. “But as you can see with something as clear as the Freedom Tower, nothing is simple down there.”

While Dorf still has a stake in the club, he has relinquished any operating involvement and has moved on to various philanthropic ventures. He has started the Hebrew school Tribeca Hebrew, the Jewish music festival Oyhoo and he curates other Uptown shows such as the upcoming tribute to Bruce Springsteen on April 1 at Carnegie Hall. The concert at Town Hall, which will benefit John Zorn’s East Village club, The Stone, is Dorf’s homage to the “Old Knit” he remembers, before shareholders shifted the programming to sell more tickets.

“There’s certainly not much jazz left, with the exception of what Brice Rosenbloom curates with Winter Jazz Fest. But clubs do change direction and I think the Knitting Factory is an important club in terms of presenting alternative music in New York. There are very few rock clubs that have folk one night, Klezmer the next and rap the following. In that way, the Knitting Factory is fulfilling a very important role.”

Dorf’s successor, C.E.O. Jared Hoffman, is of the same mind. Though the record label hasn’t issued a new release since 2003 in an effort to bounce back from the financial damage of Sept. 11, the privately-owned company has chosen to focus on what got them to this point in the first place: eclectically programmed live music. While veterans of the old club like Charles feel that the new location “doesn’t have the special vibe that the old Knit had,” and some of the audience has drifted over to venues like Tonic and The Stone, Hoffman insists that the clubs’ ideals are the same.

“The Knitting Factory remains fiercely independent and devoted to DIY artistic endeavors, and hopefully that shows through in the depth and richness of our programming,” he said. “When I arrived five years ago, post-9/11, I found an organization traumatized by the prior year’s financial and emotional roller-coaster ride. The club had an amazing history, great pedigree, a passionate staff, but had become somewhat dysfunctional. We had to strip away a lot of extraneous and distracting endeavors, to rediscover our core: the thrill of putting on a great show every night.”

The multi-level venue still retains a strong presence in the neighborhood, though not always to the delight of its neighbors. In recent years, Community Board 1 and other local residents have complained about noise from the Knitting Factory, something Dorf didn’t experience when he was the sole proprietor. “The smoking ban came in after I left — that’s a new wrinkle I never had to deal with,” he said. Still, during Dorf’s tenure, he instituted a policy called “quiet patrol,” in which he had his staff ask anyone leaving the club to be quiet. He also posted signs on the street that asked patrons to be respectful of their neighbors. “You don’t see that anymore,” said Dorf, who still lives in Tribeca.

Noise complaints aside, it’s apparent that vital, current bands feel just as welcome on Leonard St. as the old bands felt on Houston. Before blowing away the crowd with a relentless set of experimental rock, Oneida keyboardist/ vocalist Bobby Matador estimated that the band has played the new club “either 86 or 87 times. Our first show was here with Royal Trux ten years ago and it was a great night.” (Oneida’s drummer Kid Millions also once worked at the Knit, adding to its legacy of talented former staffers.)

Matador pointed out that despite the unusual shape of the main room, the sound system is good and they are never “given any attitude from the staff.” For a band that has been building its following since 1997, that may be reason enough to book gigs at the club. The struggle to get bookings at any venue that will have you, at least on the way up the notoriety charts, means that bands merely need a stage to stack their amps and plug in, as long as their audience can find them.

Still, in light of the recent closings of several Downtown music clubs, the Knitting Factory has risen up the ladder of go-to spots for touring bands and local musicians in search of a decent sound system and open-minded programming. CBGB and The Bottom Line recently shuttered their longtime operations and The Continental just converted from a punk club to a dive bar with “the city’s best juke-box.” Luna Lounge has left the Lower East Side for Brooklyn and is being run by the corporate promoters Live Nation. Brownies and The Fez are long fading in the rear-view mirror of New York nightlife.

Said Bobby Matador of the changes, “I want the Knitting Factory to survive. It has a long history and it’s a great place to play but everyone has to be flexible. It’s like Willie Nelson said: ‘Phases and stages, circles and cycles.’ ”

— Additional reporting by Nicole Davis