It’s midnight on a Saturday night in Tribeca and the clock is winding down on the Knitting Factory’s existence. The dark, ramshackle club on Leonard Street has always had a forlorn quality. But tonight—with the street empty—it’s holding some line just for the sheer fuck of it; to spite the yuppie 9-to-5ers and European art dealers that will clink glasses of prosecco when it’s gone. They’ve been complaining about the club’s noise levels for a decade.
Fifteen years ago, when the club opened, Tribeca was still a decaying backwater filled with ancient, converted warehouses and empty parking lots. The cool kids that made the trek down from the East Village whined about how hard Leonard Street was to find. But when they got to the club they heard exciting, experimental stuff: fuzz-drenched noise, avant-jazz. The stuff that makes Throbbing Gristle sound like the Beach Boys.
When venues in Brooklyn started to take off though, the club’s management turned to hip-hop and metal. The millionaire neighbors weren’t having it. Eggs came sailing from out of windows at club goers. Kirsten Dunst is rumored to have once been so enraged at the noise that she spit in a bouncer’s face.
“How long you got?” a barrel-chested bouncer from Queens in a Jets jersey asks when I inquire whether he wants to talk about losing his job. He confirms the word on the street that the whole staff—65 people in all—is losing their jobs. “We might have to exchange emails and shit,” he adds, jotting down some info and ignoring a couple of wobbly gaited kids with faux-hawks filing through the doors. “I’m on the clock.”
The kids seem lost when they get inside. Right now it looks like they could start walking out with the sound system piece by piece and nobody would stop them. No one’s even manning the ticket booth.
The three-room Knitting Factory, which has been in Tribeca since 1994 after seven years on East Houston, is closing on Dec. 31. It’s packing up for Luna Lounge’s last space—at Metropolitan Avenue and Havemeyer Street in Williamsburg. It will only have one stage and a third of the capacity of the present space.
Over the years, I’ve seen great stuff in these windy rooms. Sonic Youth: So close to Kim you could see her wrinkles. Leftover Crack: nearly a riot when some rival squatters showed up. Brand Nubian: mid-flow Derek X said “cops” and his entourage emptied the stage in 30 seconds flat (a punk had overdosed in the bathroom).
At the moment, a friend of mine—wiry, wearing a V-neck—is standing behind the bar. It’s nearly empty. He’s chewing on a toothpick and reading a comic. Soon he won’t have a job.
Only two of the 65 staff members—both managers—are being kept on. According to the bartender, the staff was told in April that they were being laid off en masse when Jared Hoffman, who took over in 2002, was still looking at a space on East 14th between Avenues A and B.
“Hoffman just said he wanted to start fresh,” my friend explains. “We got letters stapled to our checks saying we had no jobs.”
After months of hearing Hoffman’s name spit out, most of the time followed by descriptions like, “not forward thinking,” “clueless fucking suit” and “our douchebag president,” the name itself rings like an epithet. Five staff members—including current manager Josh Richel and ex-General Manager Shay Vishawadia—blame Hoffman alone for the club not staying in Manhattan. “It’s easy to call someone a suit when you’re on the street level,” Hoffman says.
He’s both dismissive and overflowing with self-pity. “The Downtown scene has abandoned us; the artists have moved.” By his account, the Knitting Factory had nowhere else to go but Brooklyn. Then, insisting he doesn’t even wear a suit—“I’m just smart”—begins talking Pollstar numbers in the same breath. I asked him how smart it was to fire 60 people with a memo. There was a long pause: “If anything, we were trying too hard to be humane.”
Hoffman, whose big break was letting an unsigned Moby sleep on his couch, was hired to make the noise mecca into an indie-rock powerhouse. Branding his iteration of the club “KF,” he engineered takeovers of clubs in Hollywood, Spokane, Wash. and (no shit) Boise, Idaho.
Yalan Papillions, the club’s booker during its big indie push, says. “He fucked it all up, and he only came to one show the entire time I was there. He spent the whole night taking notes on the bouncers.”
But is he a suit? “He wears khakis,” she sneers. “He’s just a casual-Friday nerd.”
As it turns out, Hoffman’s bosses weren’t impressed either and recently quietly axed him.
When Vishawadia originally spoke about Hoffman’s ouster, he said, “When [club-founder Michael] Dorf told me he fired Hoffman, I told him you’re about four years too fucking late!”
Making my way down the steps, I find the real diehards in the “Old Office” room. Vishawadia, an Anglo-Brit with a massive shaved head, is holding court near the corner of the bar. He’s entertaining Bucket Bob from ska band the Toasters and Liam, who manages Welsh rockers The Alarm.
“I thought, ‘Why the fuck am I banging my head against a wall? If that douchebag doesn’t give a fuck,’” he says drunkenly—with a trace of Cockney—over Lee Perry’s skanking dub. This is the soundtrack to the last days of the Knitting Factory.
His two friends shake their head in disgust. Vishawadia throws back a Corona in one gulp and waves me over, then he calls for more drinks. A tall, owlish manager is eying Shay like a drunken old uncle who might ruin Thanksgiving.
Manager Josh Richel isn’t happy about the Knit’s demise either. The other manager, Katie, is so upset she’s bolted herself into the small office and wont come out. “She’s afraid she’s going to really piss off some people if she talks to you,” Richel says.
Vishawadia worked at the Knit for nine years, counting money that wasn’t his, checking over invoices, dealing out gentle discipline to half-drunk employees and taking shit from the suits. He just had his first kid, but he’s spending his night off—from the Highline Ballroom, where he works now—in a dank basement that smells like stale beer, surrounded by underage poseurs.
“All this city wants is a millionaire’s paradise, and they don’t give a fuck about the artists that kept Downtown from decrepitude,” Bucket Bob says in a hoarse whisper. “Why is New York not like Philadelphia? Or Detroit?” he asks and then quickly adds: “The artists prevented white flight!”
If you believe Bucket Bob and every bartender and manager that I talked to at the Knit, the artists are dedicated aesthetes that serve to perpetuate new trends and only need to wake up and do something. The truth of clubs likes the Knit, CBGB and the Bottom Line—clubs that keep going past their prime—is a little darker. They exist so that superannuated mid-level rockers, regardless of stripe, can capitalize on their cred and experience, sell it to the next wave and never grow old.
Still, a vestigial Knitting Factory is a thousand times better than the condos and velvet-rope restaurants that are replacing it. Michael Dorf started the Knitting Factory in 1987 as a fresh-faced kid from Milwaukee, but he claims to have nothing to do with it now. He’s opening City Winery (a multi-tiered wine bar and performance space) this week on Varick Street.
“Back then I was into the avant-garde, now I’m into sipping fine wine,” he explains. “I think its poetic that the Knit’s last show is going to be New Year’s Eve. And the first show at City Winery is that same night.” It’s poetic for whom, Mike? “I never pretended that the Knit was about anyone but me.”
That Hoffman’s “KF” is still the coolest thing going in Tribeca says a lot about the tastes of the overvalued actors and fashion-plate families that live there. And they’re getting exactly what they deserve for being so hostile to the creative underclass. It’s East Hampton with lofts now. The death of another last bastion of Downtown cool; Brooklyn wins again.