Tim B. of Stupefaction put up a compelling little video snippet the other day of The Meatpacking District circa 1987. It's a sleepy little segment -- no wild debauchery or transvestite prostitution is depicted. It just shows the neighborhood when it was still largely devoted to the actual meatpacking trade. If you're only familiar with those streets as they are today, it's truly worth a viewing. The dichotomy is completely striking.
I spoke about my own experiences in the Meatpacking District here before, but suffice it to say, I greatly preferred the area in that previous incarnation, when it was still something of a desolate backwater.
I was discussing the neighborhood with some friends recently, and it inevitably led to the discussion about favorite spots that are now gone. Personally speaking, I was a big fan of bars like the Hog Pit and The Village Idiot. I remember having a surreal dinner at Florent once (with my mom, no less) and my friend Rob B. and I did once darken the doors of The Vault one strange weekday night.
I think the spot that brought me to the Meatpacking District the most -- in those halcyon days of the `90s, at least -- was The Cooler. Somewhat ironically named (the place was always a sweatbox), The Cooler was originally just that -- a deep, basement-level cooling facility for storing large quantities of meat -- that someone had the foresight to re-imagine as live music venue. As long as you weren't a claustrophobe afraid of extreme perspiration, it was a great place to see a band.
I remember attending a bunch of different shows at The Cooler. My friend Stefan was this huge indie rock guy, and would routinely coerce me into going to see bands I'd certainly never heard of at the time like Unwound, Blonde Redhead, Karp, June of 44, The PeeChees and this hushed, Nick Drake-y sorta character he was particularly wild about named Elliott Smith. It was a bit of a different scene from the stuff I was normally into, but I gradually found myself getting quite into it.
Around 2001, the news came down that The Cooler was shutting its doors. Somewhat fittingly, New York proto-punk stalwarts Suicide were chosen to close proceedings. My friend Paul's ensemble, Botanica was booked as a support act, so I dutifully attended. I want to say that I remember the place being packed, although given the paucity of space, the place always seemed packed. Botanica -- then featuring Paul Wallfisch and guitarist Oren Kaplan (both also members of Firewater, at the time) -- played a typically dramatic set, punctuated by a cameo from Tod [A] of Firewater, who got up and sang a gritty cover of "It's a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl" by Faust (see pic at the top of this post). After their set, Tod convinced me to split and check out this weird Ukrainian disco over on Canal Street, so I missed Suicide's set entirely. I climbed up that long flight of stairs and never returned to The Cooler.
New York Press ran a much less charitable review of that show (you can read it here). Funnily enough, I do remember trying to abscond with one of the gig posters they allude to (I love a good gig poster), and was summarily told off by some angry jackass who -- it turns out -- was the club's notorious owner Jedi. Too bad. I'd love to have that poster today. Who knew they were for sale?
But that was that. The Cooler's door slammed forever shut that night. Sometime in 2005, I believe, the space re-opened as a club called Rare which later morphed into a place called R&R, but I never went to either. From what I understand, these latter-day incarnations of the venue owed absolutely zilch to the endearingly grim and unrelentingly spartan aesthetic of the old Cooler. And honestly speaking, by that point, my adventures out in the rock clubs of NYC were largely behind me. Furthermore, by 2005, the Meatpacking District was the friggin' last place I'd ever want to be. I believe R&R closed its doors in 2007. For all I know, someone right now could be composing their own weepy blog post about how awesome it was.
Here in 2012, you'd never know the Cooler had ever been at 416 West 14th Street at all. That particular strip of way West 14th Street -- once a dark, forbidding byway and the perfect place to get mugged, raped, abducted or stabbed -- seems like busy shopping strip in the Hamptons, right there in the shadow of the Euro-tourist-choked Highline. You can barely find any pictorial evidence of its existence on the web either, or at least beyond this collection of ancient gig flyers. Like most of the rest of the Meatpacking District, it has been sanitized and wiped away.
Here's a clip I exhumed from YouTube of the afore-cited Blonde Redhead (named after a tune by fabled No Wave trio, DNA) performing at the Cooler in 1996. There's a reasonably large chance I was even at this show, for whatever that's worth.
And for posterity's sake, here's a little vintage Botanica...