Venues in NYC come and go. But only occasionally do they live on far after their close, in the hearts of their patrons years later. In the mid 90’s, when the meat-packing district of NYC was a barren outpost lightly peppered with bodegas and the occasional dive bar there existed a club unlike any other. Descending a steep metal staircase tucked closely behind an unmarked metal door was The Cooler, an airtight meat locker turned music venue. The space was gritty – functional meat hooks dangled from the ceiling, Brion Gysin projections flickered on the sticky walls flanked by smutty photos from Warhol affiliate Gerard Malanga. The music was a mix of free jazz legends like Cecil Taylor, the alluring indie-rock of early Blonde Redhead and NYC original modernists like Suicide. On the right night you’d even find Sonic Youth taking the stage unannounced to test out new material after a set by Japanese noise duo The Ruins. There existed little separation between audience and artists – an intimacy that compounded the intensity of the performances.
Where the Knitting Factory in Tribeca was home to the John Zorn crowd, the Cooler catered to the wild fringe of the experimental musical sphere. “The place was run by this smart-aleck character named Jedi,” recalls No Neck Blues Band’s John Fell Ryan, who played the space often. “Jedi would always complain and put you down a bit, but if you were a musician, you never really had to pay, and could hang out in the green room smoking dope all night…old school NYC attitude. The Cooler was dark and cheap.” Nancy Garcia, who played the space both as a part of noise rock trio Monotract and as a dancer for free jazz sax player Arthur Doyle, remembers the club fondly; “When you loaded in your gear, the freight elevator dumped you into what still looked like a meat freezer. Everyone I hung out with at that place was in a band, an artist, or a devoted music listener. One show I played there, as part of Monotract, we played a set consisting of a sound we’d developed for the Blaggout album, and some new sounds that would end up on Pagu. Backstage, my band mates and I got rowdy with Jim O’Rourke who was playing with Thurston in Male Slut that night. Lightning Bolt played as well. Total blast!”
The exciting billing went beyond traditional concerts. Ian Svenonius, of D.C. gospel-punks the Make-Up played the Cooler on many occasions and found it a place where the standard show dynamics could be subverted. “Jedi who was or is a visionary as a promoter was always committed to making exciting events happen,” he recalled. “Jedi let me throw several happenings which we called ‘Famous Monsters’ reviews, featuring people like Christina of Slant 6/Quixotic, Mark Robinson (Unrest), Evelyn Hurly (Blast Off Country Style) and other luminaries performing in one off bands with MC-ing by yours truly with dance club dj-ing.” In the metallic, insulated walls of the former meat locker, the sound could be absolutely devastating. Bill Orcutt, who performed there with his former band Harry Pussy in 1997 remembered; “The low ceilings, the heat and density of the crowd in the venue and backstage. I think I chucked a milk jug of water at the crowd once…I do remember we played every song at least twice because our Village Voice write up said we only played for 15 minutes and we wanted to prove them wrong.”
Closing in 2002, the space has run through a few unmemorable reincarnations, first as a prototypical Meat-Packing nightclub “Rare”, later as something else that nobody cares to remember. The Cooler lives on however in the hearts and minds of its patrons who will always remember it as a place of worship in New York underground