When Lit Lounge’s co-owner Erik Foss announced a month ago that the East Village institution would close after 13 years, we thought the place would have at least a few more wild nights in store if not the goodbye party of the decade. But after a particularly unseemly incident (even for Lit) a couple of weeks ago, the bar unceremoniously shuttered without so much as a nod and a “later, guys.”
Asked for comment, Foss wouldn’t say anything about Lit’s future on Second Avenue (a Bushwick location is expected to open soon). Bartender and event booker Jeremiah Black said “things came up immediately” and the owners, in an email to the staff, attributed the sudden closure to “certain events.”
“Everyone else has moved on and secured work elsewhere. I’ve taken my parties and moved them to other venues,” Black said. “They could theoretically reopen. The cops aren’t closing them, the State Liquor Authority isn’t closing them. It’s just the new owner is not wanting it to be open.”
A liquor license questionnaire submitted to Community Board 3 hints at who that new owner might be. Though the name of the applicant seeking a license for the Lit space is “TBD,” the form indicates an existing stake in The Cock and Albion, which are both owned by Allan Mannarelli. When we emailed an address provided on the form, we were told by someone who didn’t give a name that Lit is “not closed permanently, they are currently revamping the inoperable AC and doing security upgrades and a much needed deep cleaning.” (Update, Aug. 14: Mannarelli has identified himself; he confirms he’s moving The Cock into the Lit space and “will prevail” against neighbors who have objected.)
Of course, not everyone would agree a cleaning is needed. Cat Marnell, one of the bar’s notable regulars, described Lit as “such a piece-of-shit place in the best way possible. It stayed dirty– which in the East Village is pure.”
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve spoken with a slew of people– many of them artists, writers, photographers, skateboarders– who spent at least a good chunk of their time at the dive and (until recently) art gallery. The bulk of them told us something along the lines of what Eric Duncan (Rub N Tug, Still Going), had to say: “Honestly I was always so fucked up in there I wouldn’t remember any stories.”
Luckily, some were able to break up the characteristically thick fog clouding their memories of nights at Lit. In some cases, recalling that inimitable smell helped. Here’s our attempt to decipher what the hell was going on there.
Erik Foss (artist and co-owner of Lit Lounge with David Schwartz): I moved to New York City Halloween of 1996. All of my first jobs were in service. My first bartending job was Odessa Bar on Avenue A (now Black Rose). I worked there from ’97 till Lit’s opening. I also tended bar at Bowery Ballroom, Mercury Lounge, Ace Bar, and Baby Jupiter. So yeah, I was probably more prepared to own a club than most. It always came naturally to me.
We built the bar by hand over a six month period. We opened February 22, 2002. Fuse opened March 16, 2002 with H.R. Giger’s solo show of sculptures, paintings, and drawings. The live venue happened around the same time.
Justine Delaney (DJ): I was approached by Erik Foss to promote Friday nights at Lit. To entice me, he gave me a grand tour of the still under-construction space and showed me the church pews they had as seating. I thought that was a cool, endearing, and somewhat humorous touch to the decor. Erik told me I was the first promoter they contacted and that he needed me on board. I happily agreed.
My party, “Aktion” (on both floors) opened in March 2002 with several resident DJs including Carlos D of Interpol. For the opening night. I also did a DJ set. It was packed every Friday night for almost three years. Really, all of the Friday nights during that time period were debaucherous, wild, and memorable.
Leo Fitzpatrick (DJ, actor, gallerist): I ended up at Lit via Erik Foss, like most people. I’d known Erik as a bartender maybe at Odessa Bar or somewhere weird like that. He grew up skateboarding and I grew up skateboarding. When he had talked to me about Lit, I think I DJ’d the first week they were open.
Paul Sevigny (DJ, bar owner): I’m trying to remember when it opened. It was definitely post-9/11. Born out of the apocalypse!
Gibby Miller (co-founder of Dais Records, DJ): In that strange slow-motion, sinking feeling that came after 9/11, nightlife was brazen and insane. Lit was certainly a part of people escaping from that sadness, and the experience brought with it some incredible friendships and memories.
Paul Sevigny: Lit Lounge back in the day… It’s immediately like a classic local for the East Village. There was a little bit there for everyone at the time — a bunch of young kids, most of whom were from the neighborhood, starting a cool rock n’ roll bar. It wasn’t some older guy who’d opened a bar. That’s what was so different about it. It was like, “Oh, one of us.” It was a definite hangout for what was, at the time, the McGinleys — that posse, I guess.
Ryan McGinley (photographer): The cool thing about Lit was that we knew the owner. Erik was an artist, he was our age. I think it was his intent to have a place where artists would be taken care of. Maybe kind of in the same way that Cedar Tavern was the place for the beatniks or whatever. I started going in ’02 and I kind of had a crew of people I would go with, who I hung out with. So it was Dan Colen, Dash Snow, this guy Kid America, and Aaron Bondaroff, Leo Fitzpatrick. I lived in East Village on Seventh Street, between First and A, so it was easy to just walk over there.
Dan Colen (artist): It was a bit of a fantasy land… Two steps down and you were transported. But it really was our fantasy. All our other spots (maybe excluding The Cock) were really defined by a generation before us, or were too bougie to frequent or to call home. Lit accepted us, they encouraged us… They let us drink, they let us fuck and fight, they let us dance, they let us get high, and they let us never leave– these were the only things we wanted, so it was perfect.
Cat Marnell (writer): I started going there when I was 19 years old. I was just a party girl, all strung out on like Adderall and I had no friends. I had to go out every night. I was addicted to it. I lived on Fifth Street, between Second and Third, in this grimy railroad apartment with a depressed guitarist dude and his two dogs.
I’d start getting dressed at 11 p.m. when I was all high and I’d cut my skirts super-short with kitchen scissors, and I’d cut my hair and would just go around the corner to Lit and sit at the bar by myself in my tiny cut-up slutty outfits, like sort of waiting to meet people.
Michael Hornburg (writer, DJ): It wasn’t just a place to go drink vodka and buy cocaine or whatever else was available in all these clubs. It had something else. It had music, bands playing in the basement, it had an art gallery upstairs.
Mike Nouveau (DJ): It was always a pretty mixed crowd, like hipster-leaning, rock-n’-roll-leaning, punk-leaning. The fact that there were two floors was kind of cool because you’d have totally different vibes on each floor.
Leo Fitzpatrick: It was kind of a hangout for artists and skateboarders and weirdos. Erik Foss is really good at pulling together communities. He pulled from a lot of different places: musicians, artists, and DJs.
Cat Marnell: It wasn’t sensitive to social bullshit. Snobs didn’t fit in there. Haters, maybe, but not snobs. Why judge anyone at Lit? Lit was where you always found all these dark, irresponsible, fun, wild people. People who lived off the grid. Girls with great skin because they never get any sun.
Mark Ryan (musician): I never thought that going out would as be as vibrant and insane as it was for me being a kid downtown in the early ’80s, but Lit gave me another chance to wild out and get inspired and get as weird as I was willing to take it (seems like they nurtured and brought that out in their friends). For years there was such an electricity in the air there, it felt impossible not to have a great time.
Ryan McGinley: It was an environment that was exciting. People were drunk, the music was loud. It was just like a clubhouse. For a lot of creative people it was a real sanctuary. Just to be out of the studio and with other artists and be able to party and casually talk about what projects you’re working on. For a lot of artists who are successful now, it was a place when nobody had any money to drink cheap or drink for free, and thanks to Erik.
Shelter Serra (artist): There was the skateboard contingent, kind of like Max Fish. But we used to say you’d graduate from Max Fish and go to Lit. Lit was the place to go when Max Fish became a little mainstream. It was the place to go, like a little sanctuary.
Ryan McGinley: My roommate was this guy Kid America. His real name is Frank Sisti, but he went by Kid America and he DJ’d there a lot. He had a public access show called The Kid America Show and he had a soap opera on it called “A Better Tomorrow” and he did a lot of filming at Lit. That band The Virgins also filmed a really great music video there called “Rich Girls,” and it was just a really beautiful video. The artist Jack Walls had a lot of exhibitions there and I really like his work there. He did a lot of poetry readings there.
Paul Sevigny: You could go by any night of the week and there was always something crazy going on, something fun happening. There were so many different artists hanging out there. It was a staple, a bit like the Cheers of the East Village. But as opposed to whoever was [at Cheers] it was your graffiti kids, your indie rockers, your dominatrixes, that sort of scene. It was really fun, and it never took on some sort of dark energy. It was always pretty light-hearted and pretty fun. Lit never had that kind of too-cool vibe, while still being cooler than most other places.
Erik Foss: I believe having a gallery showing contemporary artists was the main factor in the scene at Lit. Being artists who owned a bar would be a second factor. People tend to flock to places that support their community. Pretty simple, actually. I guess the only place close to Lit were Passerby and CBGB’s Gallery. I frequented both and loved both. Definitely always loved Max Fish and still do. That’s the real New York City art bar as far as I am concerned.
Michael Hornburg: Lit was an art center. That’s what they cultivated. The guy from Jesus Lizard [David Yow] did a show there. That was a big deal. But there were ones way back in the day, there were really famous artists.
Ivory Serra (artist): The celebrity actor Mike Meyers had a show. That really was a unique situation on the Lower East Side, a bar that you could go to on a Wednesday and look at art work.
Shelter Serra: Me and Ivory had an art show there. Leo Fitzpatrick did a show there, and Tony Cox. A lot of people went on to do bigger things. The gallery was really kind of a seeding kind of place, a little garden almost. Erik was always really picky about the shows. He had a good eye.
Matt Campbell (artist, curator, gallery owner): After my own gallery partnership “The Riviera” (in Williamsburg) folded in 2008, I was so grateful for Lit / Fuse because it filled the gaping hole that losing the gallery had left in my life. And as soon as Erik heard that the Riviera was gone, he very generously invited us to curate a show at Fuse. So along with some of my former partners, John Tymkiw, John Hobbs and Bill Moulton, I organized a Riviera “Allstars” show at Fuse and the opening was awesome. Everyone I knew and wanted to see from the scene at that time was there. I don’t think the show made much money, but I know Erik was stoked to get a chance to purchase a Gary Panter.
Aliya Naumoff: I think I actually had the last art show there [in August of 2013]. Actually, I curated an art show there, there were lots of artists: Ryan McGinley, Spike Jonze, and Karen O. I had all these artists do this cute thing with animals and I made it a benefit for the ASPCA. And actually I remember Shane [Smith] from Vice coming and saying, “Wow, this is the greatest vibe. I forgot about this vibe, this feeling.” It was like a feeling he forgot about, bringing people together in a comfortable space.
Cat Marnell: I loved the downstairs, it was so gross. You’d sit in some little cave and it felt like when you came out you had to shake cockroaches from your hair. It was so gnarly down there. I mean it was amazing, it was like a Medieval dungeon. It was like a Goya “Black Painting.” You half expected to see a monster ripping the head off of a hipster down there.
Dima Dubson (filmmaker, DJ): I remember the back room in the basement, too, and you’d always be kind of amazed at what you’d find or who you would find. It had a darker vibe than other places, for me. Not in a bad way, necessarily. But it was like, “It’s 3 a.m., what do we wanna do? Let’s go to Lit.” It’s almost like entering Dante’s purgatory when it says on the door above it, “Abandon all hope ye who enter.”
Ryan McGinley: It was like a bunker. You could just stay down there, and there were no windows so you didn’t have to see any daylight. And the party would just keep going. Because it was so far underground they could play music really loud. And it was all painted black. I dunno, that just added to the dark, nighttime appeal. It really felt like you were in a cave. I shot a lot of portraits there. I used to shoot Polaroids. I would put up a white paper backdrop at Lit and I would shoot a lot of photos of my friends dancing. I guess it was a little studio for me.
Aliya Naumoff: Ryan McGinley would take photos of all of us there and then his career started coming together and he would start to line people up and take portraits of them in the basement. It was just a place where artists would come together and talk about their projects. And then throughout the years there were all these wild times with rockers and musicians and if we ever went to a show, we’d all end up over there after.
“Jeremy Bastard” Alisauskas (DJ, booker): I first got involved with Lit around 2006, 2007. I started DJing the basement. I did that party with DJ Jess who died recently which is pretty sad and everyone is still pretty devastated about that. For around seven years we were doing Thursday nights in the basement. It was totally insane and just a really great party. There’ve been so many great shows— the Melvins. I performed there a bunch with my own band, which was fun. There were some really sick parties, six DJs would come through.
Shelter Serra: Downstairs had awesome bands. It was kind of a different world down there. It was like a dungeon, kind of smelly. It was like a labyrinth. Erik Rapin worked at the bar, he was the drummer for A.R.E. Weapons. I guess when Don Hill’s closed, that’s when [Lit] picked up too, because Don Hill’s was the place to go.
Matt Campbell: I loved the deep, downstairs cave-like room and you could smoke down there in the first bunch of years which was great (before they got fined hard). That was a great little chunk of New York City right there – the CBGB of its time — for me, anyway.
Ryan McGinley: Lit was kind of in my bar crawl: the gay bar The Hole was nearby, just down the block, and just like all those East Village bars, like The Cock, the Phoenix, I guess Max Fish. Lit was always the one you ended up at because it was always open after hours. You could stay downstairs until 5 or 6 a.m.
Justine Delaney: There was a tiny back room downstairs and people partied in there until the next night, so I heard. The New York music scene was exploding at that time and NME recognized Lit as the coolest bar on the planet, citing my party at the center of it all. That brought legitimate international notoriety. Lit celebrated the downtown misfits, sleaze balls, and eccentrics.
Cat Marnell: After hours we were allowed to sit in the back, at least I was. That’s where everyone would do… That’s where we’d talk shop, after 4 a.m., when it would close. I mean… I don’t know if I should say that. Erik didn’t do drugs, I think he’s sober. But there were definitely a lot of… high people in there. Am I going to get people in trouble for saying that? Foss didn’t know.
[You’d see] Leo Fitzpatrick and Chrissie Miller, Josh Wildman, all those people who did after-hours things. SPAM, Prince Terrence and Hustle Club, OJ Slutlust– it was basically that whole scene. My friends were the PPP graffiti writers– Mint and Serf and SAME. There were just so many people. And you always knew people.
Shelter Serra: You’d go at like 1:30 a.m. If you got there at 11 p.m., it was too early, and you’d sit around and by the time 1 a.m. rolled around, you’d be completely drunk and things would just be happening around you. First, you’d sit down and just kind of watch people. But as the night progressed, it would just get crazy. Around 3 or 4 a.m. it was always just packed to the gills. I remember once or twice staying there all night and when people left in the morning, they’d have sunglasses. They were prepared with those sunglasses for the morning.
Leo Fitzpatrick: I’m sure if you could interview the bathrooms there would be a lot of stories there. But it was kind of just typical debauchery. I’ve seen people have sex there, lots of drug use, and that sort of stuff. But at Lit it was kind of commonplace, nothing was outrageous. It was just sort of, “Oh, those two people are having sex right now.” And you just moved on.
Cat Marnell: I’ve done everything in those bathrooms. I’ve had sex in those bathrooms, which is just so gross because they’re so grimy. But I, like, never sat down on a toilet. You’d totally have to hover. And they didn’t lock, so you’d always have to have someone wait for the bathroom for you outside. I’d drag every one of my friends back there. Those bathrooms were gross, there was this weird moisture in them — like a swamp. There were no mirrors — they were covered with graffiti — so girls couldn’t fuss with their makeup in there. You had to check your nostrils for blow in the camera of your iPhone.
Shelter Serra: Lit had this bathroom that was out of the movie Hellraiser. And you would just go in there and you’d have to hold your breath. Welcome to the Johnsons was the same way. Who knows what they did in the bathrooms? But it was basically an extension of the bar. Well, there’s something to be said for what happened in the bathroom two weeks ago.
Shelter Serra: There were times you’d get so drunk, you could barely talk and you’d mouth off to people.
Dan Colen: I remember moments when I was not allowed in because my behavior had been too out of control. It’s, I think, the one place I ever had a bottle smashed over my head. I remember Erik calling me because Ryan was out of control… It was a night that I was working at [the] studio. I came to check on him. I think he ran away from me and jumped into the back of a city garbage truck.
Leo Fitzpatrick: I’ve definitely seen fights, lots and lots of fights and typical old-school New York mentality. Now if you saw a fight at [another] bar it might be between two cokeheads, preppy guys fighting over a bag of coke. It’s not, like, two fuckin’ squatter punks fuckin’ feeling drinks or something. Lit invited all characters so the results were always different, every night.
Cat Marnell: I’ve literally stumbled in there in rags with bloody ankles and magic marker all over my arms. Lipstick smeared all over my face. Anything goes at Lit. It was like Cheers, for me at least, but with PCP and vodka. No, I didn’t smoke too much dust at Lit. Some of my graffiti writer friends weren’t let in, so sometimes I wouldn’t go there. But I always wanted to go.
Leo Fitzpatrick: I got fired from there a bunch of times. I quit a bunch of times. So you know we have a very love/ hate relationship with each other, me and the bar. You can’t maintain a relationship when both parties are constantly drunk — obviously there’s going to be some conflict. I remember random small things got me fired, like throwing the turntables at the audience or something.
Jeremiah Black: I remember cleaning up after this woman who decided it would be fun to urinate in a trashcan on the dance floor. A woman just backed up to a trashcan and urinated in it. You know, I’m not a woman but I imagine aiming is a little imprecise.
Cat Marnell: My favorite memory of Lit is just a little moment. Our friend Greg Naw— a real downtown kid— was wrecked and told us he’d puked in the corner. I was up in the DJ booth with the DJ and I could see where the puke was. And these teenybopper girls in dresses were dancing together to that New Order song — “Bizarre Love Triangle.” And I watched them dance over into the puddle of Greg’s puke. They just started screaming and I just watched it all happen and I couldn’t stop laughing.
Shelter Serra: You would just meet amazing people there. Once I met the guitar player for Slayer [at Lit], Kerry King. His wife I guess had tattoos on half of her body, not her face. But she was friends with Erik Foss. Carlo McCormick, he was a little bit of a ringleader. He’d tell you to come down there. I once met the guy who did the cartoons for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You just met this cross-section of people. Bruce High Quality was hanging out in the back one time. Leo Fitzpatrick was always DJing and people like Michel Gondry would show up with some girlfriend and they’d be like making out in the corner and everybody would pretend to not notice. So it was kind of a sanctuary.
Jeremiah Black: World-famous A-list actors would come in and mad things would happen, but you could guarantee that not anyone would get a wind of it. There would be no press contacted. Erik was really, really good about guarding the privacy of anything that happened there.
Michael Hornburg: One time the Yeah Yeah Yeahs came in and they were going to the back to talk to Erik, so I put a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song on and Erik called out to the bartender, “Don’t play any more Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs!” So I guess Nick [Zinner] and Karen [O] don’t like Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs, you know, their own music.
Ivory Serra: Erik’s always been a big skateboarder. And some of his younger, childhood skateboarding heroes came in [one time]. You know, there’s so many people who come into Lit. They let Kate Moss in there one time, that’s a story he can probably tell you.
Erik Foss: One of my best friends, Liz Vap, brought Kate in. All I can tell you is she insisted that she and I had met before, and I responded with, “Trust me, girl, if I had met you, I would have remembered.”
Michael Hornburg: I had this one girl who came into the DJ booth and started making out with me and my friend said it was Lady Gaga. And I don’t even know if it was Lady Gaga or not. She was very fresh and very drunk and really into like, “I love what you’re playing. Blahhhhh.” That kind of thing. But I can’t confirm it was her. It might have been some other Lady. Who knows.
End of the Party
Ryan McGinley: I sort of had a run from 2002 to 2005 when I was there a lot, like almost every night. But, you know, Lit takes a toll on you. You can’t be in that basement for that many years.
Shelter Serra: Lit had a real heyday about four, five years ago in the East Village when Brooklyn started to get popular again. It ebbed and peaked.
Cat Marnell: From what I understand, some of the DJs were pretty offended when Foss sent an email around telling them not to play hip-hop, and a few people quit. Prince Terrence quit. It was definitely what Wendy Williams would call a “Hot Topic” when it all went down — at least in my circle.
“Jeremy Bastard” Alisauskas: The vibe of it and the whole concept of it was more to provide an environment for people to have a good time and cut loose and less about being a purely profit-driven corporation. And ultimately, that might have been its undoing. But there were a lot of really excellent years there. I think Lit’s going to keep kicking ass, maybe not in the way that people remember.
Paul Sevigny: The last time I was there was on Monday [July 2015]. It was just me, Erik, and the kids who do All Tomorrow’s Parties and a couple of people were in town, almost reminiscing about it. And now it’s gone. Kind of the death of the last local, I guess. There are some bars that have been around longer, but I don’t feel like there’s as much a sense of community in a lot of those. It really was a bit of gathering place for creative East Village types.
Leo Fitzpatrick: If I were still drinking at Lit, I’d probably really have to reexamine my life. I don’t even go out anymore, to be honest. Lit, that was sort of my last hurrah, I guess you would say. The party was over when I finally left Lit.
Cat Marnell: I’m so sad I won’t be able to get there on foot [if it moves to Bushwick]! But I’m sure I’ll wind up there. I’m trying to finish my book — it’s a party girl memoir. Lit is obviously in it. Honestly, I was gonna have my book party there! At least the after-party. That was my plan. Now I might be trying to get sober. I’m 32 and I want to get married and have babies! So I don’t fucking know. It was the end of an era when Second Avenue closed. That’s for sure.
Erik Foss: With over 180 shows in Fuse, thousands of bands that played our stage, and countless DJ parties, the stories are endless. When I look back at it, it’s almost a blur, and I am so grateful we had this opportunity to serve New York City.
The Move to Bushwick
Paul Sevigny: Lit was really one of the last holdouts of what people would consider the old East Village today.
Michael Hornburg: In the old days people moved here because they were here to start a band, become an artist, be a dancer. It was all artistic purposes. Now it’s just like, “Oh, I’m rich, I’m moving to New York City.” A friend of mine called them “the yuckies.” They used to be the yuppies, and now they’re the yuckies, the people who have money and no reason to be here other than the fact that they have money.
Leo Fitzpatrick: I still love the East Village, but when you drive up prices and you kick out all the artists, and the poets, and the writers, and the musicians, there’s not going to be anybody to replace those people. So you’re driving all the culture away from the East Village, which is built on culture.
But in the same respect, I think kids will always figure it out. There’s definitely still after hours and weird shit going on, I’m just too old to know about it.
Shelter Serra: New York has become a little sanitized. So there are elements of that change [at Lit]. Like you could go there, but there might be an undercover cop. They had to let him in. So it didn’t feel like the same place, even up to about two years ago.
Aliya Naumoff: It’s so funny because now I look back on [the East Village] back then and I think of it— this is going to sound so cheesy— but like the old downtown. Like when you read about Warhol and Basquiat and that whole crew. Because you know a lot of, like, the artists and musicians would hang out there. Everyone got together and would just let loose, be wild. I don’t know if there’s a place like that now. Or maybe I’m past that age where people are doing that on a weekly basis, getting together. Or maybe it’s just further out in Bushwick where it’s moving to.
Mike Nouveau: Now it’s like, if you’re moving to the city and you’re a young artist, or just out of college, you move to Bushwick. So it’s good to be where people are going, but it’s going to be sad not to have it on Second Avenue anymore.
Jeremiah Black: The hardest part now that it’s closed is that people don’t know where to go anymore. Lit wasn’t a place that just existed on walk-by. It had 100 people who went there religiously every week. We’re going to get to a point where everyone’s like, “Enough!” Someone’s going to say, “Fuck it,” and start bringing it back. These things are cyclical. It’s gonna come back. Lit represents the last holdout, and now we’re going to start the rebuilding process. But as long as we keep the same attitude and carry forward, the demand will be there. And we just have to come together and rebuild that scene together.