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Eternal City

An Oral History of SIN Club, The Coolest Venue on the Lower East Side for Six Months in 1983

From its adventurous booking policy to its quasi-legal status, "Safety In Numbers" was something special—and then the cops shut it down.

1:23 PM EST on December 8, 2023

A diptych of the building where SIN Club used to exist at 272 East 3rd Street, and a flyer for a Default show at SIN Club.

272 East 3rd Street, former home to SIN Club, present day, and a flyer for a Default show (Flyer courtesy of Julius Klein)

Forty years ago this October, the SIN Club, a music venue on East 3rd Street between Avenues C and D, shut down. It had been open for barely six months, but when it disappeared, something special disappeared with it.

When the SIN Club opened in early 1983, the onset of full-scale gentrification was crimping the creative efflorescence of the post-punk Lower Manhattan music scene. Max’s Kansas City, Tier 3, and the Mudd Club had all closed, and police were about to shut down the A7 after-hours club—which, like many small venues, was not exactly legal. CBGBs was leaning toward more mainstream rock, and larger clubs like Danceteria and the Peppermint Lounge wanted better-known acts. 

The scene encompassed, for example, the teenage political punk of Heart Attack, the echoey, minimal grooves of Liquid Liquid, and Harlem hip-hop MCs the Treacherous Three (though a show with all three on the bill, booked by future DEF JAM owner Rick Rubin, was a commercial flop). Meanwhile, New York State raising the drinking age in 1982 lopped off the youngest end of the audience. By 1983, the gigs available often fell into narrow categories like all-ages hardcore-punk matinees, art-noise, or synthesizer dance-pop.

The SIN Club, which had one of the most adventurous booking policies of any downtown club, was trying to break those divides down. Sonic Youth was the best-known of the bands that played there often, with other regulars including the Bag People, False Prophets, Health Hen, Live Skull, Rat At Rat R, Soviet Sex, and the Swans. In between sets, DJs played Haitian konpa music and dance-funk 12-inches like Fonda Rae’s "Over Like a Fat Rat."

I was the bass player in False Prophets, and we played at the SIN Club about once a month. I lived in the back of our storefront rehearsal space on Avenue B with our guitarist and B-Cat, a feral kitten I’d found in the doorway. Formed in Brooklyn in 1980, we’d built enough of a reputation to open for the Dead Kennedys at the Beacon Theater in June of 1983, and had two self-released 45s and two tracks on a 1982 compilation album that included the Bad Brains and the then-punk Beastie Boys. We were rooted in punk rock’n’roll, but didn’t fit the hardcore scene, as we mixed in slow graveyard grooves, Middle Eastern-inflected melodies, and even bits of hip-hop. At the SIN Club, we felt a lot more freedom. 

I don’t remember how we first got booked there, but we knew some of the other bands. We had joined Soviet Sex members for an ill-fated gig backing up a Bronx rapper, and we’d been intrigued by Health Hen's Village Voice ad seeking a drummer who was "rude, obsessive, with a feel for tribal meters."

False Prophets perform at SIN Club, with the author at left (Courtesy of Steve Wishnia)

"I Don't Know if the Bar Was Even Legal"

The SIN Club was born after would-be promoter Michael Pettis met Eric Anderson, who had recently opened a bar at 272 East 3rd Street. A young Upper East Side patron named Max Benkert bought the PA system, and the venue instantly generated a lot of buzz. 

Michael Pettis, co-owner: The main reason I started a club was because I wasn't cool enough to hang out with the Lower East Side musicians. I thought if I run the club, then they gotta hang out. Who I really wanted to meet was all the people that came out of the No Wave scene, but by the time we started the club, that was over. 

My brother John and I had been looking around for a place, and one day, John came over to me and said, there's this crazy guy [Eric] who's taken over the space. I lived on Third Street between B and C. John lived on Second Street between B and C. He said it was right at the end of the street, and the place is always empty. 

So I went over there, and he desperately needed people to come to the club. I said, "Look, I'll do the booking. I'll take care of that. And you run the bar." And he said, "Great." 

Julius Klein, sculptor, guitarist in Default, later Vacuum Bag: I must have been friends with Eric, the owner of the SIN Club. I remember helping somebody pry boards off of the entrance of a storefront at 272 East 3rd St, between Avenues C and D. There were a few of us, maybe three, as we entered the unused, ghostly space. It might have been a cloudy fall afternoon; the beautiful carved wooden bar and back shelves, covered in a fine white plaster dust, illuminated by the natural late-afternoon light coming through a skylight or upper windows on the storefront’s façade.

Very soon after, I was invited to play with my band Default at what now we would call a "soft opening," mainly owing to the fact that we were an “acoustic hardcore band” (not my branding), the venue not yet having a sound system. 

Michael Pettis: We looked around for the bands we liked. I remember we had seen False Prophets a bunch of times, I think at CBGB. John was the doorman at Folk City, and there I had seen Sonic Youth.

At that time, there were musicians and artists everywhere in the East Village, always eager to play. Bag People just showed up, and we started booking them, and we loved them. I don't know how I met Mike Gira, but Swans started playing, and there was a group of bands that played there a lot. 

Rat At Rat R showed up out of nowhere, and said, "We're from Philly, we just moved to New York, and we'd like to play a gig here." And I said, "Fine," and that turned out to be a great gig because they advertised like hell. It was their first gig in New York.

(Courtesy Michael Pettis)

Hazel Archer-Ginsberg, Health Hen singer: I don't know if the bar was even legal. Because I remember we used to bring in our own booze.

Marnie Jaffe, Live Skull bassist: I remember it being sloped. Dark and sloped, and sloped towards the back. I think when you walked in, the bar was on the left. The room in the back where the bands played was kind of like a mound of concrete. It went from a tile floor to some kind of weird concrete that always had pools of water in it. The bathrooms were near there. 

It got a lot of buzz very fast. It was somewhere where I wanted to be, because they usually had good shows. I remember seeing the Swans [and] Sonic Youth there.

Julius Klein: At first, they didn't have a PA system, but that's okay. For us off-the-cuff rock-and-rollers, it didn't really matter. You had one or two amps, bam, you could put two guitars and bass and vocals through two amps. 

Michael Pettis: Max [Benkert] was the one who bought the sound equipment. That was his donation.

Victor Poison-Tete, Rat At Rat R singer: [The SIN Club] was like a big living room. They had a bar in the front room, off to one side. They had a little TV set and they used to play "Road Warrior" constantly. They used to put on "Faster Pussycat" and all those Russ Meyer movies, "Supervixens." The back room was just an empty room, probably about 20 feet by 20 feet. That's where everybody played. 

You were almost in the middle of the band, which was a great place to see the Swans. You can imagine them in a little room. I was blown away. Because a lot of that stuff does not reproduce well on vinyl. You don't get the volume, you don't get the sound, and you also don't get that heart massage, you know?

Sonda Andersson Pappan, Rat At Rat R bassist: The sound of the band? Loud. Loud, loud, and loud, energetic, forceful. Your gut would feel it. The whole room would explode, not just the sound, but also the feeling of the sound.

A vacant lot on East 3rd Street as seen in a Department of Finance photo taken sometime between 1983-1988 (Courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives)

"A Lot of People Were Afraid to Go Down There"

The club's unofficial full name was "Safety in Numbers." It was one block east of the Lower East Side heroin district’s epicenter on Avenue B, where long lines of what False Prophets singer Stephan Ielpi described as "the parade of the pincushion corpses" waited outside abandoned buildings. 

To get there, you had to brave the surrounding area. It was a half-mile from the nearest subway. Taxis rarely came that far east. The club’s ads sometimes said "come down Houston," to bypass the dope zone on Avenue B.

Phil Armetta, Health Hen guitarist: It was like totally no law, an open drug market. I remember on 2nd and B, right on the corner in broad daylight one summer afternoon, there were lines on both sides of the street waiting for the guy to come out with the fuckin’ bags. Lines of kids from the suburbs, like 20 long on both sides of the street. 

And these little Puerto Rican kids went up and down going "Express! Express, five dollars!" For five bucks, they’d put you in the front of the line. It was unbelievable.

Michael Pettis: Eric [Anderson] called it "Safety in Numbers." I wasn't crazy about the name, which is why we always called it SIN Club. But on some of our bigger nights, when we would get uptown people, they would stand at the door and wait till there were about 10 people ready to leave. And then they would all leave together in a convoy, which we thought was pretty funny. 

We encouraged that. "Oh, it's really dangerous, you better not go by yourself."

Sonda Andersson Pappan: A lot of people were afraid to go down there. Third and C wasn't the best of neighborhoods, a lot of burnt-out buildings. But if you were living down there and you loved it, you just had to be careful which corners you went around.

The first time that John [guitarist John Myers] came up to visit us before he moved, we had gone to a party. And Jerry Teel, [from] the Honeymoon Killers, was a little inebriated. We walked him back to his apartment, which was on Third and C, and on our way, two guys grabbed John, who was the shortest one, and put a knife to his neck. They were demanding money. I just lost it and started screaming and throwing pennies and nickels at this guy's chest, but I was screaming so loud that it caught them off guard, and the guy with the knife kind of halted, and we escaped.

Carolyn Master, Bag People guitarist: I never felt unsafe. I think mainly because I did heroin and was around the people in the neighborhood and I lived in that neighborhood for so long. I didn't feel threatened by the neighborhood. I don't think I ever got mugged or anything.

The drug dealers on the street usually were pretty cool. They didn't want people being robbed. That was my impression, they kind of policed it in that way. That doesn't mean it didn't happen all the time. 

Marnie Jaffe: Of course the name was hysterical, because it was an acronym for Safety in Numbers, and it was absolutely terrifying going down there. You REALLY had to have a posse. It wasn't like, "I’m just gonna go down to the club by myself," if you're a woman. You just don't do that shit back then.

"To Be Famous in New York, in the Lower East Side, That Was the Most Important Thing"

The neighborhood was dangerous, but it was a community with a lot of creative ferment. Punk and post-punk lived next to the older scenes of poetry, free jazz, and off-off-Broadway theater, along with drag-queen theatrics and literally dozens of short-lived art galleries, whose best-known legacy is Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Bands promoted their shows by pasting flyers on lampposts and walls. At Life Café, a coffeehouse on the northeast corner of Tompkins Square Park covered in collages from 1950s and 1960s Life magazines, you could hear jazz violinist Billy Bang or poet Miguel Piñero reciting "scatter my ashes thru the Lower East Side."

Hazel Archer Ginsberg: We lived in a squat not far from there. We would hang out at Blanche’s Bar or Leshko’s [Ukrainian restaurant] on Avenue A. You could run into friends, and we all played together in these different bands. There was a lot of camaraderie, a lot of people supporting each other. Nobody made any money, but it didn't matter. The crowds were small, but we were all playing for each other, and taking in each other's influences.

Michael Pettis: To be famous in New York, in the Lower East Side, that was the most important thing, and then from there, to be famous in the rest of the world. Okay, that was cool, and it got you money. But the key was to be famous in the Lower East Side. Well, it was the hard part.

Sonic Youth were doing gigs with 15-20 people sometimes. Which were the best gigs. I'd much rather see a band with 15 other guys than with 15,000 other guys.

Sonda Anderson Pappan: Mike was a fan first. He loved music, even though he's a financial whiz. Had it not been for Mike Pettis. I don't know if we would have ever gotten a start. We begged him to let us open up for the Honeymoon Killers. They were friends of ours. We didn't even have a demo then.

Fortunately, the night that we played with Honeymoon Killers, Thurston [Moore, from Sonic Youth] was in the audience, and so was Mike Gira, and we became friends. 

The energy, the energy in the room. People were there because they loved what was going on in the scene down there in the East Village. Everybody pretty much supported each other, and they were enthusiastic about who was on the stage. Even if you were just starting out and not playing really well, you were appreciated. 

Michael Pettis: David Life [co-owner of Life Café] did some paintings there. He had the roof of a car that was covered in paint, and he brought it to the stage. He was fucking around with it and painting it up while Rat At Rat R was playing.

Hazel Archer Ginsberg: I remember staging sort of a cat fight during our set one time, with this woman from Madrid. We were rolling around on the floor, pretending that we were fighting, but knocking over chairs, and people spilling their drinks. It was just a wild atmosphere like that. One show I had brought in a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and finished it. I was using it as a cowbell and broke it on stage. It was fun. 

Phil Armetta: It was mad crazy. I don't have too many memories because I was so fucking high. I remember those bright moments that stuck out. I'm doing a solo and Hazel gets behind me with the guitar cord and loops it around my neck and starts choking me while I'm playing. And the people are loving it. Sicko shit.

Carolyn Master: It felt to me like you could play whatever you wanted to play. It wasn't like, "oh, you can't play at this club because you're not this."

"We Were the Post No-Wave"

There was a hard-to-define common thread among the bands. Sociologically, it might have been living in crumbling tenements, between the pincers of real-estate speculation and the heroin trade. Musically, it might have been punk energy with sprays of dissonant guitar, without the slam-dancing rigidity of hardcore. But the individual sounds varied, from the pummeling Swans to the upbeat, reggae-influenced Soviet Sex. Health Hen members would later form two bands with free-jazz saxophonist Daniel Carter.

Carolyn Master: There were definitely two sides, like there was the group of people who were more experimental-noise, avant-garde kind of stuff, as opposed to the hardcore scene. I didn't really have much interplay or connections with that kind of stuff. There were two camps, but I don't think it was real animosity. They were doing their thing, and we were all doing ours, and there was some crossover here and there. 

Marnie Jaffe: We were the post-No Wave. People would write that we’re a noise band. No, we weren't! We just played! I don't know, I guess it was noise. But to me, there's noise, and then there's noise

Michael Pettis: I always really liked that sort of noise-improv, experimental shit. So anybody who would have even a small amount of it, I didn't care what they played.

We thought we were being very eclectic. It's only many years later that you see the pattern. Looking back on it, there really was a Lower East Side aesthetic, a musical aesthetic that came out among almost all of the bands. You take a band like False Prophets, and then a band like Rat At Rat R, which we thought of as two completely different bands, and yet you often had overlapping audiences. 

Do you remember that song "Jam On It"? Those guys [Newcleus] used to hang out at the club a lot. But we didn't have a lot of black musicians play there, because we didn't know any. We had Latino musicians play there, because we had a lot of friends that were Dominican that lived in that neighborhood. 

But unfortunately, we didn't mix it up as much as we could have. It’s hard to explain, but there were the Soho minimalists, which was the classic stuff, and the East Village minimalists, Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca. They were technically classical music, whatever the fuck that means. But that fit into the stuff all of you guys were doing. It all had the same attitude. Everybody loves noise and volume. And there was a toughness to it that I think every one of the bands had.

Hazel Archer Ginsberg: The guys in the band were all very skilled in their craft. They studied in college, classical and jazz and blues. Everybody was really good with their instruments. I didn't know anything about it. I became this punky kind of raw thing. It had a jazz feel, but the lyrics and everything were very political, very feminist, Goddess-oriented. 

I wasn't singing, I was more screaming. Which I regret, because I can sing. I wish I would have used my voice more, but at that time, it was more of an expression than thinking about making it beautiful. But the music was really quite complex, and it stands up today.

Michael Pettis: Borbetomagus used to clear the club. They were the most radical noise band, two saxophones and electric guitar. But I loved them, so I would book them anyway.

An ad in the Village Voice for a benefit show for SIN Club at Peppermint Lounge (Courtesy of Carolyn Master)

"That Was Really Precious"

The club closed after a police raid in October 1983. The Living Theatre rented the vacant storefront in 1989, the first permanent home the radical theater troupe had had since they returned from exile in 1983. It was closed down by the Fire Department in the spring of 1993. 

The old SIN Club is now a dry cleaners.

Seven bands had recorded tracks for a compilation album that they hoped would put the SIN Club scene on the map: two songs each from Live Skull, Ten Hail Marys, Bag People, Health Hen, False Prophets, and Soviet Sex, and a six-minute jam from Sonic Youth. But the project fell through when Max Benkert, who was putting up the money, learned he had terminal leukemia. 

Sonic Youth, the Swans, Live Skull, Rat At Rat R, and False Prophets would all release multiple albums over the next few years. Michael Pettis eventually made his way to Wall Street, where he worked for several years, and is now a professor of finance in Beijing (where he also ran rock clubs from 2006 to 2015).

Michael Pettis: We thought we had our liquor license, and we didn't. The guy who rented to Eric lied. And the cops busted us. I remember we were really bitter, because you could buy as much heroin as you wanted if you walked out the door of the club, but you couldn't buy beer. That's what got you busted.

John was very close to the whole Latino music scene there. What we were told by—I forget what his name was—he said, "Did you pay them?" And we said, "No, we'd be happy to bribe, we just don't know how to do it." And he said, "That's your mistake. You should have paid them." I said, "Tell me how, I'll do it. I just don't know how you go about bribing a cop."

Unfortunately, when we got busted, there were about 10 cops that walked in there, so you couldn't really do a side deal. We should have figured that out beforehand and you know, slipped 50 bucks to somebody every week or something.

Sonda Andersson Pappan: It closed so fast that I don't think a lot of people had a chance to really experience it. Which is really a shame.

Victor Poison-Tete: I think it was important, because at a time when it was difficult for people to get into clubs, Mike and his people were real liberal, pretty open. It wasn't just only "you submit the demo."

Marnie Jaffe: I was probably going through some kind of horrific relationship. But looking back at it, it seems like, regardless of what my personal life was about, there was so much fucking music and great stuff happening around that you could just get lost in it and be motivated by it. That was really precious. 

We had what we could afford to live there and do art. If I was a kid right now, I could never… when would I have time to practice? I’d be just working to just live with 16 other people. Because right now, everybody's well-scrubbed and everything's clean, because nobody can fucking afford… you know. When I moved in, I was paying $125 a month for my apartment. And in Williamsburg, when we first moved there, we paid $600 for 2,000 square feet. 

Michael Pettis: I wish I could say it had a big legacy. I think it brought a lot of musicians together who otherwise might not have spent so much time with each other. But we were around for less than a year. There were already people talking about a SIN Club sound, a SIN Club scene, and we needed a bit more time to lock it into place. It was starting to be the cradle of a scene. 

It was incredibly exciting. There really was that sense of ferment. It was a fucking great time. That's about all you can ask for.

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