Overlooked No More: Ruth Polsky, Who Shaped New York’s Music Scene
She booked concerts at influential nightclubs in the 1980s, bringing exposure to up-and-coming artists like the Smiths and New Order.,
This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, New York City’s nightclub scene was vibrant and daring, attracting an eclectic mix of creative types like artists, writers and musicians. It was also predominantly run by men.
A notable exception was Ruth Polsky, who arranged concerts for cutting-edge rock artists, like the Smiths and New Order, at the influential Manhattan clubs Hurrah and Danceteria, whose regulars included Madonna and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Polsky had a knack for finding young talent, and helped both clubs earn a reputation for debuting new artists. Early in their careers, British bands like the Cure and the Specials played American shows at Hurrah, and Madonna performed one of her first-ever live shows at Danceteria, in 1982.
Polsky’s choice of artists was diverse. She booked guitar-driven bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, influential minimalists like Young Marble Giants and challenging genre-busters like Einsturzende Neubauten and the Birthday Party, fronted by Nick Cave.
There were potent, female-led groups, including Au Pairs, a politically-fuelled band from Birmingham, England, and kitschy Pulsallama from New York. She was an early supporter of Ru Paul, who performed with bands in the 1980s. (Ru Paul was occasionally referred to by a friend as Ru Polsky.)
Polsky also arranged the United States premieres of alternative rock bands, many from the United Kingdom, including New Order, the Psychedelic Furs and Simple Minds, whose music eventually became mainstream soundtracks of the 1980s.
“This is the place where anything goes,” Polsky said about Danceteria in a British television interview in the mid-1980s, “from oompah bands to Diamanda Galas to the funkiest thing happening on the street.”
Her inclusive approach welcomed a clientele from all over the city, one that was racially diverse and of varying socioeconomic backgrounds. She turned her clubs into a hub for nonconformists, some of whom, like the actress Debi Mazar and the Beastie Boys, became famous.
“It was kind of weirdos unite,” said Cynthia Sley, a member of Bush Tetras, whom Polsky booked several times. “Everybody who was an outcast from regular society would converge down there.”
Her interactions with musicians went well beyond a professional obligation.
“She was good at her job, and she had people power,” Bernard Sumner, a member of the band New Order, said in an interview. “She could handle people and charm them over.”
And her dealings with performers didn’t end when the shows were over; she often invited them to her West Houston Street apartment to mingle with other musicians.
“It was like a writers’ salon, but for punk rockers,” said Hugo Burnham, a founding member of Gang of Four, a taut British band who played several shows that Polsky booked. “She was the punk rock Dorothy Parker.”
Her style was enhanced by the sort of devotion a loyal friend would show. It was a “mixture of strength and a kind of sisterly, kind of motherly instinct,” said Johnny Marr, a former member of the Smiths, whose first American show was at Danceteria.
“You could stay up until 4 o’clock in the morning with her,” he added, “but then she would make sure that you went out and had a decent breakfast and a warm coat.”
Part of her drive came from frequently being the only woman in the room, interacting with managers, booking agents and club owners who were mostly men.
“She wanted to show that she could make a difference as a woman in a very male-dominated world,” said Howard Thompson, a former record company executive and a friend of Polsky’s.
Ruth Rachel Polsky was born on Dec. 5, 1954, in Toms River, N.J., to Louis and Bertha (Rudnick) Polsky. Her father was an egg distributor, her mother a homemaker. From a young age, Ruthie, as she was called, was an excellent student. By the time she was a teenager, her love of books and writing was matched only by an obsession with music. Her taste, even then, was precocious: In high school, she saw the Doors and Led Zeppelin play live.
Polsky attended Clark University in Massachusetts, where she wrote about music for the school paper. She earned a degree in English literature in 1976 and began writing for Aquarian Weekly, an alternative newspaper in New Jersey, covering up-and-coming music as a contributing editor. She also worked at a magazine publishing company.
In her writing, she championed innovative sounds and encouraged fans to support them.
“Right now, people need to dance,” she wrote in Aquarian Weekly in 1979, “not the well-oiled, machine-like dancing of a bland, conformist half-decade, but the individualistic style of a crazy new era.”
That year, she started booking bands at Hurrah, a club near Lincoln Center, alongside another well-known promoter, Jim Fouratt. Three years later, she moved to Danceteria, a multilevel space in the Flatiron district.
Before long her impact began reaching well beyond New York City. In 1981, Polsky took a handful of American bands, including Bush Tetras, to London to perform for the first time in England. The show was called “Taking Liberties From New York.”
In the United States, bands were able to use the money they earned from the concerts Polsky had arranged to go on national tours, furthering their exposure and success.
“People in Columbus and Madison and Seattle and Minneapolis could see these bands that normally wouldn’t be able to tour America,” said Robert Vickers, a former member of the Go-Betweens, an Australian band that played several shows arranged by Polsky. “It made it possible for these cutting-edge bands, the post-punk bands, that Americans in these smaller cities would never have seen except for Ruth.”
By the summer of 1986, Ms. Polsky had started her own company, S.U.S.S. — for Solid United States Support, a nod to a colloquial British term for astutely figuring something out — to help artists from abroad navigate their careers in America. She was managing bands, too, and writing a memoir about her nightlife adventures.
Polsky died on Sept. 7, 1986, when she was hit by an out-of-control taxi outside the Limelight, a Manhattan club where she had arranged for one of her clients, Certain General, to play that evening. She was 31.
“It just seemed like such an awful waste,” Mr. Sumner said, “because she was on an upward trajectory.”
As alternative music was gaining in popularity, that path might well have included working directly with superstars, her ultimate goal.
“She had the smarts, she had the passion, she had the good taste and she had the nurturing qualities,” said Mr. Marr of the Smiths. “She was tough and really ticked all the boxes to have been really successful with a band.”