David Bowie's secret recording studio 'The Magic Shop' closes after 28 years

Founder Steve Rosenthal - who has worked with everyone from Lou Reed to Norah Jones - said he has been forced out by sky-high Soho rents

Rachael Revesz
New York
Thursday 25 February 2016 17:32 GMT
Steve Rosenthal, 62, remembers the "old days" of New York in the 1990s
Steve Rosenthal, 62, remembers the "old days" of New York in the 1990s

There is nothing about the building behind the grey metal door covered in graffiti on Manhattan’s Crosby Street to draw attention.

A small white buzzer has come loose, and an even smaller white label beneath it - “The Magic Shop” - give little clue that inside is one of the oldest and most famous recording studios in the city.

Perhaps the low key, down-to-earth vibe is what drew David Bowie to the building to record his last two albums.

Since 1998 a “who’s who” of music’s great and good have made pilgrimages to Crosby Street. They include Bowie, Lou Reed, Noah Jones, Suzanne Vega, Foo Fighters and the Ramones.

The sad news is that arguably New York’s greatest music institution is closing on 16 March, forced out by the sky-high rents of Soho.

When The Independent visited this week, wearing a black hooded jumper and jeans, on a couch in one of studio’s siderooms, Debbie Harry, lead singer of new wave and punk group Blondie, was scribbling lyrics on a pad.

“I’ve never been one of the studio owners to go in there and tell stories of the old days or whatever,” said Steve Rosenthal, founder and owner of Magic Shop. “People are coming here, they’re under a lot of pressure, they want it to be great, the last thing they need is some dude going in there and babbling.”

The four-time Grammy winning producer led the way through the building’s narrow web of corridors stuffed with boxes and recording equipment. In a basement room of the building, he explained that Crosby Street in the lawless New York of the 1980s was a dangerous place to work. Musicians were also put off by his vintage gear, including a 1970s neve console that he had shipped over from the BBC Maida Vale studios in London.

“When I opened here it was during what I call the squeaky girl, Madonna craze, and people didn’t need live rooms to record,” he said.

But soon people were beating a path to his door. One of the first major artists to book a room was Charles Brown and Dr John who recorded a blues track, “All My Life”, in 1991.

“I remember looking at the tape machine and thinking – you better freaking work,” he said.

Within the span of a year, another four artists helped make the studio’s name: Lou Reed (Magic and Loss), Suzanne Vega (99.9F), the Ramones (Mondo Bizarro) and Sonic Youth (Dirty). In 1992 came Nirvana, setting a “long, fruitful” run of six to seven years at The Magic Shop and a strong friendship between Mr Rosenthal and Dave Grohl, one-time Nirvana drummer and frontman of Foo Fighters.

Facing debts and increasing rents, Mr Rosenthal said Mr Grohl helped keep the studio afloat, paying around $50,000 towards costs and bidding - unsuccessfully - to buy the building.

“The more the neighbourhood gets co-op’d and condo’d, the artists get pushed out. It’s accelerated over the last 10 years,” said Mr Rosenthal.

The 62-year-old has been struggling financially “for the past few years” with his family business - he and his wife Jennifer Gilson also own music venue The Livingroom in Brooklyn - which has also moved from Manhattan due to high rents.

And what of Bowie, whose death in January prompted an international outpouring of grief? The British singer had been “incredibly gracious and friendly” during the recording of his last two albums, “The Next Day” and “Blackstar”, at the studio, said Mr Rosenthal.

As he so often did, the unpredictable Mr Bowie gave little indication when the albums would be released. Mr Rosenthal said The Magic Shop was on “lockdown”, and all staff were required to sign non-disclosure agreements, working in secret on the 2013 “The Next Day” album for 80 days. Mr Rosenthal only found out about its release when his wife saw the news on Facebook.

“There were many times when I went into the studio during "The Next Day" and talked to [producer] Tony Visconti, and I’d say: “Well?” and he would say, “I don’t know, we’ll see”. It could have just ended up being a secret that we had and that no one knew about,” said Mr Rosenthal.

For "Blackstar", Mr Bowie arrived up at the studio for one week in January, February and March last year, and again the staff were forbidden to say a word.

“I got the record the day it came out and it was amazing to listen to it; it’s so dark and I really didn’t understand it - and clearly after he passed what the record was about and what he was trying to say became so clear,” said Mr Rosenthal.

After an inauspicious start in 1988, when the studio was often empty, The Magic Shop came to face the same problem in 2015. Artists can now record music on their iPads instead of paying $1,300 per day to book a studio. Mr Rosenthal and some of his staff will transfer to another venue in either Manhattan or Brooklyn - he hasn’t found a place yet.

They will, as they have always done, continue restoring old recordings. Mr Rosenthal was nominated for a Grammy this year for Best Historical Album for restoring jazz pianist Errol Garner’s “The Complete Concert By The Sea”, alongside Geri Allen, Jocelyn Arem and Jessica Thompson.

“We lost. To that dude Dylan, whoever he is,” he said, laughing.

Kabir Hermon, the studio manager, popped his head down the door to say the “BBC lady” was on the phone again. Mr Rosenthal scurried out to talk to her.

Mr Hermon, who started at The Magic Shop eight years ago as an intern, was unsure what the future holds.

“It’s hard to get my head around. I knew it was coming for a while but the reality is hard to understand,” he said.

He said he planned to do some work with Mr Rosenthal on the archive projects and then most likely become a travelling sound engineer.

Mr Rosenthal finished his call and headed upstairs to stand by a wall of records that were made in the studio.

“I could probably tell you a story about every single one,” he said.

“I’m incredibly depressed,” he added in his thick, New York accent. “I’ve come here for two marriages and five children. I can’t imagine not coming here every day.”

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