Rockers, horror-film freaks and penny-pinching lowlifes, lend me your ears: New York City’s most louche heavy-metal bar has relocated once more. Where has this head-banging haven gone? To an ill-lit South Williamsburg block, a stumble from the screeching elevated train, inside a sooty building sporting lurid neon advertising—with two emphatic exclamation points—THRILLS!!
“Welcome to Duff’s,” says Jimmy Duff, the dive’s stupendously goateed, hearse-driving owner. He sidles up to the bar, as white as a Republican convention, bends his inked arms and surveys the snake-skinny room: slasher-flick posters, an Elvis bust, autographed memorabilia and DJ booth turned demented shrine to B-movie monsters and Duff’s septuagenarian mascot, former customer Dancin’ Dominick—a deceased postal worker who loved drinking and arthritis-defying gyrations.
Duff orders a Coors Light. Takes a sip. “It feels like home,” he proclaims. For Duff, home is mutable. The peripatetic proprietor has spent a decade transporting his kitschy cache, chugga-chugga jukebox and whiskey-slurping mayhem across the metropolis.
In 1999, he co-opened Hell’s Kitchen’s infamous Bellevue, where TVs played retch-worthy porn, Rob Zombie hosted Headbanger’s Ball, hookers chugged hooch and winos broke windows like clockwork.
“I call that the bum tax,” Duff says, recalling the gritty locale. Eventually, Duff burned out on Port Authority debauchery.
So in 2005, he decamped to a gnat-size Williamsburg checkcashing shop near the East River. “If the old location was Siberia, then this was the North Pole,” Duff says. Distance was no deterrent: “Not to be corny,” Duff says, “but the people that wanted to be there really wanted to be there.”
Every couple weeks, I’d hit Duff’s for a buck PBR, a Type-O Negative infusion and to watch footage of Dominick’s jerky, entrancing dance. Duff’s was a dirty port in Williamsburg’s swankifying storm, a filthy refuge where cursing at bartenders was encouraged and the unisex toilet could breed bubonic plague. Duff’s Two, however, was doomed from Day One. “It was always temporary,” Duff says. “I thought it’d last three years, then it’d be torn down.” One year passed, then two, then three, with countless buildings kissing the wrecking ball. Windy Kent Avenue’s winds of change brought condos—and no quarter for metal sleaze.
“I saw the writing on the wall,” Duff says, as he embarked on a years-long search for more permanent digs. He surveyed 30-plus spots, from Hell’s Kitchen to Williamsburg, during New York’s real estate gold rush. Landlords wanted mucho moolah, or offered super-short leases. “One place we wanted now has a psychic,” Duff says disdainfully, “with psychic spelled wrong. Another time we went into contract, going back-and-forth with the landlord for about four months. Finally, he stopped returning my calls. I guess he saw our website”—an orgy of heavy metal, heaving cleavage and liquor-soaked desire—“and freaked out. He was a born-again Christian.”
God, though, couldn’t keep Duff from South Fifth Street. When he surveyed defunct DJ lounge Boogaloo, the chips clinked into place. The landlord dug his concept.
Upstairs lived several old Bellevue regulars. And a built-out bar meant no permit hassles. “I said, this is it. It’s back to civilization”—rather, easy subway access.
Duff spent months arranging his collection of curios, keeping the new location clandestine. “The bartenders were in the cone of silence,” Duff says. Instead of shuttering the check-cashing location, Duff instead transformed it into rocker hangout The Bunker. And then, come December, he blew open the doors to Duff’s (168 Marcy Ave.betw.South 5th St.& Broadway, Brooklyn; no phone).
Fans of his bygone filth holes will be dazed and confused. “Most people say, ‘Holy shit,’” Duff says. “That’s good. We wanted to create something totally new.”The bar’s gleaming and glossy, lacking vomit, spilled-beer stench or the threat of staph infection. “Bars are like people. They get distinct personalities as time goes by,” Duff says, assuring me that grime will come quickly and messily.
My cleanliness quibbles overlook the positives: There’s quadruple the space, booths and seating aplenty. The bartenders remain brassy and busty, and the jukebox still thrashes. “Even the drink prices are the same,” Duff says, sipping his beer. PBRs, blissfully, are still a buck until 9. “I don’t think we’ve raised our prices in a decade.What makes a dive bar is prices. Even if you’re serving beer out of a port-a-john, it’s dirt-cheap drinks that attract a cast of characters.”
Though Duff is thrilled with his new metal mother ship, he knows nothing’s permanent in New York. If this incarnation should shutter, then it’s time to move on, to reinvent again. “I have a couple more bars in me after this one,” Duff says, as raucous tuneage cranks to 11, customers double-fist Pabst. “It’s my calling.”