On Monday, Kmart on Astor Place in the East Village closed its doors for the last time. For more than two decades, the Kmart at 770 Broadway was a popular shopping destination for both residents of lower Manhattan and those coming in from uptown or the outer boroughs. The Kmart, which was once three floors, had shrunk to two floors by 2018 and now has shuttered for good. Many had memories from when they went there as a child, and others were devastated that the rather affordable department store chain had closed entirely in Manhattan — after the iconic West 34th Street location at Penn Station shuttered in May 2020. There are now only 23 Kmart shops left in the country and only four open in New York.
The legacy of the store, however, goes beyond just the memories of long-time shoppers. In 1997, Irish rock band U2 performed at the Kmart on Astor Place as part of their PopMart Tour in which they poked fun at consumerism and pop culture. U2 announced their tour on 12 February 1997 by holding a news conference at the Kmart, and hundreds of reporters from record companies, newspapers, radio and television stations, and magazines attended. The location of the conference was not revealed until the night before.
U2 assembled their stage in the store’s lingerie department and performed “Holy Joe,” a B-side from their “Discothèque” single released nine days prior. The entire event was broadcast live on television, radio, and the Internet. Following their rather impromptu performance, the band answered questions for a half-hour.
“I can’t quite recall how it got to the idea of taking a supermarket on the road… I remember it making a lot of sense at the time,” Bono jokingly quipped at the event. “As I’m sitting here, I’m trying to think what that [reason] is.”
The PopMart Tour included stadium shows in 66 cities throughout North America and Europe. The band would put on concerts in an additional 12 cities in 1998 throughout Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. Tickets were priced at an average of $50 worldwide. The tour suffered from a notable lack of sponsors, but in markets where the average income was low, tickets were sold for a much lower price.
The concerts began with U2’s remix of M’s “Pop Muzik” played through the PA system, with band members walking through the crowd with bodyguards. Concerts opened with a performance of “Mofo,” followed by “I Will Follow,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” “Gone,” “Last Night on Earth,” and “Until the End of the World.”
According to Mark Satlof, a senior VP at Shore Fire Media, “I was one of the independent publicists working with U2 on the Popmart album and tour. I remember first hearing about the Kmart press conference idea at a big group meeting and thinking how audacious, fun and larger than life it sounded. What a great stunt. As for the press conference itself, the main thing I recall is a sort of raucous crowd of International reporters and the New York Times’ music news reporter standing up to ask a question and identifying himself as something absurd and asking some ‘let’s stick it to U2 questions,’ and how just unprofessional and unhinged that was… After leaving the Times, the writer later gained fame as the author of a popular ‘pickup artist’ book and then as a motivational guru.”
Nancy Chandross, a journalist who was also in attendance tells Untapped New York, the reason was “such excitement in the room. Everyone was surprised by the location and Bono was as ‘Bono’ as he could be, playing it ultra cool in sunglasses, to a packed house of press he brilliantly managed to catch off guard.”
The Kmart on Astor Place was also one of the retail stores still accessible through a subway entrance, similar to Bloomingdale’s on the Upper East Side. Also as Astor Place subway station is a bricked up entrance to the former Clinton Hall and a replica of the original IRT subway entrances. While the Kmart store on Astor Place may have closed, the store’s legacy as the site of a major event in music history will remain in the hearts of music enthusiasts and local historians for at least the next few decades.
Next, check out the Patti Smith Trail in NYC from Tompkins Square Park to CBGB!