He Will Rock You, Noise Complaints or Not

"If I have recourse, I’m gonna use it,” said Richard (Handsome Dick) Manitoba.

The owner of the eponymously named Manitoba’s bar on Avenue B isn’t sitting quietly after being so rudely shushed by upstairs neighbors to the tune of $6,400 in fines.

On March 27, Mr. Manitoba and his lawyer are scheduled to appear before the city’s Environmental Control Board to challenge two recent noise citations, which forced the former rock singer turned tavern operator to pull the plug on his bar’s popular live-music night.

Depending on the outcome of that hearing, the onetime front man of the proto-punk band the Dictators might further thrust the dispute into the mosh pit of Manhattan Civil Court.

“Right now, my attitude is: The battle is lost, but the war rages on,” said Mr. Manitoba, who recently signed a new 10-year lease at 99 Avenue B.

The 53-year-old entrepreneur, born Richard Blum, has sued over far less serious threats to his rockin’ livelihood. In 2004, he reportedly smacked another musician with a federal lawsuit for performing under the trademarked name “Manitoba,” a brand seemingly infringed by every map of Canada.

The noise issue poses a more present danger to the bar. Without the bands, the bar has done rather lousy business, Mr. Manitoba said. “If you take my last night of live music—what I grossed—I haven’t made that much in the past three weeks added up.”

Until last month, live music had always been an integral component to Mr. Manitoba’s boozy juke joint. When the bar first opened almost a decade ago, the venue scheduled performers virtually every night of the week.

In recent years, however, the bar has dramatically scaled back on the level of live entertainment, on account of changing neighborhood sentiment toward loud music—er, any noise in general. According to a New York Post report last summer, the densely liquor-licensed East Village and Lower East Side area generates the second-highest number of noise complaints citywide.

“Because of the way the neighborhood has changed, it’s a very tough thing to get away with live music seven days a week,” Mr. Manitoba said.

Portraying himself as a good neighbor, an East Village resident living just a few blocks away from the bar, and even an occasional attendee at local community-board meetings, Mr. Manitoba said he’s tried to appease neighborhood sensibilities by limiting live music at Manitoba’s to a single night a week, for a period of two to three hours, ending at 10 p.m. sharp.

“It was basically the last-gasp effort of keeping some sort of vestige of live music,” he said, “because you can’t go much earlier than that. And then you can’t really go much later than that. It’s just a different neighborhood.”

In recent years, some new neighbors whom Mr. Manitoba has never met moved into the co-op building above the bar. Though other upstairs residents sometimes hang out at Manitoba’s—according to the bar owner, one apartment dweller sometimes even performs—complaints about the Monday-night jam sessions seemed to coincide with the arrival of the newcomers, he said.

Since 2002, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection has received a total of eight noise complaints at Manitoba’s address. The past two inspections resulted in citations.

On Oct. 23, 2006, a D.E.P. officer measured the music coming from Manitoba’s as reaching 53 decibels in an upstairs apartment—roughly equivalent to the sound of moderate rainfall, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, yet still exceeding the city’s legal 45-decibel threshold.

More recently, on Feb. 12, the bands’ volume from above reached 65 decibels, according to the D.E.P.—a level of sound falling somewhere between a dishwasher and a vacuum cleaner.

Slapped with two “very expensive” tickets, Mr. Manitoba said he had no choice but to call off live-music nights for the indefinite future.

“As a survival method, I just cut the music immediately,” he said. “If I get a multiple batch of tickets, I basically have to close down my business.”

The subsequent downturn in booze revenues has prompted the embattled operator to at least think about seeking damages. Mr. Manitoba told Counter Espionage that he was determined to fight a system in which “a neighbor can cripple a legal business with a phone call.”

A message posted on the bar’s MySpace page last month indicated that the bar was gathering information from bands who had performed at Manitoba’s dating back to September 2006 to calculate potential financial losses caused by “a neighbor couple that seems to have ignored the fact they purchased their apartment at an extremely low price because they live directly above a Rock N Roll bar that features live music!!”

Not to mention the rather noisy neighborhood surrounding the bar.

When D.E.P. officials take noise measurements of potentially offending businesses, they also take separate readings of the ambient sound around it.

At last reading, the background noise above Manitoba’s—minus the live music—reached 43 decibels, just two shy of the legal-infraction level unto itself.

He Will Rock You, Noise Complaints or Not