Sunday, October 15, 2006

Punked

Back in the mid-to-late 1970's popular music was in a very bad place. Rock 'n Roll had gotten so bloated from success, the righteousness of 1960's youth now drug-tolled rock star entitlement. God bless the art rockers, but by the millionth concept album and noodling perversion of Chuck Berry into "Rock" without the Roll opened the door to two new forms whose success wasn't, for the first time, made on the radio.

On one side you had Disco, a wealth of independently made dance records breaking out in the clubs, those Friday and Saturday nights fevers. On the other side you had the singles, more than half of them imported from England, and LP's bought at those satellite independent record stores that disseminated Punk Rock in America.

At the heart of it all, including the bands like The Ramones that toured England starting July 4, 1976 and directly inspired the future Sex Pistols and Clash in their audiences, was that skankhole of a club in the then threatful heart of New York City, The Bowery.

Tonight, CBGB closed.

For 33 years legendary owner Hilly Kristal, now 75 years-old, has managed to keep the place open, but it's gentrification City now and The Patti Smith Band, the first act to make it big out of the 1975 ignited scene, played out the last night. It's painful not to have been there, or for Deborah Harry and Chris Stein's solo acoustic set last night. Those two are, 'course, the core of Blondie, which was the group to make it the biggest from the original gang, and the act to first get the notion that Punk and Disco were on Parallel Lines.

Richard Hell, best known for his name fronting The Voidoids ("Love Comes in Spurts") but originally in the 5-man starter version of Television, the officially first band to play the new sound at the venue, has a nice elegy in the NY Times. He writes:
On practically any weekend from 1974 to 76 you could see one or more of the following groups (here listed in approximate chronological order) in the often half-empty 300-capacity club: Television, the Ramones, Suicide, the Patti Smith Group, Blondie, the Dictators, the Heartbreakers, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and the Dead Boys. Not to mention some often equally terrific (or equally pathetic) groups that aren'’t as well remembered, like the Miamis and the Marbles and the Erasers and the Student Teachers. Nearly all the members of these bands treated the club as a headquarters --— as home. It was a private world. We dreamed it up. It flowered out of our imaginations.

The behemoth pop record industry didn't make Punk, it was a bunch of outsiders in their teens and twenties.

I'll never forget the day I took my earnings from dishwashing at The Honeybee Diner next door to Recordtown at Delaware Shopping Center in Delmar, NY, and bought two new records. The first was Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Works Vol. 2.

The other was Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols.

Guess which record I sold used a year later.

Guess which record changed history.

Back then we never imagined the impact what fast became "our music" would have on global culture. Or, more correctly, we originally imagined every kid in America would instantly hear the call and, like was happening in England, instantly upend the rock industry hegemony, toss out the dinosaur bands and make way for the new tunes, the truth.

It didn't happen that quickly. Patti Smith found the Punk/New Wave ceiling on the charts at #14 with "Because the Night" (and this co-written with Bruce Springsteen). FM stations that sufficiently, even enthusiastically aired the first breakthroughs like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello switched formats reactionary style after the six months when the first records first were rolling out at the big labels, if even. In my high school, Punk Rock was called "Fag Rock" by the jocks who turned up their Led Zepellin.

It took half a generation for the movement to percolate through the culture. In 1991, Nirvana's Nevermind became ostensibly the first legitimate "Punk" album to hit #1, and in 1994 Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction became the first Punk sensibility-infused movie everybody went to see. Both works were D.I.Y. and carried on the trademark edge. If I have to define it for you, you won't understand.

I count myself fortunate enough to have seen so many of those seminal CBGB bands, some multiple times -- Patti Smith, Ramones, Talking Heads, Television all different places from Albany, NY in 1978 to San Francisco 2001 -- and, having run to Manhattan straight after college, spent a number of memorable nights at CBGB in the 1980's, maybe the third wave.

Earlier this year I was in NYC, having heard of their imminent demise, and had enough time to beeline by CBGB during the day. The doors were open (Hilly was out) and while there were a few changes in the sixteen-odd years since my last encounter, it couldn't have been more the same place. There was an undermanaged coffeeshop/t-shirt and fashion items store next door, and in the joint itself several hundred additional layers of graffiti and dried sweat. The same almost non-existent backstage (the green room is just three walls open on the narrow hallway) and long, woody bar. The same small, half-elevated stage and long, ungenerous audience pit. The same odor of beer, beer, beer.

I was in a sportscoat and slacks, dressed for some biz meeting and, fittingly, on the way front from backstage I ran across a family from Austin, TX doing the same memory trip as me, dad and mom and two tween boys in shorts. Turns out the father, maybe a little younger than me, was a huge Ramones fan, his wife told me first. I stepped onto the stage on my way through and their two towheads did the same. The guy and I reminisced about great bands, a little on Austin where Punk Rock also helped propel me for six months in 1984, all good stuff, but we were feeling eulogy.

It's a safe bet everyone feels some sort of bittersweetness for their youth; bitter for it being gone, sweetness for having experienced something worth a pine or two. I hate to valorize our moment over any other, but it was the last time a newly infectious rock & roll form was a threat. Now bankers blast Green Day and my 3-year-old isn't the only one with a Ramones shirt. Their catalog generates more royalties than ever, with "Blitzkrieg Bop" licensed all over TV and Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" used in two separate TV commercial campaigns. Punk has obviously influenced fashion, motion pictures, critical thinking, political activism. Most of the bands are gone now, but their sound is more contemporary than ever, because back then they were clamoring to blast out of the past and invent the future.

Owner Kristal is salvaging as much of the interior as he can, including the urinals (nice!) in a plan to reopen CBGB in Las Vegas, where he's already receiving the help of the L.V. Mayor, something about a new walking district, probably a brilliant idea. Vegas' wealth is making it America's museum of choice anyway, and I can't imagine it couldn't book bands, do a profitable business, and smell a hell of a lot better than the original.

But until proven otherwise, it's tangential to the movement, to core of which is an attitude for which everyone owes Hilly so much for opening his doors to, an attitude that hopefully infuses Nettertainment and to which we do no disservice.

Yes, times have changed, but what seemed revolutionary then seems necessary now. Hell, if Hilly makes good on his promise to reopen in Vegas with the original urinals, and I have some godforsaken reason to be in that town, I'll make a beeline.

After all, as the Ramones told us right at the start:

"Hey! Ho! Let's go!"

4 comments:

Erika Schickel said...

Leave it to Nettertainment to do the right eulogy for CBGB. While I haven't exactly done a Nexus search for articles, so far I have seen a dearth of obits for the legendary club.
While I myself spent many happy nights moshing on their dance floor, I am most proud of the fact that I actually performed on their stage a time or two. Yes, I played backup on "Tears of a Clown" on a toy sax as part of the now lost-forever, but of-its-moment band "Pianosaurus," fronted by the also seemingly lost-forever but once-genius Alex Garvin. It was 1984 and Pianosaurus was an all-toy band with one album on Rounder records. Our CB's gigs would invariably end with "Wild Thing" and Alex smashing his little plastic guitar in a Who-like frenzy. We frequently played with the now-forgotten band, "You Suck," who I sometimes joined. John Hall fronted and the band was famous for crowding the stage with dozens of people doing things shittily, like a guy endlessly not solving a Rubiks Cube, etc. I think I tried to crochet, or something. The gigs would culminate in everyone in the club screaming "You Suck!" until we left the stage.
Anyway, Hilly booked us several times, though it was always an exasperating prospect, as Hilly was a generally recalcitrant, uncommunicative guy. Given to fits of pique and surliness. But it all worked. In those pre-gentrified days you had to step over many a Bowery bum as you loaded in, and get some trustworthy, burly dude to see you to a cab after. The smell of piss and beer still lingers in my nose, sort of a punk-rock Madeline cookie of remembrance. Good times, good times... R.I.P. CBGB's.

Mark Netter said...

Wow, yours is the best eulogy I've read, Schicky! How could I have missed "You Suck"?

There's a band that deserves a comeback!!

Anonymous said...

One additional note: John Hall of "You Suck" went on to semi- fame with "King Missile", having a mid-nineties hit, "Detachable Penis" that I think was popularized by Beavis and Butthead - though I don't have confirmation on that.
Alex Garvin is sadly MIA.

Mark Netter said...

Nice additional info.

I wish I remember who the hell I saw at the club. Glug glug.