Preservation Scuzz

Hey hey punky way: How CBGB and New Orleans increase a skeptic's respect for history

I got scooped by Jon Pareles in the Times two months ago, which was just what I wanted. The headline, "You Want Punk Rock? Close CBGB, Say Goodbye," enraged the club's supporters, and irritated Pareles: "I don't advocate shutting down clubs that have live music, especially ones that sound that good." But even thus softened his argument was high ground in the latest flood of musical sentimentality to engulf the Manhattan real estate market. From the moment the eviction threats started, the notion that CBGB should be preserved in amber tripped my nostalgia alarm, which is tuned so fine it goes off after two notes by Solomon Burke. But I love CB's as I've never loved any other joint, and didn't look forward to pointing out in print, as Pareles did, that it hadn't broken a significant act in decades—or adding, as Pareles didn't, that even if CBGB could sidestep rent inflation in its once scuzzy 'hood, the young bohos who make bands go could not. Once the focus of a geographical scene, it can never be more than the symbol of a sensibility.

Then Wesleyan '87 Muzzy Rosenblatt, whose homeless organization is CBGB's landlord, officially canceled the lease on September 1, and suddenly I felt nostalgic even though the battle would drag on. So I plunked down 25 struggle-supporting bucks to see a few of the hardcore bands whose Sunday matinees I gave up on back when CB's stopped breaking acts. For five minutes I was fascinated by Verbal Abuse singer Niki Siki, whose eyes got huger in his broad, tight-skinned skull as he speed-ranted all intense and tuneless from my side of 40. But half an hour took forever and soon I was gone, just like at those matinees. What I took away was a freshened physical memory—the long space bright in back and aglow up front but dark in the middle, the crud-encrusted floor and poster-impastoed walls, the loud, clear sound. I sure didn't want the place to close. But like Pareles, I never had. I just didn't see making a cause out of it. All that is solid melts into air.

Even as Niki Siki was bellowing "Disintegration" and "Free Money," however, Katrina was aimed at New Orleans. A week later I caught the Scene Is Now—a band more venerable than Verbal Abuse that currently includes my moonlighting brother-in-law on trumpet—across from CB's at the Bowery Poetry Club. They closed with a "House of the Rising Sun" that for me was most wrenching during the trumpet solo, and I began thinking about old frame buildings under water, and CBGB's walls.

Allen Toussaint, the Big Easy's greatest popmeister
photo: Michael Weintrob
Allen Toussaint, the Big Easy's greatest popmeister

Details

Allen Toussaint
The Allen Toussaint Collection
Reprise/Wea
Stream "Southern Nights"
Stream "Happiness" (Windows Media)

Verbal Abuse
Just An American Band
Beer City Records
Stream "Leeches"
(Windows Media)
Stream "Social Insect" (Windows Media)

I've only visited New Orleans three times, in the '70s for the food and vibe and in 1995 to profile P.J. Harvey. I love Professor Longhair and Fats Domino and Huey Smith and all of Allen Toussaint's creatures, I call Louis Armstrong the greatest artist of the 20th century, and I've had a ball at Preservation Hall. But I note that neither Wynton Marsalis nor Mannie Fresh, its most important musicians of the modern era, fits onto 2004's willfully unchronological four-CD Professors, Kings & Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans, which promulgates the tourist-industry myth that New Orleans music is all one thing and all good. Although New Orleans is the wellspring of American music if anywhere is, and although the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival gets more credible raves than most such zoos, the city is kind of like CBGB the way it rests on its musical laurels.

But that doesn't mean I'm about to hold my tongue while profiteers transform it into what one canny survivor calls "Six Flags Bourbon Street." As of 1995, the place was an advertisement for nostalgia like none I've encountered on this continent. Even the French Quarter was a mixed-use neighborhood with decaying housing stock and a low-income component, and—though I never glimpsed the projects that generated N.O. Bounce, at once the most brutal and sprightly of gangsta variants—the entire city felt mutually supportive in a way that jibed with oft-told tales of generation-spanning Mardi Gras krewes. Even if David Remnick hadn't reported that many evacuees are so embittered and disempowered they expect never to return, I wouldn't believe that kind of social infrastructure could be re-created, especially with its physical correlative rotted away. Nevertheless, I reserve the right to shed a tear when it isn't. New Orleans offers clear proof of how enlivening the presence of history can be. Soon, CBGB would too.

At the club September 14, the Dandy Warhols' Courtney Taylor-Taylor mused about forebears: "Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie—it's amazing to think they all came through this shithole." Despite his "completely shot" falsetto, the Dandys put on a show, and the shithole helped—I've seen both Sleater-Kinney and Pavement rev it up on nights they made a symbolic stop at 315 Bowery. Then on September 24 I checked out militant rap-rock six-piece One Day Left, precisely amped power trio Attacking Frequencies, and the nerdy, excitable Band (or was it Banned?), whose giveaway title was "Punk Rock Mom." None are likely to make any kind of history except their own, but all were more engrossing than Verbal Abuse. Though some disparage Hilly Kristal's open-door, share-the-door booking, a tryout showcase has its own cultural uses. It's a different kind of preservation hall.

Fact is, when Central Park SummerStage donated a benefit night to the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic September 28, the music wasn't so hot either. "Baton Rouge" met "Dirty Boulevard" in Lou Reed's strong, short set, and Detroiter Bettye LaVette—who did "Saints" as a slow soul anthem, sharp—distinguished herself. But Soulive, who as a fusion band are a fair-to-middling backup band, previewed their album, which does not include the Corey Glover–Vernon Reid "It's Your Thing" that stuck out so. I didn't care that much, though, partly because, singing or playing fills, Allen Toussaint—the Big Easy's greatest popmeister, whose solo work has too often rendered live-and-let-live sententious—had proved so much live-er than his records. As I lolled in the too empty bleachers with one ear on the ballgame, it was all good.

Making your own history is important work. It's a trip to hear your brother-in-law pour his heart into a solo. And when the clinic doctor talked about providing services to any musician great or small, I said right on sister.

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