Downer at the Rock and Roll Club

As CBGB takes its victory laps, a lifer reminisces about the death of an era

I have stood upon this stage before.

It's always the same ritual unfolding, load-in to load-out, sound check to sonic overload, visiting the stations of the rock-and-roll cross. Hauling the equipment in past the pinball machine. Positioning the amplifier on the splintered stage. Tuning the guitar, hearing the first chord seep into walls that have been tempered to the sound of electric noise. Shouting into the microphone, knowing it's never going to approximate the rebound of the audience throwing it back at you, after you've waited backstage for hours in that cramped lean-to of a dressing room with no door—somehow fitting in a club of such an egalitarian nature—and illegible layers of band stickers and graffiti letting you know who else has done their time here, a grand continuum. Straining to hear your-self over the treble pierce of the monitors, the drummer's snare cracking at your own eardrums. The lights burning into you, the crowd—and it could well be you out there—daring you to top yourself. Suicide or transcendence, take your pick, guitar or ax.

How many bands and musicians have done the same, I wonder? Estimate 30 bands a week, multiply it by 33 years, averaging out nights when would-be combos no-showed (they broke up in the van coming through the Holland Tunnel, the drummer quit because the guitarist hit on his girlfriend, they were too drunk to find the fucking place) and hardcore "festivals" with a multitude of performers (stage divers yet to be apportioned), counting repeat offenders, subtracting a few from the early years when the club featured only a couple of bands, adding more during the glory years especially if you were in the group or on the guest list, the whole not weighted by prominence or audience draw, all equal from audition night to the prime half-past-midnight spot on Saturday, with 15 percent going to the club off the top.

What's that, 50,000 bands? Maybe 200,000 band members multiplied by three chords? You could ask founder-mastermind Hilly Kristal, but then most nights he goes home early, before the mayhem starts.

Give the man credit. He let it happen. Though his original idea, carted over from Hilly's in the West Village, where he was general manager, was to feature Country, Blue Grass, and Blues, it was only retroactively that he realized he was uttering the alchemical formula for rock and roll. Add a little OMFUG and a biker-and-bum bar underneath the Palace Hotel, perpendicular to Bleecker Street as it collided with skid row, and he had his newfound mecca, off the beaten paths of the East and West Villages, situated on a forgotten stretch of crossroads that still had a frontier aura even though it was only a few short blocks from anywhere in the art colony of Lower Manhattan. There was little street traffic, except for those already lying in the ridge between curb and gutter; it was out of the way, in more ways than one, and it gave Hilly, and the bands that would use his stage as a framing device and mirror, a venue to figure out who they might be, beyond anyone's expectation, Hilly's included.

He opened in December 1973. Though he couldn't have planned it, it was the perfect moment for a new rock joint, especially one that relied on local talent playing original music. This may seem far-fetched for anyone who has lately perused the entertainment pages of this bohemian hometown rag, but turn-of-the-'70s New York had become a hard place to find footing for a band, ever since the glory years of the post-folk Greenwich Village Night Owl scene. Even the Velvet Underground mostly played outside the city of their birth until they provided a summer's worth of dancing entertainment at Max's Kansas City in 1970. Most Manhattan clubs only provided a showcase haven for visiting national acts, or were resolutely still flying the folk flag.

Until, that is, the first New York Dolls poster went up on the wall of Village Oldies on Bleecker Street, where I was working as a record clerk and spinning random discs from the stacks that would eventually coalesce into the original artyfacts of the once-and-future Nuggets. I loved the local impulse, the homegrown and the aspiring, and that moment when desire becomes a yowl and a fuzztone. And so when a glitter scenario started gathering energy from the Dolls' notoriety, crowds lining up to witness them at the Mercer Street Arts Center (not a club) or Club 82 (a butch bar down the street from the La MaMa theater), and suddenly there was a Harlots of 42nd St. and the Brats and Streetpunk (yes, that was a band name in early '73). I frequented the dives that featured them and their camp followers, hailing and celebrating until the Dolls went national and left their scene foundering. Once again, especially with Max's shuttered for a time, there was nowhere to call a clubhouse, unless you aspired to the cabaret lounge-around of Reno Sweeney's, or cross-dressing upstairs (and uptown) at Le Jardin in the Hotel Diplomat.


But the Dolls scene had set a spark. When the members of the nascent Television happened by one afternoon when Hilly was (hardly) refurbishing the Palace Bar, they asked for a chance to play. He made space for them, as well as for the equally nascent brudders known as the Ramones, and the Stilettos (whose blondish member, Debbie Harry, would soon spin off her own group) and the Miamis, and—even though they lacked a drummer and their singer was prone to long narrative storytellings and improvised poetry—the Patti Smith Group, a band I was (and still am) proud to be in. Hilly went with it. Gave it—whatever it might have turned out to be, beyond his own anticipations or even musical sensibilities—a place to play.

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