Downer at the Rock and Roll Club

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

Then time and space took over.

What was it like?

How can I tell them—those curious and sure they somehow missed out and bemoaning that it's not like that anymore, now spread over several continents, who weren't there back in the Where and When and Who that really it was just another and another and another night of hanging out, as much loitering on the sidewalk shooting the breeze with your pals or having another beer or trailing that perfect punk rock gal or, well, Richard Hell chronicled it so much better in song with the Voidoids' "Down at the Rock and Roll Club." The Heartbreakers described it as living on a Chinese rock. Television proved it neath the Marquee Moon, and the Ramones were living car-tune proof. The Dead Boys and Talking Heads felt the magnet from the various outré states they inhabited and migrated toward a locus of energy. And yet, it was my local, and for a while, and maybe always, it was that place to play, whether you were on- or offstage.

photo: Ofer Wolberger


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  • The stage itself was a low-slung affair in the beginning, off to the side by the left as you walked in, with a pool table beyond that, where they would build the new stage and a proper sound system, and a back dressing room where Hilly slept with his pack of salukis. There was initially a kitchen (!), where the later dressing room would reside, serving hamburgers prepared by Hilly's wife, Karen. Hardly anyone ate them. The bands in the early days would alternate a pair of sets a night, playing mostly to their friends in the other bands. There were lots of hopes and dreams, but the distance between their aspirations and the realities of the audience beyond Manhattan had already been judged an unbridgeable chasm by the Dolls' inability to fill the space between both coasts; the lone time the Ramones opened for Johnny Winter in Connecticut proved a harrowing experience for band and audience alike.<

    Despite press interest, the scene was insular, self-contained, and left well enough alone so that all the bands had the forgiving time to make their mistakes, tune their tunes, fall apart and reform onstage, learning in the crucible of performance how to bring the subtleties of their ideas to fruition. As ideas each of them were, as Tom Verlaine pointed out, stylistically dissimilar though united by an underlying intelligence born of New York's cultural petri dish of primordial avant media—literary, cinematic, theatrical. Self-conscious, to be sure, as they inserted themselves into tradition and purposeful rejuvenation, yet dogged in their determination to get it right. Lumped together as punk, a sensibility not yet stylized into Ramonic thrum-and-drang and exported to an England skilled at packaging youth subculture, the various bands of CBGB's first generation brought a fresh sensibility to a rock and roll that, as always, needed to be reminded why it began in the first place. That those three chords can be made yours, regardless of what came before or had already been figured out—that sweet spot where the mutant gene, be it Pitney or Vincent or Genie, dives into the pool.

    What was it like?p>

    Hilly Kristal strums his way through, oh, let’s say "I Wanna Be Sedated" at CBGB in 1990.
    photo: Ebet Roberts

    You had to be there, and if it was a- happening, there you were, though because it was so happening, you weren't thinking or even appreciating it much, just living in the groove of its moment, not wondering how its movement into legend was influencing and inspiring and creating waves that soon found a CBGB in every major city, each with its own roster of local bands and camp followers. For when the first wave of CBGB bands signed their contracts and went off on their individual odysseys—some to fame and some to spectacular flame-out—that to me is when the club became the rallying cry that it is today, the pledge of allegiance hailed in the wearing of the souvenir T-shirt, the icon enjoying its third-of-a-century lifeline, a hallowed shrine and a stopover for the tour bus, whether an on-the-roadeo band that wants to take its territorial piss on a sacred stage or a sightseeing double-decker traveling down the corridor of glass box real estate that has become CBGB's neighborhood.

    As more and more bands used it as a launchpad and touchstone, CBGB trumped its golden age. The sheer mass and variety of its booking policy—new wave and no wave and hardcore and softcore and the purely pop and mom—kept rock and roll's promise alive and shitkicking. Strolling by on any random night, I could poke my head in and sit by the back of the bar and neck a Red Stripe and see if the onstage combination could lure me to the front of the proscenium, where I might bang my head in time and maybe even mosh into the pit if there was one, as the Bad Brains induced me to do one blessedly bruised night in the mid '80s. Rock and its kissin' cousin, Roll, may have slivered into ever smaller slices of style and genre, but Hilly and Louise, his booking partner, never discriminated, holding an open door to any band willing to take a chance. If you could draw a couple of your friends, then maybe you could move from audition night to late Tuesday, and then opening on Thursday, and maybe even eventual superstardom, and it didn't matter, because CBGB was all rock all the time. The club's longevity and significance as, yes, an institution are remarkable in the short attention span of cities, where the cannibalism of urban life covers layer after archaeological layer of debris and discard.

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