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.

photo: Ofer Wolberger

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.

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.

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>

image
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.


"You can't put your arms around a memory," sang one of the club's most famous alumni, Johnny Thunders. And pretty soon, within a month or so, neither will you be able to sit in CB's dark and down-homey environs and see what dysfunction-at-the-junction has enough nerve to get up on stage and test its mettle. To speak of an era ending is to witness the passing of the classic Manhattan rock dive, a tradition that probably has now truly slid into historywith the imminent demise of the Continental,and before that Coney Island High, and the Scrap Bar/Cat Club, and the long line of other watering holes that were as much hangouts as performance spaces. (There's always Don Hill's!) The question of whether CB's is still "relevant" is out of the question—ask the band playing there tonight. Feedback exists as long as you hold the guitar in front of the speaker, and the amplifier spits back its own call-and-response.

I'll miss the joint, even if it moves down the street or becomes a theme restaurant based in Las Vegas, or just exists as an impetus to re-create its root system in another exotic locale. It doesn't have to be rock and roll. The shape of music never stands still—all it needs is a place to grow, like an invasive spore invading an ecosystem once thought sacrosanct. Let there be many CBGBs, each with its emblazoned T-shirt and wannabe hordes, ready to overturn the past. Be careful what you wish for; it just might come full circle.


CBGB's string of high-profile bon voyage shows will continue well into October, cbgb.com.

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