International Writers Magazine: Reality Check
Down in Vineland there's a clubhouse,
Girl in white dress, boy shoot white stuff
Oh, don't you know that anyone can join
And they come and they call and they fall on the floor
- Patti Smith
Contrary to popular
wisdom, the Punk Rock revolution did not originate in London -- East
or West End. The Sex Pistols, widely recognized in the pantheon of pop
culture as the purveyors of the genre, with their exploitation of multi-colored
coifs, safety pin self-mutilation, ragged anti-establishment attire,
offensive blurts, and the gurgling dupe that was Sid Vicious, were merely
the fumes of the original New York City movement. It was there, on the
Lower Eastside of Manhattan, where the famous Bleeker Street careens
into the Bowery, in a little dive called CBGB & OMFUG, that Punk
Music, Punk Culture, and the next-to-last legitimate street music revolution
On October 31, All Hallows Eve, 2006 CBGB officially closed shop. In
a city where nostalgia and landmarks always takes a back seat to profit
and progress, an American institution bows. Ironically, if you think
about it, disregarding what was once considered sacred for a slice of
the sweet unknown is everything Punk and CBGB once stood for.
However, there is something inherently bittersweet about
this passing. Now that NYC has been reborn in conglomerate dreams and
media clamor, Times Square mutating from the cesspool of seedy sex dens
and rampant drug trade into a Tokyo façade hijacked by Disney
and TV Network grabs fused on high-grade speed fashion. Greenwich Village
overrun by Starbucks and Barnes & Noble and gutted by gentrified
real estate moguls clutching at the bottom-line high.
CBGB has no place there anymore, much like Punk, or whatever is
left of Hip-Hop, beyond the plastic macho horde of exploitation.
CBGB represents a time of dire calls for eccentricity and upheaval,
its voice, the voice of the underbelly of a fume-generation that
began to fight back, but fight for what?
This was never really
crystallized. Revolution rarely is...neatly, anyway. Yet, in most cases,
we're all better for it. And at its best NYC can give you true ground-swelling
revolution once and a great while, and most times it comes from the
most unlikely sources.
Owned and operated by a West Village saloon proprietor
by the name of Hilly Kristal, CBGB opened under the guise of its true
definition -- Country Blues & Bluegrass -- with the subheading OMFUG,
meaning "Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers", but quickly
fell on hard times. That is until Kristal reluctantly agreed to allow
an unknown distorted noise-machine to play the club's dead Sunday night
slot. The band's name was Television, and on March 31, 1974 they took
the tiny corner stage and virtually created a three-chord manifesto
later dubbed Punk Rock, a term first used by the prescient music critic
Dave Marsh in the May 1971 issue of Creem Magazine.
Kristal, partial to the country-western sound, despised
Television, but his new Lower Eastside customers disagreed, not the
least of whom was punk icon, Patty Smith, a New Jersey college dropout
factory worker cum beat poet. To Smith, soon to join the Punk roll call,
and the growing CBGB audience, Television seemed to encapsulate the
hangover of the hippy sixties and define the true grit of the nasty,
balls-out and broke New York experience to perfection.
The club, and Punk, a true grass-roots urban street movement
preceding the borough-bred Rap origins by nearly a decade, were off
But if Kristal despised Television, he was simply appalled
when a rag-tag foursome of leather-clad, ripped-jean longhairs first
strode through his doors, each one thick with Forrest Hills, Queens
mumbles and answering to the same last name, Ramone. His mood did not
improve when they took the stage to pummel the gleeful CBGB crowd with
a wall of din rarely heard in the annals of music or LaGuardia air traffic
for that matter.
In the following months of the soon to become disco-drenched seventies,
The Ramones exploded onto the NYC scene and beyond, taking their
act to England, where young and impressionable future members of
The Clash and a snot-nosed lower-class petty thief, John Lydon lay
in wait. Soon after being "transformed" by the Gotham
racket, Lydon created his angst-addled alter ego, Johnny Rotten,
and the rest, as they say, is history.
There is simply
no Punk Rock without The Ramones and their festering incubator, CBGB.
Here is where CBGB rises from a mere cultural launching
pad to a place held holy in the hearts and minds of the rock and roll
era, or beyond that, the post-war free expression highway, where the
sacrosanct gets the shaft, and the ugly gumboots rear their putrid anthems.
CBGB then becomes something of a slash-and-burn Jerusalem, a Mecca for
the disenfranchised and isolated who flocked to its dungeon as lemmings
to the sea. If the Mersey Beat was created inside the sweaty walls of
the Cavern in Liverpool, England, then its bastard baby brother called
Punk was born here in the badass Bowery.
As the seventies rolled on, and the midtown glitz of a
drug-hazed Studio 54 welcomed flash gawkers and the celebrity flock
to dance away the malaise of Baby Boomer fallout to another NYC invention,
Disco, CBGB reeked of revolution, revulsion, and bare-bones art downtown.
The very split in cultures, sprinting for escape from economic strife,
violent Cold War lies, and middle-class drudgery, rode the polarized
The litany of performers that tread its stage, reads like
a who's who of the era and beyond: Blondie, Talking Heads, The Police,
The Fleshtones, and on and on. Soon, CBGB became something more than
an underground rock club, with its placard-festooned walls, dank, dangerous
atmosphere, and pungent fog of urine. It was the symbol of motherland
primal screams and a fist in the face of Apple Pie.
I was lucky enough to tread its stage once, back in the
winter of 1985, as a grimaced-faced shit heel, me and my band, kicking
out the jams and gormandizing the history. I remember it being cold,
smelly, and an acoustic nightmare. And I remember loving every second
CBGB is gone now, but it did its job for those of us left
in the Baby Boomer shadows. The place provided an outlet for something
gritty and real, unkempt and unbowed, offering no apologies and getting
no sleep. It can now Rest In Peace.
We sure won't.
© James Campion November 2006
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