Sunday, August 14, 2005

CBGB's: Another View

From today's NYTimes....
The club has been some kind of symbol for decades. The question is whether that symbolism can transcend real estate and real noise. A transplanted CBGB would be irrevocably changed, and an artificially preserved one could be just as dicey. Punk-rock certainly has enough artifacts to fill a museum, but solemn academic inquiry just doesn't seem right for CBGB. A transplanted CBGB might become something like the Cavern Club in Liverpool, where the Beatles woodshedded and which was demolished and rebuilt as a replica (with some of the original bricks). What has been a symbol of unlovely urban survival would turn into a self-conscious icon.

Or, to be precise, a more self-conscious icon. It's hard to say how long ago CBGB started considering itself legendary, but decades is a fair estimate. While punk promoted itself as overthrowing the status quo, CBGB has prided itself on staying put.

Everyone knows CBGB is a dump, same as it ever was: a place where punk spirit holds out against gentrification, a remnant of the old stinking Bowery versus the slick NoLIta. CBGB & OMFUG (which once stood for Country Blue Grass Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandisers) started out as a neighborhood joint and never upgraded much beyond its sound system. It's had chic visitors, but it never turned chic; even as it became a tourist stop, as it has been at least since the early 1980's, it stayed dingy, a place where kids could still afford to hang out. Mr. Kristal hasn't profiteered unduly.


The post-punk and no-wave bands that are now being widely imitated also had a home at CBGB as the 1970's turned into the 1980's, and so did hardcore matinees. But in the years since, well, it often seems that all a band needs to get a CBGB gig is a wacky name. Musicians like P. J. Harvey and Guns N' Roses, who were grateful for what they learned from the first CBGB bands, have performed there by way of tribute. But it has been a long time since the club was the crucible for a movement.

In some ways, CBGB is a victim of one of punk's enduring myths: that amateur enthusiasm is all a band needs. All the stickers on the walls prove otherwise. What made the first CBGB bands important wasn't that they were amateurs, but that they were inspired amateurs; they had a sound in their heads, one that didn't require too much technique.

Not sure how I feel about this. You?


Emerson said...

I found this line to be a little too cute: "While punk promoted itself as overthrowing the status quo, CBGB has prided itself on staying put." The overthrow aspect has always been an overstatement and if CBGBs moved all the time it would somehow be more punk?

I agree that a rebuilt CBs may lose it's scummy charm but I don't think fewer people would go.

DeepToej said...

I agree with the general sentiment of the article. In my opinion, CBGB has not been a viable music venue since the end of the 80's. As much as I really like the physical space of the club, and the quite good sound system, I am rarely provided with reason to go there. The main problem is their policy of putting on 7 or 8 bands every night of the week, usually without thought of compatability. So Band A shows up to play, and a few friends come out to see them, then the band and their friends leave, and Band B shows up with their friends. Maybe that's profitable, but what the hell, it's hardly going to motivate someone to check their ad in the Village Voice every week, which is what I did religiously years ago. Maybe it gives bands an opportunity to play, but there are many, many... many clubs in New York for bands to play.

Aside from some of the later era NY hardcore bands, the last "big" band to be strongly associated with CB's was Living Colour, and they broke about 17 years ago. I don't think CB's had anything to do with the recent wave of trendy New York bands, because most of those bands probably played there once, or bypassed it alltogether. The hardcore matinees ceased being a regular event in 1989 (due to escalating violence, not the club's fault), but that was CB's last real claim to a legacy.

Even before the recent rent battle, I thought CBGB should consider giving up and becoming a museum. I didn't think that until I visited the Motown Museum in Detroit last year, and it occured to me that it could be done well. And what the hell, they already get people from all over the world showing up just to see the place every day of the week.

Last point I want to make: The attention the rent battle has been getting in the mainstream media in New York (lead stories in newspapers and TV broadcasts), has more to do with those goddamn T-shirts than with "protecting a musical landmark." I'm sure everyone who works on Channel 11's news show has a teenage neice with a CBGB T-shirt. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am shelling out $35 to see Flipper & Adrenalin OD play a benefit there in 2 weeks, so maybe I'm just a cranky old dinosaur.)

dave said...

Hey, it's been almost 30 years since the first punk shows. Back then, 30 years back would take you to 1945 or thereabouts.

michael said...

hmm, I've never seen a show there. Wanted to check it out when I visted my sister a couple years back, but neither her nor my brother seemed particularly interested.

from my perspective, I haven't noticed any big "movement" originate out of there for over a decade--apparently those who know more about the place agree. I guess all things must pass...and be turned into a Disney World/Vegas attraction.