The clock is ticking for a storied venue. But which CBGB are people trying to preserve?
Thu Aug 18 2005
In the race to save CBGB from annihilation at the gluttonous hands of its landlord—the Bowery Residents' Committee, a homeless-aid organization—the famed rock club is getting buried in an immoderate mound of praise. At a press conference spearheaded by CB's would-be savior, E Street Band veteran Steven Van Zandt, the Bowery space was referred to as a global tourist beacon, the city's "last rock & roll club" and a lonely incubator of intensifying talent. Even a civil court judge, who ruled in CBGB's favor last week on the issue of back rent, hailed the club as "a major cultural institution" in her decision. One would be excused for assuming that everyone from Buddy Holly to the White Stripes began their careers on the weathered venue's stage.
For all intents and purposes, the club was born in 1974, when members of Television persuaded CBGB's then and current owner, Hilly Kristal, to book the band for a residency. Kristal's original scheme for his club—the name stands for Country Bluegrass and Blues—may not have jibed with Television's razor-sharp guitar interplay, but the young group's presence instigated a scene that made for now-legendary performances by Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie et al.
The vision of punk that reigned at CBGB was a vastly different and arguably superior beast to the punk of London or Los Angeles. This music was stylistically broad and adventurous, accommodating not only Television's baroque guitar solos but also the succinct battle cries of the Ramones and tense pop of the Talking Heads. It was an overwhelmingly New York take on rock & roll: neurotic, ironic, immediate, lyrically astute, slyly pop-savvy.
Alas, this is not the punk that ultimately came to dominate CBGB. Wander into the club now and you'll be confronted with a macho tattoo of the music, liberally informed by heavy metal and hard rock. It is virtually unimaginable to picture the club's original heroes performing there now: Were they aspiring acts today, Television would be playing at Tonic, the Ramones at Mercury Lounge and Richard Hell at various semilegal outposts in Greenpoint. Despite its importunate veneration of its past, CBGB long ago abandoned CBGB-style punk, supplanting it with the revisionist "punk" imagined by tourists like Guns N' Roses.
It is tempting to join the chorus calling for the demise of the club, whose lease expires at month's end. After all, is not CBGB just a few blocks and one iconic T-shirt design removed from other once-revered, now-inadequate spots like the Bitter End and Kenny's Castaways? Is there not something tacky about getting embroiled in a rent dispute with an organization devoted to the destitute? And isn't the lure of nostalgia—the calls to bestow landmark status upon the club—antithetical to punk's crash-and-burn spirit?
Yet such cynicism also seems shortsighted, as ludicrous as Kristal's threats to pack up his four letters and establish shop in Las Vegas like some rock & roll Michael Corleone. To walk down the Bowery and not pass the club's familiar banner would leave even the most jaded music fan with an emptiness that's all too familiar in a city so eager to brick over its past. And the notion that punk must raze its institutions to appease a nihilistic reputation seems disingenuous and British—as trite as ripped pants or the legend of Sid Vicious.
So what should be done with the space? Clearly, it is too filthy for the homeless. And Kristal's failure to grasp his club's legacy—to say nothing of the real-estate trends that have led the proprietor to haggle with hobos—suggests that his flirtation with Vegas may indeed make sense. But it's bewildering that someone wouldn't be able to profit from the storied space: Does Clear Channel's CBGB-PlayStation Theatre beckon?
The best solution, however, emanates from Van Zandt's proposal. The club has offered to raise funds for the BRC through a series of benefit concerts—but why not restructure CBGB as an across-the-board nonprofit? Why not lure the city's most compelling acts of all stripes—be it the Fiery Furnaces or Nellie McKay, Matthew Shipp or Joan Rivers (how punk rock would that be?)—to the Bowery for pro bono shows? Yes, it would help the homeless. But it would save CBGB, which will rediscover its inner punk only by casting away the stylistic punk that binds it.
A rally for the club is scheduled for August 31 at Washington Square Park.