“Place” is one of the toughest, and most important, concepts I teach. Like many key terms for cultural geographers, “place” is not a word made and owned by professional academics, but is one that has a host of meanings and common uses. That is, in fact, one of the reasons why it presents such a rich field for cultural geographic research. However, that same richness means always being conscious of how different people use the term, and what the significance of those different uses are.
(BOOM! Studios; US: Nov 2010)
The meaning and significance of place, and of a particular place, is the organizing theme to BOOM! Studios’ anthology series memorializing the famed, and shuttered, New York music venue, CBGB. Originally published as a four issue mini-series, CBGB features writing and art from a variety of creators, including Kieron Gillen (Phonogram, Generation Hope), Rob G (The Couriers, Dead West), Kelly Sue DeConnick (Rescue, 30 Days of Night), and Ana Matronic (of Scissor Sisters). Each story provides a different angle onto what the club means, and what it meant, and what sense to make of its closing. The mini was collected and released into trade paperback in November 2010. The questions of place opened by the anthology are evident in critical reactions to the comics.
Even before the first issue came out, Michael Pinto wrote ”
CBGB the Comic Book: Exploiting the Corpse of a Punk Rock Mecca” on fanboy.com questioning the very idea of a CBGB comic released by an established publisher:
“CBGB has been turned into punk rock Kool-Aid where you add it to water and now you have the ‘authentic flavor’. But punk rock isn’t about buying the right t-shirt or reading the right comic book — instead it should be about making your own t-shirt and drawing your own comic book (or better yet a fanzine). The kids and bands who made that club what it was were the ones who weren’t cool enough to get into Studio 54 back in the day. They couldn’t afford the right clothing and didn’t have the right looks to get past the velvet rope — to that generation the club was the opposite of glamour. So when you turn the brand into something slick, a logo plastered onto a t-shirt or a comic book you miss the spirit if what that thing was. (21 March 2010)”
For Pinto, there is an essential or true nature to CBGB, one that is missed or lost by the act of branding and selling, as opposed to showing and doing. His entry on fanboy.com further questions the authenticity of having Jaime Hernandez, whose Love & Rockets books are documents of punk culture, do the cover art to issue one (and the trade) on the grounds that Hernandez is a “an L.A. guy” and disconnected from CBGB’s New York context. The nature or “spirit” of the place here is very specific. Both aspects of this view are captured in the book and underscored by other critics, but not always in the same register as Pinto’s polemic.
The notion of a “spirit” is made literal in “Of and concerning the Ancient, Mystical, and Holy Origins of That Most Down and Dirty 20th Century Rock ‘n’ Roll Club: CBGB”, by Kim Krizan (writer) and Toby Cypress (art). This chapter in the series fantasizes that the spot on which the club was located is marked with power by music and mayhem stretching back to Manhattan’s indigenous peoples. This story makes CBGB out to be part of a sacred geography of youth culture that simultaneously belongs to a particular location and transcends time.
In Ana Matronic’s “Rock Block”, pencils and inks by Dan Duncan and colors by Renato Faccini, the idea of a CBGB spirit or energy is rendered in more contemporary terms. The story here is about a young writer who finds inspiration in her visits to the club, drawing on its power to drive her own passions and creativity.
As indicated in the panel, this story suggests a quality of place that is quite apart from the people who went there, a “poetry” that adheres despite the “atmosphere” created by the patrons. The narrative continues to locate that poetry in the performers, who are “channelers of the disaffected”. While this grounds the energy of the club in what people did there, the idea of “channeling” implies a kind of magic or mysticism, a spirit in the same sense as Pinto’s essay and Krizan’s and Cypress’ contribution.
From “Rock Block” by Ana Matronic and Dan Duncan
While one view of CBGB is as a location with a special spirit, or as the symbol of that spirit, another is that the place is only what people make it. In a capsule review of the first issue on
Comics Alliance, Douglas Wolk cautions against seeing CBGB as anything more than a place to play and hear music.
“... I don’t know how thrilled I am that there’s a comics miniseries reinforcing its legend: it really was just another rock club with a better-than-average sound system and even-more-horrible-than-average bathrooms, it was Hilly Krystal’s booking skills rather than something about the place itself that made it special, and for its final six or seven years it was mostly pretty embarrassing.” (“Don’t Ask! Just Buy It! - July 21: Mephisto, Cthulhu, Cerebus and the Toilets at CBGB”, 20 July 2010).
Here CBGB is defined not by a kind of inviolable spirit, but is virtually reduced to the talents of one person. CBGB was no better nor any worse than the acts who played there every night.
In for space (SAGE Publications, 2005), geographer Doreen Massey writes about “the event of place”. In this frame, places do not have essential natures or qualities, but are always changing as people, things, and animals, even the earth itself, move within and between locations. Place always implies a here and now, so that moment-to-moment no place is ever exactly the same as it was before. Following Wolk, on any given night, the CBGB you could experience would be demonstrably different depending on the band, the crowd, the particular level of filth in the bathrooms, and how on the sound system was that night. There is no transcendent spirit, only what’s happening, between who and what, in the moment at this location.
Kieron Gillen’s (writer) and March Ellerby’s (art) “A NYC Punk Carol” shows CBGB to be the “here” to the late-‘70s “now” in New York. Riffing on Charles Dickens, this story features two figures claiming to be “the ghost of punk rock past”, one a Ramones wannabe and romanticist, and the other a self-styled scholar and realist.
From “A NYC Punk Carol” by Kieron Gillen and Marc Ellerby
In this set of panels, the realist describes the club as “a place to be”, but one where low rent and a share of the door for bands is what turns it into a draw, not any sort of primordial spirit or energy. In the pages that follow the pool table dissertation, even the romanticist is more interested in mythologizing the people who played the club more than he is in infusing the location with a special aura.
Events are by definition time-limited. What is left once one has passed are memories and impressions. This way of seeing CBGB is represented in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s (writer) and Chuck BB’s (art) “Count 5 or 6”, which tells the story of the club through the recollections of “Tex” as she gets ready to move from New York to Portland, Oregon with her husband, “Sunshine”, and their two children.
“Count 5 or 6” by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Chuck BB
Her reminiscing is sparked by a music video that her son, “Huck”, is watching on a laptop. Her life is intertwined with the club as the place where she forged an important friendship, met her future husband, and was proposed to. The final panel shows the address occupied by a clothing boutique and dialogue from Sunshine, encouraging mom and son to wrap up their rock session: “I hate to break up the party but it’s time to move on, you guys”. Taken literally, he means time to hit the road for Portland, but when paired with the image of the old address for the club, the statement also means that it is time to leave CBGB to its time and place.
In a review on The Comics Journal website, Gavin Lees praises DeConnick and Kieron Gillen for keeping CBGB in perspective: “The message from Deconnick and Gillen is that CBGB’s was important, but life goes on and music will always find an outlet; sentimentalism only detracts from what’s important” (see, “CBGB”, 15 December 2010). I would add that the personal nature of DeConnick’s and BB’s story is important, for it underscores the particularity of place. To some, like the romanticist in “NYC Punk Carol” what matters is who played there. To others, like Tex, it is what they, themselves, did there.
Of course, one way in which people try to make sense of places, of the here and now, is to create myths and legends. As the varied contributions and critical responses to the anthology demonstrate, places are contested ground. Whether CBGB had a special poetry to it or was nothing more than a decent rock club is less interesting than the debate itself. Both claims are attempts at making meaning from a particular here-and-now, and it is in that process that place matters.