[19 October 2006]
Trash bags line the New York City streets—it’s the smell of piss and rotting animals. The stench builds as each large, black bag is tossed to the curb, churning used diapers and stale lettuce washing-machine style inside the plastic. The funk is manmade, but it’s taken an epic, unworldly turn in the early autumn heat. There are rows and rows of this rot lining the blocks of the Bowery, each a towering paean to the gods of urban filth.
Inside the subway, they’re washing the floors, and bubbles collect in round, silky pools of water, turning small streams into waterfalls at the platform’s edge. It’s a flood, a forced torrent of sweat and dirt working its way from the underground station, onto the tracks, and into the deep bowels of city’s underground.
It’s like everyone’s clearing out their shit at once.
* * *
Compared to the city streets, CBGB seems somehow sterile, but don’t be fooled: its rot is deeper, and more disgusting. The boards outside seem tilted and warped, and the paint on the club’s trademark canvas sign—for all its striking red—is flecked with the injuries of age. With a week left to live, the club already seems a bloated corpse, its eyes bulging, its skin morbidly cold. A space that once hosted legends like Patti Smith, the Talking Heads, and the Ramones, the simple stage has begun to buckle under the weight of its past, even as its performers have become lighter and lighter.
Six forgettable bands pound away each evening, and what was once a secret center brimming with energy and intrigue has become a road-trip pit-stop for every aging rocker, potty-mouthed 15-year-old, and Jersey-bred high-school band.
When they first said they wanted to close the club last year, the mayor came to its defense, but he wasn’t defending a raging inferno of dissent and destruction; he was defending a tourist attraction, a place to buy $30 T-shirts, or $40 videos, and, if you’re old enough, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon for a very unpunk $4.50.
As you enter CBGB, the once-welcoming smell of stale beer and chain-smoked cigarettes is replaced by the cold, calculated stench of antiseptic spray. You pull back the torn curtain in the entryway—the one meant to stifle the sounds and smells from outside—only to find that it’s actually a backwards shield keeping what’s inside from escaping. And you can’t escape: there’s no re-entry to the club, not even if you want to take that now-banned cigarette outside.
Torn stickers and flyers line the walls, but they seem somehow fake, a clichéd collage—some dastardly re-creation of clutter. The long, skinny stretch from the bar to the stage is crammed with people, but its more polo shirts than safety-pins. What happened to this place? Did they turn it into a Hard Rock Café? As I walk the straight line to the stage, I consider leaning over the bar rail to ask for the Ramones special or a GG Allin pork patty, but, even if they actually existed, I probably couldn’t afford them.
So, better to burn up than fade away? Uh, yeah. Jesus may have lived to 33 (the same age as the club), but the devil kicks it at 22 (at least if Sid Vicious is to be believed), and from the get-go, it’s clear that this place is shamelessly pushing old age.
And, what’s more, age has pushed the young’uns out. The old guard has stepped in over the past few weeks, assuring that the club’s final shows (all in the $40+ price range) are all sold out. And, with so many paying their “respects,” the guestlists to the last few – the aforementioned Talking Heads Dance Party, a special show by NYC Proto-Punks the Dictators, and a Patti Smith gig – are all but impenetrable.
But perhaps it’s for the best. The real end—at least from my gutter-punk perspective—is Bad Brains’ three-night reunion stint, and, as it so happens, I have a hook-up. It’s not nostalgia for the club that drives me (frankly, every time I’ve been here in the past few years has been awful), but, rather, a search for newer, more immediate memories.
Before the thrash and burn gave way to gritty machismo, hardcore was a big, fat, belching beast, and the Bad Brains were all that was right with its rancor. I’ve already seen what’s become of CBGB’s, but Bad Brains remain wrapped in mystery. Have they gone nostalgia-pretty like everyone else, or is there something still to see? If punk is about constantly questioning (and killing) your idols, then this is an all-in excursion into my punk rock past. I’m going boom or bust on Bad Brains.
* * *
Bad Brains haven’t played together in eight years, and, because of the lead singer’s erratic behavior, haven’t held it together for more than a few shows at a time in much, much longer. The last time I tried to see them, a fight broke out, someone was stabbed, and the whole place was raided by the cops.
So I take it seriously when a 20-something kid standing next to me starts asking if anyone has a knife he can borrow. He’s bald, with a bruised body (he’s not wearing a shirt), and his left arm is bleeding. He says he cut himself on the fiberglass of a broken pipe nearby, and I believe him: the pipe itself is stained satin and lightly dripping. Earlier I saw him crouched in the corner, his shirt flipped all the way over his head, enveloping his arms and completely masking his face as smoke pumped sideways out his sleeves. Whatever he smoked—I’m thinking uppers, not downers—its got him slapping his fists together in angry anticipation of what he says will be an “all out riot”. Old-fogie gawkers laugh nervously to one-another as he speaks, and the few other serious-looking punks just laugh. Me? I grab my friend and walk the hell away.
And then there’s nothing—an hour of nothing. I’ve lost my friend in the mouth of the crowd. I push close to the stage, getting within a few feet. Singer H.R. is bearded and wearing a large Rasta hat. This isn’t entirely unexpected—the latter half of the band’s catalog forsook the hard edge of punk rock for a more introspective, reggae feel. Still, the guys look a little off. Something about them screams aging middle-ager, and it suddenly occurs to me that they may not play any of the nasty-hard songs that made them so good in their hey-day. I mean, H.R. is wearing a clip-on, diva-style mic for god’s sake. This could be bad.
As the band begins its first song, an old, rip-rocking punk rock anthem, the room gasps with relief. Bodies begin suddenly to rock and shake as unexpectedly agile 30-somethings break out against an out-of-nowhere contingent of younger punks. Skin bends and blushes like jelly, and the tide of the crowd rises, then falls, crashing casual onlookers against the walls.
Before H.R. can beckon the wave in its full fury, the sound is silenced. Only 15 seconds into the first song, the drummer has cut things off, emerging from his kit to grab the mic. Standing at the mouth of the river, he rises strong like a levy and thrusts his chest against the wave: “Calm down. Take care of each other or H.R.’s not going to sing.”
It’s decidedly unpunk, but then, so is getting shut down, and that’s definitely where we were headed. H.R. returns to the front of the stage, leveling an unmistakably serene smile. That smile; god that smile. It’s a smile that unnerves and inspires, and calms, and absolutely crushes the crowd. With his cool, calm face, he looks like Andre 3000 imitating the Joker. It’s a solid plastered look that digs endlessly, curling back on itself until it’s made a devious circle. It’s merry and mischievous, sublime and satanic. For all the all-knowing wannabe sage bullshit that he’s pulled in his life (Bad Brains did, after all, go very, very Jah), maybe he’s on to something. Maybe his head really is the center of some twisted, all-encompassing universe. Maybe he really is a tweaked-out sage of punk rock.
Rather than recreate the full-body bash that once defined his punk-rock presence, H.R. stands stock still. His smile never waivers and his face never strains, and he’s all the off-putting and aggressive for it: after all, the calm, collected crazy is infinitely more intimidating than the raving loony. He tears through songs like “I against I” and “Re-Ignition”, taking only short breaks with later-era classics like “I and I Survive”. At one point, he dons a motorcycle helmet, glimmering under it like some kind of crazed alien. There are sound problems, the clicking in and out of the microphone—all the more audible on a quiet song—and the audience suddenly turns on the singer, screaming “losethefuckingmic” in perfect metronomic time with an up-stroking reggae beat.
H.R. teases us for awhile, clutching the broken machine to his face. Others are pissed, but I actually think messing with the crowd is pretty funny, and appropriately punk rock. When he finally relents, reaching forward for a normal mic set at stage center, H.R. sets his neck at a tentative perch, with a slight backwards arc, pushing his gaze ever upward to the ceiling. As he breaks into the next song, the walls are positively shaking, juggled as if on some slight lean that allows just a little bow and bend. For all the problems with the sound, no one can question the crowd’s energy: they’re tearing it up and new pits emerge every few minutes, carved out of once-squished spaces.
I’m pumping my fist and singing along when it happens. I’d hurt my back earlier in the week, and, while a cold compress and a day in bed had done wonders, something in the back-and-forth has begun to tighten me up. All at once, the crowd opens, and the once-packed space becomes an open pit. Like nearly drowned swimmers seeking the surface, bodies suddenly lurch at me. And then I get hit. And then I get hit again. It’s like I’m being rolled down the grooves of an old, rickety water slide. My back slips in out of pain at each ridge. I’m staring at the face of punk rock, and it’s staring back at me like the beast it is.
Try to imagine my surprise. It’s like the way you get lice as a child and don’t fully understand the complexity of the situation. Animals are crawling on you, digging into your skin, but your mind only goes so far as to process the fact that it itches. It’s an ignorant reception of attack, a blunted reaction to a strangely sterile, withdrawn, intangible pest. I never really realized how dangerous slamdancing in a pit can be; when I was a kid I always used to just do it. But now I understand the bugs better, and it really is wild.
And so I’m throwing a fist of my own, when I hear a dull crack and feel a sharp sting of pain. And, then, I’m pushed back, and back, and back, and back, and suddenly everything evens out. I’ve been pressed away by the collective body of the crowd, and I’m at the back of the room, hugging the wall as I listen to an old man on a cell phone chatter over the squelching sound: “I wonder if I’m the only one here who came straight from Barbara Streisand.”
Feeling plenty defiant, I’m thinking, “I don’t know, asshole, maybe, maybe not.” Seems like everyone in this new area might have followed him over—its all collars and slacks.
Of course, it’s only after I whisper this to myself that I realize I’m wearing slacks, too. Well, at least I’m wearing a T-Shirt, and I had the decency to stuff my work shirt in my bag (yeah, I’ve been carrying a bag this whole time, ok. It’s brown and kinda tweed, and really resistant to water).
I see a chair, bent on its back, its legs spiking forward like four sharpened stakes. My thoughts roll back to my back and I clutch the ground, grabbing the toppled seat. I set it upright and sink into the spot, as waves of guitar unfold in front of me, buzzing and piecing like surgical saws. This hurts.
The band has gone into its final song and the fury really is something to see. But, I’m still sitting when Bad Brains walks off stage, triumphantly.
A cheer rises, and I half-heartedly join, screaming for “Pay to Cum” as if it were an obligation. They’re on—rock the hell out of it—and then they’re off. It’s over, and I’m very much out.
Andrew Phillips is an entertainment writer/editor living in Brooklyn, New York. He recently left his post as Managing Editor for the Daily Washington Law Reporter, a small legal periodical in the District of Columbia to pursue his fortune in the big(er) city.