Music

CBGB's and New York: "Thank You & To Hell With Nostalgia"

Jason Gross
Sham 69 [Live @ CBGB - 28 August 2005] Photo: Jason Gross

Leaving little but ashes in New York, the CBGB 'phoenix' may rise, again, like it or not... in the desert.

"... Many friends of mine who are in their mid-40s-mid '50s... believe that it (CBGB's) should remain open on principle -- but these folks are really just mourning their youth."

-- writer Rob Kemp, mailing list posting, October 16, 2006

"I don't understand why New Yorkers are so casual while our politicians destroy every landmark they can.... Nothing is safe... No wonder everyone says NYC is dead and it's all mall-culture now."

-- Shauna Erlbaum, letter to AM New York about CBGB's closing, October 19, 2006

When punk ground-central CBGB's was getting ready to permanently shut its doors and ship them to Las Vegas, one thing was for sure: just like the Iraq war, nobody had a weak-kneed, faint-hearted opinion about it, good or bad. If anyone needs proof that there really is punk nostalgia, you wouldn't have to go any further than the sweet send-offs from Lenny Kaye in the Village Voice or Richard Hell in The New York Times. On the other end, you had roadie David Idels who hauled equipment through the club for decades, fanatically wishing that "somebody would firebomb that shithole and that fat-fuck dirtbag Hilly would die of cancer." No doubt agreeing with him would be a student in writer Vivien Goldman's NYU punk class who scoffed at how "un-punk" it was for people to get all pathetically weepy over a decades-old club that's well past its prime. Any way you looked at it, things were changing for the music scene in New York and what happened to CBGB's was emblematic of this.

With all the simultaneous melancholy and cheering about CBGB's, it's hard to remember that the club didn't exactly put NYC on the musical map. In the days before recorded music, the songwriting stronghold of Tin Pan Alley provided America with some of its most popular tunes. Later on, styles such as modern musical theatre, salsa, bebop, minimalism, and free jazz were for all intents and purposes birthed in Gotham, while dance music from swing to disco was also popularized there -- and all happening years before punk rock. That isn't even mentioning a now-global phenomenon called rap which was also sprouting up around the same time as punk. New York wasn't so much one of the major cities / markets for music so much as a hub where musicians could gravitate, soak in the enormity of the surrounding culture, make a name for themselves, and cause ripples outside of their own time zone.

And it wasn't just various styles that turned NYC in an embarrassment of musical riches; it was also the venues. Legendary, larger-than-life concert spaces like Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall, Birdland, Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, the Apollo Theatre, the Kitchen, Brooklyn Academy of Music (all of which preceed CBGB's and are still active today) and dozens of Broadway theatres all draw in renowned performers from across the globe. And so did CBGB's.

Before any punk band stepped into the club, owner Hilly Kristal had a different vision for what he wanted. He'd opened two bars before CBGB's, one in the West Village which was closed after complaints from the area (which echoed a similar scenario recently played out with the same result). When CBGB's itself opened in December '73, the Lower Eastside area it called home was a scary, scummy place. Regardless of the inelegant locale, Kristal set up shop and made it tacitly obvious as to what he originally had in mind: "CBGB's" stands for "Country Bluegrass Blues." But a roots music club wasn't meant to be there. Only a few months after it opened, Hell and Tom Verlaine would play their first gig there with their band Television and soon after, the local music scene congealed and then exploded.

But it wasn't as if CBGB's was alone in giving a home to the early NYC punk bands, but besides Max's Kansas City, farther uptown at Union Square, there weren't many places for the groups to play their original music at the time. Max's had originally opened in '65 as an artsy hangout (Lou Reed played his last gigs with the Velvet Underground there in '70) and shut down in '74 just as CBGB's was starting to make a name for itself. Max's opened again in '75 and remained a second punk outpost until it closed in '81. In recent phone interviews, Hell and Kaye recalled the early days of the two clubs.

Kaye: "In their heyday, there was a constant stream of people walking from one club to the other. Max's and CBGB's were magnetic poles of 70's rock, but Max's bands did more traditional rock while CBGB's bands had a broader spread. Still, you could find friends who were playing at one place or the other."

Hell: "CBGB's had less character (than Max's) -- only the bands brought character there. It was just an anonymous dump run by a guy . . . we were all lucky that he went with the flow."

That flow stemmed from the way that Kristal not only let the bands pick the opening acts to share the bill with them, but also what songs were going to be on the jukebox and even who was collecting money at the door. The groups would even swap members or break off into new bands. A scene developed where the 'punk' label was slapped on it even though you'd have to search hard to find a more disparate group of bands; an amazing role-call of talent which included Television, the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Other than the success and / or recognition they achieved, what also made these groups unique were that they were enormously influential, even today. You might even call them visionaries. New York had built up a music scene that wasn't just getting national attention but also international recognition, especially in England, whose own punk scene would have been unimaginable otherwise.

Soon, CBGB's would become a magnet for bands and fans alike. It wasn't just the Christmas lights strung across the top of the bar or the long cavernous hall leading to the stage or the elevated platform for mersh and viewing in the back that drew people in. Looking around the club, you'd see thousands of stickers and flyers for bands which covered the walls, the speakers, the bar; everywhere except the floor and ceiling. Most clubs would quickly tear these down but CBGB's didn't. It was part of the grimy, inelegant flavor of the place and a constant reminder of the volume of groups that played there. Its reputation kept getting built upon as its flagship bands signed major label deals and made it to the airwaves. Playing CBGB's became a must for any up-and-coming punk band, if not to be recognized at the fabled venue but then at least to say "we played at CBGB's!" just as any jazz musician would brag about a Blue Note gig or a classical ensemble could include Carnegie Hall on its resume. CBGB's was no longer a club, it was a shrine.

But you know what happens to shrines. As documented in recent film American Hardcore, another local music scene built up around the club in the '80s but this was one that Kristal didn't willfully embrace as he did before. By the close of the decade, he was banning hardcore shows from the club because of fears of violence, which just goes to show that bands can go too far, even for a punk club.

Next Page

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

In this exploration of the Hasidic Orthodox Jewish community in New York, it can be inferred that religion is likened to a spatial cave within a wider world of cultural beliefs, ideas and means of expression.

Menashe (2017) marks Alex Lipschultz's debut as a screenwriter. He shares co-writing credit with director Josh Z. Weinstein for whom the film marks his own narrative directorial feature debut. In as much as it is a film of firsts, Menashe is a reemergence of an historical Jewish language that has been absent from the modern cinematic art form for many decades. For Lipschultz it's certainly the continuation of his storytelling journey, building on his producing credits that include feature films Computer Chess (2013) and Lovesong (2016), as well as Richard Linklater's television series Up to Speed (2012).

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image