“I still have dreams about CBGB’s. I still miss the place.” – Henry Rollins
I was born in 1979, making me a child of the ’80s and a teen of the ’90s. In the ’80s we had all of the great cartoons and TV shows, as well as some pretty decent movies, the ones that, in the cultural black hole in which we currently exist, have every network executive or film producer saying, “Hey, remember insert title here? That was pretty awesome and I can’t come up with anything myself, how about we just reboot/remake that and then head off to the pub?”
The vast majority of movies and TV shows are terrible today, but TV especially. Why pay someone to write a script when you can just film someone going about their everyday life and make them famous for it? They make a ton of money and get the celebrity lifestyle they longed for and you make a fortune because the vast majority of people have been conned into believing that this is entertainment and lap it up, yet it cost you next to nothing to make.
But if we’re talking about an entertainment industry in decline, one of, if not the, hardest hit areas is the music industry. We live in a world where Nikki Minaj judged talent competitions, despite never winning a Grammy or Brit award, a world where Robin Thicke’s music video consisted of endless hashtags, a world where one of the most popular songs of this era was Gangnam Style. I used to live in South Korea, the home of manufactured music, and all that matters in K-pop is the image, not the sound, and it is the exact same direction the Western world is headed, too. Got no talent? Not a problem, we’ll just sort that out in post-production with autotune, as long as you look good and get plenty of ‘likes’ on social media.
In both the ’80s and the ’90s we got some great music and the good stuff definitely became more mainstream in the ’90s. Sure, we had our crappy novelty songs, too, but the majority of popular artists either wrote, composed or played their own music, most times they did all three! Crazy, huh?
Also, “back in my day” we couldn’t just download music, you either needed to buy it or know someone who had bought the album you wanted so you could tape it off them. You also couldn’t just find out about bands on then ‘net; if it wasn’t on the radio, you ether read about it in a magazine and decided whether it was worth the risk shelling out $30 for the album or you went by word of mouth. Or for my group of friends, you watched Rage late at night.
“Rage” is somewhat of an institution among people of my generation in Australia. I’m not so sure about the format now, but Friday night they would just play new music and on Saturday night they’d have a guest programmer. It might have been some local artist, it might be an international band that’s touring. If Faith No More were in town, for example, Mike Patton and Roddy Bottum would play about 50 songs they had selected, followed by all of Faith No More’s videos and then a bunch of stuff that is similar before playing the top-50.
Why have I gone on such an epic, Grandpa Simpson-esque rant? Because I’m a huge music fan of many different genres and one of the main ways I like finding new music is by finding out what the musicians I like listen to. I also like finding out background information about these things and over the course of the last 20-something years, one name kept coming up again and again; CBGB.
I love old-school punk and hardcore, bands like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, The Stooges, The Ramones, etc. They might just be vintage t-shirts now, but to me they are music legends and CBGB was their home. CBGB is to punks what the Vatican is to Catholics, what Mecca is to Muslims. CBGB is punk’s true home.
For those who have never heard of the place, some background information courtesy of wikipedia:
CBGB was a music club opened in 1973 by Hilly Kristal at 315 Bowery, intersecting Bleecker Street, in the East Village. The club was previously a biker bar and before that was a hangout for the local drunks. The letters CBGB were for country, bluegrass, and blues, Kristal’s original vision, yet CBGB soon became a famed venue of punk rock and new wave bands like the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith Group, Blondie, and Talking Heads. From the early 1980s onward, CBGB was known for hardcore punk.
CBGB was founded in December 1973 on the site of Kristal’s earlier bar, Hilly’s on the Bowery, that he ran from 1969 to 1972. Initially, Kristal focused on his more profitable East Village nightspot, Hilly’s, which Kristal closed amid complaints from the bar’s neighbors, whereupon Kristal focused on the Bowery club. Its full name—CBGB & OMFUG—stands for “Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers”. Although a gormandizer is usually a ravenous eater of food, what Kristal meant is “a voracious eater of … music”. The club was often called simply “CB’s”. Kristal’s intended theme of country, bluegrass, and blues music along with poetry readings yielded to the American movement in punk rock. A pioneer in the genre, the Ramones had its first shows at CBGB.
CBGB’s two rules were that a band must move its own equipment and play mostly original songs—that is, no cover bands—although regular bands often played one or two covers in set. CBGB’s growing reputation drew more and more acts from outside New York City. In 1978 on October 20 and 21, The Police played at CBGB its first American gigs. Meanwhile, CBGB became famed for the Misfits, Television, Patti Smith Group, Mink DeVille, the Dead Boys, the Dictators, the Fleshtones, the Voidoids, the Cramps, the B-52’s, Blondie, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, the Shirts, and Talking Heads. Yet in the 1980s, hardcore punk’s New York underground was CBGB’s mainstay. Named “thrash day” in a documentary on hardcore, Sunday at CBGB was matinée day, which became an institution, played from afternoon until evening by hardcore bands. In 1990, violence inside and outside of the venue prompted Kristal to suspend hardcore bookings. Yet CBGB brought hardcore back at times. CBGB’s the last several years had no formal bans by genre.
To set the mood, let’s take a look at how this place used to look back when it mattered:
That’s a shit-load of stickers! Hilly Kristal was sued for $90,000 rent which he allegedly owed to the CBGB landlord and although he won the case, the venue’s lease was not renewed and CBGB closed down in October, 2006.
Which brings me to yesterday. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever enter the hallowed ground that was CBGB. Sure, I knew that it wouldn’t resemble the place I’d heard so much about, the live music venue that had gone down in folklore, because fashion designer John Varvatos had opened a store in CBGB’s former space, 315 Bowery, but it was intended to “tastefully trail CBGB’s legacy”. I knew it had become a clothing store, but nothing could prepare me for what I encountered. What some considered the “Undisputed Birthplace of Punk” was now a high-end clothing store catering to hipsters who are only interested in the next trend or being ironic, all the while trying to cash in on the past, but doing it with completely non-punk ethos, such as charging US$78 for a t-shirt with a small skull printed on it. They sold records there, but, ironically, not of the types of bands who would’ve played there back in the day, just the type of shit that rich kids would buy, because records are in. Once again, music has given way to style. I’ll let some pictures do the talking:
Part of me died a little inside. I know many of you probably think that this is an improvement on the previous images, but let’s put it another way: Imagine being an art critic whose dream is to visit the Louvre. One day you eventually get to make that trek, but upon arrival you discover it has turned into a place like CBGB used to be. Now all of this should make sense.
Punk is officially dead at 315 Bowry, but the music still remains. To wash the bitter taste out of my mouth and in honour of what used to be, here are a personal favourite of mine, Bad Brains live at CBGB in 1982 (full show):
“CBGB the day after” by Romanontheprowl – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CBGB_the_day_after.JPG#/media/File:CBGB_the_day_after.JPG