One from a Gormandizer
by Gerry LaFemina
I am standing in the dark at 315 the Bowery, staring at a stage waiting for Jesse Malin to perform. This is not 1983. This is not CBGB, though I am located close to where I stood when it was CBGB, waiting for Heart Attack to play, a band fronted by Jesse Malin when we were both young teens. This is a John Varvatos store, although all the clothes have been hidden (jeans that cost more than the take at the door at CBGB on a Sunday hardcore matinee) and with the lights out it can almost be CBGB again.
By now the myth of CBGB is bigger than the club ever was. It’s origin story is pretty familiar–it was a struggling bar on one of the City’s worst blocks, downstairs from a “hotel” that catered to the mission drunks; CBGB and OMFUG=Country, Blue Grass, Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers; the first Television show there in 1974 begat punk rock. The stories after that are legion. There’s been a movie about its heyday in the seventies, re-enacting the Dead Boys, Blondie, the Ramones, the Talking Heads and so many others; the bathroom of CBGB was recreated for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Punk Fashion show (though, having used the bathroom at CBGB, I don’t know why anyone would want to recreate it). There’s an annual CBGB Festival that big money puts on, the big money that bought the name from the estate of Hilly Kristal, the big money that simultaneously keeps independent music alive and seems to drive a stake into the heart of the words, "independent music."
For much of my adolescence, CBGB was my gym, social club, church, you name it. I’d graffitied its walls, played on its stage, slam danced in its mosh pit. The first date I ever had with my first serious girlfriend: CBGB Sunday matinee. First devastating break up: CBGB, some ska show. It was dirty. It was loud. It was cheap. It was like New York back then. And the people I met there and then: from the well-knowns (Cheetah Chrome, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Jesse Malin among others) to the never-wases, they’re still people I’m happy to hear from, people who were there, people who remember the community that orbited CB’s, which was the nucleus of the alternative music scene (including those outliers: the A-7 Club, the Lismar Lounge, the Aztec, the Peppermint Lounge, the Pyramid Club, the Rock Hotel...)
You rarely played pool on the pool table (it was usually covered with plywood). You always were polite to Hilly and Karen. The bathroom (see above) was a risk.
Those days are over. After the club closed and Hilly died, there was an estate fight between daughter Lisa and her mother, which Karen lost. Right before the Malin show at John Varvatos, I ran into Dana Kristal, Hilly and Karen’s son, and gave him my condolences on the loss of his mother who’d died a few months before. Dana hates what has happened to CBGB's legacy. It’s become a commercial enterprise. All that remains are the stories, most of them simultaneously personal and cultural (for instance, I was at the ill-fated Replacements show that had them walk off stage, drunk, in a club full of record execs; I thought they stunk, but I was too busy having an argument with my own guitarist).
Once, a few years back, I was walking along St. Mark’s Place with my son and we saw the CBGB store (since closed), and a tall skinhead I didn’t know opened the door for us. Inside: t-shirts of all sorts, CDs and DVDs Recorded Live at CBGB, framed photos, books. CBGB had become an industry, so far from its roots. The skinhead, as it turns out, was working behind the counter and heard me say to Alex, “It’s so sad.”
The skinhead didn’t miss a beat: “I’ll say, but I have to make a living.”
Like the CBGB Record Canteen and the CBGB Gallery, the store went out of business a few months later. You can create a brand, but nostalgia is not a commodity easily bought or sold: you were either there or you weren’t. It has relevance or it doesn’t.
The first time I took the stage at CBGB I was 16. My band, the ridiculously named Expletive Deleted, opened for Suicidal Tendencies (famous for their song “Institutionalized”). The place was packed. I took off my glasses, so terrified was I to see such a big crowd. By the time I left New York for graduate school, I’d played there over a dozen times. I have many of those shows recorded live off the sound board still on tape. Now the name itself has become institutionalized.
I’m watching Jesse’s show get introduced by Little Steven. I’m excited to see him play again–something I get to see a few times a year. It’s not Heart Attack. No one calls me Gerry Expletive anymore (though they used to). CBGB’s official website declares it “the undisputed birthplace of punk.” I won’t argue with that, but all the punks I know grew up. Jesse’s not dishing out “Sick Kid” anymore. Those of us who stuck to our guns–the musicians, writers, artists– we don’t need CBGB any more than we need The Ritz (now Webster Hall). But boy, we needed it then. Did we ever.
A Note About The Author: Gerry LaFemina is the author of thirteen books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest collections are Notes for the Novice Ventriloquist (prose poems, 2013, Mayapple Press), Little Heretic (poems), and Palpable Magic: Essays on Poets and Prosody, both from Stephen F Austin University Press.