Will CBGB’s Ever Really Come Back?

News comes that CBGB’s will be revived as a festival and then a club. Investors and even old CBGB’s hands will try to bring it back to life. Whether it will be a glorious resurrection or a Frankenstein-type thing remains to be seen. CBGB’s couldn’t shine Max’s Kansas City’s shoes on most nights, but it was where I gathered to shoot the shit, mingle, and find love. It always had new blood, new wannabe groupie-types being bad in the big city. Yeah, back then I was always looking for love in the wrong kind of places…and in the wrong kind of faces.

It was long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I was at the Academy of Music—now the Palladium Housing on 14th street where Irving dead-ends. I weighed in at a buck 35, wore ripped jeans, pointy boots, and a Ramones T-Shirt; no, not one of the ones you see every day on today’s streets designed by brilliant Ramones artist Arturo Vega—it was a T-shirt an actual Ramone had worn at a show. Yeah, I had washed it, and, yeah, I was down with that. I can’t remember the big band on the big stage, but I know I was bored. So bored that I did a line with an annoying Staten Island couple. It wasn’t coke. I didn’t do much coke or any other drugs for that matter, but I knew this wasn’t it. What it was made me loopy. I ran home. Home wasn’t my walk-up in the ’30s but CBGB’s. It was there that I would hang my head and bop my head and conduct a very raw social life. I was a regular. A regular that was the subject of much debate from parental units, and old friends but rock and roll is a drug I have never been able to get off of. A couple weeks before at the dirty, dingy, rock mecca, Marky Ramone had noticed some suits watching some mullet hair-band. He pointed out the way they were standing was in the formation of bowling pins and he attempted to strike with a trademark large beer mug. I got him away before it was eight on two, which would have turned into thirty on eight, as the cavalry surely would have arrived. It was like that.

I arrived at CB’s on wobbly legs and a confused brain. I told Don, the door guy, the condition my condition was in. He put me up against a wall and told me to stand there so he could keep an eye on me. A Coke kept me occupied. As the world swirled and a rotten band screamed about how bland their suburban lives were, I noticed two hot girls chatting about me with Don. It was all eye contact, giggles, and fun, and I wanted one of them more than the Coke and the wall. The small one, all leathered and laced and bursting with…energy, came up to me and pressed up against my punk profile. Sharp black nails made her point. She looked up at me with black eyes surrounded by smeared black makeup and asked me, "Are you some sort of rock star or something, or are you just good in bed?” I replied very cleverly that "I was no rock star" and she concluded that I "must be good in bed" I won’t bore you with the next few hours. It was a typical CB’s story. A typical wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am story. My golden rule of the time was to never, ever go home with a girl whose hair could hurt you. But…rules were made to be broken. The Bowery was a littered shoreline of broken rules and hopes and dreams.

Sure, some came for the bands, and a few among the thousands who came and had their dreams shattered on the rock chops of that Manhattan stage did break on through to the other side. You know their names—they are legendary. Everyone came through CBGB’s. The good, the bad, and the ugly all had their place.

A hundred places still have a stage and a room and the ambitions to replace it, but none have come close. None had Hilly Crystal. CBGB’s without Hilly is like Casablanca’s Rick’s Café American without Humphrey Bogart’s Rick. Clubs have leaders and personalities at their helm. McDonald’s can fly without Ray Kroc and Kentucky Fried without the colonel, but Studio without Steve Rubell was never Studio. John Varvatos occupies the old space and does so without being an occupier or invader. When CB’s ended over a rent dispute, it wasn’t near as relevant as the T-shirts still seen everywhere. Everything looks good after it’s gone. Shoot, when Jim Croce died he sold zillions of records. Everyone needed his junkyard dog track after he passed—not so much before.

The CBGB’s Festival talk is about Guided By Voices and that’s a wow. Three-hundred bands will play NYC venues large and small in a CMJ Music Festival-like format. The Cro-Mags will headline a hardcore show at Webster Hall. Williamsburg venues will be included. It sounds like a great idea. Time will tell whether it will just be a bunch of entrepreneurs picking at the bones of a brand or if Hilly’s spirit will somehow be felt. Will the new CBCB’s venue capture that spirit? Is it possible to recreate spirit? I remember all those lame attempts to recreate Woodstock, which of course never happened. The energies of places happen organically. I hate that phrase—it’s so fucking crunchy—but in this case I think it applies.

The success of CB’s, the spirit of it, came of course from the boldface bands that made it famous, like The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Blondie, The Police, and such. I believe that a great deal of its spirit came from the forgotten bands who put it all in what sometimes was the pinnacle of their careers, even though their audience was sometimes nothing more than bored staff and a few drunk regulars. They had loaded up the van with dreams of super stardom and stadiums and all the trappings of fame riding with them. They mostly left those dreams and that energy and their hopes on that stage. It remained there, and those who paid attention could feel it like grandmother’s ghost at Thanksgiving dinner. How many hundreds of thousands loaded in and out? How many trips home were in silence or heated arguments? Everyone left a little behind. I suspect that the rebirth will be merely OK. It’s hard to make money on live music, so there’s a danger that the place will just flitter into a glorified T-shirt store for the tourist trade. I don’t think it will do well if it tries to go back. Tim Hayes, a principal, said somewhere, “We want to make room for some of the legends that came from CBGB, but the primary focus is to support new music.” I think that makes sense and could turn that OK into a WOW.

They’re looking to buy a building so that they aren’t plagued with big rents when they reestablish the big brand. A rent increase closed CBGB’s a year before Hilly passed. All the king’s horses came to perform at benefits to keep it going, but the neighborhood had changed and is now home to new high-rises, fine dining, and scenester bars. Only Bowery Electric, a handful of panhandling stragglers, and a sign that calls second street Joey Ramone Place remind passers-by of the glory. I can’t see neighborhoods in Manhattan relishing this type of venue near their bedrooms and suspect Greenpoint or Williamsburg will provide the answers. Manhattan and certainly the Bowery are not the creative cauldrons that fed the CB’s scene. Brooklyn can provide that.

You Want To Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Drinking With Rosie Schaap

Rosie Schaap, the New York Times Magazine’s Drink columnist and author of the forthcoming memoir Drinking With Men, tends the bar one afternoon a week at South in Park Slope. It’s a comfy neighborhood spot—the popcorn’s gratis, a modest television plays English soccer games, and on a chalkboard menu at the far end of the bar, listed under the grilled cheese, is “The Ryan”—the same thing but with jam on top. It’s named for a young guy I saw in there the other day sipping a hot toddy and reading the newspaper. Rosie said he works mornings at a coffee shop down the street. 

I’d figured that getting a sandwich named after you was generally an honor reserved for Yankees legends and Broadway stars (RIP Stage Deli)—but really, there’s no reason a neighborhood kid that likes jam on his grilled cheese shouldn’t be the concept’s namesake. And what makes even more sense is the very fact that Rosie wound up at a place like this. A former teenage Deadhead with a history of serial regularity at the likes of Puffy’s Tavern, Liquor Store, and the Metro North bar car, she’s less a drink writer than someone who writes about people whom she happens to drink with. 

In the book, she recounts lessons learned in the Irish tradition of good craic (bar discourse with rhythm and flow), and the New York tradition of buybacks (“Free drinks are like blow jobs—if you have to ask, you don’t deserve one.”). She spent most of her undergraduate schooling at a Bennington watering hole and most of her graduate schooling at an artists’ bar in TriBeCa. It was from the expats at Good World Bar and Grill that she acquired her love of Tottenham Hotspurs Soccer Club, and it was a brief affair with a haunt in Montreal that reminded her of the comfort of being a lone woman. But what’s consistent at each stage is the company of others who’ve had something to teach, and Rosie’s willingness to listen. That, and whiskey.

You were a budding poet, at what point did you decide that you wanted to write a memoir?
I never thought I wanted to write a memoir. Drinking With Men really started with one story, that first story on the Metro North. Over the years, as I recalled the story before writing it down, it always felt like a This American Life story to me. And I say that not just because it was weird to be this kid trying to fit in with grown-ups, and finding a way to connect with them really unexpectedly. It felt like a This American Life story because I knew what happened to me, I knew that what I took away from that experience—even though for me it came through tarot card readings—is something that a lot of people feel when they look back on their youth. That there was this time where I really tried to fit in with grown-ups and I learned I wasn’t one of them. That’s what I really remembered from that experience, was feeling really great for a few weeks, feeling like I could really hold my own among these adults, and then something happened that reminded me that I wasn’t ready for that. 

Did you go back to that idea of wanting to be ‘the kid?’
Kind of. After that experience—I was really young, I was 15—I mean, I had walked into bars on my own just to see if I could get away with it. Before then and after then. I’m not going to name names, but most people who grew up here in New York when I did kind of had a list of places that didn’t rigorously screen its clientele. So I was always interested in seeing what I could get away with. After that, I didn’t really make it my business to try and fit in with adults. It kind of happened—again, after college when I moved back to New York and found myself at Puffy’s Tavern in TriBeCa, I just sort of fell in love with the place. 

First, before I really started talking to the regulars there, I just loved the way it looked. Just a really classic, beautiful corner bar, with tile floors and a high tin ceiling. It felt very Edward Hopper, like an iconic bar, it was exactly the way I thought a corner bar should look. And then when I started to get to know the regulars—and they were, at the time, all older than I was, it was great. Here I was, twenty-four, twenty-five, and all of my new friends were in their 40s. And they had great stories, and a lot of them were artists. But they weren’t arty—you know, they were all working artists, but it’s not like we all sat around talking about art all the time. We talked about everything. And even though I was the only native New Yorker in the bunch, they all knew a New York that seemed so much cooler to me than the New York I’d grown up with. I’m perfectly at peace now with the New York I grew up in, and feel very lucky. But they had been at CBGBs in the early days, and Max’s Kansas City, you know, seeing, like, Blondie. 

Do you get nostalgic or think that people moving here now have already missed out?No, I don’t. I don’t feel that way exactly and I want to guard against slightly premature old-fogeyism. Oh, you should’ve been there when—that can get a little tedious. At Puffy’s, it never felt tedious to me hearing the stories of my elders at the time—they’d hate being referred to as my elders. But I loved it, I couldn’t get enough, hearing their stories of the 70s and 80s, when things were just a little grimier and dirtier and people seemed to be having so much fun. 

There are still great days and nights in bar culture. But I don’t think I lived through a time like that, where it was this wild, fun, decadent time. I don’t think it’s been that way in my lifetime as a grown-up, drinking person. But Puffy’s is still around, it’s still very beautiful, but it’s a very different crowd. So many of the artists who settled that area didn’t win their fights to save their lofts, as the neighborhood became so prosperous and so expensive.

And didn’t Liquor Store get turned into a J. Crew?
Ugh! It did, it did, which is still painful to see. And to hurt us Liquor Store regulars more, they kept the bar. The actual bar is still there, stacked with sweaters and stuff. Just to torture us. 

Not that being an artist necessitates bad manners, but does the etiquette in a place change as the clientele does?
I don’t think it should, you know, individuals will either have good manners or bad manners. I’ve met very well behaved, decent, polite stockbrokers, and extraordinarily rude writers. It’s a cliché—the richer a person is, the less they tip. I’ve seen exceptions to that. Groups are often hard, I mean, someone who behaves wonderfully as an individual might not in a group of loud, rowdy people. The people who tend to behave the best are those who work in other service jobs, you know. Other bartenders, people who work in restaurants, people who know what it means to have someone say please and thank you, which happens very seldom. You’ve probably heard a lot how people think your generation is so entitled. But there’s always the exceptions, there’s always the few who are like, I’m sorry about my friends. 

What’s wrong with nightclubs?
Nothing! Well, nothing for those who like them. They’ve just never appealed to me. You know, by definition they’re places where one would go to hear music and dance, which is fine, but for me, going out drinking always means going out talking, and listening. And that’s not what nightclubs are for. Also, they tend to start their hours very late. And for all my love of bar culture—I love to close a bar a couple times a year, certainly when I was younger I could close them more often. There’s something I really love about the early, early hours of a bar. It can be a little depressing, but I think in a kind of appealing way. But for me, bar culture was this kind of after-work pressure valve, so my normal hours would be six in the evening. And I love afternoons in a bar—day drinking is my favorite when I can do it. 

One exception for me was Don Hill’s. I liked the music they played, and a lot of people I’d gone to college with wound up in New York, so there were always familiar people. There was one party called Squeezebox—there was actually a documentary about Squeezebox—that was full of drag queens and interesting people.

Fish Bar has a great sign in the door that says “Please no loud talking.”
Inside the fish bar, I don’t think they care that much. But it’s so small that if you’re being really loud people are going to notice it. Its scale makes it kind of impossible not to get to know the people around you. I organized a reading series there for a couple years. And I always prefer the word organize to curate—somehow reading series started getting curated in the last 15 years. I think I prefer an organizer model to a museum model.

How do you feel about the word “mixology?”
I think it’s gross. I don’t know exactly when it came about, I think pretty early, I think an early guide to drink-making in the 19th century used mixology or some close variation on that in the title. So I think it probably came of age in one of the great eras of pseudoscience, you know.

Like phrenology?
Like phrenology, exactly! I’m not going to go around feeling the bumps on your head. I’m just going to make you a drink, I’m not going to mixologize it. I mean, there’s a lot of jargon and a lot of deep earnestness associated with drinking right now that I think is very much besides the point. The point is just to drink whatever makes you happy and have a good time. 

Does that inform your approach to writing about drinking? There’s only so much you can say about the ingredients of a beverage.
It is, I feel being a columnist is kind of the luckiest things in the world, because I’m not a critic. I can have and express opinions, and I do, but nobody has to shudder when they see me walk into their bar.  And as suspicious as I am of a kind of seriousness and complexity in cocktail culture right now—do you know about Booker and Dax? They have, like, a centrifuge. And they have purpose made hot iron pokers to heat up, you know, hot drinks. And it all sounds very space age, but when I went there, the drinks were delicious, the staff was fun and friendly, everyone there was having a great time. So, great. Let them do what they do. 

What I don’t like is when that kind of cocktail culture takes place in a setting where people aren’t really talking. Or only talking about cocktails. A bar is where you come and complain about work, talk about sports, argue about politics and music, pour your heart out, talk about breakups. All of this stuff. Coming in and talking about the greatest Old Fashioned you had. You know, if it’s a great story, well told, terrific. But if it’s a kind of competitive sport, it’s not interesting to me.

Now what’s the deal with The Grateful Dead?
You saw Nick Paumgarten’s article?

Yeah, and I love the line about him thinking it was a metal band but that actually, the lyrics are about roses and bells and dew.
Yeah the lyrics are probably my least favorite part of The Grateful Dead. They’re pretty—yeah, they’re pretty florid. 

Was your favorite part just, selling beads?
As with bars, my favorite part is always the people. The community. That’s what I loved, that’s what I was looking for. And I didn’t have the nerve to just run away from home and really make my own way, or join the circus or something like that. So The Grateful Dead was kind of a ready-made community waiting for more people to join and see the country. So when I look back on that experience, I’m most grateful for the people and I got to see so much of America that I never would’ve gotten to see otherwise. 

Have you drunk about the country since?
When I was at that age, I was also far too young to be served by most places, so I didn’t really get to experience that much bar culture across America at that time. But you know how it is, when you travel and you’re writing or reporting, you wind up at a hotel bar. Which, in great cities with great hotels, they’re some of the best bars in the world. But you know, you’re average little hotel bar, in some small hotel in Des Moines—it may not have much to distinguish itself from other hotel bars. But the people are always interesting at hotel bars, because they’re coming from everywhere, and usually a little bit lonely, and happy to have a conversation. 

You May Ask Yourself: How Does Music Work?

In 1986, David Byrne made a movie called True Stories, a mockumentary of sorts about the fictional city of Virgil, Texas. With a nod to the ugliness of industrialized civilization predicated on a mass killing of the native people, animals and vegetation, his treatment of the town—look at this field, where they build houses; the shopping mall is where people socialize on the weekend—comes in its own brand of wry compassion, with the same degree of bite as A Prairie Home Companion.

And a new book by Byrne, How Music Works, is a tour of all things musical delivered in the same voice that took us through Virgil. As smart and impeccably researched as it is, it doesn’t lack for irony. For one, it comes packaged by McSweeney’s as a minimalist coffee table tome, designed by the staggering genius himself. And threaded through an otherwise disjointed collection of chapters on Talking Heads history, the music industry, recording technology, and the science of sound is a cheekiness bordering on disdain directed at the Roger Scruton school of classical music is virtuous music, and pop music is for the plebian masses.

He spends a good deal of time picking on Theodor Adorno, who saw the jukebox, and all mechanized distribution of popular music, as a gimmick for suckers. “He might be right,” says Byrne, “but he might also have been someone who never had a good time in a honky-tonk.” It’s hard to imagine Byrne in a honky-tonk unaccompanied by a “check this shit out, I’m in a honky-tonk!” kind of attitude. Or maybe not. His ambiguous sensibility is what makes the fun parts fun.

A student of design, some of the passages on the architecture of musical spaces make for the most interesting stuff. He has a few good jabs at the opera houses and even Carnegie Hall, whose acoustics aren’t conducive to rock ’n’ roll: “This acoustic barrier could be viewed as a subtle conspiracy, a sonic wall, a way of keeping the riffraff out.” He favors the populist scenes around the likes of CBGB’s and Le Poisson Rouge (“I go to at least one live performance a week, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. There are other people there. Often there is beer there, too.”)

In a lingering op-ed piece of a chapter, he knocks the moneyed set for “supporting the arts” by preserving antiquated opera houses and museums while scores of aspiring artists and musicians go hungry. His historical tracings of musical gentrification are of note; apparently, people would drink and socialize during operas and shout at the stage, requesting encores of their favorite arias. A similar transformation occurred with jazz, where the relaxed, funky vibe was taken over by tweedy highbrow geezers in Greenwich Village. Out with dancing, in with sitting quietly. “Separating the body from the head seemed to have been an intended consequence—for anything to be serious, you couldn’t be seen shimmying around to it,” he notes.

All this is not to say that he doesn’t have any grievances with pop music. The shimmying going on in the discos of the ’70s wasn’t merely the effect of catchy tunes—“I suspect there was a drug connection as well; those high frequencies in particular sounded sparkly fresh if you were on amyl nitrate or cocaine.” And not every pop song comes off the pen of an Andre 3000 or an Aimee Mann. “In Beyoncé’s song ‘Irreplaceable’ she rhymes ‘minute’ with ‘minute,’ and I cringe every time I hear it,” he concedes.

Byrne notes in the forward that the book can be read in any order, and I may go so far as to say that certain passages can be skipped altogether, sans guilt. One chapter begins with this gem: “The online music magazine Pitchfork once wrote that I would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos.” While I think there’s nothing wrong with amassing collaborations, it gets pretty tedious to list them all; every member of an obscure Latin jam band that he may have played with gets name-checked. He gives an exhaustive account of how songs were written for all of his albums, and anyone who doesn’t know an A-flat from an A need not try to comprehend those passages. A chapter detailing the six major variants of a recording contract is enlightening by way of proving, with thorough charts and figures, that musicians make no money. But it reads like a textbook—and, in many ways, How Music Works kind of is a textbook, backed up with a thorough bibliography and peppered with annotated images. The handsome presentation may cause some hesitation, but it really is a text to read and pick through time and again.

And all this is what you’d expect, and hope for, from the foremost heady apologist of pop music. It’s a must-read for anyone who has ever felt moved by a catchy tune and wanted more. And for those who haven’t, I suppose it’s understandable—it’s hard to shimmy around a room with a stick up your ass.

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