Monday, October 16, 2006

Goodbye to CBGB's

One night in the late seventies, in Chicago, this exchange took place at a Patti Smith show:

Audience Member: "They burned down 'Le Mer'!"
Patti Smith: "Yeah? Build another one."

It was funny this morning reading about Patti crying at the last show at CBGB's, generally considered to be the first punk club. "I'm sentimental" she said.

Sentimental? Patti Smith?

How things have changed. Patti is sentimental and punk is celebrated. Punk was scorned in its early days. Now, CBGBs' closing was on the front page of the New York Times.

A few years ago, Patti Smith played a concert for the Old Town School of Folk Music at Welles Park, here in Chicago, where my son plays baseball in the summers. It was the single busiest night I ever remember at Jury's, the little restaurant I work at down the street. Chatting with people, I found that people had come in from all over the country to see her. Punk had finally arrived.

There's been a lot of hand-wringing about the closing of the club. Yes, I'm sad about it, but in reality, we've lost lots of good clubs everywhere. Here in Chicago, Over Easy, a great club on the southwest side, closed in 1986. The Exit's never been the same since it moved off of Wells Street and on to to North Avenue. Gaspar's got sold and turned into Schuba's-- it's a nice club, but not a punk bar anymore. Club Dreamerz closed years ago. The G-Spot lasted only a year or so in the '90's. About the only real punk club left is my friend Chuck Uchida's club on Augusta, Club Foot.

After Le Mer burned down, there was O'Banion's. And there was Tut's, which came and went. It's funny to hear people talk about all of these places with reverence, but in the end, there was a wonderful seediness and a million tawdry stories. I was too young to get into these places (or not, according to a lot of the people I met who made it into these places underage). I never made it to CBGB's, either. But CBGB's made it to me.

Punk saved me. Punk was a million things to me and everybody else: it was intelligent, stupid, sweet, angry, funny, humorless, incisive, historical, loving, hateful, romantic, simple, complex-- the list is endless. It gave my generation a way to bang heads and still have some brains.

Listening to the Clash and others made me realize that someone else had figured out that there was something wrong in the world. The Ramones, who I always called the Beach Boys of punk (I was stunned to find, when I went to New York for the first time in 1998 that there really WAS a Rockaway Beach!) brought fun to punk-- though they could be a little serious, like in Bonzo Goes to Bitburg. The New York Dolls, the Dictators, the Dickies-- there's a ton of old punk to explore. (BTW, a good start is the Rhino "No Thanks!" collection of '70's punk.)

I have to confess to neglecting music for a long time. Kurt Cobain killed himself a couple of weeks after my son was born. It was already a really emotional time in my life. I remember coming home from work late that night, picking up my newspaper, reading the story and then crying while I changed a diaper and fed my newborn son. It affected me deeply. For a long time, I just didn't listen to new music. I was heartbroken. And busy.

Now, with my kids starting to listen to punk-- and after getting Sirius radio from my wife for my birthday this year-- I've been listening to new music again. The Boss Martians, the Fondas and others are getting me to listen to new stuff for the first time in years. I'm even catching up with some stuff I missed the first time around.

Closing CBGB's is the end of an era, to be sure. But the fact that its passing is noted shows that punk made its mark. Punk lives. It lives in the great memories of the bands I heard; it lives in the friendships I have in which punk has been the soundtrack to our lives; and it lives in the new bands that are influenced by the old stuff. Punk gave my generation a refuge from Reagan and conformity and jocks and all the other bullshit that surrounded us. We heard bands like the Clash and the Dead Kennedys standing up to the crap all around us. It made me realize that there were other people thinking the same things about what was going on-- and still does. I hope it does the same for this generation.

Last night Patti rattled off a list of the people who weren't there for CBGB's send-off. Most of the Ramones. Stiv Bators. Most of the New York Dolls. A bunch of people. Being a punk-rocker was a high-risk profession. I was only a fan, and I put some hard miles on my odometer. Punk, though, is still alive and well. People are falling in love with punk for the same reasons I did. As Bubs said in his blog today, "the spirit lives on."

And we've still got Patti Smith, bless her heart.


lulu said...

What a nice tribute.

I was too young for most of those clubs, and by the time I was old enough, Punk had become a huge fashion statement. I remember getting dolled up to go to a show (Raygun maybe?) at Metro, and Sharon (tenS) applying ring after ring of eyelier to my eyes, standing back and shaking her head in sorrow. Evidently I still looked like the Ralph Lauren girl, and not like a gritty punkette.

Despite my girly-girl looks, I loved the music, loved the "scene" and the people, because it was so far removed from the little plastic suburb where I grew up.

My favorite students tend to be the little alternikids, the ones with the colored hair and the goofy clothes. I love their passion and their outrage.

Last year I mentioned something about going toa show at Metro to one of my classes and one kid said "Are you one of the weird old people at our club?" No honey, you're one of the pain in the ass kids at MY club.

Johnny Yen said...

That's funny-- one night somewhere around I was in the Gingerman with my friend Dianna, a friend from college, and her boyfriend Mark, who was a bartender at the Exit (you'd remember him-- he was about six foot six). A a little 708'er girl walked by with a leather jacket that was so new it had that new leather smell. Dianna turned to me and said "Remember when dressing in black meant something?"

I remember reading an interview with Dylan, where he talked about how fast the punk thing became fashion. It was funny because my father had said the same thing about the sixties; my family lived in Lincoln Park from 1964 to 1968, when it was hippy/radical central (my dad was an electrician with three kids, so he lived vicariously through our friends and neighbors). He said it seemed like the more radical the person was, the harder they sold out.

It's funny-- where I work, it's the kids who work at school and want to do something with their lives that are radical. When I worked in Cicero, though, I had my little punkettes-- they were usually Green Day fans. I think of Green Day as punk with training wheels; it'll lead to the real thing eventually.

People are always surprised too at me-- I look very straight. Punk's not necessarily a look-- it's an attitude. But with apologies to Tom Robinson, "You don't have to wear a leather jacket to sing this song... but it helps...."

Johnny Yen said...

That should have been "somewhere around 1990." I haven't had enough of my postwork coffee yet.

Bubs said...

Well done. I like what you said about looking "straight" now, since I fit that bill pretty much. My bride and I both refer to rockabilly as the punk rock retirement plan. It's a common beef of both my daughters--"punk" being a form of consumption, rebellion being sold as a fashion. The store Hot Topic is horrible, a corporate shill for prepackaged "punk". But the thing is, they have really really good t shirts that it's hard to find anywhere else. Oh well.

We had our wedding reception in 1986 at Neo on Clark St. We ruled out Exit and 950, I can't remember why. Your list of vanished clubs got me nostalgic.

Lulu, that's funny about the Metro. The last few times I've been at the Metro, or the Aragon, I've been with my kids. And I'm sure I look just like another overprotective suburban dad watching over his kids. Ha. Next month we'll all be at the Music Box at the Crispin Glover slideshow, and in December it's the Raconteurs at the Riviera.

Tenacious S said...

Hey Johnny, Lu told me I needed to read, so here I am. I can't imagine my life without punk. The sense of community at the VFW hall shows where everyone was welcome, the feeling that you did have a voice if you wanted to claim it, the fact that the music encapsulated all those emotions that weren't always publicly acceptable. Can't wait to tell you all about the surprise........wish I could say more, but I've been sworn to secrecy.

Johnny Yen said...

Hey-- what can I say-- I never made it to CBGB's, but I bought the t-shirt at the Urban Outfitters in Berkeley. It's the message.

I never made it much into Neo's until the mid-90's. When I was a full-time waiter, Sundays and Mondays were my weekend. I used to make it a point to get to 80's night on Sundays. Got a funny bicycle mishap story from one of those nights that I'll probably blog about soon.

Are you and the missus fans of the Riptones? Earl, their bass player, was one of my best friends in high school. He had past-the-shoulder hair back then. He was definitely one of the people that made high school tolerable. In any event, Earl's not doing well-- he was in a really bad car wreck 20 years ago, and had to be hospitalized for it again recently. Of course, being a musician, he has no insurance. There's a benefit at Martyr's on Sunday, November 5 for him.

Tenacious S-- just saw the news about Raygun! I'm jealous! Have fun! I used to hang out with Jeff, Haggerty and company at Overeasy, a south side club around '85 and '86. We were hanging with them the night of a great show in the spring of '86 at a long-gone place called "Crosscurrents." Big Black, Scratch Acid and Killdozer-- for five bucks! I died when I saw that they were all playing at the Touch and Go party-- tickets were long gone by the time I found out.