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.