I went back to CBGB for a night last Friday and had the most unexpected epiphany. A book party brought me to Manhattan’s over-gentrified nether regions and I wound up wandering down to 315 Bowery for a haunted look at what is now a glass-fronted John Varvatos boutique.
CBGB closed in 2006. Though I was already long gone from the neighborhood, I had left behind there the best part of my early 20s. I consider those long nights on the Bowery after dark my post-graduate degree.
The music, of course, seemed the sum of it all, but it wasn’t. I think I may have sensed this at the time but I was too besotted with the whole noisome, sweaty business to think about it much. I mean, I wasn’t at CBs to think.
I’d come looking to escape mostly, the insipid, disco-centric blather of the late-1970s especially, in a barroom full of dissonance; sonic and otherwise. It is very much a platitude at this late date, but to restate: CBGB was a home to outsiders, some of them talented, some of them merely mad (or just very angry), not all of them alienated but nearly all of them unhinged from the mainstream. I fell in with these outsiders as an outsider myself, but not an exile utterly from Main Street, as most of them were. I passed through their thrashing defiance of the conventional like a surfer tossed hand-to-hand over a seething mosh pit (before “mosh pits” even had a name). Sometimes I dove straight to the bottom. Sometimes I didn’t.
Around 1980 or so, I sat down with a bunch of regulars comprising five bands to write a story about life and music on the cutting edge. “New Wave” was the rage in the record business and a compilation album called 2×5 had just come out featuring two cuts each by these five groups. Their breakout into the mainstream seemed imminent. I embarked on a very long and detailed article about them all. Rolling Stone, where I’d been working, was considering the piece seriously. So was New York magazine. Then, just like that, three of the bands broke up. I tried to reshape the article from a story of promise into a story of breakup on the downtown music scene. But the story died.
I lingered around the bar at CBGB for at least five more years, but I have remained good friends with members of one band, The Student Teachers, for nearly forty years since. When we first met, Bill Arning, Philip Shelley, Lori Reese, Joe Katz, David Scharff and Laura Davis were among CBGB’s youngest club kids (again before there was such a term) who’d started their own group while still teenagers in high school, after running fan clubs for earlier CBGB bands; a case of the kids down front climbing out of the audience and onto the stage, which you might say was CBGB’s Darwinian evolutionary model.
Every band is a saga unto itself but The Student Teachers were an especially juicy one. To sum up that saga in a sentence, let’s just say that The Student Teachers were seduced by the keyboard player for Blondie (then-CBGB’s biggest, and virtually only, commercially successful band) a lout named Jimmy Destri, who became their mentor, introduced them to David Bowie, then abandoned them. The whole story has now been written down by Laura Davis-Chanin, The Student Teachers’ original drummer, in a memoir she has titled THE GIRL IN THE BACK: A Female Drummer’s Life with Bowie, Blondie and the Seventies Rock Scene.
It was this book’s release that brought me to The Bowery Electric, a relatively new club just up the block from the old CBGB, last Friday night for the book party. Laura was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis right around the time I began writing my 2×5 article, an appalling turn of events that left her wheelchair-bound but unbowed. Her two children were at the party along with a load of CBGB kids I hadn’t seen in forever, kids who had all managed to grow up and become incredibly old, like me.
But that wasn’t the epiphany.
The mantra of punk, in its day, was: Nothing Matters. This nihilism appealed to me when blasted in musical form by CBGB bands like The Ramones and Television, Talking Heads and The Dead Boys, The Student Teachers and their 2×5 peers, The Fleshtones, The Bloodless Pharaohs, The Comateens and The Revelons. The members of most of those bands had barely learned to play their instruments when they hit the stage at CBGB. Proficiency was not the point. Lack of proficiency was even partly the message. Standing in The Bowery Electric, however, reminiscing with my fellow former-outsiders, who’d stumbled into a bar on the Bowery in the mid-1970s and discovered possibility and self-definition there in the sheer, raw freedom to create absolutely anything, I found myself suddenly flashing on Donald Trump and our moment in time. (Yes, this happens a lot these days.)
The difference between now and then, I realized, was the open-ended limitlessness of our sense of dissolution then and the oppressive restrictiveness of our sense of dissolution now. The lid was off in the late-1970s, nobody seemed to be in charge. The nihilistic noise that CBGB engendered was, supremely, the sound of personal freedom expressed. It wasn’t that nothing mattered, it’s that everything mattered so much you just had to scream and yell.
Today, as the lid is clamped tighter and tighter by the forces of ignorance, there is a CBGB legacy to grab onto. It hit me the other night like a bottle bashing against a wall: Resistance. Fury. Freedom.
Trumpet it. Make noise. Kick out the jams.
Because it’s never too little. Or too loud.