Rock ‘n’ Roll High School
CBGB’S shuts down this weekend.
There’s not too much left to say about the character of the joint. It’s the most famous rock ’n’ roll club in the world, the most famous that there ever has been, and it’s just as famously a horrendous dump. It’s the archetypal, the ur, dim and dirty, loud, smelly and ugly nowhere little rock ’n’ roll club. There’s one not much different from it in every burg in the country.
Only, like a lot of New York, CBGB’s is more so, way more so. And of course, for three or four years in the mid-70’s, it housed the most influential cluster of bands ever to grow up — or to implicitly reject the concept of growing up — under one roof.
On practically any weekend from 1974 to 76 you could see one or more of the following groups (here listed in approximate chronological order) in the often half-empty 300-capacity club: Television, the Ramones, Suicide, the Patti Smith Group, Blondie, the Dictators, the Heartbreakers, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and the Dead Boys. Not to mention some often equally terrific (or equally pathetic) groups that aren’t as well remembered, like the Miamis and the Marbles and the Erasers and the Student Teachers. Nearly all the members of these bands treated the club as a headquarters — as home. It was a private world. We dreamed it up. It flowered out of our imaginations.
How often do you get to do that? That’s what you want as a kid, and that’s what we were able to do at CBGB’s. It makes me think of that Elvis Presley quotation: “When I was a child, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer. I read comic books, and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies, and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream I ever dreamed has come true a hundred times.” We dreamed CBGB’s into existence.
The owner of the club, Hilly Kristal, never said no. That was his genius. Though it’s dumb to use the word genius about what happened there. It was all a dream. Many of us were drunk or stoned half our waking hours, after all. The thing is, we were young there. You don’t get that back. Even children know that. They don’t want their old stuff thrown away. Everything should be kept. I regret everything I’ve ever thrown away.
CBGB’s was like a big playhouse, site of conspiracies, orgies, delirium, refuge, boredom, meanness, jealousy, kindness, but most of all youth. Things felt and done the first time are more vivid. CBGB’s is where many things were felt with that vividness. That feeling is the real identity of the club, to me. And it’s horrible, or at least seriously sad, to lose it. But then, apparently, we aren’t really going to lose it.
CBGB’s is going to be dismantled and reconstructed as an exhibit in Las Vegas, like Elvis. I like that. A lot. I really hope it happens as intended.
It’s occurred to me that Hilly’s genius passivity is something he has in common with Andy Warhol. Another trait of Warhol’s was that he fanatically tried to keep or record everything that ever happened in his vicinity, from junk mail in “time capsules” to small talk to newspaper front pages and movie star publicity shots to 24 hours of the Empire State Building.
We all know that nothing lasts. But at least we can make a cool and funny exhibit of it.
I’m serious. God likes change and a joke. God loves CBGB’s.
Richard Hell, a musician, is the author of the novel “Godlike” and the film critic for BlackBook magazine.