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A Fitting (Room) Heir to CBGB


In this space on October 17, 2006, I discussed my feelings about CBGB, the famous birthplace of punk rock on New York's legendary Bowery. Mainly how I found the mass whinging over the demise of this down-at-the heels landmark excessive and hypocritical, even as a longtime patron of the historic nightspot—yes, even as an alumnus of that notorious stage. CBGB changed the world and it changed my life. Among the acts I saw there: Blondie, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Suicide, the Contortions, Television, DNA, Elda and the Stilettos, the Damned, Robert Gordon, Mink de Ville, Heartbreakers, the Fleshtones, the Patti Smith Group, Jayne County, Tuff Darts, the Dictators, the Marbles, the Dead Boys, the Mumps, the Feelies, the Sic Fucks, the Steel Tips, the Shirts, Pere Ubu, the Kojaks, and even AC/DC. It was a whole new world of music.

My own band, Konelrad, the world's first socialist-realist rock band, performed here. In fact we caused a riot, a sort of low-key Altamont when Hell's Angels, upset by groupies throwing the bikers' drinks at our guitar player, began using the latter as punching bags. That night I got to use Mick Jagger's line from Gimme Shelter: "Brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters, why are we fighting?" It was great.

CB's was an interesting club. It was pretty big and had one of the longer bars in New York City. Just inside the door was a coat check which had been converted into a space where the dogs belonging to the owner of the club, Hilly Krystal, could take a dump anytime they wanted. Still, it was cleaner than the patrons' bathrooms downstairs.

Hilly lucked into a gold mine with CBGB (& OMFUG), as the marquee read. That stood for Country, Blue Grass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers. I guess that was Hilly's idea. He seemed like the kind of guy who would have rather been listening to Waylon Jennings. But then Television wandered in off the street, saw the stage and PA and asked if they could play there, and the rest is history. Sort of. History is a strange thing. Spike Lee's film Summer of Sam, which takes place in about 1977, shows a punk show at CB's, and the audience is a bunch of pogoing, safety-pin-punctured leatherettes with dayglo Mohawks. Not authentic. In fact, nobody called punk rock "punk rock," and everybody then dressed kind of regular, in denim and leather with a little sharkskin and rockabilly thrown in. The full-dress caricature punks did eventually show up, a decade or so later when the place had become institutionalized and a venue for hardcore and other mutant forms of "punk." And CBGB became a sort of caricature of its former self. Sometimes death is better than lingering. What was the old punk expression? Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. But CB's was on life support for years.

I lived in the neighborhood but I tended to avoid the place because I usually had no interest in the maybe six bands that would be playing on a given night, and might not have mixed well with the trenchcoat-mafia, fourth-generation rebels that now frequented the place. I'd rather go the Knitting Factory or the Blue Note. But of course I looked kindly on the place until people began protesting the raising of the rent and getting political, or pseudo-political, about it. I'm sure Hilly had the chance to buy the place many times over but didn't bother until those market forces the Republicans are always talking about kicked in and Bowery real estate went through the roof. But there was something hypocritical about the whole thing. Hilly had been raking it in for years. It wasn't a charity. I felt that if Patti Smith was really that upset she should have put up the money for Mr. Krystal to buy the joint. But it's more fun to blame the capitalists who ruined the city by eliminating slums and crime.

Eventually I got so tired of hearing about it I must admit I was totally ready for somebody to take over the lease and turn it into an Italian restaurant. But instead, rather to my surprise, I was on my way to Whole Foods the other day to pick up some unpasteurized cheeses and Balthazar Bakery bread when I noticed that a new marquee was there, where the former club had been boarded up. John Varvatos.


Now I'm sure that lots of people are finding some "sell-out" angle in this, but I don't mind at all. Any clothing designer that uses Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper for models is okay by me. I immediately walked into the store and, what do you know, my close personal friend James Chance was playing there. Well, on the stereo system. James was singing his jazzy version of James Brown's "King Heroin." It was too perfect. James played here live on many occasions, with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and with his own bands the Contortions and James White and the Blacks. At this point I'm sure he'd rather be playing here on the store stereo than playing live in a CBGB filled with dayglo-haired teen tourists.

In the front of the store is a good selection of vinyl for sale. Then there is a bunch of pretty high-end vintage amplifiers and stereo receivers and other components. There are some Fender telecasters in a glass case, undoubtedly played by someone historic like Tom Verlaine or Richard Lloyd, and then there is the big old famous bar. It was the first time I had seen it without a Budweiser on it, but it looked beautiful and polished. Just behind that are a lot of clothes and a little stage, not where the original was, but fully set up with drums, amps, mics, the whole thing. I guess if the salesmen feel like jamming, there you go. I'm not really sure. I didn't stay long, because I had cheese on my mind, but I figured I'd come back some time and try on some of those dead-man's boots they have for sale. Like Ralph Lauren, Vavartos offers choice vintage stuff alongside the new merch, and some of it looked refreshingly gnarly. At my age you can either buy a Corvette or a pair of studded motorcycle boots.

Anyway, I approve, slightly conditionally, of this neighborhood transition. Jesus, it could have been Starbucks.

And I believe that John Varvatos is genuinely rock and roll. I mean, as genuinely as anything rock and roll can be. Because rock and roll is ultimately a pose. And despite the fact that at some point in the history of what is called punk, "poseur" was about the worst thing anyone could call you, the whole point was posing until the pose took and your dreams became authentic. Today, in the world where the Bowery is where millionaires live, authenticity is what you make of it. I wear it, therefore I am.



Dear Glenn,
I remember that riot at your Konelrad show at CB's.
I was there. With you.
I had done,...or was in the process of doing,...some splaterry lettering for a magazine you were thinking of doing and you were nice enough to invite my soon-to-be-ex-wife and I to come with you to the show.
Believe it or not,...aside from being ocassionally thrown around by the odd Hell's Angel (Twice in one evening!) that was the only violence I ever recall seeing in any of the, so called, punk clubs.
I recall having to drag my girlfriend, Jeanie, out of the club when she became determined to join in the fray when the glass started flying. (ALCOHOL!!!) I recall a barstool clattering across the stage.
I remember your Mick Jagger impression.
I always had a good time around you and am only sorry that I left NYC before you started your cable program. I'm glad you are putting out the DVD's and although I am anything but a Style Guy myself I enjoy reading your columns in GQ. In fact,...it's the only real reason I ever pick up an issue.
I hope you are well.
Steve Taylor
New Orleans

I always enjoy your writing. FYI(I was recently in the Jack Spade shop in Greene and your image is on a tv screen on the back shelf.) It's good to get your perspective on this. The one constant in New York is change. Having worked on 17th at Union Sq for 15 yrs, I much prefer to take a walk through the park today (although I don't dig the mall shops, it's fun to to walk with my teen daughter and show her the former home of the Factory or around the block Max's. Maybe more fun for me? Recently While down at Kate's Paper's, I noticed that nothing has taken the space of the Lonestar. I have fond memories of the Bottom Line and the Ritz too. The only band I ever recall seeing at CBGBS's is the Tom Tom Club. It was the mid 80's and it was a blast. I'm gray and live in CT now. Last year I happened to catch the latest version of the Tom Tom Club at a benefit and they are still wonderful. Every time I hear genius of love I'm reminded of that night at CBGB's. Someone said "it's good to look back, as long as you don't stare". That's the vibe I get from you.

Yes, indeed, McT, they should use that bar at Varvatos. More stores should selectively offer libations. Although I must say my first impression being in that space again was "How did they get rid of the beers smell?" That's a very good question, C.G., about Warhol, Basquiat etc.. I think that's my next post?

Awesome as always! Take a look at this funny you tube video of New York's own Jeffrey Lewis doing his version of the history of punk rock: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88QLxLHQW_M

I have been curious to know if you have seen films that have depicted Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, the "scenes" that I am unfortunately too young to have enjoyed and possibly any other people you may have known over the years. Have you seen, "I shot Andy Warhol," "Basquiat", "Factory Girl"...? What is your opinion of the interpretations of the people and the times in these films?

Kudos Glen! The times they have a changed (to loosely quote another New York icon), and having John Varvatos in the neighborhood is way better than any Starbucks or Chase Manhattan bank (damn you former landlord of 2nd Ave Deli!) They should utilize the bar as a bar though. What better way to get men to shop than to offer booze?

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