“its over. let it go.”
“What’s next, a CBGB theme park in Orlando?”
“Please….Let it R E S T in Peace”
—CBGBS Facebook Page Commenters
Reviving the Spirit
I’ve heard the grumbling over the Interwebs and spreading throughout the streets of New York and Brooklyn. The cries of the punks (paraphrasing): “sell-out,” “it’s dead,” “NYC and CBGBs throwing a concert in Times Square… a commercial miasma!” and so on and so forth. The comment backlash began immediately after a May 7th, somewhat out-of-the-blue, Festival-announcement article in the New York Times, with a subsequent May 8th article in Rolling Stone. The gist of comments posted on the Rolling Stone article boiled down: the Festival is a blatant commercial ploy.
It’s possible that that’s the mindset behind the four-day event that starts today in Manhattan and Brooklyn, though Lisa Kristal Burgman, the daughter of CBGB legend, Hilly Kristal, after wrestling control of the brand name in a fierce legal battle following the death of her father in 2006, seems to have made sure to sell the rights to people with former vested love in the club itself. Sure, my brain screams that it’s another death knell in NYC’s neverending march toward clean-cut oblivion, but heck, it’s like everything else in this town. We won’t even talk about the CBGBs movie currently filming in Savannah, Georgia, of all places, either. For better or worse, CBGBs is a commercial product and holding any type of festival in New York City automatically equals a hell of a lot money spent, lost, or earned. But here’s the bottom line: at least the organizers are giving it the old college try, maybe for the love of money, but probably also out of love for the passed-on spirit of CBGB. I’m willing to see what the festival brings before I pronounce it dead on arrival.
You Can Never Go Back
CBGB will always live in the hearts of those who frequented the now-defunct building located at 315 Bowery in the heart of what used to be the grimiest, grittiest, most “real” part of New York City known as The Bowery. Intermixed with the “real” New York of the Bowery (where you can still find people splayed drunk on the ground), are fancy restaurants, apartment buildings, and hotels where lowly NYers like me can’t — and never will — afford dinner let alone an apartment or night’s hotel stay. For those of us who remember the Bowery and CBGB as it was, we miss not necessarily the grime or crime (it’s still plenty dirty though much safer), but the spirit of independence that seems to be dying with each closing venue or flophouse on the Bowery, the East Village, or Lower East Side. There’s too many closed places to mention, but two good blogs that capture both the overall changes in NYC and the East Village are Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York and the EV Grieve. EV Grieve’s by-line reads: “Here, you’ll find things that you may or may not be interested in about the East Village and other parts of New York City. Appreciating what’s here while it’s still here. Remembering what’s no longer here. Wishing some things weren’t here that are here.”
All I’m Hoping for is a Heartbeat
Starting with Mayor David Dinkins in the early 1990s (yes, I know, some will scoff and say it all started with Rudy Giuliani), the city began a cleanup from the accumulated blight of three centuries of existence and moved toward what it is today: a Disney-fied playground for the rich. The bandshell of Tompkins Square Park in the East Village was vanished and the park beautified in the late 1980s, beginning that area’s overpriced tenement real estate craze. The Meatpacking District‘s S&M club, The Vault (aka The Manhole, and the Hellfire Club), shut down and slaughterhouses turned into Fifth Avenue-type clothing stores. Times Square’s porn palaces ended in movie megaplexes and Broadway got a facelift away from bulb-powered billboards to huge plasma screen displays all over the goddamned place, but at night, it’s a beautiful sight to behold, if you look up long enough to gaze at the displays without wanting to punch a tourist.
There’s a constant pull between the old and the new, but it’s always been like that in New York City. In 1898, when the city consolidated its current area as Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island, Brooklyn lamented its being swallowed up by Manhattan, and 114 years later, people still bitch about Consolidation. NYC is a place — for good or bad — that constantly remakes itself every couple of generations.
Today, the old CBGB’s space is a high-priced John Varvatos clothing store. Socks go for big bucks, and the cost of a jacket? Fudgeddaboutit. Whether John Varvatos loves music or not (which he obviously does as many of his publicity campaigns include rock stars such as Green Day)… thats, just… wrong, in the eyes of not only me, but others as well. No offense to Varvatos himself, but when the battle between Hilly Kristal and his landlord ended in the demise of the club and the Varvatos store moved in, it felt like a knife slicing through the heart, the end of a spirit of independence, of a connection to the poor and the punks, and an ironic twist of angst was left that’s difficult to let go of, even years after CBGBs closed.
Green Day in John Varvatos
Since you can’t go back to the old days… and really, if you remember what the Bowery was like in 1985, the year I moved to NYC from Detroit — drug infested, dangerous, and just plan nasty — what is there left to do? You can either let CBGB die a noble, final death and still make money from the brand profits alone… or you can create a giant festival in the name of CBGB, in the heart of New York (and Brooklyn) and attempt to infuse some spirit back into that once independent club on Bowery, if in name only.
I was discussing this on Facebook and a Native New Yorker friend wrote: “CBGB’s never represented anything to me other then a nasty hole in the wall that smelled like Port Authority. Sure a LOT of great bands were fostered there, but the mystique around it has to do with the Energy, the Time and specific Place fusing perfectly [emphasis mine]… [Today’s CBGB has] GOT to be sincere, in it for LOVE, not some concept of success — maybe not PUNK ethos, but certainly one for any kind of REAL Authentic expression, however it manifests.”
CBGB’s old haunt has died, Hilly Kristal has died, and maybe New York has died, too, but if CBGB’s was worth it in the first place, isn’t it worth breathing life back into it and hoping to find some heartbeat of authentic expression? I believe it is. So I hope, despite a strange and somehow lackluster slew of bands listed for the festival, that I’ll hear somewhere, a faint heartbeat of the old Bowery and CBGBs.