Watching the legacy of CBGB unwind into nothingness on the big screen

cbgbposterfilmI know I should be supportive of the new indie film about the infamous Bowery bar CBGB, as it has the potential to introduce a whole new generation to the music of Television, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and all the other punk and new wave bands that came into being there in the mid-1970s, but I can’t help but think it’s really going to suck. Maybe it’s the fact that they’ve cast the drummer of the Foo Fighters as Iggy Pop, or that the man who directed the film is also responsible for making the Sinbad vehicle Houseguest, but I feel pretty certain that the experience of seeing it on the big screen is going to leave me in tears… I know that it could have been worse. I know that I should just be thankful that Justin Bieber wasn’t given the task of playing Dee Dee Ramone, but no one likes to see their favorite things in life distilled, chopped up, sanitized, packaged and sold to a bunch of unappreciative assholes. And this goes double when a majority of said assholes probably just bought tickets because they heard that the kid who played Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter movies wears a dog collar and says “fuck” a lot. But, I suppose there are worse things in life, right?

Here, in case you haven’t seen it yet, is the trailer, which was made public today.

The online music magazine Pitchfork says the movie looks “comically lame,” which I’m inclined to agree with, but I recognize that their criticism might be motivated in large part by the fact that this film is going to have its premier at a New York-based festival, called CBGB Fest, a competitor to its own Pitchfork Music Fest. (The premier will take place on October 9.)

I have no idea how they’ll present it in the film, but, here, for those of you have never had the pleasure of reading my favorite book – Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk – is the how the whole CBGB thing really came about.

RICHARD HELL: I had been really impressed with how the New York Dolls had managed to make things happen for themselves. When they were first going, they would play the same night every week at the Mercer Arts Center. They were associated with the Mercer Arts Center and I thought that was perfect, because people could depend on that. They didn’t have to read the paper in order to follow you.

I liked it that if there was a cool band and if you wanted to see them, they’d always be playing on Friday nights at the Pit, or wherever. It seemed like the ideal way, if you were good, to draw the people who would be interested in you as quickly as possible.

So that’s what I proposed: that we find a place where we could do that. And I figured, “Where is a bar where nothing is happening? With nothing to lose if we tell them to let us play there one night a week? We’ll charge a door price, but yo can let in any of your regular customers. You can’t lose, because the people who come in will be buying drinks who wouldn’t have been there otherwise, and we’ll have an audience.”

So we all decided we were goign to keep our eyes open.

We used to take a bus down Second Avenue or Third Avenue or something to get to Chinatown to go to our rehearsal loft. (Tom) Verlaine and (Richard) Lloyd were apparently walking to a bus stop to go to rehearsal and they spotted CBGB’s. They went in and talked with Killy Kristal, the owner, and asked him if our idea apealed to him.

RICHARD LLOYD: Hilly was like, “What kind of music do you play?” We said, “Well, what does ‘CBGB-OMFUG’ stand for?” He said, “Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers.” So we said, “Oh yeah, we play a little of that, a little rock, a little country, a little blues, a little bluegrass…”

And Hilly said, “Oh, okay, maybe…”

He was gonna have the place be like a drive-in. He was gonna put the stage in the front of the place, so people could hear music from the street, too. We said, “Hilly, that’s not gonna work – first of all, the person taking money as the door won’t be able to hear what anybody’s saying; second of all, when people leave they’re gonna walk right in front of the band; and third of all, you’re gonna get complaints from the street.”

That just shows you the kind of bizarre ideas that Hilly had from the get go. So Terry Ork ended up going on our behalf, to guarantee Hilly an audience. He said, “Look, the band’s playing around, we do our own postering, we take an ad our in the Voice, we’ll guarantee you a bar.”

So Hilly gave us three Sundays, in three week’s time.

And thus history was made… Now, of course, Hilly is dead, as are many of the people who helped make CBGB infamous, and the bar itself is an upscale clothing store, where you can buy $165 t-shirts. I suppose the beauty of life is that it’s always evolving, and I guess that’s especially true in New York. Change happens. And that’s how a little country, bluegrass and blues dive came to be home to some of the most important artists of the late 20th century. While it breaks my heart a bit to see the whole thing unwind into nothingness like this, I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that nothing good last forever. And that’s probably for the best. All we can hope for is that, on occasion, we’re around when one of these fleeting opportunities to arise from that nothingness presents itself, and nudges us all onto a slightly different, more interesting course. And that, I think, is what happened 40 years ago in New York.

PS: And, as long as we’re talking about the poorly executed commoditization of things we hold precious, did you happen to see the trailer for the new film on Salinger?

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  1. dragon
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    “It’s everybody, I mean. Everything everybody does is so — I don’t know — not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and — sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you’re conforming just as much only in a different way.”
    ― J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

  2. Edward
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 6:24 am | Permalink


  3. NYC
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    It would appear that the film was funded by an investment banker type by the name of Michael Arougheti, and that the whole thing only cost about $10 million. Based on what I’ve seen, it looks like a pretty shrewd business move. I’m sure the actors involved worked for peanuts just to have the chance to play these people.

  4. anonymous
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’d love to see Bieber playing a glue huffing, gay prostitute.

  5. Knox
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    My biggest issue is the fact that the end with the Police. I know they played there, but I don’t think of them at all went I think of the 1970’s scene around CBGB. Other bands actually formed in that crucible. The Police just played there, as far as I know.

  6. Eel
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Will Dee Dee’s crazy old lady be making an appearance?

  7. Tim
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I believe her name was something like Connie and Please Kill Me is full of stories of her attacking people in CBGB and elsewhere. If she got the idea that Dee Dee was looking at another woman, she’d try to kill her. I would imagine she’s dead now like the rest of the junkies.

  8. Stupid Hick
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    “Please Kill Me” is an AMAZING book, with a lot of stories involving 1960s and 1970s Ann Arbor and Detroit too.

  9. Posted August 9, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Didn’t I read recently that the bathroom is now at the MOMA?

  10. Anonymatt
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    I believe the CBGB bathroom is at the CDC under quarantine.

  11. Posted August 9, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    WFMU’s Brian Turner depressed me even further when he brought my attention to the Tom Tom Club’s song Downtown Rockers. It’s one thing when a hedge fund manager destroys your scene for monetary gain. It’s another when we you see the scene eat itself. I’m now in a suicidal tailspin.

  12. Anonymatt
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    It was your scene? Strange that you’ve never mentioned being at CBGB’s in the 70s before. When you were in grade school.

    I might be worried about you if I knew what sicideal meant.

    You may want to consider that other people that weren’t there but only experienced it through books and records (or CDs) could also be as fond of it as yourself , even if it’s unfortunate that they can raise enough money to make shitty movie about it.

  13. Posted August 9, 2013 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    I said it’s my favorite music scene, Matt. (I’m also quite fond of what was happening in Athens, GA around ’79 or so, but I think the early scene at CBGB wins out.) I didn’t say it was there. I thought that was pretty clear. Sorry if you were confused… And thanks for the spell check.

  14. Anonymatt
    Posted August 10, 2013 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Your reaction reminds me of when Eminem’s daughter went on a tirade against Taylor Swift over Harry Styles

  15. I was there
    Posted August 10, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    What a poser!

  16. Eel
    Posted August 10, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Poster has a “t” in it. I agree you though. It’s quite nice.

  17. treadmill
    Posted December 4, 2013 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    The Dangerous Minds review:

    The film fails in almost every way as a history of the legendary rock venue. But seeing as it’s ultimately not really about CBGB but its founder, Hilly Kristal, one might be tempted to forgive its failures in its depiction of the club, the bands and the downtown New York scene of the 1970s. If the movie somehow had managed to enter the head of Kristal and made him the compelling oddball the writers and director seems to think he is (and history suggests he must have been), then maybe CBGB might have succeeded as a character study of a ramshackle visionary. After all, it has the benefit of a charismatic actor, Alan Rickman, playing Kristal. But no, the so-called godfather of punk, comes off as a likable but totally uninteresting schlub. He walks through the movie with a detached and slightly bewildered expression on his face that might kindly be described as Zen-like or less kindly as clueless. This is not a man who created history but had history thrust upon him and at no point seemed to quite comprehend what the fuck was going on. In reality, Hilly may have been hard to get a handle on but he was far shrewder and savvy than the malleable lump in the movie. The appearance of detachment was in part the result of having to counter the intensity of his ex-wife and daughter, both of whom became legendary for their high-strung presence at the door and throughout the club. Someone had to keep the broads from harshing the mellow. Just talking to them on the phone was enough to turn your nuts to mothballs.

    As to the films hilariously amateurish recreation of CBGB during its heyday, the characterizations of the punk rock pioneers in the film would be character assassination if they weren’t so fucking ludicrous. Some of this shit has to be seen to be believed. From a hectoring, shrewish Patti Smith (uncharacteristically calling her fans “motherfuckers” and singing “Because The Night” two years before Springsteen wrote it) to a pathetically sexless Iggy Pop or Lou Reed, looking like a cross between Eminem and the Pillsbury Doughboy, or the tight-ass actress playing Debbie Harry with absolutely no feel for the delightfully clunky, self-aware, sex-kitten charm of the Bowery’s platinum blondie, this movie manages to suck all of the rock ‘n’ roll magic out of every single performer it supposedly celebrates. But it really hits bottom in the way The Ramones are treated. The boys from Queens were four extraordinarily interesting human beings. They were smart, they knew what they were doing and their sense of rock history was deep and profound. The movie treats them like losers, takes them at face value and totally misses out on the passion and brilliance of their concept. Time has proven their immortality. The movie diminishes them in a way that I find obscene.

    In fact, the movie diminishes everything it touches. The bands that made CBGB the center of the rock ‘n’ roll universe for several remarkable years are given zero credit for their art. The movie is more interested in the cockroaches, junkies and rats that rattled around CBGB than the extraordinary music that was forged within its decaying walls. CBGB, the movie, is an insult to every band that played there. It is particularly infuriating that the film insinuates that it took The Police performing at the club to legitimize it. I was at the Police gig. The joint was half empty and while the band was terrific there was no sense of history being made. It didn’t come close to those nights that The Cramps, X Ray Spex, Bad Brains or Willie Loco Alexander obliterated the molecular structure of the joint and instantaneously remade it in a higher form of architectural bliss. Or one of the many nights Suicide or James Chance terrorized their fans, reminding us that art ain’t necessarily pretty.

    Despite artists like Bad Brains, The Planets, Living Colour, Poly Styrene, The Voidoids, my band (The Nails), James “Blood” Ulmer, The Dead Kennedys, Fishbone and countless other groups featuring Black musicians that played CBGB, there’s not a single black face in CBGB . Not one. The only dark skin in the all-white mix are some stereotypical, knife-wielding, Puerto Rican street creeps stabbing Dead Boy Johnny Blitz. While historically accurate, it’s a shame that this is the only scene in which the viewer is made aware of the rich cultural diversity of the Lower East Side in the years before Starbucks and John Varvatos.

    Fortunately, I can’t imagine CBGB finding an audience willing to spend a dime on this glob of pustulating spit. The film’s clueless director Randall Miller has taken a stage dive into the arms of nothingness and somewhere Stiv Bators is quietly snickering at the goofiness of it all.

    For the record, I knew many of the musicians portrayed in this movie. I knew how they moved, how they talked and how they looked on and offstage. CBGB gets it wrong in almost every way in how the actors portray these musicians. In some cases it goes so far as to be insulting. My friend Terry Ork is particularly done an injustice. He comes off as some small-time hustler with visions of grandeur. In reality, Terry was a guy who worked a day job (one he quite enjoyed) in order to finance his indie label, Ork Records. He believed in the music, the art of it, money wasn’t his driving force. Stiv Bators was a sweet and gracious cat who in no way resembles the dim-witted thug depicted in the movie. And I can assure you that Iggy Pop was not hanging out at CBGB, lonely and half-naked, looking to get his cock sucked. As to the guys who were there and participated in the creation of this flick, Cheetah Chrome and John Holmstrom, I can’t imagine you’re too proud of the outcome. I hope you were paid well because the movie makes you look like fools.

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  1. […] from something I wrote a few years after the bar closed its doors in 2006, as CBGB’s “unwinding into nothingness” […]

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