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(Credit: The Nails)

On the trail of the CBGB: What remains of the New York punk scene?

In 1974, it was clear, maybe Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not New York’s — the city was falling into some sort of adrenalised comic book dystopia. Andy Warhol’s factory had stepped one toke over the line, and the prelapsarian dream that blossomed from the flowerbed of the sixties was now a ruinous relic like a long-forgotten civilisation that the History Channel will say was built by aliens and abandoned centuries from now. The spirit of the age was gritty tumult and grimy turmoil. Hippy flower power was an old ideal that had been paved over and buried under brutalist architecture. While opiates and Chines Rocks replaced opulent excesses, the only priceless spiritual commodity that the zeitgeist had to offer was poverty. 

This feverish despair that had been forecast in a thousand bad acid trips from the decade earlier reflected the disheartening failure of the technological fix to bring about post-war progression. The sprawl of concrete, commercialism and internal decay sunk New York’s lowly denizens into a plashy mire of crime and punishment. Punk clawed its way out of the darkened depths of degeneracy and never even brushed itself clean after it clambered into a sauntering snarl. Joey Ramone was the bowl cut Frankenstein monster that the cultural New York cocktail shaker had poured out as an emblem of the disintegration of humanity after a fair glug of The Velvet Underground and The New York Dolls had been slung in there. The place they were serving this most-vile concoction was none other than the CBGBs: The spiritual home of seventies artistic heathenry. 

From this one small spot, a complete global culture-changing art form was born. It was, in many ways, a spiritual East Village Acropolis, and it served beer for less than a dollar. From the inside, it would be remembered by photographer Meryl Meisler as a stinking, sultry zenith of youthful revolt where kids were pulsating to the back beat of a defibrillated future. She recalled: “Here was this enigma, the CBGB, with crowds all the time, people hanging outside all the time. The place itself, you can almost remember the smell, the smell of beer and whatnot in the room, and it was very interesting.” And it also had a significant impact on those scattered around the world merely feeling the seismic reverberations of an almost inadvertent cultural epicentre. 

As Moby recalls: “When I was growing up, I fetishised New York City. It was the land of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, it was where Leonard Cohen wrote ‘Chelsea Hotel’, it was CBGBs and all the punk rock clubs. Artists and musicians lived there, and it was cheap and dangerous.” And he wasn’t alone; for the UK-based punks that the club spawned, it was some sort of spiritual mecca. The club winked like some dangerous flirt, as John Cooper Clarke remarks: “You’ll hear it from every schlub from my era, but the mythology of CBGB’s is unassailable. I saw punk rock as the same strand as [Jack] Kerouac, The Café Wah and the Greenwich Village thing.”

From this fabled holy land came a new artistry, one that reinvigorated music, as Patti Smith remembered: “I was young, but I felt our cultural voice was in jeopardy and needed an infusion of new people and ideas. I didn’t feel like I was the one. I didn’t consider myself a musician in any way, but I was a poet and performer, and I did feel that I understood where we were at, what we’d been given and where we should go, and if I could voice it, perhaps it could inspire the next generation.” This was the mothering that punk needed, and it was Patti’s proliferation of poignancy that catapulted it from cult skylarking to a vital creative voice.

The Ramones onstage at CBGB, 1977. (Credit: Alamy)

Punk wasn’t a movement of apathetic anarchy where riots were the aim of the game, as some would tell you. Take Joey Ramone’s words for it instead: “For me, punk is about real feelings. It’s not about, ‘Yeah, I am a punk and I’m angry.’ That’s a lot of crap. It’s about loving the things that really matter: passion, heart and soul.” As the poignant Patti Smith would concur, it speaks to a higher level, one that both belongs to, and is of art. It transcends the punk platitudes of piss, spit and spikey hair and relishes in need for “freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are.”

Things would never be the same after punk, but where is it now? What remains? Where can old romanticists go for a beer-sodden whiff of it? After all, you ask the spirit of Johnny Thunders, and he’ll tell you straight up that you can’t put your arms around a memory. Now, you go to the space where the great CBGBs used to stand and you find a boutique fashion outlet. I walk by it now, and I see no destructive urges. In fact, there’s not even a plaque. The same goes for Max’s Kansas City, the old haunt of poets then Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and the place Debbie Harry served shit steaks… it’s now a deli, as if New York hasn’t got enough of them! Even St. Marks Place, the street that styled the unruly job lot, is losing her face showing very few pimples of the past.

Is this the sad prognosis of the past? It was a gas, but it had a heart of glass? Well, not quite. Whilst it is disheartening that not much seems to be done to protect the cultural hotspots of the past from the sands of time and the mitts of commercialism, as any patron of the soon-to-be-paved-over Frankie’s Pizza in Sydney (one of the greatest bars there ever was) will attest – or revellers from the defunct Gotham in Newcastle etc. -punk’s New York legacy is not bound to a place. As Richard Hell said of taking a mired legacy in your stride and looking forward: “What other intelligent way to live is there but to laugh about it? The alternative, also respectable, is suicide. But how could you do that? Not only would it betray a woeful lack of humour, but it would keep you from finding out what was going to happen next.” 

Perhaps what happened next for New York’s punk scene is that it mutated into the next thing and currently resides in Brooklyn. Therein shows such as Hamilton Leithauser’s Café Carlyle residency, or the laid-back folk acts who jaunt into St. Mavie’s, or the eclectic buzzy bohemian vibes of the Music Hall of Williamsburg and The Bandshell, and Barbès for such nights as the Slavic Soul Party. The scene mightn’t be as ardent, but under the Marquee Moon of Manhattan’s skyline, the buzz of punk’s bohemian zeitgeist still effervesces, and it’s certainly worth a visit. If you’re on the trail of the CBGB, then Brooklyn must be the place. Long may it stay deli free. 

The soundtrack to the CBGB trail:

Songs referenced:

  • Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine – ‘Gloria’ by Patti Smith
  • Chines Rocks – ‘Chinese Rocks’ by Johnny Thunders
  • Disintegrations of humanity – ‘Ignorance is Bliss’ by The Ramones
  • Pulsating to the back beat – ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ by The Ramones
  • Dangerous flirt – ‘Love Comes in Spurts’ by Richard Hell and the Voidoids
  • You can’t put your arms around a memory – ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory’ by Johnny Thunders
  • I see no destructive urges – ‘See No Evil’ by Television
  • Is losing her face – ‘Sally Can’t Dance’ by Lou Reed
  • It was a gas, but it had a heart of glass? – ‘Heart of Glass’ by Blondie
  • Marquee Moon – ‘Marquee Moon’ by Television
  • Must be the place – ‘This Must Be The Place’ by Talking Heads

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