CBGB at 50: A punk rock jewel in New York's darkened crown
BY Jonathan Wells
16th Nov 2023 Music
4 min read
Fifty years on from when CBGB opened its doors in Lower East Side, ex-Rolling Stone Press director Jonathan Wells recalls his first visit to the iconic club
The first place my English friend wanted to go when he moved to New York City in 1975 was to a club downtown that I’d never heard of.
His idea of the city was electric and expansive. Mine was more narrow—mostly confined to midtown and the Upper East Side.
I had grown up in the suburbs. The thought of venturing to the Lower East side, an area infamous for crime and danger, was terrifying. Among the kids I had gone to school with it was a warzone; one where you could lose everything.
In photographs of that era, when New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy, the neighbourhood around Bowery and Bleeker was legendary for its dilapidation.
Further east, there were whole streets of demolished buildings burned down for insurance money and dealers that sold every possible drug. Bowery was lined with fleabag hotels, winos sleeping in the streets and five-dollar prostitutes behind half-open doors.
White light, white heat
The first time we went to CBGB, it was surprising to see an almost pristine white awning stretching over the Bowery sidewalk with strange red letters on it that stood for “Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers”.
There was no line so we walked directly through the swinging doors into a deep cavern.
Like going into a dark theatre, it took my eyes time to adjust. Once they did, I saw a long bar on my right and walls littered with glued-on handbills and posters. The ducts painted black, hanging low from the ceiling were plastered with them too.
It was as if a disaster had occurred, and the flyers displayed the names and faces of the missing.
"It was hard to believe that it was made by humans. It sounded more like machines in their death rattle"
If it took time to adjust one’s eyes. The noise coming from the other end of the club was an immediate attack. It was pure noise, not music. White Light White Heat, the title of a Velvet Underground album, described it perfectly.
It was hard to believe that it was made by humans. It sounded more like machines in their death rattle.
At first, I was fascinated by it, drawn toward it. My next thought was to stand near the fire exit in case the club burst into spontaneous flames. Who could be doing this? Why?
Falling for punk rock's raw energy
My friend and I sat at a rickety table near the stage and ordered drinks. In the chaos, I was amazed that the waitress could hear what we wanted. My friend asked for two beers and the check, thinking that we would never see her again.
I could already feel my hearing becoming pained and intermittent. The first band ended their set with an explosive collapse, then picked themselves off the floor of the tiny stage and vanished. I don’t remember their name.
To restore my equilibrium, I went to the toilets in the basement. Chunks of plaster had fallen out and what remained of the walls was covered by layers of graffiti like that on the subway trains, but in a space a fraction of the size.
"There was no melody or harmony. It was intense and the intensity was its authenticity"
The other guys looked glazed, stuck open eyes popping out of their sockets. I wasn’t sure what they’d do to me if they caught me peeking. The few girls who were there wore raccoon style black eyeliner and tiny skirts over ripped stockings.
When I returned, my friend had a beatific look on his face. I asked him if he was okay and he said it was the music. He’d never heard anything like it before. It didn’t sound like music we had listened to and loved until then. There was no melody or harmony. It was intense and the intensity was its authenticity, he said. I nodded.
CBGB, the Talking Heads and a moment in history
Ten minutes later a trio walked on stage. The girl bassist was cute, the drummer clean cut. The singer stepped up to the microphone and said, “The name of this band is the Talking Heads.”
His eyes were unfocused; he looked like a preppy and spoke in a monotone. His movements were twitchy and he played guitar in a stilted manner.
When he sang the opening lyrics of “Psychokiller”, “I can’t seem to face up to the facts, I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax,” every muscle in his face embodied the lyric.
"Cheap rent gave the music a chance to blossom like a lotus growing and flowering out of the muddiest, darkest swamp"
After that first one, the trips downtown felt like a pilgrimage. Some nights were hideous and painful. Others were sublime.
Looking back on it, I’m convinced that the club and the music that was created there couldn’t have happened in any other place.
There weren’t many neighbourhoods where apartments cost so little. The members of Talking Heads shared one on Chrystie Street, three blocks from CBGB.
Cheap rent gave the music a chance to blossom like a lotus growing and flowering out of the muddiest, darkest swamp.
The Sterns Are Listening by Jonathan Wells is available now (ZE Books, £20)
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