Rock 'n' Roll Schmuck
The legendary New York club CBGB closes upon a legacy including the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Television. And then there's me.
The captain goes down with the ship, and when famed Bowery club CBGB closes Sunday night, it'll be with a final send-off by Patti Smith. You can imagine how the cultural obits will read: CBGB, the scrappy and scraggly home of art-punk, dead of palpitating rent payments at 33. But the most sensible paean has already come via Smith's guitarist Lenny Kaye. Doing some quick napkin math in the Village Voice, Kaye reckoned that at three bands a night, 365 days a year for more than 30 years, the club hosted somewhere around 50,000 bands and 200,000 musicians. Even allowing for repeat performances, that's an army, mostly drawn from the ranks of the pretty good drummers, the not-so-bad bassists, and the promising guitarists you never hear of again. The club will always be connected to famous names like Smith, but its real glory was in nourishing the infinitely branching root system of the good to indifferent musicians—the schlubs, the schmucks, the shredders—that underlies any rock ecosystem. I know: I was one of them.
My career at CBGB began—and ended—in one night in late 1993. I'd already suffered a typical musician's hazing into Manhattan life: broomstick-wielding neighbors hitting the ceiling to silence my drum kit, a blown Digable Planets audition, months reading musician-wanted ads of bands punctuated by an inevitable "infl: Pearl Jam and Spin Doctors." Out of the blue, I was recruited by Brooklyn math-noise outfit Poem Rocket. They're still sort of around, releasing the occasional album, with the same unfortunate name ("Palm Rocket?" friends would ask in misheard disgust). Back then, they were an unrecorded subway roar that fell somewhere between My Bloody Valentine and ... My Bloody Valentine. They were playing a Detroit gig, and soon: Could I learn the material?
Maybe they thought they were getting the proto-punk Paul Collins of the Paul Collins Beat. What they got instead was an underemployed grad student who, for the hell of it, had stripped his kit of all cymbals save for a bottom high-hat—the one cymbal you're not supposed to hit. If you didn't listen too closely, it kind of worked. After a couple of months, our number came up: We'd landed a CB's gig. A triple bill, as always for the club. We practiced until our ears rang, and, following tens of thousands of bands before us, we threw our crap into a van and drove across the Williamsburg Bridge.
Like most rock musicians, I gave up being a rock musician years ago. A couple of months after my first kid was born, I looked out over a club drum riser in San Francisco and asked—What am I doing here?—came home, tossed my kit into the basement nook next to the water heater, and never rode shotgun in an Econoline again. I'm a historian now, and when I see the address 315 Bowery, I don't hear feedback or a squeaking kick pedal; I hear the clicking of mice and the whirring of microfilm through public-property deeds and old newspapers. After all, CBGB is just one measure of that land parcel's long, dissonant, odd-time composition.
In the best tradition of old-timey songs, the history of 315 Bowery is mostly about fixin' to die: "Melancholy Suicide In the Bowery" reads one typical headline from 1881. (Mr. David Bell, age 34, with a bottle of poison.) In 1887, a carpet worker named Alexander Dolle left his home there and threw himself in front of an El train: He got hit so hard that his heart popped out and fell onto the sidewalk below, where it was surrounded by "a morbidly curious crowd." One of the Triangle Shirtwaist victims, 16-year-old Jennie Stellino, slept her last night in 315; so did Bill Rogers, who expired in the front doorway in 1926, only to have his pockets posthumously picked. In 1946 a stranger strode into the building's ground-floor bar, fatally shot a Massachusetts tourist with a single bullet, and without a word melted back into the Bowery.
For a while in the 1890s, the building housed the Old Methusalem Whiskey company, so the address's eventual evolution into an boozy SRO hotel was just as fitting as its drumbeat of melancholia was unsurprising. Just about the only happy news to ever emerge from the address is a Bird Fancier's Annual Exhibition held there in 1862: "First prize, yellow cock, Wm. Mason." It was all downhill for the next 113 years, until David Byrne, Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, and the rest started turning up.
Note that key phrase: "and the rest." Look over the schedule for a 1975 festival at CBs and you'll find it dominated by the likes of Mantus, Ice (whose performance was delayed when somebody stole the club's mixing board), and Day Old Bread. Sharing the bill alongside the Talking Heads are a plethora of bands like the Shirts, which the Times described that year as "a septet with a woman singer, two drummers, an organist and three guitarists. Execution is more polished than Talking Heads chooses to muster, and the group's prospects for a record contract would seem likelier." As for Poem Rocket, we hit the stage after the Spitters and before Cop Shoot Cop. I was supposed to open our first song, "Blue Chevy Impala." Instead, I sat frozen for a moment: sticks damp in my hands, the inevitable SM57's jammed over my toms, the clank and smoke of the crowd dimly visible through the stage lights. Seconds ticked by.
"Well?" somebody yelled.
That one word pissed me off for an entire set: I'll [crack] show [thud] you [crash] fuckers [crack]. But it didn't matter. Cop Shoot Cop blew us off the stage anyway, their dual drummers clattering a found-object cacophony of wire frames, steel barrels, high-tension wires, and, God, I don't know, probably some stolen 50-foot concrete sewer pipes. I sat at the club's long bar, awed and chagrined. It was a useful lesson: There's always someone better than you, waiting in the wings to come on next. And who knows whether they'll get remembered, either?
I never played CBGB again: I left for California soon afterward. And I don't remember much else from the night, except packing up. I was admiring the walls backstage, which were caked with thousands of band graffiti into an amazing crazed topography of Sharpie, ballpoint, and pen-knife scratchings. We dutifully added ours. As I lugged an armload of drum hardware out, I turned to Poem Rocket's bassist.
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of CBGB by Adam Di Carlo.