Video stills/pictures by Joe Evans and Mike Brosnan
(Disclaimer: contains opinions and attempts to look smart by one guy who is admittedly an idealist, as well as not smart.)
Earlier this year, it started to come out that the long running club CBGB's could potentially be forced to close, after over three decades of shows in New York City, after beginning with bands such as Television, Blondie, the Dead Boys, and most notably the Ramones. There had been local talk of its inevitable closing for a while, but official reports began surfacing in early March of various rent and legal troubles that had arisen.
Even after announcements had been made, it seemed as if there was much confusion as to what exactly was going on. Ironically, this was a rare instance where for once the problem wasn't just another developer trying to put up another condo or high-rise; instead, the opponent is the Bowery Residents' Committee, a long-running New York City non-profit organization. No matter how much you may love something, it's not easy to argue against something that exists to provide shelter and rehabilitating the homeless.
The next major turn came in mid-May with the announcement of a series of benefit shows for the club, planned for the entire month of August just before the club's lease expired. If nothing else, fans of the club could at least look forward to some final blowouts and the chance to see one last show (or in some cases, a first show). While there were rumors on who would be playing, the official lineup was unbelievable, with bands from the club's heyday reuniting for the occasion as well as contemporaries playing rare one-off shows in such an intimate setting - dark, crowded, and covered with old stickers, flyers, and set lists, but intimate nonetheless.
Circumstances aside, I instantly wanted to be there for as many shows as possible. Since they were all benefits, some nights were a bit pricey, with certain tickets as much as $40 (after all, the point being that CB's needed to raise a lot of money really fast), so I'd have to pick which shows would be most important to me.
Wednesday, August 10th: Against Me!, with World/Inferno Friendship Society and the Exit
It almost hurts me to say it, but even as much as they tour, I have never actually been able to see Against Me! before, but I figured at least this would be one hell of a first time seeing them. I arrived over an hour before door time, to find the line already stretched around the corner, something I'd never actually seen there before. While waiting, other people on line could be overhead discussing things such as what other bands should've reunited for the occasion, why this show would suck, and why they were still going anyway.
Once inside, I walked up and stood next to the side of the stage to get a nice, close spot where there was less risk of having someone dropped on my head. This wasn't much of an issue with the Exit, as they've gone from “looks to me like a modern new-wave band” when I saw them a few years ago to “looks to me like the Police.” I don't own any of their records, so I can't say much other than that they're a fairly mellow band overall, with a lot of funky/ reggae/ dub influence to them. Plus I couldn't help but laugh that I nearly got hit in the face with a guitar by a band at CBGB's, and it wasn't even Agnostic Front.
Next was World/Inferno Friendship Society, who are probably better off being called an orchestra instead of a band. From what I could count, there were at least nine members, both men and women, which I always think is a cool thing. I was under the impression that they had more of a cult following, but the minute they started, EVERYONE in the building was just throwing their fists in the air, going back and forth, and singing “Woooaaaaahhaaaahhaaoooooohh…” at the top of their lungs. It was quite a sight. In between songs they reminisced about the club and getting detained amongst the New York City subways. Best of all was that they encouraged everyone to dance; not even in any sort of “punk” way, but literally getting everyone paired up, and dancing with each other, elementary school sock hop style. It was so surreal that I might have actually asked someone to dance if I weren't such a miserable jackass all the time.
As you can imagine, everyone crowded around the stage as Against Me! began to get ready. Maybe it's just me, but I find that they've become the new Green Day, without actually signing to a major label. Here they've pretty much always had a fairly strong reputation, and have become incredibly popular over the past few years. It's almost as if there's no middle ground with them; if you know them you're at every show, either right up front, or outside protesting, as was the case today with a group of crusties accusing them of becoming capitalist pigs and wanting spare change; as for my opinion, I was inside.
Once they began with “Cliche Guevara,” everyone instantly began screaming and dancing, with full force. It was amusing watching Tom and Andrew getting in on the action as well, pumping each other up by yelling in each others faces. People may try to throw lyrics from Reinventing Axl Rose at them about playing bigger (“REAL”) shows, but the fact is they still give it 110% every night, despite what other songs of theirs may say.
It was so crowded I began to have trouble seeing what was going on, so I tried something different. There was a chair further down by the stage, so I walked back and got up on it and was able to see everything in the club. From that spot, it seemed as if the band was completely surrounded by people on all sides. The way it's set up, it seems as if the crowd of people goes on forever, lit only by the neon lights from the bar. By the last song, everyone had stormed the stage to the point where it wasn't physically possible to hit any chords or notes, so Andrew decided to give Warren a break, and took over for him, making the last song consist of nothing but drums and everyone chanting, “And if Florida takes us, we're taking everyone down with us.” Once everything finished up and people slowly started to clear out, I hung around a short bit since it was early. Since there's no real “backstage” area, everyone was hanging out, and I walked over and told Warren I enjoyed watching them play, to which he said, “You know, it's probably a good sign when I lose my voice, because I don't even have my own microphone!”
Monday, August 22nd: Kid Dynamite and Grey Area, with Voice in the Wire and Take My Chances
Out of all of the shows going on this month, I was looking forward to this one more than anything. Granted there were bands reuniting all the way back from the '70s, but Kid Dynamite was a band I loved, who barely even came near the ramp, let alone jumping the shark, not to mention were a contemporary band during my lifetime (no pun intended). I'd never been able to see them before, and was happy seeing their offspring None More Black and Paint It Black, who is another one of my favorite bands of today. However, with the opportunity to see them just once, it wasn't even a question to go or not.
Dan from Kid Dynamite
Just days before, I'd helped a friend move into a new apartment in Colorado, so I ended up flying in just for the show, despite living in New Jersey. I made it home Monday morning after leaving the night before, having had no sleep or real food since breakfast the day before, dropped my stuff off, and prepared to head back out. I arrived at the club, this time three hours ahead of doors, and the line was even farther around the corner then the last show I'd made it to. I was sleepy, exhausted and hungry, but that was the last thing on my mind. What mattered was that I was hours away from something I thought I'd never be able to see, and that was probably the case for the people who camped out overnight to be first in line.
Once inside, I went back to my usual spot towards the side of the stage and eagerly waited for everything to start. It's almost pointless to mention how EVERYONE who was there were visibly excited, and just as eager for what was ahead. The opener was a group of somewhat younger guys called Take My Chances, who played a quick, maybe fifteen-minute set of speedy, older-influenced-but-still-modern hardcore. The songs were pretty good, but the guitar/bass players were jumping around the whole time. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it was at the point where it looked like the thinking was “we should jump around on stage” as opposed to “we should play.” Advice to the band to hopefully put off any hate mail: play your songs, they're pretty good!
Up next was Voice in the Wire. I'm not positive, but I believe they're good friends with the “Philadelphia bands that came from Kid Dynamite” family, but I can't definitely say for sure. Either way, it's a decent reference point for their more melodic sound. Apparently they had just gone through some member changes recently, but they still had everything together, and it would've been hard to tell if they hadn't pointed it out themselves. Overall, they're a pretty strong mid- to fast-tempo melodic punk band.
This is when the night started getting REALLY interesting, with the return of New York City super group Grey Area. Everyone was enjoying themselves as it was, and that was before the reunion sets. It almost seemed as people were saving up their energy in anticipation for this, leaving me to wonder that if the first notes played would in fact cause CBGB's to explode.
That's what the most amazing thing about it was, that for a show that was completely full (and quite possibly oversold), you would expect a few people in attendance to loudly insist, “I've seen way better,” or try to look important or have the toughest looking facade, but for once, everyone was more concerned with enjoying everything, the bands included. Grey Area was there in hopes of saving CBGB's, as well as for one more chance to play another show amongst their friends at a place they had played so many times in the past. Everyone was going wild, practically as tradition from years' worth of hardcore shows. Even Jay and Dan from Kid Dynamite were taking part in the excitement of the crowd shortly before they would be up on stage themselves.
Even with how crazy everyone was going during Grey Area, they still had a lot left, which wasn't surprising considering some of the lengths people went to in order to see the show. In addition to sleeping outside the club overnight, many people had traveled quite a bit, including one noble guy who drove his friend in a wheelchair all the way from Indiana just to see the show. It was the caring attitudes like that which seemed to be all around that made everything that much more enjoyable. Even after Kid Dynamite set up and began to introduce themselves, Jay even started off by saying, “I just want everyone to know that all four of us are in incredible moods.”
By this point, I'd figured that my best bet to see everything was crouching underneath one of the hanging stage monitors, which worked pretty well. As soon as they began, I was watching dozens of people just pour onto the stage, quickly diving back out into the crowd as soon as they came up, while one of my favorite bands of “my time” were playing a set that they probably didn't even see coming themselves.
Now it was known that the show was already a benefit for CBGB's as it was, but the collective members of Kid Dynamite decided to up the ante a bit. There had been collections floating around the club, both inside and the line outside, taking donations for a friend who had become very sick, in hopes of at least helping her with her steep medical bills. During a tuning intermission, Jay explained of her situation, and talked about how supportive she'd been of their band, so many other bands, and just as a great fiend in general, Dan adding that she'd put out one of their early records. It was especially this, while crouched on the worn stage, that it felt that I was witnessing something special firsthand, like something out of Our Band Could Be Your Life. It's like it says on the small flyer they were passing out: “In an ideal world we should take care of each other.”
Before the set was over, they decided to call up Ernie of Grey Area (and technically speaking, about a dozen other New York hardcore bands) to join them for a cover of “Birthday,” with him and Jay lunging back and forth, trading off vocals. Everyone was smiling, but everyone had been smiling the entire set, and it didn't seem as if anything could be done to change it. Even with some of the inevitable snags, such as guitar cords getting pulled out numerous times, Dan Yemin tried to fix it the best he could, and when it got too hectic to fix, he dove out into the audience, and began singing along to the songs into the mic himself. After finishing up with “Give 'Em the Ripped One,” I was completely blown away. Once the chanting of “If you'd say that you could seize day I'd say get off your knees” finally let up, people called out for Jay to thank him, and following their lead I walked over and personally thanked both him and Dan for making my summer.
Tuesday, August 30th: Bouncing Souls with Fang and the Ratchets
After Kid Dynamite, I figured I'd go to at least one more show by the end of the month, probably just showing up really early in hopes of getting tickets at the door. However, I figured that I'd gotten lucky by stumbling across the just-posted announcement that the Bouncing Souls had been put on a show at the last minute. I called up a friend of mine who'd never been to CB's before and had wanted to go, and he said he was up for it.
We met up outside the club before the show, finding each other just before the doors opened. Walking inside, he was impressed by how long the bar was, and wondered just how many flyers and stickers it took to cover it all. Staking out a spot next to the “crow's nest,” my friend was looking around before the first band started, as I talked to some other people I knew simply from coming to shows at CB's.
The opening bands hadn't been announced before hand, so I didn't know what to expect until I caught a quick glimpse of the set times while walking in. I'd never even heard of the first band before, I think they were called Diablo. They were alright, basically playing typical New York hardcore, mixed with hip-hop the way so many modern mainstream hard rock bands do today. I guess you could enjoy them if you were really big into New York City hardcore, but overall I'm more into Minor Threat.
Up next were the Ratchets, or as I like to call them, “New Jersey's own Clash.” That isn't meant in a bad way though, as I thought to myself, “With all the bands that play just like the Ramones, why not have some that play just like the Clash?” I don't specifically know many of their songs, the other time I'd seen them they were selling CD's for five dollars, which I would've bought if I could afford them at the time. I liked the thought of seeing a band that was such a throwback to roughly the same time period that this club was getting started.
Along with that, I'd missed some of the other '70s reunions, so it was exciting to find out that Fang was playing. My friend was psyched about their guitar player wearing a cowboy hat. To be honest, I didn't know much about Fang other then when Green Day covered “I Wanna Be On TV,” but that was more than enough for me. They played a solid half-hour set without any major pauses, of an overall mid-tempo/ slower punk rock from the '80s, because I'm pretty sure that's how they played back then. Almost ironically, people were bumping into me left and right, not because of any big pits on the floor, but to get to the bathroom.
Just before the Bouncing Souls started, I was going to climb up the back of the stage, while my friend was just going to stay on the floor. I'd gone up and was waiting for things to start again, when another friend I'd met the week before found me. Apparently he'd been told that CBGB's would be officially notified the next day that their lease would not be renewed. A strange feeling came over me, thinking to myself, “One of the most important and longest-running clubs in punk, and music in general, and it might actually be closing. Is this the end? Is it possible that I'm here at what could be the last performance at CBGB's EVER?” I couldn't help but nervously shake for a second. Here I was, not sure if I would be right up front for a part of punk history, especially not knowing what could end up happening if the word happened to spread quickly enough through the crowd. All I could do was wait and see.
Seconds later the Bouncing Souls came out onto the stage, and like so many other bands that month, got started by yelling to the crowd, in a burst of emotion from being caught in the moment. As everyone cheered, they broke right into “Neurotic,” sounding like a more optimistic and upbeat version of “Sonic Reducer.” It was the same thing you would expect from their live show a larger club, only in a closer, more honest atmosphere, with no “big time rock and roll” feeling to it. As usual they invited friends to come up and join them, one notable guest being Max Weinberg of The Conan O'Brian Show, as well as his son. Every song was played with even more force then usual, as it would most likely be the last time they would ever be played on that monumental stage, and everyone was dancing and singing along appropriately. It was like this the whole night, as there was no time to do anything else but enjoy the night as much as we could, while we still had the chance. One friend of the Souls who joined on guitar for “The Ballad of Johnny X” summed it up best, reminding us that we can never forget everything that's truly important to us, and to keep it alive in our hearts.
It's reached the point where everyone is talking about the fate of CBGB's, even those who don't spend the bulk of their spare time at shows or tracking down obscure 7”s, and everyone seems to have their own opinion on the matter. While I may just be getting worked up over nothing, it genuinely hurts a little bit every time I hear someone just dismiss it as another old, dilapidated hole in the wall. Skeptics may have written it off by now; but if you really look, it truly is something special.
CBGB's is a place that people need to see, whether you're a musician that wants to play on a stage that's inevitably been graced by your hero, or even just as a fan, to be able to watch your favorite bands playing so close to you that they can reach out and touch you, and find and personally thank them just after the show. In a place like CBGB's, you begin to forget about the idea of untouchable rock stars whose only concern is if they've gotten everything on their rider, and are reminded that when it comes down to it, we're all just regular people, and that we're all on the same level. As cliche as it is, going to CBGB's can be a reminder that there are people in the world who really care about something, as opposed to those who, quite simply, don't.
Over the past few weeks, it was hard to not think about all of this while waiting amongst the crowds of people to attend these shows. One of the most impressive things about all of these was seeing what could happen when people want to do whatever they can to help a cause they believe is worth fighting for. Sitting on the curb on the Bowery one afternoon, I thought to myself, “Isn't there some way that an equal compromise could be made?” I would look around at all the people who had come out to see a great show next to what looked like an abandoned building, with insides that could've been in worse shape than the club's infamous bathroom. My initial thoughts were that if CBGB's could get such turnouts for their own benefits; imagine if they were able to use that money to HELP the Bowery Residents' Committee? I began to imagine both sides working together, more bands coming together, using the money to turn just another abandoned building into another homeless shelter altogether. Idealistic, probably, but as another great band once said, “At least I'm fucking trying.”
As one person, I can't say that there's one right answer for how something like this should be handled. The only thing I know is that CBGB's should not be given up on, no matter how old it may be. It doesn't matter how much we like to think we should just forget something just because it's gotten older; it's always sad when we lose a friend who had their life in front of them, and as far as I'm concerned, the same thing applies here. Giving up on something like CBGB's because “it's past it's time, it's nothing like it used to be” is giving up on the desire to TRY, which has kept so many of us going as it is, and in a way, it's not far from giving up on life altogether. It really is true, how important it is that we never forget about something that was once so important to us. And as someone else said, in an ideal world we should take care of each other.
Save CBGB's campaign website
Bowery Residents' Committee website
The Cherry Blossom Clinic radio program on WFMU from 8/27/05, featuring an interview with Flipper regarding their reunion for CBGB's