I haven’t seen the CBGBs movie yet, which makes this a perfect time to discuss it. I just learned that it was available as a pay-per-view on DirectTV for the entire month of September. Nice of them to let me know. It “debuted,” sort of, last week in NYC. And it doesn’t look like it’s even getting normal theatrical distribution, just one night here and there. Mostly there. I see that someone posted the entire movie on YouTube two weeks ago and only 1,000 people or so have bothered to watch it. Which ought to tell you something.
It’s not that the box office, or lack of, matters, especially for music films. I remember seeing This Is Spinal Tap the one week it ran at the Northway Mall in a theater pretty much empty other than the members of Blotto (we were laughing hysterically) and the members of Visitor (they weren’t). And look what happened to that one. It went to 11.
The carping about the CBGBs film is as dismal as it is predictable. Ummm, Sting’s daughter as Patti Smith singing “Because the Night” two years before it was written? Bad lip-synching? It wasn’t like that? Yawn. I’ve read numerous reviews saying that Alan Rickman was horrendously miscast as Hilly Kristal, and I’ve heard from several friends who knew Kristal well who say Rickman nailed it. I’m guessing it’s a lot better than most people say. But I’m also guessing it lacks the substance needed to become a cult film with legs.
I certainly wasn’t a habitué of the sad little shithole on the Bowery. I know I went there to see the Mumps and maybe the Ramones. Or maybe the Mumps opened for the Ramones? Or was that at Harrah? Or did I just go in, use the bathroom, and flee in abject horror? I remember driving by once in 1977 when Television were playing there and decided to go uptown to the planetarium instead. That was stupid.
By the time my band hit NYC in 1980, CBGBs was long over, propped up mainly by hardcore and out-of-town bands playing for little more than bragging rights. We could have played there for a fraction of what we were getting paid elsewhere, and it just didn’t make any sense. We wouldn’t have fit anyway. It had become kind of a silly place. I remember seeing early photos of Guns N’ Roses in their CBGBs shirts and thinking, “what poseurs.” Somehow the club chugged on til 2006, populated by declining numbers of tourists and the delusionally faithful. It’s now a store for some high-end fashion designer.
But now CBGBs is a brand! And last week, in conjunction with the “release” of the movie, there was the second annual (how did I miss the first one?) CBGB Music and Film Festival, touted as the largest music festival in New York. Showcases! Curated exhibits! Industry panels, because nothing says punk like a panel discussion about corporate endorsements or song placements in television commercials!
I went down to see the wonderful Genya Ravan, who was a major figure in the early days of the club and in the movie. She scored me a pass for the whole shebang. Passes are good. Genya performed at a joint called Leftfield’s in lower Manhattan, in a skinny little room that held no more than 50 people with a tiny stage in the window. Her band basically stood in a line behind her. Her dressing room was her car. This is what it’s come to? Trooper that she is, she turned in a fantastic set, including the classic “I Won’t Sleep on the Wet Spot No More.” I wanted to stay for Cheetah Chrome, but it was getting late and that skinny little room depressed me.
My “festival” continued the next night at some “punk club” in Williamsburg. The front room was packed full of hipsters (don’t get me started), and the skanky back room, the “music festival” room, was empty except for a really awful hardcore band playing for four 40-year-old guys who attempted to mosh, knocked over a table, and stopped.
Then my CBGBs iPhone app (yup) informed me that the Interlopers were playing in Manhattan the next night. The core of the band is three Berkshire kids who are all second-year students now at Berklee. They started the band in high school, quickly commanded the respect of what’s left of the Berkshire music scene. I hadn’t seen them in forever. They’ve grown into a killer R&B band: snakey grooves, three-part harmonies, horns quoting Leonard Bernstein. To a person, they are virtuousos. They’re all around 20. They took the Bolt Bus from Boston that afternoon and were taking it back that night. They played in the dark in this basement club. They filled the room and they held it. People were screaming by the end of their set.
These days, that’s punk, my friends.