From “This Ain’t No Holiday Inn” by James Lough
CBGB and the ’70s Punk Revolt:
Clearly where Things were Happening
“It had a … leftover aroma of dung, urine, and damp carcass, but it was the seventies and not a time to be picky.”
— James Wolcott, Lucking Out
CBGB wasn’t the only hub of New York’s counterculture in the mid-’70s. There was Max’s Kansas City, where customers up front slurped bowls of chili while bands shook the floor in the tiny back room. There was the Chelsea Hotel, which offered fledgling artists cheap rooms and parties aplenty as they developed their craft. There was a hopping visual art scene downtown.
And punk rock wasn’t the only music movement taking off in mid-’70s New York. As Will Hermes makes plain in his book Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, the Seventies were anything but a cultural wasteland. Sure, disco dominated the dance floors. But Grandmaster Flash and others were hard at work transforming dub reggae into something called hip hop. Both movements reinvented the term “DJ,” yanking disc jockeys out of radio studios and onto the actual scenes where music was produced. Salsa hit mainstream, and even avant garde “classical” composers like Phillip glass were enjoying something as close to a popular audience as they could reasonably expect.
Still, CBGB’s punk rock scene got the most anxious attention. TIME magazine printed a hand-wringing article, “Anthems of the Blank Generation,” pondering where we had gone wrong and underscoring the torn clothes, swastikas and safety pins. But it was the music itself — angry, ironic punk rock — that gave this brand of counterculture its sneering nihilism and volcanic soundtrack.
CBGB’s owner Hilly Kristal hadn’t planned it that way. His Bowery bar’s anagram stood for Country, Bluegrass and Blues. Up to then, his most dependable regulars had been Hell’s Angels, and he’d never heard of punk rock. No one had. Then the members of a band called Television’s happened upon the place and lied to Kristal, insisting that was exactly the kind of music they played. Kristal, noting the large crowds this new, experimental music was bringing in, was converted. Television’s performances attracted the likes of Patti Smith and Debbie Harry, and it wasn’t long before a scene was born. As Television’s Richard Hell put it, “CBGB was clearly where things were happening.”[i]
The club was a dump. “The whole place stank of urine,” said music industry exec Leee Childers. But kids were there for the music, not a clean place to pee.
And once the Ramones showed up at CBGB, the revolt shifted into overdrive. Who were these cartoon characters? Despite their identical hairstyles and outfits making them look like botched clones, the Ramones were four unrelated middle-class kids from Queens: Douglas Colvin (Dee Dee Ramone, bass and songwriter); Joey Hyman (Joey Ramone, singer); Tommy Erdelyi (Tommy Ramone, drums), and John Cummings (Johnny Ramone, guitar). They named themselves after Paul Ramon, a pseudonym Paul McCartney had adopted when the Beatles were touring.[ii]
While the Ramones inherited some of their raw, primitivist power from the New York Dolls and Iggy and the Stooges, and while their sound harkened back to rock and roll’s simple roots, the Ramones took these influences and forged them into something entirely their own. First, they sped it up. Pedal to the metal, they drove their songs like dragsters, inventing punk rock as we know it.
“Rock & roll is supposed to be fast,” said music impresario Danny Fields after showing up at CBGB to see the Ramones. He was transformed. “I fell in love with them. I just thought they were doing everything right.”[iii]
Unlike the heartfelt lyrics in many rock songs of the early ’70s, their lyrics were tongue-in-cheek, Clockwork Orange fascistic — “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Beat on the Brat.” And their look, the goofball black bangs, boots, and leather jackets — the staged, choreographed uniformity of it — put them in a class by themselves. They may have only played four chords, but they played the fuck out of them. And because of their famously militaristic rehearsals (no one drinks during rehearsal, always record everything and listen to it later) their playing was tight as a fist.
While some were put off by the raw noise, others felt they had discovered something important, the revitalization of rock and roll. When Childers first saw the Ramones, he was blown away. “I went ‘Oh … my … God!’ I knew that I was home and happy and secure and free and rock & roll.”[iv]
CBGB and the performers it launched (among them Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, and The New York Dolls) remained influential through the 1980s and even now. They launched a new counterculture, reacting musically against corporate rock and philosophically against anything the 60s and its hippies stood for. Patti Smith has remarked that both hippies and punks shared more in common than we may think. They felt the same impulse: reaction against slick corporate rock and conformist USA, Inc. But Smith was always part hippie. Trying to reconcile the two eras was like juggling ping-pong balls and cinder blocks. Punks cut their hair short. Punks spat on the Age of Aquarius and bought steel-toed Doc Marten boots not only for their militaristic look and feel, but because they came in handy for kicking hippies.
Where Did We Go Wrong?
What in God’s name caused such angry revolt? For one, 1970s New York was bankrupt, mired in a sticky recession. Crime was appallingly high (70% higher than other U.S. cities)[v] and beggars were everywhere. The 1977 Blackout and its flagrant looting, not to mention the Son of Sam murders, contributed to an atmosphere of high-pitched anger and anxiety. The clichéd images of New York featured heaps of garbage on the sidewalks, graffiti-coated subway cars and crumbling buildings whose entryways smelled of piss. It would be two decades before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani entered the picture and freed the police to clean the city up with crackdowns, forced compliance and billy clubs. Before Manhattan began renovating itself into Disneyworld for the rich.
So for punks, who contrasted their own low lives with ’60s high ideals, it was only natural to be cynical, to rebel, to bluntly assert that the emperor was naked.
The dark counterculture of the late ’70s was deeply skeptical of received values. With a cold eye, it scrutinized the pieties of state, school, church, family and the American Dream. Question Authority appeared on lapel buttons and bumper stickers, and the Circle A of anarchy appeared on walls.
When the ’80s rolled around, punk dissidents mocked the Reagan Revolution (“It’s Morning Again in America”) and the “Greed is good” creed. Most viewed pop culture as the tool of big business and Madison Avenue. Instead, they turned their attention to “alternative” movies, books, and bands, before big business co-opted the “alternative” concept to its own ends. Before you could buy Doc Martens in any style and color of the rainbow.
Punks’ cynicism did not paralyze them. They still did things. They started bands, published ‘zines, made paintings and videos and performance art, even if a lot of them didn’t show much skill. (Punks distrusted virtuosity as a surrogate for authentic feeling, usually rage.) They didn’t rely on the internet, movies, and TV for their diversions. They diverted themselves. They didn’t live on screens. “If you don’t like what’s on the news,” Paul Krassner once said, “make some of your own.” The anagram DIY (Do It Yourself) was popular. Be self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-actualizing.
It’s curious how these exhortations sound oddly similar to the values implied in the old-fashioned American Dream, how similar Question Authority sounds like Don’t Tread on Me. How Do it Yourself sounds like the American myth of the rugged individualist, the self-made man, Andrew Jackson and Daniel Boone. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Strange how these countercultural rebels, before Madison Avenue co-opted their image, held fast to the values of their Founding Fathers.
If punk deviants shared assumptions with Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, they lived their daily lives like the Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau — simply. Here’s how he put it:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . .
Many partakers of the counterculture consciously chose poverty -- albeit the urban decay version -- for similar reasons, to avoid being swept away by the routine pandering and trifling anxieties of the marketplace. Granted, some were just lazy. But the result was the same, boiling things down to what really mattered – your next meal, your next minute. Poverty has a way of focusing you on the present, drawing you out of dreamtime into the reality of an empty fridge.
No one becomes a Bohemian for the money. If a little cash did come in, you enjoyed a night out at a cheap mom and pop restaurant down the block. Otherwise, you made due with Ramen noodles cooked on a hotplate, or an old gas stove, if you were lucky enough to have one. Given a choice between dinner and a joint, you’d have to think about it.
Now in New York, a one-bedroom apartment costs at least ten times as much as it did back then. In fact a room at the Chelsea Hotel, that edifice of the counterculture, now costs more than the average Manhattan apartment. Nowadays, money drives the Mercedes called Manhattan. Individuality and eccentricity take the bus. Gentrification, boutique hotels, prefab Olive Gardens and Home Depots are the sinuous vines tightening around the Chelsea, creeping through the Manhattan streets and digging their thorns into every big city in the U.S. No more getting on bended knee to beg Stanley Bard for a cheap room at the Chelsea. Now it’s the moneyed elite, standing surrounded by their Luis Viutton bags, checking in while checking their iPhones.
CBGB closed in 2006, replaced by a high-end fashion boutique that generously preserved a section of one of its walls, either to honor its legacy or exploit it to sell $800 shirts — you decide. Rumor has it someone’s even planning a new version of CBGB in Las Vegas, complete with slot machines.
[i] Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gilliam McCain (New York: Penguin Books, 1996).
[ii] Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever” by Will Hermes (New York: Faber and Faber, 2011).
[iii] Please Kill Me.
[iv] Please Kill Me.