Tuesday, November 25, 2008

CBGB records

CBGB, the legendary New York City club that introduced the nation to punk, closed its doors for good in 2006. I never availed myself of the opportunity to see a show there: when I first started spending time in New York City, I was in grad school and too poor to go to clubs, and by the time I got out of grad school the Village Vanguard was more my style. However, friends and I were hanging out in the Bowery on one cold night in January 1997 and ended up in front of CBGB. We were all impoverished grad students (we were in the city because the American Historical Association was meeting there) and most of us disliked the band that was playing that night, so we ultimately decided not to go in. We nonetheless got just a bit of the CBGB experience: as we were standing on the street, debating whether we could or should cough up the cover charge, a young woman ran out of the club and threw up into the gutter. Classic.

After the club closed, its innards were pulled out and sent to various places: the bar went to some place in Connecticut, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame took the iconic awning bearing the club's name, and the furniture and all kinds of other stuff was boxed up and taken to a self-storage unit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; check out this disorienting panoramic view of the space.

The self-storage unit also serves as the offices of the new business operated by Louise Parnassa-Stanley, who served as the club's manager for 22 years:
There is grim commentary to be found in the fact that Ms. Parnassa-Staley — who once booked acts like Hatebreed and Cattle Decapitation — now makes business calls for CBGB Fashions, a clothing operation run from the storage unit that sells T-shirts, belt buckles, onesies for kids, even a CBGB dog vest for your poodle. That ghastliness is matched only by the news that the club’s former barman, Ger Burgman, son-in-law of the deceased owner, Hilly Kristal himself, is now the customer service representative for online accounts.

The commodification of rock is, of course, as old as feedback; still, the thought that CBGB, the cradle of punk, has, if not exactly sold out, then perhaps entered "a period where new opportunities are being explored," is enough to make you want to bang your head. The one saving grace in all this disillusionment is that the offices are at least punk rock. For one thing, they’re in a mini-storage unit. Beyond that, the desk where the orders come in is the old admission desk from the club.
I guess we all have to grow up and get day jobs. However, this article caught my eye not only because it made me painfully aware of my advancing age but also because the club's business records are among the things sitting in that Williamsburg self-storage space:
Among the opportunities being explored is what to do with the club’s vast trove of paperwork, now contained in several Rolling Rock and Budweiser boxes: set lists, guest lists, band contracts and numerous notebooks used for audition notes and in-house music reviews. It amounts to an archive on the New York scene from 1973 to roughly when the club shut down.

Someone, for instance, has written of the band Communiqué: "Idiots." And when Mindless Self Indulgence played the club, it was said: "Two coked-out moms. Two guys trying to get it on in the bathroom. And the police are here."
I hope that these records will ultimately end up in a repository. If they do, they won't be the first major archival collection to document the development of punk music and culture: Richard Hell, who has morphed into a novelist, film critic, and occasional book reviewer for the New York Times (some day jobs are cooler than others), sold his personal papers to New York University's Fales Library:
Given the ephemeral nature of downtown literature and punk rock, to say nothing of the lifestyles of the people who made it, Hell's archives are a marvel of accumulation. In his life Hell walked away from his Kentucky upbringing, his family name, his musical career and a drug habit. But if you sent him a letter, or if he started a poem, it probably found its way to a box or filing cabinet in his small, cluttered apartment, in a building where Allen Ginsberg once lived . . . .

In pristine surroundings, scholars will soon be able to pore over old set lists, posters, videotapes, audiotapes, drafts of lyrics, manuscripts and erotic drawings. The papers will be part of the library's extensive collection of documents from the downtown art scene of the 1970's and 1980's.
Judging from the container list, the Richard Hell Papers contain some really interesting stuff, including: journals, business records and other materials from small press imprints and journals that he started, records documenting his membership in the bands Television and the Voidoids, and materials relating to his roles in the films Blank Generation (named after the first album he and the Voidoids released) and Smithereens.

Fales Library paid Hell $50,000 for his papers, and its director, Marvin Taylor, anticipated that they would be used:
''Students at N.Y.U. come to us and they want to do papers on tattoos, graffiti and punk rock,'' Mr. Taylor said. ''They know that they can come in . . . [because] some crazy punk guy came and talked in their class.''
Some people might question whether records such as those created by CBGB warrant preservation; after all, Richard Hell is now a respected writer, but CBGB was always a drunken (among other things) and riotous place. However, CBGB's records do shed light upon a wide array of musical and (counter) cultural trends, and we archivists strive to document society in all of its complexity. Let's hope that Fales Library or some other repository takes them in.

Several years ago, I found a copy of Blank Generation in the bargain DVD bin at KMart. It's not a great film, but it's not a bad one, either.

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