Sunday, October 15, 2006

To hell with CBGB's...

Legendary punk club CBGB’s is closing. There was a stage in my life where this news might have upset me, but that's all over now. Nothing lasts forever, to be cliched about it, and very few things really ought to. Despite the hagiographic nattering penning by overwrought rock writers—people who want to bestow drama and undue significance on their treasured generational touchstones and subcultures—CBGB’s doesn’t count for much in the ecology of New York City. It was just a bar where bands played, and those places don’t have a very long life expectancy out there. Think of all the bebop clubs on 52nd Street, replaced long ago by office towers and ugly granite plazas. Think of the East Harlem joints where salsa and mambo bands would play until dawn, all gone now in favor of someone’s idea of urban renewal. The places that don’t die become ghosts of what made them special in the first place, like those faux-folk clubs on Bleeker Street where tourists pay six bucks for a cup of coffee and the chance to listen to some warbling throwback. Would the people who are mourning CBGB’s passing prefer it to live on as a slightly grubbier version of the Hard Rock Cafe?

Of course, back when I lived in Brooklyn, many believed that this had already happened. I never went there for the simple reason that no bands I wanted to see ever played there. It was cool to bring my friends from Minnesota past it so they could ooh and ahh at the history of it, but by the late 1990s it had become basically an insider’s place, a hangout for long-in-the-tooth band guys and scenesters whose scene has come and gone. Sometimes famous bands would have special surprise gigs there, but you had to be connected to know about those, further cementing its reputation as a club for those in a very specific set (and undercutting its bullshit myth as some sort of avalon for any misunderstood misfit who happened down the Bowery). There were far more vital places thriving on the Lower East Side back then, and while almost everyone I knew had an affinity for sloppy rock ‘n’ roll, none of them considered CBGB’s as anything more than a nostalgia trip.

But I’m probably not the person to eulogize such a place. I like punk rock, but the whole lifestyle and attitude that surround it leaves me cold. It’s one of the peculiar and annoying quirks of youth subcultures: while they claim to be all about authenticity and individuality, they’re usually just as obsessed with fashion and belonging as the mainstream society they consider themselves superior to. Individuality isn’t as easy as wearing a ripped-up shirt, authenticity has nothing to do with what kind of music you listen to. It’s just adolescent bullshit to pretend otherwise, and my appreciation of punk rock is hindered by how much of that attends the genre. Yes, it was necessary. Yes, some of it was truly beautiful. In the end, however, it’s the records, the songs and the memories that deserve to endure, not the grimy rooms that played host to that tiny, tiny sliver of history.