Imagine reading a biography of one of the world’s greatest rock’n’roll clubs. Now imagine reading it in real time, in the present tense. I recently found Roman Kozak’s This Ain’t No Disco: The Story of CBGB in a used bookstore. It was worn, featured a no frills cover and looked dated, but for five bucks I was hoping the book would prove as special as its subject. Not only is it the best account of the legendary club I’ve read, it’s one of my favorite music books, period. It crackles with authenticity and honesty, and here’s why (I think): it was written and published in 1988, while CB’s was still a working club, albeit past it’s glory days.
Often, by the times memoirs like these come out, the major players are either detached or cynical, or, conversely, remebering everything through rose-colored glasses, forgetting the hardships of the day. Not so here. I’ve not yet read Kristal’s account in CBGB & OMFUG: Thirty Years from the Home of Underground Rock, but he comes across very well in this book, so that one’s now on my list. Likewise, Television guitarist Richard Lloyd provides excellent commentary and I look forward to his upcoming (if ridiculously titled) memoir Everything Is Combustible: Television, CBGB's and Five Decades of Rock and Roll: The Memoirs of an Alchemical Guitarist. Televison, of course, virtually opened the club, as well as Kristal’s mind to book music other than “Country, BlueGrass & Blues," and served as a sort of house band. Other regulars such as Patti Smith Group’s Lenny Kaye and Blondie’s Clem Burke also weigh in. Dee Dee Ramone, David Byrne Handsome Dick Manitoba and Willy Deville are all here, as are Hilly and Karen, the bartenders and cooks, the soundmen and Merv, the bouncer.
There are a myriad of reasons CBGB was successful — no doubt, right place, right time had a lot to do with it — but certainly one was it’s well-regarded sound system. Sound engineer Norman Dunne provides specifics as to how he custom designed the system to fit the irregularly shaped room. It would be stolen in 1982 — “everything except the speakers, which were bolted down” — on what was thought to be an inside job, according to Kristal’s wife, Karen. Her chili was also part of the CB’s legend, as were the hamburgers, which were seemingly stolen by many of the musicians who worked there. Not everyone was so keen on the food; one journalist recounts peaking into the kitchen, only to see a dog shitting on the floor, and a cook hilariously tells tale of a friendly rat, who would “walk into the kitchen, say ‘Hey, how about a cheeseburger?’” and then walk right off with a hunk of meat and find his way back to the basement. The bathrooms were equally legendary, serving as a place to take drugs, puke, have sex…you name it, as the toilets overflowed.
But it was the music birthed at the club that would define it. In 1975, journalist James Wolcott wrote in the Village Voice “What CBGB is trying to do is nothing less than restore (that) spirit to rock and roll.” Exactly one sentence later, he asks “Will any of the bands who play there amount to anything more than a cheap evening of rock and roll?”’ before answering his own question: “I don’t know and in a deepest sense I don’t care.”
There, in a nutshell, was the driving philosophy behind the punk/new wave — or “street music,” as CBGB founder Killy Kristal called it — that his club singlehandedly delivered to Manhattan and the world. Ironically, Kozak died the same year the book was published of cardiac arrest at the age of forty. The club would limp along, featuring daytime hardcore shows but never regain its glory days. On October 17th, 2006, shortly after 1 a.m., Patti Smith's band played the venue's final concert, and Hilly Kristal died in 2007. The CBGB “brand” would grow into a franchise, with a restaurant at Newark Airport. CBGB Fashions (the CBGB store, wholesale department, and online store) would stay open until 2006. CB’s would become an iHeart radio station in 2010, and grow into The CBGB Festival, the largest music festival in NYC, in 2012. And a very, very bad movie in 2013.
Kozak’s book ensures that the seedy Bowery club itself, the birthplace of modern music’s reset, will live on. Find this book and read it. I’ll give Rod Swenson, manager of The Plasmatics, the last word: “CBGB is a great laboratory for self-expression….(it) is a real special place, an American dream kind of place. Anybody can come in and no matter who they were, if they had something to give Hilly, they could get their shot. And I think that’s been proven by the people who were there.”
Follow me on Twitter: @stevejreviews