Earth's most beloved podcast

THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Jerome Phillips


THIS IS NOT A TEST, with your pal and confidant Michael Jerome Phillips

CBGB: They paved paradise and pulled up a taco truck – THIS IS NOT A TEST #53 (transcript)

Published January 2, 2016 [Podcast link]

Wait, wouldn’t you rather listen? Reading is so 20th century, and besides, this is a transcript of an audio presentation that was meant to be heard¬†with your ears.¬†Follow this link to podcast happiness.

And we’re back! Did you miss me? This is the first bi-weekly show, and I have to say, having that week off was really nice. Hopefully this new schedule will allow for a more leisurely and less frantic production schedule, and isn’t more leisure what we’re all after? Well, less franticness anyway. Is franticness a word? Probably not, but look what happened – I took a week off and already I’m making up words and improving the English language. And you thought I just wanted to go bi-weekly because I was lazy. Which I am, but that’s neither here nor there. Let’s not get distracted here, let’s keep our focus that we’ve always had, shall we? That laser focus I am so known for. That Ginsu-sharp ability to never veer off course. Right? Right.

Well, Lemmy is dead. You know Lemmy, from Motorhead. His name was Lemmy Kilmister, but everyone just called him Lemmy. Or Lemmy from Motorhead. I mentioned Lemmy in the “When are you too old to rock?” episode a couple months ago, talked about him being a “true believer.” And he was. Everyone is mourning him now, and talking about how cool he was, how brash and outspoken. People love the brash and outspoken. They love them a lot more in the abstract, or after they’re dead than they do in day to day life though. If you walked around acting like Lemmy, talking like he did, doing whatever the hell you wanted to do, people would step back whenever you came around. Make themselves scarce. The reality is when you are outspoken and opinionated, most people just think you’re an asshole. Until you’re dead, I guess. Then they’ll profess their love for you. That’s called “cold comfort” in some places.

But Lemmy is gone, another of the declining population of rock stars has left us. Their number continues to shrink because we aren’t making any new ones. We haven’t made rock stars since the 70s, so when the last rock star disappears, the species will be extinct. At least I can’t think of any made after the 70s. Do we count Slash? Hmm, might have to make an exception for him. But other than that, they don’t make ’em anymore. Not because younger people in bands don’t “rock” and they aren’t “stars.” It has more to do with the culture. Rock stars require a bit of mystery and a level of debauchery and depravity that you just can’t get away with anymore. Rock stars were mythical creatures because we couldn’t know them, we could only get glimpses of them, observe them, on their bright stages, and read about them in magazines. That mystery is gone now, and without it, the rock star can’t survive. But evolution marches on, nothing we can do about that. Thanks a lot, Darwin.

Speaking of evolution, I watched the CBGB movie the other day. It’s a Hollywood movie, not a documentary, so I went into it knowing that it was, you know, a movie and not a documentary, so it was pretty enjoyable. CBGB was a punk club in New York City, in case you didn’t know. Or I should say it was the punk club in New York, since punk rock more or less gestated there before it sprung forth on an unsuspecting – and ultimately unimpressed – world. The place opened in 1973 and closed in 2006. 33 years is a hell of a long time for any rock and roll club to survive, so I wasn’t particularly torn up when it closed. Seemed like a good run, yeah? 33 years doing anything is enough. According to me, anyway, but a lot of people were torn up when it closed and there were a lot of eulogies written for the place. It seemed like it was everyone’s favorite club, in the 20/20 hindsight retrospective that often accompanies the death of some one or some thing significant.

I called it a punk club, but the owner, Hilly Kristal – no relation to Billy Crystal – didn’t set out to open a punk club, since there was no such thing in 1973. He wanted to have a country and blues bar. That’s what the acronym CBGB stood for: country, bluegrass, and blues. But a couple of guys convinced Kristal to let them book rock bands, and in 1974 Television, The Ramones, the Voidoids and an early version of Blondie played at CBGB, then in 1975 the Heartbreakers came in, along with the Patti Smith Group, Talking Heads, the Shirts, etc., etc., and that was pretty much that. So that’s how you create the birthplace of punk. Just do that. Even the term “punk rock” had a different meaning back then, because it was inclusive of a lot of different styles of rock, it wasn’t all loud and fast like the Ramones. Only the Ramones were like he Ramones, everyone else was different, everyone were just themselves, but somehow it all worked together. It was all similar in attitude or inspiration. Or both. Or neither.

The bands actually came to CBGB because the main place they used to play, the Mercer Arts Center, went away when the building it was in collapsed in 1973. Ah, New York in the 70s! Collapsing buildings, rock on the Bowery, sounds great, doesn’t it. Everyone played at the Mercer – the New York Dolls, Suicide, Wayne County, KISS, a thousand other bands we never heard of – anyone who was playing rock and roll in the early 70s. So for CBGB it was kind of the right place at the right time kind of thing, which is usually the way cool things come about. Right place, right time, right people. I played there once, when I was with Sonny Vincent and the Extreme, in 1980 or 81. I looked forward to the gig, it was kind of the high point of the entire tour we were doing. But really, at that time I kind of thought CBGB was over. Which is pretty funny, since it kept going for another 25 years after that. Shows how much I know.

Sonny had played there a lot with his band Testors, and he’d hung out there a lot. He used to tell the story of how he and a girlfriend would intentionally aggravate bands by setting up a board and playing chess at a table right in front of the stage, ignoring whoever was playing. Sounds about right. He also talked about sleeping upstairs once, in the flophouse called the Palace Hotel. That was the kind of place where if you didn’t have the money to pay for your room they’d throw you out the window, down onto the sidewalk in front of CBs. Which I’d think was a kind of made up story if I hadn’t seen the place myself. The rooms were subdivided with chicken wire to fit multiple people into one room. It was that kind of place. But then we would spend a night at a place in Chicago a couple nights later that wasn’t too different from the Palace, called the Lincoln Hotel. Those kinds of – um, colorful – places were in downtowns all over the country back then.

CBGB itself, on the bottom floor of the Palace, was in a space that had always been a bar, or a saloon, as they would have called it back in the 1800s when it first opened. I could have guessed it had always been a bar. It smelled like it had always been a bar. It smelled like an exaggerated version of every bar you’ve ever walked in to. Everything about it was exaggerated. You think the bathroom is filthy at your local dive bar? Ha – amateurs! The bathroom at CBs was at the bottom of a narrow, dark flight of stairs, and it was like walking in to a cesspool. A cesspool covered in graffiti and stickers. The toilet was broken when we were there, so it may have been worse than normal, but I don’t think normal was a lot better. Hilly’s dog shit in pretty much every dark corner of the club, as you know if you saw the movie, so that didn’t help the overall ambience of the joint.

But really, it wasn’t much different from every other club we played at in those days. None of them were what you’d call “nice,” they were all little black boxes full of people looking for something, anything. Music, drugs, sex, a fight – whatever you wanted you could usually find it. And our show at CBs was kind of anticlimactic, but could it really have been anything else? The legend, the history, the buildup, it’s all the perfect cocktail for a letdown, isn’t it. And as if to make sure it would be a letdown, Mort, our bass player, broke a string during the first song, so we had to stop and go back to the dressing room for 15 minutes while he put on a new string. That kind of took the wind out of everything, as you might expect. I have it all on tape, including the 15 minutes of room noise with no band playing, since the sound guy was kind enough to record a cassette for me. After I paid him $5, which was about half of all the money I had at the time.

So yeah, not all that different. A lot of cities had their own CBGB. In Minneapolis we had a bar called the Longhorn, that was our CBs. It’s where everyone who was itching to do something different in music played. It was the only place they could play original rock music, the same way CBs was in New York. It might sound unbelievable now, but there was a time when you couldn’t get a gig at a small joint, a club or a bar, unless you were a cover band. No one wanted to hear your original music. So by the very late 70s and early 80s, pretty much every city had sprouted up their own CBGB, that place where the alternative sounds were welcome, and where all the misfits went to mope around together and listen to music and make the scene. A little clubhouse in every big city. We were all geographically separated, but somehow intertwined through the great punk rock grapevine. You could sit in St. Paul and read about some local bands in St. Louis or Chicago. We were all trying to make something that was different than what the culture had become in the first part of the 70s. We were all trying to tear it down and build it back up again from scratch.

But back to the New York CBs – recently a lot of people on the Internet seemed to be losing their minds because a Restaurant in the Newark Airport is opening, called CBGB, with a recreation of the old, iconic awning that hung over the original joint on the Bowery. A lot of comments like, “rock is dead,” and “this isn’t very punk,” are being made everywhere. Along with some really funny comments, like comparing it to Applebee’s by calling it “Apple-CBGBees,” or wondering if “Max’s Kansas City Barbeque” is next. If you’re old enough you’ll get that one. No one seems to think it’s a good idea, or even a “who cares” idea. Everything I’ve read about it has been negative. But I think the people who find the idea outrageous or distasteful or disrespectful to the “memory” of CBGB are missing the point.

The whole point of punk was that nothing is sacred, and you shouldn’t worship things just because they’re old or established. Punk rock was definitely not about nostalgia, it was pretty much the opposite of that. You can’t tear things down and rebuild them if you’re lying around all day fanning yourself and pining for the good old days. To some 24 year old stuck in the Newark airport, the restaurant is just going to be another place to buy a $16 hamburger or an $8 beer, nothing more, and that’s as it should be. The same for the storefront that used to be CBs. It’s now a clothing shop, or a boutique, I guess you’d say, for the designer John Varvatos. Which isn’t as weird as it might seem. It’s gentrification, for sure, but Varvatos himself has some legitimate ties to punk rock. I think, I’m pretty sure I read that somewhere. But he invented boxer briefs for Christ’s sake, so give the man his due.

CBGBs and it’s exploitation aside, there’s a larger question of why a punk rock “brand,” so to speak, would even be a desirable thing to exploit. Punk was never a commercially viable thing, not on a large scale anyway. The idea that punk brands have any broad-based commercial value would have been laughable not so long ago. But things have changed, so that larger question has become pretty easy to answer. Everyone wants to be an outlaw, right. Even if they’re not. Everyone wants to be a pirate or an assassin or a guitar player. For people who might not really know any better, which is a lot of people, putting on that CBGB t-shirt or drinking a beer at the CBGB lounge in the airport is their way of saying, “Hey, I’m not like the rest of you, I’m edgy, man, I’m punk rock.” Which is fine. It doesn’t hurt anybody. And it’s not like they’re fooling anyone who really is what they aspire to be. So really, who cares if there’s a CBGB lounge or if a fancy designer took over the address or if there’s a Johnny Thunders replica guitar.

Which there is, by the way. Go to caraguitars.com, you can see it for yourself – and even buy one for $3500. Never mind that you can probably find a real vintage Les Paul Junior for not much more than that. The Johnny Thunders replica looks just like Johnny’s Junior! You know, more or less. It’s all fake beat up and the color is pretty close and they even replicated a jacked up Our Mother Of Sorrows sticker that was on Johnny’s guitar for a while. Of course up on the headstock where it should say Gibson it says CARA, but what can you do. I don’t get “tribute” guitars, but then I guess I’m not the target audience. The target audience for the Johnny Thunders guitar is the same as the target audience for the CBGB airport lounge.

But it reminds me how ridiculous “reliced” guitars are anyway. A reliced guitar, in case you don’t know or care, is a brand new guitar that the factory has applied a bunch of fake aging to. To make it look old, like a “relic.” More often than not they just look like they’ve been tossed around in the back of a cement mixer for a few hours. Maybe that’s how they do it. The problem with these things – well, there are a lot of problems with them, but mainly the problem is: they never get it right. Now Johnny’s Les Paul Junior was beat to shit, because, well, you know, he was Johnny Thunders, not a guitar technician. But even the Cara replica goes way overboard in their fake aging and the thing looks like a piece of barnwood. Which most reliced guitars do. They’re over the top, and you can spot them from a mile away.

In normal use a guitar gets some dings and scars, and if you’re a touring musician, or even gig a lot in your home town, they can get a lot of dings and scars. because to a working musician, an instrument is a tool. There’s the belt buckle wear on the back, wear on the front, where your arm or pick rubs against the guitar, gouges and scrapes from falling over or being dropped. That shit just happens. But in spite of all that, and no matter how careless you are, you can play a guitar for 20 years, and from 10 feet away it will still look just fine. You won’t notice any wear and tear until you get up close and really look at it. Not so with a relic. The relic looks like it fell out of the back of a van every day for a year, and from 50 feet away it looks like a piece of shit that you wouldn’t let your hyperactive little cousin play.

But the goal of these things is to bestow some kind of legitimacy on the player. You know, “Jeez, look at that guitar, they must play that thing 20 hours a day!” Though, again, even if you did play it 20 hours a day, it wouldn’t be that beat. But for someone who wants to appear a certain way, they’re perfect. The irony is that anyone who wants to appear a certain way is never really the way they want to appear, are they. They are faking it, taking shortcuts and posing and preening and not really worth a second look. Right about now you might be thinking, “Hey, why not just buy a really old beat up guitar if that’s the look you’re going for?” That’s a reasonable question, and the answer is, because any guitar that looks as beat up as the typical reliced guitar looks is probably a broken down, abused piece of shit, and is most likely unplayable. I know, none of it makes any sense. You explain it to me, I certainly can’t explain it. These instruments are like fake “old” furniture. They’re that ugly and contrived.

I like old things, but new things that are phonied up to look old just make me sad. Kind of like seeing someone shopping for Christmas gifts at a drugstore on December 24th. That kind of sad. There are enough old things in the world that you can find and use. They usually have some kind of problem, because they’re old, and that’s probably why so many people go for the new “fake old.” It’s probably why it’s easier to wear the CBGB t-shirt than to actually go to CBGB and endure the place. Assuming you still could. Wearing the leather motorcycle jacket that you got at the mall – do they still have malls? – is an easier way to look like an outlaw than actually being an outlaw. No one wants to really be an outlaw, it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable. You can’t walk the dog in sweatpants or Uber to the Vietnamese noodle place when you’re an outlaw. You have to go out and do outlaw shit.

What’s really funny is that all of this, the fashion, the fakery, the whatever you want to call it, isn’t even what it used to be. Fashion used to work like this: take things from 20 years ago and remake them. That was fashion. The way fashion works now, there aren’t really periods or eras or trends or anything. Every period is available and viable and acceptable all the time. You can walk down the street in clothes made to look like they’re from the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s and be “in fashion.” This has been going on for, easily, ten years now. I remember seeing things before that and thinking, “Oh, people wear those shoes again?” and they would come and go. Now they just never go.

Listen man, I’m not putting down anyone who wants to wear a CBGB t-shirt or drink in the CBGB airport lounge. A lot of us want to be someone we’re not. Maybe most of us. Maybe all of us. Our work has defined us for so long, and there are not a lot of cool and interesting jobs left. So if you’re not the lead number cruncher at the insurance firm, what are you? If you’re not someone who puts together cars or builds stoves or washing machines, if you’re just working in front of a computer the way most us do, what are you? Who are you? You are what you’re interested in, I guess. It’s why we used to play the radio loud and drive around slowly with all the windows rolled down. We want to show who we are, what we love. Now that work defines us less and less, something’s got to come in to fill that identity void. Why not a leather motorcycle jacket.

It’s hard to co-opt something when nothing is really distinctive anymore. It used to mean something to have long hair or work on the line at GM or to walk around your town in a leather jacket. I’m not sure what anything means anymore. Everyone just seems to be putting on different costumes depending on how they feel that day. And like I mentioned, you can wear anything you want and everyone has seen it before. Think about it. When’s the last time you saw some kids walking around and wondered, “What the hell are they wearing? What does that little gang of hooligans stand for? Are they going to rob me or violate my daughter?” I can only speak for myself, but it’s been a long time since I saw anyone and wondered those kinds of things. The last time was probably in the 80s or early 90s when kids were walking around with their pants half down, and I thought, “Well that can’t be very comfortable.” They were never really very scary or menacing though, because you knew they couldn’t run very fast in those things, so you could always get away from them.

When the Beatles stopped cutting their hair and started to look like hippies, a big part of society thought they were out of their minds. They looked like “bums.” Five years earlier, the same people were saying they “looked like girls with that long hair,” so they got to offend the older generation twice. Pretty sweet deal. In the 70s people were walking around in some outlandish shit, and sometimes you’d see someone and go, “Whoa, there, what the hell?” But no more. I kind of miss being surprised by people, or young people anyway. But it’s not their fault. I mean, what’s left? Where can you go? What can you do to make your parents uncomfortable now? It’s a weird situation, because rebelling against the generation who gave birth to you is pretty much what used to define each generation. We’d create something new every 20 years so older people could tell us how stupid we looked and how we were never going to amount to anything.

And a lot of those generational changes centered around a new kind of music. From the jazz age on, anyway, when popular music and records became a thing. A big chunk of the generation would gather or rally around the music and set off on their own thing. Sure, there were always a few strays who behaved more like their parents than like a new generation, but for the most part, “the kids,” split off from “the parents,” and each group though the other was nuts. I always thought that was a necessary part of changing civilization, or our culture anyway. That rebellion. Whether it was real rebellion or we just thought it was rebellion. It actually doesn’t matter either way, as long as you think you’re going down a new path and breaking away from the previous generation, I guess you are.

We also may be – we, meaning my generation – the last ones to have strong feelings of nostalgia for music or fashion or even places. If your music now is from five different eras, and your clothes are from three or four different eras, what are you going to be nostalgic for in 20 years? Websites? Phones? What will they make nostalgic movies about? What will be their CBGB movie, or even their CBGB club? Everything is changing and homogenizing and becoming standardized, boiled down to a few visual or audio cues that everyone recognizes. Leather jacket? Check, got it, know where you’re coming from. Comically huge beard and skinny pants? Got it. I know you. I know who you are. All the types are set. All the costumes established. And it’s just a mish mash of all of it, of all of them. Everything at once and nothing at once.

So what’s going to happen, what will become of the first generation with nothing to rebel against? I wonder if that will fuck with their heads somehow, and create an even weirder generation than anyone could imagine? Maybe that’s what will happen. Taking away a thing or a generation or a system to rebel against may just spawn a new hybrid generation that shoots lasers from their fingertips or grows platform shoes instead of feet. I know I kind of mentioned the same thing briefly in the last episode, and here I am with it again. It must be on my mind a lot these days. I worry about the kids. Me and Whitney Houston. We believe the children are the future. No shit, Whitney? Children are the future? Um hmm. Well, if you didn’t know that before, now you do. Me and Whitney told you.

I sat on my couch and watched the CBGB movie, which is a good and comfortable way to watch any movie. But we saw two movies last weekend in the theater. Not just a normal theater, a joint called iPic. If you hate going to movies because it’s uncomfortable and people are assholes, you should check out iPic. Every seat is a recliner, and there’s a little blanket there and a pillow for you. And wait staff comes around to tuck you in. No, they don’t tuck you in, but they will bring you food and drinks that you order from a menu right there in your recliner. How ridiculous is that? But someone did it. Someone thought that up and made it happen, so you really ought to go check it out. I mean once, anyway. You won’t want to go every weekend unless you have more money than sense. because that shit is expensive. A movie and some food and drinks is going to set you back at least a hundred bucks. See, ridiculous. But the crowd is civilized – probably because it’s so expensive that no one is going to behave like a jackass and waste their money – so that’s a plus. They applauded when one of the movies ended, for Christ’s sake. When’s the last time you heard that?

For the record, I don’t drop a hundred bucks on a move myself. I mean we did go once, right after the place opened, just to see what it was and to say we’d done it. You can watch pretty much any movie you want to see in HD for $4.99 right from your couch. So you’d have to be a little loopy to spend that kind of money regularly. Even if I had hundred dollar bills falling out of my pockets, and I just had so many that I didn’t even bother to stop and pick up the ones that fell, even if that was happening, I still wouldn’t go to iPic or anything like it all the time. We went twice in one weekend it was because I got an iPic gift card from the guy I work with, so it didn’t cost us anything. Or not very much. And if someone else is footing the bill, hey man, why not? That’s the best way to do anything that’s excessive or ridiculous or expensive: do it on someone else’s dime. That’s the trick to learn to really enjoy life. You have to act like you belong though, and I know some people have trouble with that. “I’m uncomfortable, I don’t belong here!” Sure you do. You belong everywhere.

I’ve probably talked to you about crashing concerts at some point, but we didn’t just crash concerts when I was a teenager, we crashed everything. If we weren’t supposed to be there, we figured out a way in. Usually just by walking in as if we were supposed to be there. That’s the key. Walk right in the front door like you own the joint. Once I was walking around downtown St. Paul with a friend of mine, John Kass. John went on to work in the record business and now he owns record stores in the twin cities, check him out if you’re up there. He does mail order too, I think. He’s got all the records. If you’re looking for something, he has it. Anyway, one day as we were wandering around we saw some signs for the opening of a commercial building, or a cluster of commercial buildings or some such thing, and we decided we should go in there and see what was happening. So we walked in like we belonged. Everyone was wearing suits and fancy clothes, business and political leaders, all patting themselves on the back for making the city more modern and less comfortable.

And there we were, two ragamuffins off the street, literally, wandering around and smiling at people. Then we saw the big tables full of food and went right to them and started eating everything in sight. We were stuffing our mouths when someone finally came up to us and said, “You guys can’t be in here.” And without missing a beat, John said, “My dad is George Latimer!” George Latimer was the mayor of St. Paul. So the guy just looked at us and walked away. What else could he do? He can’t risk possibly kicking the mayor’s son out of some grand celebratory thing. Even if he knew John wasn’t the son of the mayor. Can’t risk it. That’s why walking in any front door of any place like you own it usually works. Because the person standing there guarding the door doesn’t want to risk stopping someone who belongs. They could lose their job. So work on that. Acting like you belong. It opens a lot of doors and can get you into all kinds of interesting trouble. And anyway, you do belong. You belong there as much as the Mayor does, or the mayor’s golfing buddy. The world is all yours. Now go act like it. See you next time.