Thursday, July 29, 2010

"This Is Futile!": CBGB #1

315 Bowery, New York, NY 10012.

That's the address of a John Varvatos clothing store. Varvatos is a much-celebrated menswear designer who trades in rock-and-roll iconography and symbolism in his aesthetic. His styling is minimalistic, his silhouette is slim, his color-palette mostly muted. If you are a skinny boy with money and a solid sartorial sense, you could do rather well by donning a wardrobe consisting of select Varvatos pieces. You would more than likely be thought of as a man with a very modern sense of style, despite the obvious retro-leanings of the clothing itself.

That is generally how design works. A style comes to be, ignites the imagination of a generation, inspires a group of influential artists and designers who take that aesthetic and then push it out into the public eye hard and fast. Then, it gets stuck. Like a child making a gruesome face, it freezes that way, and it is forever trapped by expectations. To call something 'modern' is not necessarily the same as calling it 'contemporary'. 'Modern' is an aesthetic. 'Contemporary' is right now. Skinny jeans are both 'modern' and 'contemporary' because the skinny aesthetic is seen as adhering to a mod sense of style, one that shuns the superfluous and accentuates a clean line; they are 'contemporary' because they are what is in style right now. Skinny jeans will always be 'modern', even when they are no longer 'contemporary'. This is how fashion works. It is also how music works.

315 Bowery, New York, NY 10012.

This was the address of a very famous and infamous bar and nightclub that went by the simple acronym CBGB. The letters stood for "Country, Blue Grass, and Blues". That's what the letters stand for, but that's not what the name CBGB actually means. The name means 'punk'. What does 'punk' mean? I haven't that kind of time to answer that question. Really. Because the three-chord blast of The Ramones is 'punk'. The art-school dissonance of Television is 'punk'. The slightly kitschy 1950's throwback rock-and-roll of early Blondie is 'punk'. Many think the droning nihilism of The Velvet Underground is 'punk'. And there are those who think the snarling juvenilia of The Who is 'punk'. And truly, if you listen to those three-chord blasts by The Ramones carefully, they make a strong case that the staccato simplicity of Buddy Holly is 'punk'. Hell, isn't Johnny Cash shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die totally 'punk', too? And if NWA shouting "Fuck The Police" isn't 'punk', then music needs new definitions. See, 'punk' isn't any one particular sound, necessarily, it's an aesthetic.

But, as with all aesthetics, 'punk' got stuck. Say the word to a kid today, and they probably conjure up images of ripped up t-shirts held together by safety pins and spiked mohawks dyed neon-green; studded leather jackets and Doc Marten boots with Anarchy symbols scrawled on them in paint marker. 'Punk' is now a very specific sound, a loud, hard crunching sound, abrasive and fast, it's yelling at you, it's angry. Tell a 13-year-old kid today that Blondie was 'punk', and they may scoff, may even laugh. "Blondie? You mean that 'Heart of Glass' band?" Yeah. "Heart of Glass" is 'punk'. To some people. To some people, snarling like an Ice Queen, cooing with all the combined empowerment brought about by late-70's sexual politics, all over a disco bass-line that out-thumped almost anything of it's day IS 'punk'. Blondie? Yeah. Blondie.

Now that stage once covered in blood and beer and cigarette ash is now covered in designer fashions and fine leather goods and 'vintage' t-shirts. There are those who cried foul, shouted out their rage at seeing a part of the grand artistic narrative of NYC become a gentrified monument to the Post-Guiliani trust-fund era. I was not one of them. CBGB had been dead for years; a shadow of it's former self, no longer relevant on the music scene, much of which had made the move to Brooklyn years ago. The name on the door is New York, not Old York. Times change. Things die out. You have to let them go and build new.

People hate letting go. Oddly enough, it often seems like kids are the worst at it. Kids hate letting go of the past, especially if it is a past they had nothing to do with. Stooge is one such kid. He is a character in the comic book CBGB #1, a 4-issue mini-series seemingly meant as a mini-anthology of stories of and about the long-gone club. Stooge is part of the first story featured, a sly take on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol written by Kieron Gillen, he of Phonogram and Thor fame, with art by Marc Ellerby. The title of this tale? "A NYC Punk Carol". Yeah, Mr. Gillen is not hiding his influence here, even having the main character point it out to us, just in case we are drunk, high, stoned, dense, or all four, whilst reading this comic. Stooge gets drunk whilst IN this comic; drunk and angry whilst standing outside the Varvatos boutique, lamenting, "I could have been part of it. I would have, if I'd been then." Everything is always better before you get there, Stooge. That's New York.

When he falls on the pavement and passes out on Bowery like a good little punk, he is visited by his three ghosts who proceed to give him a history lesson of the scene (and then some) that comes straight out of several very good books, including "Please Kill Me" and "From the Velvets to The Voidoids". I know because I've read these books. And also because Mr. Gillen has these ghosts name-check them at the end, college-thesis bibliography-style. It all reads like a Sesame Street scene, brought to you be the letters C, B, and G. Fittingly - and most likely not intentional on his part - because New York is the home of the Children's Television Workshop, home of Big Bird and the gang. Remember kids, learning about shit is totally 'punk'.

The second story in this first issue, written by Sam Humphries with art by Rob G., strikes closer to the bone and concerns a teenager caught up in the thick of the scene in 1979. When tasked with cleaning up the downtown Manhattan apartment of a recently deceased uncle, he does what any ignorant, self-absorbed teen would do, he throws all the junk and detritus away, tossing it out on the street. Then, he learns that his uncle was once a one-man distortion pedal who performed on the hallow stage of CBGB just a few years prior. Oops. Guess all that junk wasn't junk, after all. He races down the street like a desperate lover at the end of a rom-com chasing a girl ready to board a bus out of town, and rescues the "memorabilia" from out the filthy grasp of dread city workers. You know, trash collectors. Garbage men. See, all the little notes and shredded pieces of paper; all the photocopied gig posters and set lists; all the tapes and tapes of endless loops of distortion and musical experimentation, that's all documentation now. What this kid does, it's archeology. He proclaims at stories end, "I'm gonna be the most punk fucking rock thing you've ever seen." Yeah, and all it took was stealing his uncle's garbage.

The stories in this comic are definitely entertaining, if somewhat pretentious (Gillen) or precious (Humphries). This is a tribute anthology, after all, so a little bit of both of those qualities is to be expected, and they do nothing to degrade the overall beauty of the book. The fawning tone is also to be expected. People miss the past. It's natural. The past is where EVERYTHING happened. Right now seems so un-special when compared to before. Right now is high-fashion and before was DIY. Right now is corporate and mainstream, and before was independent and raw. Right now is so iPod and before was so mix-tape. It's difficult to see right now as being the before of tomorrow. Maybe 30 years from now, there will be a comic book anthology about a designer clothing boutique in downtown New York that changed lives? You'll be telling some ignorant kid about it. "John Varvatos?" Yeah. Varvatos.
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CBGB #1 written by Kieron Gillen and Sam Humphries, with art by Marc Ellerby and Rob G., was released on 21 July, 2010 by Boom! Studios.

Further Reading:
"Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk" by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain", published by Penguin.

"From The Velvets to The Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World" by Clinton Heylin, published by Penguin.

"England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond" by Jon Savage, published by St. Martin's Griffin. 

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