There are, I guess, still many things people can do these days to tap into the legacy of CBGB, but I wouldn’t recommend going near most of them. The merchandising empire (do, however, new parents, get your tot a CBGB bib and onesie); the “thuddingly banal” 2013 film version, which… the less said about the better; yes, and CBGB, the restaurant, in the Newark Airport Terminal C—proceed at your own risk.
We must sadly also mention this past summer’s “Potemkin village from hell,” a pop-up “TRGT” shop for the grand opening of the East Village’s new Target at 14th St. and Avenue A. This abomination—which sold CBGB-styled “TRGT” shirts and proffered Target-branded Band-Aids (get it? Bands) sent “Vanishing New York” blogger Jeremiah Moss into “a state of confusion and dysphoria… to see the artifacts of my own life, my cultural and spiritual awakening, my home, displayed above the cash registers in a Target store.”
One cannot get too upset. The venue had been in a decline for a long time. The best of grassroots American culture all ends up in a Target or Starbucks eventually, gets green lit for a biopic and turned into an interactive gallery. At least the CBGB building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. Maybe a boost for the sales of John Varvatos who moved a store into the former club in 2007, the very same year CBGB’s founder Hilly Kristal died of lung cancer.
Ever-tasteful New York Post announced the takeover with the headline Hobo Goes Haute. “All of Manhattan has lost its soul to money lords,” said Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome. Twelve years later, the lament seems understated. But time moves on and so should we, the CBGB of the past was a moment in history never to be seen again, as fervid and fertile as late 19th century Symbolism or the Beats—movements that just happened to have very much influenced New York punk.
Like the life and work of Arthur Rimbaud or William S. Burroughs, the only way to commune with the legend of CBGB is through its primary sources. There is no shortage. Recordings, photographs, interviews, and much excellent live footage of the bands that made the T-shirt famous in the years of punk rock’s glory: The Dead Boys and The Ramones in 1977, Bad Brains, inventing hardcore, in 1982, a very awkward Talking Heads and confident Blondie playing the Velvet Underground all the way back in 75….
Turning cultural moments into monuments and merchandise is shallow, of course, but it’s more than that—it’s impoverishing. It makes us think we understand something without ever having seen it. It’s not enough to know that it happened, we should know how it happened. How was the edgy electrified disco stomper “Psycho Killer” once a rickety, “tense and nervous” acoustic strummer? How did The Dead Boys’ Stiv Bators from Cleveland more or less invent the moves front men and women in punk almost universally adopted? How did Washington DC's Bad Brains break every unspoken rule of punk—with complex breakdowns, tempo shifts, and shredding solos—yet still conquer every punk stage? How did the Ramones play entire live sets shorter than some of the single songs certain other bands played onstage at the time? How was it to witness Blondie as a killer live covers act? How was it to see The Ramones play "Judy is a Punk" in 1974?
Forget the graveyard of CBGB kitsch out there. If you’re interested in punk rock as a cultural phenomenon, you owe it to yourself to see as much of this historic footage as possible, and to listen to as many live recordings of far-too-often unsung CBGB bands like Television. And if you were there, condolences. Maybe you owe it to the rest of us to tell how it really was.