Friday, October 13, 2006

CBGB & OMFUG, 1973-2006(?)

The name stood for "Country Blue Grass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandisers", though the music that the place helped make famous, and that made it famous, didn't fit the "CBGB" categories, and any "gourmandising" that went on there had nothing to do with food. Indeed, owner Hilly Kristal admits, in his history on the official website, that he wanted the acronym to end in "FUG" because he wanted it to be "a little uncouth, or crude".

That's how many would describe the music that came from there, especially the raw, three-chord punk of perhaps the best-known band to take its stage, the Ramones. It also hosted the more cerebral, but still aesthetically stripped-down, music of Talking Heads. (I never heard them at CBGB - indeed, I don't think I was ever in CBGB more than three times - but I did catch a Talking Heads concert around 1978 in the old Entermedia Theater on Second Avenue. I went with some British computer jocks I'd met pub-crawling in the Village. The warm-up act was the Jamaican dub artist The Mighty Dillinger. Shortly after Talking Heads took the stage, one of our group excused himself and didn't return. After the concert, we found him outside. "I just couldn't bear to listen to some young Americans singing about their head trips after hearing Dillinger," he said.)

There were thousands of bands that played CBGB during its thirty three year run (usually three every night). Most of these bands never became famous, though a few achieved a kind of second tier status, with maybe one album getting some airplay on indie stations. There's a piece in today's Slate that mentions several of these groups, including on of which I have a fond memory: the Shirts. They were playing on one of the rare nights in the late '70s that I went to CBGB. They got on stage, played one very loud, very frenetic song (which I enjoyed), then, after the applause, the singer said, "We're da Shoits." She added, as if it were necessary, "From Brooklyn." Mink DeVille was also on the bill that night; I can't remember the third act.

My most memorable performance there was when my friends Pierce Turner (now a solo artist) on synth and Larry Kirwan (who now fronts the trad-Irish techno hip-hop group Black 47) on guitar (I got to know Pierce and Larry when they were, as Turner and Kirwan of Wexford, the house band at the Bells of Hell) provided the backing music for a poetry reading by a crazy, notoriously belligerent East Village slumlord who called himself Copernicus. When Copernicus started bellowing his verse, which sounded sort of like Walt Whitman filtered through Captain Beefheart, the room quickly got less crowded. I still have, and cherish, a poster advertising this event.

I also have, buried behind my daughter's now unused toys that, on the edge of thirteen, she still can't bear to discard, a double vinyl album called Live at CBGB that includes cuts by the aforementioned Shirts, Mink deVille and a number of other second tier bands that used to perform there.

According to the home page of the official website, the last show will be this Sunday, October 15. It also says "the club will reopen soon." The question is: where? There's some speculation Hilly means to have the whole shebang recreated in Las Vegas, with perhaps some "original fabric", as my archivist wife would say. This seems appropriate. Vegas has become the ultimate adult theme park where, along with gambling, you can experience replicated and denatured versions of things that once seemed dangerous and subversive. Maybe it's the only place CBGB can go, now.