Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Quote of the Day: CBGB Protesters

Today's quote is from a flier handed out in protest to people outside the new John Varvatos men's clothing store that occupies the old CBGB spot on the Bowery:
"These music and art and cultural spaces were not abandoned, dusty relics. These were places that still catered to strong and vibrant burgeoning communities. They are being ousted by people creating a false, expensive tourist version of the real culture that was here.

"New York City should not be a town just for the wealthy. But who can afford these clothes? Mr. Varvatos caters to a wealthy, male-dominated major label mainstream rock world that has no claim on the CB's legacy whatsoever."
I'm always surprised when people react to the passing of landmarks. Apathy is the mood I expect to see.

The store hosted a benefit for VH1's "Save the Music," a charity that seeks to keep music education in schools. According to the New York Post, Joan Jett, Ronnie Spector, Slash and Perry Farrell all performed and the event raised $30,000.

The Varvatos store reminds me of the dreadful Experience Music Project in Seattle, a temple to the upwardly mobile middle-aged American man's whitewashed nostalgia for rock's past, all housed in a crumpled tin foil Gehry creation. This is what we do with the past, the foreign, and the outrageous in America: we recreate it. Colonial Williamsburg turns our history into a folksy digestable theme park with roller coasters that add the thrill that butter churning demonstrations may lack. Las Vegas remakes ancient Egypt, Paris, Rome -- even New York. Now, punk's most celebrated venue has become a home for "funky," over-priced, under-designed menswear. The only way, many would have us believe, that CBGB could survive.

Like Saturday Night Live, CBGB probably should have died a long time ago. It was a time and a place, and it cannot be recreated -- neither by a hip designer nor a group of aging punks who want their hangout back. The Bowery, once New York's Skid Row, is now home to a giant two-story Whole Foods, the new New Museum, and at least one boutique hotel. There was no room for the old CBGB in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

That inevitable change is ultimately what the protesters were protesting. Can we ever stop it? Coney Island, New York's last bastion of kitsch and sleaze after Times Square was Disney-fied, is up for a "renewal." Will small organic growth always be cut short by hyper-planned, hyper-self conscious development? Is corporate sponsorship the only way to save our past?

Glenn O'Brien, known today as GQ's Style Guy, was a regular at CBGB in its heyday. O'Brien was involved in Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine when it started and hosted a downtown Manahttan cable access show in the late 70s and early 80s called TV Party. I was surprised to read what O'Brien had to say in his GQ blog about CBGB's demise and replacement by the Varvatos store:
"History is a strange thing. Spike Lee's film Summer of Sam, which takes place in about 1977, shows a punk show at CB's, and the audience is a bunch of pogoing, safety-pin-punctured leatherettes with dayglo Mohawks. Not authentic. In fact, nobody called punk rock "punk rock," and everybody then dressed kind of regular, in denim and leather with a little sharkskin and rockabilly thrown in. The full-dress caricature punks did eventually show up, a decade or so later when the place had become institutionalized and a venue for hardcore and other mutant forms of "punk." And CBGB became a sort of caricature of its former self. Sometimes death is better than lingering. What was the old punk expression? Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. But CB's was on life support for years."
He added that if Patti Smith really cared that much about the club dying, she should have given the owner a loan.

"Now I'm sure that lots of people are finding some 'sell-out' angle in this," O'Brien continues, "but I don't mind at all. Any clothing designer that uses Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper for models is okay by me."

Maybe O'Brien is right. He concludes:
"And I believe that John Varvatos is genuinely rock and roll. I mean, as genuinely as anything rock and roll can be. Because rock and roll is ultimately a pose. And despite the fact that at some point in the history of what is called punk, "poseur" was about the worst thing anyone could call you, the whole point was posing until the pose took and your dreams became authentic. Today, in the world where the Bowery is where millionaires live, authenticity is what you make of it. I wear it, therefore I am."
I never went to CBGB when I had the chance, so I won't know how faithful the Varvatos store is to the bar. I may make a visit to it this week.

The L Magazine covered it, saying:
"Yeah, yeah, it’s 'oh so shocking' and 'a classic example of the gentrification of the Bowery,' but, realistically, real estate is real estate in this city, and nothing is sacred."
True. But let's step back a moment. Are we really getting mad at someone for opening a store? Reminds me of something Ayn Rand used to say: "Don't smear the profit motive."

I may sound facetious, but I actually mean that seriously. What would punk have been without Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren? Fashion and Rock have been intertwined for decades. Is it Varvatos' high price point that bothers us? Is it the blatant commerce? Is it the opportunism?

UPDATE: The New York Times profiled Varvatos today. The designer said:
“No, we don’t sell $10 shirts and we aren’t punk, but I don’t feel like I have to make excuses for bringing a fashion store to the Bowery. If some other tenant — like a bank or a deli, you name it — had taken over the space, would they have preserved the walls? Would they stage free monthly concerts? The decision to move into CBGB’s wasn’t about ringing the cash register.”


Blogger Christopher said...

Funny, I was talking about this with April this morning...and pretty much find myself in agreement with O'Brien.

I remember a couple of years ago, I mentioned to a friend that CBGBs was being sold or going to be shut down or going to be reopened as some godawful boutique...to which he responded - in his wonderful dry monotone that I could never accurately depict - "Who fucking cares?"

There has been nothing remotely interesting there in many, many years (seriously, who has lived there or visited in the past 10 years and found themselves saying, "You know, there is a great show at CBGBs tonight. We should go.") Every time I noticed their ads, it looked like some upcoming show for Battle of the Bands! Sodomizer vs. Doctor Anal Or, One Showe (sic) Only! Nutbuster (featuring Kaptain Krunch).

Now that I think of it, that battle of the bands show might have been interesting...

2:34 PM  

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