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Between Punk Rock and a Hard Place


“You should e-mail Hilly,” said another.

“I will. I’ll do just that. They book this crap, and then we have to listen to it.”

The next week, I stopped by CBGB on a Saturday night. This time, the place was busy—two of the bands, the Pennyroyals and Fixer, were, I was told, on the verge of major-label deals. I missed the Pennyroyals, but I caught Fixer. They were pros. The drummer was fast, the guitarist was shirtless, the bassist wore a suit jacket and looked kind of intellectual. But the lead singer of Fixer was the thing. He had eyeliner and a complicated outfit: black pants with laces running along the legs, a black vest buttoned on the left, black cloth wristbands. He moved around the stage like a snake, flinging the sweat from his hair onto the crowd. Then, in between songs, came this: “I really want to thank Verité, my clothing designer. She’s very talented. She designed the clothes I’m wearing tonight.”

The crowd was stunned. They had never heard anything less punk-rock in their entire lives. Had there been stairs next to the stage, we’d have rushed up there and tackled him. I looked up at the tattered ceiling, on the other side of which sat homeless people, maybe trying to get some rest.

Hilly Kristal does not often attend the shows these days. He is old. “My ears have heard enough music,” he told me, when I asked if he was tired. “But this thing, the history of it, it’s still very important to me. I’m not tired of that.” He began to talk again about his vision of a punk-rock museum at CBGB: “There was so much of interest here. And the other clubs, too—Max’s Kansas City, the Mudd Club. I think people would want to know what those were like.”

So a division of labor obtains: At CBGB, on the Bowery, Kristal ponders punk rock’s history and recites the names of the dead. Meanwhile, out in Red Hook, the spirit of punk lives. One night, between visits to CBGB, I trekked out to a club called the Hook, to see Lightning Bolt, an experimental noise band from Rhode Island.

If punk is dead, the idea of it must be kept alive. There needs to be a place where people can get onstage and scream out their hearts.

Lightning Bolt is two guys, one with a very loud drum set, the other with a virtuosic, and loud, bass guitar. They refuse to play on the stage, preferring the floor, meaning that if you want to see them you need to fight through the leaping, moshing kids massed around them, surging back and forth. It is imperative that one get close to them, however; it is practically the single imperative their music makes, because you feel you must see where this incredible sound is coming from. The bass guitar wails, strains, extends itself, while the drums pound furiously, at incredible speed. The form of the music is closer to jazz than to rock, with no discernible hooks, and occasionally very discordant interruptions of progressions—but eventually they do progress, building off one another, into an avalanche of sound. There was no singing, only the occasional guttural cries of the drummer, who wore a mike underneath his horrifying ski mask—he wore a horrifying ski mask—creating a sense that we’d all gathered together at the Hook to pay homage to some inarticulable thing. Lightning Bolt was awesome.

After the show, my roommate and I missed the shuttle van back to the F train and made our way on foot. Manhattan was finished, I thought, a museum of commerce, “dive bars,” and “rock clubs.” At least the stock exchange is real. Perhaps, as some people say, the best thing to do with CBGB would be to burn it down; for when NYU is buying the papers of Richard Hell, and when the Swedish government is hosting punk-rock functions at CBGB, and when Muzzy Rosenblatt can take a young lady to CBGB on a first date, and then, reader, she marries him—well, it’s tempting to say that such a living shadow should be in Las Vegas, or just nowhere at all. The New York Press said so a while ago, and the Williamsburg hipsterati have been saying so for years.

Of course they have. And if the best way to give the punk-rock finger to a city that uses Kristal’s club in its promotional materials for its megalomaniacal 2012 Olympic bid but can’t be bothered to mediate an emotional and near-tragic landlord-tenant dispute is to move to Las Vegas, no city has ever deserved such a finger more.

My roommate and I passed under the monstrous elevated BQE. Lightning Bolt, a true rock-and-roll band, had sold out Northsix in Williamsburg and then packed the Hook and didn’t even set foot in Manhattan. They hate the corporate sleaze, I suggested. “Well, maybe,” said my roommate, who used to be the drummer for the Austin emo band the Gloria Record. “But probably they just figured this is where the people were. They’d make more money here.”

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