Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bouts of Punk Nostalgia

In the summer of 2005, I was a rising high school senior taking college classes at a university in New Haven, Connecticut. Because, well, I was a big ol’ nerd overachiever and that was super fun for me. One weekend, we were taken on a trip into New York City, where we could do as we pleased for the day. Picking up a copy of The Village Voice, I remembered that today could be the day I was finally able to visit my hallowed ground, what I felt was the mecca of all I held dear: CBGB.

I have written about my relationship with punk on here before, but just a quick recap: in my private-schooled, uptight-yet-starry-eyed universe, punk became my outlet. I’m not talking about the garbage peddled at Hot Topic, though—I’m talking about the real stuff, the seminal aches and pains borne of the Bowery in New York in the 1970s. This New York became my mind’s playground, a place where artists visual and musical roamed free, where the streets were dirty and covered in graffiti and dear god please don’t eat the chili. In the pages of Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, I escaped myself and I was allowed to be something other than the over-extracurriculared AP student that I was. If punk was the religion, CBGB was the temple.

But that day in 2005, I made a mistake. A silly one, based less on idiocy than a lack of understanding of Manhattan geography. When I saw ‘Bleecker and Bowery’ as the intersection, I thought that if I walked long enough on Bleecker Street I would arrive at 315, the venue’s address. But the address was 315 Bowery, and I instead wound up somewhere in the West Village. I had already dragged my friends long enough through Manhattan to find an incorrect address that I felt awful to do it to them again. There were already rumors circulating that the club would close down (I still have my ‘Save CBGB’ shirt from when it was under debate), and I knew I may not have another chance. I was right—the venue shuttered in 2006. I never got to see it, and every time I think about it I get a little bit wistful. I did get to see the famed awning on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, but it wasn’t the experience it might have been (it’s Cleveland for chrissakes.)

December 2006, still hopeful
even after the venue closed.
Photo by A. Marakov.

In my mind, the ghosts of this punk playground run rampant through the East Village, clinging to it with desperate, white-knuckled grips, urging it not to set up another hotel with $17 cocktails, not another pre-fab glass condo that only a zillionaire from Dubai or a Trump can afford. My impression is not a new one—hosts of New Yorkers yearn for the days when New York, when Manhattan, when Brooklyn meant something else, something other than money and penthouse views. The punk New York is one that brought me here, that wildness and freedom and creative spirit still lives on the streets and causes me to wince every time I walk past the John Varvatos store that CBGB has become (though, to his credit, Varvatos left much of the original stickers and graffiti up to commemorate the space’s past). I refuse to go inside because I worry that part of me will die.

The reason for this nostalgia right now is two-fold. One, I have just finished reading the entrancing Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes. An editor at Rolling Stone, Hermes has penned the history of punk, salsa, contemporary classical, contemporary jazz, and hip-hop in the five years that each developed in New York, all interestingly from 1973-1978. Every step of the way, I was with Hermes at David Byrne’s apartment on 12th Street, at the Mercer Arts Center of yesteryear, at a performance space where the Ramones once held court that is now a designer pet clothing store. I was walking along the streets with Patti Smith, listening to Television with Lou Reed as he watched them play at CBGB, aching as Hermes himself missed the train to what turned out to be one of the most captivating Grateful Dead concerts in the band’s history. In a series of historical vignettes, Hermes shows us the events in New York that led to the creation of these pivotal times in music history. We aren’t just fed facts, but rather see, feel, and understand facets of people’s lives. The text is as much a sociological study as a survey of music history. To be rather general about it, it is a must for anyone who loves New York and the way and the reasons why people create music; it will somehow make you love both even more, when you didn’t even think that was possible.

I noticed myself more voraciously diving into the punk sections, but I am more than a little biased. Once again, reading Hermes’s words, I pumped new blood into my love for the punk movement. And yet, sometimes I wonder what I am doing here in this city that may no longer be a place where a venue like CBGB could survive. The New York that exists in my mind is one that’s different than the one I walk around in every day. Granted, this one is incredibly safer and I am far less likely to trip on a crackpipe in the middle of the street. I can walk around the East Village without fear of getting mugged, for which I am certainly grateful. But the spirit is still alive, isn’t it? That spirit of I can do, I can make whatever pleases me? I can think about work that I like and produce something that is simultaneously in homage and something new, spurred on by my peers who are doing the same? Perhaps that is the energy I feel now, but I like to think a lot of it is leftover from punk, that spirit of DIY and fuck-off-ness I hope has infused its way into my own life in some capacity.

This brings us to the second reason for this perhaps sudden bout of punk nostalgia: the annual Met Ball in celebration of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest Costume Institute exhibition, “Punk: Chaos to Couture.” Though I am not often one to comment on current events, this one, as you may have guessed, hits close to home.

The Met Ball is to many the super bowl of fashion, material sister of my other life-blood, style. Highest of high A-List celebrities, fashion and otherwise, are invited to attend in theme of each exhibition. So several celebrities try their hand at “punk style,” some really just going overboard and some showing a sincere effort that elicits at most a regretful “Well, you tried.” But seeing fashion and punk so closely together, not only at the same party but holding hands there, leaves me uncharacteristically numb. I am almost excited, almost jumping for joy that I would get to see so many of my favorite artistic expressions in one venue; and I am almost confused, because punk never was a fashion movement to those who truly started it, those in New York (in case you were wondering, all of this Sex Pistols torn up business was more of a marketing tactic by Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren after he failed to fashionably market his previous band, the New York Dolls). Yes, I think it’s nice that fashion could take cues from Patti Smith because, well, look at her, she’s absolutely stunning—I myself cite her as a personal style muse. But I don’t know whether to celebrate or revile the idea that fashion has taken so many of its ideas from punk. Imagine if you have a ripped t-shirt that you wear because it’s old and you love it and maybe you can’t afford a new one. Then a designer sees you, loves your look, and makes the exact same shirt ripped in the same way but sells it for $400—do you feel honored or exploited? I want to believe the exhibition is tasteful and acknowledges true punk history. At the same time, I feel myself uneager to point my toes toward 80th and 5th and enter the exhibition, for fear it will rip apart and twist the truth to streams of people who don’t know better. What do you think Patti Smith would do?