By the time I started hearing about CBGB, they were just about to shut the damn place down and I was on the other side of the planet. When I think about it, if it were open, and I did manage to get myself halfway across the world and go, I don't know how much I would feel. There would always be this gnawing doubt that I was functioning on expectation and sensing some kind of presence where there was none.
Still, there are times when presence can be transmitted; can be conveyed, even with a minimum of context. So when I came across this video of Patti Smith shutting down CBGB in 2006 with a haunting, quavering dirge, I froze and felt a prickle down my spine. It's part the quality of the song, and part the funeral sobriety of a last farewell.
Patti Smith - Elegie - 2006
Naturally, one thing leads to another, and before terribly long, I had come across a couple of videos from CBGB that caught my eye. This one is interesting to me because it's just so surprisingly comfortable for GnR at their peak to just drop an acoustic jam without the floodlights and accoutrements of rock gods; to be so relaxed and at ease; there's this pervasive collegiate-jam sense of relaxation, a smell of beer in the air. There's a bit of humour, a little country twang - this could be a bar in Nashville, but it's the CBGB of the Ramones and Blondie - you expect a little more sophistication.
Guns'n'Roses - Mr. Brownstone - 1987
The more "traditional" CBGB acts used to take advantage of the lack of barriers and divides at CBGB to destroy any gaps between the audience and performer. The results could be chaotic and unpredictable, occasionally brilliant and frequently an unholy mess. The same performance could go from peace and love to a riot in minutes.
Two shots from the Bad Brains
[Which is how you channel a groove]
[Which is how you work a crowd!]
An entire generation tuned into the alternate continuum of American punk/hardcore/DIY grew up thinking of CBGB as a temple, and those who got to play the stage as gods. Which is why, when Patti Smith reads out her list of absent friends, there's a whiff of immortality. Till somebody nerds it out, the tension evaporates, the show is over and everyone goes home on the subway.