Monday, September 11, 2006

Lost in Gentrification

If you look closely you can already see them digging the grave. It’s roughly one block long by one avenue wide, just large enough to fit a one-story club between its thick wooden walls. As of now its placard reads A&D Construction but, by the time this column goes to print, it might very well also read CBGB: 1973-2005. Another victim of urban renewal, another byproduct of progress.

I never felt any sort of sentimental attachment to CBGB, and I can count the number of times I passed under its red-and-white awning on a single hand (and that's even after hippies and hipsters began to mingle on Brooklyn’s gray colored L train). But it’s still comforting to know that it’s there, propelling another generation of punks into larger pogo halls across the country. Honestly, I feel guilty mourning something that isn't mine---that I don't emotionally 'own.' But then again CBGB has always been one of New York's most populist clubs.

September marks the two-year anniversary of my return to Manhattan after four years in the wilderness of upstate New York academia and a summer of suburban soul searching on the road with Phish. Like many, New York City has always held a certain voodoo in my life, this huge impersonal place made tangible mostly by the West Side highway bottleneck and the dirty downtown clubs that have become mini-Meccas for those of us who grew up in the City's suburban shadow. Four years ago, I spent a summer squatting in an NYU dorm and tried my hardest to touch, see and mostly hear as much of New York as I could. Like a dog staking claim to his territory, I visited every club worthy of a Village Voice plug including the graffiti covered venue located at 315 Bowery. I vividly remember my first trip to CBGB. I had no idea who I was going to see and, really, it didn't matter because most likely I wasn’t going to like the music anyway. But by simply passing under CBGB’s awning, I felt a part of the club's history, music's history, New York's history. I'm not sure, but I think I got excited about pissing in the club's sticker covered bathroom. It seemed pretty hardcore at the time and pretty young and stupid now---kind of like the punk scene in general.

I often revisit that summer, not so much because of my trip to CBGB, but because of my time at another club, The Wetlands. If I had known what September 2001 would bring, I try to tell myself, I would have viewed the club’s closure in a different light but, in reality, it’s impossible to separate that month’s tangled emotions. Even now the Wetlands’ untimely demise remains a tangible sign of change, both in my life and in New York in general. At the time, in the Skidmore News precursor to this column, I remember likening the World Trade Center to a skyscraper-size nightlight, providing a watchful eye as I struggled with insomnia in a deeply impersonal city. In the months following September 11, it was hard to look at that empty space in the skyline, yet, I felt drawn to it. It was easier to wade through the aftermath of the Wetlands' impending closure, which, at the time, seemed like the end of the world and certainly the end of the jamband scene. Like CBGB, it didn't matter who was playing the Wetlands on any given night, it just mattered that you were going. Some have criticized such scenester motives as the sign of a bad music fan. But I’ve always seen it as a characteristic of a great New Yorker, trying to absorb a bit of his city before it is inevitability swept away by gentrification.

It’s easy to get lost within the maze-like web of clubs and concerts which adjoin New York’s divergent downtown districts, like a giant game of connect the dots. Indeed, musical trends seem to bounce around the Bowery at pinball speed, sparking cultural revolutions before gently gliding into newer, emptier alleyways. It’s an age-old story which has unfolded simultaneously in cities around the world: music, art and activism join forces to form something loosely defined as a scene, before falling prey to money, rent, boredom and newer trends. It’s happened to just about every niche---to such an extent that the terms post-punk, post-grunge and even post-rock are now easily digestible parts or even in an amateur music critic's vocabulary. Sometimes I fear that jam is the next term to secure a plot in the genre graveyard. But then I remember that there’s a reason clubs like CBGB are more often than not called wombs. At some point every style is forced to find its own way. Richard Gehr once said that “the history of rock/roll is among other things, a half-century litany on death.” For a medium driven by individual destruction, it’s odd that styles don’t really die so much as they adapt and morph to meet modern trends. This summer, Green Day became the first punk act to headline a stadium show without the help of a radio station or festival-size bill. Perhaps the punk movement has finally grown too large to fit within CBGB’s walls.

At the beginning of August, I took what could very well have been my final trip to 315 Bowery to see RANA --- the love child of the Wetlands and CBGB. I once heard that CBGB’s only rule was that no covers were allowed. I wonder what Joey Ramone would say if he knew that a band formed by four former Phish heads opened their final CBGB show with a Neil Young cover. More than anything, he’d probably be confused having missed out on all the gradual changes that turned CBGB into what it is today. But I think he’d also be pleasantly surprised that his favorite club’s vision has evolved along with the music he helped create.

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of change, mostly because I’ve also always feared it. Sometimes it happens suddenly, other times it happens more gradually. It seems fitting that I first heard the term gentrification used in a editorial discussing the demise of the New York City rock club, a trend which, in the past few years, has absorbed Brownies, the Cooler, Fez, Tramps, the Bottom Line, Tobacco Road, the Wetlands and now, most likely, CBGB. Like a scene out of Lost in Translation, it all happens so quickly that it’s hard to pinpoint individual events, but, in the end, it’s easy to realize something is different. I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this time to mention the tragedy of hurricane Katrina. Like that day in September, it rightfully overshadows one single club’s struggle. It’s also easy to understand its gravity by looking at the Big Easy’s entertainers, musicians and, yes, clubs whose futures lie in a state of permanent flux. Set against such weighty matters, gentrification seems strangely beautiful. But it’s a sad beauty---a sign of a healthy city evolving, if not always in the right direction.

As I walk to work everyday, I try hard to notice the subtle changes that define my neighborhood --- new storefront here, an out-of-business sign there. Change is a scary thing but, more often than not, it’s also out of our control and its effects will eventually become a natural part of life. Sometimes during lunch, I take a lap around the block which surrounds Relix and look towards the edge of Manhattan. It’s hard to grasp that thousands of individual stories are simultaneously unfolding within a single, evolving skyline. It’s easier to look at the jackhammers digging holes to bury the past as I continue to wander, lost in gentrification.

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