Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Who's gonna miss CGBG's (or any other New York club)?

I'd never seen Tonic so packed but that shouldn't be surprising when you squeeze in a band who's audience has long outgrown the small club scene. Yo La Tengo (who usually plays the likes of much larger spaces like Town Hall) was playing a benefit there, raising hundreds of dollars that one night for a club that was in financial peril. Tonic has been struggling to keep itself open, troubled by rent increases, insurance, maintenance problems and the usual fun that a club has to contend with. Instead of being resigned to such a sad fate, they actually did something about it and organized fund-raisers like the YLT show, took PayPal donations. And you know what? They've almost reached their financial goal. I donated and wrote a testimonial for Tonic because I believe in the club.

Tonic is unique because it has character, soul. There's an intangible quality to it. The kind of cutting edge jazz and modern classical music that used to be the staple of the Knitting Factory thrives there. The Knit is essentially an indie rock haven now (though they have a good mix of indie rap too) but Tonic itself doesn't turn its nose up at such a thing (I saw a good Silkworm show there recently). Actually, the Knit itself is unique in the way it's laid out- it's got an main level bar, a main space, a lower level bar/performance space and a lower, lower level bar/performance space. You have three sets of shows there every night and could float from space to space if you like (paying to get into each place though). The problem is that what unlike Tonic, it doesn't have a special character to it- you could conceivably see a lot of the shows there at other places around the city. The booker there is a remarkably open person who always asks me who are good bands to sign up for shows (I like to recommend the Churchills who will be huge one day if they play their cards right and the Tall Boys). If you could combine a space like the Knit with the booking policy of Tonic, you'd have a killer club indeed (still, the lower level Sub Tonic does have huge hollowed-out wine caskets to sit in and smoky DJ ambiance to soak up).

And there in a nutshell is the problem with most clubs in Gotham- they're usually either characterless in terms of the space itself or booking policy (or both sometimes). As much as I love Irving Plaza for making sure that bands actually go on when they're supposed and not overcrowding for sold out shows, I doubt that I'd go to the mat for them if they faced the same problems as Tonic. The Anchorage in Brooklyn is no more becuase of post 9/11 security concerns but when it was open, it was a hell of space: based inside the Brooklyn bridge itself, they had brief summer concert series with a variety of experiment artists and installations held throughout its huge, cavernous spaces. It was one of the few places I'd try to go to regularly not just because I trusted their booking policy but because the space itself was something to marvel at. When Holger Czukay saw it, he remarked "this is where I must play my next New York show." Sadly, it closed before he got the chance to do that but how many New York clubs would a performer say the same thing about?

Unfortunately, you have a lot of clubs at the other end of the spectrum where you only go to see a band you really like. Coney Island High was like that- I'd been there night when it was so packed that people would pass out and have to be carried outside. Similarly, I don't anyone who gets exited about going to Roseland Ballroom or Mercury Lounge (quite the opposite, actually). The Knit and Webster Hall (which does have a charming ballroom design) are also notorious for being sweatboxes, even in the middle of winter.

Some people would tell you the same thing about another club in financial trouble, CBGB's. But supporters would point to one thing it has in its favor that these other clubs don't have going for them: history. This was the birthplace of punk but that was over a quarter-century ago. Owner Hilly Kristal is seen as hero but Terry Ork should be knighted also- he was the one who twisted Kristal's arm to let Television and the Ramones play there (both of whom Kristal hated at first) to open the doors for the punk scene there. On the site's history column written by Kristal, his last entry ends like this: "1977 was the beginning of a tumultuous period for punk and CBGBs." That's very poignant because anything he could document after that would be tough to match the club's former glories.

And so it's been for the last few decades. Fans and bands get excited about being there because of what had happened there in the mid/late 70's. Once in a while, you'd see a great show of strength though. One anniversary show had Dictators, Marshall Crenshaw, Arto Lindsay and Lenny Kaye and I'd also caught Camper Van Beethoven (mid 80's) and Burnt Sugar there a few years ago. But those were exceptions and not the rule there. Nowadays, they're ready to book any band that can bring in 15-20 people. Once in a while, an old band or artist would do a nostalgia gig there but would anyone show it up was just a place called the Puss Palace? To their credit, the next door furniture-strewn CBGB Lounge (where Dee Pop has hosted a fascinating series of outre jazz bills) and the cozy 313 Gallery (a cleaner, more intimate setting where they had a wonderful punk-era photo exhibit) are worth seeing but the main club itself? On the girlgroup mailing list (for femme music journos), Time Out editor Elisabeth Vincentelli rightly wondered how many people were regularly going to CB's anymore- she wasn't. Even New York Rock columnist Jeanne Fury (a booster for underground punk/rock if there ever was one) had to admit there that she herself wasn't making the rounds there much now.

Though it would normally be easy to point to some greedy landlord, the villain in this case is Bowery Residents Committee, an organization that helps the homeless. CB's has maintained that BRC has skyrocketed the rent but they maintain that this is an issue of back-rent owed- see this letter forward from writer Deborah Frost for more information.

Along with finances, I think this also goes back to the problem of unique (and not so unique) spaces. A number of news reports like to cluster the trouble that CB's, Tonic, Fez and other NYC clubs are having now but as much as I like to see more not less options for music here, you have to wonder if some of these places really should survive. CB's demands that it should be around because of what happened there decades ago and unlike Tonic, they haven't mounted any serious fundraisers to save themselves, instead rely on an upcoming summer court battle to resolve this.

The graveyard of New York clubs is an extensive one. Other than Coney Island High, some other ones that went down in the last few years were Wetlands, Brownies, the Bottom Line and Luxx. BL and Wetlands each had character to them in terms of booking policy but the former suffered the same problem as CB's with antiquated bookings and strongarming from New York University- Blender editor Rob Tannenbaum wrote a powerful letter to NYU, telling them that if they closed BL, then the university should take the words "New York" out of their name. Socially conscious Wetlands (with its wonderful carpeted, theatre seated downstairs) had its rent skyrocket to make way for more lucrative tenants though the classical rock/soul roster found its way to BB King's. The Cooler was another regrettable casualty as it combined the eerie ambiance of the meat packing place it once was with all manner of music from krautrock legend Michael Rother to DJ Afrika Bambaataa to Sleater-Kinney in their early days.

When you go further back, you see many more club corpses. You had wonderful clubs with character (the rootsy Lone Star Roadhouse), friendly space (Tramps) and neither (the Ritz, where I nevertheless did see My Bloody Valentine, Pavement and Superchunk all in one show in the early 90's), most of them going down in the 90's. Going back even further to the 80's, Max Kansas City (a rival to CB's), Peppermint Lounge and the Great Gildersleeves (which YLT toasted at their Tonic show) all took the fall. Even before that, the 70's counted the Electric Circus, Fillmore East and the Mercer Arts Center as casualties. All of which is to note that clubs come and go quite a bit here or in any big city, no matter how much patronage or history they have. You get the feeling that if some kind of horrible fate was about to fall to say Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, the NYC government would bend over backwards to stop this from happening for obvious reasons- these institutions speak more to the 'quality of life' shtick that they're always trying to push (which is usually an excuse to give it up to a big-shot developer or open another chain store).

And just as all of this was rolling around in my brain, I spied a Time Out New York cover with a headline of "Clubs That Don't Suck." Admittedly, that's more eye-catching that "Clubs We Like" but you get the feeling that the semantics there speak to the obvious fact that people are weary of many late night spots. While pumping up an upcoming hipster hang-out, they also apologetically admit up front that most of the clubs are nothing special in terms of layout- what makes these places worthwhile are the DJ's that call them home. TONY goes on to toast "Night Visionaries," promoters and DJ's that light up the nightlife though the dance/DJ focus makes them regrettably forget about rock impresarios like Dan Selzer and Todd P. I can also attest to the power of Motherfucker's party machine- they held a Valentine's show in Chelsea a few years ago with Radio 4 in the middle of a blizzard and still had a strong turnout (it was there than I finally understood the White Stripes' "Fell In Love With A Girl," seeing three topless dancers grind to it after being tin-eared to the tune for weeks before that). As much as the clubs themselves, it's these people that do truly make the club scene worthwhile. They don't necessarily pledge allegiance to any particular venue but their names are quality enough to ensure a memorable show where-ever they go.

In the end, it's not just greedy landlords that make life-or-death decisions about whether any club out there is going to make it. It's you the consumer who also makes the decision based on your patronage. If there's any venue that you adore and would miss if it disappeared, you could perform a bold act of support just by merely showing up there when you can and maybe even taking some friends there or talking up the place. I've tried to do that with Tonic and here's hoping that you can do the same with your favorite late-night haunt. For me, that is a central issue in my own quality of life.

Even better, if you're ambitious and have some entrepreneurial spirit, be like John Zorn and open your own place (his club, the Stone is opening this Friday, corner of 2nd St. & Avenue C). The recent TONY issue has good advice on doing this: Figure Out Your Figures, Develop A Solid Plan, REALLY Know Your Investors, Get a Good Architect, Don't Be A Stranger (to the neighborhood) and Don't Hire Rookies. It'll be tough but it'll be fun and you'll be helping to make your town a better place to be in. And if you chose an interesting space and have an adventurous, unique series of shows, I promise to frequent it myself and bring along friends too.


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