Hoping the scene isn’t beat — but it probably is
BY STEVEN WISHNIA | They recovered and reassembled the next afternoon for CBGB, pulling up on the Bowery at dusk. They barely recognized the block. In their time it had gone from winos drinking Night Train to crackheads smoking Red Tops; now it was yuppies drinking Grey Goose. The yuppies had conquered. They’d packed the street with bland white condos, obliterating the scrappy ailanthus trees, the van-rental lot, the building that had housed suicidal 1890s hookers and feminist 1970s painters.
Steven Wishnia is a Chelsea-based musician and journalist. Born on the Lower East Side, he grew up in Brooklyn, New England, Edinburgh and Long Island. He has played in numerous bands, including the False Prophets, an eclectic punk group that put out two albums on the Alternative Tentacles label. After the False Prophets broke up in 1987, he got an M.A. at N.Y.U.’s School of Journalism, writing for failing newspapers before a long stint as news editor at High Times. He is currently a freelance writer and editor. Below is an excerpt from his recent novel, “When the Drumming Stops” (Manic D Press).
One last time the Gutter Astronomers carried the gear under the famous awning and across the pockmarked cement threshold. One last time they greeted BG and Brendan on the door, Hilly the white-bearded patriarch presiding, his face a lot wearier than they remembered. One last time they rolled Scott’s trap case and lugged their guitars down the long subway-car alley by the bar, under the blackened neon beer signs hanging from the ceiling, inhaling the evocative bar smell — three decades of beer and cocktails soaked into the well-worn floorboards. One last time they schlepped back to the stage and dressing rooms, band names in spraypaint, marker, and stickers covering every inch of wall like urban kudzu.
Scott was jonesing for noise after last night’s aborted set. He wanted to pound the drums. He wanted to quake up a tsunami of sound, screeching, careening like ten thousand ambulance tires, a 1929 car chase with bootleggers hanging on the running board shooting at the G-men. Drums and amp cabinets piled like boulders on the jetties at Rockaway, big black waves crashing on the beach, swells and combers and outside sets. Yeah, I need it. Gimme something human. Boring just won’t do. I wanna get my brain torn up. All we need is a drummer for coronary hypnosis.
They used the soundcheck to polish two new covers, T. Rex’s “Monolith” and Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” Mick had encountered resistance when he broached the idea at practice. Most of the band hadn’t wanted to do any more covers, and Tina said she hated Led Zeppelin. “I got into punk to get away from jerks like that.” But Mick had insisted. “What were you listening to when you were fourteen? We gotta respect our roots.” He defended the two tunes. “It’s a glam-rock doo-wop song, and we’re from the city, we all got a little doo-wop in us, right? And I wanna do ‘When the Levee Breaks’ for New Orleans.”
“I don’t play like that,” Tina interjected. “It’s too leaden. No pun intended.”
Scott took over. “Let him do it, but let’s do it our way. Forget doing it with all the changes, forget about them. Just do the riff and the turnaround. Relentless. Like a Swans version, you know? Underend, you take the riff, and turn the low end all the way up. Tina, you make noise on top. Remember how Lydia Lunch played slide with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks? Mess it up like that.” That worked. …
The show sold out, but not many people they knew came. The $30 tickets kept them out. The crowd was mostly young history-seekers and fortyish suburban old-punk hipsters, with a sprinkling of vintage gay-arty types and noise geeks.
They were on the bill between Flickknife and the Radiant Babies. Flickknife was an early ’90s intellectual grunge-hardcore-metal band, mathematical and abrasive. The Radiant Babies were an early-’80s noise-funk quintet who’d scored a couple minor left-field dancefloor hits. Their black/Latino rhythm section, drummer Trick and bassist Tania Caridad Rodriguez — a large, shaven-headed woman known to all as T.C. — gave them a groove that got them out of the art-scene ghetto.
The Gutter Astronomers ignored Flickknife’s set. They were too busy getting ready to go on, and none of them had ever been into that sound. They were looking forward to the Radiant Babies, even though the new version was missing Trick and guitarist Keith Scooter. Both had died of AIDS in the early ’90s. “Trick was great,” Scott eulogized. “He could do punk and funk, and you wouldn’t see the seams on it like you would with anybody else.”
One last time they ascended to the stage. Underend on the left by the frayed life-size portraits of silent film vamps, Tina on the right, by the black speaker box chained to the ceiling. She hit a Johnny Thunders corkscrew lick, slid up the neck an octave, held the note and let it feed back. Scott clicked his sticks four times, and they were off into X-Ray Spex’s “Let’s Submerge.”
They rose to the occasion. Three shows in three days had them note-tight and smoking hot, lucid and lurid, flaming and fluid. They nailed the groove on “Selektion,” the clock-tick speeded up and pushed just to the edge of losing it. They scorched through “We Will If We Have To” and “Filth,” got the crowd rocking all the way back to the bar.
They easily got an encore, especially satisfying from a crowd of mostly strangers. They came back out with “Monolith,” a slow jam with purple-prose lyrics and cosmic doo-wop harmonies sung by Janis and Scott’s friend, Little Lisa. Scott switched to 2S drumsticks, the size of souvenir baseball bats, and Bonzoed the intro to “When the Levee Breaks.” Underend followed, booming the riff in great slablike tones, Tina did echoes and whines, and Mick splattered apocalyptic poetry about the hurricane and flood that had destroyed New Orleans, cooling down to a chant. “When the levee breaks you got no place to stay.” Tina answered with a gaggle of no-wave squawks. “When the levee breaks you got no place to stay.” …
“When CB’s goes you got no place to play. When CB’s goes you got no place to play. WHEN CB’S CLOSED, YOU GOT NO PLACE TO PLAY!” Mick screamed it one last time, and the band climaxed, spasming and milking their last licks. They stepped off the stage sweaty and satisfied. Underend ducked back in the alley for a cigarette. He didn’t want to fight through the crowd.
Backstage was packed when he came back in, people crowding into the dressing room to say hi and congratulate them, others hanging in the hall, just trying to get a look. The Radiant Babies were setting up… .
Mick stayed in the dressing room, seconded by Belinda. He was drained, and he had to represent. It was easier to deal with all the people wanting to talk to him when he could sit down and be semi-private, instead of being out in the crush getting accosted and jarred from all sides. Somebody asked him what he thought about CB’s closing, somebody else about what’s different about New York since he left. It set off a rant.
“You know what’s different? No street life. You can’t just hang out on the corner talking nonsense, laughing, watching. That’s sort of illegal now. It’s all about buying and selling. If you’re not spending money you gotta move, nothing for you here. I mean, it hit me when I was seventeen and I was in the Village on acid. It was supposed to be hip, but it was all about selling clothes, records, and bongs. So I’d go to Washington Square and hang out with the winos, and they’d tell me, ‘You talk some crazy stuff, boy.’ And now it’s really outta control, it’s like a beast on steroids. And these cretins rule the country, the city, the world. Like, look at New Orleans. A whole city got destroyed. Thousands of people homeless, old people drowning in their attics, and they’re looking at it like, ‘All right! Now we can get some white people in there. Raise up the property values. Let’s tear the hood down and build some condos.’ Where do they think the music came from? Places like New Orleans and here. And an [expletive deleted] theme park’s NEVER gonna be the same thing.”
But apocalyptic nihilistic prophets of doom were a dime a dozen, Mick thought. Yeah, he’d indulged back in the day…but forget that. Shut up. I wanna know what you’re gonna DO about it. I don’t play like that. It’s too leaden. No pun intended.’
For more information on Wishnia and “When the Drumming Stops,” go to www.stevenwishnia.com.