Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bowery Days


Last week I went up to 315 Bowery. For many New Yorkers the address is iconic. For 30 years it housed CBGB OMFUG.

The story starts in 1974 when the US was in the middle of a deep, dark recession. Just like today, people had no money. It was a struggle for everyone although, unlike today, New York was a mess. The promise of the 60’s had died on the vine. Instead we had Richard Nixon and Vietnam. In the US and UK it was a period of misery, fear and anger for young people.

At the very heart of this decay was the Bowery. An infamous two-block radius with six flop houses holding about 2,000 men, most of whom were alcoholics, drug addicts and mentally unstable. Many were Vietnam veterans lost in life or down on their luck. The streets were just full of these guys sleeping it off with muggers hanging around and prying on them. Now this has all changed and the Bowery has become the new Meat Packing District with funky hotels, restaurants and bars. Good for you, Giuliani.

Perhaps the ugliest and largest flop house on the Bowery was the Palace Hotel. Have you noticed how anything named Palace Hotel is guaranteed never to be a palace? Back in the seventies, Bowery residents would stagger into the Palace bar at about 8:00am for their first drink of Muscatel or white port. The bar was the largest in the city, over 165 ft. long and 25 ft. wide. The whole thing was a mess.

Then in December 1973 Hilly Kristal opened CBGB.

That single-handedly started the punk movement in the US. CBGB discovered The Ramones, Talking Heads, Debbie Harry and Blondie, John Cale, and of course, the legendary Patti Smith.

Hilly broke the mold by focusing on originality. The only way to play at CBGB was to perform original music. He didn’t pay guarantees to the bands; they kept the gate money and CBGB kept the bar.

It was all about originality, back to basics, street rock, and as he put it, “Come as you are and do your own thing”. Originality was prime, technique came second. (Not a bad mantra for any of us in the creative business.)

Incredibly enough CBGB stands for Country, Blue Grass and Blues, which was what Hilly originally intended the club to offer. Rock and punk just took over. Omfug stands for 'Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers'. A gormandizer? A voracious eater, in this case, of music. (People are usually disappointed to hear this, secretly hoping Omfug stands for something much dirtier.)

After 30 years CBGB closed last year with Patti Smith playing the final show. It’s still there but has been transformed into the coolest store I’ve been to this year.

Now John Varvatos has opened up at 315 Bowery. He’s maintained the structure of CBGB, leaving the stage, all the walls decorated with flyers and posters and an instrument set up on stage. The place is full of vinyl albums, vintage clothing, cool new stuff, all targeted at rock ‘n rollers of today and yesterday. Varvatos earned his chops at Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein; I think and he was named GQ's Designer of the Year last year. He also outfitted Joe Perry from Aerosmith on their recent comeback tour. I bought a winter coat, a vintage reefer jacket, a grey silk scarf (watch out Keith Richards) and a very cool black jacket. The staff, particularly Rick Tyndall, are attentive, fun, bright, breezy and into the whole place. When I walked in Jimi Hendrix was playing Stars and Stripes (not live!). I love it because they are not up themselves. They know it’s all about the experience and even encourage you to take photographs of the old club, thus keeping the legend alive. My best shopping experience of 2008.

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