Friday, April 18, 2008

Varvatos: Birthplace of Punk

Last night I stood outside the grand opening of the John Varvatos store on Bowery, watching and listening to the battle for New York's soul rage on. When I arrived, Varvatos was on the sidewalk being interviewed for a film about CBGB's by rock documentarian Ernie Fritz. Varvatos talked about all the good he believes he's doing for rock 'n' roll and the neighborhood.

Varvatos and Sid Vicious

Soon, the fashionistas and old punks started rolling through the labyrinth of ropes guarded by big, burly bouncers and girls with clipboards dressed in "Varvatos 315 Bowery: Birthplace of Punk" t-shirts. I was not on their list and could not get inside.

I waited for Rebecca Moore and her protesters to arrive. Reverend Billy was in the group. I asked him why he came out for the protest. He told me, "I'm dismayed by the blasphemy of CBGB's being overtaken by what looks like Soho. Are we going to get Soho'd all the way to Alphabet City? Where do we draw the line? Punk was an egalitarian movement, it was about low prices, and it resulted in this very culture that these moneyed people are now enjoying."

more protester pics

Rebecca, Billy, and their posse chanted "Down with $800 pants!" Not everyone agreed. Heated exchanges ensued. Arturo Vega, Ramones artistic director and designer of their logo, got into the fray. He had just been telling documentarian Fritz, "It's natural. Everything dies and transforms. The excitement is still here. The tourists will come. In there, you're closer than ever to rock 'n' roll."

Now he got in Rebecca's face. The screaming match consisted of Vega shouting that Varvatos is a great guy and this store is the best thing that could happen to the CB's space and what would have been better, a fucking bank? a fucking Starbucks?

Monte Melnick and Arturo Vega

Rebecca shouted back, "Can you understand the connection between a music venue where anybody could get in and this? This is a whitewash!" They changed their chant to "Who cares if John's a nice guy!"

They got a similar argument (Varvatos is keeping the music alive, etc.) from a former member of The Misfits who pushed at the protesters in rage and finished his diatribe by shouting, "I am on the side of New York City fucking rock 'n' roll!" before spitting on Rebecca's sign. (More coverage of the loogie hocking here.)


The bouncers did not step in during either of these altercations, which at times seemed about to erupt into physical violence, but they did manage to push a few homeless panhandlers down the street and away from the fashionistas. Other homeless men shouted from the shelter above, "Why don't you shut up, we're sleeping here!"

I went around to Extra Place, roped off as the backstage area, where a "talent trailer" was parked among luxury cars. I watched Joan Jett climb out of a black Cadillac. This gave me an adolescent thrill and I stuck around on the sidewalk long enough to hear her do "Bad Reputation" from deep inside the bowels of Varvatos.

Joan Jett

Randy Jones and Pattie Boyd

"The Lower East Side is dead anyway, at least the music is still here," people said, like weary citizens of a defeated town occupied by an enemy army, repeating and repeating: "It's not so bad. It could be worse. It could have been a bank or a Starbucks."

Sid and girls on cell phones


JamesChanceOfficial said...

Wow...the situation is bananas. I'm pretty much over the CBGB loss, and strangely don't care anymore. It does seem like Varvatos is doing a whole lot of good marketing though. Thats what music has become - a tool for other industries to market themselves with a bit of street cred & cool. Meanwhile it doesn't really mean anything & the record stores are dying.

Jeremiah - you should do a piece on the disappearing record stores. Which leads me to:

Tomorrow is Record Store Day, everyone. Visit a record store & buy something!

Greg said...

It actually would be better if it was a bank or a starbucks, because then it would be harder for people to delude themselves about what has happened to the city and pretend that NYC rock n'roll = $800 pants in lux boutiques.

Anonymous said...

As I began reading about this latest nightmare, I was wondering if the females brought along their cell phones. They seem to cling to them in a way that is irrevocably unhealthy. Your evening reads like a Nathaniel West novel, except NY being NY, you'd have to replace the locusts with cockroaches! J, how do you do it?

JamesChanceOfficial said...

Hear, hear, NewYorkDave!

I'm interested to know - who exactly performed at this event other than Joan Jett? Does anyone know?

Jeremiah Moss said...

who else performed: ronnie spector, cj ramone, i'm pretty sure i heard david byrne singing "psycho killer," someone else (mott the hoople?) did "all the young dudes," debbie harry (maybe) sang "dreaming" -- mind you, i was outside and couldn't see who was singing what, but it all sounded like the real thing.

yes, the music was good. there's no denying that.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, great music but they have forgotten their roots, soul and are more in love with the rope that excludes them from the real people that made them their money as much as their talent and that is fans.

It is all gross and we might as well have an American Idol chain of stores as well. At least their stuff they sell under 800 dollars a pop. Somehow all so gross...ugh. The great news I won't be shopping there.

Great reporting.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it sucks, but punk piety is pretty annoying also. When CBGB closed, they were charging a $10 cover to see high school bands from New Jersey, and a bottle of Red Stripe was like $7. "Punk was an egalitarian movement, it was about low prices, and it resulted in this very culture that these moneyed people are now enjoying." Sure, but CBGB sure wasn't. Now that we're 30 years removed from the beginning of New York punk, there's as much navel gazing and self-congratulation as there was from the hippies and boomers that the punks were rebelling against. Things change, move on.

I agree that the "At Least It's Not a Bank" sentiment is aiming pretty low, but what are you gonna do. CBGB could still be CBGB if they hadn't completely lost touch over the last few years.

All that said, I'm generally cool with Rev. Billy, and self-congratulatory fashionistas are no less annoying than smug old punks.

Anonymous said...

The ex-Misfit is Bobby Steele of the Undead. Why is he being such a wanker?

Jeremiah Moss said...

thank you for the misfit identification. he did say something about dealing with evictions himself, and we should perhaps give the guy a break, considering this story:

JamesChanceOfficial said...

He's been around the block a few times.

I think this whole CBGB thing is basically a sort of emotional flashpoint for everyone trying to deal with the stuff Jeremiah writes about everyday. And we all (try to) live with.

Anonymous said...

i moved to the east village in 1977 when i was 19 years old. i would say for the next 10 years it was a very rare night that i wasn't at cb's. don't forget, there really weren't that many places to go. i used to mourn, but it was clear by 1988 or so the writing was on the wall.

now i am with luc sante. screw it tear it all down. it's all over and has been for a long time. if you are looking for something like what was hear, you are going to have to go somwhere else to find it. and also, not that i can articulate a cohesive punk philosophy - there really wasn't much of preserving the old in our attitude.

Anonymous said...

I can't tell you how many I heard say, "It's not so bad. It could be worse. It could have been a bank or a Starbucks."

These are our only choices now? One manufactured, prepackaged shopping experience over another?
Couldn't it have been a nonprofit performance space, or a community space(like Charas was)? Or it could have been a thrift shop, which is where all of those $800"vintage" jackets & t-shirts came from.

It's been much more convenient for a lot of people to reduce it to an argument about CBGB's alone, rather than address the issues behind it. Creative space & small businesses closed all of the time in "the past", but were replaced by others. Now the only things that can afford to replace them are pre fabricated mall stores for the wealthy.

But don't worry folks, there are plans underway to turn the back alleyway behind CBGB's into a nice polished shopping promenade, promising a "community experience" (with a proper, test marketed kind of community, of course)

NYC-sanitized for your protection.

Anonymous said...

a clarification. there were places to go: max's, club 82, club 57, irving plaza, hurrah. later the world, danceteria, pep lounge, 8bc, save the robots etc. but cb's was like the mothership. you always went there a some point in the evening.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with 2:43, it's all done. The Lower East Side/East Village is somewhere in Brooklyn right now, and has been for a while, let's enjoy that one while it still exists.....

Unknown said...

wait, was that tom "voice of the proletariat" morello playing inside?

Anonymous said...

I don't care what punk rock celebrities
showed up, they are sell outs. Village
people? LOL. How appropriate for a venue
like varvatos.
Guys, stop fighting it, just don't go to these
yuppie theme parks and stay real.
Just don't become one of them, like
invasion of the body snatchers. Freaks.

Anonymous said...

This anger at John Varvatos baffles me. I've been involved in the punk rock scene on the business and press ends since 1986 and I think the protesters' anger is misplaced. Protesting the price of a pair of jeans? A silly waste of time. The strongest protest is simple: don't buy them.

It would be a better use of your time to focus on the number of mentally homeless and illiterate on the streets outside your apts, or take to the streets -- or better yet, to the voting booth -- to protest the fact that the Bush junta has put thousands of 19 year olds in the American Midwest in a position where they are joining the Army because they can't get a job anywhere in the states of Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky.

If you took the $10 you spent making the signs to carry outside the gig and actually spent it on a ticket to see Morello, Kramer, Slash, Farrell, Sen Dog, Breckin Meyer, Cantrell, you'd have put it to better use. They have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Food Not Bombs, Road Recovery, unionizing immigrant hotel workers, and so many more needy charities in the last two years. If they want to jam in a landmark building that some of them actually helped make a very profitable reality for only Hilly Kristal, then they should go for it, especially if their efforts have charitable results.

Varvatos is honoring the past but at least he's not stuck there. I would venture a guess that the performers had no clue of the protesters out front so late in the night.

Anonymous said...

Cool, that is what the mega rich do -- shelter themselves behind their charities and they have good $$$$$$ friends to run interference and every thing else.

Money is their god and that is what makes them able to be so arrogant and crushing. They have amazing tax shelters that make raising money for charity and giving big bucks to charity so slimy but better in the hand of charity although you never know if they money ever really gets to where it should go but the bad asses get to kid themselves they are good citizens and their heinous acts are given or somehow justified.

Anonymous said...

Having a party that raises over 30 thousand bucks to buy musical instruments in NY public schools is a "heinous act"? You're overreacting.

Anonymous said...

What is a better fate, the transformation of CBGB or the literal collapse of the Mercer Arts Center? I.e. that used to be x or that's where x once stood?

Anonymous said...

Before the place closed you could buy your CBGB t-shirt at Nordstrom's across America. CB had no credibility left. Varvatos has never had any to begin with. There is no easy way out of the mess that our money worshipping culture has created. As near as I can tell it is only going to get worse before it gets better. Think bread riots.

Anonymous said...

The main point here is that this store/event - regardless of its guest list and decorating scheme - is antithetical to anything punk was ever about. I wouldn't care if the rotting corpse of Sid Vicious rose from the grave to tell me otherwise.

I went to the store yesterday. It's not only uninspiring, it's sterile and creepy. I didn't want to touch anything. The employees seemed snooty. Basically, it's a fashion boutique. At best they have chosen a tacky and inflammatory marketing angle.

This Varvatos character is out of line for beating his chest about preserving something which is already dead, even if he is not complicit in killing it.

And as to whether the time and energy of the protesters was misspent: Why should the existence of global problems discourage people from addressing provincial concerns such as this one? That they should leave Varvatos alone because they could or should be devoting themselves to something else is a fallacy.

Anonymous said...

let us see proof the money raised for charity gets to where it is suppose to go and oh, would what's his name let charity recipients in to his next function since he is so elitist and turned away community members...

Let us see some proof and get real...forget that -- that is too much to ask.

Anonymous said...

How about a fund raiser for the people and small businesses, the homeless, etc. here in the East Village at the next fund raiser where he excluded the community and proof the money raised gets to the people?

NewYorkDave said...

That last comment sums it up perfectly, I think.

I played at CB's in 1987 and even back then, it felt like it was trading on its reputation from the '70s. But at least it was its own earned reputation, not "cred" co-opted from a previous tenant.

Still, it's not worth losing sleep over. Let Varvatos sell overpriced shit to morons. CB's is gone and the LES is (culturally) dead, with the rest of NYC following behind it. So does it really matter?

NewYorkDave said...

"That last comment sums it up perfectly, I think."

To clarify, I was referring to the comment at 9:09AM on 4/21. I didn't realize there was a bunch of additional comments cued up behind it ;)

Anonymous said...

Before CBGB closed, they were doing "pay to play" shows where crappy bands from the suburbs could pay money to play a show there. There was no excitement or energy left in the place, and the lack of both things led to it's closure. While John Varvatos might be trying to make a buck off of the CBGB legacy, at least he worked to preserve some of it. There is an entire wall encased in glass with things just as they were at closure. The stickers and graffiti remain. I believe that it would have been worse if it was turned into a Duane Reade or a bank (which it probably would have been), but because it was bought by someone who is actually a music fan, it makes the situation more complicated. Also,
the opening/show was a benefit for VH1 Save the Music Foundation.

Anonymous said...

Sad day indeed. Reading All the hypocrisy Who is walking around with white ear buds and smart phones? Someone is buying this stuff. Say what you want, Varvatos has a vision and believes in something. True to his soul its rock n roll. You don't agree, then move on. Peace Rocks!