“Fuck this place,” bellows a beer-spraying singer at the last Sunday matinee of hardcore bands at CBGB, a rare burst of rock ’n roll anomie in Burning Down the House, a largely sentimental documentary of the final months of the Valhalla of New York punk clubs and the failed attempts to save it. Often dissed in its last decade for running on nostalgia for its glory days (“Playing Tonight: Nobody Good,” per a skeptical cartoon), the venue found itself in a struggle for a new lease in 2005 with its landlord, a homeless advocacy organization headquartered next to it on the Bowery, whose nonprofit status made for a dicey PR dilemma. Director Mandy Stein recaps the club’s ’70s spawning of the Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie, and Television with brief vintage clips, along with tour de force footage of transsexual provocateur Jayne County performing “Toilet Love.” (Most of the archival performances, presumably cursed with poor or absent sound, are accompanied by studio recordings.) CB’s sphinx-like founder Hilly Kristal, a former Radio City Music Hall choral singer and bluegrass picker who opened his dive in 1973 and serendipitously served as godfather to a musical uprising, found himself in an increasingly hopeless endgame despite the return of alumni playing benefit concerts and a strange flirtation with moving the bar to “the shittiest street in Las Vegas.” There’s no suspense about the outcome (scenes of the bar, fixtures, and infamously appalling bathroom being dismantled are intercut throughout), but Stein, whose parents either managed or signed some of the club’s touchstone acts, does best when capturing the melancholy of the former patrons and musicians, aged between forty- and sixtysomething, who saw CBGB’s demise as the Viking funeral for their youth. Framed with scavenger hunting in the stripped bar by Jim Jarmusch and Luc Sante, who uncover guitar picks and 1979 graffiti, and climaxing with Patti Smith’s finale on the last night, Burning Down the House honors the passing of the Blitzkrieg Bop’s home base and says of Madoff-era Manhattan, “Fuck this place.”
Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB @ the Tribeca Film Festival
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.