Next week, I'm gonna be moderating a panel during the CBGB Festival called "The Good Stories." I believe the idea is to enlighten festival-attendees to the even-better-reality of CBGB, as opposed to the fun fairy tale that is the about-to-be-released film, "CBGB - The Movie."
In light of this impending hoopla about 315 The Bowery, I thought we'd revisit a night at CBGB that ranks as one of the great Rock 'n' Roll Faux Pas Moments, perp-ed by yours truly... Here's the story...
Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan had left the New York Dolls in 1975 to start the Heartbreakers (two years before us New Yorkers heard that buck-toothed blond fella from Florida... the truth being that J & J, having seen his band in Florida, the week they left the Dolls, stole the name for Tom Petty, not there other way around, as we NYC-ers so wanted to believe).
One night, to my mild shock, Johnny called me at home, announcing...
"Hey, Binky, it's JT Asparagus. ['Who?!'] It's me, Johnny! Me and Jerry want to know if you'd like to come down and jam with us. We're starting a new band with Richard Hell. He's a campy bassist, doncha think? So, c'mon, okay!"
Pretty exciting stuff, huh! You'd jump at that, right!
Yeah... Well...By the time the two J's had left The New York Dolls, everyone on the scene in New York knew that both of them were using. They weren't exactly discreet about it. Hell, they were gleefully abusing. In fact, the original name they were toying for this post-Dolls band with Richard Hell was The Junkies! As much as I loved and almost even idolized The Dolls, I just couldn't bring myself to enter that Smack Netherworld for even one jam, let alone joining up with them.
Sad, now that I think about it. For some reason, back then, I held a somewhat unique position in Johnny's life. I was that rare someone he was actually embarrassed in front of regarding his heroin dabbling, soon to be a hopeless and ravaging addiction. Maybe me joining that band would've helped steer him away from that drug? Uhhh... no way, Bink.
All that said, Johnny was one of those human beings who was an absolute cock and jackass and a toxically-charismatic self-destroyer. But, one who also had a sweet, shy, very smart guy hidden away deep inside that I am eternally glad he shared with me.
The guitarist who took the slot originally offered me was an odd but lovely chap from The Demons (one LP on Mercury in 1977), named Walter Lure. I became his pal too. Walter would later secretly record all the more difficult guitar parts on late-period Ramones albums without credit. A seminally important guitarist in the Punk Movement, Walter and I are currently recording an album under the name, The Last Ditches. Available for your ears in 2014.
Because of "artistic differences", Richard Hell didn't last long in The Heartbreakers. Johnny and Jerry traded his charisma and name brand for real bass playing chops with a quiet sorta sinister guy named Billy Rath who radiated "Back Off!" vibes. His playing made a huge difference in their sound. Exponentially tighter and more powerful. The Heartbreakers, if truth be known, were even better than The New York Dolls. Maybe even the best Punk band of all. On a good night, the Heartbreakers ROARED!
An early '70s Warhol entourage-er and photographer, Lee Black Childers, became The Heartbreakers manager and had the genuinely bright idea of moving them to London in the Fall of 1976 where Punk was truly exploding, while America continued to wallow in "Disco Duck" and REO Speedwagon.
And then, as legend has it, someone had maybe an even better idea. Once in London, the band was told that if they continued to use heroin, they'd have to procure it and pay for it themselves. A much trickier proposition in England than New York. But, if they were willing to switch to speed, aka crystal meth, they'd be provided it for free. Done and done! The teeth-grindingly-cranked Heartbreakers soon wound up Real Deal Darlings in London and part of the infamous Anarchy In The UK Tour in December 1976 with the Sex Pistols, Clash, and Damned. Now, that's a bill, huh!
And so, for most of 1977, The Heartbreakers were sort of a trans-Atlantic band, coming into New York a few times to blow minds with their lunatic meth-driven tempos and to make some money, renew their visas, and then split back to Stardom in London.I've always deeply loved the fact that their album, LAMF was released on The Who's and Jimi Hendrix's record label, Track. Oh, and yes, that's a Brooklynese acronym for Like A Mother Fucker...
Anyway, one very cold night in January 1978, with my girlfriend out-of-town, I decided to go downtown to CBGB to check out a friend's band. As I walked the length of the bar towards the stage, I suddenly saw lanky Walter Lure in his trademark punk-polkadots, leather pants, and Converses, standing near the soundboard. I had no idea he was in town and made a beeline towards him.
Hugs all around... "When the hell did you get back from London?!"
"Just a few days ago, Bink. Hey, I want you to meet a friend of mine. C'mon."
Walter pointed me back towards the front of the club...
http://360vr.com/CBGB/ will give an idea of the layout, although the tiny two stool right-angle alcove at the front end of the bar, where Walter was leading me, is hard to see, even on this awesome website. You can just make it out in the panorama No. 5, "Elevated seating area" under the backwards Budweiser and Miller signs. Even with all the lights on, you can see how dark and isolated it was.
So, we walked over to this dinky deeply dim alcove next to the pinball and cigarette machines. Walter stood aside and motioned me to step in. Seated on the stool furthest back in the murk, leaning against the wall that seemed to be propping him up, was some guy in an enormous tan overcoat with the collar pulled up over his entire face save his eyes and flame orange hair.
Walter, standing behind me, said...
"John, I want you to meet my friend, Binky. He's the best guitarist in New York." [This IS what Walter said, bless him!]
It was so dark, and the guy was so huddled up, that I had to lean far enough in to shake his hand that our heads wound up less than two feet apart. Slowly stuck his right hand out towards me. Slowly lowered the collar of his coat and I was... face to face... with... Johnny Rotten.
For a moment, I must confess, I just slack-jaw gaped! This was one of the most famous faces in the world at the time and someone I pretty much revered. I regained my wits and, trying to sound musician-casual, said, "Oh, man, I fucking love your band!" as we shook hands.
J. Lydon immediately yanked his hand out of mine and leaned towards me so our faces were now only about a foot apart and, with that patented sneering contempt of his, replied...
"Oh yeah? Well, I fuckin' HATE 'em!"
Dismissing me with bored disdain, Johnny Rotten collapsed back into the corner and pulled the collar of his over-sized coat back over his face. I was stammering some nonsense about how I was sorry to hear that, but I still really dig 'em, and...blahblah...and turned to Walter, who gave me a classic New York, "Hey, whaddya gonna do" shrug /eye-roll and we left John to stew in his juices.
It was Monday night, January 17, 1978.
About 72 hours earlier, Walter's friend, "John" had asked the crowd at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco if they'd "... ever gotten the feeling you've been cheated?"
Then, the next day, The Sex Pistols broke up.
Then, the next day, John flew to New York to escape and brood and, it seems, to meet a dip-shit guitar player at CBGB who told him how much he "fucking loved" his freshly disbanded rock music combo.
The following day Mr. Rotten, as the New York Times called him back then, held a news conference and announced to the world that the Sex Pistols were no more.
I believe it's called... ti-MING!