This was long before the legendary punk club was shuttered and reborn as a John Varvatos store that sells thousand-dollar jackets weathered to look like they spent the night on Lux Interior’s bedroom floor and vintage amps that cost three times as much; in high school, living in Manhattan, we’d go to CBGB to see a friend’s band play, camped out along the sides of the room, trying to avoid using the restroom unless absolutely necessary, which was a place that got a reputation for being a real-life incarnation of the famous toilet scene in Trainspotting, where you were as equally able to wipe some stray cocaine on your jeans as some errant dirt or other horrific unidentified bodily waste. Some of the bands were shitty, some of them not. Sometimes we’d listen, sometimes we’d talk in the corner and drink watered-down vodka one of us has smuggled in our backpacks in a reused water bottle, trying to wonder how long we could push curfew or avoid calling our parents back when they paged us, because sometimes the payphones in New York were even worse than that damn bathroom. And this was before people walked around with hand sanitizer bottles attached to belt-loops with rubber bands; but we didn’t need no fucking hand sanitizer, anyway. You liked your day getting under your nails.
David Byrne once described the lavatory at CBGB at “legendarily nasty,” which it was, though probably not as disgusting as our memories make it out to be or movies depicted, though there was plenty of shit on the walls, and plenty of, well, shit. I only remember two bathrooms in my life particularly well: that one, and the one in Italy that was nothing more than a hole in the floor with two handles on the sides, which I mostly recall because I was drunk and wearing heels. I didn’t get a disease from either, but I do distinctly recollect that only one of them actually had toilet paper (the one once frequented by Joey Ramone, surprisingly) and neither had any capabilities for hand washing (that’s what your jeans are for, anyway).
I didn’t live and die by punk music as a young kid like my brother did, who had a Sex Pistols patch on his denim jacket (though I did cry when Kurt Cobain died), but I always had an understanding that it was a vital lifeforce, a true bloodline of my city, and I knew that history had been made at places like CBGB; and even as an asshole teenager with a penchant for Bob Dylan I liked putting my feet down on the same floor that had seen the bottom of Patti Smith’s steel-toed boots, and given birth to the Ramones, the Misfits, the Cramps and my dear Beastie Boys. The place smelled like sticky, stale beer and power chords; you sweat, you skanked and moshed, trying to keep your hair from getting burnt by a cigarette. As I climbed through my teens, punk and ska music made more sense to me; I often holed up in my bedroom with the Pietasters or The Clash or Television’s Marquee Moon, and freshman year of college at NYU I started spending a lot of time at a bar on Avenue A and 7th, a sort of meeting room for the East Village/Bowery Scene owned by a drummer, Johnny, and his business partner, Jesse Malin, the lead singer of D Generation with spectacular hair. This is a place where, after Joe Strummer died, he was memorialized with a mural on the wall outside; New Yorkers innately paid respect by refraining from graffiting words like “balls” on Joe’s face. It was a good place to go before shows at CBGB or Bowery Ballroom or Coney Island High and listen to Jesse spin records, probably ones by David Bowie and Social Distortion, and watch all the cockeyed elbows in leather-jacketed arms twisted on the bar, hovering around a whisky in a thick glass. They didn’t just listen to punk music; they lived it. I felt it too. Sometimes only Dylan healed me; other times, nothing but thirty minutes with Rocket To Russia could drown out the fuzz in my head with even louder, thicker fuzz. A good Joey Ramone “hey, hey, hey” is sometimes better than a dose of Prozac; Operation Ivy’s “Room Without a Window” the only way I actually could see out, at all.
Which brings me to the first time I saw PUJOL, which was actually in New York City. It was a few Octobers ago, before I had moved to Nashville. My cat, Stella, was sick and spending the night at the vet, so I dealt with the situation by drinking too much awful tequila at a bar in Williamsburg where Robert Ellis was playing a bunch of country covers for two hours. I distinctly remember trying not to cry while simultaneously thinking about my pet and Robert’s cover of “Amarillo By Morning,” two things that had nothing at all to do with each other but felt like they did at the time. Somehow we made our way to see PUJOL’s late set, walking crookedly down Bedford Avenue after making a half-hearted attempt to eat a burger and losing an earring along the way. Between the emotional toll of Stella’s kidney disease (I am a cat lady, I confess, and poor Stella passed away two months later) and the physical toll of alcohol, I was a mess; I didn’t really think it was a good idea to go see more music, but I didn’t want to go home, didn’t feel like waiting hours for the L Train or walking back over the Williamsburg Bridge, because my thighs were already burning from standing through all those country songs.
People in New York were talking about PUJOL because they talk about things they want to feel like they discovered; the east was just on the fringe of catching on to the “it’s not just country music” (correct) cliché, and Nashville’s punk and rock n’ roll scene (therein to be labeled “southern garage” or whatever else sounds good) had started poking its way onto the consciousness of music critics looking for a new fix. Like pork fat and bourbon and good moustaches, this was something that sat well with Brooklynites.
But that night PUJOL’s “Mayday” was the answer to my mayday, too. I sounded a call that George Strait couldn’t answer but dissonant guitars could; and I remember closing my eyes and raising my chin to the ceiling, relief ringing through my ears as I forgot about sick cats and sick thoughts and sick thighs, saying thanks for loud music, for punk rock, praying to the patron saint of DIY and barre chords and distortion pedals. And when I made the move down to Nashville a few months later, with a car packed full of clothes and records and guitars and no cat, I felt thankful that while New York was haunted by so many ghosts of punk rock past, and rock club bathrooms now turned into ritzy dressing rooms, there seemed to be bits of the Bowery alive and well in my new hometown. Sometimes Nashville is legendarily nasty, too. Just the way I like it.
And sometimes you need three chords and the truth – as long as they’re power chords. And often, even two will do.