A School for Singing: The Poetics, Politics, and Aesthetics of the CBGB Scene

Cullen, Shaun, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, Department of English, University of Virginia
Chong, Sylvia, Department of English, University of Virginia
Will, Richard, Department of Music, University of Virginia
Levenson, Michael, Department of English, University of Virginia

On August 16, 1974, exactly one week after Richard Nixon’s resignation, the Ramones made their debut at CBGB. Over the next ten years, the club would become synonymous with the punk aesthetic that the Ramones embodied. By shifting, however temporarily and by no means completely, the focus of punk studies (and by extension, cultural studies, American studies, urban studies, and queer studies) back to an often disavowed origin point, CBGB and New York City, “A School for Singing” rediscovers a utopian imaginary inherent in that scene often taken to be one of the most shambolic and nihilistic in the history of postmodern arts and letters. Punk was not just a musical movement, it was an artistic event that had wider ramifications, felt across the art world, from the dingiest clubs to the most rarefied art galleries, publishing houses, and runways. Just this past year, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its fifth most popular exhibit of all time, “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” which features, among other mementos of the punk era, a faithful recreation of the CBGB bathroom, where “all the action happened,” as Patti Smith once quipped.

“A School for Singing” returns us to the space of CBGB, not just the bathroom, but the awning, the bar, the stage, and the street outside in order to understand the aesthetics, politics, and poetics of this space. Spaces tell a story, and “A School for Singing” attempts to speak the language of the stones. It takes its title from W.B. Yeats: “Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence,” and speculates that the CBGB scene intervened on Yeats’s classical modernism and the avant-garde at a moment of cultural and political crisis. It linked the modernist struggle for autonomy, poetically, to contemporary political struggles over working class rights, queer identity, and deindustrialization in an aesthetic language that was literary, musical, and visual, and was also equally indebted to the vernacular of popular culture. In the process, the CBGB scene sowed the seeds for all punk scenes and all punk aesthetics to come.

At its core, the CBGB scene was a product of the cultural crisis that gripped the U.S. at the beginning of the 1970s. Besides Nixon’s resignation, the Ramones’s first appearance coincided almost exactly with the one-year anniversary of the Case-Church Amendment, ending the Vietnam War, in theory if not in fact. In their songs, the Ramones sang about Vietnam, as well as Patty Hearst, Charles Manson, and the recent film Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Patti Smith dedicated her first single to the memory of Jimi Hendrix and the spirit of Patty Hearst. In other words, the CBGB scene was imbued with what Frank Kermode once called, in partial reference to William S. Burroughs, a fixture at the club, “a sense of an ending.” Burroughs was a particular hero to Richard Hell, who gave the club and its scene an anthem, “Blank Generation,” the blank in which, literally represented by silence on the song’s studio recording, was meant to signify not a lack of origins but a desire for them, for what Michel Foucault might describe as a “heterotopic” space, in which his generation could thrive.
“A School for Singing” interrogates this heteropian desire for any-space-whatsoever in a series of case studies starting, in the introduction, with the Ramones’s first appearance at CBGB in 1974. It then turns, in the first chapter, to the germinal musician in the CBGB scene and Velvet Underground co-founder Lou Reed, and the extraordinarily important influence two figures within the queer culture of the 1960s, William S. Burroughs and Andy Warhol, as well as his poetic mentor Delmore Schwartz, had on his music, lyrics, and performance career. Reed’s work is analyzed within the specific frame of the “queer child,” offered by literary critic Kathryn Bond Stockton, which the chapter contends was central to the CBGB scene’s political and aesthetic imaginary. This interest in the queer child carries over into the dissertation’s second chapter, on punk appropriations of girl group pop music, which tracks this figure of the queer child through the contemporary subcultural theory of Judith Halberstam, Tavia Nyong’o and José Muñoz, all of whom have written on punk.

The third and fourth chapters of “A School for Singing” focus on the Ramones, often thought of as the most demotic of the CBGB artists. To the contrary, the Ramones were far more conceptually sophisticated than other critics have realized. For instance, an early admirer of the Ramones was the conceptual artist Dan Graham, alongside whose work the Ramones’s performances are read dialectically in the dissertation’s fourth chapter, especially the Ramones’s 1980 album End of the Century (which to this point has received very little critical attention), and Graham’s two video artworks Performer/Audience/ Mirror and Rock My Religion. The Ramones and Graham, who also wrote critical essays about punk, were participating in a larger cultural dialogue concerning working class identity, sexuality, and deindustrialization in the U.S. at the end of the 1960s, which links their work back to figures such as Reed, Burroughs, and Warhol, as well as the historical avant-garde so beloved by other CBGB artists, such as Patti Smith and Richard Hell.
The central portion of “A School for Singing” ends with two chapters on the literary afterlives of the CBGB scene in the fictional works of William S. Burroughs, who participated in the scene, and William Gibson, who followed it. In particular, these chapters develop my notion of the CBGB scene as a heterotopia. These chapters describe how the concerns with space, expressed in these two literary works, responded to the CBGB scene’s original interest in queer visibility and the crisis of urban redevelopment.

The coda to “A School for Singing” explores the cultural memory of the CBGB scene in the present. Despite the way in which the original poetics, aesthetics, and politics of the CBGB scene are reappropriated, commodified, and assimilated in cultural productions as various as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from a Goon Squad, the recent “Chaos to Couture” exhibit, the Pussy Riot protest, and Occupy Wall Street, this coda insists, as does the rest of the dissertation, on uncovering, in the tradition of cultural critics—Marxist, queer, feminist, and otherwise—the utopian spirit of punk that imbues the scene’s memory, which refuses to concede to its reification. The cognitive mapping of the CBGB scene offered here is ultimately intended as a blueprint for how this resistance might continue in the twenty-first century, and is intended to be read alongside other periodizing works within American studies, such as Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front, Scott Saul’s Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t, and Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound, to name just a few.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
literature, music, punk, modernism, postmodernism, U.S. literature, American Studies, cultural studies, critical theory
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