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Behind the Scenes at the CBGB Festival

Eric Lima Aug 1, 2012

Punk-(early modern English slang) a prostitute. (slang) (a) catamite (b) a male homosexual (c) a young hoodlum (d) any person esp. a youngster, regarded as inexperienced, insignificant, presumptuous, etc.

Do-It-Yourself or the DIY punk ethic was this year’s theme for the inaugural CBGB Festival, July 5-8. The four day festival included film and music conferences explaining everything from using the latest technology to make an independent film and market your band, to producing, financing and distributing your independent films and music. About 30 Punk films were screened and over 300 bands performed at venues throughout NYC during the 4-day festival.
 
In the fall of 1975, when NYC asked President Ford to help them through their financial crisis he told them “To Go To Hell.” The then Republican President Gerald Ford, who had just taken over for Richard Nixon, the first President to ever resign before being impeached, was in no mood for a proud and fiercely independent city like New York that had replaced Europe as a leader in finance, fashion, art and literature, but who had a record population on public assistance with city budgets, and crime rates among the highest in the U.S., and with no end in sight. Under these circumstances, Punk Rock was born.
 
During the summer of 1976 in a NoHo dive frequented by hobos, street urchins and Hell’s Angels bikers, located at 315 Bowery, a group of musicians decided mainstream music wasn’t representing the youth culture and made their own. Others inspired by what they witnessed joined the movement, picking up an instrument, a camera, a pen or a brush and learning how to tell their story, regardless of how bad they looked or sounded or what was acceptable. A new community of artists with no commercial or corporate backing was created. The Punker, as opposed to the Rock star, was not only the misfit, outcast or outsider, he was the Weirdo. They didn’t only come from poor, dysfunctional families, they came from poor, dysfunctional families, WITH substance abuse problems THAT lived in a crime ridden area, much like the Bowery was, especially during the 1970’s; and somehow they felt more at home in CBGB’s than they did at home, all the different or strange were welcome, the abused, the hated “Bastards of Young” as the title by The Replacements song goes. On more than one occasion Iggy Pop and the Ramones would say they were mistaken for the developmentally challenged or “Freaks”. The Ramones refer to themselves as “Freaks” several times on their 1977 record “Rocket to Russia”. The title mocked the cold war arms race and nuclear threat facing the world, led by the U.S. and Russia; “Rocket to Russia” also had songs about “electro-shock” therapy and “lobotomies” for those who weren’t normal enough to fit into society.
 
The Ramones, Blondie, The Talking Heads and Patti Smith left CBGB and became famous, other bands like the Dictators, the Dead Boys, the Tuff Darts, whose remaining members reunited and performed during the four-day festival, remained little known underground, bar bands, but the DIY message of Punk continued to inspire people all over the world, particularly in England where the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Police and countless other bands became worldwide phenomena’s that sold millions of records.
 
Kris Novoselic, the former Nirvana bassist opened the CBGB Festival as the Music Conference keynote speaker. Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s guitarist and songwriter was the ultimate punk-misfit who tragically took his own life at the age of 27 after a battle with heroin addiction. Cobain reinvigorated the Punk Movement in the early nineties and it appealed to a mass audience after bands like Guns and Roses had become a Rock/Punk caricature of themselves due to all their success. Regardless of tragedy, Novoselic carries the ideals of his former band proudly. In 1995, after the band’s demise he devoted himself to national politics, and was the Chairperson of his local Democratic Party in Washington State until he quit six years later disgusted and tired of “volunteering for a party run by Super-Pac’s”.
 
He told the audience he supported Fairvote.org that works to maintain independents on the ballot because he believes, “Everybody gets a Congress person because you pay taxes and you’re subject to the laws of the land. We promote the Popular vote, which is basically; everybody should have a voice on who’s the President, not just these six or seven swing districts in America where all the Special Interests put all their money. You know because money is (inaudible). They get good value so they’ll just put it in Ohio, Florida, wherever. We also support a constitutional Right-To-Vote. You have no right to vote and that’s why you have states and districts that pass all these voter disenfranchisement laws. They’re voter suppression and its partisanship, it’s the insiders, they’re troublemakers and they’re protecting themselves.” Novoselic says.
 
Thirteen years after the 1999 WTO Protests in his home state of Seattle, WA, his advice to Occupy Wall Street is to run as Occupy candidates. Imagine WTO protesters running as WTO candidates. But Novoselic’s great political pet peeve is that the Democrats haven’t taken advantage of “a convergence between political association and social networking. He says a book called “Millennial Takeover” encompasses the history that technology has had on politics, and describes the way the telegraph, radio, TV and now the Internet affect politics.
 
“Their thesis is that this Millennial Generation, born in 1983 to 2002, are a civic generation and whoever connects with them in this digital platform, literally will dominate politics for the next generation and these are scholars saying this,” Novoselic says.
 
His speech was followed by lectures on legal issues, also management and publishing problems, independent musicians face today. There were also similar film conferences going on simultaneously. Finding Film Industry Money: how to get Film Industry financing for medium to low budget projects was one and Planning Producing the Micro budget Film within your available resources was another. Robert Nickson a Professor at NYU's Graduate Film Program spoke on both panels. Nickson’s is a regular at the Cannes Film Festival and four of his former students have won Oscars. Nickson says there are over 400 film production companies worldwide and none can legally accept scripts, but filmmakers can still use the Internet to find financing.
 
According to Nickson, three elements to keep in mind when making a small independent film are: First, keep it low budget. The script should only be 80-90 minutes and don’t do period pictures or pictures with big scenes or big camera effects. Second, choose locations that are free and you have access to; and finally, third, “Fixate on story not technology.  Many filmmakers still feel the need to shoot on film when the world has left film behind.  A great number of HD Digital Cameras provide a more than adequate image to tell your story and project at festivals and theaters,” and emphasizes that, “It is the actor's performance, image composition, controlled camera movement and use of intelligent but small lighting set ups that can make your micro-budget film look totally professionally shot.”
 
Nickson advises to study micro-budgets films that have been successful, such as Spike Lee’s, She's Gotta Have it, about a young woman lives in loft exploring her life potential; or Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens, about a young girl's life in the East Village and boyfriend who lives in a van; also Ang Lee’s film, Fine Line, about a young Asian girl who falls for an Italian cop on the lower east side.
 
Speaking of film, some new punk films premiered at the festival: The Rise and Fall of The Clash and Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen was a couple. Also premiering were Vinyl, about an aging punk band who release their single under the image of a young punk band, and Bob and the Monster, a documentary about music industry addiction counselor Bob Forrest.
 
Color Me Obsessed, A Film about the Replacements, was also shown and is currently in theaters. Color Me Obsessed is a documentary focusing on the obsessed fans of the Minneapolis Indie/Punk band The Replacements. It’s mostly interviews with obsessed Replacements fans and their memories about how the band’s attitude helped them cope and changed their outlook on life. It contains some music industry insiders but almost no music or footage of the band, instead it relies on photos and band paraphernalia, but it does show the Replacements as one of the first bands in the eighties to create their own fanzines, comics about the bands antics.
 
Older punk films shown were, Patti Smith: Dreams of a Life, a biography on the life of Punk Pioneer/Singer/Poet/Musician/Activist Patti Smith, a must see for any punk fan. And the hilarious, “Exit Through the Gift” shop, the fictional story of a man who sets out to document the lives of underground street artists, and through the process becomes one of the world’s most infamous street artist’s himself, a spoof on the cult of the celebrity, where hype defines the quality of the artwork.
 
Finally, there was 2010’s summer hit “Blank City”, which played at IFC for almost 8 sold out weeks. The film’s promo reads:
 
"Before Independent Film there was Underground Cinema. And before New York there was…well, New York. BLANK CITY tells the long-overdue tale of the motley crew of renegade filmmakers that emerged from an economically bankrupt and dangerous period of New York history. It’s a fascinating look at the way this misfit cinema used the deserted, bombed-out Lower East Side landscapes to craft daring works that would go on to profoundly influence Independent Film today. Unlike the much-celebrated punk music scene, this era’s thrilling and confrontational underground film movement has never before been chronicled.”
 
Blank City basically pieces together the history of radical filmmakers that hung out at CBGB in the mid-seventies, with the DIY spirit, rather than pick up an instrument… they picked up an eight-millimeter camera and chronicled life in the neighborhood around CBGB, and other crime plagued neighborhoods in NYC, such as Times Square. These radical, independent films were dubbed “No Wave Cinema” by Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman in 1979 article, and “Transgression Cinema” in the 1984 by filmmaker Nick Zedd.
 
“Blank City” Director Celine Danhier saw these films playing in art houses in France, where she’s from, and wanted to document them. After interviewing several directors she found out many of their movies were lost, so she searched for some of these lost films. One lost film she discovered 29 years later was Michael Oblowitz’s 1980 “King Blank”, it was in the archive vaults of the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. Another of these films, Sara Driver’s, You Are Not I, was recently discovered in a basement in Morocco after being lost for 30 years.
 
King Blank is about a soldier who is discharged because of mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia and suicidal thoughts. The soldier suffers one mental breakdown after another as he tries to come to terms with his intense feelings, Christian faith and sexual desire in a world he perceives as full of sin, and threatened by a communist takeover. Oblowitz was himself a soldier in the South African army, but left because he refused to enforce the laws of apartheid.
 
“I came to New York in 1976 from South Africa. I was an army draft-dodger. I was stuck in N.Y. for ten years. I didn’t want to spend my time in the S.A. army. I met Amos Poe, and he had just shot a movie with Patti Smith and it was all shot with a hand held camera and we were all hanging out at CBGB’s, me and Anton,” Oblowitz says. Anton is Anton Fig, the drummer from the David Letterman show, another S.A., who also made the music for Oblowitz’s first films.
 
Poe is Amos Poe, who directed “Blank Generation” probably the most important No Wave film because it captured the first performances of the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and Patti Smith in the summer of 1976, with his eight-millimeter camera, when CBGB was still a dive bar. Poe is now a professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Blank City also shows how No Wave Cinema caught the raw and burgeoning rap//hip-hop, break dancing, and graffiti street art movements of the early eighties, featuring rapper Fab-Five Freddy in the films Downtown ’81 and Wild Style.
 
“One of the main points is that the movies blur the line between fiction and reality. So when you are watching the films shot in that period you get a true perception of what NYC was like. The city itself had a major impact on the filmmakers. First, it’s the idea behind these films which is the do-it-yourself mentality. And they are very political and they have a nihilistic approach,” Danhier says.
 
Oblowitz filmed at JFK airport and in front of the World Trade Center during operating hours.
 
“I’m a real guerilla filmmaker. Everything was shot by me, I held the camera. Every location was stolen. I booked like three hotel rooms at the Howard Johnson’s at Kennedy Airport; they were like $20 a night back then. The movie was made on $25,000, which is like $100,000 now. It was just three of us. We shot in Kennedy Airport without any permits. We were all over the Airport and high as kites, imagine that today. We were legitimately underground, antagonistic, reactive, NYC filmmakers. We were absolutely guerilla filmmakers and the work still endures. S&M, polymorphous perverse sexuality, drugs, degenerate filmmakers, everything the kids of today are into, flash frames, rock music, post nuclear holocaust, post war imagery, paranoia, alienation and an internationalist theme…because Amos was from Israel and I was from SA. So we were foreigners and that’s why our films are about foreigners,” Oblowitz says.
 
Oblowitz helped organize author William Burroughs 70th birthday party and says the Beat Poets still lived in the Lower East side and influenced many of the No Wave films. After CBGB Oblowitz went on to become one of the biggest music video directors of the 80’ and 90’s and now directs Hollywood films with actors such as Val Kilmer and Steven Seagal.
 
Punk Rock, NYC and the DIY ethic helped inspire many artists and social misfits. It demonstrated that things don’t always have to be the same, even politically, if you have to just do-it-yourself. In his Keynote speech Novoselic spoke about how he and former Guns and Roses bassist, Duff Mckagen, who were both contributing writers to The Seattle Weekly came up with the idea of using their celebrity status to form a Rock Party that would help people get involved in politics. They came up with democratic principles and a constitution where it took two-thirds vote to change a law, candidates could be elected Online, dues were only $5 a month, and the convention would be held at an event like the CBGB Festival. They even created a party logo with the cover art of the Deep Purple album In Rock, which shows the band members heads superimposed on Mount Rushmore, Novoselic, used Photoshop to superimpose his and Mckagen’s heads on the album’s photo.
 
Novoselic used the final minutes of the conference to urge audience members that change is always possible, and to remember Kurt.
 
“Think about coming together with like minded folks and having a voice. And part of that is changing the rules, making the rules more inclusive, you know by proportional voting; so your vote matters, wherever you live, so the insiders don’t decide. So coming together, changing the rules, having as much fun as possible in the meantime…because this is going to be a lot of work.”
 
ROCK PARTY CONSTITUTIONAL MANIFESTO
 
1) Two-thirds vote to change laws
2) You can leave at any time
3) Members can vote for candidates online
4) Members can be chosen at a convention like the CBGB Festival
5) Dues are $5 a month
6) All members are allowed to vote, no party nominations 
 

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