01 June 2013

The 'legendarily nasty' CBGB toilets

The breakout star of “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” the new fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is neither the maverick designer Vivienne Westwood nor modern punks like Gareth Pugh and the sisters of Rodarte, but a toilet. At the show’s entrance, visitors are immediately confronted with a re-creation of a filthy restroom of CBGB, the Bowery club that was one of the birthplaces of punk, as it would have appeared in the mid-1970s — drawing reactions, at least among those who remember the original facilities, ranging from amazement to ire. There are three urinals, two toilets with the seats up, two sinks, a bare light bulb, a brick wall, countless used cigarette butts and a whole lot of graffiti, mostly the names of the bands that performed at the club.Patti Smith once said “all the action happened in the toilets,” according to Andrew Bolton, the curator of the exhibition, and it is a place where history is literally written on the walls.

The re-creation of the graffiti is based on images taken in the 1970s by the photographer David Godlis, who documented the New York rock and punk scenes. Several band names indicate that this is how the bathrooms would have looked shortly after 1976, when Dead Boys, a punk band managed by CBGB’s owner Hilly Kristal, first played at the club.

Debbie Harry said the walls resonated with the voices of CBGB. “The messages from all of them were greetings and calls to be recognized by anyone who stepped into the zone of clandestine fulfillment that existed on the Bowery and especially at CB’s during the punk years,” she wrote by e-mail. “The tradition of writing on bathroom walls wasn’t particular to those toilets, but the ferocity was definitely related to the club, the music and all the people who went there.”

Visitors have wondered about the lack of privacy, but Jimmy Webb, the manager at Trash and Vaudeville, recently recalled that it was common to see both genders using the toilets for their intended purposes and for illicit ones. “There literally were no barriers, so anything and everything went, and I don’t mean that in a negative way,” he said. “You would see the most beautiful people in there, and there wasn’t much difference from Studio 54, except for the culture.”

David Byrne described the toilets as “legendarily nasty.”

Fran Lebowitz paid a visit to the restroom “for less than a minute,” she said in an interview this month. “By the way, there wasn’t a huge difference between the cleanliness of the bathroom and the rest of the place.”

- Eric Wilson, 'A Necessary Stop', New York Times, 29 May 2013
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