This ain’t no Mudd Club: CBGB in the age of eBooks

CBGB Cover1


Ideally, all books about CBGB would be tattered, dog-eared and covered in mysterious stains. They’d be found in the dankest recesses of the most disreputable second-hand bookshops (or, better yet, “bookshops”). They’d be falling apart at the spine. There might be some pages missing, and, given some of the clientele, that might actually improve matters. Of course, ideally CBGB itself would still exist. It’s no longer an ideal world for sordid screeds or ramshackle rock clubs.

CBGB was, of course, the epicentre of the first wave of American punk and new wave, a dingy dive in Manhattan whose stage helped launch the careers of Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, Blondie, Patti Smith, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Suicide, Misfits and The Cramps. It was the epitome of the dirty, dangerous, depraved and dizzying pre-Giuliani New York, a crucial part of a romanticised lore that’s inspired countless skinny disenfranchised nerds to pick up a guitar and will themselves into coolness. It closed in 2005 following a decidedly un-punk dispute about back rent payments, and with it went another piece of the soul of the city.

The very idea of trying to encapsulate such a visceral experience as a night in CBGB in a professionally-made, illustrated book – in any format, really, other than a poorly printed fanzine or a comprehensive oral history – may seem like an exercise in futility; trying to depict it in a format as sleek, sterile and uniform as an e-book might seem almost counterintuitive.

Brooklyn based Mark Batty Publisher, however, is turning this apparent disconnect to its benefit, using the advantages afforded by fixed-format Epubs to adapt its already existent photographic chronicle of the club – CBGB: Decades of Graffiti, written by the Voidoids’ Richard Hell with Christopher Salyer and populated by the photographs of JK Putnam – into something akin to a virtual monument to the place.

CBGB: Decades of Graffiti 2


Salyer – the publisher’s designer and production director – says of the book’s digital conversion: ‘Apple’s decision to include fixed-width viewing in Epub format on the iPad/iPhone opened up an opportunity for illustrated book publishers to get into the eBook game. You can view one of our books as they’ve been originally designed for print, but with the added ability to zoom and move about the high-definition spreads with ease.’

In other words, given that the place no longer exists, this is the closest most people will come to seeing the walls of CBGB with their own eyes, and probably closer to them than they would have been willing to put their faces in reality.

It’s an intriguing idea for indie publishers to run with: show your audience something they can’t see themselves, in the kind of easily enlarged, high-resolution detail that fixed-width viewing allows. CBGB is gone. It’s not coming back, at least the way it was. But punk’s all about making the best of whatever situation you find yourself in.

There’s a metaphor there.

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