CBGB Was My High School
By G.K. Stritch
Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Full Court Press (2011)
260 pages, $16.95
Reviewed by Dale Ahlquist
Why, you might ask, would I want to read a coming-of-age memoir about a girl who once dated the drummer for the Ramones? The answer is simple: I didn’t want to at all. But the book landed on my lap, and I read it straight through.
As a smart, sensitive, artistic teenager the author got her share of bad breaks, including one nightmarish episode, but she showed she was still capable of making some bad decisions with no one else to blame. The only thing that can be said in her defense is that it was the 1970s, the shallowest time in all of human history, where everything was about surface appeal, and those surfaces were all industrial-made. When our sweet little G.K. escapes into the 1980s, she is still attracted to surface but also to sound, and she finds refuge in the New York club scene, where she becomes a regular at CBGB, “the famed rock n’ roll club on the Bowery with all its clamor and activity and boys, boys, boys.” So famed I’ve never heard of it. It took some research to learn that the letters stand for Country, Blue Grass, Blues, and that the music wasn’t any of that. It was rock becoming punk. The Grateful Dead were already old. The new bands were revolting against the revolters. Or just revolting.
The music, the personalities, the lifestyle, the setting (especially New York) when added together, hold an appeal for me that almost equals zero, but not quite. And yet, G.K. not only keeps my attention, but keeps me curious by her compelling account, which captures the sensation she felt in the darkness of these brick warehouses stuffed with people every night:
The music soared and safely transported the listener to a reckless, electric place—a place of big city danger and noise and young sexual energy and angst and fulfillment and stimuli and endless youthful promises of adventure and life, life on the razor’s edge. The music made you feel like you were doing something bad, even if you were just quietly sitting in a chair. The music made you feel high, even if you didn’t get high.
Whatever it is about this life that attracts her to it, the fact is, she is an attraction herself. The effect is doubled because she is usually accompanied by her sister, both of them petite beauties who exude innocence. “People seemed to be rooting for us, the Frou-Frous. They weren’t sure what the game was, but they seemed to be on our side.”
Somehow she manages to avoid drugs, as she watches many of her friends descend to their destruction. She emerges having to admit that the Reverend Jimmy Snow actually had a point when he denounced rock n’ roll back in the 1950s. Even the glitter of New York starts to lose a little sparkle. As a friend of hers points out, the first time you find a dead body on your doorstep, it’s cool. The second time it’s a drag.
Like so many who have picked up a paintbrush and created another world on canvas, G.K. once had dreams of being an artist. She notes ruefully that even though Van Gogh sold only one painting in his life time, it was one more than she ever sold. But she does manage to put her artistic skills to work painting faces. Famous faces. As a makeup artist.
“I wanted to spend my youth being young.” But something happens, something more than simply the inevitable passing of youth, something she does not quite tell us. She only tells us that she enrolls in a Catholic all-women’s college taught by the Sisters of Mercy at a convent surrounded by a high wall.
There is a sometimes bemused detachment in her narrative. It finally becomes clear that the life she has been describing, even though it is her own, is now past. A new one has begun, and its tale is still untold. G.K. Stritch has many stories waiting in her pen. This is only her first, and it happens to be true. It reads like a novel, with unforgettable and nearly unbelievable characters, like the colorful and pompous Francois who invites her to dinner at his apartment. Expecting an exotic French meal, she is served rice and beans and sits on a plastic milk carton. The piece de resistance is the baby rat scampering across the floor.
Each chapter is neatly summed up by a Shakespeare quote, but there is a Chesterton quote that perhaps sums up the book:
More ironic than the grinning skull, more dissolvent than dust and ashes, slower and more certain in its vengeance than mere death, this destiny has decreed that The Young of every generation shall not die, but shall live on as specimens of The Old; and especially as types of the old-fashioned. Each generation of rebels in turn is remembered by the next, not as the pioneers who began the march, or started to break away from the old conventions; but as the old convention from which only the very latest rebels have dared to break away. The moral seems to be that there may be a reward for rebels in heaven, if the Bright Young Things are looking in that direction, but there is precious little reward on earth. (Illustrated London News, August 20, 1932)
From the May/June issue of Gilbert Magazine. –Ed