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Behind the Screens: Burning Down the House, The Story of CBGB

In the panel following Thursday's screening of the rock doc, director Mandy Stein, Tommy Ramone, Chris Frantz, and Jesse Malin paid tribute to a New York gone by.

Matt Pinfield, Tommy Ramone, Chris Frantz, Mandy Stein, Jesse Malin
©Getty Images, photo credit: Amy Sussman

"Is rock dead?" an audience member earnestly asked during the panel following Mandy Stein's documentary Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB.

Moderator Matt Pinfield took the mic and explained that no, rock is not dead, since he took his music-loving efforts to the world of radio. The rest of the panel—the gentle and sweet Talking Heads alum Chris Frantz; musician and bar owner Jesse Malin; Tommy Ramone, the last surviving member of the legendary punk rock band; and director Mandy Stein—were silent. Pinfield had it covered.

And while Pinfield's enthusiastic fandom and idealism was endearing in its own right, Stein's documentary had, in its way, made an argument that rock—as an ethos and lifestyle practiced at CBGB—was indeed dead. The difference in the short, thrilling snippets of vintage footage—featuring a baby-faced David Byrne of the Talking Heads crooning "Psycho Killer" in the '70s and Bad Brains nearly inciting a riot—made the CBGB farewell concerts pale in comparison, as Patti Smith tried to conjure ghosts while the audience stood lifeless, taking pictures of the moment on their cell phones.

Tommy Ramone, Chris Frantz            ©Getty Images, photo credit: Amy Sussman

Burning Down the House is not—quite—a movie for music fans. Rather, it is a documentary for anyone who can say that CBGB changed their lives. Stein speeds through the (long) history of the club and the (many) amazing bands that came out of there, focusing on its owner, Hilly Kristal, and his fight to keep the club open in the 2000s. A gentle soul underneath the gruff exterior, Kristal encouraged artistic creativity. CBGB wasn't so pretty (and much of the film has director Jim Jarmusch and writer Luc Sante wading through the graffiti-strewn walls of the empty spot), but it served as an incubator for the art scenes that made New York so vital. Perhaps a quote from director Jonathan Demme summed it up best: "It's not the history. It's that the young kids won't have a place to go."

The panel took on a tone of reminiscence and bittersweet memories, as a crowd (and a, shall we say, "enthusiastic" member of Fountains of Wayne) who had been clearly affected by the club shared their life-changing moments at CBGB. Frantz talked about the Heads' first show opening up for The Ramones, remembering that their friend sent them over to the club, observing, "There's something going on there."

"It was a Bohemian scene," said Ramone. "Interesting mix of artists, Hell's Angels, and derelicts." About the first time his band played, he recalled, "When people saw us, there was shock. We'd have 14-minute sets with 12 songs. We'd have fistfights in the middle of them. Four very unique, strange, talented, intense, slightly crazy people making music." Frantz added, "The Bowery was super intense. There were dead people lying around at times. One of the things that made CBGBs a success was that musicians could get in for free."

Mandy Stein, Jesse Malin                   ©Getty Images, photo credit: Amy Sussman

"The club means so much to so many people," said Stein. "Each of those eras could have their own documentary. So many stories didn't get in there. I was trying to focus on this homegrown struggle to save the club." Malin had a historical perspective. "When Giuliani came in, it felt personal. He really sold the city out to chains."

Nevertheless, while the film may be a record of a New York gone by (sadly), and perhaps a potential look at a New York to come (given the state of the country's finances), the song remains the same: by keeping a club open for the kids, Hilly Kristal made his mark on rock 'n' roll. His ghost may have been in the room. Stein said, "He would've loved the attention, sitting up here and seeing that people got what he did. He was a mensch."

"Yeah!" said somebody from the audience. And the rock 'n' roll gods smiled.



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