Man and His Rock—A Tour of the Hard Ass Music Hit Men of the CBGB Era

Photo by Benjamin Wagner on Unsplash

1973. Hilly Kristal and his Bowery dive, Country Bluegrass Blues (CBGB), featured bands like the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, Talking Heads, The Strokes, The Walkmen, The Cramps, Television, Joan Jett, and others who pounded bare-bones rock. The music blasting from the club was anything but country or bluegrass. It was new, smart, unpolished, arty, and sometimes sadistic, the antithesis of mainstream rock. CBGB’s headliners produced party-but-poignant music—with major attitude. Kristal’s one requirement to play in his club—be original. 

Amateurs and Purists — ”Pissing in a River, Watching it Rise”

And they were. The New York Resurgence of the mid to late 70s ushered in punk rock, which was about fighting the establishment, norms, and corporate America’s influence on how to think and be. Punkers rejected the polished and professional signature rock of the 60s and early 70s corporate mainstream rock: pop, heavy metal, rock-jazz infusions, and groomed-for-success, highly produced commercial rock. For the new breed, no unnecessary complexity, just hardcore straight-up rock. 

Anyone could be in a band was the creed. Some headliners couldn’t play their instruments but learned as they went. Though, some could. Billy Squier and Joan Jett were decent guitarists but were better songwriters. Bands like The Strokes, The Velvet Underground, and notables that followed until the late 90s cranked out rock ‘n’ roll stripped down to its essentials--a driving beat, slashing guitars, raucous singers, and political lyrics--violent, troubled, self-conscious, and angry--primitivist, yet innovative music to start a fight. 

Poet-singers, like Patti Smith’s garage band rock or Talking Heads’ pop-nerd-funk were not as heavy or dark, not like The Ramones’s Fuck you rock. They played what they liked, muscle, power, minimalist, and loud. Considered the first punk band, The Ramones didn’t aim to please anyone but themselves, and they couldn’t even do that. The band played into the 90s, and after their last gig, packed up their gear and left, no words, nothing. No love lost in the leaving. 

Four creeps, as Dee Dee Ramone described them in a 2016 Rolling Stone interview, started up a band in high school, drawn together as misfit rebellion. They were mostly an 80s band whose model was fast and furious but basic: rock purists who cranked out loud, fast three-chord progressions. 

Rock and Rage — ”Beat on the Brat with a Baseball Bat”

The Ramones’ garage band sound boomed from guitar, bass, and drum, their lyrics from a nasally lead singer who embodied the anti-pop singer, offbeat and malnourished. Some band backstories are hard to find but the Ramones had their story written all over them: a group of guys so broken that their music was a 22-year confession of unbridled anger—the kind born of being under the thumb of sadists, alcoholics, and heartless circumstances. 

Take drummer Tommy Ramone, born Tamas Erdelyi. All the Ramones took on the band-family namesakes. From repressive Budapest Hungary, Erdelyi moved to Brooklyn, New York, in the 50s. He met Johnny Cummins, later bassist Johnny Ramone, in high school and formed a band, the Tangerine Puppets. Johnny was the quintessential punk rock nasty guy, violent and unrepentant. He once pummeled a fellow band member on stage. 

His violent anger has a story. His father dominated Johnny, chiding him to be a man when he was just a boy by making him play baseball with a broken toe. Johnny was raised in the no kid of mine is a wuss school of hard knocks. And Johnny took it out on the world. He dominated. He threw television sets out the window on people in the streets below, throwing bricks through windows, just for kicks, as he admitted to The Rolling Stone.

Also battered, Dee Dee (Doug Colvin), son of an Army master sergeant, who dragged his family to and from Germany and the U.S., bore the brunt of his father’s drunken rampages and his parents' brutal fighting. They blamed him for their troubles. To tune out, DeeDee, as a teenager, turned to heroin, the drug that would eventually kill him. When his mother finally left his father and moved to Forest Hills, NY, he met up with the neighborhood tough guys, Johnny, Tommy, and Jeffrey. 

Jeffrey Hyman was born with teratoma, a rare tumor on his spine that left him sick throughout his life. His parents divorced before he was a teen, probably due to his dad’s terrible temper. One time he threw Joey against a wall. Jeffrey, who was a tall, skinny, shy kid, didn’t make many friends in school; he was an outcast and loner. When he started acting strangely, prowling around the house at night or pulling a knife on his mother, he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. When his mother moved, she left him to sleep on the floor of her art gallery. 

“Pretty Mean When It Wants to Be” — Bad Boys and Pretty Bad

Inspired by the New York Dolls and David Bowie, Hyman felt he too could make noise and call it music. Bowie, who championed the non-conformist, inspired him. Hyman became the band’s drummer, taking on the band family name as Joey Ramone. Unable to sing and play drums, he dropped the drums to become lead singer. He made a great front guy--not your pretty boy, muscular sex god, just a sympathetic character who’s kind of fucked up.

They were a no-nonsense crew, skeptical of 80s rock ‘n’ roll. They kept what they liked of their idols, like the Beatles and Bowie, and scrapped the rest, no blues, heavy metal, no guitar solos, just rock and roll pure. Their sound was primitive but edgy, with fast beats, amplifier distortion, and layered block chords. Their lyrics hammered themes about tuning out, losing your mind, and, of course, sex and drugs.

The force of their music was their early miserable lives coming back for revenge, refusing to be beaten down, taking stage in dives like CBGB, where they began. Punk rock had barely been around, with its reputation for bad or gay boys, and their lyrics boast revenge of the high school rejects: beating up kids, slashing prostitutes, shooting enemies in the back, the violence that still dominated Johnny, who was prone to slapping his girlfriend around or punching his band members in the face for playing a wrong chord. 

These weren’t your typical Playgirl “bad” boys, and yet, they exuded raw sexuality and appeal. Punk delved deeply into the taboo: BDSM, prostitution, and gender ambiguity. Sex permeated Punk. Not just lyrics, pumping beats, and bare skin, but pornography and prostitution as lifestyle, a weekly paycheck, as Dee Dee Ramone hustled the streets and others worked the phone sex circuit or posed for porn mags. Sex work kept punk rockers on the fringe but free.  

“Rock Me, Cock Me” Sex on Stage

And yet, Punk wasn’t the only music making the scene in the Resurgence. Hard rock didn’t die. It got leaner, meaner, and sexier in Billy Squier. While he wasn’t a typical 70s Robert Plant heartthrob, he knocked out some memorable arena rock tunes like “Rock Me Tonight,” one of his biggest hits, one that both peaked his stardom and shot it down. Rocking the androgyny sported by Patti Smith and Bowie, the 5’ 6” lean Squier sang rock ‘n’ roll tunes with catchy melodies and refrains. A song like “The Beat” drives home the urgency of that period’s bald, double-edged rock.

Guys like Billy Squier were trying to put melody back into rock, veering away from screaming metal. Squier also took what was best of 1970s classic rock, eschewing the new synthesizer and drum-dominated New Wave rock popular then. He was an uncanny mix of hard, glam, and pop-rock.

But he turned out to be a decade-long flash in the pan, though his ‘80s music encapsulated the era. Surprising, then, that timing and a tone-deaf video killed his career. Squier arrived at the birth of MTV and scored a lot of mileage from posturing in music videos. Before that, he toured with Def Leppard as opener until he went solo but only after singing through a few failed bands. Squier began playing instruments as a young boy of 9 when his grandfather taught him to play the piano. He later picked up the guitar. He started his own band by the time he was 14, inspired by Eric Clapton and Cream in the late ‘60s. 

In the ‘70s, he played in a poetry-music troupe called Magic Terry & the Universe when he was a student at Berklee College of Music. After, he played in a couple of bands, NYC’s Kicks and the Sidewinders out of Boston, as he jostled between Boston and NYC. His next band, Piper, landed his first recorded album for A&M, but it wasn’t until his solo career and Tale of the Tape in ’80 that Squier started pumping out those stadium-rousing hits MTV featured, like “Don’t Say No” and “Lonely is the Night.” In that ‘80s draped look, long-full-bodied hair; flowing, shirt, unbuttoned to the belly button; and comfy cotton pants cinched at the waist, Squier was a rocking lead man—until his “Rock Me Tonight” video.

Ditch the Hairspray—Career-Killing With Sissy Aesthetics

The video features Squier prancing to music in a flamboyant extravaganza of effeminacy, ripping off his shirt (already torn at the shoulders), and writhing on the floor, a striptease that would have earned any female rock star a feigned frown and a side wink for being so hot. On Squier, in the 80s, however, it was devastating. The video is cheesy-silly, and it all but wrecked his career. He was skewered by his fans for looking ridiculous—and ‘gay’. Gay in the music industry—despite Queen’s massive success--was not accepted then. 

After, he pumped out a few more hits, but then fans, fickle as they are, opted for younger artists in the same vein, like Bon Jovi, or went for the newest phenomenon, Nirvana, a band that overshadowed the 80s with a less pretentious and produced vibe. Grunge had made its way to the scene, a subtler kind of sexy.

Squier was ripped for a less-than-masculine sexuality that confused his fans. He sang commanding songs like “The Big Beat,” influencing hip-hoppers to this day, with its raw sexuality jackhammered with each booming beat of the drum that opens the song… “I got the big beat/down in my shoes/I got the big beat/I’m gonna give it to you.” You feel that beat banging inside your chest, throughout your body. And while the campy “Rock Me Tonight” video, dubbed “Cock Me Tonight,” betrayed the hard rocker typecast, the Ramones were performing the over-the-top masculinity. 

“Damn Our Reputations”—Breaking the Last Rule With Female Masculinity

Their anti-sex-god rock, uniformed in black leather jackets, portrayed a violent masculinity that defied acceptance, repelled its audiences even as they loved its raw power. Joan Jett, oddly enough, arising from the fierce punk scene, probably did the best job of parading masculine sexuality, a female masculinity that was as native and scaled-down as her music, straddling the line between hard-rock Squier and Punker Johnny Ramone. 

While Billy Squier was getting ripped for his avant-garde display of unbridled sexuality and the Ramones, who look like a cross between the Beatles with outgrown haircuts and malnourished Fonzi’s from Happy Days, exuded a sexuality that strutted danger and calloused cool, Joan Jett was performing female masculinity like no other. 

In a mostly male punk scene, Jett deployed her sexuality as a weapon. She expressed herself like there were no boundaries, no expectations for women to either rebel and become men, maintain the fiercely feminine, or parody either side of the gender binary. She was just Joan. 

Not that she didn’t experience the differing expectations for women and men. 23 record companies rejected her after she broke with her band, The Runaways, but she still did things like the super rock ‘n roll girl she was—her way. She played an instrument and maintained control over her music, just as men were able to do in the business. She didn’t accept the socially accepted norms of her time.

Joan Marie Larkin, born into a blue-collar class, played with the Runaways, an all-girl hard rocker band until 79 when she teamed up with the Blackhearts, making the hit “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” with Boardwalk Records. Like the Ramones, she liked her black leather and black shag haircut, adding heavy eye makeup to the mix. Her image evolved from the rock ‘n’ roll girl who just wanted a piece of rock ‘n roll the guys got to a transgressive sexual identity that challenged conventions. Jett’s music, a mix of punk, classic and hard rock, like the others of the New York Resurgence and punk music of the greater artists, is a return to rock’s roots and a prideful rejection of rock, gender, and sexuality norms—a sort of groundbreaking familiarity. 

Rockers of this era were all hard asses, but Jett had to out-hard ass the hard asses. Her brand of three-chord rock ‘n roll was non-negotiable. She eventually broadened her appeal from rock’s typical fan--the frustrated male suburbanites—to queer and heterosexual women. She snagged the line of bad girl rocker, a classic anti-role, and that indistinct place between male and female expression. She didn’t rebel against the machismo of the male rockers, nor exactly join them in the game, either. She just didn’t give a shit what the guys were doing. Jett embodied punk masculinity laced with female discord.

You Can All Just Go to Hell—“Shark in Jets Clothing”

Like the cross-dressing New York Dolls, Jett took the challenge of the time: anyone can play. Punk dispelled the norms of pretty ponytail rockers or gimmicky girl-bands. Punk girls could be raunchy and play the guitar. The genre allowed rockers to sexualize, de-sexualize or anti-sexualize themselves. Thus, Blondie’s Debbie Harry mocked the pretty pin-up and Jett performed machismo. In “Cherry Bomb,” women aggress the street boys in sexual encounters. In the video for “Do You Want to Touch Me,” Jett’s hard, athletic, small-breasted body in a bikini flashes her audience as her trench coat opens. It is neither masculine nor feminine. Gender and sexuality are drag: black leather, hair and makeup; BDSM chains, studs, safety pins, and defiance.

The hypermasculine aesthetic movement which had rejected (and perhaps mislabelled) as ‘effeminate’ the overly airbrushed and self-involved posing represented by Billy Squier at the crest of his career slope, would inevitably have to turn and mock its own evolution.

CBGB, punk rock’s epicenter, rolled out performers and parodists of rock and gender, unraveling an inventive style and unfettered sexuality in a time of transition. The metal-punk mix, Grunge rock, that emerged on the tail of the resurgence rejected the outlandish pomposity of “anti-ness” that preceded it but kept the good stuff: the vulnerable misfit, the authentic pain and oppressive pressure of exceeding those that came before--a redefined sexy with a revised musical genre.

But we still love the rebellion and resurgence of that glory era, with its spectacle of letting anyone take the stage to thrash and trash whatever was hallowed, wallowing in gargantuan sexual expression, and embracing with an ambitious if ultimately self-destructive final flourish a self-mockery that refuses to take itself too seriously. Like Film Noir, it still commands our awe. When we shift into fourth gear, lay on the gas, and want to feel freedom from a box and convention, it’s not the BackStreet Boys or Ricky Martin we dial into the stereo. But it just might be “Don’t Bust My Chops”.

Pam Gerber

The author was born at the epicenter—Brooklyn. She once drove a rebuilt 74 VW Bug cross country (and made it to D.C.). She insists on brutal honesty, isn't above engaging in a minor scuffle if it comes to that, and lives by Whitman’s, 'Being with people I like is enough.'

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