Any feature film based on the life of the legendary punk club CBGB was bound to face gobs of scrutiny. But at least two of the club’s regulars during its heyday were prepared to swallow their skepticism before heading out to the CBGB red carpet event in New York last night.
“I love Cheetah Chrome so much – I’m so happy the Dead Boys are getting their moment,” says Pat Ivers. “That’s almost all I care about.” Also encouraging, says Ivers’ friend Emily Armstrong, is the fact that club owner Hilly Kristal is being portrayed as “the incredible mensch that he was.”
Ivers and Armstrong remember the real scene at CBGB better than most: They’ve been looking at film footage from the club’s golden era for more than 30 years. As budding filmmakers, they lugged heavy videotaping equipment to New York’s punk venues throughout the latter half of the Seventies, shooting sets by Iggy Pop, the Dead Boys, the Cramps, Bad Brains, Richard Hell and the Voidoids and many more.
On Thursday at Bowery Electric, the two filmmakers will screen some of their vintage footage alongside performances by Cheetah Chrome, the New York Dolls‘ Syl Sylvain, the Sex Pistols‘ Glen Matlock and more as part of the CBGB Festival. Ivers and Armstrong are celebrating the acquisition and restoration of their massive archive by New York University’s Fales Library.
“We’re building the historic record of that time period,” Armstrong tells Rolling Stone. “It’s the largest collection of its kind in the world – I can say that without any concern.”
Ivers was a music fan discouraged with the rock & roll of the mid-1970s – “Toto was on the radio, and you couldn’t listen to the Grateful Dead” – when she caught a show at Max’s Kansas City and was transformed. While working at a Manhattan cable access station, she suggested she and some of her colleagues use the equipment to shoot the bands at CBGB, just down the street from her apartment. They taped Talking Heads, Blondie and other early CBGB acts, but within a year her partners bowed out.
“I had no one to play with, and then I met Emily,” Ivers says. “She totally got it, and we started shooting again.”
The two were often the first to arrive and the last to leave, not just at CBGB but the Mudd Club, Danceteria and other venues. They were both devoted Patti Smith fans, and they loved the weird variety of the supposedly monochromatic punk scene.
“There was rockabilly, theatrical music, some bands with the Jersey sound and the No Wave thing,” recalls Armstrong. “I really liked the Contortions and the Lounge Lizards. The first time I saw Bad Brains, on an audition night at CB’s, I was sitting with Hilly, and it was like, ‘Whoa!'”
Most of the bands were thrilled someone was interested in taping them. “Back then,” says Armstrong, “if me and Pat gave you a videotape of your performance, that was like gold. Nobody had that.”
Their run effectively ended after a series of events at the dawn of the Eighties. They were arrested at a bust of the illegally operated Danceteria – “ankle-handcuffed to Keith Haring,” Armstrong says – and both of their apartments got robbed.
“We lost a considerable amount of our footage, probably 20-30 percent,” says Armstrong. “And they took my slide projector and a couple boxes of slides. I’m still mad about that.”
After airing some of the footage on their short-lived cable show, Nightclubbing, they stashed most of it in the precious closet space in their New York apartments. Interest in the collection revived after they hosted a screening at a Lower East Side festival more than a decade ago, and they’ve been showing the material at museums and film festivals since.
In addition to the footage, Ivers had a huge collection of ephemera – flyers, clippings and a thank-you note from an 18-year-old Jello Biafra, who stayed in her apartment during Dead Kennedys‘ first New York trip. Those things have joined the tapes in the NYU collection.
Ivers is now an editor on a New York nightly news program. Armstrong’s two grown children call her “Aunt Pat.” (They still live in the same building.)
Beginning in March at Fales Gallery, the pair will recreate the “video salon” they designed at Danceteria. Just before MTV opened for business, the partners screened video art in a Salvation Army-style living room setting on their own floor at the nomadic club’s first venue, on West 37th Street. “We called ourselves the first video DJs,” says Armstrong.
Now they have digital files of their work, and the library has the originals.
“And I got my closet back,” Armstrong jokes.