In the summer of 2008, I was hired as a contributing writer in the creation of The Rock Annex, described by Ben Sisario in The New York Times as “a smaller, quicker offshoot” of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland OH. The Annex occupied a 25,000-square foot space beneath an Old Navy store at 76 Mercer Street in Manhattan’s Soho district.
For the Annex project, I wrote the text panels introducing each thematic section: “Roots and Influences,” “Moments to Movements,” etc. I created some captions for specific exhibits or artifacts. I also researched and wrote the descriptions for “New York Rocks,” a 26-foot long scale model of Manhattan identifying the location of two dozen different historic music sites. The Annex was slickly designed and built to a high professional standard by operating partner Running Subways. There were special exhibits dedicated to The Clash (where it was nice to see an old issue of my former magazine New York Rocker on loan “from the collection of Mick Jones”) and to “John Lennon: The New York City Years.”
The Rock Annex opened in late November 2009 with considerable fanfare. I attended the gala opening party, held in a vast Soho loft where corporate sponsors proffered freebies ranging from vodka shots to makeovers, with live performances by Dave Mason and Blondie’s Chris Stein & Deborah Harry.
This was less than three months after Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, plunging the US economy into its worst crisis since the Great Depression (and far from over, at this writing). Meanwhile, a ticket to the Rock Annex cost $26.50 — at that time, more than the Museum of Modern Art. There was a gift shop, but no screening room or performance/lecture space in which to hold ancillary events. The Rock Annex closed January 3, 2010 after just over a year in operation. The artifacts were returned either to Cleveland or to private collector who had loaned them; the exhibit components, including my text panels, were sold at auction a few months later.
Before the closing, I returned to the Annex in late December 2009 with my good friends Doug Milford and Eliot Hubbard–and with permission to photograph all but the John Lennon exhibit, in order to have a visual record of my work. Doug Milford shot the photographs posted below, and I thank him for his invaluable contribution to this post.
“Mink DeVille knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song. And the harsh reality in his voice and phrasing is yesterday, today, and tomorrow — timeless in the same way that loneliness, no money, and troubles find each other and never quite for a minute. But the fighters always have a shot at turning a corner, and if you holler loud enough, sometimes somebody hears you.
“And truth and love always separate the greats from the neverwases and the neverwillbes.”
I didn’t know Willy DeVille, who died of pancreatic cancer on 8/6/09 in Manhattan. I interviewed him on one occasion in the Mink DeVille days, probably for New York Rocker, and remember him as guarded, suspicious of the press, and quite intimidating — with his hard shell and heroin hauteur — to this relatively clean-living, upper-middle-class kid from Westchester County. (I wouldn’t have guessed that we were the same age or that he’d grown up in Stamford, Connecticut.) At that time, Willy was inseparable from his girlfriend Toots — she may have the been the first tattooed woman I ever met, this was long before you could get inked at any suburban mall. Pehaps I should’ve brought along some vintage R&B records to break the ice for that interview: Back in ’77-’78, there weren’t too many people on the C.B.G.B. scene giving props to James Brown and Ben E. King the way Willy always did.
I saw him live at least three times, a long time ago: at the Longhorn Bar in Minneapolis and at C.B.G.B. with the original band, then with a new lineup at a coke-sodden Upper West Side club called Tracks (Trax? Traxx?) where he was showcasing for a new label. Ahmet Ertegun showed up that night and Willy signed with Atlantic in 1981.
Until William Grimes mentioned it in his NY Times obituary, I’d forgotten that Willy had formed the first version of Mink DeVille in San Francisco, then relocated the band to New York in 1975. But my friend Sally Webster of the San Francisco Mutants remembered him well:
“Mink DeVille was the first band I saw at [SF punk rock venue] the Mabuhay Gardens and that show made a huge impact on me and some of the other people who later formed the Mutants. The band wasn’t really that good musically but Willy had attitude and presence like you wouldn’t believe — he showed us how far that could take you. People would be surprised to hear it, because our sound was nothing like his, but Mink DeVille was a major impetus for the Mutants coming together as a band.”
Upon his pasing, Willy’s French booking agent, the excellently named Caramba Spectacles, told Agence France-Presse (AFP): “Willy DeVille this night joined Edith Piaf, Jack Nitzsche, and Johnny Thunders” — pretty good company, I’d say. “Sing on, brother — play on, drummer…”
The world’s most famous rock club opened in December, 1973 when musician/actor/nightclub manager/concert impresario Hilly Kristal took over the decrepit Palace Bar and christened it CBGB & OMFUG (Country, Blue Grass, Blues & Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandizers). Beginning in early 1974, as Richard Hell later wrote, CBGB “housed the most influential cluster of bands ever to grow up — or to implicitly reject the concept of growing up — under one roof,” including Blondie, the Dead Boys, the Dictators, the Heartbreakers (with Johnny Thunders), Richard Hell & the Voidoids, the Ramones, Suicide, Talking Heads, and Television.
Tens of thousands of performers—from multi-platinum rockers Pearl Jam and Guns ‘N Roses to country superstar Alan Jackson—played CBGB until October 15, 2006, when the club closed for good following a protracted rent dispute. The Patti Smith Group headlined the last show, and PSG guitarist Lenny Kaye told the NY Times: “When I go into a rock club in Helsinki or London or Des Moines, it feels like CBGB to me there. The message from this tiny little Bowery bar has gone around the world. It has authenticated the rock experience wherever it has landed.” Hilly Kristal died August 28, 2007 at age 75 from complications of lung cancer. In April 2008, designer John Varvatos opened a boutique in the former CBGB.