JERSEY BEAT #56
'Is ABC No Rio Worth Saving?'
by Donny the Punk
It is not uncommon to be puzzled by one's own feelings (or lack of them), but in my experience there is usually something to be gained by examining the matter further and trying to figure out what the source of the feelings (or lack of them) might be. A few months ago, it struck me that I am relatively unmoved at the probable impending eviction of ABC No Rio, New York City's main (and only punk-run) club. Since I'd sought a punk-run club for punx in NYC since the mid-1980s, when I was coordinator of the Alternative Press and Radio Council for Greater New York (APRC), and it had been a dream of NYC punx since at least the 1970s to have a full-time space of our own, this was puzzling.
First some background: when I got out of prison again in Sept. 1990, I was glad to find ABC No Rio available to punx on Saturday afternoons and started going to shows there. Fast forward to May 1993, when the previous Board of Directors resigned and the punx took over the corporation, with me as Secretary of the Board. I enthusiastically undertook the duties of Secretary and attended most of the biweekly "core group" meetings of the collective which actually ran ABC in a democratic/anarchist fashion. When ABC lost its lease in May 94, I also went to all the meetings and helped organize the effort to keep the club alive.
Last fall, however, when the Board of Directors finally got around to holding its Annual Meeting (which should have been in May), I declined to serve another term and not only left the Board but also stopped attending the "core group" meetings, tho I continued to attend shows regularly for the rest of the year. Now that ABC is up against the wall, I find myself unable to summon up much enthusiasm for the fight.
Oh sure, in my head I hope that ABC survives. It is the mainstay of the noncommercial punkscene, it has been for years the vehicle of our dreams, and its loss would be a devastating blow. All my ideals tell me I should be in there fighting for it. It is a multi-arts center and I've always said punk is more than music. It is not out for profit, has no bouncers, is peaceful, anarchistic. You can smoke pot upstairs or in the backyard, go in and out, take all your clothes off, buy records cheaper at the tables than anywhere else in the city, meet all kinds of interesting people, have fun conversations even when the bands are boring, find people who are friendly rather than standoffish (which is rare in New York social establishments!). What's more, it's all-ages, you can buy cheap beer in the delis across the street and bring it in with you, booking is run by punx for punx, it's a dependable place to keep meeting friends, it's cheap ($5 admission regardless of event), and it embodies the principles of community self-governance that any anarchist should embrace as an alternative to the capitalist profit-oriented rent-a-cop structure that otherwise prevails.
So my head says "do everything you can to save ABC," and it's my head that has been posting news on the net on behalf of ABC and interceding with Neil Strauss at the NY Times to write on behalf of the club, and that's been providing address lists to ABC people to use in their campaign to keep the club open.
BUT--my heart is no longer in it. Months ago I went down there to see the DC band The Suspects, taking a friend with me. We missed the opening band, which is not unusual. And the opening band turned out to be The Suspects, who had been billed 2nd out of 5 bands. This is about the fifth time this has happened to me lately, and of course I was mightily pissed off.
If ABC were to follow an explicitly anti-hierarchical playing order policy (which I urged back in my APRC days, when the APRC shows had the band play in an order determined by lot, not by popularity) then I would applaud, and I would probably be there at 4 pm more often, and would not feel like I've been deprived of anything if I come late and miss the band I came to see. But it doesn't; it's like any other club in having a billing order and few fans there at the opening. And most of the time the opening band is boring and if you do come early you regret it. So I do often miss the openers. But ABC unexpectedly puts the best band on first just often enuf to infuriate me when it happens. And I know this doesn't happen at a commercially-run club. (Incidentally, I have seen many hundreds of opening bands, maybe over a thousand already. Back when my time was not so much in demand, I used to go religiously to catch the opening band. I even wrote a column for MRR called "Recon Report" which was strictly about opening bands. So don't think I'm callous about opening bands; it's just that I don't have as much time as I used to.)
This brings me to the problem of music. If ABC's bands were usually interesting, I would go out of the way to get there early much more often. But frankly, most of the time, the bands at ABC simply bore me. ABC's booking policy is: anybody can play, pretty much without regard to talent (but lyrics are screened for racism, sexism and homophobia). This is fine in principle, accords with the punk idea that anyone can be in a punk band. But in these days of the decline of hardcore music's creativity, the result, to me, is still disastrous. Obviously this is a very personal reaction, but I'm hardly alone in it.
Very often they are more fans talking in the upstairs art gallery than watching the band downstairs. Most of the time there are more punx upstairs, in the backyard, or on the sidewalk than there are downstairs watching the band. Frankly, the bands at ABC, by and large, just haven't been interesting. They do nothing onstage but stand there and play, which is why a lot of people don't bother eyeballing them. And the music tends to be the same from band to band and song to song. Obviously there are worthy exceptions, but I'm giving my impression of the majority of bands I see. A lot of this is a general problem with hardcore, but also much of it is specific to ABC. ABC makes no attempt to get good bands, but passively reacts to the inquiries which come in from bands wanting to play there.
ABC refuses to advertize, as a matter of principle, OK. They also don't post or handout fliers or do much of anything else to interest people in coming. And the out-of-town bands don't generally put out fliers, so frequently the audience is smaller than the total number of musicians who come to play.
The other major problem has to do with running the club. The biweekly meetings were a huge waste of time, something I'm afraid I don't have much of. As time went on, the attendance became increasingly unrepresentative of the punk community which attended the music shows, and was more and more dominated by long discussions of art exhibitions and poetry readings and politics. Sporadic attempts were made to involve more of the punx, but once they had experienced a meeting, the punx generally stayed away. Thus, tho the club was theoretically punk-run, in practice it turned into something else.
Now, I'm told, the community meetings include very few if any punx and more people from the neighborhood, whose concerns are more directed to Hispanic culture. In effect, ABC is no longer a punk-run club.
Maybe this problem is simply insurmountable, and an anarchistic policy-setting group is inherently unrepresentative, attracting only those who like sitting through long boring meetings. Certainly most of the punx at ABC take the club for granted and go there to enjoy its benefits but have no interest in themselves contributing to its upkeep, so I'm not just blaming the "collective." Most of the punx are just out to get drunk, have a good time, and try to avoid paying the $5 admission if they can. They don't really support the club and the club doesn't do much to motivate them to support it; it's a mutual problem. Probably these punx will only wake up when ABC is gone and then they can bitch into their beer about what a great place it was and how the city is so cruel to take it away from them.
For myself, I finally took stock of my role at these meetings and decided after some two years of attendance that they were a waste of time for me. None of my suggestions were put into practice, tho a number were supposedly adopted and then forgotten. (Such was the dedication to anarchy among the collective that this was the usual fate of decisions, so I don't imply that I was singled out for inattention.) The Board could never get a quorum and the collective didn't trust it anyway, but the collective generally didn't keep minutes, didn't keep track of its decisions, had no officers, and didn't keep track of its finances either. That's how ABC lost its multi-thousand dollar a year grant from the NY State Council on the Arts; nobody felt responsible for keeping track of deadlines so the renewal application didn't get sent in. Eventually I drew the conclusion that my attendance made absolutely no difference and that therefore my time was spent better elsewhere. And I haven't been back to the meetings since.
So, yes, I am disillusioned with ABC, and disappointed, in a lot of ways. And yes, I will feel sad if and when it disappears, for as long as it exists there is always a chance that things will change for the better. Maybe I am burnt out after too many years, or decades, of effort put into keeping the scene alive and honest, just too exhausted from too long an effort against apathy. I tell myself that my involvement wouldn't be of any use at this point anyway. Maybe younger punx, their energies still fresh and undimmed from seeing their dreams decay, will carry on. For me, the noble experiment, the punk-run noncommercial club, has already turned to ashes. The brain says it still need support, but the heart is no longer in it.
The writer has been called "Donny the Punk" since 1977, when he started hanging out at CBGB's and found himself, a formerly respectable journalist and magazine writer, drawn into the maws of PUNK Magazine, from which he emerged as an unpaid zine writer, now writing a column for Under the Volcano, live reviews for Sound Views, and periodic pieces for MRR; in recent years he has also become known as a skinhead, writing for skinzines, and will happily settle for "skunk."
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