The day last week that I learned of the death of Pete Perrone, former owner and founder of Mohawk Place, I happened upon the film “CBGB” on Netflix, and figured, what the hell, I’m beat and a little depressed, I might as well watch the thing. I’m glad I caved in.
I’d hesitate to call it a great film – many liberties were taken with the life of CBGB founder Hilly Kristal, despite his being rather brilliantly played by British actor Alan Rickman. And it is always strange to watch actors mime to prerecorded music, particularly when that music is Television, the Dead Boys or the Ramones. But something about “CBGB” struck me as incredibly poignant.
Rickman’s portrayal of Kristal had captured some of the essence of Perrone. It wasn’t in the New York City bohemian caricature that the droll Rickman so expertly crafted. It wasn’t in the graphic depiction of that era’s poverty and destitution, right around the time Gerald Ford had told New York to “drop dead,” vetoing an aid package to spare the five boroughs from bankruptcy. It wasn’t in the way that Kristal made such a financial mess out of what could have been a relatively healthy business.
No, it was in the way that Kristal opened his club to neighborhood musicians, took a chance on sounds that he seemed to routinely find fairly appalling and offered what we now call punk rock a manger in which to be born and swaddled. (“CBGB” stood for “Country Bluegrass and Blues,” before Kristal caved and added “OMFUG,” meaning “Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers.”)
“There’s something there,” Kristal mutters in the film, after auditioning nascent versions of now-legendary punk/new wave outfits like Television, the Ramones and the Dead Boys. “There’s something there.”
This simple declarative summons is the image of Perrone that I will keep with me. Surely, it’s an image that bears a strong resemblance to the one conjured by the imaginations and memories of several hundred veterans of the Buffalo music scene.
Perrone, like Kristal, was not always a fan of the genres of music heard in Mohawk Place. But he was excited about giving the music, and the people who played it, a chance. I can see him now, hanging near the club door, ready to greet all comers, his ’50s pompadour resplendent as ever, shirt sleeves rolled up just once into a cuff, pack of cigarettes in the left front pocket of his shirt, bemused half-grin on his face. I never made it by Perrone without a hug and a handshake. I was far from alone in this.
Perrone loved rockabilly and roots music. The night rockabilly legend and rock progenitor Link Wray played Mohawk Place was quite likely one of the happiest nights of his life. He was positively glowing, and his club was packed to the rafters. That was his music. The punk, alternative and indie-rock that would fill the Mohawk roster much of the rest of the time? Not so much.
But Perrone had the courage, dignity and class to look beyond his personal tastes toward the music that was being produced by mostly young musicians in the community that Mohawk Place was a part of. Like Kristal, he helped birth a strong, resilient – if small – music scene, simply by virtue of offering that scene a building in which to be born.
Our music scene remains segregated along stylistic lines. The hippies go to Nietzsche’s and Duke’s Bohemian Grove Bar; the indie-rockers and punks favor places like the Waiting Room; the Americana and roots music folks are loyal to the Sportsmen’s Tavern; and the EDM “kids” think the whole lot of the above are old and out of touch, and that anyone who still believes that “real music” needs to be made with guitars and drums is about as relevant as a VCR.
As someone who routinely crosses the tracks to go where the music leads me, I see this attitude all the time. It can be hugely entertaining to observe, but beyond a doubt, it is unhealthy.
I don’t think any of this is in the spirit of Perrone, who looked beyond his personal tastes toward something more unifying and less judgmental. If Perrone had said “Only rockabilly and early rock ’n’ roll in my club,” we would all be so much poorer for it. Instead, he saw that there was “something there,” and his belief helped to birth a scene.
We should remember and celebrate Pete Perrone by doing the same.