Punk’s Not Dead: Talking CBGB with Joel David Moore
by Dan Casey on October 10, 2013
From 1973 to 2006, legendary punk rock music venue CBGB was a staple of the New York city musical landscape, offering a stage and an audience for bands that couldn’t be heard anywhere else. From Television to The Police, from the Dead Boys to Blondie, CBGB helped launch a generation of musicians that rebelled against the mainstream, eschewing musical norms in favor of their rawer, more impassioned sound. Now, in 2013, the club gets the big screen treatment in the aptly-named CBGB, a sitcom-like time capsule of one of the most iconic music clubs in American musical history. To take you deeper into the world that was, I caught up with Joel David Moore who put on the iconic leather jacket, t-shirt, and torn jeans to step into the role of Joey Ramone.
NERDIST: So let’s talk about CBGB, man. First and foremost, what were your experiences with punk rock growing up? Did you consider yourself a punk? What kind of music were you into?
JOEL DAVID MOORE: You know, it’s funny — when this came around, Randy Miller, the director, and I knew each other for a few years; we had done another project together. Then we were meeting on a separate project that was supposed to go before this… [shouted off to the side] Rachel!! Rachel!!
Oh my god, that’s so funny—I just saw my ex-girlfriend go by. [laughs]
N: Really? [laughs]
JDM: Yeah, that’s hilarious. Put that in the interview. OK, where were we? [chuckles] So when we were setting it up, I literally — he was like, “Now that I’m seeing you in person again, there is something that I think that I want you to do. You’re so tall and skinny, I had forgotten,” blah, blah, blah, “and you kind of remind me of this person.” And I was like, “What is it?” He said, “Do you know the Ramones? It’s Joey Ramone.”
I was like, “Do I know the Ramones? Dude, that was my band growing up!” Because I grew up in a conservative home, and because I — they wouldn’t let me have any t-shirts with skulls or crossbones — I’m a skater kid, as we all were back then, and so because I couldn’t wear anything with skulls or death or anything violent, then I was able to do this, because it was just four guys’ heads.
N: Right, right.
JDM: This outfit. It was literally just four dudes’ heads, and so my mom didn’t know that they were part of the punk movement and everything, and so that was my first experience with punk. Now you have to remember that I grew up in Portland, Oregon, so the entire Nirvana, Soundgarden — that entire Seattle movement was going on at the same time. Well, for me it was the same time, because as a 12 year old kid, I don’t know what is coming from New York and what is coming from Seattle.
JDM: But it was a really interesting way to see the decade between these two different movements, which were really part of the same punk rock movement. I mean, punk and punk rock — is there a difference, and what it was born into — the Nirvanas and everybody, all the people that came from Seattle. There’s a couple that came from Portland.
N: That’s great that you wound up playing one of the guys on your childhood t-shirt, though. When you’re playing an icon like this, it comes with certain fan expectations. Were you at all intimidated to be tackling a rock legend like this?
JDM: You know, I — when I got it, I had just finished this project called Grassroots, and Grassroots is a bio-pic that actually happened in Seattle, and a filmed version of a very interesting book, Zioncheck for President, but it was Stephen Gyllenhaal, and it was a political comedy. But it was a real book and I was playing a real person, so I had about a month to spend with this guy, Grant Cogswell, who is alive, and so — but also he’s not a notable public figure. So I could take what I got from him and then add whatever I needed to kind of develop that character into being what it was.
But with Joey, it was completely different. First of all, he’s not alive. Second of all, he’s a COMPLETELY notable public figure! And you can’t bring — you’ve got to just bring Joey — just Joey. And Joey was such an interesting character. He was such a unique, soft-spoken rock star, that was dogged and sharp-shouldered, and covering his face up with his hair and sunglasses and everything, and just didn’t want to be in the limelight, which was surprising for that time, and I actually didn’t ever notice about Joey. That he — that the rest of the group, the rest of the band, was a lot better than him at being social, quite frankly. [laughter] It was not something that he wanted to do. He started out as a drummer. They needed somebody to sing, and he could sing, and he couldn’t sing and play drums because it was a nightmare, they were always arguing about everything.
N: Yeah, they weren’t exactly the Partridge Family.
JDM: So he was like, “Fine! I’ll just go up there and I won’t play and I’ll just be up top,” and he started then to be their lead singer. And there were always issues for the band, which I think also led to his insecurities. Because here was a guy who probably already had a certain feeling about women and not being able to relate to them, because of the way he looked — he’s punked out, he’s 6’6”, skinny — and then somebody that he likes gets taken away from him and married by one of his other band members, and that right there—that’s by Johnny—that right there probably added a lot to him not …his insecurity and everything, and his feeling about life and about being a rock star. That one of the people in his band could literally do that to him.
N: I imagine that’s pretty devastating, especially when you’re this sensitive soul to begin with, which is funny to think about, because when you think about the Ramones, you don’t think about them as being particularly introspective.
JDM: Well, when you’re thinking about the Ramones, yeah — exactly.
N: So I imagine that you did a fair amount of research — it certainly sounds like you’re well versed on the ins and outs. Did you read stuff like Please Kill Me or just lots of interviews and archival footage?
JDM: Yeah, I read a bunch of different articles, a bunch of different novels, things on the internet, and I also watched documentaries, because the most important thing was that we were actually getting the essence of these guys. And in getting the essence, you have to get the look down, you have to — it was such a comfort once we could get into the leather jacket, the jeans, and the long hair wig, and the rose glasses, the circle glasses. When you got into all of these things that I had been watching for a long time, it took a lot of the pressure off, because I was like — look, I can fuck up on getting the accent right, or whatever it is, but I’m already selling to an audience, I’m about 75% there just by dressing me up, because of how it looks. So I’ve just got to work on the other 25%, and that kind of made things a bit easier.
N: Nice, nice. Taking more of the macro view about the story and the film as a whole, why do you think that this story, the story of CBGB and Hilly Kristal, is an important story to be told?
JDM: For a lot of different reasons. I think we don’t have anything like it these days, and I don’t know that we’re going to have anything again, because now the social movement has just completely destroyed the value of being able to have a punk — have a unique movement come out of grassroots-type scenarios. And you would say that we still do have musical movements, or even protest movements, with all the big 99% protest movements. It was — they’re different, because all these are social media based now. They’re all growing from a society that now thrives on social media.
Back in the day, they didn’t rely on anything. They relied on people showing up, and then word of mouth, and some posters, and graffiti, and things that we don’t use anymore. We kind of use word of mouth, but it’s really not — we’re the social media generation, and that’s how everything is going to work.
N: I think that is a point well taken. That brings me to my last question for you. Grassroots has a different meaning these days, in terms of how people are mobilized, how they’re organized. And then there’s the death of CBGB and being replaced by a John Varvatos store, or whatever the hell is there now…
JDM: …which is a perfect example of how everything goes.
N: Yeah. Exactly.
JDM: We’re literally talking about a day where the government is shut down, and we’re listening to a president, where however you feel about the government being shut down, we’re hearing the president talk about social media, and the internet, and the ways that the country is signing up for things, signing up for Obamacare — we are of the generation that understands who we are, at least. Everything is going to the internet, and to social media, and our leadership is going that way, and everything is involved, and there can’t really be a movement, a unique movement like that, because of the way that outreach works at this point.
N: Yeah. So my last question for you then: Is punk well and truly dead?
JDM: Is punk dead?
N: Yeah. That’s been a refrain for a long time now.
JDM: No, you’ve got garage bands like the Strokes — you have bands that are out there that serve the same character and feeling and genre that punk had, but you know, that’d kind of be like saying that hip-hop is dead because the beats don’t sound at all the same as when they were around in the late ’70s with the Sugar Hill Gang.
It’s not really that it’s dead, it’s that I don’t think they call it “punk” — in fact, that’s a very interesting point that I just figured out. Back in the day, you had rap. And then people started to be influenced by different things, whether it’s R&B, or whether it’s actually playing live instruments and everything, and then they called it a different word — it’s hip-hop.
JDM: It all fits. They’re still rapping. So punk movement has become garage, has become — I mean, I think there are still people that would consider themselves in the punk genre, and punk rockers. I don’t think that it will ever be — again, there was something unique about CBGB and that punk movement back in the day, and I was just with John [Holmstrom], the creator of Punk magazine, this afternoon, and he was able to be on set with us as well, and even having that magazine start — it’s the chicken and egg scenario, did Punk magazine start punk, or did punk rock or punk music start the magazine? I think they were probably lending to each other, and there was something so creative and artistic about that, and that’s what’s so beautiful about CBGB, just to do my little plug — that CBGB isn’t following the story of the Ramones. It’s not following the Blondie story. It’s not following the Dead Boys — it’s following a guy that nobody’s heard of — Hilly.
And Randy chose that because he was the glue of everything that was going on at CBGB. He was the one who formed it, he bore a child to try to actually make country and blues and bluegrass. But it became—the child that he actually bared was punk, and it became something else, and because he enjoyed music, and tried unsuccessfully for so long to start clubs, and finally had something going on and really wanted to give music a chance, and the ability for young, creative people to have a place to be creative. And sometimes you’d have somebody go up there and read a poem before they started going. It was a multi-platform idea, but it really was the beginning of punk as a movement, and probably the end of it, quite honestly, if we’re going to talk about — punk could still be alive, but that was the end of the punk movement.
N: I think that it was a very smart decision to focus on Hilly, and it’s a really interesting angle to take on the punk movement, and one that we haven’t seen before. I enjoyed the film, and thank you again for talking to me today, man — I really appreciate it.
JDM: Absolutely, Dan! Good to talk to ya!
CBGB is in theaters everywhere on October 11. Are you excited for the film? Who was your favorite group to play the legendary club? Let us know in the comments below!