Since its demise in 2006, the spectre of CBGB has loomed large over the musical landscape, casting a shadow on the spirit of American independent music. Now home to a John Varvatos store, the legendary club once housed fledgling acts like Talking Heads, Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, and countless others. While the club itself was the offspring of one man, Hilly Kristal, many of the acts of the day that got their start at CBGB and went on to help define a genre rose to prominence thanks to an eagle-eyed, bearded record exec/label owner named Terry Ork. Ork Records helped put artists like Television, Richard Hell, and Cheetah Chrome on the map and the film CBGB from filmmaker Randy Moore depicts the story. To give you a sense of the man himself and why this is a story worthy of being told, I caught up with Big Bang Theory actor Johnny Galecki, who portrays Ork in the film.
NERDIST: What were your experiences with punk rock growing up? Were you a punk? What kind of music were you into?
JOHNNY GALECKI: I am a fan and a follower of most of the bands that are represented in the movie. But what I didn’t know, and learned doing research, was chronologically how things unfolded early on, and therefore, who influenced who, and who supported who, and who collaborated with who, and that was very fun to learn. And really, one of the things that made me want to be a part of telling this story, too, is that I think I operated under a common misconception of when you hear or see the letters CBGB, you think of drugs and spit and mosh pits. I mean, what was happening, I think, as the years went on, it became more hardcore.
None of those initial artists who were there moved over to Max’s Kansas City, because it was just not what the initial expression was meant to be, but the fact that these people — I didn’t hear or read any tale of even a hint of competitiveness in these incredibly diverse artists. It was really a place where they collectively nurtured their own respective expression, and that was something that I found very endearing, and even heartwarming, and completely unexpected when I was learning about this iconic punk rock club. And you know, as someone who endeavors to be supportive towards his fellow actors and artists, that was a point that I really want to be a part of trying to get that across.
N: Yeah, I think that’s kind of unique, because we don’t really have something that chronicles the story of this movement, this thing that sort of gave birth to a lot of different genres and bands and influences, so many different acts that we see today. I definitely thought it was something worth telling, especially because CBGB is now the site of a John Varvatos store.
JG: [chuckles] That’s true. You know, I’ve been in there, and I have to give them credit — they pay the club homage.
N: Good! I would hope so.
JG: Yeah, absolutely. But you know, all that you’re saying I agree with, but that’s a very tall order. I knew that this was going to be a very ambitious project, because I think there are few films about music that have been made well, outside of documentaries. And I think to try to capture the essence and the energy and the spirit of CBGB in the early days was not going to be easy, and that was very exciting. I mean, to try to capture all of that chaos and unpredictability and disorganization in a format such as film, which needs to be premeditated and needs to be organized, is a very tall order. I think Jody and Randy really did a great job with it.
JG: Also, I felt like this was perfect timing. Take the young actors that played the musicians in the band Television — they had never heard of the band Television before, and twenty years ago you couldn’t have gone on the internet and stuck in these performances and really crawled into the roles of these musicians that these actors needed to. Now there’s obviously just such a wealth of that research.
N: Yeah, and I agree — it is a different world that we live in. I’m glad that we do have access to all of these things, because sometimes I just want to put on Marquee Moon but I don’t have the record nearby.
N: So Terry Ork — I feel like he is one of the unsung heroes of this whole movement, especially within the CBGB scene.
JG: I agree.
N: Ork Records, they had some really incredible acts coming out of there, like Television, the Feelies, the Marbles — so many folks. So tell me a little bit about what kind of research you did, how you prepared—I feel like he’s not a guy who gets a lot of time in the limelight.
JG: No, I was not aware of him whatsoever until I read the script, and there’s not a lot of information out there on him. So I checked with some old pals of his, and sat down with them. But what I did love about him was his generosity, and his support towards these artists. Without a lot in his own pocket to offer, just really emotionally stood by them, and offered all that he could. I was unaware of the arguing within the punk community of who deserves what credit, Terry or Hilly.
I mean, obviously Hilly deserves a whole lot of credit! At the same time, you can’t argue that the club was called Country, Bluegrass and Blues! [laughs] These initial intentions for the music that would be played there was not punk rock music, or as Terry at the time called it “new” music. So to make those introductions and to cultivate the artists that he did, I’m really glad that Terry is represented in this story. He deserves some credit, and it wouldn’t be a full or fair tale without him being a part of it.
He was also just a lot of fun in this! There was an impishness to him that I just loved, and I’m nothing if not impish, so I feel like I can contribute that, at least. [laughter] There’s also a wonderful luxury in having a blueprint of that character, and to be able to look at a picture of Terry and go, “Oh, that’s what he looked like. He had a beard. He wore scarves.” It alleviates you, as the actor, of a lot of your insecurities about “Are people going to like this creative choice for this character or not?” They can argue all they damn want! He had a beard, he wore scarves — it’s right there in the photos! [laughter]
At the same time, there is a responsibility, especially with someone who has passed. You want to pay them fair homage, if for no other reason than that would just be really bad juju to not.
N: Of course! And especially with a film like this that deals with so many figures that cut such an imposing figure on the punk landscape, I feel like there’s a certain amount of fan expectation that comes with it.
N: Were you at all intimidated when signing on to a project like this, knowing how protective over their music and stuff that people can get?
JG: Um… no. I think that onus really lands on the filmmakers. But, you know, it would be paralyzing to pay that too much attention. I know from growing up and doing live theater that you’re never going to make everyone real happy, and if you do, you’ve probably done something very safe, and therefore not worth anybody’s time, including your own.
So I’m sure people will have their expectations, both fair and unfair, but this is Randy and Jody’s — their perspective on it, their angle on what they learned, and their research is incredibly detailed and inexhaustible.
N: With a film like this, you have such huge ensemble scenes, with so many moving parts, and people in the club. I’m curious — did you have a favorite moment on set, either scripted or otherwise?
JG: Well, I was really looking forward to working with [Foo Fighters drummer and Iggy Pop in CBGB] Taylor Hawkins — I’ve been a fan of his drumming for many, many years, and I generally always have good experiences working with musicians. I think we all share a common and similar envy with one another! [laughs] It’s very interesting — I think each thinks they’d be able to express themselves in a more clean and direct manner if they were in the other’s vocation.
N: Yeah, yeah.
JG: And we’re probably completely misguided in that presumption. But working with him — and he’s great, he’s great in the movie, he’s a fantastic guy. You know, it was an interesting movie to do. The crew, for example, would say, “Boy, it’s like we’re shooting a different movie every week,” because they’d have a group of people, and one week it’s Blondie and Talking Heads, and the next week it’s the Ramones. So to get the gauge on where you fit into this is difficult and kind of a scary thing, because there was no rehearsal, there was no table reading where you could go “OK, he’s doing this, so I’m going to change what I’m doing three degrees this way. OK, she’s doing that, and I want to serve that by doing this.” You’re just kind of going blindly, and do your thing for a couple of days and go back home.
So it was really — I had fewer predictions or presumptions in watching CBGB for the first time than probably any other project that I’ve ever worked on.
N: Nice! This brings me to my last question—and sort of related to the project — because when we’re looking at this, we can kind of see CBGB as the capstone of this punk movement. Do you think that punk is dead?
JG: Well, I think everybody’s definition of it is so vastly different. You know, I was just talking to another one of the actors on the project, who grew up — he’s in his late 20’s, early 30’s, and grew up in Canada, so punk to him is Green Day. Which is not untrue, probably.
N: I know, yeah.
JG: So it all depends on what your definition of it is. I think, to me, and I think one of the things I was excited — one of the reasons I was excited to be a part of the movie, was that I think that the kind of movement that was early CBGB, is something that’s cyclical. When there’s anything that strikes a chord in pop culture, it eventually becomes — it snowballs and becomes bloated and often becomes a contradiction of what the expression was initially meant to be. It’s not a mockery of what the initial expression was meant to be. And inevitably, some others come in and trim the fat, and they boil it down to the essence of that expression.
And that’s what they did! If you look at the bands that were big at that time, like, for example, Journey was huge — and nothing against them, I’m actually a huge Journey fan — but it was, you know, laser-driven stadium rock, and that’s to run the other way, and to contradict that, is what these artists did. There’s a vast chasm, obviously, between, say, Green Day and Patti Smith. So I don’t really know how — it’s just a massive banner, a huge umbrella, that term “punk rock.”
To me, it’s really getting down to the nuts and bolts. It’s really about getting down to the real and only essential elements of the expression that you’re trying to share. And that happens — I think Jack White has been a wonderful example of that, really, for the last few years, so really, it’s cyclical. To me, that’s how I define punk, I suppose.
N: I think that is a very well-put answer and a point well taken.
JG: Well, thank you, sir!
N: Yeah! Thank you! I really appreciated the chance to talk to you today, man, and I really enjoyed you in the film, so thank you.
JG: Thanks a lot, and thank you for taking the time. Cheers, buddy!
CBGB is in theaters on October 11. Are you excited for the film? Let us know in the comments below!