CBGB's is a long black shoebox of a bar at the corner of Bleecker Street and the Bowery in New York City. Three years ago Andy Warhol, Divine and David Bowie went there to watch the kids with safety pins in their noses and torn T-shirts on their backs scream and spit on grubby musicians who took pride in sounding inept.
The stars come less often these days and tourists from Japan, France and New Jersey are sprinkled among the crowds. The bands have changed too. Second- and third-generation copies of Patti Smith, Talking Heads and Television -- all born and bred on CBGB's gritty stage -- chatter their sound across the footlights. It has become, in the words of one observer, redundant.
Last August the Urban Verbs were another opening act for a New Jersey "power pop" group called Just Water, but the Thursday night crowd, expecting warmed-over Beatles, instead were treated to a brash, intensified roar of music. The audience looked startled, then, as more people walked toward the stage, the cheers began. By the second night a capacity crowd of 450 began chanting "urbanverbs -- urbanverbs -- urbanverbs" during intermission. The five-member band from Washington was an instant success.
Brian Eno, the 29-year-old godfather of New Wave and producer for David Bowie, Talking Heads and Devo, saw the group on that second night.
"The Urban Verbs were different from the other bands I'd seen in New York. I was tremendously impressed," Eno said.
Eno was so impressed that he asked if he could arrange a taping of their music. He wanted to experiment with them, he said, and he'd pay for it himself.
In an elaborately handwritten letter certified with "This offer is fully guaranteed" stamped in the corner, Eno told the group he would produce a demo tape of two of their songs.
Band guitarist Robert Goldstein, who has been an Eno follower since the days when Eno and Bryan Ferry made Roxy Music together, said, "It was as if Stravinsky had just come up and asked to conduct my symphony."
Record company representatives -- talent scouts for the presidents and vice-presidents at Island, Sire and Warner Bros. -- came to the taping. Linda Ronstadt and critic John Rockwell showed up at the studio for the mix. New York rock-fan magazines talked up the band in their gossip columns.
While the record company executives eyed each other eyeing each other, the band tiptoed around, flirting with them all. Expectations rose. But in the end, the Urban Verbs were left to wonder just where they stood. Rock 'n' Roll Limbo
It had been only eight months since the band's debut at an artist's loft party near Dupont Circle, and, as Goldstein said later, the CBGB's success was more than they ever bargained for. After the sudden exposure and the late hours in New York, the band went home and the members sat back to wait. The record companies said they were "interested" but unavailable to come up with any immediate cash or contract. The band was told to keep on playing, keep on writing songs, keep on generating interest -- at its own expense. The Urban Verbs were in rock 'n' roll limbo. Like so many others, the Verbs had to go through the letdown.
And it has been a hard landing. From August to December the band played only six times. An important date at the Cellar Door was postponed after their bass player had to be hospitalized for a week with a virus. The Cellar Door concert, when it finally occurred late last month was a smash -- their ever-increasing number of home-town fans crammed the club, dancing in the aisles. But their rock 'n' roll equivalent of the "big time" -- that record contract and the accompanying big advance -- still appears as elusive as ever.
Singer Roddy Franz, bassist Linda France, drummer Danny Frankel and synthesizer player Robin Rose, along with Goldstein, feel that they will survive the frustration of these times.
Luckily, they can afford it.
Goldstein has been hanging art shows at Washington galleries for several years, most recently at Henri. And the recent success of Rose's exhibit of encaustic paintings at the Middendorf Gallery assures him of rent money for more than a few months to come. France, who is also an artist, recently began preparing canvases for artist Joe White. And Frankel, who is able to play anything from Calypso to Root Boy Slim, works at the Dance Project. Only Franz, who recently quit his job at Garfinckel's, is out of work.
"Look, we never made any money off the band anyway," Goldstein said. "We often spend more money getting ready for our shows than we get out of them."
At a recent benefit for the Corcoran School of Art, the band made $250. "But it must have taken 40 hours of work just setting that all up," Goldstein adds, "when you only play two times in a month, you are not in it for the money."
The members say they are in it for their music, of which they are fiercely proud. Talking out of the side of his mouth like the characters in "Little Caesar" that flicker on the television set before him, Franz insists their music is not punk. "Punk, I don't have a real meaningful idea of what that means."
Gathered in Rose's Adams-Morgan apartment, the band members extoll the virtues of their music. "It is the essence of the city -- like urban renewal but not so liberal," Franz said.
"Our music is based on restraint," Goldstein explains. "Or rather, restrained abandonment."
"It is a statement of the condition of things. It is hyperrealism." Rose adds.
"Pensive people lead lonely lives. Like characters in a modern novel They like to sit with a glass of brandy Just listening to their radios ."
Copyright Digital Music 1978
The Verbs' music and lyrics are relentless, oppressive and loud. With a thickly layered pattern of guitar, drums and synthesizer harmonies which the band calls its "symphony of sounds," the music pumps out a bazookalike attack on the audience. Franz sings in a monotone, and at times, the music is straight from the Velvet Underground.The effect, Eno says, is "devastating."
"Their music is by far the most interesting we've heard lately," said Steve Baker, who, as an assistant to Warner Bros., vice-president Jerry Wexler has listened to the Urban Verbs tape as he has so many others. Unsigned Contract
But with four other people in his office here and on the West Coast who would have to approve of the music of the Urban Verbs before Warner Brothers would sign them, Baker is vague about what precisely it will take before The Contract happens.
Other artists and repertory representatives from Sire, Island and Columbia, whose job it is to find the "hits" among the thousands of tapes sent to record companies each week are equally cryptic.
At Island Records, where A & R assistant Maxanne Sartori carries her Urban Verbs tape with her on out-of-town trips, president Chris Blackwell must hear the tape before anything can be done. "And he's almost never here to listen," Sartori said.
"There is no tangible thing, no prerequisite for this band or for any other that leads to getting signed," Baker said. "Technically, if a band has got a lot of merit, it's worth signing. But you never know what's going to happen."
"You know, you always hear things all the time about the record companies who see a band that is hot s--t who see a band that is hot s--t and bam, they just sign them," Goldstein said. "Then it's club dates, a tour, two or three records. Maybe our music is just so bizarre, they don't know what to do with it."
Goldstein is frustrated by Baker's reaction. As self-appointed manager of the group, he has spent hours at the phone, calling clubs in Washington and New York, calling record companies to remind them of their tape, and scurrying for free-lance jobs to pay the bills.
But there are few available dates for their kind of music. Problems with the "punk element" attracted to the Urban Verbs' performances have slowed bookings, according to Atlantis club owner Paul Parsons. "The type of crowd that the Verbs were appealing to were people who were not good revenue for the club. Those kids are really anti-capitalistic and feel club owners should not be in it for the money but for the music." Verbal People
Only in New York, where the avantgarde has been more aggressively promoted, do they find solace. A recent date at CBGB's with B-52, the hottest new-wave band in New York, expanded their audience, and with Goldstein tinkering with deals at Hurrah's and Max's Kansas City, the band is optimistic. To a point.
"Sure we've got a case of the nerves," Goldstein said. "If I look at it all rationally, four months ago I never thought I'd be here today. But after we get all this attention -- and it's not phony attention.Eno knows what he is doing."
After Eno spent a week polishing the Verbs' tape, however, he took off for Switzerland to record David Bowie. And the last they heard he was on a plane to Bali.
"The Verbs are real intelligent and real verbal people," said Sartori. "And that helps. I mean, who wants to deal with morons?" It was Eno who called Sartori in August to invite her to the taping session. She was impressed, but she too, is waiting before any official sanction can be given to them by Island. "They are very persistent and that helps. I think their music is very good, but I'd like to hear more stuff on tape."
"Look, if you had eight tapes on your desk, and you knew one was produced by Eno, it would be the first one you'd listen to," Baker said.
"But the time is passed when we are going to take a band that may be good in three records," he adds. "It's just too expensive now to do that. The company has tightened its regulations for signing new groups. We've got to be more selective.
"The Verbs tape was very good -- the production on 'Next Question' was amazing. And good production and good management is essential. If you would guarantee Eno would produce them, then we could work something out with them.
"They're doing all the right things, they're booking themselves in good situations in New York, they're available," Baker said. "We just are taking no further action at this time."
The Verbs continue to push. Goldstein, dubbed the Kosher Fuerher by his fellow musicians, is busy clipping and sending stories about the Verbs to record companies.
"I just wish it were more concrete with them," Goldstein said. "I know people are interested, but, but, but...
"Everything has changed for us but absolutely nothing has changed at all."