"I like songs that say something, give an emotion," said 54-year-old Karen Baskett, a lifelong champion of music from the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea. "I don't have time for Hanson."
After studying as a voice major at the Manhattan School of Music and receiving her bachelor's degree from Baruch College's Weissman School of Arts & Sciences, Baskett can school anyone on music. She has, after all, devoted her life to the subject. Once CBGB founder Hilly Kristal appointed Baskett co-day manager of the club at the age of 18, not a single smarmy music executive was safe.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Baskett to learn more about her musical history and her exposure to the underground punk scene as a teenager in the 1970s. Baskett has a distinctive perspective to offer people of our generation.
Before joining the crew behind New York City's most notorious music club – its name referred to Country, Blue Grass and Blues – Baskett nourished her craving for live music by frequenting venues of the local punk scene. According to a diary that documents every rock show she attended, Baskett saw roughly 7,000 performances over three years.
"In order to know what's good, you have to hear everything," Baskett said.
Tired of working exclusively with classical music, Baskett immersed herself in the electric sound of the underground to cultivate a greater taste for the craft. As she trolled around CBGB and Max's Kansas City, another famed music club, the naïve Baskett enlisted a groupie friend to be her guardian angel in these debased temples of music worship – to help protect her faith, she said.
"For me, it wasn't really all about getting out, getting laid, or getting high," Baskett said. "It was all about the music."
When Baskett started working at CBGB in 1976, she welcomed the charming quirks and tiresome challenges that came with the position. With her finger on the pulse of CBGB's inner workings, she dealt with the bands booked to play each night and placed phone calls to manage affairs with performers. She also watched the sets of some impressive punk acts, including X-Ray Spex and Cryers, to continue her music studies.
Baskett gushed about these memorable performances: "What I felt at the time must have been what it was like at the Cavern Club in the 1960s," she said. While rubbing elbows with famous rock stars like Keith Richards and Joni Mitchell, Baskett entertained her musical curiosity and exchanged notes with these prominent artists.
The city scene was not always glamorous; Baskett faced many trials that tested her loyalty to music. She recalled how a certain punk icon once threatened her with a knife during a show at Max's, but laughed, "Oh, please, as if someone from Forest Hills could ever scare someone who lived in Harlem."
Unfazed by the glamour that often eclipses the rock star lifestyle, Baskett always expressed her cutting expertise to CBGB's regulars and unqualified artists & repertoire representatives who signed bands without reputable judgment of their music. Though she worked to defend respectable no-name bands and help them break out into the mainstream, Baskett too often witnessed the demise of bands she deemed to be brilliant artists.
"When you try to launch a career [in the music industry], you need to focus on your goal and you need to keep that focus," Baskett advised. "How can you possibly focus when you're f----- up?"
After working at Kristal's tiny club for two years, Baskett finally left CBGB behind to serve as tour manager for the short-lived Cryers.
"[CBGB] was a bar. Their thing was not the music. Their thing was selling booze," she said.
In spite of the frustration and heartache she associates with the club, which closed in 2006, Baskett will forever be a student of music.
"It was my desire to hear every band," she admitted. "And at one point, I did."