Proud to Be Punk

Karen Baskett at the Gramercy Park Hotel, back in the day
Photo by Paul Kirk

Proud to Be Punk

CBGB Manager Karen Baskett (’79)

For music fans who attended Baruch in the late 1970s, the city’s burgeoning punk rock scene provided an interesting counterpoint. For Karen Baskett (’79), who witnessed just about every seminal punk and New Wave act that came through New York as co–day manager of the late, lamented landmark CBGB, that scene played a huge part in her life.

Born in Manhattan, the precocious Baskett began studying at the Manhattan School of Music at age five and graduated from high school at 15. A natural singer, she hoped to study music at Oberlin or another music school, but none would accept a voice student younger than 18. So she enrolled at Baruch as a music major, part of a tiny minority in those days. Around the same time—though she was classically trained—Baskett became fascinated with the do-it-yourself aesthetic of punk rock and musicians who played because they loved it.

She began seeing live music at various venues, most notably CBGB, where just about every punkish band played at some point. The late Hilly Kristal, the club’s legendary founder and owner, wound up hiring her as co-manager because he knew she had a good ear. “I was the club girl,“ she says. “I saw all the bands and knew who was improving, who was going somewhere.” For example, “I knew Talking Heads would be big, because they were interesting and different and David Byrne was brilliant.” In addition to her other duties at CBGB, she was responsible for its much admired and imitated jukebox.

During that time, she had the ear of A&R people at record labels who took her advice (or sometimes didn’t, often to their regret) about which acts to sign. She also managed, tour-managed, and even roadied for various acts, including the Cryers, Orchestra Luna, and the Shirts.

Meanwhile at Baruch, “I took advantage of classes in accounting and law because I had to deal with contracts,” she says. She also became the Ticker’s music editor, mainly to write about all the bands she was seeing. She recalls covering a rare nonmusical act, Monty Python, when the comedy troupe’s show first aired on U.S. television. Baskett later met John Cleese et al., when they came to New York to tape a TV appearance, and made sure to give them a copy of her Ticker article. While at Baruch, she pioneered another effort: along with her friend Evie, she opened the all-male fencing team to women.

Though she no longer works in the music business, frustrated by its excesses and lack of foresight, Baskett is a wealth of information and amazing memories: She remembers seeing the legendary New York Dolls playing the equally legendary Max’s Kansas City in July 1976; she saw Madonna’s very first concert (at the club Interferon) a few years later. “I knew she’d do anything to make it, so I knew she’d be successful,” Baskett says. “If you really want it, you can make it,” she says of driven musicians in general, an aphorism that is as true today as it was back then.

Marina Zogbi

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