CBGB's and New York: "Thank You & To Hell With Nostalgia"

Jason Gross
Sham 69 [Live @ CBGB - 28 August 2005] Photo: Jason Gross

Leaving little but ashes in New York, the CBGB 'phoenix' may rise, again, like it or not... in the desert.

"... Many friends of mine who are in their mid-40s-mid '50s... believe that it (CBGB's) should remain open on principle -- but these folks are really just mourning their youth."

-- writer Rob Kemp, mailing list posting, October 16, 2006

"I don't understand why New Yorkers are so casual while our politicians destroy every landmark they can.... Nothing is safe... No wonder everyone says NYC is dead and it's all mall-culture now."

-- Shauna Erlbaum, letter to AM New York about CBGB's closing, October 19, 2006

When punk ground-central CBGB's was getting ready to permanently shut its doors and ship them to Las Vegas, one thing was for sure: just like the Iraq war, nobody had a weak-kneed, faint-hearted opinion about it, good or bad. If anyone needs proof that there really is punk nostalgia, you wouldn't have to go any further than the sweet send-offs from Lenny Kaye in the Village Voice or Richard Hell in The New York Times. On the other end, you had roadie David Idels who hauled equipment through the club for decades, fanatically wishing that "somebody would firebomb that shithole and that fat-fuck dirtbag Hilly would die of cancer." No doubt agreeing with him would be a student in writer Vivien Goldman's NYU punk class who scoffed at how "un-punk" it was for people to get all pathetically weepy over a decades-old club that's well past its prime. Any way you looked at it, things were changing for the music scene in New York and what happened to CBGB's was emblematic of this.

With all the simultaneous melancholy and cheering about CBGB's, it's hard to remember that the club didn't exactly put NYC on the musical map. In the days before recorded music, the songwriting stronghold of Tin Pan Alley provided America with some of its most popular tunes. Later on, styles such as modern musical theatre, salsa, bebop, minimalism, and free jazz were for all intents and purposes birthed in Gotham, while dance music from swing to disco was also popularized there -- and all happening years before punk rock. That isn't even mentioning a now-global phenomenon called rap which was also sprouting up around the same time as punk. New York wasn't so much one of the major cities / markets for music so much as a hub where musicians could gravitate, soak in the enormity of the surrounding culture, make a name for themselves, and cause ripples outside of their own time zone.

And it wasn't just various styles that turned NYC in an embarrassment of musical riches; it was also the venues. Legendary, larger-than-life concert spaces like Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall, Birdland, Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, the Apollo Theatre, the Kitchen, Brooklyn Academy of Music (all of which preceed CBGB's and are still active today) and dozens of Broadway theatres all draw in renowned performers from across the globe. And so did CBGB's.

Before any punk band stepped into the club, owner Hilly Kristal had a different vision for what he wanted. He'd opened two bars before CBGB's, one in the West Village which was closed after complaints from the area (which echoed a similar scenario recently played out with the same result). When CBGB's itself opened in December '73, the Lower Eastside area it called home was a scary, scummy place. Regardless of the inelegant locale, Kristal set up shop and made it tacitly obvious as to what he originally had in mind: "CBGB's" stands for "Country Bluegrass Blues." But a roots music club wasn't meant to be there. Only a few months after it opened, Hell and Tom Verlaine would play their first gig there with their band Television and soon after, the local music scene congealed and then exploded.

But it wasn't as if CBGB's was alone in giving a home to the early NYC punk bands, but besides Max's Kansas City, farther uptown at Union Square, there weren't many places for the groups to play their original music at the time. Max's had originally opened in '65 as an artsy hangout (Lou Reed played his last gigs with the Velvet Underground there in '70) and shut down in '74 just as CBGB's was starting to make a name for itself. Max's opened again in '75 and remained a second punk outpost until it closed in '81. In recent phone interviews, Hell and Kaye recalled the early days of the two clubs.

Kaye: "In their heyday, there was a constant stream of people walking from one club to the other. Max's and CBGB's were magnetic poles of 70's rock, but Max's bands did more traditional rock while CBGB's bands had a broader spread. Still, you could find friends who were playing at one place or the other."

Hell: "CBGB's had less character (than Max's) -- only the bands brought character there. It was just an anonymous dump run by a guy . . . we were all lucky that he went with the flow."

That flow stemmed from the way that Kristal not only let the bands pick the opening acts to share the bill with them, but also what songs were going to be on the jukebox and even who was collecting money at the door. The groups would even swap members or break off into new bands. A scene developed where the 'punk' label was slapped on it even though you'd have to search hard to find a more disparate group of bands; an amazing role-call of talent which included Television, the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Other than the success and / or recognition they achieved, what also made these groups unique were that they were enormously influential, even today. You might even call them visionaries. New York had built up a music scene that wasn't just getting national attention but also international recognition, especially in England, whose own punk scene would have been unimaginable otherwise.

Soon, CBGB's would become a magnet for bands and fans alike. It wasn't just the Christmas lights strung across the top of the bar or the long cavernous hall leading to the stage or the elevated platform for mersh and viewing in the back that drew people in. Looking around the club, you'd see thousands of stickers and flyers for bands which covered the walls, the speakers, the bar; everywhere except the floor and ceiling. Most clubs would quickly tear these down but CBGB's didn't. It was part of the grimy, inelegant flavor of the place and a constant reminder of the volume of groups that played there. Its reputation kept getting built upon as its flagship bands signed major label deals and made it to the airwaves. Playing CBGB's became a must for any up-and-coming punk band, if not to be recognized at the fabled venue but then at least to say "we played at CBGB's!" just as any jazz musician would brag about a Blue Note gig or a classical ensemble could include Carnegie Hall on its resume. CBGB's was no longer a club, it was a shrine.

But you know what happens to shrines. As documented in recent film American Hardcore, another local music scene built up around the club in the '80s but this was one that Kristal didn't willfully embrace as he did before. By the close of the decade, he was banning hardcore shows from the club because of fears of violence, which just goes to show that bands can go too far, even for a punk club.

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