In the harsh light of day, it’s just a dingy bar on a typically miserable block of the Bowery where Bleecker Street ends, in a neighborhood known as Skid Row until the citywide proliferation of homelessness undercut its cachet.
These days, the bar is flanked by a pizza parlor on the left and an airy gallery/performance space on the right; upstairs there’s a transient hotel, the windows of which occasionally release projectile surprises to those loitering on the street.
Behind the wooden door at 315 Bowery lies a long, narrow railroad flat; the absence of natural light sources is countered by a hanging collection of old neon beer signs. Over what must be a ton of embedded staples waiting to be recycled, the walls are layered with posters, stickers and graffiti, all naming bands few people outside would recognize.
It may not sound like much, but to underground rock fans and bands over the past two decades, CBGB is home. Every night of the week, it continues to attract everyone from out-of-town tourists soaking up atmosphere (and sound pressure) by the side of the stage to jaded music-bizzers checking out their investments or talking shop in the quieter area back by the pool table, site of the clearest sight lines on nights when the place is packed.
And although CBGB has always booked bands on the way up, bands whose draw will eventually take them beyond the club’s nominal 350 capacity, there are still plenty of those nights when crowds knot every available spot in the room to see the latest buzz band.
A genuine if-walls-could-talk musical shrine, the rock history stature of CBGB puts it on par with Liverpool’s Cavern Club, San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, Los Angeles’ Whisky-a-Go-Go, New York’s Folk City and London’s Marquee Club. Twenty years after opening its doors, CBGB has not only endured in its original location but continues to thrive, remaining a crucial barometer and supporter of the latest trends in underground rock.
Enough worthy bands from all over still dream of playing CBGB and have solid local followings to warrant repeat engagements; the general popularity of “alternative rock” has made this a boom time for the club. With as many as seven bands on the nightly bill (even more on Monday, audition night), there are always plenty of losers, but it’s still the kind of place where the odds are excellent for stumbling on a musical find.
This month marked CBGB’s 20th birthday, and the club held a monthlong celebration-cum-festival. Many of the bands who came up through CBGB but outgrew the club’s limited capacity were invited back to play for old time’s sake; Collision Records installed a studio full of sound equipment in the basement to produce a live album and visual documentary that will incorporate some of the miles of vintage video footage shot at the club.
Back when owner Hilly Kristal--whose implausible preparation for punk impresariohood included a New Jersey childhood, violin lessons, a stint in Korea with the Marines, a steady gig singing bass in the Radio City Music Hall chorus and the manager’s job at the Village Vanguard--renamed his Bowery bar in December, 1973, his plan was to present country music--hence the moniker, an abbreviation for Country, BlueGrass, Blues (the “OMFUG” that completes this laughable incongruity stands for Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers).
Such miscalculation made no nevermind to New York City’s underground music scene--a small, lurid and intense community led by the outrageous New York Dolls and their sub-Warhol trash-glam set. This nervy musical subculture already had places in the city to play: the upscale, trendy Max’s Kansas City, the 82 Club, a lesbian bar, and the Mercer Arts Center. But bands kept coming out of the woodwork and the Mercer Arts Center literally collapsed.
In early 1974, Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell ran into Kristal outside CBGB and told him their band, Television, would fit his musical bill. With that small fib, America’s most influential art-rock punk outfit of the 1970s got itself a gig at the end of March. The New York scene--unsigned, largely unwanted and unfettered by tradition or popular mores--had found its home.
Soon, besides more traditional music, CBGB was regularly booking not just Television (who played there seven times in January, 1975) but also the Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads and Mink DeVille. By the end of its first full year, CBGB was a full-blown rock club.
Bassist Gary Valentine joined Blondie in 1975 and was in the group when it took part in CBGB’s two-week unrecorded band festival that summer, triple-billed one night with the Ramones and Talking Heads.
Blondie played CBGB a lot in those days. “We were living on the Bowery, a few blocks away,” recalls Valentine. In those days “we would open up for practically anybody; we were usually third on the bill and got paid next to nothing.” By 1976, the group “started collecting a big crowd” and became a headliner, soon--like other bands on the one-club Bowery circuit--to snare a record deal.
So many bands--Patti Smith, the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Dictators--were being snapped up by record labels that CBGB had trouble rounding up a strong roster for the two-disc (soon to be reissued as a single CD) “Live at CBGB’s,” recorded in June and released that fall. The album’s biggest names, now largely forgotten, were Tuff Darts (caught just before the departure of singer Robert Gordon for a ‘50s retro-rock career), the middle-of-the-road Shirts and Mink DeVille.
As the initial bands moved on, CBGB hit a lull, but it didn’t last long. The underground rock fire was spreading all over the world.
When England began sending over its contingent in ’77, the first to arrive was the adrenalized Damned, followed by X-Ray Spex, the Police and the Jam, who drew such a huge crowd that the fire marshal shut the club down for a night.
Through much of the ‘80s, CBGB’s Sunday hard-core matinees attracted the city’s young skinhead population to see local groups: Token Entry, Agnostic Front, Gorilla Biscuits, Cro-Mags, Sick of It All and Murphy’s Law. But the rest of the week still featured a wide variety of not-yet-household names, like the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Black Flag, Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Lemonheads and Living Colour.
Meanwhile, Kristal--whose first ambitious misstep, in 1977, was the disastrous CBGB Theater on Second Avenue--undertook a number of promising but ultimately unsuccessful side projects: the CBGB Record Canteen (the next-door retail store that transmuted into the Pizza Boutique) and a record label. He also continued managing bands.
In 1979, Talking Heads--already on the road to serious stardom--memorialized their humble beginnings in the song “Life During Wartime.” “This ain’t the Mudd Club,” David Byrne sang, “or CBGB,” but added, “I ain’t got time for that now.” (A decade later, journalist Roman Kozak borrowed another lyric from that number for his biography of CBGB, “This Ain’t No Disco.”)
But Byrne, now a highly regarded world culture star, has not forsaken CBGB. In October he did a couple of surprise shows there to try out new material; the Tom Tom Club--more Heads’ alumni--played two weeks to packed houses there in June ’92. Deborah Harry, the blonde of Blondie, has returned to do occasional surprise shows at CBGB; Living Colour and Helmet have never forgotten the stage of their early home base. Even Spinal Tap did a special acoustic show at CBGB last year.