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Save the last slam dance for me at CBGB

Times Staff Writer

A sultry dusk settled over the neighborhood where Bleecker Street runs into the Bowery, and Ana Samcho, 22, was nervous. She was to fly home to Portugal in four days, hadn’t made it yet to CBGB, the famous East Village punk dive, and advance tickets for the night’s lineup were gone.

So Samcho and a friend joined a rogues’ gallery of fashion misfits hoping enough $25 tickets were left for them to get in to see Sham 69, Flipper and three other bands.

“This place is such a legend,” Samcho said, explaining why a Portuguese tourist put CBGB on her “must-see” list of New York sites. “So many people have played here. The role this place has played is so important in the whole musical world.”

Samcho got a ticket. But how much longer others will be able to make a pilgrimage to the home of American punk has become the hot topic of speculation in New York’s musical counterculture, where the “question everything” ethos has extended to wondering whether CBGB is even worth saving when its lease expires today.

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Or, to paraphrase a song by the Clash, which once played here, should the club stay, or should it go?

“There’s nothing left, man,” said Paul DiSilvio, 39, a Queens teacher and CBGB veteran who considers the current crop of punk acts mere pretenders to the throne once occupied by the likes of Johnny Thunders and Bad Brains. “There’s no bands anymore, so why do you need a venue to play?”

The problem is nothing more exciting than a lease dispute. CBGB owner Hilly Kristal rents the space from the nonprofit Bowery Residents Committee, which houses down-and-outers in the building’s upper floors. The landlord recently lost a legal effort to evict CBGB when a judge determined that because Kristal had been improperly billed, he didn’t owe $91,000 in back rent. But with the lease expiring, the landlord can still sign a new tenant and oust the club, or raise the $19,000 monthly rent to a level that would force Kristal out.

Kristal, who is traveling this week, couldn’t be reached for comment, but club spokesman Scott Goodstein said CBGB has offered to pay the back rent despite the court ruling, accept a 15% rent hike and sponsor a series of concerts to raise funds to help the homeless. He said the club had not heard back yet from the landlord, and would likely fight any eviction proceedings.

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A message left at the Bowery Residents Committee was not returned.

Goodstein said that CBGB, with a capacity of 300, remains a key steppingstone for new bands not ready for larger venues, and is a home for bands not angling for a place on the charts.

“CBGB’s has always fit as a key piece of the counterculture,” he said.

Yet one of the ironies of punk -- and there are many -- is that this cave of a birth chamber hasn’t been musically relevant for years. It might have launched the likes of Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, Patti Smith and the Ramones, but that was a long time ago, a point made clear in recent weeks as three decades of punk performers have taken the plywood stage in a nightly series of “Save CBGB” concerts.

The audience Sunday was a mix of the faithful and the curious. Balding gray-haired men whose leather jackets no longer cover paunchy bellies bounced to frenetic beats next to chicly thin, tattooed youngsters. Next door at the affiliated CBGB Gallery, the bartender reported he had sold $3,000 in T-shirts and other mementoes, and only about $600 in drinks, making the bar a souvenir stand with a liquor license.

CBGB, which stands for Country Blue Grass Blues, opened in 1973 as a country bar on the first floor of a classic Bowery flophouse. But the rough-edged neighborhood spawned a different kind of music, loud and aggressive, and the club reflects the down-and-out, visceral elements of punk. Black-painted walls are covered in places with unfinished plywood, the ancient wooden floor is uneven and an accretion of posters and band stickers covers everything. The doorless basement bathrooms, reached by walking past the stage to a rear stairwell, belong in one of Dante’s circles of hell, and the place smells like it hasn’t been cleaned since Nixon resigned.

Sunday, as onetime Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers’ guitarist Walter Lure led his current band, the Waldos, in a set, ‘90s punk band Green Day was sealing its comeback by sweeping the MTV Video Music Awards in Miami, illustrating how far popular music has evolved while CBGB has rooted itself to the past.

“The thing about punk,” DiSilvio said before the show, “was not to turn things into shrines.”

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For the time being, business is booming, and Kristal has booked acts well into September. Longtime patron Phil Lenihan, 52, said the club has reclaimed its legendary energy.

“People have come out of the woodwork and played for what amounts to expenses to help,” Lenihan said, sipping from an Amstel Light as the Waldos set up on stage.

Yet Lenihan didn’t hold out much hope the club will survive. The Bottom Line, a famous rock and folk club a few blocks away, closed last year after it couldn’t negotiate a new lease with landlord New York University. CBGB confronts similar pressures in a neighborhood where gentrification has been elevating the standard of living from skid row to condo.

“It’s questionable whether this building will even be standing,” Lenihan said, citing a new nearby co-op development with price tags topping $3 million. “I think New York would miss it.... And any time a live music venue closes, it’s a blow.”

Meanwhile, the concerts continue in what punk guitarist George Tabb, 43, of the hard-core band Furious George described as a “reunion” for legions of punks who found acceptance amid the stink and anger of CBGB.

“We were all the misfits,” said Tabb, whose credits include a short stint with the Ramones. “It’s a very special thing to stand on that stage.”


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