News comes that CBGB’s will be revived as a festival and then a club. Investors and even old CBGB’s hands will try to bring it back to life. Whether it will be a glorious resurrection or a Frankenstein-type thing remains to be seen. CBGB’s couldn’t shine Max’s Kansas City’s shoes on most nights, but it was where I gathered to shoot the shit, mingle, and find love. It always had new blood, new wannabe groupie-types being bad in the big city. Yeah, back then I was always looking for love in the wrong kind of places…and in the wrong kind of faces.
It was long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I was at the Academy of Music—now the Palladium Housing on 14th street where Irving dead-ends. I weighed in at a buck 35, wore ripped jeans, pointy boots, and a Ramones T-Shirt; no, not one of the ones you see every day on today’s streets designed by brilliant Ramones artist Arturo Vega—it was a T-shirt an actual Ramone had worn at a show. Yeah, I had washed it, and, yeah, I was down with that. I can’t remember the big band on the big stage, but I know I was bored. So bored that I did a line with an annoying Staten Island couple. It wasn’t coke. I didn’t do much coke or any other drugs for that matter, but I knew this wasn’t it. What it was made me loopy. I ran home. Home wasn’t my walk-up in the ’30s but CBGB’s. It was there that I would hang my head and bop my head and conduct a very raw social life. I was a regular. A regular that was the subject of much debate from parental units, and old friends but rock and roll is a drug I have never been able to get off of. A couple weeks before at the dirty, dingy, rock mecca, Marky Ramone had noticed some suits watching some mullet hair-band. He pointed out the way they were standing was in the formation of bowling pins and he attempted to strike with a trademark large beer mug. I got him away before it was eight on two, which would have turned into thirty on eight, as the cavalry surely would have arrived. It was like that.
I arrived at CB’s on wobbly legs and a confused brain. I told Don, the door guy, the condition my condition was in. He put me up against a wall and told me to stand there so he could keep an eye on me. A Coke kept me occupied. As the world swirled and a rotten band screamed about how bland their suburban lives were, I noticed two hot girls chatting about me with Don. It was all eye contact, giggles, and fun, and I wanted one of them more than the Coke and the wall. The small one, all leathered and laced and bursting with…energy, came up to me and pressed up against my punk profile. Sharp black nails made her point. She looked up at me with black eyes surrounded by smeared black makeup and asked me, "Are you some sort of rock star or something, or are you just good in bed?” I replied very cleverly that "I was no rock star" and she concluded that I "must be good in bed" I won’t bore you with the next few hours. It was a typical CB’s story. A typical wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am story. My golden rule of the time was to never, ever go home with a girl whose hair could hurt you. But…rules were made to be broken. The Bowery was a littered shoreline of broken rules and hopes and dreams.
Sure, some came for the bands, and a few among the thousands who came and had their dreams shattered on the rock chops of that Manhattan stage did break on through to the other side. You know their names—they are legendary. Everyone came through CBGB’s. The good, the bad, and the ugly all had their place.
A hundred places still have a stage and a room and the ambitions to replace it, but none have come close. None had Hilly Crystal. CBGB’s without Hilly is like Casablanca’s Rick’s Café American without Humphrey Bogart’s Rick. Clubs have leaders and personalities at their helm. McDonald’s can fly without Ray Kroc and Kentucky Fried without the colonel, but Studio without Steve Rubell was never Studio. John Varvatos occupies the old space and does so without being an occupier or invader. When CB’s ended over a rent dispute, it wasn’t near as relevant as the T-shirts still seen everywhere. Everything looks good after it’s gone. Shoot, when Jim Croce died he sold zillions of records. Everyone needed his junkyard dog track after he passed—not so much before.
The CBGB’s Festival talk is about Guided By Voices and that’s a wow. Three-hundred bands will play NYC venues large and small in a CMJ Music Festival-like format. The Cro-Mags will headline a hardcore show at Webster Hall. Williamsburg venues will be included. It sounds like a great idea. Time will tell whether it will just be a bunch of entrepreneurs picking at the bones of a brand or if Hilly’s spirit will somehow be felt. Will the new CBCB’s venue capture that spirit? Is it possible to recreate spirit? I remember all those lame attempts to recreate Woodstock, which of course never happened. The energies of places happen organically. I hate that phrase—it’s so fucking crunchy—but in this case I think it applies.
The success of CB’s, the spirit of it, came of course from the boldface bands that made it famous, like The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Blondie, The Police, and such. I believe that a great deal of its spirit came from the forgotten bands who put it all in what sometimes was the pinnacle of their careers, even though their audience was sometimes nothing more than bored staff and a few drunk regulars. They had loaded up the van with dreams of super stardom and stadiums and all the trappings of fame riding with them. They mostly left those dreams and that energy and their hopes on that stage. It remained there, and those who paid attention could feel it like grandmother’s ghost at Thanksgiving dinner. How many hundreds of thousands loaded in and out? How many trips home were in silence or heated arguments? Everyone left a little behind. I suspect that the rebirth will be merely OK. It’s hard to make money on live music, so there’s a danger that the place will just flitter into a glorified T-shirt store for the tourist trade. I don’t think it will do well if it tries to go back. Tim Hayes, a principal, said somewhere, “We want to make room for some of the legends that came from CBGB, but the primary focus is to support new music.” I think that makes sense and could turn that OK into a WOW.
They’re looking to buy a building so that they aren’t plagued with big rents when they reestablish the big brand. A rent increase closed CBGB’s a year before Hilly passed. All the king’s horses came to perform at benefits to keep it going, but the neighborhood had changed and is now home to new high-rises, fine dining, and scenester bars. Only Bowery Electric, a handful of panhandling stragglers, and a sign that calls second street Joey Ramone Place remind passers-by of the glory. I can’t see neighborhoods in Manhattan relishing this type of venue near their bedrooms and suspect Greenpoint or Williamsburg will provide the answers. Manhattan and certainly the Bowery are not the creative cauldrons that fed the CB’s scene. Brooklyn can provide that.