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The last night outside of CBGB, NYC, October 15, 2006.
Photograph: By Bob Gruen | The last night outside of CBGB, NYC, October 15, 2006.

NYC’s legendary CBGB still leaves a powerful legacy 50 years later

An homage to the now-shuttered birthplace of punk.

Alessandra Schade
Written by
Alessandra Schade

In December of 1973, on the corner where Bleecker Street collided into the graffitied skid row of the Bowery, Hilly Kristal opened CBGB, a skunky neighborhood dive bar.

Fifty years later and 17 years since its marquee shuttered, the defunct music club at 315 Bowery still embodies the legacy of the punk scene which grew, prospered and died on the filthy streets of pre-gentrified Downtown Manhattan.

But in the winter of ‘73, CBGB was fresh to the block—a particularly miserable street of the Bowery, nestled just south of Astor Place—where the buildings were lower, the rents were cheaper and the cast of characters were drunker.

Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers

Shaggy-haired Hilly had repurposed his joint “Hilly’s on Bowery” to “CBGB & OMFUG,” short for “Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers,” hoping to host country and bluegrass, though his spot quickly became home to the abrasive, no-wave music of punk groups like Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads and the Ramones.

Beer signs lit up in neon plastered the place, from the low-slung door down into the cavernous saloon. “You don't want to know the smell,” iconic punk photographer Bob Gruen teases. “Hilly had two dogs that he kept as guard dogs and they didn't get walked,” he says. “There were lumps around in the corners and stuff that you didn't want to step in. That was part of the ambiance.”

Gruen describes Hilly’s oversight “as if your parents go out of town and leave your uncle in charge. He doesn't really want to talk to you.” Adding: “He just wants to drink beer and watch TV. But you kids can go into the basement and do anything so long as you don't break anything or get into a fight.”

Most club owners strive to make their clubs successful. Hilly was just looking to have a couple of beers and watch TV. 

“Most club owners strive to make their clubs successful,” Gruen tells Time Out New York. “Hilly was just looking to have a couple of beers and watch TV.” When he first opened the club, he befriended the local Hells Angels crew who would come in, play pool and buy a few beers. “That was enough for him. Hilly just wanted to pay rent.”

“Hilly was a loose guy that let the bands play, even if he didn't like them,” Roberta Bayley, who worked the front door at CBGB and dated Television’s frontman Richard Hell, says. “He would say, ‘Well, you're terrible. But you can play here.’” Famously, that was what he said to the Ramones.

(L-R) Jerry Harrison, David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads on stage at CBGB, NYC. August 1977.
Photograph: By Bob Gruen | (L-R) Jerry Harrison, David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads on stage at CBGB, NYC. August 1977.

A home for 'weirdos playing their own music'

In the early ‘70s, CBGB was the only New York venue ready to give new bands somewhere to play. “Everybody was desperate,” Bayley says. At the time, bands were only allowed to play cover songs at clubs—top 40 hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s. “Mustang Sally,” “Runaround Sue,” were the kinds of songs that patrons wanted to dance to, Gruen explains.

“There weren't any clubs that would let you play original music. Who would want these weirdos playing their own music?” Bayley jokes.

At a dire time, especially after the collapse of the anything-goes Mercer Arts Center—home to the glitter scene of Jayne County and The New York Dolls—Hilly gave the unsigned no-name bands of NYC a stage.

As noble as this edict may sound, having only original music was the economical choice and not the drum-thumping mission of an anti-capitalist. Shortly after Hilly opened, “he got a visit from two representatives for ASCAP and BMI,” says Gruen. They warned him that everytime a band played a copyrighted song, he'd have to pay a fee. “So one of the rules of CBs in the beginning was that bands had to play original music, which was the opposite of the rules of every other club,” Gruen says. “It was a cost-saving thing, but that's what made CBs.”

Word spread in the downtown art scene that CBGB was the messiah of punk. Initially, it was a humble revolution. In early 1974, Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell convinced Hilly to let Television join the club’s bill. Later that year, the Stilettos and the Ramones joined Television onstage. Then, 1975 saw the Patti Smith Group’s debut, and Legs McNeil’s seminal magazine Punk codified the term “punk rock.” CBGB was suddenly the epicenter of the downtown music scene, booking The Heartbreakers, Mink De Ville, Talking Heads, Suicide, and Blondie. The New York punk scene—contractless and largely unwanted—had finally found its home.

From bands with 'no commercial potential' ...

In the first year, the bands that played “had no commercial potential,” Gruen says. The music was loud, jarring, and widely experimental, making a clear break from the easy-listening of corporate rock. By the mid-70s, rock ‘n’ roll had become the commonwealth of bourgeois professionals playing 10-minute songs to sold-out arenas. By contrast, the youthful acts taking over CBGB’s stage were delivered by punks and delinquents whose sets ranged from outrageous performance art to hair-raising screams. Jayne County, who was then billed as Wayne County, “comes out in a wedding dress and pours blood on themself and says, ‘Wash me in the blood of rock and roll,’” Gruen remembers, with a chuckle.

The not-yet-household-name bands were notoriously bizarre and often downright bad. “Famously Clive Davis told Lisa Robertson, ‘Don't talk about those bands above 14th Street, no one wants to know,’” Gruen says. Ironically, Davis did come downtown and signed Patti Smith. “In the end, I guess he did want to know,” Gruen poses, laughing.

“In the beginning, CBGB was very ill-attended,” Bayley says. “It was just band members, their friends and their girlfriends.” Gruen adds: “It wasn't that serious. It was just fun.”

“Nobody was looking for world domination. If you met a girl or somebody liked your brand and bought you some drinks—that was a good night,” Gruen says. “Nobody was expecting to make a lot of money or become famous.”

CBGB symbolized a battle between this edgy surge of no-wave art and the rock that was yet to be co-opted by uptown institutions. “You have to remember that in the ’60s there was a feeling of not wanting to sell out or be a part of the establishment,” Gruen says. “We were the outcasts from your high school, the art nerds who hung out at CB’s and now everyone’s thinking that that was a cool place,” Gruen says. “We weren’t considered the cool kids at the time.”

... To Blondie, Patti Smith and the Ramones 

While it’s easy to glamorize the creative and financial hustle of the young and rebellious ’70s scene, the struggle was nonetheless real. “We were a community struggling together,” Gruen remembers. “When Patti Smith was on stage, the audience would be Blondie, the Heartbreakers, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and the other bands.

“And then the next week Blondie would be on stage and Patti Smith would be in the audience.” Gruen jokes: “you couldn’t wear the same outfit you wore last week.”

By the end of its first year, CBGB was a full-fledged rock club. By the summer of ’75, the motley crew of bands and their entourages had tripled in size and the crowd morphed into something way bigger. That summer, CBGB was “written up in Soho News, The Voice and the British press,” Chris Stein, founder and guitarist of Blondie, says. “It all kicked off after that.”

The cavernous room would get so humid from the sweat of the roiling audience that the gaffer tape pipes that lined the ceiling would drip the liquid back down on them. “You weren't really sure what was dripping,” Gruen says laughing. “The club started getting so crowded.” Within a few weeks of a particularly packed out set by the Runaways, Hilly took out the kitchen and back rooms to expand the club.

You weren't really sure what was dripping. The club started getting so crowded.

As the years went on and bands filtered in and out, the sounds of punk splintered into a more hardcore variety. Through much of the ’80s, CBGB became home to death metal, hardcore punk, post-punk, and math rock. Sunday hardcore matinees named “thrash days” attracted the city’s young and volatile skinhead community. The experimental stage of CBGB became home to the Beastie Boys, Murphy’s Law, Agnostic Front, Sick of it All, Youth of Today, Bad Brains, Gorilla Biscuits, and Misfits.

And through its hardcore makeover, CBGB always remained pretty much the same, no-name bands filtering in through the weekdays and launching the careers of those that hit a nerve.

“Hilly kept the place the same,” Gruen says. “As some of the bands got more popular and moved away, it went back to unknown bands playing for their friends. But even towards the end, there was always someone I knew going back to play a show. And it was always a reason, every couple of months, to go back to CBGBs.”

33 years of grunge and grit 

CBGB was open for 33 years, seven nights a week. Hilly kept the doors open on Christmas and New Year’s Eve—any evening that held the possibility of cashing a check.

“If each band would bring four or five friends who would buy beers, he was happy with that,” Gruen says. “Packing the place out every night would almost be like work. And he really didn't want to have to do that.”

As New York changed radically over the decades, CBGB remained a grungy, noisy bedrock of the community, clinging to its title as the cradle of punk. The aesthetic of the ’70s downtown art scene, ever urgent and gritty, could always be found when you swung open the door and got hit with the smell of whiskey-soaked floors.

When the club’s eviction order became incontestable in 2006, CBGB alumni flooded the stickered-and-graffitied halls of the club to pay their respects. In the final weeks, Bad Brains and the Dictators played several shows and Blondie returned for an acoustic set. Patti Smith invited Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Television's Richard Lloyd to serenade mournful listeners in an epic near-four hour set. On October 15, 2006, upon Patti Smith's last song “Elegie,” the storied rock club closed its doors for good.

Like any heirloom of a golden age, in the years following CBGB’s closure, its remaining pieces were stripped down and sold for parts. The iconic awning was sold to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; Target opened a tribute store in the East Village to a grim reception; Randall Miller’s CBGB starring Alan Rickman was released to harsh reviews; and the venue remained open as CBGB Fashions, moving locations and then closing in 2008.

Hilly Kristal died from complications of lung cancer on August 28, 2007, with a private memorial service held in the nearby YMCA.

In April of 2008, John Varvatos opened a flagship location in the original CBGB, saving the punk institution from being turned, sacrilege of sacrileges, into a bank. Though, considering a sweater here retails for $598, the store is decidedly un-punk.

“It was right place, right time,” Gruen says. “I don’t know if it could work in the city now because Manhattan is so expensive … but there are places in Brooklyn where kids are having fun and experimenting, playing their own music.”

It was right place, right time. I don’t know if it could work in the city now because Manhattan is so expensive … but there are places in Brooklyn where kids are having fun and experimenting, playing their own music.

With escalating rents, the unique storefronts and venues of the city’s downtown streets continue to be systematically pushed out by global chains and luxury retailers. But the ethos of New York City punks that may not always be found in neighborhood haunts and hangouts are thriving in the D.I.Y. spaces of young music lovers. However, locales like Rubulad, Trans Pecos, TV Eye, and Wet Spot have helped to redefine what punk venues look like today. Born out of this voracious corporate takeover of Downtown Manhattan, the punk scene has migrated into the unconventional and often unauthorized spaces in the homes, basements, warehouses, backyards, and rooftops of East Brooklyn.

For three decades, CBGB provided shelter, beer, and a mic for the itinerant punk and no-wave community looking for a home. In 2024, if a music club isn’t fitting the bill, maybe your friend’s backyard will do.

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