MUSIC LANDMARKS Supporters rally to save punk club
CBGB is scheduled to close Aug. 31.
By BILL STRAUB
As far as New York City landmarks go, it doesn't carry the wallop of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty or maybe even Grant's Tomb. But devotees of CBGB, a grubby little refuge on the Lower East Side, are staging a determined fight to keep the joint jumping.
For the past 31 years, the spot officially known as CBGB OMFUG at 315 Bowery has served as the city's matchless musical emporium. After its genesis as a place to hear more traditional sounds -- the acronym stands for Country BlueGrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers -- it quickly ventured downscale to become essentially the world headquarters of underground rock 'n' roll.
More importantly, supporters honor it as the birthplace of punk rock. Beginning with a gig by that seminal group Television in 1974, followed quickly by a little band from the Queens known as The Ramones, CBGB stepped to the front of a musical movement and promoted the likes of Blondie, Talking Heads and the incomparable Patti Smith while other music spots were groveling to disco.
But time marches on, and it appears CBGB might be on its last legs. The landlord, the Bowery Residency Committee that provides shelters for the homeless, has rejected overtures to renew the club's lease amid the usual complaints of back rent and other problems. Efforts continue to keep it open, but as of right now, CBGB is scheduled to close on Aug. 31.
A "Save CBGB" campaign is under way and a monthlong series of concerts in support of the effort is planned. Veteran punk bands like the Dead Boys, modern acts like Against Me and legendary performers like Warren Hayes with Government Mule are all coming together to save the club.
"We just want our lease renewed to keep this historic venue in its original place," said Hilly Kristal, the man who created and still owns CBGB.
CBGB, it should be noted, is not the sort of pristine place that draws preservationists. As Kristal has noted, the club is located in a spot that once housed the Palace Bar, located under the Palace Hotel, the biggest flophouse on the Bowery, which is like saying Mount Everest is the highest peak in the Himalayas. Before gentrification, the Bowery was one of the world's seediest provinces, replete with alcoholics, drug addicts, scam artists and ladies of the evening, meaning sometimes the show outside was better than the one inside.
Inside, CBGB isn't exactly the Waldorf Astoria. It reflected the neighborhood -- loud, always crowded and in need of a good scrubbing. The restrooms are legendary and recall Dante's admonition -- "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
And it is the site of some of the most famous incidents in rock history -- like one night in March 1976 when Wayne County, the 400-pound transvestite singer who later changed his/her name to Jayne County, determined that he/she had suffered enough from the heckling of Handsome Dick Manitoba, the lead singer for the Dictators, and smacked him over the head with a microphone stand.