BIG APPLE Last call threatened at nightclub
Unpaid rent appears to be at the center of the dispute.
NEW YORK -- Even in the silence, the worn wooden stage at CBGB echoes with the sounds of legends. Close your eyes and you can almost hear David Byrne singing "Psycho Killer," Patti Smith performing "Land of 1,000 Dances," or the Ramones transforming themselves from a bunch of guys banging guitars into the progenitors of punk.
But a rent dispute between the club and its landlord threatens to silence those echoes. Despite a temporary reprieve granted last week by a judge, preventing eviction, the club's lease expires Aug. 31 and new terms have not been reached.
A star-studded group of musicians led by E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, and including Deborah Harry of Blondie and Tommy Ramone, has rallied to save the club, holding benefit concerts and raising money over the Internet.
"Looking back, we can see how significant CBGB was, being the place where the Ramones and Television and Blondie came out of," Van Zandt said. "CBGB is basically the last club left in New York. It's a symbol of great hope left worldwide for people."
Longtime Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau sees it differently. "Its contribution is historical," he said. "Its current relevance is debatable. That's pretty clear, but you know, it was the crucial arena in which rock 'n' roll changed irrevocably. There's no question about that."
This year, New York clubs Fez and Luna Lounge, pressured by developers and rising rents, closed. Last year, the Bottom Line, site of early performances by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, among others, shut down because it owed more than $185,000 to its landlord, New York University.
Not a new issue
CBGB's dispute with its landlord began four years ago. The landlord, the Bowery Residents' Committee, which houses homeless people, began asking for $300,000 in rent that had gone unpaid over several years. CBGB owner Hilly Kristal said he had written the checks but some had gone uncashed; both sides agreed the money was being paid off. But this year, the BRC said the club also had failed to pay $85,000 in rent increases. Kristal said he wasn't aware of them.
"A lot of mistakes in rent were made on both sides," Kristal said.
BRC executive director Muzzy Rosenblatt has said the increases were disclosed clearly in the lease. Last week, a judge ruled in favor of CBGB, saying the club could not be evicted for failing to pay money it didn't realize it owed.
Rosenblatt released a statement saying BRC disagrees and would appeal. "This rental income, and every dollar BRC receives, goes to help homeless people. With the millions of dollars CBGB claims to take in every year, it is unfortunate CBGB would want to withhold these funds, knowing who would benefit from them."
With the lease expiring Aug. 31, the judge's ruling is only a temporary victory. The Save CBGB's Coalition, which includes Kristal and Van Zandt, is working furiously to renew the lease but worries that the committee wants to more than double its monthly rent of $19,500.
Van Zandt said talks with BRC representatives have left him hopeful that they can negotiate a new lease.
"I think everybody, even the Bowery Residents' Committee, is in total agreement that we want to keep CBGB's," he said. He is planning an Aug. 31 benefit concert in Washington Square. If the lease expires, Kristal said, it could take a few months to evict CBGB. Kristal said he was considering offers to move the club, including one from the city of Las Vegas.
There it would be a tourist site -- as it is today, a popular stop for tour buses.