UNCUT - July 2005
CLUB FOR HEROES
Words: Nick Hasted
CBGB & OMFUG NYC PUNK SPECIAL
It may be threatened with closure but, 30 years ago, legendary New York dive CBGBs helped kickstart the US punk revolution, providing the space for Patti Smith, the Ramones, Television, Blondie, the Voidoids and Talking Heads to change rock music forever.
WHEN THE BRITISH rock writer came back with news of the revolution, the shockwaves spread at once. Charles Shaar Murray's New York dispatch to the November 8, 1975 edition of NME airily dismissed Blondie, David Byrne, and Richard Hell and Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers, and slammed Television's debut single, "Little Johnny Jewel", while tipping Tuff Darts for the top. But it also described the Ramones in all their stunning glory: "a cartoon vision of rock'n'roll" in "black leather jacket, sneakers and torn-up jeans", playing "ridiculously compressed bursts of power chords and hooklines of two minutes and 10 seconds on average" - "perfect pocket punks".
Jon Savage, late of Sounds, and Sniffin' Glue's Mark Perry are among the readers who remember poring over those words, and Joe Stevens' snaps, letting them finish the half-formed visions in their heads. That month, the nascent Sex Pistols chose their name. The fuse that was lit then, sparking from The Clash to Nirvana to The Strokes, Green Day, The Libertines and Franz Ferdinand, shows no signs of burning out. But in 1975, with prog excess and MOR blandness seemingly sending rock into a terminal nosedive, the need for the strange New York scene Murray described was desperate. It might only have been "a tight, thriving community scene, a back-alley off rock's main drag". But at least it had a home: a scuzzy Bowery bar called CBGBs.
In 2005, the scuzz is being scraped from the rapidly yuppifying Bowery. This month, CBGBs, improbable catalyst for one of pop's most pivotal moments, is facing closure, crippled by rising overheads and back-rent. Thirty years ago, though, it played host to an incestuous clique of bizarrely dressed junkie-poets who, between fighting at the cramped bar, fucking in the rank toilets, drinking and overdosing, also found time to rewire the 20th century.
THERE WERE FEW SIGNS of that in 1974, the year the revolution began. Max's Kansas City, the Warhol hang-out that had hosted The Velvet Underground, was closing. The Mercer Arts Center, home to the New York Dolls, had literally sunk back into the ground, a victim of freak subsidence. The Dolls themselves, punk's glam-trash prophets, were lapsing into druggy self-destruction. Their hyped failure left the whole New York scene lepers to the major labels. But their gaudy example, ridding rock of "20 years of acquired polish", as Robert Christgau wrote, had not gone unnoticed. "Every creep in town started a rock'n'roll band," Dee Dee Ramone remembered. "After the Dolls broke up, there were a bunch of creeps who needed a scene."
New York was a near-bankrupt urban basketcase that year, the city of Death Wish movie nightmares. And if the city as a whole was shunned by the music industry, the Bowery was off the map. "It was a nice poetic justice that that was the address," Richard Hell told Uncut in April 2005. "At that time, the Bowery was everything that its name is a cliche for - winos lying in the gutter, rats crawling over everything. That local environment helped define what punk became. It contributed to the whole state of mind of: everything is falling apart, nobody has anything to lose, drop all hopes and pretensions - and say what you have to say."
CBGBs had opened in December 1973 at 313 Bowery, the initials standing for Country Blue-Grass Blues, the favoured music of 42-year-old ex-Marine owner Hilly Kristal. It was directly under the city's biggest flophouse, the Palace Hotel, with five more such establishments within two blocks, meaning 2000 traumatised Vietnam veterans, ex-cons, asylum out-patients, alcoholics and drug addicts slept off adulterated wine in the street. CBGBs' previous incarnation as the wino-favoured Palace Bar survived in the piss-stink Kristal's fumigation couldn't shift (not helped by his own dog's habit of shitting on the stage). The blazing beds of the drunks upstairs sometimes caused gigs' rapid cancellation, when burst pipes weren't drenching the customers. Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell took one look and said: we'll take it.
The lynchpins of arguably New York's first punk group, Television, Verlaine (aka Tom Miller) and Hell (Richard Meyers) had met in a Delaware boarding school. Both arrived in New York in 1967, the same year as New Jersey factory girl Patti Smith. Deborah Harry had turned up from her Jersey small town in '64. Thought Smith met Hendrix and Joplin, and hung out with Warhol's Superstars at the Chelsea Hotel, the '60s was not their era. It was 1972 before Miller, Meyers and a Delaware friend, drummer Billy Ficca, formed The Neon Boys, influenced by future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye's '60s garage-punk compilation Nuggets, and a shared taste for the Velvets. Among the rhythm guitarists who failed their audition for a fourth Neon Boy were Dee Dee Ramone and future Blondie drummer Clem Burke, the scene's in-breeding already starting. Richard Lloyd, fucked up by years of shock therapy and with a taste for heroin, completed what became Television, as Verlaine and Hell assumed their legendary aliases.
"I just called myself Hell because I felt like hell, and I wanted everyone to know it," the latter explained. He also chopped his hair short, ripped his T-shirt and wore feeling-shielding shades, casually inventing punk style. And he sent Richard Lloyd out onto the psychotic New York streets wearing a T-shirt with a target on its chest and the words "Please Kill Me".
Television's first gig, on March 2, 1974 at the Townhouse Theater, was appalling. Their next was at CBGBs. "For me, it was a project, at the beginning," Hell recalled. "I planned to launch the band by finding a venue that would let us play there every week, so anyone who was interested could rely on you being there. We knew that it would have to be a place that didn't have any prestige, or business. We spotted that place, and it was in our neighbourhood, easy to get to, run-down. They had a tiny stage, maybe a foot off the floor in the corner. Hilly took some persuading, but not much. But you know, if he'd said no, we would have gone some place else. It was really arbitrary."
Sunday, March 31, 1974 was the first night of CBGBs' punk life. It was almost the last. Kristal had previously managed top jazz venue the Village Vanguard, and was used to Miles and Monk. Television's amateur, angular racket, by contrast, made them, in Kristal's words, "the worst band I'd ever heard". At least until, after much begging, they returned with a support act: the Ramones.
Singer Joey Ramone (aka Jeff Hyman), guitarist Johnny (John Cummings), bassist Dee Dee (Douglas Colvin) and drummer Tommy (Tommy Erdelyi) were all raised at least partly in Queens, making them New York punk's only native sons. They took their shared surname from Paul McCartney's hotel alias, inventing a fractious brand of "Brudders". They were all freakish outsiders, especially gangling 6ft 6in misfit Joey, and Dee Dee, who became a dope dealer and sometime rent boy to support his own habits - glue and whipped-cream canister gas, when he couldn't get alcohol and junk. They came together through a love of The Stooges especially, and British Invasion bands, Spector and '50s rock'n'roll. When they arrived at CBGBs for their own second gig that August, they were a fully-formed concept, a ramshackle restatement of primal rock values: loud and basic, in black leather jackets and moptops, with lyrics that sounded like True Crime headlines: "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue"; "Beat On The Brat". They rowed on stage, stumbled and fell, no sort of professionals - just punks. Kristal thought they were awful, but gave them their chance.
Dee Dee wasn't too impressed with CBGBs, either. "It was a let-down," he wrote in his scabrously unreliable autobiography Poison Heart. "It didn't seem as glamorous as Max's or the Mercer Arts Center. We had to watch out for rat, mice and dog shit on the floor. It was the pits. Especially Hilly Kristal, a big fat guy who ran the place and apparently never bathed... As soon as you walked in off the street, the smell of fermenting beer was so powerful it made you want to walk out backwards. They didn't have any toilets, so the audience just pissed where they stood... We played about 15 minutes and were a success... We [played] CBGBs over and over to survive. We kept saying we wouldn't go back, but we had to."
There's some dispute whether they really played with Television that first time - Dee Dee remembers Angel And The Snake (early Blondie) on the bill, Hell "can't remember any kind of Television/Ramones thing". Whenever they played, they were exhilarating.
"There's Bowery bums at the bar counting out their pennies for a shot," Legs McNeill, who they inspired to start Punk magazine, recalls of the moment they hit the stage. "And there's 10 people sitting at these tables..." "They played really fast, really short songs," photographer Roberta Bayley, who was also there, continues. "It wasn't like they were trying to be funny. They were really serious. They were so great that you couldn't believe they could exist." "No one looked like them on stage," Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, who saw them in 1977, tells this writer. "They fetishised only the coolest, rockin'est moves. All of a sudden, you were processing something you'd never processed before: 40 songs in a set, all kind of the same, but with no time to breathe between them."
The Ramones played CBGBs 22 times that year. Alongside Television, they kicked the club to life.
CBGBs WAS STILL A SCENE that barely extended beyond its street at the start of 1975. It was spring before the rest of the city took an interest. Patti Smith needed to showcase herself for Arista's Clive Davis, who wanted to sign her. Verlaine, who she'd just started seeing, had introduced her to his regular haunt. Smith was already a veteran Manhattan scenester who'd performed her poetry to great acclaim in London, and whose electric guitar-laden Rock'n'Rimbaud readings gave New York punk one of its distinctive, old-school bohemian struts. Her seven-week, four-nightly CBGBs residency, ending in May 1975, was a local phenomenon, leading to her signing and the club's discovery by the hipster old guard. Reed, Cale, Iggy, Ginsberg and Linda Ronstadt (who ran for the exit after five Ramones numbers) were among those drawn to it, though its seedy address still kept out the real rubes. "The clientele were a lot of poor artists, strippers, journalists, career night-clubbers and the slumming cognoscenti," Hell recalls.
The great CBGBs debut albums
BLONDIE - BLONDIE (1976)
The bridge between the endearingly shambolic band treated as a hopeless joke by some at CBGBs, and the streamlined new wave colossus that out-sold them all, led by the suddenly iconic Debbie Harry, who opened rock up for women as completely as Patti Smith, carving a path for Madonna. Their first hit, "In The Flesh" (No 2 in Australia), detailed her crush in the Dolls' David Johansen, and showed their early girl-group obsession. "Rip Her To Shreds" - bitchy, glassy-voiced, gleefully sexy, littered with trash-culture nods and '60s-style hooks they don't yet quite know how to update - nearly finds the formula.
Though Patti Smith's stand had seemed a turning point, crowds tumbled when she left. Kristal gave his club a further needed jolt with "The Top 40 unrecorded New York Bands Rock Festival" in late July '75, timed to catch the massed media leaving Newport's nearby jazz gathering. Blondie, the Ramones and Talking Heads were among those who played. The latter had debuted at CBGBs that month, having arrived in the neighbourhood from Rhode Island, where David Byrne and drummer Chris Frantz had been students of minimalist art. Their edgy, angular white funk and collegiate clothes stood out starkly from their new peers. "The idea was sort of negative in that sense," Byrne admitted. "That we would come out in our normal clothes. We would be a spanner in the works of rock'n'roll music." "Certain things were simply excluded," noted keyboardist Jerry Harrison. "We didn't want to play the blues. We don't deny our roots." Indeed, CBGBs' scene was, musically speaking, one of the whitest in rock history. This would take on sinister connotations soon enough.
That July, though, Talking Heads became stars of Kristal's festival. They made Village Voice's cover, under the provocative headline: "The Conservative Impulse of the New Rock Underground". Rolling Stone ran a spread around thrilling pics of the Ramones. Charles Shaar Murray had already delivered an early news flash to NME the month before, after seeing Patti Smith and Television at the end of Smith's residency, beginning with the caveat "CBGBs is a toilet" but concluding that it "was one of the most exciting rock experiences that I've had for a long time... Something's happening." CSM's definitive report that November only added to a ferment across the Atlantic that would shortly cement CBGBs' legendary status.
Its bands were starting to record by now. Smith's "Hey Joe/Piss Factory" had been an early indie single in August 1974; Television's self-released "Little Johnny Jewel" came in October 1975. But Smith, the first to sign to a major label, was also the first to break overground, with her John Cale-produced debut LP Horses, in December 1975.
The first words of the first song, a radically reconstructed cover of Them's "Gloria", were: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine". The cover image, of Smith in a man's suit, all angular cheekbones and fearless gaze, ripped up the rulebook for women in rock. She took complete control of her arrival, even writing her own ads: "thre-chord rock merged with the power of the word". Its awed reviews helped shift 200,000 US copies.
Then Seymour Stein, owner of semi-indie Sire, braved CBGBs' label-frightening locale to snap up the Ramones. Their eponymous debut, recorded in three days in a studio deep within the Radio City Music Hall, was as epochal as Smith's. Released in May 1976, from its primitive, black-and-white back-alley cover photo to the brutal, retarded riffs and gimp poetry inside, it became a blueprint for London's nascent punks. "If that Ramones album hadn't existed, I don't think we could have built the scene here," Joe Strummer admitted.
When The Ramones arrived to play two shows at Camden's Roundhouse over Independence Day weekend, the prototype Clash nervously greeted them outside the venue, one would-be punk street-gang to another. Ditto the Pistols, still four crucial months from "Anarchy In The UK", who were cowed - even Johnny Rotten, whose backstage beer the Ramones secretly pissed in. Supported by Talking Heads and The Saints (Melbourne's branch of the punk outbreak), they were, Strummer said, "like white heat, because of the constant barrage of tunes."
Malcolm McLaren, observing Television when they supported the Dolls during his last-gasp management of the latter in November 1975, had already pinched Hell's ripped dress sense for the Pistols, as well as the attitude of his anthem "Blank Generation" (see "Pretty Vacant"). CBGBs had become a massive catalyst for UK punk, and its bands were revered. But back home, it was a different story.
"The impact never felt like it extended much beyond New York, until Britain happened," Hell admits. "We wanted to have an impact. That was part of the purpose, in suggesting other ways of doing things. It was so exciting to us; it was so clearly the most interesting thing going on in music in the world that we all expected it to break through. But it never really did. The music, it turned out, was too rough for the American mass market. It just didn't make an impression."
SO, STARS ABROAD, America's punks remained nobodies outside downtown New York. CBGBs had at least sparked a thriving city scene by 1976. A re-opened Max's was among several venues offering new bands hope. Veteran synth-punks Suicide were among those who finally made their name there; though they played CBGBs, they were never part of its tight-knit scene. Hell, meanwhile, had been forced out of Television by his control-seeking one-time soulmate Verlaine at 1975's end, passing through Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers before forming his own Voidoids, who, along with Talking Heads, Mink De Ville and the Iggy-apeing Dead Boys, were swept up by Sire. Television had been signed by Elektra after a private CBGBs showcase in July 1976. All began work on albums. But most nights at CBGBs' bar, creative ferment was noticeable by its absence.
"I was there almost every night, for three years at least," recalls Hell. "1974 to '77. It was like my living room. And it was for all the bands. There were one or two exceptions, who only came there for some specific occasion. But, basically, we were all there, all the time. I don't think there was much exchange of ideas. The original bands all had pretty strong identities. People would just joke, and drink, and try to take each other home. It was insular, and isolated, and that was partly what was nice about it while it was at its most intense: because we really imagined our own world into being. The one thing we all had in common was that we didn't feel comfortable any place in the existing world. CBGBs was a place you could go to every night and feel like you belonged. And that's because it flowered out of our own brains. That was the beauty of it."
Thurston Moore, who moved to Manhattan in 1977 and first played CBGBs the following year, remembers the venue's strange ambience. "It looked like this little cottage between these flophouse hotels," he considers. "Like you were going to the gingerbread house, with these witches inside making magic. And everybody in there was surreal. When I walked in the first time, someone threw a bottle at my head. Richard Hell was at the door, kind of inebriated. I remember hanging out there in the summertime, and there was always this sickly glow from orange street-lights that made it seem like this otherworldly fairy land. There'd be all these bums interacting with people hanging out, having these incredible, loud, fucked-up, bum arguments. People would come up and try to solicit you. They'd be interacting with people like Lydia Lunch, so the exchanges were insane."
The bands didn't always behave better than the bums. One notorious night, "Handsome" Dick Manitoba of The Dictators, whose 1974 LP Go Girl Crazy! had been a punk precursor but who'd never felt welcome at CBGBs, started to holler "Fucking queer!" at another scene veteran, transvestite Wayne Country, as he performed. When Manitoba clambered onstage, apparently meaning no physical harm, Country, buzzing on uppers, shattered his collarbone with a speared mic-stand. Manitoba's blood covered them both as they grappled onstage. Though Manitoba was largely the victim, this appalling incident was the first confrontation of homophobia with this idealistic yet macho scene. Lester Bangs' 1979 piece "The White Noise Supremacists" would later confront its sometimes casual racism and unexamined swastika fetish (the Ramones' flat was festooned with Day-Glo ones; blitzkrieg bop, indeed...).
Dee Dee and his girlfriend enlivened the evenings with more straightforward violence, the insanely jealous Connie habitually glassing or bottling her fellow clientele, when not slashing knives at her insanely unfaithful partner or duking it out in the street with rival girls. Dee Dee once put a half-dollar coin between his knuckles to gain a harsh advantage as they fist-fought toe to toe at the bar. For all that, in their own nightmarish way, they were CBGBs' truest romance.
There were happier moments, like Blondie's young lovers Debbie Harry and Chris Stein allegedly fucking in the club's vile toilets to appalled admiration; or the occasion scenester Genya Ravan got a waitress to give Dead Boys Stiv Bators a whipped-cream-assisted blow-job mid-song. CBGBs was like a youth club for delinquent bohemians, where there was no one to stop you doing what you wanted - until it was too late.
AS THE EXCESS accelerated, 1977 also saw a second wave of albums. Television were the first out of the blocks in February, the songs they had been playing at CBGBs for years now crystalline rock formations, highlighting guitar virtuosity when it was a crime to most punks. That didn't stop NME's Nick Kent writing a two-page, cover-flagged review, famously concluding: "They are one band in a million; the songs are some of the greatest ever. The album is Marquee Moon." With punk at its British apogee, Television were astonished to find their album riding this acclaim into the Top 30.
Talking Heads' tremendous Talking Heads: '77 was released in September, a fully-formed beginning by a band who, throughout the late '70s and early '80s, would be routinely referred to as the best in America,
That same month, Richard Hell released Blank Generation. Hell had defined one extreme of the scene in Punk magazine early in 1976: "Basically, I have one feeling... the desire to get out here." He was a nihilist, numb, negative. For a while, he apparently thought he was a vampire. As his friend Lester Bangs wrote after a disquieting midnight interview: "He didn't have to cut his flesh like Iggy... to give off an aura of pain or simple unpleasantness." At the same time, Hell still had a true punk's conviction that his refusal of society could lead to a better one, where everyone chose their own values - an ideal seemingly explored on the album's legendary title track.
"I was just describing a condition, which was my condition," he says. "It was partly a joke, a take-off on Rod McKuen's 'Beat Generation'. It was partly the fun of drawing a blank, meaning you're rejecting the whole concept of defining a generation. It was partly," he smiles, "an invitation to anybody who wants to accept me as their dictator. It's completely opposed to the spirit of the thing to limit it. It's completely meaningless."
Meanwhile, the band who would be CBGBs' greatest success were being ignored, as usual. Blondie, a rock act fronted by a pretty young woman, so obviously commercial afterwards, had few precedents. And anyway, they were, as CSM had judged, awful. "We were not very well-prepared musically," Debbie Harry admits to me, almost 30 years later. "We were experimenting, and trying to haul something together that was different. Our shows were confusing. We didn't have a clue. Everyone else was getting record deals and great press, and Blondie was the bottom of the heap." Television took their bass player; Patti Smith, who coolly eyed Harry as competition, took a guitarist. Still, in CBGBs' weird world, Hilly liked them, and they survived. "We played there for seven months, every weekend," Harry remembers. "It was our Vaudeville, where we got it together. There were comedy acts, and our crazy friends - Tomata Du Plenty, and Gorilla Rose, and Babs the Stunt Girl. It's kind of ridiculous to see a connection between that world and the charts. But there you go. Anything can happen."
It took '60s production veteran Richard Gottehrer and Craig Leon to help Blondie iron out their magic formula. But soon enough, in February 1978, the runts of the litter hit No 2 in the UK charts with "Denis", and began their chart rampage.
THE RAMONES, BLONDIE, Richard Hell, Talking Heads, Television, Patti Smith: take CBGBs' successes together and it's hard to see a link, except that they played there. It isn't Britain's concerted punk wave.
"If you're trying to find something that was a common thread," offers Hell, "it's talking about real life. That as a value, rather than wanting to be a star. Like Dylan and the Stones and The Velvet Underground had when I was a kid - talking about what the world felt like, instead of another sentimental love song."
By the end of 1977, CBGBs' astonishing run was already faltering, as bands with deals left Hell's "living room" to tour, and their excesses began to catch up with them. Patti Smith smashed vertebrae in her neck when, chasing visions, she tumbled from the stage. Heroin crippled Television's Richard Lloyd, Hell, Dee Dee and Johnny Thunders. Stiv Bators was stabbed - almost to death - in a senseless street brawl. The drug-related deaths of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen in 1979 moved Lester Bangs to write "Bye Bye, Sidney, Be Good", an angry obituary for his scene, long before the club's current travails.
"Lester was really... an idealist," Hell considers. "And yeah, it did depress him to see how the musical movement that had most excited him seemed to be ending in hopelessness. I don't think he was accurate to feel that way. I think part of what was interesting about punk was that it didn't pretty things up. And things are pretty ugly."
To find out more about the current threatened closure of CBGBs, visit