In temporal New York City, venues come and go all the time, products of the pell-mell evolution of the NYC art scene. Those that do survive for any length of time stand tall in our history, because their survival is a measure of both steadfast resilience and profound distinction—not just anyone can weather this city. And of those storied New York venues, the most lionized remains CBGB, the grungy, intimate host to some of the earliest instances of punk, and the birthplace of many of New York’s most revered punk bands. This week marks the tenth anniversary of its closure, when Patti Smith, one of CBGB’s most eminent debuts, returned home to give the hallowed venue a fitting goodbye. This is the story of CBGB.
In 1973, two locals convinced club owner Hilly Kristal to start booking shows at his biker bar. Kristal agreed, and the now-consecrated address, 315 Bowery, soon became CBGB & OMFUG (Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers). It was intended, as the name alludes, as an eclectic feast for the ears. The nesting grounds for the aural gourmand—the “voracious eater of … music,” as the legend now stands on CBGB’s website.
One of the first momentous dates in the venue’s history was April 14, 1974. It was Television’s third gig ever, and in the audience were Patti Smith and rock archivist Lenny Kaye. The seminal punk rock band (and architect of the excellent “Marquee Moon,” a piece that remains one of the most timeless punk tunes of all time, in my humble opinion) must have rubbed off on the young singer-songwriter; less than a year later, her Patti Smith Group (with Lenny Kaye in tow) would make their debut at CBGB. And, as they say, the rest is history.
But for CBGB itself, there was still so much more history to be had. Angel & the Snake (soon to be renamed Blondie) arrived on August of 1974, and, later that same year, The Ramones played their first ever shows there. Soon thereafter the locale played host regularly to a bevy of talented young bands, one being the Talking Heads. And in April of 1977, the British punk band The Damned made an appearance, marking the first time a British punk band ever played in the United States (for context, New York and London were the epicenters of the punk movement, each with its own stylistic flavor and tone).
CBGB, en masse, was a bastion for the punk ethos. Its only two rules were that bands had to move their own equipment and that they couldn’t play very many covers. These guidelines fostered both originality and vigor, and they helped bolster its reputation within the music world—even outside of New York. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, it would become a haven for the incipient new wave movement, a style of music that injected elements of electronica, disco, and pop into the agitated contours of punk. Elvis Costello, for instance, opened for The Voidoids in 1978, and The Police’s first American gigs happened at CBGB (check out the clip below from the 2013 film, CBGB, starring the late, great Alan Rickman as Kristal). Among other names that graced the venue’s halls were Misfits, the Dead Boys, the B-52’s, and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. CBGB even had its own virtual house band, The Revelons, a veritable punk supergroup that consisted of Mark Suall (Squeeze), Fred Smith of Television, and JD Daugherty of the Patti Smith Group.
During the ’80s, hardcore punk became the MO of CBGB, and with it came violence—so much so that eventually Kristal had to stop booking hardcore bands. In its final days, though, there were no bans on any genre, and CBGB, though already decades removed from its hey day, kept at it until grinding to a rocky halt in 2005.
After lawsuits and allegations of unpaid rent, Patti Smith closed CBGB for good in the aforementioned farewell show. Alongside a cadre of guest stars like Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ Flea and Television’s Richard Lloyd, Smith hurtled through her own tracks—including a version of “Gloria” whose chorus was seesawed with The Ramones’ smash, “Blitzkrieg Bop”—and the songs of other notable CBGB stars (“Marquee Moon” was one of them). I wasn’t there, but by most accounts, the evening was a proper send-off.
For CBGB, and for many institutions that strive to distance themselves from the mainstream, legacy is bittersweet. The building’s awning is deservedly on display in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the venue was included in the Register of Historic Places in 2013, but CBGB has also been vitiated by the eager hands of capitalism. CBGB Radio, for instance, became an ersatz resting place on the corporate radio network, iHeartRadio. And, in 2015, Newark Airport rebranded the venue and opened an unfortunate imitation called CBGB L.A.B. (Lounge and Bar).
Still, little these days is immune to corporatization; if something can make money, some intrepid entity will find a way to make that money. And when it does, we shouldn’t let that stand in the way of the past, those days when CBGB’s importance to music history was palpable, felt in the sweat-laden slogs of beer drenched mosh-pits and in the punk heroes that rose from its belly. Even today it hangs at the ends of tongues. It’s the ghost that remains as the paragon of what a punk venue—or any venue, for that matter—can mean to music. There will never be another like it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still strive to retain its ideals. For punk’s sake, long live CBGB.