Posted March 16, 2005

The Barman's Rant
Occasional thoughts on Real Rock Action


There should be a great deal of sadness in your world with the news that the future of CBGB’s is in doubt.

If you missed the bulletins, the legendary New York punk rock toilet is in danger of closing, as a result of years of unpaid back rent.

It seems the site on 315 The Bowery – a prime location on what used to be The Big Apple’s skid row – is owned by a local homeless people’s co-op - and they’ll be damned if they’re subsidising a nightclub.

(Well, I’ve subsidised plenty of those places over the years, so I can sort of sympathize. I suppose they could take it over, but the sort of nightclub that serves drinks in bottles wrapped in brown paper bags probably isn’t going to take off).

Mind you, the term “nightclub” is stretching things. But it’s OK to call CBGBs a toilet, because it is. It fact, it seems to revel in such terminology.

(Most Americans, on the other hand, dislike such words and refer to such places as "rest rooms" or "bathrooms". I'm here to tell you that the toilets at CBGBs are no place to go for a rest, or a bath.)

Whatever happened to the joint's back rent notices is another issue. Maybe the owner, the legendary Hilly Krystal, passed them out to patrons to use in the toilets.

Shithouse it may be, but there’s no doubt CBGB’s was the cradle of punk rock as we know it. You can keep the Pistols and all the two-bit pretenders that followed. They might have surfaced anyway, but it’s an indisputable fact that the NY bands were doing things in their own minimalist way years before the Brits.

The Poms took their musical lead and fashion tips from elements of the CB’s scene. Something to do with seamstress Svengali Malcolm McLaren ripping off the New York Dolls sound, and the Richard Hell torn T-shirt look, after a sojourn Stateside.

Nothing unusual in that. The English have been exploiting the Yanks for years, adapting that bastard orphan called rock and roll and selling it back to them - with interest. In the instance of punk, however, the Poms turned it into a fashion parade and sold it down the shitter.

But back to the issue at hand, and the future, or lack thereof, of CBGBs.

My initial experience of the place (I’m a resident of Australia) was in 1986. I finally persuaded two fellow tourist mates to catch a cab to The Bowery after an “interesting” night spent at the Hard Rock Café (deserted except for an encounter with Aerosmith's Joe Tyler and Steve Perry and three of the most disheveled groupies you could hope not to meet) and The Palladium (ridiculously over-blown mid-town disco, complete with a fake house that was lowered from the roof).

We pulled up in a yellow New York taxi right outside a desolate CBGBs. My mates took one look at the crumbling white facade through bleary, alcohol-impaired eyes, refused point-blank to go inside, and left me there.

Their reluctance was a surprise given that we were staying at down market accommodation in the scuzzy Chelsea Hotel.
I spent the rest of what was left of the early hours of that morning watching Dumptruck, drinking Rolling Rocks and talking shit to any similarly well-tanked American patrons who’d listen.

After parting with my mates and travelling to other parts of the USA, another solo return visit to CBGBs was on the agenda a month later, for both matters of convenience and entertainment. NYC was a good stepping-off point for London. I had to go back. An airpass and some Husker Du and Ramones tapes had sustained me on this trip. And more importantly, the Celibate Rifles were due to play.

The Rifles had apparently been through a month or so earlier to a tiny house of the curious and disinterested, but this time (I was told) 800 people packed into the place, drawn by word-of-mouth.

If you’ve heard the live “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” album, recorded that very evening, you’ll know it was a killer night.
If you listen closely, you can hear me at the bar: "Four more bottles of Rolling Rock thanks mate". It pays to stock up when you're in a place that crowded, and you have to tip on fewer occasions.

The early part of the evening was in fact spent sinking numerous Rolling Rocks with “Sticks” Jacquet (drums) and Mikey Couvret (bass) from the Rifles. If you hear the odd bum note or missed change on the album, it’s probably down to moi.

Post-gig, the place was so packed and hot that spilling outside into the backyard and drinking more beer was the only means of respite.

One enduring (hazy) memory was the shell of an abandoned car being the centrepiece of the small backyard (it’s been immortalised in a photo of an exhausted and spent Top Ten of the Dictators draped all over it).

The other (hazier) memory was stumbling along The Bowery at 4.30am in search of a cab, stepping over comatose bums and junkies on the footpath. Not a clever thing to do in those pre-gentrified Lower East Side days.

Another fool tourist poses for a photo outside the historic New York
landmark. What a dickhead.

I’ve been back a few times since and CBGBs still has a charm all its own. Part of it is that it’s scarcely changed since the likes of the Ramones, Blondie, the Heartbreakers, the Dead Boys and Television ruled the roost. The place drips history.

It's a long, narrow room, lined on one side by a bar and some chairs on a raise platform on the other. There's a small wooden stage at one end of the room, with a flying PA and what passes for a dressing room, and stairs down to the infamous toilets, at stage left.

Aussie punters' point-of-reference: CBGBs is about the size of the Annandale (though narrower in shape) and makes The Tote look like an "all mod cons" designer pub.

Of course, some things have changed. CBGBs is no longer a hub of the NY underground music scene. I’m not sure which venue is, but the second-last visit paid saw a line-up dominated by a Pearl Jam wannabe band headlining over a Tool-obsessed, baggy shorts-wearing support.

The Barmaid was in tow and was so impressed with the state of the place that she took a photo of me outside the famous, door-less downstairs toilets. (Are you starting to get the sense of a theme here?)

In fact, the bands were so bad that night that we adjourned to the performance space nextdoor to watch a “poetry slam”. The highlight of which was a piece called “Cunt Country”. Enough said. We hot footed it through sub-zero cold to put money over the bar at Manitoba’s.

The last time I visited CBGB’s was a cold winter’s afternoon. The main club was shut, naturally enough, but the nextdoor CBGB’s Gallery was licensed to sell alcohol and warm enough. Short of cash, I tried to run a tab on a card, only to be told it was a 20 buck minimum. If I didn’t want to drink that much pale, lifeless American beer, I could buy a T-shirt with the balance.

I again beat a shivering retreat to Manitoba’s. It's not that I don’t like the CBGBs merch - I already have a couple of shirts in the wardrobe - or believe in supporting an iconic landmark, but the policy in itself tells a story.
Word is the place doesn’t make jack shit from bands and is basically running on the smell of a (clean) mail order T-shirt.

CBGB’s is, and has been for some years, a tourist trap.

There are worse ways than tourism to earn a dollar and CB’s has even made it into the official NYC ads for the city’s looming Olympic Games bid. Which makes the present bind even more strange.

Isn’t the irony here obvious? Successful Olympics bids are usually accompanied by the city masters cleaning out all the homeless people so as to put on their burgh’s best place, and here we have a homeless people’s co-op trying to sweep away a New York landmark.

If it was good enough for the City of Manhattan to re-name a nearby street Joey Ramone Place, it’s time for the local government to step in and slap a preservation order on CBGB’s.

Maybe the trade-off could be free admission for street people. Somehow, I suspect even panhandlers are careful where they piss.

Anyway, charge your glasses to CBGBs. Music would worse off without its influence.

And if you want to do something practical to save the place, follow this link to politely drop the landlord a line.