The History of CBGB
Rumor is that the Ramones, in their first performance at CBGB on August 16, 1974, played a set that lasted about 12 minutes. Rumor is that Blondie was in the front row. Rumor is that Joey and Dee Dee fought the entire time. Rumor is that they played the set twice because it was so short. Rumors are that members of the crowd were so shocked by the absurdity of the performance—a bunch of longhaired and smelly kids screaming their guts out—that they thought it was a joke. How could this be real?
Rock critic god Legs McNeil, co-founder of PUNK magazine and one of the lucky few who witnessed the sweaty show, wrote later that the band struck everyone in a manner that felt, simply, “completely new.”
“They were all wearing these black leather jackets. And they counted off this song…and it was just this wall of noise. They looked so striking. These guys were not hippies.”
Not hippies, indeed. In fact, as a band that’s often looked at by rock historians as the boys who birthed punk, they played an instrumental role in establishing and solidifying CBGB as the venue in which the genre could grow and become what it is today. In their career, the band played the venue over 70 times. To put that in context, there are only 52 weekends in a year. That’s a lot of 12-minute sets.
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Ramones were only a fraction of what was happening at 315 Bowery on the Lower East Side. Everything about what it meant to be punk with a capital “P” was planting itself in a little place in Manhattan with a name that, funny enough, stood for Country, Bluegrass, and Blues. (The full acronym, CBGB & OMFUG, stands for “Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers”). That was unintentional false advertising. Founder Hilly Kristal, a musician-turned-bar-owner, named the place after the type of music he imagined playing there—but soon after, it looked like he may have been a little too specific in his branding. Emerging as something more than just a venue, this was a place that housed the scene and what it stood for. Groups and artists like Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads, The Dead Boys, Blondie, and more performed regularly, attending each others’ sets, hanging out at the bar, and probably doing whatever they wanted. In short, this was the place to be.
Kristal founded the 3,300 square foot space in 1973, while he was running another bar around the corner. Soon, though, CBGB’s became his full focus. Some locals suggested he start booking bands, so he did just that. In order to play the venue, there were two rules: No. 1. Only original music was to be played—no cover bands allowed (some people believe this was because Kristal was afraid of paying ASCAP royalties); and No. 2. They had to move their own equipment. Looking back now in context and with history in mind, it makes sense that so many young and upcoming bands creating progressive and innovative music wanted to play there—they probably didn’t have anywhere else to go. If they showed up at CBGB’s ready to move their own stuff and play their own music, they could do just that. The venue provided something that was missing from the scene: a consistent space in which you could do whatever you want on stage. This was where you went to have your band’s first performance.
Some point to the beginning of the CBGB golden era as March 31, 1974 with Television’s first gig, a band that would later become a CBGB Sunday night staple. Other first performances of note, outside of the aforementioned Ramones, include: Blondie (January 17, 1975), the Patti Smith Group (February 14, 1975), Talking Heads (June 8, 1975), and The Police’s first American gig (October 20, 1978). Take a moment, pause, and think about that list. Then think about all of those people hanging out in the dirty, grimy venue. Imagine a scene in which David Byrne is chilling with Patti Smith and they sit down at a table next to Blondie and the Ramones. Oh yeah, and Sting has decided to show up for the night.
Who knows if something like that ever happened—it probably didn’t—but the glory of all that was CBGB and everything it stands for is that it could have happened. In the minds of culture appreciators, a scene like that taking place in this venue will forever play on loop in their heads.
The venue went on to succeed in providing this for decades. During the ‘80s, the focus of the music shifted to hardcore punk, filling bills with bands that tended to sound like chainsaws lit on fire and thrown in a blender. Bad Brains, Agnostic Front, and the Misfits all became regular performers. CBGB, much like its city, was an old haunt where being disgusting and telling people off was the norm. This bled into the early ‘90s, a pre-Giuliani New York that challenged the way you walked down the street. New Yorkers today will often reminisce about that time, which was more dangerous, but embodied the attitude that made the city famous. In a way, CBGB became a face for that—a venue unafraid of looking weird, loud with its opinions, and that did what it wanted, no matter what you had to say about it.
But as the city changed and gentrified, this attitude fluttered. Throughout the ‘90s and early aughts, CBGB still provided a solid venue—bands like Pearl Jam, Green Day, and even The White Stripes took the stage that made the Ramones’ leather jackets famous—but as a relic of a previous time, it slowly transformed from being a beacon of culture and what New York stood for to an eyesore. In 2005, a rent dispute of $91,000 arose between CBGB and the Bowery Residents’ Committee. Eventually, despite many efforts from various groups to come up with money to save the venue, it was forced to close. On October 15, 2006, Patti Smith played the farewell show. Now, 315 Bowery is a John Varvatos store, a designer shop that sells $200 casual dress shirts.
When you examine what happened to CBGB throughout its multi-decade life—from its vibrant, exciting opening to its eventual close—frankly, it’s a bit sad. Not sad in a cliché way that finds a kid in a leather jacket standing on the street corner pronouncing “punk is dead,” but that this is a place that meant so much to so many people, helped birth a movement of culture that’s still being felt today, and this place just no longer exists. Times change. Things gentrify. We all know that the Lower East Side in 1975 was never going to be the Lower East Side in 2013, but that doesn’t change the fact that this iconic and influential place did, in fact, exist and that it no longer does.
What we can take solace in though, is that just because CBGB no longer exists as a physical space, that doesn’t mean the culture it produced disappeared too. Sure, you can probably find a CBGB T-shirt in the aisles at K-Mart, and the idea of “punk” in 2013 is something that’s very different than what it once was. But regardless, today there is a kid somewhere who is listening to the Ramones for the first time.
Punk has always been about doing what you want to do—setting trends, pushing limits, and doing all of that while generally not caring about what anyone else thinks—and that’s the attitude that this venue embodied. Joan Didion once wrote in an essay that “it’s easy to see the beginnings of things and harder to see the end,” and that, in its core, is what CBGB represents. You can board up the doors, but you can’t put a nail in its influence.