In 1973, when the punk rock movement was just barely beginning to coalesce from the garage rock movement into something much more extreme, a man named Hilly Kristal took possession of a restaurant and bar that had been a 19th century saloon, a biker bar and finally a dive bar. He had opened an earlier club there that had failed and then re-opened it with a bigger focus on live performances than his earlier attempt.
Kristal was the son of two Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in New York, and after a stint in the Marines, he managed his first club, a jazz joint called The Village Vanguard. In 1966, he and a partner, Rob Deisener, founded the Rheingold Central Park Music Festival. However, by 1968, Kristal left the partnership and opened his own bar in the Bowery section of New York city, which promptly closed within a few years.
It was then that Kristal decided to try something a little different and his next venture would change history. He opened a nightlife venue that he called “CBGB,” which stood for Country, Bluegrass, and Blues. As the old saying goes, “Man proposes, God disposes.” Kristal’s guess as to what genres of music he would be highlighting was off the mark, way off the mark, his new nightclub would become one that would help birth a musical and societal movement within the United States.
As the club opened and began to look for talent to perform there, two men, Bill Page and Rusty McKenna, convinced Kristal to let them start booking bands for the club. By February of 1974, the venue had its first band in residence several times a week, that band was Squeeze. The Universe stepped in again when the roof of the Mercer Arts Center literally collapsed without warning in August of 1973. This left bands that were not signed with label or who had not broken out yet, with few venues to perform at. One was available though and taking on new bands, CBGB. The nightclub had two rules for bands who wanted to play there, first, they had to move their own equipment. Second, no cover bands, most of a band’s playlist had to be original music.
1974, saw an influx of new bands coming out of the punk and alternative rock genres. Over the next year and into 1975, the club saw groups like Television, Blonde, The Talking Heads, The Ramones, and the Patti Smith Group (who debuted there) became regulars both as performers and as part of the audience.
And the club’s reputation grew. In 1975-76, Metropolis Video began recording some of the shows at the venue furthering its name becoming synonymous with the punk revolution. In 1977, the Damned played the club, becoming the first punk band out of the United Kingdom to play in America. Other bands from the UK followed including The Sex Pistols.
By the late 70’s, not only were punk bands performing regularly, but an influx of groups playing new wave and post punk were also regulars. Among these bands were Elvis Costello, The B-52s, The Fleshtones and later, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. But punk remained the staple as the 80’s came on. One would see bands such as The Misfits, The Cramps, The Dictators, and Voidoids were in constant rotation on the club’s stage.
On Sundays, CBGB’s had what they referred to as “Matinee Day,” where hardcore punk bands would play from afternoon through the evening. Matinee day became an institution in the New York underground punk scene. Sadly, violence both inside and outside the club led Kristal to suspend booking hardcore bands. Throughout its remaining years, CBGB would bring back hardcore occasionally; and during its last few years in existence, there were no formal bans on any genre, time was slowly taking its toll on the club.
In 2005, CBGB was sued by its landlord for back rent. The club and landlord went to trial and the judge sided with the club, noting that the landlord had never properly advised Kristal of rent increases and thus there was no way in which the club owner could have paid them. The court noted that the nightclub should be declared a historical landmark, but also noted that the landlord would not be required to renew the lease.
And that my friends, was the death knell for venue that built punk. Recognizing that the new rent increase would be far more than the club could readily handle, Kristal agreed to leave the premises by Sept. 30, 2006, although the final performance actually occurred on Oct. 15, 2006. He intended to re-open in Las Vegas at a later date. The Club’s final show was played by Patti Smith who was joined by Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a few songs. The performance was broadcasted live by Sirius radio.
Sadly, Kristal never got a chance to re-open his club as he passed away from lung cancer on August 28, 2007. The rest of the tale is as maddening and sad as the final days of the club. His ex-wife and his daughter battled over his estate and later a private group of investors, purchased the CBGB assets including all of the intellectual property, such as logos, and the like.
There were reports in 2015, that a new and rebranded CBGB’s would be opening at the Newark International Airport. The new CBGB bar and grille is in a terminal and from what I read on Yelp, its reviews are not good; this maybe the first two-star restaurant I ever visit, if, and only if, I get stuck flying out of Newark for some reason, God help! I have no doubt that Hilly Kristal is NOT amused about either how the new restaurant manages itself nor the fact that those who now come to it to revere a punk institution are treated with the sights of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and rapidly walking, slightly sweaty in their suits business travelers rushing off to their next flight. We have hope however that the message on the lapel pins which Patti Smith handed out after her final set on the CBGB stage comes true, “What Remains Is Future.”
Mark Burton is the visionary founder and a Managing Director at Pop-Daze Entertainment. Prior to creating the Pop-Daze Universe, he was an attorney and a partner in a private equity firm. His love of legacy music led him to leave the world of finance and find his own niche in the music industry. He is ultimately responsible for every aspect of your experience and always loves hearing from “Dazers!” It should be noted that while he does play the drums, he’s not very good at it, yet! He can be reached at Mburton@Pop-daze.com