New York City is known for a great deal of things, the breathtaking architecture, the exquisite cuisine, the competitive sports clubs, yet nothing is quite as monumental as New York’s music scene, packed with passion and fresh ideas waiting to be explored. Of those new concepts arose the prominence of punk rock, the aggressive successor of 1960s garage rock, and the precursor of 1980s hardcore music. Of all the places in America, CBGB became the original platform for this new formula and grew into the inaugural crucible of punk rock. Although CBGB did not originate as a venue for this groundbreaking genre, it adopted it all the same due to its influence on the community.
Initially founded December 10th, 1973 in Manhattan's East Village, CBGB became one of the most prominent music venues in the city’s illustrious history. Officially titled “CBGB and OMFUG”, which is an abbreviation for “Country, BlueGrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers” was originally targeting bands with softer sounds and more traditional roots.
Commonly referred to simply as CBGB, its inception began with Hillel “Hilly” Kristal, a New York native who wanted to establish a place where music could flourish, but was unaware that it would quickly develop into a sanctuary for the new-wave-punk-rock-movement. Previously a biker bar located under an established flophouse, a cheap housing alternative for addicts and victims of mental illness, CBGB resided within a two-block radius of six total, representative of a neglected neighborhood filled with derelicts and absent ambitions. The venue was intended to host mainstream acts of genres which the name details featuring several nights of poetry readings, yet due to the surrounding area, the attraction from such an audience seemed dissuaded. Punk bands and their rebellious fans however, were less intimidated by the approximately two thousand troubled souls dwelling in these streets. A community fitting for musical groups cast aside by the prevailing culture.
The start of CBGB’s renown began the night of August 16th, 1974, when a little known band by the name of Ramones exploded on that 10x10 foot stage to a room nearly empty. All wearing black, leather jackets and vocals coming by way of their rowdy drummer, a new, more aggressive genre spawned not yet known to be punk. Bands with similar sounds began to pour in, Television opening for Patti Smith on March 16th, 1975, a set featuring Heartbreakers, Talking Heads, and Blondie on August 15th 1975, U.K.’s punk pioneers Damned played multiple sets over several nights with Dead Boys per Joey Ramone’s suggestion from April 7th to the 10th, 1977, Misfits on April 18th, 1977, The Police on October 20th, 1978, the list goes on-and-on. These groups affirmed a dynamic swing for the culture of CBGB, one that was open to bold and distinct styles of expression with conviction in their messages and passion in their hearts. This culture would evolve during the 1980s into a classification of music known as hardcore punk, which would assume a much more vigorous and destructive tone. Popularized by bands such as Reagan Youth, Bad Brains, Cro-Mags, The Misfits, Agnostic Front, Murphy's Law, and Gorilla Biscuits, the wave of violent energy and combative spirit stimulated by such an atmosphere lasted only a decade before a formal ban was issued for the safety of its patrons.
In 2005 controversy brewed, as Bowery Residents’ Committee, the legal landlord of CBGB, alleged that a percentage of the rent had not been paid after adjustments had been issued due to inflation. Hilly rebuked such claims and had refuted that the scaled rent increase was ever properly billed to him. After feuding over rent for years, Hilly and Bowery Residents’ Committee had reached a settlement in court, one that would see Hilly vacate the premises on Oct. 31st, 2006, yet not before embracing and embodying everything that CBGB stood for. All formal genre bans had been lifted and bands flooded in to show their support for such a significant venue. Newer bands such as Avail, Bullys, and The Bouncing Souls opened for established acts which included Bad Brains, Underdog, and The Dictators. Blondie would play an acoustic set, paying homage to their humble roots, and on October 15th, 2006, Patti Smith Group would play the final set in CBGB history. Although it seemed like the end, the closure did not deter Hilly who had an ambition to open a new CBGB location in Las Vegas. These plans never came to fruition however, as Hilly Kristal passed on August 28th, 2007, due to complications from lung cancer. He will forever be recognized as a trailblazer, an advocate for innovation.
CBGB was truly a venue of expression. A way for young, ambitious dreamers to grab the mic and have themselves be heard, for their sound and not one that could be marketed on the mainstream airwaves. Just like the musicians who played there, CBGB represented an individual freedom to look, sound, and feel however you wanted, without fear of persecution or judgment. An incubation station for punk which revolutionized not only the city of New York but the global music market as a whole, giving life to acts that were defiant and critical of western culture, while seemingly molding it in the process. CBGB will forever be remembered as a rarity, a place of raw emotion, a bold statement from a restless generation. A diamond in the rough that would eventually become the crown jewel of New York City, and the birthplace of punk rock and new wave.
Written by: Dylan Borsos