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CBGB: America’s Party Pit

Deep within the heart of New York City lies the neighborhood street the Bowery. A national treasure of culture that stretches a mile within Manhattan’s East Village. But at its center holds the apex to some of the most generational defining moments in the history music. In its 30-year run, CBGB has hosted the most high-profile names as a live concert venue. Artists such as: The Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Blondie and so many others can trace their beginnings as legends to CBGB. The venue’s identity as a hallmark to punk rock and new wave make it one of the most historical locations in New York. But its legacy is defined by its origin and hectic events behind-the-scenes to book the most legendary gigs that would pack the house.

Before it was one of the most prolific clubs in the city, CBGB was a run-down dive bar owned by former artist manager Hilly Kristal. Its reputation for being dingy and unsanitary led the bar to being closed within a couple years. Rather than let it go to waste, Kristal looked to change its identity to a club that would stand out from other live music venues. Country, bluegrass and blues would be the featured genres Kristal intended to showcase. Its abbreviations, CBGB, mark what Kristal assumed as the start for a new music scene in the big city. Except, it wouldn’t be as how he originally envisioned.

The club faced a rocky start to its opening as Kristal soon found it difficult to run a country venue when there were little to no country artists in New York. The few patrons that attended began to dwindle and Kristal’s frustrations grew as he feared closing once again. Until he ran into the local rock band Television who were looking for chances to perform anywhere. By giving them there shot, Kristal noticed a sensational following as other eccentric artists became interested in performing at the club. After booking local rock ‘n’ roll acts, new clientele packed the small bar. The loyal following surrounding these acts grew beyond there neighborhood and soon people all over the city traveled to the Bowery to witness these performers. CBGB’s popularity grew as well for having the smallest stage set-up but maintaining one of the best sound systems in New York.

As new acts emerged, the club grew its business to becoming one of the only places to showcase punk rock. The genre made CBGB its home as Kristal gained a reputation for treating each artist with respect and fair pay. Among these artists who credit the club with being instrumental in their career is a legendary group who defined the genre’s era. The Ramones made one of their earliest performances at the club which garnered the attention of noted journalists. Legs McNeil recalls their performance, “They looked so striking. These guys were not hippies. This was something completely new.” Each decade would feature new rising artists at the club which now included The Police, Joan Jett, The Misfits, Beastie Boys. A sense of exclusivity grew within the club as the t-shirts sold within became “badges of honor” for everyone who’s attended. These exclusives included witnessing the club’s infamous, graffiti-laced bathroom which personified the genre’s attitude era.

Kristal enjoyed a nice run of profitability after enduring the early financial struggles from his life. But this stretch would reach a decline by the 1990s when the building that housed the club was bought by the Bowery Residential Committee. The relationship between Kristal and the committee was anything but friendly as both parties found disagreements on rent payment. Tensions reached an overhead as the committee would not renew Kristal’s lease and the club would play its final show in 2006. Patti Smith would be given the honors to play its final night as she covered songs from the artists who brought the club to its legendary status. A year after its closing, Kristal would pass away despite pledging to open another CBGB. Over the years the venue would be transformed into art galleries which preserved its legacy in American music. To this day, fans who’ve traveled across the world stop by the venue to pay respects to its history and late owner who transformed a decaying bar into a paragon for a new generation of music.

Written by Trenton Luber


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