Could Be Gone – Believe!
If you have been into this Punk Rock thing for a year or more and are quite sincere about your interest in Punk’s heritage, I guess you’ll know of CBGB. I’m guessing you know of its place in music’s history; not just of Punk, but that of Hardcore and all forms of original music also.
If that opening paragraph has left you a bit baffled, let me give you a brief history lesson. CBGB is a bar/venue/club in New York City’s Bowery, a notorious area of lower Manhattan that was/is home to the homeless, the drug-crazed, the alcoholic, the dispossessed and any other vagrants and miscreants you care to mention. At one time or another, they have all made The Bowery their own centre of activity – the proverbial ‘Street of Lost Souls’.
The bar opened in December 1973 originally as a vehicle for owner, Hilly Kristal, to promote the music he liked – Country, Blue-Grass, Blues (CBGB). It was a visit from one Richard Hell and a performance by TELEVISION that forever changed the musical path of CBGB and set about the venue’s rise towards the peak of the ‘Infamy League’ of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Hall Of Fame.
The NYC venues that had given the likes of the NEW YORK DOLLS their breaks, such as Max’s Kansas City, Electric Circus and the legendary Mercer Arts Centre, were either changing hands, had closed down or, in the case of the latter had fallen down. That left CBGB to become the catalyst for the then aspiring NY Punk Scene, spearheaded by THE RAMONES along with BLONDIE, JOHNNY THUNDERS AND THE HEARTBREAKERS, VOIDOIDS, PATTI SMITH, TALKING HEADS and soon THE DEAD BOYS, SUICIDE and THE DICTATORS. Without CBGB, it’s feasible to suggest that these bands would have had nowhere to play and may have faded into nothingness.
It became a pivotal NYC venue again in the mid-80s when it began to stage Hardcore matinees featuring the then burgeoning NYHC scene. It’d be packed to the rafters with kids watching multi-band bills, this time spearheaded by the fledgling Revelation Records roster including BOLD, JUDGE, WARZONE, GORILLA BISCUITS and the band that seemed to galvanise that whole era, YOUTH OF TODAY. The bar has continued to stage bands to this very day – the only criteria for performing bands is that they must be original bands with original songs. You grasp that? NO cover bands and NO tribute bands!
I hope you realise that this bar is as important to the history of Punk Rock as The Cavern is to the history of The Beatles. It’s as iconic as the Empire State Building. It’s the most notable – and possibly the final – link to Punk’s roots. This is the place Punk has continually reinvented itself. THIS is the place it all began…
…And soon it could be gone.
The manner in which Kristal could be turfed out of CBGB and the fragility of the bar’s future cannot, for once, be placed at the feet of the city’s greedy rate collectors, nor can it be attributed to a condo-crazed developer. It comes down to a charity, the BRC – Bowery Residents’ Committee – a non-profit organization that runs a homeless shelter above the venue. The charity also happens to own the venue.
This is quite a complex story, but simplistic at the core. I’ll try to condense the basic facts in the paragraphs that follow. If you want full, unabridged info, click on the graphic below to go to the ‘Save CBGB’ web site, from which most of the information for this piece was taken.
The origins of the dispute date back to 2001 when the BRC presented Kristal with a bill for $300,000 apparent unpaid rent. In fact, this was for unbilled rent increases that the club was unaware of. The club had paid the going rate consistently every month. Much of this has now been paid but, earlier this year, Kristal was presented with yet another bill for $76,000 - again for an unbilled rent increase - a bill Kristal is refusing to pay and, for such an action, now faces eviction.
How CBGB’s came to be owned by a drop-in centre for the homeless speaks volumes for the Bowery itself.
Kristal leased the storefront of what was originally The Palace Hotel on 315 Bowery (then an infamous flophouse and Hell’s Angels hang out) directly from its owners back in 1973 for $600 per month. In the mid-90s, he had a chance of buying the building but couldn’t afford the $4 million price tag. By this time, the owners had turned 315 and the neighbouring 317 over to the BRC on a 45-year lease. Kristal was given a 12-year lease and things remained amicable until the bill for $300,000 appeared.
Kristal is not refuting all blame. He states that the poor accountancy of both parties as the cause of unpaid rent. Kristal used to hand-deliver the cheque to BRC, but was told not to. But after that, according to Kristal, the BRC failed to collect the rent and didn’t even send regular bills. When the sporadic bills did appear, they failed to mention any increase on the rent rate – as a pair of December 2003 invoices proves: the total is less than $1,300. But still, Kristal paid the going rate of rent every month - at least, the rate he was aware of.
Muzzy Rosenblatt, executive director of BRC, although agreeing to some extent with Kristal, counters that statement. "We're not a commercial landlord," he says of BRC, which has evolved into a $30 million-a-year homeless-services provider managing 23 programmes in the city. That may be true, but a $300,000 debt is something worth chasing up somewhat earlier I would have thought.
A seven-month court battle ensued, resulting in CBGB’s having to pay approximately $223,000 in monthly instalments.
Move on to 2003, and we find the next fractious episode in the relationship between Kristal and the BRC when, after an inspection by the city, CBGB’s was landed with a number of building and fire code violations. Rosenblatt states Kristal’s response was lax, but Kristal contends all repairs were completed within a week. The issue is still being litigated, though Kristal faults the BRC for failing to answer its own violations as landlord.
When it comes to an issue of just what constitutes a credible landlord, it seems the BRC was/is rather negligent. For three years, the club was without any form of heat generation and had to make do with small, electric heaters. Then there was the problem of the patrons of the BRC, who frequently panhandled out front while police and ambulances were called out, at all hours, to the 24-hour drop-in centre.
Now, there is a possible rent increase. The BRC has proposed charging $55 per square foot for the space on their ground floor and $25 per square foot for the basement area. That brings the rent to a staggering $39,000 per month – double the current figure. On top of this is the annual liability insurance fee of $80,000. For a club that consistently attempts to stage shows for between $8-$10 and is unwilling to raise that figure, the rent hike becomes impossible to meet.
The current lease on CBGB’s expires in August. Rosenblatt refuses to discuss terms until Kristal can, “Show me [Rosenblatt] you can meet your current obligations.” Kristal has vowed to hand over the money owed when a new 10-year lease has been negotiated. With this friction that stands between Kristal and the BRC, a compromised and agreeable rate of rent for both parties looks – at present – ever unlikely. At the very best, any progression is, at present, stationary.
Additionally, the BRC has listed both properties on Real Estate MLS as available for rent.
So, what am I writing about this for? Well, go back and read those opening paragraphs. Go back and read the criteria required for bands to play at the bar. Go back and read the door admission and Kristal’s dogged refusal to raise the price. CBGB has got the history, but it has still got a massive amount of integrity. Remember, this is New York fuggin’ City man!!! Where mega-dollars walk AND talk – and shit on those with less. It would have been easy for Kristal to have cashed in on the name of CBGB and turned the venue into some kinda museum – especially when Joey Ramone died – charging $10 a head to Punk Rockers wishing to see the changing room, stage area, graffiti etc etc. I visited the club all of ten years ago and would gladly have paid $20 to visit it had it been necessary. It’s estimated that 1,000 people visit the club every WEEK just to look at it and its interior. If Kristal made it a museum/shrine, he’d have no band over-heads to pay – he’d be laughing.
But he hasn’t converted it into a museum for RAMONES aficionados and he isn’t laughing. It’s still a going concern and I for one feel this is a vital part of MUSIC’s history: it’s an INSTITUTION!! We can help. For starters, you can visit the website above, or this one: www.savecbgb.org You’ll find email addresses, petitions and addresses for donations + more information on the whole case.
Of course, it’s up to you as to whether you are just willing to consume Punk Rock, or actively support it, but come on, it won’t take you five minutes to sign the petition at the very least. Do it, do it, do it!! Try to make a difference and be counted.
A voice doesn’t cost anything and if we Punks can’t kick against the pricks, then just who will?