In December 1973, a man by the name of Hilly Kristal opened a club in the East Village of Manhattan. And who would have assumed that this would be the place where the 70s New York punk rock and new wave scene will be born. Bands like the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and Patti Smith Group; all of them made their start right here.
Originally the club was called Hilly’s On The Bowery and from 1969 to 1972 operated as a dive bar and biker bar. Hilly’s first intention was to turn the place into a spot for Country, Bluegrass, and Blues music (hence the name CBGB) and poetry readings. But by a matter of coincidence and after two locals, Bill Page and Rusty McKenna persuaded Krystal to allow them to book gigs, the initial concept changed.
At the time, an entirely new underground music scene was beginning to emerge and many of the local bands were looking for a place to play their music. After the collapse of the Mercury Arts Center in 1973, the door was open for CBGB. Bands started lining up to play because there weren’t any options available elsewhere.
Kristal saw the potential in those bands, but also a great opportunity for his club. After seeing that the bands sounded nothing like country or blues and that the music they played was something brand new and original, Kristal added another abbreviation on the canopy, next to the existing title.
Now the club officially became CBGB & OMFUG, and it came to reflect broad tastes and draw an eclectic music oriented crowd. The full name stands for “Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers”. Gormandizer is usually a term that refers to a person who eats gluttonously, but Hilly changed the context to specifically refer to “a voracious eater of… music”, which, if we can admit, really sounds awesome.
Hilly enforced two rules on the bands who came to play in his establishment: that bands must carry their own equipment, and were to play mostly original songs. The unconventional “street rock”, seen as a break from popular disco music and a precursor to punk rock, played here gave CBGB the reputation as a sanctuary for counterculture misfits and a palace of underground rock, something which sticks with the place even to this day.
CBGB took Manhattan and New York by storm. Nothing was the same after that because CBGB had changed the game. Everything felt vibrant and alive, like if there was something in the air, and the crowd was loving every moment of it. It can be even said that the New York music scene can be viewed as before and after CBGB.
The first band to make a name for themselves in CBGB was Television. Other early performers included the Dina Regine Band and Patti Smith with her group, who made their debut on February 14, 1975. Soon, bands like Talking Heads, the Fleshstones, the Shirts and the Heartbreakers started playing regularly at CBGB.
But the two bands who truly made a mark, and in a way were born out of CBGB, were the Ramones and Blondie. These bands would become to be not just staples of the CBGB stage, but also one of the most influential acts of the emerging American punk rock and new wave style.
Over the years, the reputation of the club kept growing and growing. Acts outside of New York were eager to play there, in fact the first time that a British punk band played in America was when the Damned played here in April 1977. Next followed Elvis Costello in 1978 and The Police who also played their first US gigs here. And from the end of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s, CBGB had almost exclusively punk and hardcore bands take on the stage, earning Hilly the nickname the “godfather of punk”.
A storefront beside the club was converted into a record shop and cafe called “CBGB Record Canteen”, which in the late 1980s became “CB’s 313 Gallery” (an art gallery and second performance space).
But when the 1990s came, CBGB started to slowly decline. A series of violent acts both inside and outside the club forced Hilly to suspend hardcore gigs. This, followed by strings of complaints from the neighbors about the loud music, lead to fewer bands booking gigs, until in the end there weren’t any bands playing whatsoever.
In 2005, CBGB was sued for $90,000 debt by the Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC), atop its normal monthly rent of $19,000. Hilly refused to pay, claiming that he was never notified about any increase in rent beforehand. A judge ruled in favor of Krystal, saying that the BRC never properly billed the rent increases. Also, he indicated that CBGB should be declared a landmark and noted that the lease was soon expiring.
BRC’s executive director Muzzy Rosenblatt vowed to an appeal, and Krystal, expecting Rosenblatt’s resistance to a new lease negotiation, came to an agreement with the BRC that CBGB would leave by September 30, 2006, and move into Las Vegas.
So, in the final weeks of CBGB’s existence, New York promoter Rocks Off booked “many of the artists who made CB’s famous”, and also some newer acts. The last show, which was broadcast live on Sirius Satelite Radio on October 15, 2006, was reserved for Patti Smith and guests, including Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Television’s Richard Lloyd.
In her final encore, Patti Smith paid respect to the musicians who had died since playing at CBGB. And with that, CBGB closed for good. For a short while, until October 31, 2006, the venue functioned as a retail store CBGB Fashions.
The next year, on August 28, 2007, Hilly Kristal died from complications of lung cancer. His family and friends hosted a private memorial in the nearby YMCA.
Today, the location at 315 Bowery is occupied by John Varvatos fashions. However, this legendary address, the place where CBGB helped create a totally new music landscape, is still a pilgrimage site for legions of music fans. The name of the music venue and the date it was founded “CBGB 73” is etched into the cement at the entrance to the clothing store and often visitors take their time to take photos. But for some, the place represents a trip down memory lane, to remind themselves that this was where they first heard their favorite band playing.