THE GLOBE AND MAIL: PUNK PALACE FIGHTS FOR LIFE ON THE BOWERY | ALISON NELSON'S CHOCOLATE BAR + CBGB
Hilly Kristal's grotty Bowery lair is the last place still standing from New York's live music explosion in the early 1970s. The Bottom Line gave it a good shot but finally succumbed to the march of so-called progress last year, only one month before its 30th anniversary, when its owners admitted they couldn't meet the higher rent demands of their pushy landlord. Now, another landlord's desire to get market rates might mean the end of CBGB.
Kristal originally intended his club to cater to catholic tastes: The acronym stands for Country Blue-Grass and Blues (with its subordinate name OMFUG standing for Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers). From opening night in December, 1973, Kristal's chief programming policy has been that bands must play original music. Through the years, thousands of hungry groups have shook the place, from The Police to Blue Rodeo, Spacehog to Guns N' Roses.
But CBGB's renown -- its brand, if we may use such a corporate word -- comes directly from the brief period in the mid-to-late-seventies when punk bands such as the Ramones, Television and the Sex Pistols helped ignite a worldwide revolution from the club's small, handmade stage.
That revolution almost didn't happen here. In Punk: Attitude, a new documentary by the music-video director Don Letts that will air on the U.S. cable channel IFC in July, Kristal recalls his disdain for Tom Verlaine's Television. "They didn't sound good to me. A couple of Sundays later we put the Ramones in," he says, wrinkling his nose. "They were worse than Television."
CBGB occupies the ground floor of a 100-plus-year-old building that for many years was one of the largest flophouses on the Bowery.
Here's where the current rent mess gets a little complicated. The landlord that pushed the Bottom Line out of its home wasn't a voracious developer, but the not-for-profit New York University in need of classroom space. And CBGB's unlikely assailant is a grassroots organization that houses and helps homeless people.
A couple of years before Kristal started his club, the building was taken over by the Bowery Residents Committee, which runs substance-abuse programs, helps with job training, and co-ordinates housing for more than 6,000 men and women every year. From Kristal's perspective, though, the BRC looks like a nasty corporation: Its budget runs into the tens of millions, and it's supported by the city and deep-pocketed companies such as Citibank and The New York Times.
The executive director of BRC, recognizing the Bowery's fast-moving gentrification, says he has an obligation to maximize the value of the property in order to support his programs. That means CBGB's rent could double or even triple from its current level of $20,000 a month. "That sort of rent would be impossible for me," Kristal said last week. "Though I guess if they want a Starbucks in here, they could do it." The club's current lease expires in August.
Kristal says that the city surely owes something to the club. CBGB brings in tourists (just hang around a few hours in the daylight -- if you must; the place benefits from darkness -- and you won't be able to miss the foreigners traipsing in for snapshots). For that matter, the city's promotional video for the Olympics even includes some scenes shot in CBGB.
And in an inversion of the origins of punk, at least one small corporation is trying to come to the rescue. Tonight, the club will host the launch of CBGB's Punk Rock Box, a collection of 16 truffles created by the Greenwich Village candy store Chocolate Bar (http://www.chocolatebarnyc.com) that retails for $25 (U.S.), a portion of which goes to the club's legal fees. Chocolate Bar founder Alison Nelson, 31, is too young to have been at CBGB in its heyday, but wanted to do something to help out. The gift box includes a commemorative keychain, CBGB stickers and a postage-paid petition to help save the club. The 16 truffles are embossed with various CBGB-related designs such as a skull, or the club logo; sadly, there is no image of a patron shooting up in the washroom.
Kristal, who's now 73, seems beaten down by the continuing battle. If all else fails, Kristal can follow Robert Goulet and Wayne Newton, and light out for a man-made desert oasis that has never produced anything real except despair. The mayor of Las Vegas, looking to boost the city's bona fides in music for people under the age of death, recently flew Kristal out to take a look at a few venues that he hoped might offer a new home for CBGB. I guess they could try it, but it seems to me that it would take decades before any newly built place could offer the same unique Bowery bouquet of vomit, discord, booze and fury.