If the graffiti-splattered, poster-covered walls of CBGB could talk, aside from asking for a good scrubbing, they might wax nostalgic about an era when they watched the Ramones grow up and fantasized as Debbie Harry sauntered across the stage. With those legendary walls facing possible demolition in a month, the venue’s owner kicked off a month-long campaign on Monday (Aug. 1) to save the renowned New York City venue.
On August 1, the first day of the last month of the venue’s current lease, Steven Van Zandt, Tommy Ramone, Debbie Harry, Lenny Kaye, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Legs McNeil, Jesse Malin, and a host of other speakers and performers banded together to raise the public’s awareness about the very real possibility of the death of CBGB.
“CBGB is the last rock’n’roll club left,” said Van Zandt as he held court over the press conference on the stage, sporting his signature bandana and loud purple shirt. “There’s nothing like it left in the world, [a place] where people have come not being famous and left being found by record companies,” Van Zandt added. “There’s historical significance here too. The genre of punk was created here.”
While Van Zandt and his fellow panelists put on brave faces and spewed optimistic and empowered sentiments about the import of the venue, there was of course the lurking knowledge that the club is in serious danger, since its landlord — the Bowery Residents Committee (BRC), a non-profit organization for the homeless — raised the rent.
The lease for the club, which has been a landmark on New York’s Bowery for 31 years, is set to expire at the end of the month, unless the coalition for CBGB can convince the BRC to negotiate a fair lease renewal for the venue.
CBGB owner Hilly Kristal, who spoke in more hushed tones, said he felt the BRC wanted him out specifically, and assured the crowd that rumors of the club moving to Las Vegas were untrue. “We want to be here,” he said.
As the press conference turned into a rock concert, Debbie Harry sashayed onto the stage flanked by Paul Carbonara on acoustic guitar and Kevin Patrick on keys. Clad in a red-and-white striped cardigan, a Dee Dee King tee, and a black boustier, the Blondie frontwoman — for whom the CBGB stage was her launch pad into stardom — crooned her way through a quartet of songs including a blues-infused rendition of “Call Me” and “Presence, Dear,” swinging her hips and gazing out at the crowd. “Let’s pull this thing together,” she said, before exiting the stage.
Jesse Malin took a different route during his set, blasting through songs like “Queen of the Underworld” and “Black-Haired Girl,” which he said went out to “all the girls who come out to CBGB.” As the majority of the women in the club rushed the stage to get closer to the former glam-rocker, Malin that “the town wouldn’t be the same without [CBGB]” before thrashing through the song “Wendy,” and ending his set by kicking over a mic stand, sitting on the drums, and dousing the crowd with water.
During the marathon event, bands like the Star Spangles, Swingin’ Neckbreakers, and others each played two sets: one at CBGB, and one next door at CB’s 313 Gallery. While the double feature was a treat for fans, it became a burden for some of the rockers, including poor Ted Leo, who had to race through a quartet of songs in order to get next door in time for his scheduled set.
Everyone but Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre was feeling the “Save CBGB” vibe. An inebriated Newcombe instead feebly attempted to rally the crowd to “leave this place” and “let it die.” Managing to eke out just two songs during his set, Newcombe successfully insulted Handsome Dick Manitoba, the entire audience, his fellow band members and all of Canada.
Following his first song, Newcombe took a break to lob some more insults at the audience before pouring some water on the stage for his “fallen friends, you know what I mean?” As the crowd uselessly implored him to just play a damn song, Newcombe remained defiant: “I have four minutes to play the best song ever, so I am going to talk shit for the next two.”
Maybe he didn’t have the best intentions or his faculties in order, but even Newcombe’s annoying antics could be included in the slew of reasons to keep CBGB standing.
Check out the August issue of Spin, on newsstands now, for a CBGB memoir penned by veteran New York rock critic Ira Robbins.
Get SPIN.com headlines for FREE on your mobile phone! Just text SPIN to 68423 to sign up. It’s one message per day, Monday thru Friday, bringing you all the news that rocks, minus the carpal tunnel.