If Ashlee Simpson, facial-piercing kiosks in malls, and pink-skeleton Vans for grrrls aren’t enough to make you cringe, try this: Due to a rash of legal and financial troubles, legendary New York City music venue CBGB could be closed by September. Even as mainstream pop culture now happily embraces punk and all its poseurs, the birthplace of the original alternative rock may be left out in the cold.
When CBGB opened on the Bowery in 1973, new-wave bands found a home away from the corporate rock and ultra-glam venues that dominated the era. The CB’s scene ”wasn’t about getting a record contract. It was just about expressing ourselves, doing our work. It was freedom,” says Patti Smith, an early denizen. ”There was this incredible camaraderie,” remembers Television guitarist Richard Lloyd, who was so instrumental in the club’s beginning that he helped build the stage. That camaraderie evolved into the U.S. punk scene, and CBGB icons like Talking Heads, Blondie, and the Ramones went on to influence Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, the Strokes. . .basically, almost any band you’ll see on MTV.
Frankly, these days the venue mostly acts as a generic symbol of counterculture. On ER, Shane West’s doctor is defined more by the CB’s shirt he wears than by anything medical. When Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino needed a destination for Lane and her band, the choice was obvious: ”Every band wants to play CBGB’s. It’s a classic.” And dearly departed O.C. lesbian Alex donned a tee in a November ep to cement her image as edgy because, says creator Josh Schwartz, the shirt is ”shorthand for those who know what CBGB’s was.”
Was may be an all-too-apt word: The club is currently in a war over finances with its landlord, the Bowery Residents’ Committee, a homeless-services organization that’s seeking around $75,000 in back rent. BRC executive director Muzzy Rosenblatt says, ”I have nothing but fondness for CBGB’s. It’s just unfortunate that the individual at the helm of it appears not to be able to uphold his responsibilities.” Counters CB’s founder Hilly Kristal, ”If a judge decides we owe it, we’ll pay it. . . .I’m not fighting the shelter.” Should the courts say he has to pay up, most of the money will come from (you guessed it) merchandise sales, which grossed about $2 million last year. But a bigger problem looms: CB’s lease is up this summer, and BRC is threatening to double the rent to nearly $40,000 a month…and that’s a lot of baby-doll tees. ”I’ve heard from a lot of people [like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban],” says Kristal. ”I said, ‘I can’t take your money,’ because it doesn’t mean it’s gonna save it.”
If CBGB doesn’t cover the past rent and gets evicted, it will be the latest in a string of shuttered NYC venues, including the Bottom Line, and Hollywood romantics like Schwartz are appalled. ”At a certain point, the Statue of Liberty will have to move to Hoboken ’cause she can’t afford the rent,” he grumbles. But punk survivor Smith isn’t worried. ”Kids are resilient. If they close CBGB’s, they’ll find another hole-in-the-wall and give it glory.” (Lately, most of those holes are being found in cities like Omaha and Montreal anyway.) Lloyd agrees: ”Ultimately, it was a dingy club under a flophouse. And I loved that time, but it’s foolish to hold on to the past.”