Between Punk Rock and a Hard Place

A view from the stage at CBGB.Photo: Corinne May Botz

There is a spot, as you walk south from Astor Place on Fourth Avenue, with Cooper Union on your left and a Kaplan Test Prep center and the Village Voice on your right, where the heavy façades of institutional Manhattan break down. The buildings become lower and thinner, the construction scaffolds and metal shutters of closed shops are covered in graffiti and concert advertisements; two blocks down is the iconic canopy of CBGB/OMFUG, the world’s most famous punk-rock club; and in all directions you can see the sky. Third and Fourth have merged to become the Bowery—which for all the money being thrown at it still clings tenaciously to its shittiness for the next ten blocks.

This won’t last. Look closer at the scaffolding and you notice advertisements for a company called Code Blue Design—“Building Code and Zoning Consultants.” Due south, the real-estate developments are massing across Houston like an army waiting to cross the Rhine. “They’re coming this way,” homeless advocate Muzzy Rosenblatt told me recently as he took me on an extended tour of the Palace Employment Shelter, a dormitory and job-training center upstairs from CBGB. Rosenblatt, short and friendly, is head of the Bowery Residents’ Committee, an innovative homeless program that runs six buildings in the neighborhood. He showed me the facilities, pointed out the amenities (the main sitting room, he noted, where people not staying at the shelter can come in and relax, is directly above the CBGB stage), paused periodically to chat with a resident and elicit, for my benefit, a life story. He wasted his time on me like this because he had spent the past few months in a very familiar kind of New York drama, playing, for him, the very unfamiliar role of villain. When one graduate of the BRC program, a formerly homeless jazz musician named Greg, who’d actually played at the downstairs space at CBGB, took a hard line toward the club—“If you can’t meet your obligations in this life, man, you gotta go. This is New York City”—the unflappable Rosenblatt briefly flapped. He insists he has genuine affection for CBGB: “I’d love for them to stay. My wife and I—we had our first date there. We had our first kiss there.”

But those real-estate developments exert a certain pressure, and Muzzy Rosenblatt, who has been helping the city’s homeless in various capacities since graduating from Wesleyan in 1987, is now locked in a contentious dispute with the club, which happens to be his tenant. If things go the way they’re going, he will be the man who, after 30 years of everybody else trying, finally killed punk rock.

Inside the dark, cramped front office of CBGB, Hilly Kristal, the club’s legendary 73-year-old owner, sits bearded and troubled, greeting visitors (mostly tourists) and answering phone calls from around the world. “They call from Holland, Japan,” he says. “For some reason, they want us here. I don’t know why it matters to them, but it does.” On this day, he is waiting for the building inspector. The visit worries him: It was an inspection revealing numerous violations (especially for fire safety) that strained the BRC-CBGB relationship back in 2003. There was also the matter of rent, which Kristal had, for a while, kind of stopped paying. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the money, which eventually added up to $300,000, it’s just that no one asked. “They weren’t billing me for it,” Kristal says, making a tiny bit of sense.

“I went down and asked Hilly about it,” Rosenblatt says, making more sense, “and he says—this is typical Hilly,” Rosenblatt adjusts his voice into Kristal’s basso profundo, “ ‘You know, there was a blonde girl who used to come down and ask for it every two weeks, and then she stopped coming.’ So that’s a reason to stop paying?”A judge put together a payment plan, which CBGB faithfully followed, but last year the BRC presented Kristal with a $95,000 bill for missed rent increases. On the advice of his combative lawyer, Kristal took this, too, to court.

Hilly Kristal in his office at CBGB.Photo: Corinne May Botz

The timing could not have been worse: In August, CBGB’s lease expires, and Rosenblatt now wants a market rate (which could be double the current $20,000 a month). Kristal says it will be too much, and adds that Rosenblatt makes $150,000 a year—“That’s more than I pay anyone on my staff, including myself.” Rosenblatt says he’d be willing to negotiate the increase, but the unpaid money, which is not substantially in dispute, is eating him up. “That $90,000, that’s a van out there doing outreach,” he says. The fact that they’re in court makes him furious. “This isn’t,” he says, exasperated, “what we do.”

Kristal has responded with a strenuous Save CBGB campaign, plus a movement to landmark the site and a threat to move CBGB to Las Vegas. “They were very nice to me in Las Vegas,” he says. He has fallen in love, in his old age, with the idea of turning CBGB into a museum, and Las Vegas, already the museum of so much discarded culture, offers just that. “There’s a very nice space on Fremont Avenue, in downtown. It’s the right size and the right shape.” Kristal would rather stay in New York, of course, but the Las Vegas climate is warm and dry.

Now a young door-to-door salesman ducks into the club: He offers bathroom-cleaning and odor-refreshing products. “No, no,” Kristal cuts him off authoritatively. He was raised on a farm in central New Jersey by Jewish parents who’d escaped the city, his father having returned to the States in the twenties after fighting with Allenby in Palestine and then in the Haganah. Kristal moved to New York in the early fifties and sang at the cafés and clubs of Greenwich Village. Eventually, he managed the Village Vanguard. As the salesman turns to leave, Kristal says, in his deliberate way, “We like the way it smells.”

CBGB opened in December 1973, a time of particular shabbiness for the Bowery. The space had been occupied by the Palace Bar, catering in no small part to the residents of what was then the Palace flophouse upstairs. In what would later become the norm when magazines like this one began to give “dive bars” their own category in listings sections, Kristal kept the small neon beer signs that hung over the bar’s single aisle. He put in a quality sound system—for a long time the best in the city—and a stage, though, in what is perhaps another of his managerial philosophies, thriftiness, he failed to build steps to that stage. (“If you need to get up there, you will,” he says now, “especially if you’re 20 years old.”) He initially hoped to host country, bluegrass, and blues (thus CBGB), but the place quickly became home to abrasive, experimental rock music: Patti Smith, Television, and Talking Heads. The Ramones played their first show there in August 1974. Kristal thought they weren’t very good. “But they had something. They were doing their own thing. That’s all I’ve ever asked of anyone.”

For his part, Kristal kept the bar stocked, took out ads in the Voice (eventually running up a huge bill), and made friends with the local Hells Angels. Something was happening here, even if, as his detractors always claimed, Kristal didn’t quite know what it was. The Bowery was the avenue of despair and in its way punk expressed this. By the mid-seventies, mainstream rock had become the province of virtuoso, bourgeois professionals playing ten-minute songs in enormous stadiums—music where “the trappings and the tinsel and the construction become so important that it doesn’t really matter at all what’s inside,” as Lester Bangs wrote of Jethro Tull. The Ramones, by contrast, were a group of glue-sniffing delinquents from Queens whose entire set lasted fifteen minutes, in part because their musical repertoire was so limited; as Johnny Ramone advised Joe Strummer: “We’re lousy, we suck. If you wait until you can play, you’ll be too old.”

As the years went on, the things that had all been called punk at CBGB splintered. They became death metal, hair metal, hardcore punk, electro-punk, art rock, math rock. But CBGB remained pretty much the same, the bathrooms covered in graffiti and the walls in layer upon layer of punk-rock stickers. Bands continued to pass through, including great bands, but when the glory days are so glorious, everything else is a letdown. By 1977, the Sex Pistols were already making fun of the downtown clubs; Jonathan Lethem’s recent The Fortress of Solitude depicts CBGB well ensconced in the quotation marks of its own celebrity as early as 1981.

History had anointed CBGB a punk-rock temple, and Kristal wasn’t the sort of guy to buck history. He occasionally had ideas, but they were unremarkable: He signed on as the manager of a few bands—the Dead Boys, the Shirts—that never quite made it (“Actually, they lost me money”); for a while, he rented the premises next door and ran a radio station, opened a pizza shop. “I always said yes, yes, yes” to offers for CBGB franchises elsewhere. “The English were going to do something, the Japanese were—but nothing ever came of it.”

Dee Dee Ramone (with Joey's leg in the foreground) at CBGB, 1977.Photo: Godlis

In the late eighties, when Kristal’s landlords decided that, what with the crack epidemic raging and the city cutting back on social services, maybe the flophouse upstairs wasn’t such a going concern, they offered Kristal a chance to bid on the place. He could not raise the $4 million–plus asking price. “Owning a business in this city, even for many years—it doesn’t count for much,” he says. I ask if he at least owns his apartment, and he laughs. Though he did recently buy a house in Asbury Park, New Jersey—“the first place I’ve ever owned. Actually, the bank owns it. I’ll own it outright when I’m 103”—he lives in a small rent-stabilized place on East 3rd Street, next to the Hells Angels club. As for the building, the BRC took it over with a 45-year lease in 1993; it was thought the group would be best at dealing with the flophouse tenants.

“Maybe I was stupid,” Kristal says now, “but I never tried to make any money off this. Whenever I got anything, I put it right back.” These days, he maintains an art gallery next door that also stages folk-rock and theatrical productions, and a lounge downstairs, for avant-jazz and parties.

But here’s the way the world works now: By not making ingenious business moves, by not recognizing the truly outstanding bands and signing them, by not capitalizing early and often on the CBGB name, Hilly Kristal managed to maintain the place in its pristine original form, and when, not long ago, he finally got around to marketing CBGB clothing in earnest, he had on his hands a brand both authentic and cool—a commodity so rare and so precious, it was as if he’d discovered a mound of treasure behind a wall in the basement. Last year, the CBGB clothing line, led by the flagship CBGB T-shirt, grossed $2 million. This year, it might do better, what with the tote bags, shower curtains, and toddler outfits. Hipsters make fun: “It’s cool,” one indie blogger recently joked, “that a clothing company has gotten successful enough to open a rock club,” but then hipsters have always made fun of Kristal. No one ever digs the cat who keeps the plumbing going and sells barf bibs on the Internet.

The dreaded inspector finally arrives at CBGB. He is doing a certificate of occupancy for the downstairs lounge area; he is early and asks if he can check out the famous bar and stage before heading in for the inspection.

The phone rings often as we talk, and Kristal usually picks it up himself, announcing “CBGB” in that wonderfully low, slightly drawling voice of his. Franco, the original bassist for Millions of Dead Cops (famous for its 1981 anthem, “John Wayne Was a Nazi”), calls from New Mexico. He thinks Kristal should organize a contest for the best “Save CBGB” song. “That’s a good idea,” Kristal says. “We can put it on the Internet. It’ll get out there if we put it on the Internet.” It so happens Franco has already written a song, which he now performs. “That’s good,” Kristal says. “That might be the winner. We should think who’s going to judge this. Should I? … Well, Joey Ramone’s dead. Johnny too. And Dee Dee. Yeah. They’re all dead.”

Kristal’s roll call is interrupted by the initial report from the building inspector—it is delivered by a punk-rocker in his late twenties, with long hair and a cool loop ring in his septum: “He says we need to put a handlebar in the stall for handicapped people.”

“A handlebar?” says Kristal.

“Right. For handicapped people. Should be easy.”

“Okay. Is that it?”

“So far, yeah.”

Kristal looks unconvinced.

And the music? The night before, I had attended the famous amateur tryout night at CBGB—the night when just about any band can play, and maybe get a shot at a gig at CBGB. Except it’s not hard to get a gig at CBGB, and as far as I could tell, the industry heavies had stayed home. In fact, the place was dead. There were a few foreign graduate students, by the looks of them, and no one beat them up; we all listened peacefully to a rock band from Rochester that sounded like Green Day and a ska band from Worcester that sounded like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

The next night, I saw Dylan Nirvana, a pint-size bleached-hair punk-rocker who looks a little like Kurt Cobain. There were now maybe fifteen people. After the show, the bar staff stood around complaining. “He was supposed to finish at 11:30, he stayed on there until 11:40,” one said.

Photo: Corinne May Botz

“You should e-mail Hilly,” said another.

“I will. I’ll do just that. They book this crap, and then we have to listen to it.”

The next week, I stopped by CBGB on a Saturday night. This time, the place was busy—two of the bands, the Pennyroyals and Fixer, were, I was told, on the verge of major-label deals. I missed the Pennyroyals, but I caught Fixer. They were pros. The drummer was fast, the guitarist was shirtless, the bassist wore a suit jacket and looked kind of intellectual. But the lead singer of Fixer was the thing. He had eyeliner and a complicated outfit: black pants with laces running along the legs, a black vest buttoned on the left, black cloth wristbands. He moved around the stage like a snake, flinging the sweat from his hair onto the crowd. Then, in between songs, came this: “I really want to thank Verité, my clothing designer. She’s very talented. She designed the clothes I’m wearing tonight.”

The crowd was stunned. They had never heard anything less punk-rock in their entire lives. Had there been stairs next to the stage, we’d have rushed up there and tackled him. I looked up at the tattered ceiling, on the other side of which sat homeless people, maybe trying to get some rest.

Hilly Kristal does not often attend the shows these days. He is old. “My ears have heard enough music,” he told me, when I asked if he was tired. “But this thing, the history of it, it’s still very important to me. I’m not tired of that.” He began to talk again about his vision of a punk-rock museum at CBGB: “There was so much of interest here. And the other clubs, too—Max’s Kansas City, the Mudd Club. I think people would want to know what those were like.”

So a division of labor obtains: At CBGB, on the Bowery, Kristal ponders punk rock’s history and recites the names of the dead. Meanwhile, out in Red Hook, the spirit of punk lives. One night, between visits to CBGB, I trekked out to a club called the Hook, to see Lightning Bolt, an experimental noise band from Rhode Island.

If punk is dead, the idea of it must be kept alive. There needs to be a place where people can get onstage and scream out their hearts.

Lightning Bolt is two guys, one with a very loud drum set, the other with a virtuosic, and loud, bass guitar. They refuse to play on the stage, preferring the floor, meaning that if you want to see them you need to fight through the leaping, moshing kids massed around them, surging back and forth. It is imperative that one get close to them, however; it is practically the single imperative their music makes, because you feel you must see where this incredible sound is coming from. The bass guitar wails, strains, extends itself, while the drums pound furiously, at incredible speed. The form of the music is closer to jazz than to rock, with no discernible hooks, and occasionally very discordant interruptions of progressions—but eventually they do progress, building off one another, into an avalanche of sound. There was no singing, only the occasional guttural cries of the drummer, who wore a mike underneath his horrifying ski mask—he wore a horrifying ski mask—creating a sense that we’d all gathered together at the Hook to pay homage to some inarticulable thing. Lightning Bolt was awesome.

After the show, my roommate and I missed the shuttle van back to the F train and made our way on foot. Manhattan was finished, I thought, a museum of commerce, “dive bars,” and “rock clubs.” At least the stock exchange is real. Perhaps, as some people say, the best thing to do with CBGB would be to burn it down; for when NYU is buying the papers of Richard Hell, and when the Swedish government is hosting punk-rock functions at CBGB, and when Muzzy Rosenblatt can take a young lady to CBGB on a first date, and then, reader, she marries him—well, it’s tempting to say that such a living shadow should be in Las Vegas, or just nowhere at all. The New York Press said so a while ago, and the Williamsburg hipsterati have been saying so for years.

Of course they have. And if the best way to give the punk-rock finger to a city that uses Kristal’s club in its promotional materials for its megalomaniacal 2012 Olympic bid but can’t be bothered to mediate an emotional and near-tragic landlord-tenant dispute is to move to Las Vegas, no city has ever deserved such a finger more.

My roommate and I passed under the monstrous elevated BQE. Lightning Bolt, a true rock-and-roll band, had sold out Northsix in Williamsburg and then packed the Hook and didn’t even set foot in Manhattan. They hate the corporate sleaze, I suggested. “Well, maybe,” said my roommate, who used to be the drummer for the Austin emo band the Gloria Record. “But probably they just figured this is where the people were. They’d make more money here.”

It was an important historical point. And yet as we sat at the Smith and 9th Street F stop, the highest in New York, looking over at the bright lights of Manhattan, I thought that the only thing lamer than a museum-ified CBGB would be no CBGB at all. There’s a reason people in Finland want CBGB to stay here, and it’s not because they need a brick-and-mortar referent for their T-shirts. In the psychic economy of the known universe, there needs to be a place, even if you never go there, devoted, even if no one actually does it, to getting up onstage and screaming out your heart.

I remembered the scene at the conclusion of the building inspector’s visit. His final report was delivered by Kristal’s son-in-law Ger, an affable bearded Dutchman who used to run a photo lab.

Said Ger, “He said we need vents in the bathroom. For clean air.”

“But there are holes, aren’t there?”

“Those are holes. He wants vents.”

Kristal took this in. At some level, it was preposterous, unjust. But outside on the Bowery, the luxury-apartment hunters and test-prep centers and university-dorm builders were creeping. Surely there was a bit of punk-rock wisdom that could be helpful here—“Kick out the jams, motherfucker”? “I wanna sniff some glue”? “John Wayne was a Nazi / He liked to play SS / Kept a picture of Adolf … / Tucked in his cowboy vest”? So they wanted vents. This was how they broke you down—Kristal knew, he knew. “Okay,” he said with a sigh, in his little front office, another lonely tenant in a city full of sharks.

Between Punk Rock and a Hard Place