CMJ Music Marathon 2005: End of an era

NEW YORK – Walking through the doorway of this legendary venue, one’s eye is immediately drawn upward, above eye level, where the stickers begin. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of stickers – slapped, neatly affixed, thrown,and otherwise attached – adorn the walls of this rock’n’roll shrine. Before pushing aside a dingy curtain to enter the bar, you see a Cabbage Patch doll that appears to have been stapled to the wall since the mid-1980s, its glossy eyes rendered a dull grey, its diaper a new hue of dirty.

This dingy palace – home of underground rock, bestower of the title of “Our Lady of Bowery” to Ms. Patti Smith, claimant to a place unrivaled in American music history and continuing host to some of the best concerts in the country – this beloved CBGB may soon be no more. A vital participant in this year’s College Music Journal Music Marathon, CBGB may have been in its last year as a participant-the venue is slated to close.

Located at 815 Bowery on Bleeker Street, CBGB gave groups such as The Ramones, Television and the Talking Heads the support they needed to get started in New York City in the 1970s. The intimate venue has remained a living shrine ever since. Continuous support for the local music scene as well as up-and-coming acts from foreign countries helped the club evolve into a punk mecca.

But just two weeks ago, on Sept. 8, CBGB owner Hilly Kristal received an eviction notice one week after his lease with the Bowery Resident’s Committee expired. The BRC’s executive director, Muzzy Rosenblatt, said his organization plans to find a new tenant for the space.

Unfortunately for music fans, this story cannot be framed in the terms they know and love so well: “the man is keeping us down.” The BRC is a nonprofit homeless advocacy group, which according to its Web site, provides a “comprehensive array of services including housing, meals, detoxification, mental health and addiction services, health care, vocational rehabilitation, AIDS services, community education and advocacy.”

BRC started two years earlier than CBGB in 1971 and has been subleasing the space to Kristal ever since. In a statement explaining the decision, Rosenblatt explained, “it is in the best interest of our clients – the homeless and neediest New Yorkers – to sever this relationship.”

Unfazed by the news, the club owner has been carrying on business as usual, booking acts through the end of September and hosting almost-nightly shows during the Music Marathon. A benefit concert hosted in Washington Square Park Aug. 31 featured guests such as Blondie, Gavin Rossdale’s new band and Steven “Little Stevie” Van Zant of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Kristal reassured the crowd that the event was “not a eulogy … (and that) there’s no reason why we (CBGB and BRC) shouldn’t come to an understanding.”

Kristal’s can-do attitude reflects the design of the venue. The egalitarian vibe that CBGB emits is difficult to ignore, from the approximately 3-foot high stage (elevating the band only slightly higher than the audience) to the lack of green rooms usually tucked behind the stage, and the fact that band members mingle freely with the audience after their set.

While the club’s future remains murky, the present is still sharp and raw. At a recent showcase by the New York-based record label French Kiss, five acts took to the stage, each demonstrating what CBGB is all about – painfully loud decibel levels issuing forth from ancient, primitive equipment, noise vibrations causing dust to float gently from the tops of frayed ropes and electrical cords snaking across the ceiling, and a packed audience.

The new CBGB experience is walking into the famed space and being overwhelmed by those who came before you, a visual feast of the stickers and the posters clinging to the walls. But the real CBGB experience is a live show, getting up close to the stage, where the amateurish light show blinds you, the sweat beads on the brows and back of performers inches away from you and you feel overwhelmed by the music.

The heat, the sweat, the grime, the noise: CBGB may soon be no more, but the experience will remain.

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