My book This Must Be The Place: An Architectural History of Popular Music Performance Venues (Bloomsbury, New York) is published today 7th March 2019. It tells the story of the places and spaces where popular music has been performed and appreciated since the mid 18th century to today. As a taster, here is a short excerpt about one of those places – hugely influential but as often happens, also ephemeral.
This is more of a pilgrimage than a night out. The outside of the venue is as I have seen it in pictures I have been looking at since the 1970s, fascinated by the roots of my favourite music of the time, in particular Talking Heads, but there were others I liked who also got their start here – The Ramones, Television, Patti Smith and Blondie. Although I had been to New York before I hadn’t made the effort to come this place, too intent on those earlier visits on what was currently happening at clubs like the Blue Note in Greenwich Village; Paris Blues up in Harlem; and the Knitting Factory when it was in the Bowery (the club is now in Brooklyn). But somehow, now in 2005, it seems important to go to CBGB, perhaps because it looks likely that the club may soon have to close.
CGBG and OMFUG (famously an acronym for Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers) is an archetypal music venue that was opened by Hilly Kristal in 1973 on the site of his earlier bar Hilly’s. Situated in a four-storey brick building, upstairs was the Palace Hotel, a ‘flop house’ which Hilly described as an advantage as the ‘derelict, alcoholic, or drug-addict’ residents weren’t that bothered about having a rock club beneath where they slept (Kristal 1998). Kristal’s original intention for the club’s musical ambitions are obvious from its name, however, it instead became synonymous with the establishment of American punk rock, with many of the key exponents of this new music meeting there, seeing each other play in pre-punk bands, and influencing each other as the genre developed – CBGB is the archetypal venue in which a music scene was established and grew. Whilst disco had a hold in many New York clubs and hip hop was getting started in the Bronx, CBGB was a cheap place in a decaying part of the city that had a policy of ‘only original songs, no covers’, that brought in new guitar bands. Patti Smith recalls: ‘When we started building CBGB as a place to play, it was because there was no [other] place to play for people like us’. On 14 April 1974 Television’s first gig took place with Patti Smith in the audience. The Ramones first played there on 16 August 1974 (before Tommy joined) and on 16 August the following year Talking Heads and Blondie featured in the same show, though both bands were regulars by then. The Damned were the first British punk band to feature in April 1977 but others soon followed. In the 1990s the club became home to hardcore rock bands like Green Day, Sum 42, and Guns and Roses (in an acoustic set in CBGB Record Canteen, the storefront next door which Kristal opened for a time in the late 1980s) – all soon to become stadium filling acts.
In through the entrance, I’m surprised to see a shop selling merchandise – mainly racks of t-shirts in all colours stacked to the ceiling. The club itself is a long room, low lighting, seating on the left and bar on the right. Passing a huge mixing desk, I walk up between these two and its clear I’m early as the place isn’t even half full. I grab a beer and get a chair near the stage where a few people, obviously the first group on, are still adjusting their gear. The place is a mess, intentionally. Every surface is plastered with stickers, posters, and random graffiti, the floor is uneven, and in some places has holes plated with mis-shaped pieces of metal. The stage itself, crammed into the end of the room is at an odd angle to the standing area in front of it, with large speakers on either side and above the stage – they look loud just sitting there, although the current jukebox music appears to be coming from something else tiny and tinny. The toilets seem to be carved out of ancient stone and brick, though still plastered with stickers and graffiti. Hilly threatened to take the urinals to Los Vegas after the club closed, where he planned to open a new place. Tonight is a showcase so for a few dollars I get to see four new-ish bands. I assume at first these will be local, but when the first one starts they immediately announce they are from Philadelphia. Those speakers make a difference and the sound is great – David Byrne put it down to; ‘the amount of crap scattered everywhere, the furniture, the bar, the crooked uneven walls and looming ceiling made for both great sound absorption and uneven acoustic reflections – qualities one might spend a fortune to re-create in a recording studio… Because of the lack of reverberation, one could be fairly certain… that details of one’s music would be heard’. Like me, the band are also on a pilgrimage – to play CBGB before it closes. They are pretty good and when they finish the lead singer walks through the thin crowd passing out free sampler CDs – he’s obviously still pumped from standing on the stage of his heroes; “Can’t believe we actually did it…” he tells me “this must be the place”. I recognise the title of the Talking Heads tune, so we have that in common, but then I finally figure out why I am there too.
This must be the place where it happened, where all that music began, where the artists I admire played live to audiences who saw them first and recognised their qualities, who gave them the impetus to carry on and make more music that could communicate its value to people a long way from New York City, including me on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Although I didn’t get here for another three decades the bands did travel and I got to see some of them in Liverpool in the late 1970s (Talking Heads, Blondie and The Ramones all played Eric’s) and in some cases continued seeing them live in years to come (including Patti Smith with my two grown-up daughters in 2015). Like many others my own history is bound up in this music, and to visit the venue where it was originally played is to connect to something physical that somehow makes it real – not the actual musical experience, but still, I’m present in the place that represents its significance. Music is ephemeral – you listen to a song and then its past – a building is something more permanent, though often not completely so. As for the end of CBGB, a long running law suit was lost in 2006 and on 15 October that year the club closed, its last show featuring Patti Smith. At one stage during her performance she recited all the names of the musicians who had played in the club who had since died, forecasting the description of the club she penned a few years later in Just Kids, a place where; ‘…the sounds of a scene were emerging. Though no one knew it, the stars were aligning, the angels were calling’. Hilly Kristal passed away the following year. Since then the space has been a fashion store and a photography gallery, although there have been various concerts and one-off events that retain its name and in an ephemeral way, its ethos.
Although there is undoubtedly an element of nostalgia in fans’ affection for the places where the popular music they loved began, these places nevertheless possess real importance as they are sites of cultural development. They are crucial to the dissemination and continuation of their influence on that particular music style and its associated fashions and memes; as Sara Cohen has noted: ‘Live performance venues… act as a social hub of the scene, providing a space where musicians and musical styles can interact and where the scene is made more visible, physical and real’. They are locations in which events take place that shape how the world is today, how people behave, and how they think about their life and its meaning.