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20 Years Later, CBGB Ain't No Disco : Clubs: A look back as the Bowery bar concludes a monthlong celebration of its commitment to underground rock's trends.

December 31, 1993|IRA ROBBINS | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — In the harsh light of day, it's just a dingy bar on a typically miserable block of the Bowery where Bleecker Street ends, in a neighborhood known as Skid Row until the citywide proliferation of homelessness undercut its cachet.

These days, the bar is flanked by a pizza parlor on the left and an airy gallery/performance space on the right; upstairs there's a transient hotel, the windows of which occasionally release projectile surprises to those loitering on the street.

Behind the wooden door at 315 Bowery lies a long, narrow railroad flat; the absence of natural light sources is countered by a hanging collection of old neon beer signs. Over what must be a ton of embedded staples waiting to be recycled, the walls are layered with posters, stickers and graffiti, all naming bands few people outside would recognize.

It may not sound like much, but to underground rock fans and bands over the past two decades, CBGB is home. Every night of the week, it continues to attract everyone from out-of-town tourists soaking up atmosphere (and sound pressure) by the side of the stage to jaded music-bizzers checking out their investments or talking shop in the quieter area back by the pool table, site of the clearest sight lines on nights when the place is packed.

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And although CBGB has always booked bands on the way up, bands whose draw will eventually take them beyond the club's nominal 350 capacity, there are still plenty of those nights when crowds knot every available spot in the room to see the latest buzz band.

A genuine if-walls-could-talk musical shrine, the rock history stature of CBGB puts it on par with Liverpool's Cavern Club, San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium, Los Angeles' Whisky-a-Go-Go, New York's Folk City and London's Marquee Club. Twenty years after opening its doors, CBGB has not only endured in its original location but continues to thrive, remaining a crucial barometer and supporter of the latest trends in underground rock.

Enough worthy bands from all over still dream of playing CBGB and have solid local followings to warrant repeat engagements; the general popularity of "alternative rock" has made this a boom time for the club. With as many as seven bands on the nightly bill (even more on Monday, audition night), there are always plenty of losers, but it's still the kind of place where the odds are excellent for stumbling on a musical find.

This month marked CBGB's 20th birthday, and the club held a monthlong celebration-cum-festival. Many of the bands who came up through CBGB but outgrew the club's limited capacity were invited back to play for old time's sake; Collision Records installed a studio full of sound equipment in the basement to produce a live album and visual documentary that will incorporate some of the miles of vintage video footage shot at the club.

Back when owner Hilly Kristal--whose implausible preparation for punk impresariohood included a New Jersey childhood, violin lessons, a stint in Korea with the Marines, a steady gig singing bass in the Radio City Music Hall chorus and the manager's job at the Village Vanguard--renamed his Bowery bar in December, 1973, his plan was to present country music--hence the moniker, an abbreviation for Country, BlueGrass, Blues (the "OMFUG" that completes this laughable incongruity stands for Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers).

Such miscalculation made no nevermind to New York City's underground music scene--a small, lurid and intense community led by the outrageous New York Dolls and their sub-Warhol trash-glam set. This nervy musical subculture already had places in the city to play: the upscale, trendy Max's Kansas City, the 82 Club, a lesbian bar, and the Mercer Arts Center. But bands kept coming out of the woodwork and the Mercer Arts Center literally collapsed.

In early 1974, Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell ran into Kristal outside CBGB and told him their band, Television, would fit his musical bill. With that small fib, America's most influential art-rock punk outfit of the 1970s got itself a gig at the end of March. The New York scene--unsigned, largely unwanted and unfettered by tradition or popular mores--had found its home.

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Soon, besides more traditional music, CBGB was regularly booking not just Television (who played there seven times in January, 1975) but also the Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads and Mink DeVille. By the end of its first full year, CBGB was a full-blown rock club.

Bassist Gary Valentine joined Blondie in 1975 and was in the group when it took part in CBGB's two-week unrecorded band festival that summer, triple-billed one night with the Ramones and Talking Heads.

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