There’s Varvatos and RIFF, but CB’s isn’t coming back

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Steven Tyler performing at RIFF 313, with RIFF designer Charles Andrew (without hat) on guitar.

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Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top playing at Varvatos 315 Bowery.

BY CLAYTON PATTERSON  |  There are hopes and rumors and thoughts of possibilities centered around the idea of CBGB & OMFUG (Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers), better known as CBGB’s or shorter CB’s, will be opening up again. The CB’s created in 1973 by Hilly Kristal will never be again.

The venue opened at 315 Bowery because the Bowery was New York City’s skid row, populated by drunk men and those at the end of their luck. But most important, there were no neighbors to make noise complaints and the rent was cheap.

By the early 1970s the grandsons and granddaughters of the immigrants who had first came to the Lower East Side, and socially moved up and then out of the community, were coming back to the L.E.S. Then add in the creative types and freedom seekers that were attracted by this new creative energy that was rising out of the ground on the L.E.S. and in Soho. Then add in the affordable rent the L.E.S. and Bowery provided, which all generated a feeling in the air that anything was possible.  Anything except Hilly’s dream of a country-and-bluegrass renaissance on the Bowery, that is.

In the past when I had interviewed Legs McNeil, he described the bar/club CBGB’s as a dump that was in need of customers. A group of young creative types were hanging out there because of the cheap drinks, and the fact that bands could easily get a gig there meant they could slowly build up a following. He mentioned, in the beginning, many of the bands were not great, but because bands could play often, and originality was Hilly’s only criteria, the bands eventually became great. By creating the right environment, CB’s also became a hangout and a scene developed.

This restless, creative, youthful energy of the scene gave birth to PUNK magazine, started and edited by John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil. PUNK magazine helped spread the word of the vitality of the scene. And, most important, the bands found their own original groove and went on to become the stuff of legends, such as the Dictators, the Ramones, the Dead Boys, Blondie, Talking Heads, the Patti Smith Group. CBGB’s from the early 1970s to the beginning of the 1980s was the birthplace of American punk and New Wave music.

Yes, the New York hard core scene — with bands like the Bad Brains, Warzone, Murphy’s Law, Agnostic Front, Sick Of It All, Gorilla Biscuits —- for a period of time in the 1980s thrived at CB’s, but N.Y. hard core never captured the public’s imagination in the way punk and New Wave did. CB’s became only a venue.

A venue without a scene attached to it is only a place where bands play and not the creative crucible where legends are forged. No question, the Lower East Side has had some great venues. For example, in the past, a band to be thought of as great had to have played the Fillmore East or at The Ritz. Today, the big names are Webster Hall, The Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge. But, at these newer places, one goes to a venue to hear a band and then leaves after the set. CBGB’s was a scene, a real hangout.

And let’s not forget, Hilly tried many different ways to expand his business next door to 313 Bowery. He had CBGB’s Record Canteen, the pizza parlor and, finally, the 313 Gallery. The gallery was a worthy effort that housed many inspired exhibitions. On the first Monday of the month I used to hold the Tattoo Society of New York meetings in the gallery. Later, there was the failed CBGB’s merchandise store on St. Mark’s.

The most that a new CBGB’s will be is a corporate venue. It will not be a scene, it will not be a hangout, it will be corporate. In N.Y.C., corporate is the new world order. Not everything corporate is bad. No question that Varvatos 315 Bowery and RIFF 313 Bowery have held some absolutely memorable and newsworthy music events. I documented CB’s in the past, and I have continued to document musical shows at Varvatos and at RIFF.

But rest assured — what was before will never be again.

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