CBGB - John Varvatos

Art & Culture | History

The Birthplace of Punk

CBGB from 80s east village history

About CBGB - John Varvatos

 & why it made the Carpe City list

  • First opened as Hilly’s on the Bowery in 1969, this East Village spot was renamed CBGB in 1973 and shortly after became known as “the birthplace of punk rock.”
  • The above fact is a little ironic as the CBGB & OMFUG moniker on the infamous awning (see pics above) stands for Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers.
  • Although a fan of country and bluegrass, the owner Hilly Kristal opened up his venue to the new street rock sounds from up and coming bands.  They didn’t necessarily have to have a lot of talent.  He just had two rules: Carry your own stuff and everything you play must be original.  No Covers Allowed!
  • Famous artists who earned their stripes at CBGB include The Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Misfits, Joan Jett, Television and even bands like The Beastie Boys, The Police and Green Day.
  • By the late 80’s CBGB was synonymous with punk rock, known for its edgy location, graffiti-covered walls and urinals so famous they were recreated as part of a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit. CBGB was now a brand, so much so that the first awning was stolen (probably by the same pranksters who keep stealing Joey Ramone Street signs.) The second awning came down when CBGB closed and was sold at auction for $30,000.

The Ramones Live at CBGB

  • Unfortunately, after a rent dispute with the landlord, the historic bar was forced to close in October 2006. Patti Smith headlined the final concert which lasted over three and a half hours.
  • In 2008, fashion designer John Varvatos purchased the former site of CBGB.
  • Oh the times, they are a changin’… This storied punk dive bar that had once been surrounded by flophouses on a street nicknamed “skid row” that was teaming with drunkards and knife-wielding derelicts, now houses a clothing store that sells $170 linen v-neck tees.
  • Not to belabor the point about how this area has gentrified, but here’s another fun fact for you: Check out the cover of the Ramones’ 3rd album, Rocket to Russia (see below). The pic was taken in 1977 in the dangerous, trash-laden alley behind CBGB. This little alley is called Extra Place. It is now home to famed chef David Chang’s Momofuku Ko and its pricey (yet delicious) $255 tasting menu (where it is absolutely acceptable to wear your $170 v-neck.)
  • Back to Varvatos. To his credit, the store has done its best to honor the punk landmark, displaying old playbills and rock-and-roll memorabilia. Pop in and take a look.
Ramones – Rocket to Russia – 40th Anniversary Edition
on Amazon

Carpe City Trivia

Who was this Hilly Kristal fellow?

Even before opening CBGB, Kristal was a veteran player in the New York music scene. A self-taught multi-instrumentalist, Kristal nearly signed a deal with Atlantic Records in the 1950’s, but opted to go with an independent label that would fold in a few months’ time. His love for creating music would transition into managing the Village Vanguard in the ‘60s, booking artists such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane and befriending Lenny Bruce. (Only a mile across town from CBGB, this renowned jazz venue is still a part of Village life today.) After leaving the Vanguard, he went on to produce the Ford Caravan of Music and co-found the Rheingold Central Park Music Festival with Ron Delsner. Although Hilly was only involved with the Central Park Music Festival for a couple years, he played an integral role in a festival that would last for a decade and host diverse musical talent like Bob Marley, The Who, Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, amongst scores of other bold-face names. All of this musical experience led him to open up his own venue and, as they say, the rest is history. Sadly, Kristal passed away from complications of lung cancer in 2007, just a year after CBGB closed.  A movie was made about CBGB in 2013 featuring Alan Rickman as Kristal.  You can stream CBGB on Amazon here.

What is a gourmandizer?

Not exactly an everyday word, it’s interesting Kristal chose this bon mot to adorn his storefront. Usually, a gourmand or gourmandizer is a connoisseur or somebody who indulges in food or drink a bit much. Kristal liked to define a gourmandizer as a “voracious eater of music.” While a strange choice, it’s rather fitting; this was a club for people who loved music for music’s sake, not for genre lines. After all, Kristal was an avid bluegrass fan who was in the midst of punk’s evolution; only a gourmandizer could truly appreciate the noise.

And to Close It all Out, a Little Ditty from the Godmother of Punk…

A rock n roll legend, singer, song-writer, poet, writer, National Book Award winner and just all around cool, Patti Smith.

If you are interested, Just Kids, her National Book Award winner is a great read.
Special thanks to the legendary Punk photographer, Roberta Bayley for the use of the Ramones live shot at the top of the page.
By: Owen Norris & Christi Scofield

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