CBGBs - A Report from the Front Line, Part 2

Here’s the second part of the long story I wrote for MM in 1976 about CBGBs and the downtown New York rock scene.

With the possible exception of Lou Reed, CBGBs’ manager Hilly Kristal can justifiably claim to have done more to promote the New York underground scene than any other individual. Reed may have provided the inspiration (several bands seem to emulate the Velvet Underground with uncanny accuracy), but Kristal provided a base for them to operate.
         CBGBs, at the junction of Bleeker Street and the Bowery, lies in the seediest section of the Village Eastside. Before Kristal took the place over two years ago, it was a hang-out for Hell’s Angels. It was – and still is – flanked by “hotels” that offer a bed for the night at ridiculously cheap rates. The catch is that you share a room with half a dozen others whose sense of personal hygiene is, perhaps, not in tune with the national average.
         Kristal is a large, quiet man of the strong but silent mode. With his red-and-black check shirts, burly physique and curly beard he looks more like a lumberjack from the Canadian forests than a patron of the arts.
         He’s made it his business to look after his charges like a family patriarch, encouraging them to develop their own musical policy whether he personally likes it or not. One of the rules for bands playing at CBGBs is that they must play original material or, if they do offer a non-original, they must have worked out a creative arrangement of their own.
         There’s a spirit of unity among the bands that play CBGBs that keeps the bandwagon rolling and, in early days, assured everyone of a reasonable audience. On any given night members of various bands will drop by to watch their friends, not just to size up the competition but to share in the universal uphill struggle of which they are all a part.
         It’s a long, narrow bar with a ludicrously small stage at one end. Neon beer signs flicker down on the audience – 300 or so at the most – and waitresses fight between tables to deliver beer in cramped conditions. A juke box plays mainly British Sixties music between sets (and sometimes during, though no-one notices) and when a band starts the din is often so loud that glasses tremble on the table tops.
         Kristal hopes to enlarge his emporium soon. “I’m gonna knock down the washrooms and put the stage further back. We’ll put the washrooms in the cellar and get another hundred people in by next February,” he told me proudly last week.
         “I felt that it was important that we put it out because we had the momentum going at that time,” he said, referring to the recently released CBGBs album. “We felt it would encourage others to do a similar thing. Jim Delehant (an Atlantic A&R man) seemed to be the keenest record company man so I went with him when he proposed the idea, but I’d have put it out myself either way.
“They have first option on the bands, but they haven’t exercised that because their first concern was this album and the idea behind it. They felt that a lot of the groups might make it, but that wasn’t the prime concern. I think that a lot of the people who have reviewed the album have taken the wrong attitude... it’s the idea of the album that is important. The idea is to document what’s happening.
         “I don’t think reviewers realise that the album is live. We didn’t go over and over tracks polishing them up, I just picked what I thought was a representative thing. People have said to me that it doesn’t represent the underground rock in New York because it didn’t have Television or the Talking Heads, but I just took what was available.”
         Originally Kristal pressed 5,000 copies of the album and advertised it by mail order in local papers. Many orders (including one for 2,000 from Paris) came from Europe, but once it became known that Atlantic had taken it over, the orders fell off. Kristal still has about 1,000 originals left which he sells as collectors’ items.
         The album has not made a profit. “It cost $17,000 (or £10,000) to make the album and that’s just my expenses in making the master tape before the actual pressing. The bands haven’t started to earn their money from it yet, but they could use the money so we’ll be attending to the publishing of it all in two or three weeks.”
         Following the release of the album, all eight bands – the Shirts, Mink De Ville, Laughing Dogs, the Miami’s, Sun, Manster, Tuff Darts and Stuart’s Hammer – went off on a “tour” together, supervised by Kristal, an administrative headache of alarming proportions since the entourage numbered over 50.
         Billed as the CBGBs Road Show, the bands took over Boston’s Rat Club for a whole week. Some only played one or two sets, but others stayed the week and gave up to a dozen performances. Kristal’s plans for the future involve taking “his” bands all around the East Coast. As yet, of course, none save the more established acts like Patti Smith and the Ramones have travelled very far.
         “After the first two weeks the sales figures on the album reached about 12,000 which isn’t too bad. Atlantic thought it would sell in New York, but they didn’t realise we could sell in Cleveland, St. Louis and even California. I think that sales will pick up after Christmas because we can’t really compete with all the big acts releasing albums right now.”
         Curiously Kristal had no intention of creating an underground rock palace when he took over the Bowery club. CBGBs, in fact, stands for Country, Bluegrass and Blues which is the type of music he originally envisaged promoting. “There just wasn’t enough talent around playing that kind of music, and it turned out that there were a lot of rock bands rehearsing all over with nowhere to play.
         “What I felt was that they had to develop character in their own music. I didn’t tell them what to play, but they can’t play copy music. Original doesn’t have to be only their own stuff. If a band can interpret something and make it really their own, then that’s better than writing their own music that copies things others have done.”

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