New film recalls magic of New York punk mecca CBGB

Thu Apr 30, 2009 8:14am EDT
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By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) - CBGB always made a powerful first impression, even before the intended country music club in a derelict section of Manhattan became a world renowned rock 'n' roll mecca.

It may have been the bathrooms, which, depending on a patron's point of view, were either disgustingly foul or an artistic, graffiti-covered venue for sex and drugs.

It may have been the people, whether the tattooed punks inside or the vagrants on the sidewalk outside.

But it was always about the music, as a new documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival shows. "Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB," by director Mandy Stein, revives the passion aroused by the club that closed in 2006 after 33 years due to a rent dispute.

The late Hilly Kristal founded the club in 1973 hoping to showcase country music, calling it CBGB & OMFUG, for "Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers."

But only fans of punk rock seemed willing to travel to the gritty Bowery district, historically a magnet for vagrants that today is a chic, gentrified neighborhood. The space is now rented by fashion designer John Varvatos, presumably for far more than the $19,000 a month Kristal was paying.

CBGB gave risk-taking young acts a place to play, and many of them went on to stardom. Many see it as the cradle of punk rock in America.

"The first time I walked into CBGB the Ramones were playing as was an early version of Blondie before they were called Blondie. I felt like, 'Oh, boy, I've come to the right place'," said Chris Frantz, the drummer for the Talking Heads.   Continued...

<p>The notoriously dirty bathroom is seen inside the music venue CBGB in New York City October 14, 2006. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson</p>