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.
“It was clear to me that from the first night that there was something going on there,” Frantz told Reuters. The Talking Heads later played their first gig there, in 1975, opening for the Ramones.
The Police played there in 1978 before rocketing to international fame, and frontman Sting speaks of CBGB in reverent tones.
“I went from JFK (airport) in a taxi straight to CBGB and I thought that was America,” Sting says in the film.
Other acts such as Television and Patti Smith created a buzz that in time would draw fans from around the world.
Stein moved from Los Angeles to New York in 2005 to chronicle a burgeoning rent dispute between CBGB and the landlord, the Bowery Residents’ Committee, a homeless services provider.
The documentary also focuses on the man at the center of it all — Kristal — including his plan to move the club to Las Vegas and his demise from cancer. He died in August 2007.
“I always felt like Hilly was a wonderful, brave and kind of philosophical cat,” Frantz said. “It didn’t really matter if you were a great band. As long as your heart was in the right place Hilly would give you a shot.”
But Kristal’s son, Dana Kristal, said the film failed to give his mother Karen Kristal credit for designing CBGB’s famous awning and T-shirts, the administration of the club and running the hardcore Sunday matinees that became a staple in the 1980s.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman