Much like the bald eagle, the komodo dragon and the piping plover, New York's legendary rock venue, CBGB — the punk-rock mecca of the world — is teetering on the verge of extinction.
The clock is counting down to August when, if lease-renewal negotiations with its landlord aren't settled with a new agreement, the iconic club will board up its rickety doors for good — due primarily to rising rents and declining live-music audiences, factors that have taken a toll on many small venues across the country.
Club owner Hilly Kristal, who in 1973 transformed what was once a Hell's Angels hangout into what is regarded as the birthplace of punk rock — serving as the incubator for the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, Television and literally hundreds of others artists through the years — says he'll fight for as long as he can to keep CBGB open. But it's going to be an uphill battle.
During the most recent round of lease-renewal negotiations with his landlord, Kristal learned that his monthly rent would likely double, to $40,000. Tack on the $91,000 in back rent his landlord is owed — an amount that his landlord says must be paid before the now-suspended negotiations can resume — plus CBGB's $80,000 annual liability insurance, and Kristal is looking at a king's ransom he isn't sure he'll be able to come up with.
Nonetheless, "We won't be boarded up until after our lease is up" in August, he vows. "I am determined to stay, but they want me out."
The Bowery Residents' Committee Inc. — a nonprofit organization that provides housing and social services to the homeless, chemically dependent, psychiatrically disabled, aged, and persons with HIV/AIDS — assumed control of the building's management in 1993 and has been the club's landlord ever since. Muzzy Rosenblatt, executive director of the BRC, said that his chief concern is the safety not only of the 175 people who are provided shelter in the housing units above the punk-rock landmark, but of CBGB's patrons as well.
In 2003, after a deadly blaze at the Station nightclub in Rhode Island killed 100 Great White fans and injured hundreds more (see "At Least 96 Dead At Rock Show Fire"), New York's city council created a task force to examine the issue of building and fire safety in the city's nightclubs and music venues. That team issued "tons of violations" against CBGB for issues that have not yet been resolved, Rosenblatt said.
"Patrons who go to CBGB to listen to music expect to come out alive," he says. "[Kristal] has no public-assembly permit, there's insufficient egress, construction has been completed down there that they [never secured permits for] and was not done to code. It's scary." Rosenblatt said he has only asked Kristal to be a responsible tenant by paying rent and bringing the venue into compliance with existing building codes.
"To date, he has not successfully done that," Rosenblatt said. "So I am not going to put lives at risk for sentimentality. Just because you've cultivated many talented musicians doesn't give you immunity."
But it does give you friends. Kristal said he has been contacted by several musicians in recent weeks, both high-profile and lesser-known, who have offered to lend their support. He said that John Joseph of long-running hardcore combo the Cro-Mags has assembled a consortium of musicians to help raise awareness about the club's fiscal dilemma. But, Kristal says, there are no definitive, concrete plans to stage a fund-raiser or similar event in the foreseeable future. Joseph could not be reached for comment.
Three other popular New York clubs are in similar straits. Fez, a small, seated venue popular with singer/songwriters, will close in the next few weeks; underground-music hotspot Tonic is suffering financial difficulty; Luna Lounge's Ludlow Street location has been sold to developers who plan to level the club — where the Strokes first performed — to make way for a large apartment complex. However, Robb Sacher, one of Luna's owners, said they plan to move the venue to either another location on Manhattan's Lower East Side or to Brooklyn. Several other popular New York clubs have closed in recent years, including Coney Island High, Wetlands, Brownies and the Bottom Line.
The situation is not unique to New York. In 2004, Chicago's legendary Fireside Bowl, one of the epicenters of the Windy City's underground-music scene, was converted back into a bowling alley (albeit one with occasional live music). In 2003, Boulder, Colorado, rock club Tulagi was shut down by the state, to whom its owners owed more than $7,000 in unpaid business tax. That same year, Connecticut's El 'n' Gee club threw in the towel when it couldn't afford to pay its bills. New Orleans' Mermaid Lounge was boarded up in November of 2004; a health-and-wellness center sits in its place.
Whether CBGB's situation will change between now and the expiration of its lease is unclear. But Kristal doesn't seem to be holding out much hope: "Realistically, we have until the end of August."