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CBGB Drama: Who Really Made The Rock Club Cool? [UPDATE]

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Patti Smith was among the regulars at CBGB.
Patti Smith was among the regulars at CBGB.

Who's responsible for turning CBGB's into the petri dish that unleashed punk rock onto the world?

It's long been known that the idea didn't originate with the club's owner, Hilly Kristal, who died in 2007, a year after the famously dingy venue closed its doors. He named the club CBGB-OMFUG, short for Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandizers, and expected to feature those genres, not the noisy creations of a bunch of arty freaks.

A recent e-book by longtime tour manager Larry Butler gives Television singer and guitarist Tom Verlaine credit for making CBGB's cool. Here's how music-industry veteran Bob Lefsetz paraphrased Butler's account yesterday in his popular newsletter, the Lefsetz Letter:

Hilly Kristal was an unwitting beneficiary of Tom Verlaine's inability to find anywhere to feature Television. Yup, Verlaine asked Hilly to play at CBGB, a relatively dead bar, on a dead night, Monday, and Television played to the usual suspects, a dozen friends of the band. But amongst that group was a reporter for the "Village Voice." Who concocted the story that Liza Minnelli had been seen there, back when she actually was a scenester, and the venue filled up the following week. And eventually Hilly asked Tom if he knew of any other acts that could play. Tom said Blondie, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Patti Smith...and the rest is history.

Just over an hour later, Lefsetz forwarded to his readers an email from Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz. After praising Butler as a "good guy," Frantz dismissed the notion that Verlaine was responsible for inviting New York's founding legends of punk to play at CBGB.

I don't think Tom ever recommended any band to play CBGBs and certainly not Talking Heads. I was the one who approached Hilly on our band's behalf. As far as I know, Tom Verlaine has never done a single favor for anyone...not even himself.

An earlier account of Verlaine's role in establishing CBGB as an unlikely musical Mecca was published in Legs McNeil's seminal 1996 oral history of punk, Please Kill Me. According to the book, Verlaine's band mate Richard Hell had the idea to find a bar where Television could play once a week. Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, another member of the band, then happened upon CBGB, and persuaded Kristal to give them a regular gig on Sunday nights.

After Verlaine became romantically involved with Patti Smith, she began playing with Television at the club. The book quotes Terry Ork, a downtown scenester who underwrote Television's first single, as saying, "So [Smith and Television] played Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at CBGB's, and it just became huge. Each weekend got bigger and bigger. It lasted for six weekends…. And I considered that the official beginning of the scene."

Kristal was forced to close CBGB's in 2006, following a dispute with his landlord. For three years after his death, the rights to the club's logo and assets were tied up in legal battles. Kristal's daughter, Lisa Kristal Burgman, finally gained control in 2010 and sold the rights to a group of investors, who have expressed interest in reopening the club.

Those investors also launched the CBGB Festival, which made its debut earlier this month. Hundreds of bands, including Guided by Voices, Superchunk, the Cloud Nothings, and Agnostic Front, performed at dozens of venues around New York City, from divey clubs to Central Park and Times Square. Writing in The New York Times, critic Jon Pareles said the festival evoked "nostalgia for an era of pre-Internet, do-it-yourself networking and noise-for-art's-sake experimentation."

The club's origin story is also the subject of an upcoming film -- called, simply enough, "CBGB" -- which stars Alan Rickman as Kristal, Ashley Greene as Burgman, Mickey Sumner as Smith, and Malin Ackerman as Debbie Harry. No word yet on who, if anyone, will play Verlaine.

Update:

Punk purists will be relieved to know that the pugnacious CBGB spirit is alive and well. CBGB Festival talent director Louise Parnassa Staley, who was the general manager of the club from 1986 until its closing 20 years later, came out swinging in this statement, which a rep emailed to The Huffington Post on July 18:

Let me set the record straight with Larry Butler’s fictional statements on "who made CBGB cool." I worked at CBGB for 25 years and my desk was pressed up against Hilly’s for much of that time. To be clear, Tom Verlaine was in a great local band 40 years ago but he had absolutely nothing to do with bringing in other bands. Tom certainly didn’t stay connected with CBs either. I only remember him coming in a single time after his band fell apart. That was to attend a wedding in the basement lounge. Larry Butler’s memory appears to be clouded by Fifty One Shades of Grey. Terry Ork is the person who brought in Television and Hilly loved them from the very beginning.

CBGB never tried to be cool, period. And we still don't try. We simply present honest loud music and hang out with our friends as often as possible. A lot of our friends are cool but most are just regular kids who want to say “Fuck Off" to society now and then. A lot of them own a guitar and that’s how I like it.

In fairness to Butler, he wasn't trying to give Tom Verlaine credit for making CBGB cool. Here's what he told The Huffington Post in an email sent partly in response to Staley's statement:

I cannot contest anyone else's story about Television and CBGBs, as I wasn't there at the time. I can only say that this is the story told to me by Tom Verlaine in a rental car somewhere between a radio station and a record store on a promo tour for his solo album, Dreamtime, on Warner Bros. Records in 1981, some years after Television's first show at CBGBs. And I can only report it from my memory as it was just conversation - not recorded and certainly not written down at the time, as I was driving. I would even suppose if you spoke to Tom today about it, he, too, would report it differently from the vantage point of 2012. Anyone's memory of an event depends on one's vantage point. That's why we have a busy civil court system. I don't have a vantage point in all this; I wasn't there.

Besides, the crux of my story isn't about the specifics of who first approached Hilly or who later booked all the other bands; those things really don't matter. The real point I'm making is that Television was just another scruffy bar band looking for work in New York and CBGBs was just another niche bar looking for an audience when a fan of Television planted a fake story in the Village Voice about how Liza Minnelli was seen in the Bowery at some bar called CBGBs dancing to the sounds of Television, which led to every scenester descending on the club with money to buy drinks, which led to a press fascination with the "new sounds" of punk rock. It's one of two stories in my book about how lying to the press facilitated big changes in pop music.

Butler also asked me to clarify that, while he is indeed a former tour manager, he was working in the Artist Relations department at Warner Bros. Records when his conversation with Verlaine took place.

Check out other actor-to-icon transformations for the big screen:

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