CBGB Was Built For Uplifting Gormandizers
CBGB was a nightlife hotspot based in East Village, closing in October 2006. Josh Blackway is the lead guitarist for the Huntingtons (ABOVE: The Ramones perform at CBGB in 1976.)
Josh Blackway first took stage at CBGB’s over two decades ago. The exact date – “December 17th, 1999,” he tells me, after I ask for a ballpark estimate – has been framed on the walls of each place he’s called home since that very night.
Joey Ramone, the endearingly awkward Ramones frontman, had gotten wind of the Huntingtons’ File Under Ramones CD (widely regarded amongst the greatest cover albums of the band). It had been less than a week after an initial phone-call-of-faith to Arturo Vega that Blackway received a voicemail at band practice (“Joey Ramone’s here; He wants to talk to you”) – and before long, he found himself sound-checking with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee for an evening performance.
The energy was nothing short of what was expected at CBGB’s on a Friday night.
“It was so packed,” he recalled, gazing about the room as if to bask in an eternal replay. “You had people jumping onto the stage, taking a picture with Joey, stage-diving — the energy was insane.”
But to Hilly Kristal, those revelers were “Uplifting Gormandizers.” And he had founded the late venue just for them: CBGB & OMFUG, it’s full name, stood for Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers. Much like the pioneering UK punk-rock wave spearheaded by Johnny Rotten around the same time, it offered a welcoming hotspot for a once-marginalized subculture of youth disillusioned with society, eager to express such feelings, and relieved to coexist with others in the same sphere.
Though the consensus around America’s collective counterculture movement is that it arrived in the late 60s, New York’s version came into form the following decade. A New York Subway map was eerily allegorical to where it stood alongside the rest of the U.S: Manhattan, the glamorous dreamland ranked on bucket lists worldwide, represented a commercial mainstream infatuated with this new thing called ‘disco;’ the 6 to Bleecker Street took one straight into the underworld of East Village, the grimiest, most squalid, authentic vision of what went down behind the glitter – New York at a micro scale. Youth culture had long been juxtaposed with national norms; CBGB’s gave that dynamic a spotlight it had seldom been offered before then.
On September 15, 1974, a rowdy, frizzy-haired woman stood before a rowdy, frizzy-haired crowd within those compact walls.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Ramones,” she announced to scattered applause before handing the mic over to a gangly man standing beside her.
Four men were onstage, all clad in leather jackets. They were military-esque in their mannerisms: zipped lips, uniform protocol – dark jeans, white t-shirts, opened ebony sheaths – adhered to as if violations were punishable by death, shoulders back, chins up.
The gangly man – Joey Ramone – seldom thought to address the woman who had given him the microphone in the slightest, nor the audience or his fellow crewmen.
“Now I wanna sniff some glue,” he said as soon as the mic was in his hands.
“1, 2, 3, 4” emanated from somewhere behind the drums.
And there was chaos.
This would be the first of over 70 CBGB’s performances over the Ramones’ nearly three-decade career; and, expectedly, they stuck closely to their army-like code of honor, fast sets, downstroke-only guitar blitzkrieg.
But Hilly Kristal’s club didn’t only open its doors to fast-lane punk rockers. Amongst the wide variety of Uplifting Gormandizers it welcomed with open arms, there were poignant poets like Patti Smith, crazy-haired afro-punk pioneers like the Bad Brains, harmonious London pretty boys like the Police, and – most significantly – ordinary New Yorkers who had come for the sake of a good time. For all, CBGB’s was a sanctuary encasing the otherworldly lifestyle outsiders just couldn’t seem to understand; it was the sole place where the nagging woman, the helicopter parents, the finger-pointing landlord ceased to exist, and the music was all that mattered. A walk through the venue verified it’s authentic essence. In the main room itself, amateur concert posters remained miraculously glued to walls for decades at a time. In the bathroom, graffiti – some words as old as the building itself – completely covered a loosely maintained brick wall. There was no effort made to clean tiles, or scrub curse words off walls, or discard evidence of what had gone on the night before. Thousands of ‘nights before’ were the difference between living history and nightlife hotspot. CBGB’s was the former; but it didn’t tell it – it showed it.
In Josh Blackway’s last moment ever with the venue, he walked up to its doors with his then-girlfriend. It had been a month after Joey Ramone died of lymphoma – today would have been his 50th birthday – and later that evening, a Birthday Bash would be held at the Hammerstein Ballroom in the late frontman’s honor.
Blackway walked up to the entrance. Sitting in a wooden chair right at the door was a gray-haired Hilly Kristal.
“He said Hey, we’re not open yet. I’m like Yeah, I know, but I just played here last year for the Joey Ramone & Friends thing. Then he’s like Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, how ya doin?”
Amidst reminiscent talks of the CBGB’s heyday, Blackway asked the now-late Kristal for permission to show his girlfriend the stage he had first taken a little over a year prior. Kristal accepted. In the halls that had once exceeded fire hazard capacity on a nightly basis, there was, eerily, no one. The two mounted the stage and took a selfie with a disposable camera (“that picture turned out super blurry, because it was all dark”), then walked off for good. The last time Blackway saw Hilly Kristal in person, he asked him if he was going to the birthday bash later that evening. It was an emphatic yes. Eventually, Kristal would move out to Las Vegas, where he would go on to retire, and the CBGB’s would be no more.
But to the thousands of uplifting gormandizers it hosted over the previous thirty years, 315 Bowery lived on in spirit. “There was something about CBGB’s that was really magical,” Blackway told me before we wrapped up our chat. “Because you see what happened there, how it all started – then you get there and see that it’s just this tiny little hallway of a venue, it’s super filthy, the bathroom’s disgusting . . . But it’s like Wow, the bathroom at CBGB’s. So much has happened here. I can’t believe I’m seeing this with my own eyes.”