I never walk down. 13th Street in Greenwich Village for fear of catching a glimpse inside the old Bells of Hell and routing treasured memories.
Likewise CBGB on the Bowery - though recently I allowed myself a gander from up the block. To my distress, the ratty club appeared to have been swallowed whole by a trendy clothes store.
CB’s was never trendy – it created trends. And I’m not even talking music. You know those ripped-at-the-knees jeans you wear; I first saw The Ramones sport those in the mid-70’s. Too destitute to afford new denims, they slit their frayed ones and a craze was born.
CBGB actually originated across the street from The Bells. Hilly Crystal and his wife, Karen, used to come over on breaks; not surprising, since their club was so small you couldn’t swing a cat in it. Eventually, they got a better deal - the ground floor of a flophouse on the Bowery and we Bells denizens dutifully attended opening night.
Hilly owned two of the laziest dogs I ever encountered. They looked like over-doped, longhaired greyhounds; he said they were descended from the menagerie of the Pharohs - that Tut and the guys entombed these hounds with them in the pyramids for company.
These two semi-comatose bags of bones lay in the shade of the pool table and were much tripped over, whereupon they would look up accusingly at you with big sorrowful eyes.
Though made of much sterner stuff Hilly tackled the world with much the same gaze. He rarely raised his voice, even when banning me from the club for being “too demonic.” But that’s a whole other story; and anyway he let me back in a few weeks later.
I was present for Talking Heads first gig at CBGB. David Byrne played an acoustic guitar back then. They were very strange and quite out of tune; to be honest, I couldn’t tell if they were having us on. Hilly felt much the same – just stood there scratching his head. Even the two Egyptian dogs looked up occasionally – baffled by Byrne’s earnest yelping.
Later on while studying the acres of graffiti in the men’s room I sensed footsteps behind me. The hair spiked on the back of my head – after all, this was the Bowery 1975.
However, I couldn’t have been safer. Mild-mannered David Byrne let fly in the urinal next to me. We exchanged pleasantries, as one does; I ventured to inquire what class of music had he just been playing.
“No particular style,” he murmured. “We’re trying to sound like everyone else, we’re just not very good yet.”
As we were trudging back upstairs I wondered again if he might have been having me on. Life was very mysterious back in the 70’s. One thing crystal clear, however – Talking Heads got better at each gig I saw them, though, I suppose, David failed in his stated goal for they never sounded much like anyone else.
Eventually, The Heads, Patti Smith, The Ramones, Blondie and Television would go on to change the music world. CBGB soldiered on without them for over 30 years; many the band graced its stage and not a few gained fame - if not fortune. And so it goes.
I had heard Hilly was very sick so I showed up the night the club closed. I hadn’t been there in over twenty years. It was like a class reunion. People I disliked smiled at me and I beamed back, unable to recall ancient transgressions. And anyway, we shared common ground - we were survivors, grateful not to be among the many ghosts flitting around the cobwebbed ceiling.
Hilly and I watched Patti Smith play. He was gaunt and we said little. It was like old times.
Finally he muttered, “Remember the night I banned you for being too demonic? What was that all about?”
“That’s a story for another day, Hilly.” I instantly regretted my words - we both knew there wouldn’t be one.
“Yeah, “ he scratched his head as we both stared at the spot where the Egyptian dogs used to stretch out beneath the pool table.