Saturday, 15 January 2022

CBGB - the Irish connection

 They called it “the club that changed the world.” It perched on The Bowery, just above Houston Street, and went by the name CBGB.

It was an odd place – beginning with its name – the letters stood for Country, BlueGrass and Blues.

Practitioners of those musical disciplines rarely played the club unless they harbored suicidal tendencies.

Historians usually opine that either Patti Smith or Tom Verlaine of Television first graced CB’s stage; but I remember it differently, Turner & Kirwan of Wexford beat them by some months.

All these years later I still can’t describe our duo except to say we were loud, opinionated, and not for the faint-hearted. We also had a bawdy sense of humor little appreciated by various establishments – including the Irish Echo who printed our own graphic description of the group in an ad for The Bells of Hell.

This caused subscriptions to be cancelled but the Echo ruled that we were entitled to our own dubious opinion and besides, “a bit of controversy rarely went astray.” We were eventually banned from CBGB but that’s a whole other story.

How did we become the first band to play the storied club? That too came about through our association with The Bells.

You see CBGB originated on W. 13thStreet, right opposite Malachy McCourt’s watering hole, then managed by Peter Myers, from Keswick who collaborated with us on the controversial Irish Echo ad. 


Turner & Kirwan of Wexford were house band at The Bells and as fate would have it, the original CBGB was not attracting much of an audience - Country, Bluegrass or Blues.

Turner & Kirwan, however, were packing the Bells with what the Sunday News described as “Irish Acid Rock.”

Hilly Kristal and his wife, Karen, used to close early and slouch disconsolately across the street to catch our “rowdy psychedelic” set which stretched into the late wee hours. 


Hilly eventually moved GBGB to another premises below a men’s shelter on The Bowery which he had been assured was on the brink of gentrification. I believe he bought a bridge to Brooklyn in the same transaction.

It wasn’t that Hilly tried to poach us from the Bells, more that he offered us a Monday night residency at his new club.

Truth be told though, we were doing roaring business around the city on Mondays with our “bartenders night out;” this idea came to us courtesy of Sir Charles Comer, Bob Marley’s PR maestro who also put out the word that we were attracting “hordes of wild women.”

But Hilly was a friend so we played a Grand Opening Monday night for him in his new club. The “wild women” never materialized but bartenders, defrocked Christian Brothers, all sorts of thirsty communists, and others from our Bells clientele lined up on the Bowery for admittance, when lo and behold, one of the residents of the men’s shelter above tossed a blunt dinner knife down into the parched queue.

No one was injured and the Grand Opening continued unabated, but the word spread about this incident and the following Monday night the only audience that showed was Hilly, his prize Egyptian dogs, a couple of hungover Bronx bartenders, and no sign of women, “wild” or otherwise.

This continued for a dispiriting month of Mondays until finally Turner and I informed Hilly that we were going home to Ireland, and that in our less than humble opinion his Country, Bluegrass, and Blues emporium on the Bowery would never take off.

Alas, the rest is history. In our absence Patti Smith discovered CB’s and by the time we returned the Ramones, Blondie, and every other manner of punk had created a sensational new scene, and not for the last time had Turner & Kirwan made a woeful career decision.

However, we were eventually invited back into the fold, and even banned which is more than I can say for any of goody-two-shoes punks that became famous.

But never let it be said that an Irish band was not the first to play at the fountain of Punkdom! 

Here’s to the memory of CBGB, Turner & Kirwan of Wexford, and to the late lamented godfather of Punk, Mr. Kristal.

Long may you promote in heaven, Hilly, we’ll never see your like again!

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