By Dave Thompson
CBGBs takes off
Smith ignored the taunt; the group was too busy to care.
Soon they were gigging almost nightly, and even when their schedule did allow them a night off, they were visible, hanging out at CBGBs, watching whatever was unfolding on the stage that evening; or heading elsewhere after their own show to see and be seen. And so, four nights co-headlining CBGBs with Television, Feb. 13-16, were followed by a reception for the Blue Öyster Cult, whose latest album included one of Smith’s lyrics, “Fire Of Unknown Origin,” while Smith won another accolade, as Bruce Springsteen stumbled up to announce that he’d fallen in love with her from her picture in Creem.
Deep in the heart of the Bowery, fronting the first floor of what the locals proudly described as the biggest flophouse in Manhattan, CBGBs was still some months away from achieving the fame by association which would follow its eventual discovery by the mass media.
Serendipitously opened by bar owner Hilly Kristal around the same time as the uptown Max’s Kansas City closed its doors (albeit for only a short time), CBGB OMFUG (Country, BlueGrass and Blues and Other Music For Undernourished Gourmandizers) took over a venue that English journalist Mick Farren remembered having “the worst drag queens on the planet.” When it came to location, CBGBs clearly had nothing whatsoever going for it. Inside, however, was a revelation.
A long, dark room, essentially an alleyway between the bar on one side and tables on the other, CBs boasted some of the cheapest drinks in town, the best burgers in the city, a killer chili (to rival Max’s famous chickpeas) and Hilly Kristal’s never less than amazing eye for new bands. It was, Smith enthused, “basically a hole in the wall,” and when Television played there in spring, 1974, “there was just a trickling in of people.” Within weeks, that trickle became a flood — of onlookers and participants.
Television told Patti Smith about the place, and she started performing there regularly. The Ramones stumbled across it, playing their first gig opening for The Marbles on New Talent night and getting invited back almost before they’d finished their set. Blondie emerged and became regulars as well, even as they tried to decide whether the New Musical Express was really being encouraging when it called them “a competent garage band … fronted by a squeaky bath toy.”
When Ivan Kral and friend Amos Poe decided to capture New York on film, inevitably they went to CBs to shoot, and they emerged with “Blank Generation,” one of the crucial celluloid documents of the age, a flickering black-and-white document of every key act to call CBs home.
Not everybody was impressed by the place. “All I can remember,” Johnny Ramone said, “is they never had a door on the dressing room, and you played and you wouldn’t even get a free beer.” But still The Ramones would join Patti Smith in utterly surpassing their original role as club regulars to become virtually synonymous with the venue.
Joey Ramone was kinder. “CBs helped make The Ramones; it gave us a place to play when there probably wasn’t another club in the world that would book us, but it also helped us become a part of a community. When we played, we’d look out at the audience and everybody would be there — Smith and her group, Tom [Verlaine] and Television, The Shirts, The Marbles, everybody. And when they played, we’d be there for them.”
The Patti Smith Group were never especially close with the Ramones, but still Joey recalled them as being “good friends” to us. Not every group on the scene, however, shared Ramone’s munificence. Debbie Harry, whose Blondie had been hoping to keep Ivan Kral for themselves, remained fiercely antagonistic towards Patti Smith, all the more so after the media began playing on the two women’s chalk-and-cheese approach towards appearance and demeanor — whether she liked it or not, Harry was on a collision course with the role of “punk sex symbol” that would define her contribution to the next five years of rock history. Patti, on the other hand, was just Patti. But Harry never forgave her for recommending that Blondie should just give up trying before it was too late.
“She told me there wasn’t room for two women in the CBGBs scene and I should leave the business because I didn’t stand a chance against her. She was going to be the star.” Ultimately, of course, there would be room for them both, and if Blondie did, in fact, turn out to be the bigger commercial attraction, Richard Sohl at least would shrug away any comparison. “We came out of the same place, but we were never going in the same direction,” he said gently. “Blondie made some great records, but they weren’t records that we would ever have made, and I’m sure they’d say the same thing about ours …”
Still, the contrast that Harry and Smith prided themselves on so early was soon to catch on with the rest of the pack — as when Mirabelle magazine caught up with the Patti Smith Group in May 1975. “She shocked me the first time I saw her,” wrote confessed Amy Gross. “Real old-fashioned shock, the whole bit — dropped jaw, stunned brain. I was at Reno Sweeney, a Greenwich Village cabaret. She came on stage like the spirit of macho. This 27-year-old skinny punk who hammered out dirty poetry and sang surreal rock songs. Who never smiled. Who was tough, sullen, bad, didn’t give a damn. A little Brando, a little ‘Blackboard Jungle.’ A little Rimbaud, a little rapist, a little off-the-wall.”