The trailer for the upcoming film CBGB ends with a tag line promising "50,000 bands and 1 disgusting bathroom." In real life, that's a slight misnomer — the legendary New York punk club dramatized in the movie had two disgusting bathrooms, with ladies like Patti Smith and Debbie Harry not getting many more niceties in their rancid powder room than Joey Ramone and Iggy Pop got across the way.
But in any case, the legend of this particular loo was cemented long before filmmakers turned their attention to the nightspot, which closed down in 2006. CBGB had already gone down in history as the least relieving place in the world to relieve oneself. (Woods infested with wild animals included.)
Even a lot of hardened punk musicians refused to use those particular facilities, choosing instead to take care of business at a nearby Ray's Pizza, or just hold it till they got back home to Hoboken.
Fred Schneider of the B-52s described his "shock" upon first encountering the CBGB men's room, which he told Rolling Stone had "the worst toilet in the world." David Byrne remarked that the bathroom was "legendarily nasty." Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore told the New York Times: “That’s the one thing that sears itself into your memory. It’s that toilet.”
When the facilities were recreated for a museum exhibit a few years ago, a commenter on the music-industry website Pollstar wrote: "The bathroom was not a cool or cultural thing. It was a toxic wasteland that someone should have been put in prison for allowing it to exist."
But if the club owners had renovated their restrooms, they would have eliminated what became a tourist attraction in and of itself in the last years. Photos of the facilities made their way onto posters, T-shirts, and even iPhone cases. In late 2001, Shakira even stopped by CBGB to do a photo shoot, wearing one of the club's T-shirts while she stood next to one of the toilets, in a room that gave new meaning to "La Tortura."
It wasn't just the potential for contracting exotic diseases that made the CBGB commodes the stuff of legend. It was the lack of privacy. At some point, the bathrooms did have actual stalls, as mid-'70s photos reveal. But for most of its years, the CBGB men's room had a single, very public toilet — which eventually was placed on an elevated wooden block, where anyone entering the room or even just walking past couldn't help but get a gander of you doing your business. The thousands of dudes who sat on this raised throne couldn't have been less pleased about their coronations.
As the website Jaded Punk put it: The "platform for the toilet that put it about a foot higher than the rest of the bathroom... made you feel like King of the Punks. Until you remembered you were (doing No. 2) in front of a (doing No. 1) dude... The toilet seat also very rarely had an actual seat on it."
And as a commenter on Livewire put it, "For those that have never been, the best thing about this is that people coming down the stairs can see you taking a dump as well as the people in the bathroom." Another commenter in the club's final days wrote: "If you go to the bathroom there and go home with just hepititus, you're one lucky dude."
The whole thing induced post-traumatic stress syndrome in some visitors. "I once (urinated) at CBGB during Sonic Youth's final show there in 2006," a Rolling Stone writer recalled, "and it scarred me so severely, I didn't enter a dingy club bathroom for months." Fran Lebowitz told the Times that she had only managed to stay in the women's room "for less than a minute" and added that "there wasn’t a huge difference between the cleanliness of the bathroom and the rest of the place.”
Less disgustingly, there was the graffiti and sticking, none of which was apparently ever completely removed. After a certain point, nothing in the collage was decipherable except for a few scrawls on the ceiling. Richard Hell rhapsodized to the Times about "the way Hilly (Kristal, the owner) just let it all remain, until very soon it blended into this outrageous, glaring, drippy, colorful, sad gorgeousness.”
Debbie Harry fondly remembered the "calls to be recognized by anyone who stepped into the zone of clandestine fulfillment that existed on the Bowery and especially at CB’s during the punk years. The tradition of writing on bathroom walls wasn’t particular to those toilets, but the ferocity was definitely related to the club, the music and all the people who went there.”
The difficulty of even reaching the bathrooms in the cramped club figures into ones of its more storied and bloody moments.
In 1976, Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators had been heckling Wayne County, a transgender punk singer of some renown, when he felt nature calling. "In those days at CBGB's, you had to step up on the stage, literally, to get to the bathroom," Manitoba recalled in the book Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. County thought that Manitoba was rushing the stage for an assault, not to get to the loo, and so took the microphone stand and broke the other singer's collarbone with it. "David Johansen was standing on the left of the stage, he couldn't believe it," recalled County. "I was sprayed with his blood from top to bottom." Manitoba got the potty break he was looking for... in the emergency room.
In 2006, CBGB was shuttered and turned into a clothing store after a long battle with the building owners, leaving the club's proprietors to subsist off T-shirt sales. But the bathrooms have proven oddly indestructible.
No fewer than three art exhibits have recreated part of all of the loos. In 2005, an artist created a replica for the the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, which the Village Voice described as a tribute to "three decades of dried vomit and band stickers." In 2009, an original CBGB urinal was installed at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum annex in New York City. It's located near the actual men's room, but placed behind glass, lest such a priceless artifact actually serve its original utilitarian function.
This past May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a "Punk: Chaos to Couture" fashion exhibition that included a replica of the bathroom circa 1976, when the graffiti was sparser and supposedly decipherable. Richard Hell was not amused, telling the Times, "CBGB was a dump, but for the Met to reduce its essence to a toilet is obnoxious.”
Tell it to the marketers who came up with the new movie's tag line, Richard. Last year, some of the furnishings from CBGB that had been stored in Brooklyn since the 2006 closing were put on a truck and shipped to the set that was constructed in Savannah, Georgia for filming. Among them was a urinal, presumably once used by the Police, Television, and the Dead Boys, now a talismanic prop for a glossy Hollywood production.