Punk Spawning Ground CBGB: Coming Back! But Will a New “New Wave” Follow?

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses! (NEW)

What's in a name? Ask the folks who bought the intellectual property rights to CBGB, the legendary New York club that was a beacon of the punk movement in the 1970s before finally going dark for good in 2006… Or did it?

A group of investors has come forward with the intention to reopen the shuttered hotspot in a new downtown Manhattan location, some time after this summer's inaugural CBGB music festival, which will host hundreds of bands at a slew of existing New York venues July 5-8.

Which leads to the inevitable question: WWJD? What would Joey (or Johnny) do?

The new owners of the name haven't unveiled any specific plans for the forthcoming reinvention of the club. But they'd have to work pretty hard to make it as dark and dingy as the original location — and they probably won't, if cynics' suspicions that it'll end up being like a punk-rock Hard Rock Café are borne out.

As most music fans of a certain age remember, CBGB was the physically inasuspicious spawning ground in lower Manhattan where the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, and Patti Smith all got their start in the mid-'70s, providing the American equivalent to the Sex Pistols-led revolution that was changing rock across the Atlantic. The club even got a name-check from alumnus David Byrne in one of new wave's greatest hits, "Life During Wartime."

By the 1990s, the club was known for booking too many bottom-of-the-barrel bands and doing less to launch revolutions than to launch lines of merch, as the CBGB's logo became ubiquitous on T-shirts around the world. Wearing a CBGB top became like wearing a Sun Records T-shirt — identifying yourself with the ground-breaking ideals of a golden age of rock & roll.

But is it possible that '70s magic could be recaptured by new caretakers in 2012 or 2013 better than it was by the original owners in the '80s, '90s, and early '00s?

What are the odds a new generation of boundary-breaking rockers declare: "This is the Mudd Club! This is CBGB! I've got time for that now!"

Of course, the legend of the old New York punk scene fades a little bit each year — which is where a movie could come in, as a helpful refresher course for kids and rock & roll seniors alike. Reports indicate that a long-gestating movie drama about the early days of CBGB is finally moving ahead, at least into the casting stage. Get the hottie of the moment to slip into a vintage Debbie Harry outfit, and there might suddenly be a lot of resurgence of interest in the old hole-in-the-wall.

It won't necessarily capture the public imagination in the way a movie would, but the late Johnny Ramone's cobbled-together memoir, Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone, has just been released. The book release party was held at the former site of CBGB — which has been transformed into fashion designer John Varvato's 315 Bowery boutique.

If having a high-end fashion shop at the location seems like a horrible repurposing of a historical landmark — which is how it was branded when a public outcry arose over the landlord putting an end to long-overdue rental status in 2006 — it might be worth remembering that CBGB was hardly intended to be a punk club when Hilly Kristal opened it in 1973. The acronym stood for "Country, BlueGrass, and Blues," genres that hardly turned out to be staples of the place (although country star Alan Jackson did ultimately do a show there, as a publicity stunt, not long before the closing).

As interesting as a movie about the golden age of CBGB might be, there's probably also a screenplay to be written just about the legal maneuvers and infighting that followed owner Kristal's death from cancer less than a year after the club closed. His declared intention to reopen CBGB in Las Vegas (!) with all the original fixtures he could drag west never came to fruition, needless to say

Family members squabbled over rights to the club's legacy. The ultimate victor was daughter Lisa Kristal Burgman, who prevailed over her brother and mother in legal proceedings to become co-executor of the estate. It was she who sold the club's assets to the group of investors planning the renaissance. "It's a relief to know that it's not going to die," Burgman told the New York Times. "It's going to be reborn."

So maybe the Ramones' old Too Tough to Die album title applies to venerable clubs with significant remaining branding potential. It may be comforting to know, for old-timers, that although all the investors in the new CBGB haven't been publicly identified, they've hired at least one former club mainstay — Louise Parnassa-Staley, who booked the club for 20 years starting in 1986 — to handle booking the July festival.

The names associated with CBGB's July festival are certainly indie-credible ones, if not names likely to spark a new new-wave: Guided by Voices at a free Central Park concert, along with smaller shows populated by everyone from '70s-era veteran David Johansen to younger punk bands like Sick Of It All and the Cro-Mags, reflective of the hardcore bookings the club leaned toward in its latter days.

Certainly not everyone is thrilled about a revival. We don't know what Joey or Johnny would do, but we do know what "Handsome Dick" Manitoba, the former lead singer of CBGB's institution the Dictators, has to say: "The people who bought it are wonderful people, but to me, the place died with the man."

Do you agree with Manitoba that the club should stay buried along with its founder? Or is putting the brand on a new venue an even better way of celebrating CBGB place in history than a black cotton T?