The CBGB Movie: The Greatest Story Ever Told?


It’s the premiere of the CBGB film and the first night of the festival. Big movie lights outside the Sunshine Theater throw circular beams into the sky and metal barricades fence in a red-carpeted press area. All of a sudden there is a little commotion and a tussle—two people are trying to get through the barricades without the proper credentials. A security guard, wearing a black and white CBGB regulation t-shirt, sends them packing. Luke and I are standing off to the uncarpeted side of the theater. We watch the dejected interlopers walk off in a hurried pace towards Allen Street, their heads locked in tight conversation as if plotting the next scheme for entrance. There is something here that seems absurd but we can’t articulate, so we just say “wow.” Then we stand and watch people come and go. Nine-foot tall starlet types stand near us all dressed up, pissed off and smoking. I look down at my baggy jeans and my Saltwater sandals. I’m waiting for Mary, my good friend and movie date. Mary was the bass player from The Wives, a band that was on the CBGB’s label. Mary is also nine feel tall, but she also wears baggy jeans. I feel a lot better when she shows up.

From here, I can see the Bowery where the club used to be. In its last weeks after the final performance, it was gutted to become a storefront shell. I went by for one last look a week before the doors shut for good. Hilly was still seated at the big desk in the front. Behind him, cables and wires hung slack from the ceilings and walls like tendons and veins ripped away from the body.  It is only four blocks away from The Sunshine, a very long walk from this red carpet.

Before the premiere, word on Facebook went out. “I didn’t hate it,” was the review from one of the club’s long-standing doormen. I don’t know what I expected; I expected nothing. I expected the worst but I had hoped for the best. Something that sent chills. Something that said “Hey, holy crap, there it is!” I wanted that, actually.

But what I got was a charming showdown of memories tangled with fiction. I’m not sure whose memory won in the end, but I guess that’s where the fight between fiction and non-fiction can begin.

The actor cast as Hilly Krystal was a huge distraction for me only because I couldn’t figure out who he was throughout the entire film. Then later, when I was telling a friend that Ron Weasley (the actor, Rupert Grint) played Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys, it hit me; Professor Snape! Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) played Hilly Krystal. That part was awesome, except for the voice. Hilly had a signature way of talking: low and slow with a unique emphasis on the consonants—like he was rolling out dough. As much a part of him as his burley shape and scraggle face was Hilly’s sound.

A couple of nights later I went to a show at The Bowery Electric to see Cheetah Chrome play, only to find out the room was at capacity and show time was 1:30 am. Cheetah is a rock god and I would wait all night for him. Seriously. But the crush at the door and the don’t you now who I am! of the black t-shirt-wearing,-incensed-three-deep-at-the bar meant  I wasn’t going to do it.  Instead, I stood outside and chatted to my friend Jahn Xavier—X-Sessive from back in the day. Jahn grew up at CB’s like me, but even more so–played onstage at 15 years old with Richard Hell and with his own bands The Ghosts and The Nitecaps. Jahn was also playing on the bill this night, but going on solo at 3am. Jahn succeeded in hustling me into the club, a door scene, which reminded me very much of my teenage years at the club when they basically refused to let me in and we just walked in anyway.

“What did you think of the movie,” I asked him.

Deep smirk, long pause and even longer look. “It was a love letter to Hilly,” he finally said.

We both agreed the club in the movie looked cool but didn’t look very much like the dark rabbit hole we had fallen into in our youth.

I want to talk about the 15 year-old girl trying desperately to fit into a scene. Not in the movie, but in real life. She is introduced to the great Hilly Krystal by her 21 year-old English boyfriend. She is asking for a job. Hilly takes a shine to the little tyke, hires her for whatever reason–maybe he figures, if he gives her something to do, it will keep her off the streets.

            “I have a flea market in a theater on Second Avenue, I need someone to collect .50 cents at the door.”

To see dozens more of these rare advertisements from the 1970’s click on the picture.

She looks up at the tall man not daring to say anything else but “okay.” But inwardly she’s disappointed. The job is not at the club where all the cool people are where all the action is. She wants to sail by the front doormen who know her by name, and not have to sneak past them like she usually does. She dreams of being someone famous so people will like her, love her even. All of her other teenage friends were in the thick of it, playing onstage and getting free drinks. She wanted that. Still, this was a start. The door she would work was the old Anderson Theater taken over by Hilly and renamed the CBGB’s Theater. At night, there would be the bigger acts like Patti Smith Group, Richard Hell and Voidoids, The Dictators, The Deadboys, and during the day on the weekends would be the flea market.

She sits on a crate in the theater lobby with a bunch of 45’s and LP’s she is supposed to sell. It smells of mold and it’s a cold November, her finger-tips tell her there’s no heat. Beyond the double doors to the theater there is a single bulb that lights the dark and she has the overwhelming impression that it’s not safe to go in there. She is alone with very little foot traffic. She is bored and overdressed in her spiked kitten heels and fishnets under 60’s Capri pants, vintage beaded top wrinkled and torn with careless precision–the undeniable mark of a Punk allegiance meticulously put together for the occasion. When someone does finally come in from the bright sunshine of the day she is excited to practice her snobby cool and ask them for their .50 cents. A tall skinny rocker guy walks in and heads straight for the theater, she stops him

“Um, excuse me, it’s 50 cents?”

She lowers her chin to give him a long look so he knows she means business.
He looks surprised and confused, fishes in his pocket and hands it over. He smiles at her and asks about the records at her feet. They are dusty and dirty.  The singles have large center holes and they leave a grimy residue on her fingertips when she touches them so she doesn’t touch them very much. She knows nothing about the bands whose names are on the records so the conversation is very short and he continues inside.

Turns out the guy is Lenny Kaye, guitar player for Patti Smith. The girl finds this out years later, but at the time she has no idea. Luckily Lenny is a good guy and doesn’t take the opportunity to make a clueless teen feel like crap.

The theater was short lived and she abandoned the job to hang out with her friends, still running into the club past the doormen who would stop her if they could before she disappeared into the crowd. Eventually she would be onstage with a band whose name soured the faces of her parents and their friends.

She leaves the country, she comes back, goes across the US, it doesn’t matter; the club is still there. Will always be there. Next generation music legends born and born again like a musical Mesopotamia. Audition nights spawn generations of punks plugging into an open stage that welcomed anyone who dared load in.

Eventually she would work inside the club, on the stage in fact, coiling cable with the best soundmen in the city, moving amps and speakers, getting bands on and off stage. All the while her little daughter grew inside her, until the look of fear from metal boys loading in told her it was time and she quit.

What is it about this movie that makes me want to cry? Certainly not seeing Ron Weasley play Cheetah Chrome, nor Professor Snape who did an admirable job of trying to portray a very big role. But maybe the story is just too big because everyone has a CB’s story.

My now boyfriend also worked at the club. He built the stairs to the infamous bathroom, rebuilt the ceiling in the basement, and disposed of the rat carcasses that fell in the renovation.  He also coiled cable with the best of them (still does). Often we sat one barstool apart; we didn’t really know each other back then, but we have this shared history that laces us together today. One night we figured out a formula to approximate how many people had been through CBGBs during its 34-year existence based on an average attendance of 100 people a night. That’s 365 times 34 times 100 which comes to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,241,000 stories.  This number rises exponentially with stories from staff who were there every night. I’m pretty sure in every part of the world, someone has a CBGBs story. Once inside of its cavernous womb, the club changed you on a molecular level. We are now like a mutant worldwide army.

It’s a very different Bowery now then the one in the seventies where a club like CBGBs could open, stay open, and exist in general. The clothing designer John Varvatos, of Fashion Star fame, has appropriated the shell of the gutted club and attempts every now and again to pimp its ghosts for his own in-store corporate shows. Chase bank now sits like a block of stone on the corner: a swanky hotel is one block away.

Those who ran the club, are now with the CBGB Festival–an annual film and music event that showcases bands all over the city. This year’s big event was a street fair in Times Square with free music in front of TKTS with the headliner My Morning Jacket–a very long way from the theater onSecond Avenue and a continuing echo into the future, minus the flea market.

A painful yet charming feature of CBGB’s was the audition nights. In the film, Hilly straddles a chair in the day with the chairs up on tables and personally “yea”s or “nay”s the talent. Sorry movie people, but I have to blow the whistle on this one: Audition nights (not day) were Sundays and Mondays, and the club was open when you played. Hilly may or may not have been onsite. The soundman or doorman would write a little review and if you bombed or didn’t bring enough people, you were not asked back. Audition night was everybody’s chance to play at CBs, even if it was just once.

Truly the people’s club.

My favorite story in the film is when Hilly gives his daughter Lisa a quarter to call the Hell’s Angels for help when the mob comes to shake him down and she hides in the phone booth. The actual phone (I’m not sure about the booth) was sold to The Hard Rock Café in San Diego. I know this because I still get calls from time to time as my number was written in sharpie on that phone. (and no, it doesn’t have a header of, “For a good time call…”)

Does the CBGB story rival The Greatest Story Ever Told, the movie starring Charlton Heston? Maybe not, but it’s pretty close. Maybe in the future, by the time we make it to the 22nd or 23rd century, we can get the whole story told with the perspective of time to pull the strings together. But for now we will have to fumble and stumble over the present truth, good stories and lies, hopes, dreams and hallucinations.