Photo: © GODLIS

Our Hole in the Wall:
An Oral History of the CBGB Scene

Dave Steinfeld


The Time

Mid-to-late 1970s

The Place

New York City

The Players

Photo: © GODLIS

Marky Ramone: Drummer not only with The Ramones but with several other seminal bands including Wayne County & the Backstreet Boys and Richard Hell & the Voidoids (at right above). His autobiography Punk Rock Blitzkrieg was published this month by Simon and Schuster.

Ivan Julian: Guitarist and songwriter with various bands including the original lineup of Richard Hell and the Voidoids (at left above). Released the solo album The Naked Flame in 2011.

Jimmy Destri: Keyboardist and composer with Blondie (second from the right above).

Jimmi Accardi: Singer-songwriter-guitarist with The Laughing Dogs, a band that recorded two excellent albums for Columbia Records.

Ronny Carle: Singer-songwriter-bassist with The Laughing Dogs.

Carter Cathcart: Singer-guitarist-keyboardist with The Laughing Dogs.

Photo: © GODLIS

Willie Nile: Singer-songwriter who played CBGB despite the fact that he wasn’t a punk rocker per se. Released two major label albums and opened for The Who in the early 80s. Still active today.

Photo: © GODLIS

Patti Smith: One of the most influential musicians of the CBGB (or any other) era. Solo artist and leader of The Patti Smith Group. Also, a respected artist and author of the award-winning memoir, Just Kids.

Tom Wynbrandt: Singer-songwriter-guitarist with The Miamis, a band he co-founded with his brother Jim.

Like England in the early 60s or Seattle 30 years later, downtown New York City in the mid-to-late 70s was ground zero for one of the most fruitful music scenes in rock and roll history. Clubs like Max’s Kansas City and especially CBGB played host to a wide variety of musicians, some of whom went on to achieve stardom, many of whom didn’t.

Of the great artists who emerged from CB’s, the names most often cited are The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, and various acts from the New York punk scene. In fact, the musicians who played there in the 70s represented a more diverse collection of sounds, encompassing everything from literate rock bands such as The Patti Smith Group and Richard Hell & the Voidoids to great pop groups like The Laughing Dogs, The Miamis and The Mumps; from the Latin and soul-infused music of Mink Deville to the campy, theatrical performances of Wayne (who later became Jayne) County.

For someone like me—enamored of that era but too young to be part of it—1970s New York is a period that provides endless fascination. Travel with me now, back to Bowery and Bleecker in the 70s, and let’s learn another part of the CBGB story, as told by some of the folks who lived it.

Young partygoers lounge outside CBGB at Bleecker and Bowery, 1978. Photo: © GODLIS

Ivan Julian: First of all, you have to have the background. The city was in total decay—which made it great for a 20-year-old to move here because you didn’t need that much money. Your rent was 120 dollars a month, okay? The club’s rent was not much more than that. The area between 14th Street and 23rd Street on 6th Avenue that now has Old Navy and The Gap? All those buildings were vacant. Every single one of them! I used to go for walks there on Sundays, and it was like a ghost town.

Tom Wynbrandt: New York was in bad shape in those days. Streets were dirty, subway cars were covered in graffiti, and one “Going Out of Business” sign after another plastered the storefronts. Muggings were an everyday occurrence. It was like an endless loop of Kojak.

Jimmy Destri: It was all due to economics, to New York being told by [then-President] Gerry Ford to drop dead. A depressed city, low rents, bums on the bowery. One of them died in our hallway. You know, it was that kind of seedy, Kojak New York that we came out of.

Marky Ramone: New York was very downtrodden at the time. There was a lot of strikes, a lot of murders, a lot of homeless people.

It was in this environment that the punk scene, such as it was, took shape—first at Max’s Kansas City, then a bit further downtown at a ratty club on the Bowery called CBGB. The venue’s owner was Hilly Krystal, a bear-like figure who, despite the club’s name (CBGB stood for ‘Country, Bluegrass and Blues’), was open to pretty much all types of music.

Hilly Krystal. Photo: © GODLIS

Patti Smith: When we started building CBGB’s as a place to play, it was because there was no [other] place to play for people like us. There was no place in New York City in 1973 for a poet improvising with a guitar player and a piano player. The only things there were were maybe some gay cabarets that were really too sophisticated.

Willie Nile: I picked up the Village Voice one day, and there was this new place called CBGB. It was Bowery and Bleecker. I remember I took my guitar, sunny day, walking down Bleecker Street. I walked up to the woman behind the bar and said, “Who do I see about playing here?” She said, “You wanna talk to Hilly. He’s in the back, but he’ll be coming out.” So I sat down, had a beer and half an hour goes by. No Hilly.

Photo: © GODLIS

So I went over to the jukebox. They had a lot of great stuff. And I see the very last song on the jukebox is by a guy named Hilly Krystal—both sides of the record. So I pump five dollars of quarters into the machine and press that song. Five dollars’ worth! I just sat back and had my beer and after about nine plays, this grizzly bear comes out from his den. This guy who just woke up. And I walked up to him and said, “Hi, are you Hilly? I like your song. What do I have to do to play here?” And he says, “Well, there’s a stage. Jump up!” It was just a couple of months before Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd walked in… They would do bills with Patti Smith. I’d get there early and see Richard and Tom onstage, just rehearsing. Two wicked guitarists. And then the whole thing exploded. All these bands came in: Ramones, Talking Heads. The place would levitate.

Jimmy Destri: We started going downtown in the early 70s to see The Dolls and Eric Emerson. And from downtown, I met Chris [Stein] and Debbie [Harry]. The scene then was nothing. It was just a bunch of bands who could live cheaply in a depressed state because New York was broke. I was a pre-med student working in a hospital, so I had money. But I quit it all once Blondie started…. You had a core group of bands like Patti Smith, The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads later on. And basically, that blew up. It was the total antithesis to the “me generation” sort of thing. You know, uptown [there was] Studio 54 and everything. This was a place for ugly white kids to go. It wasn’t the beautiful people; it was the dirty people.

Talking Heads. Photo: © GODLIS

Ronny Carle: It was a wonderful time from 1974 to ’79 before the scene got corrupt. If you were an artist, musician, writer or someone with a knack for the camera, it was a brotherhood of sorts… Tuff Darts, Richard Hell, Television, Dead Boys, Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Willie Deville, David Johansen. I could name at least 50 more… Eddy Dixon, The Shirts, The Miamis… There was room for all kinds of talent.

Rock and roll had been getting predictable [before that] with the labels putting out more and more formula music and T&A rock. Arena bands like KISS and others were turning rock into comic entertainment with more regard for stunts than music.

Carter Cathcart: There were so many different styles of music. I know CB’s is known for a lot of punk, and we did some of that, but we were a pop band really. And there was room for everybody down there. It was quite an amazing thing… There was a lot of camaraderie. And I mean, groups that you’d totally expect not to get along because the music was so different [from each other but] everybody got along.

I avoided eating any of the food there, I must be honest! They actually served food back then, but I use the term loosely. It was just scary.

Max’s, I never really felt comfortable. I thought the acoustics were awful. It was a real kind of poser scene, too. Even though I know there were a lot of great artists that hung out there, don’t get me wrong. But it felt completely different than CBGB’s.

Richard Hell. Photo: © GODLIS

Marky Ramone: I played [at CBGB] with three different bands: Wayne County & the Backstreet Boys, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, and The Ramones. You could say I was the house drummer. So I started hanging around there, and that’s where I met [everyone]. You know, Debbie Harry, the members of The Ramones, The Dolls. There was a camaraderie. And we were grateful to have a place like that. In reality, it was just a hole in the wall. But it was our hole in the wall.

The place was all wood. The house system kicked ass. There were no doors on the bathroom [stalls]. There was dog shit on the floor. I guess you could say that was the charm of it. But Hilly was a great guy. He took a chance and his chance definitely worked.

Blondie may have achieved the most commercial success of the bands that emerged from the scene at CBGB. But other bands were more groundbreaking—even, if as was the case with The Ramones, part of the reason they were groundbreaking was their simplicity.

Marky Ramone (from Punk Rock Blitzkrieg): When The Ramones took the stage, there was no bullshit. It was four seemingly street kids in jeans and T-shirts. Their hair was long, but not like a hippie’s. Their songs lasted two minutes, maybe two-and-a-half. There was no milking it between songs. Just a few words, then “OneTwoThreeFour!” and onto the next. The songs were [like] kicks to the chest… A whole show was 15, maybe 20 minutes and if that was too short? Fuck you.

The Ramones. Photo: © GODLIS

Carter Cathcart: Maybe I’m wrong about this, but there were some people I’m not sure [understood] the complete sense of humor that [The Ramones] had. I mean, they were so funny! Of course, it was groundbreaking music too. My buddy Rob Freeman engineered the first album and used to tell me all these stories. But we knew them anyway. I think the first time I actually saw them at CB’s I had to stand outside because it was so loud. You know, we were loud but not like that! That was just intergalactic.

Before he joined The Ramones, Marc Bell (AKA Marky Ramone) played drums with several other acts. One of these was Wayne County, an openly gay singer who led The Backstreet Boys and whose repertoire included titles like “Toilet Love,” “Max’s Kansas City” (an homage to the scene he came out of) and “Man Enough to Be a Woman.” He would often perform in drag. Between the subject matter of his songs and his gender-bending appearance, Wayne County was not exactly destined to tear up AM radio.

Marky Ramone: [Wayne] was a transvestite, ahead of his time. She had a lot of balls. The lyrical content was hilarious. But the problem was [that in] ‘74, he was so outrageous that a lot of clubs wouldn’t book the band. It’s unfortunate because later on, you know, you had transvestites leading bands and coming out of the closet. Which is a good thing because who are we to judge what people are? [from Punk Rock Blitzkrieg:] When we played CBGB in March 1976, it was almost an act of defiance… A couple of songs into our set, Richard Manitoba pushed his way to the front of the stage. Richard was the vocalist for the band The Dictators. He began shouting at Wayne and taunting him. Wayne was used to getting heckled; his persona was meant to be provocative. But this went on for a few songs and seemed to be getting to Wayne…

Photo: © GODLIS

Richard finally stepped onto the stage, which was only about a foot high. Wayne was in the middle of “Toilet Love” and snapped. He slammed the heavy steel microphone down on Richard’s shoulder. [He] then jumped on Richard, who was writhing in pain and clutching his shoulder. They rolled around onstage with Wayne getting in some good punches and furiously kicking the overweight singer all over his body. They fell off the stage and onto the beer-soaked floor of CB’s as the crowd parted like the Red Sea.

The place was going wild. I stood up and grabbed a cymbal stand, prepared for whatever might come next…. When Wayne got back onstage, his white shirt was covered in Richard’s blood. Wayne looked at the audience and asked them if they wanted to quit or if they still wanted some rock and roll. “Rock and roll!” they screamed.

After he left Wayne Country but before joining the Ramones, Marky played drums with Richard Hell & the Voidoids. Hell was already a veteran of the scene who became the Voidoids’ songwriter, lead singer and bassist. The late Robert Quine—one of the most inventive axemen of the 70s—held down one guitar spot while the other went to Ivan Julian, one of the few CBGB regulars who happened to be black. Julian shared with me his memories of joining the Voidoids.

Ivan Julian: I go to basically my first audition in the city. I walk in this room, and there’s a soundstage. There’s a guy sitting on a chair with glasses on, sleeping. And there’s [another] guy behind the drums with a bottle of vodka. There’s two women sitting there looking at them [who] were both like seven feet tall, with holes in their fishnet stockings. And then there’s this guy who looks like a law professor on the other side. So initially, I thought Bob [Quine] was Richard because Bob was basically running the rehearsal. Richard was sleeping.

Dead Boys. Photo: © GODLIS

Then I listened to Bob playing and I thought, “Well, I’m not sure what that’s about!” He was very abstract in his style, especially in the beginning. And Richard—like I said, I thought Bob was Richard, I didn’t know what Richard’s function was. He got a lot of flak for not being musically proficient. But his bass playing was very lyrical. So I [decided] to stick around.

At one point, I’m learning the songs and I look over to the two girls and they’re beating the shit out of each other! I mean, out of nowhere, they start clawing each other, hair pulling, stockings flying. Marc walks up to them and pulls them apart and then they’re cool for awhile. I’m like, “Oh! New York City.” (laughter)

As I peeled back the layers of CBGBs, I was curious to know if there was another artist (or two) who didn’t become as big as their peers felt they should have.

Willy “Mink” DeVille. Photo: © GODLIS

Marky Ramone: Yeah, definitely. Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers… They deserved a lot more credit.

Carter Cathcart: No doubt in my mind. Tom and Jimmy Wynbrandt had a band called The Miamis. They never got signed, and they should have. I just loved those guys… So many good songs.

Jimmi Accardi: I thought that Mink DeVille was very good. You don’t hear much about them. In my opinion, they were better than most of the bands you do hear about all the time.

Tom Wynbrandt: In my opinion, the one guy who should have become more famous was Willy “Mink” DeVille, my across-the-street neighbor on East 6th between [Avenues] A and B. A great voice and a riveting performer, completely unique.

We all followed the progress of Patti Smith, Joey Ramone and Debbie Harry. But what have some of the other veterans of that era been up to over the years?

Jimmy Destri: I had a serious drug issue. A lot of us did in our group, I mean, there’s a lot of dead people associated with that scene… I figured there’s two things I always was an expert on. One is music, and the other’s drugs. And I really felt that I had to give something back. [So] I went into training and went back to school and became a therapist. I’m a substance abuse therapist.

I don’t believe in the disease concept of alcohol or drugs. I believe it’s a choice… Leukemia is a disease! I mean, it can’t be ended with a choice. This can. I believe it’s an affliction brought on by choice, and I think [the word] “disease” is something [addicts] hang their hat on. So I’m pretty tough with them. It actually helps me realize what I have and how hard I worked to get it. If you ask me what I’m proud of, it’s not the 70 million records and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and all that. It’s getting clean and saving my family.

Tom Wynbrandt: I live with my wife on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We have an advertising and marketing firm, dealing mostly with financial services companies. Very few of our clients have any idea that I was ever involved in music. Even though it was a lot of fun, I have no real desire to tell them.

Carter Cathcart: By 1997, I had been doing voice work: commercials, some character voice work. I was doing some music for Anime. We got a call about this unknown show coming in from Japan and they wanted to know if we could dub it from Japanese to English. We said of course, and it turned out to be Pokemon. So I’ve been involved with Pokemon since like the first episode, doing voices for the show. And I’ve been writing the English script for Pokemon since 2002.

I’m doing a lot of classical piano as well. I did some benefit recitals last year, trying to raise money for different soup kitchens around the City. I did one in Indiana. I’m gonna go to Florida and do one in February. ‘Cause I started playing piano when I was five, and my greatest love is probably playing classical piano.

Jimmi Accardi: I do a radio show every Monday in California, on KVMR-FM. It’s basically the history of rock and roll…. I don’t get paid for doing it, I just do it because I want to, and that gives me the freedom to just play whatever I want to. It’s just a show where I play a lot of things that people have never heard, or original versions of songs that people have never heard. I’ve got it all stored up in my head [and] I’ve got to dump it somewhere.

Marky Ramone: I have a beer coming out that’ll be in the United States very shortly. I’ll put some of the proceeds towards charity, for Musicians Without Borders. I have a pasta sauce, and I donate part of the proceeds to Autism Speaks. I’m glad to be in a position to help other people. And also, the radio show on Sirius XM. It’s going on its tenth year. All I play is punk rock because I feel most of the time, punk rock bands are overlooked. So I passionately push old school and new school bands on my show.

Photo: © GODLIS

And to bring it full circle… How do these folks feel New York City has changed over the last 40 years or so?

Patti Smith: I think New York was more stimulating when it was a more down and out city. The more prosperous it gets, the less interesting it gets to me. It’s not the city that I came to, where you could get a little bookstore job and live in a crappy apartment. Now you can still live in a crappy apartment, but it costs thousands of dollars. It’s not as artist-friendly. But there’s certain things I still love about New York. Sometimes it’s the light at twilight. It gets this sort of pink color. You know, I just love the East Village or going to Tompkins Square Park. The thing that I most love about New York City, though, is that you can get coffee practically anywhere! I mean, I lived in Detroit for 16 years where the closest I could get to coffee was half a mile away at 7–11!

Marky Ramone: Well, [New York] obviously got gentrified. But, you know, there’s good things and bad things [about gentrification]. I miss the charm of the way the City was. but then again, there’s a lot of things that I do like. They’re working on the infrastructure which is good because the roads [used to be] horrible. And the influx of people from other states coming to New York to find their dreams is a cool idea. But 42nd Street used to be a really cool place. You had so many different movie theaters, and it had a certain charm. Then it got cleaned up, and now it looks like Disneyland.

Tom Wynbrandt: In most ways, New York City is much better today than it was in the 1970s. Yes, it’s more expensive… It’s true that people, including old-timers, can no longer live cheaply in Lower East Side tenements. But young people still come here to pursue their dreams, and they’re able to work towards them in a cleaner, safer, more attractive city that is still the capital of art, music, fashion and commerce. The scene I knew in the 70s was awful and wonderful — but it can never be recreated because the world does things differently now.