New York – Hours earlier, Hilly Kristal joined rock’s royalty inside a Waldorf-Astoria ballroom for the latest Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions.
By the morning, though, Kristal sips a cup of coffee and pops an antacid as he considers the future of his own piece of rock history: CBGB’s, the venerable birthplace of punk. After 32 years in business, the world-renowned club on the Bowery is in danger of losing its lease.
“Even at this Hall of Fame thing, people were coming up and asking, ‘What can we do? What can we do?'” Kristal recalls, sitting at his cramped desk just inside the club’s front door. “It’s very discouraging after all these years.”
Kristal says the club owes $91,000 in back rent – through a bookkeeping mix-up. (His landlord concurs, but still wants the money.) Come August, when its lease expires, he expects the current $19,000 monthly rent to at least double, although Kristal’s landlord says there will be no new lease unless the old mess is gone.
“Show me you can meet your current obligations, and then we’ll talk about new ones,” says Muzzy Rosenblatt, executive director of the Bowery Residents’ Committee. “His destiny is in his own hands.”
Rosenblatt’s group holds a 45-year lease on the building, where the agency houses 250 homeless people above the club. CBGB’s is their lone commercial tenant; their rent feud dates back five years, when the committee went to court to collect more than $300,000 in back rent from the club.
The agency currently is in court trying to evict CBGB’s, citing the current unpaid rent and Kristal’s alleged failure to repair code violations in the legendary club. Kristal is battling on both fronts.
“I’m energized,” says the gray-bearded owner. “I’m going to fight.”
For fans of the dank storefront bar, its demise would mean the demolition of the Empire Punk Building.
“I consider it a historic place,” says Tommy Ramone, drummer in one of the club’s most enduring bands. “It would be like losing a landmark of sorts, you know?”
CBGB’s, with its familiar white awning, holds a special place in the city’s music history. It was here that the Ramones, the Talking Heads and Blondie created the punk scene for small crowds that paid a $1 cover charge.
“CBGB’s allowed bands – original bands, no less – the freedom to go and play and do whatever they pleased,” recalls Tommy Ramone. “It was a good fit.”
Rosenblatt is aware of the club’s legacy. He and his future wife shared their first kiss inside the club, although he’s quick to add that nostalgia won’t keep its doors open.
“I will not subsidize CBGB’s at the expense of the homeless,” Rosenblatt said. “I can’t allow my own sentimentality to impede our ability to serve homeless people.”
For Rosenblatt, that’s one of the major problems in his agency’s dispute with Kristal. He estimates the committee has spent $50,000 in legal fees and expenses to collect back rent from the club and to force Kristal to bring his space up to code, taking money away from the homeless.
Kristal suggested that greed was at the root of his problems with the landlord. A new tenant could afford a much steeper rent, and the building housing the club is now worth many millions of dollars, he said.
Back in the early ’90s, when the neighborhood was still dicey, Kristal considered buying the building – but he couldn’t raise the needed $4 million. The majority of money generated by the club now comes from T-shirt sales, he said.
Kristal was considering several options, including turning the space into a museum during the day. The club is already a repository of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia, with every spare inch of its walls covered in posters, fliers and stickers for hundreds of bands.
Several wealthy benefactors have also stepped up with offers to rescue the club, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. “It’s an icon of the New York music scene,” the dot-com billionaire said by e-mail, confirming his interest.
Kristal doesn’t know if that will help.
“You raise $50,000, $100,000 – big deal,” he said. “This is going to be $20,000 a month more, at least. It doesn’t make sense.”