Anyone in 1976 reading The Village Voice or John Rockwell's reviews in the New York Times knew that there was something interesting going on in New York City's rock music scene, and the epicenter was a little bar named CBGB on Bleecker and the Bowery. While the rest of the pop music industry was degenerating into arena rock, gimmicks (KISS comes to mind), and the sterility of the studio (e.g., disco), the stripped-down bands at CBGB focused strictly on the music, and very raw music it was.
When CBGB first entered my consciousness in 1976, I had been working for the past year as an Actuarial Student at New York Life Insurance Company. Some of my fellow Actuarial Students (particularly my friend Eli, but also Clark and Bruce) were interested in checking out CBGB to hear some of this stuff first hand.
It was Eli who had the brilliant idea to call for reservations. I don't know how he figured this out, but here's the story: CBGB was long and narrow. As you entered from the street, the bar was on the wall to the right, and deeper inside was a small area with tables and benches, and then the stage, actually facing towards the front door. Way back to the left was the combination bathroom and "dressing room." If you called for reservations, and you showed up early enough, you got a seat at a table, just feet from the stage. Otherwise, you had to sit at the bar or line up against the walls near the stage.
(I am perfectly aware that this talk about Actuarial Students and "calling for reservations" is destroying some people's illusions of what CBGB was all about, but I'm giving you a personal geek-eye view of the scene.)
Of course, making reservations and sitting at a table had its downside as well. We'd sometimes be waiting hours for a band to decide they were finally ready to make an appearance. "Don't any of these people have to go to work tomorrow morning?" Eli would sometimes ask. But looking around, it didn't seem like that was the case.
The first time we went to CBGB we saw a wonderful band named Television, named after Tom Verlaine but also featuring Richard Lloyd, and their guitar duets seemingly went on for hours. Opening for Televison that night was a trio named Talking Heads, and it was obvious from the beginning that the guitarist and singer David Byrne was clearly in total command, and the eyes of his drummer and bass player (a young woman with a cute short hair cut) followed his every cue. "Thank you very much," he'd shout when they were finished, and sometimes as an encore they'd play the bubblegum hit "1, 2, 3 Red Light."
Over the next couple years, Eli, Clark, Bruce, and I had the opportunity to see both bands more times. We preferred Television, but their first album (Marquee Moon) just didn't capture their live sound. The album was like the shadows on the cave wall compared to their glorious sets. Shortly before Talking Heads recorded their first album, they added a fourth member to the group and eventually developed an interesting studio sound, and later actually evolved in fascinating ways.
We saw other bands at CBGB as well, some long forgotten like The Shirts, others rather legendary like The Dead Boys (a band that was just too loud) and Pere Ubu. At the time we saw the Ramones, we weren't familiar with their music and we were truly baffled. After each very short song, Joey would shout "1 2 3 4" and they would start in on what initially sounded like a reprise of their last song, but which was actually a whole new song. The whole set couldn't have lasted more than 20 minutes.
I never saw Blondie at CBGB, but I did see pre-"Heart of Glass" Blondie at Max's Kansas City, a larger club located on Union Square East. I never saw Patti Smith at CBGB, but I did see her at the club My Father's Place on Long Island. (We made the trip just for her.) Although I was in CBGB about a dozen times (no later than 1979, I'm pretty sure), I never made it to the Mudd Club.
CBGB closed yesterday. Last I heard, it's moving to Vegas.