First impressions make their mark forever, and guitarist Cheetah Chrome remembers feeling right at home the moment he entered CBGB & OMFUG in July of 1976, arriving from Ohio with his band, the Dead Boys, for their first gig in New York.
"I walked through the door and stepped in dog shit," Chrome recalls with a laugh. "We were like Martians in Cleveland. And so when we got up [to New York], we were normal. We had a great audience our first night." Club owner Hilly Kristal was so impressed with the Dead Boys' performance, he signed on as their manager. CBGB, meanwhile, emerged from biker-bar obscurity to Bowery brouhaha, offering its stage to Television, the Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the New York Dolls and 30 more years' worth of unsigned talent, until its shuttering in 2006. "People would go there and see a band and think,'Oh man, I wanna be in a band,'" reflects Dolls frontman David Johansen.
The first-ever CBGB Festival, which kicks off today and runs through Sunday, will attempt to rekindle the club's old magic. In keeping with its tradition of booking only new and up-and-coming musicians, the fest will feature 300 bands – some familiar in hardcore circles, others getting their first crack at opening for a headliner – at a string of participating venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn. For those looking to catch acts that played CBGB in its golden era, the Bowery Electric's Thursday night bill offers the first show in 30 years from the Miamis, followed by a reformed Tuff Darts, the Waldos featuring Walter Lure of the Heartbreakers, and Cheetah Chrome, who will close the night at 12:30 am with his former bandmate, Jeff Magnum. Under the same roof in the venue's Map Room, the last surviving Ramone, Tommy, will play an acoustic set, followed by Ivan Král.
Other CBGB stalwarts playing on Thursday include Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols at the Living Room and Johansen at Sullivan Hall. Dolls fans can expect to hear some of the reformed band's rarely performed ballads, plus songs from Johansen's solo period.
One Thursday no-show will be significant: guitarist Richard Lloyd and drummer Billy Ficca of Television, the first band to play CBGB, were scheduled to perform with Lloyd's new band but cancelled due to his hospitalization in Cleveland on June 11th, according to Lloyd's Facebook page. While the reason for the hospitalization was not disclosed, the Cleveland Scene reported a confrontation that night between Lloyd and Ficca, who shouted and threw drinks at each other minutes before playing their set at the Grog Shop. When Rolling Stone attempted to contact Ficca through Lloyd for an interview prior to the show that day, he wrote in an email, "I am not sure that I have the energy at the moment of tour to bother him." On Tuesday, Lloyd's wife commented on Facebook, "he's still not 100%, but is feeling better."
Many musicians who got their start at CBGB remain active, musically and otherwise. Though Richard Hell retired from music long ago, he'll publish an autobiography next year about his time with the original Television lineup, the Heartbreakers and the Voidoids. Patti Smith released an album in June and plays an occasional show with Television's Tom Verlaine. Blondie will tour with DEVO this fall. And in September, Talking Heads fans will be able to hear David Byrne's latest efforts when the former frontman releases an album with St. Vincent; his old bandmates, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz will issue a Tom Tom Club EP, Downtown Rockers, as a sort of ode to CBGB.
"It was our incubator. It was very intimidating to perform," Weymouth says. "I only had my amp for two months before our first gig [in 1975]. I was just starting."