Hardcore on the Bowery: An Exclusive Excerpt From NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980-1990
The Ramones! Patti Smith! Blondie! Joan Jett! The Talking Heads! Those are the bands that spring to mind when the culture at large remembers CBGB, the former rock club at 315 Bowery that's now home to a John Varvatos boutique. But the movies, festivals, and rock compilations all veer safely to the left of the weekly hardcore matinees held regularly from 1982 through late '89. While the daytime shows provided a new revenue stream for owner Hilly Kristal, the club became the hub for New York's hardcore scene: "CBGB was our home," says John Joseph, lead singer of the Cro-Mags and still a downtown fixture. "That's where the NYHC scene really took fuckin' flight and started really happening." So while national acts attracted drinking crowds at night, the club's most loyal patrons were teenagers who lined up outside every Sunday afternoon. Excerpted here is the first of three chapters we'll share from Tony Rettman's NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980–1990 (December 30, Bazillion Points), an oral history of the era as told by characters from the New York hardcore scene. Included here is "CBGB Matinee" -- check back on Wednesday and Thursday for two more chapters. In New York, a book launch party will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, December 11, at Powerhouse Arena (37 Main Street, Brooklyn).
CBGB wasn't doing hardcore in the beginning. They had an audition night on Mondays, and if they liked you and you drew a crowd, then you would get a gig. It wasn't until around late 1982 that they started with the matinees.
Don Fury (owner, Fury Studios; responsible for all crucial NYHC recordings): I had played in bands at CBGB for a few years and Carol Costa, my ex, was helping book the bands. About 1979, she started work at CB's, helping Hilly Kristal manage the club and, later on, book the acts. By the early '80s, lots of hardcore punk was coming out. The bands needed a regular venue to support them. I knew CB's would be a good spot. I asked Carol to put the idea to Hilly. First he said no, but after a few tries he said okay — and the CBGB hardcore matinee was born.
Vinnie Stigma (guitarist, the Eliminators, Agnostic Front, Madball; vocalist, Stigma): What do I remember about the CBGB matinees? First of all, I'm Italian, so I eat dinner at three o'clock on Sundays. I'm Nablidon, so we eat at three. If I was Sicilian, I'd eat at two o'clock. I used to go to CBGB with a full belly, and my grandmother gave me a glass of wine, so I was ready!
Steve Wishnia (bassist, False Prophets): CBGB were not really comfortable with punk as it started becoming hardcore. They thought it was too violent, and most of the crowd didn't drink as much.
Kevin Crowley (vocalist, the Abused): The first time we played CBGB we ended up owing Hilly money because stuff got damaged. We passed a hat around, and everyone gave what they could. The hardcore stuff was on probation with Hilly at that point, but ultimately we ended up doing a bunch of the matinees.
Mike Judge (vocalist and drummer, Death Before Dishonor, Youth of Today; vocalist, Judge): We would get the Village Voice...to see who was playing. We saw there was a matinee going on during a Saturday afternoon at CBGB. The first time I went to a CB's matinee, I saw Agnostic Front, back when John Watson was the singer. After I saw that show, every Saturday, I was there. I had to be a part of that scene.
Vinnie Stigma: On Sunday matinee shows, what I used to do with Agnostic Front is go do the sound check and then go home and eat. Hilly would be there. He was a man of few words. This is how it would go. This happened every time I ever played there:
Me: Hey Hilly, how are ya?
Hilly: Hey Vinnie, how ya doin'?
Me: All right. We're going to load in.
Hilly: All right.
Hilly: Yeah, okay.
I used to bring back the pignoli cookies. Man, he loved them Italian cookies! I left the cookies there, did my sound check, and then he would disappear.
Punk ads in the Voice. Click for a larger version.
Drew Stone (vocalist, the High and the Mighty, Antidote; filmmaker): This shit got too big for A7, and that's when it percolated over into Saturday and Sunday afternoons at CBGB. No one was fucking there then anyway, so Hilly scored.
Ralphie G (vocalist, the Mob): Hardcore with the right bands could fill a club. The drinking part was another story. That's how the idea for the matinees came about. CBGB could still keep the nights for the older, drinking crowd, but still have a venue for hardcore without eating too much into the profits.
Gary Tse Tse Fly (editor, Tse Tse Fly fanzine): We made it down to a matinee in 1984 when they were on Saturdays and they cost four dollars. Satan's Cheerleaders from Long Island, No Control, and Government Issue were playing. I remember that it was cold. This was the first time I saw a hardcore punk crowd. Just from a visual perspective, they just looked pretty pitiful. I think the squats were at their peak that winter. I remember a lot of kids were sniffing glue from bags, and people were drinking in the streets.
John Porcelly (guitarist, Violent Children, Youth of Today, Bold, Judge, Gorilla Biscuits, Shelter; vocalist, Project X; coeditor, Schism fanzine): You'd go into the bathroom of CBGB, and there would be people doing heroin in there. There were people sniffing glue in the bathroom. I thought the Ramones were kidding! The scene was so drugged out. It created this really dramatic and really violent scene.
At the first Agnostic Front show I went to there, Tony Ultra Violence and his girlfriend were watching everyone filing out. She's going, "Not him...not him...not him..." and then she pointed to me and said, "Not him." I didn't know what that meant, but I never felt so glad to be "not him." Tony was sitting there with a bottle in his hand. Finally, she saw who she was looking for and goes, "HIM!" and Tony took this bottle and smashed it over the guy's head and cracked it open.
Gary Tse Tse Fly: My first impression was that the crowd was kind of shabby and looked cold and kind of miserable. Then we paid our four dollars and went inside and there was this amazing transformation. There was just this energy. No Control got on stage and maybe during the second song people started slam-dancing. There was a short break and Government Issue came on and then the place just exploded. I was hooked. I remember the physical need to get into the pit and move around. I had no idea what to do in the pit, and I probably looked like an idiot just pushing people. At my first show, I was this guy who doesn't know what he's doing. After that, I loved everything about it. The very next week I came again, and I don't think I missed a matinee for a year.
Madball. (Click for a larger version.)
Photo by Chris Minicucci. Courtesy of Bazillion Points publishing
John Porcelly: My dad wouldn't let me go to New York City from Westchester for shows, because he thought New York City was sketchy, but he let me go to the Anthrax Club in Stamford and Stamford is a fuckin' ghetto! I think he just heard "Connecticut" and figured it was fine. I started to go to shows at the Anthrax, and I saw a million great bands. But when CBGB started to do matinees, that was a dream come true. I took the Metro North train down and went to one CBGB matinee, and I went every single weekend after that. I'd go to the Anthrax on Friday and Saturday no matter who was playing. Then Sunday, I'd go to the CBGB matinee. Again, I wouldn't care who was playing. I'd go just to hang out and meet people. But it wasn't like you hung out at CBGB for the entire week. The rest of the week you wouldn't want to go there because it was just a bunch of crappy bands playing. The only thing exciting going on at CBGB was the Sunday matinees.
Ray Cappo (drummer, Violent Children; vocalist, Youth of Today, Shelter): CBGB became an escape from my world. You could see incredible bands for three dollars. It was almost like walking into a comic book, with superheroes and villains and characters that were bigger than life. That's what the New York scene was like. The characters on the scene were more colorful than the black and white people in my high school. There was no Raybeez or Vinnie Stigma or [Stimulators and M.O.I. drummer/Cro-Mags bassist and later vocalist] Harley Flanagan in my high school. When I went back to high school on a Monday morning and tried to explain the bands I saw, or how I saw one guy hit another guy over the head with a beer bottle, people would ask, "Where do you go where you see people hitting each other over the head with beer bottles?" The only place people would be seeing something like that is in a movie.
Gary Meskil (bassist, Crumbsuckers, Pro-Pain): The CBGB scene could be a bit intimidating at times. It was a complete contrast to my upbringing. I grew up in South Baldwin, Long Island, right on the water, in a suburban environment with lush, green grass and all the clichés that come along with it. To find myself in New York City down on the Bowery every weekend was pretty interesting. Kids who grow up in suburbia, they get bored of it, especially if you're of the artistic nature. I wanted something more edgy and exciting in my life.
John Porcelly: To me, it's like bees in the winter — they get together because it's them against the elements. People hated punk and thought punkers were nut cases. We got beat up. So there was this brotherhood, where everyone looked out for each other. We were all misfits and fucked up in our own ways. But we were accepted on a very base level.
Richie Birkenhead (vocalist, Numskulls, Underdog, Into Another; guitarist, Youth of Today): I went to a lot of CB's matinees. I'd say I almost went to every single one of them. Even if I didn't go inside, I went down there to see who was hanging out.
Pete Koller (guitarist, Sick of It All): I'm pretty sure the first matinee we went to was the release party for Agnostic Front's Victim in Pain album in 1984. We took the 7 train to the E train, and then we got off by Bleecker Bob's Records. Right away I saw a big, sort of chubby dude with a shaved head and a huge eagle tattooed on the back of it. I never saw anything like this in my life. I thought, "Holy shit, this guy is going to kill us!" That was Billy Psycho — and he was super cool! He accepted us right away. As kids in high school who weren't accepted, and weren't into what everybody else in our school was into, that was what we needed. We weren't wearing Capezios and Cavaricci pants. We were outcasts where we came from, and we finally found our place. From that minute on, I thought hardcore was the greatest thing ever.
A typical Sunday afternoon on the Bowery.
Brendan Rafferty (vocalist, SFA; bouncer, CBGB): When I first started hanging out there regularly, what struck me was the sense of family that all the hardcore kids had. Being the new kid, I had people walking up to me and introducing themselves and asking me a million questions and introducing me around to other people. "Hey, this is Brendan, he just started hanging out." It was very accepting, and as a young teenager who never felt he fit in anywhere, I finally found where I belonged and who I was.
There was a sense that no one mattered more than anyone else. That was a strong first impression that kind of turned my perceptions upside down in a good way. I remember sitting in the gutter and drinking a beer with some people I had just met, and they were completely cool and down-to-earth. When we all went back inside because the next band was about to start, much to my surprise, the people I had just met got up onstage. They were the next band. Bands and audience were the same people, and nobody was more important. That really made a deep impression.
John Joseph (vocalist, Bloodclot, M.O.I., Cro-Mags): I started going to CBGB in the 1970s and I got to meet Hilly Kristal. At the other big venues, you had to have a record deal. CBGB only had one rule: You had to play your own music. Hilly inspired these kids to make music. He was a musician himself. He really inspired a whole scene by letting bands come in there and play. CBGB was our home. Hilly let people like me and [Agnostic Front vocalist and Psychos bassist] Roger Miret and Harley Flanagan and [Cavity Creeps and Murphy's Law vocalist] Jimmy G have shows, and be able to have our scene. That's where the NYHC scene really took fuckin' flight and started really happening. We ran it, and we policed it.
Craig Setari (bassist, NYC Mayhem, Straight Ahead, Agnostic Front, Youth of Today, Sick of It All): The first time I went to a matinee, this guy Big Charlie was there who went to school with my brother and Danny Lilker. He introduced me to everybody and he put me on his shoulders. I was immediately a friend of everybody. So I was lucky in that regard. He was the biggest and coolest guy in the room.
Gary Tse Tse Fly: Early on, Big Charlie was at every show. Granted, he was three hundred pounds and six foot five, so you couldn't miss him. He just loved hardcore. He would come to every show. He knew everyone.
Mike Bullshit (vocalist, SFA, Go!; editor, Bullshit Monthly fanzine): He was like three hundred pounds of muscle. People ask about racism on the New York scene and I laugh. If you had said anything racist around him, he would have probably put you through the sidewalk.
Chris Tsakis (guitarist, the Nihilistics): I always loved playing CBGB. It was legendary, and had a fairly good sound system. The best thing was that it had a high stage. My least favorite thing was the jackasses who would want to dive off the stage and invariably pull out one of my cables. They always jumped on my side of the stage, because I think they were too intimidated by [bassist Big Daddy] Mike or [vocalist] Ron [Rancid]. Ron would pretty much kick anyone in the balls and shove them off the stage.
Dave Koenig (editor, In Memory Of... fanzine; coeditor, Hardware fanzine): The Guillotine fanzine benefit show and the infamous riot that occurred afterwards is one of my most vivid memories of CBGB. Right when the band Straight Ahead finished, Big Charlie Hankins grabbed the mic and let everybody know that there was a big riot going on outside. "You guys all talk about unity! It's time to prove it, because those guys out there have bats!"
The show was packed, and there were a lot of people outside, too. I don't know what really started the big ruckus. Rumors abounded. The conclusion that everybody could basically agree on was that somebody started with one of the homeless guys living in the halfway house over CBGB. In turn, the people upstairs started throwing garbage, bricks, and piss-filled balloons out the windows on the crowd below. I was standing outside just when this began to happen. Just imagine about fifty people trying to run into CBGB at the same time through that crappy door. The guys with the bats were a group of skinheads who were just looking for an excuse to hit people. There was word that Mike from the Nihilistics got cut on the arm by a transvestite. After about ten minutes inside CBGB, I found my friend Pat from Guillotine zine who said he was getting a ride out of there. I asked if I could go with him, because I was worried I was going to get killed. We ran outside, and it was chaos; a mix of people throwing stuff, people fighting, and people standing there watching. Traffic was stopped. I don't know the kid, but somebody smacked this guy in the face with a skateboard, and the guy flew into a taxicab windshield. We ran across the street to where Pat's car was parked. I dove into the open window and just took in this crazy scene. We bolted out of there to the train station, not believing what we just went through.
Kids on the LES.
Brendan Rafferty: As far as any problems getting in because of age, that was not a problem until late 1985, when New York state changed the drinking age from nineteen to twenty-one. Before the law changed, CBGB was allowed to let in all ages, with ID for nineteen to drink. When the law changed, CBGB was forced to change to sixteen to enter, twenty-one to drink. Cops were cracking down hard on clubs back then. It sucked, but I understood. Yes, I was denied entrance once when the law first changed and I didn't have ID. I think all the kids who bitched about the sixteen-plus policy were absolutely shortsighted idiots, though. They blamed CBGB for a New York State law. I guess it was easier for zine writers and straight-edge retards to bitch about CBGB than to bitch about the laws being set in Albany.
Russ Iglay (guitarist, Child Abuse; bassist, Murphy's Law, Underdog): Karen at CBGB used to give my brother Dean shit for being too young. We'd take in the drums, then walk out with an empty bass drum and put Dean in the case, then walk back into CB's with Dean inside the case.
Gavin Van Vlack (guitarist, NY Hoods, Suburban Uprise, Side by Side, Absolution, Burn, Die 116): I remember there was this kid Yoko. He was like everybody's little brother. When I was in Absolution, we used to sneak him into CB's in the kick-drum case. He wasn't the first to do that, though. I think that Agnostic Front or the Psychos used to sneak little Chris in that way. I guess it's a hand-me-down rite of passage, literally.
Matt Warnke (vocalist, Bold): When Bold was called Crippled Youth, we played our first show at CBGB in June of 1986 with Rest In Pieces, Warzone, and Youth of Today. I was able to play because Karen called my parents to verify my age. Despite their strong Catholic beliefs, they lied for their son that day.
Tom O'Hara (coeditor, Combat Stance fanzine): Between August of '86 and February of '87, when I actually turned sixteen, I tried to get into CBGB twice. The first time I was able to get in somehow. I don't think Karen Kristal was at the door. The next time I tried to go I got turned away. I stayed outside and listened to the entire matinee anyway. The time after that was early January, and I asked my dad to go with me and get me in. It was Token Entry opening up for Murphy's Law. I had to be there. I remember him telling Karen, "This is my son, he is fifteen, but he'll be sixteen soon. He has my permission to come here anytime he wants." From that point on, I was never carded by her again.
John Joseph: In the '90s, when all the stupid fights started happening, that's when Hilly Kristal put the kibosh on that shit. For a while, Hilly didn't want no hardcore shows there because of all the idiots fighting. They were fighting each other! When we were out there in the early '80s, we were fighting off rednecks and jocks and whoever else fucked with us. It was never us fighting ourselves. We were fighting people who fucked with our friends. When these assholes started getting drunk and fighting each other at shows like tough guys, it was wack. Hilly was like, "I'm not having this shit at my club." Then there weren't any hardcore shows in the '90s. But do you know who were the first ones who got to go in there and play again? The fuckin' Cro-Mags. I said, "We'll police the shit," and it went fine.
Matt Warnke: When we played our first CB's matinee, I was surprised how many people were in front of stage, singing the words. Our record wasn't even out yet! We had immediate kinship with people who had been around for a few years — the Death Before Dishonor guys like Mark Ryan and Mike Judge; and also people who were just coming up like ourselves, like Straight Ahead. We basically met almost everyone, and most people were incredibly cool and inclusive. I remember walking down Fourth Street after the matinee, and hearing, "Hey! Crippled Youth!" It was some of the Warzone women — as they were then known — toasting us from an apartment.
Vinnie Stigma: One of the greatest things ever for me was having a full belly of macaroni and meatballs, standing in front of CBGB at a hardcore matinee, and seeing my grandfather's pigeons flying over. I was like, "Yeah! A full belly, hardcore music, and seeing my grandfather's on the roof flying his pigeons, and knowing this is my neighborhood." When someone from the neighborhood would pass by CBGB, they'd be like "Hey Vinnie!" I was the Italian kid who used to hang out in front of CBGB. That was my thing.
Arthur Smilios (guitarist/bassist, Token Entry, Underdog, Gorilla Biscuits, Warzone): CBGB was the most comfortable and lovable dump and I miss it. Its demise is pretty much a microcosm of the Lower East Side I knew, growing up. Gentrification and synthetic faux culture have replaced the organic grit that made the neighborhood — and city, for that matter — so special. The horror of the successive big-business fascists, Giuliani and Bloomberg, has made this place into New Disney City. You could never have had what we had in the 1980s. CBGB reeked of sweat, stale beer, cigarettes, blood, and general filth. It was the cathedral of punk and hardcore.
John Joseph: God bless Hilly's soul. He really needs to get the real acknowledgment for really helping this scene by giving us a home. For all the people out there now who are just wearing the CBGB T-shirts, they don't know nothing. It's just a T-shirt to them. They think they're cool by wearing it. It has a much deeper meaning to me and the rest of us in New York. That was our spot, and it was essential to making the whole shit happen. I give major props to Hilly. His true story really needs to be told. What he did for the NYHC scene, that's what I hope motherfuckers really remember.
See also: Part 2: What is NYC Hardcore's Legacy?
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