BLONDIE, RAMONES, TALKING HEADS GOT THEIR START HERE
Readers of my old column will recall the tremendous efforts that went into saving the 30 year old legendary Bowery music hall, CBGB’s, back in 2005-2006. The club that launched Blondie, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Patti Smith, and so many others finally closed in 2007. It’s now a John Varvatos store.
Now the real, sad story of how CBGB was driven into extinction largely by a man named Lawrence ‘Muzzy’ Rosenblatt is being told in a documentary that debuted last night at the Tribeca Film Festival.
‘Burning Down the House’ is directed by Mandy Stein, daughter of Sire Records founder Seymour Stein, and the famed Ramones manager, the late, great Linda Stein. At the Village 7 theater last night, Mandy welcomed her dad, sister Samantha, plus a clutch of CBGB’s old timers from Bebe Buell, photographer Bob Gruen and Blondie’s Debbie Harry to Larry Ratso Sloman, Ann Jones, and dozens of musicians and scenesters who populated the punk rock world from the mid 1970s.
Stein has done an admirable job. She dutifully followed the saga of Rosenblatt’s one man mission to destroy CBGB’s, and the dovetailing story of the club’s beloved owner, Hilly Krystal, who was diagnosed with lung cancer during the fight and died shortly thereafter. Among those interviewed or featured in the doc are Steve van Zandt, Sting, Jim Jarmusch, Luc Sante, Harry herself, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, Duff McKagan from Guns ‘n’ Roses, Patti Smith, etc.
Rosenblatt–who runs the Bowery Residents Committee, which was CGBG’s landlord’declined to be interviewed. In fact, during the actual battle, Rosenblatt refused to meet or talk to Krystal.
Some things that I reported back in 2005-2006 are not in the movie and are worth noting.
The Bowery Residents Committee listed the CBGB space for rent with Cushman Wakefield. A member of the BRC’s board of directors happened to be Alex Cohen, a senior executive at the gigantic real-estate firm.
He told me at the time that it was no conflict of interest.
“I’m not profiting from this,” he said. However, the BRC was seeking a rent increase from $20,000 to $40,000 a month.
As I wrote back in July 2005:
The BRC is no small-time institution for the homeless. It’s a $25 million-a-year operation, with backing and directors who have deep pockets.’ According to the BRC’s most recent available tax filing, Rosenblatt is paid $213,000 a year out of the $1.5 million earned by BRC officers, directors, and key employees. Who knew the homeless business could be so remunerative?
One of their primary backers, ironically, is an organization called Seedco Financial, which ‘ according to its Web site ‘ finances low-income job-training programs and backs small businesses, including downtown art galleries. Seedco got the BRC its seed money and continues to donate large amounts on an annual basis.
The wife of the president of Seedco, Mrs. William (Miriam) Grinker, told me then, “We have no comment. We’re not getting involved in this.”
Others on the BRC board include journalist Julie Salamon, who writes for the New York Times and once authored a book about the disastrous making of “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
But ‘Burning Down the House’ isn’t all about Rosenblatt’s desire to replace punk rock with designer jeans. It’s also about the music and culture that CBGB’s represented, how it transformed the Bowery at a time when New York City was down on its luck, and how it will be remembered. Mandy Stein has done a great job of recording this legacy, and I hope we see it playing a lot soon, on HBO, Sundance, or any of the quality cable channels. It deserves a wide audience, especially among those who love what music used to be.