By Binky Philips
It was early December 1974. My band, the Planets, had just been banned from the Coventry, the only club (in the outer – and, in the world of rock, outré — borough of Queens) in New York City that booked bands playing original material. A bouncer took offense when I tried to clock him with a mic stand in front of the whole audience. We had nowhere to perform. Now what?
One night around midnight, I was in a cab with two of my bandmates. We’d wrapped up our rehearsal, pooled our money and plumped for the luxury of a taxi instead of the subway.
Waiting at a red light on the Bowery at Bleecker Street, I spotted a quaintly designed but spanking new snow-white half-circle awning with old carny-style lettering in red and black that spelled out…CBGB
Without thinking, I blurted out, “Look guys, a place we might be able to play.” There was nothing but that enigmatic name, CBGB, that clicked, but click it did. Then the month’s mind-numbing holiday crap kicked into full gear, and I forgot all about it.
At some point in early spring, I realized that CBGB was the joint where Television and the Ramones, those two bands running postage-stamp-sized ads in the Clubs section of the Village Voice, were regularly performing. Oh, right!
Within a week, I was inside 315 Bowery asking this bearded, folkie-looking older fella seated at the bar if he knew who booked the place. He jerked a thumb towards the back of the club, where the stage was. I stepped over the two pedigree dogs sprawled at this woolly old lumberjack’s feet and walked over there. Standing between the trapezoid three-tier stage and the pool table was a stocky needing-a-shave curly-haired guy sipping a wickedly pungent-smelling drink, wearing impenetrable sunglasses, a dark blazer and a turtleneck sweater. Rather elegant, actually.
“That guy up front told me you book this club.”
“Well, if you do, I’m Binky Philips and I have a band that does originals and I thought…”
“I’m Terry. Bring me a tape tomorrow. I’ll be here.”
With a wave of his hand, I was dismissed. Starving for gigs, I did as I was told.
The next evening, the natty Terry Ork was a bit friendlier when I handed him our three-song demo. “I’ll listen and let you know. You’re Binky, right? Okay, Binky, I’ll call you.” Again, dismissed.
A few days later, to my distinct surprise, Terry did indeed call. “Hey, I listened to your tape. Not bad. I can give your Planets the first weekend in May opening for the Ramones. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, May 1st, 2nd, 3rd, two sets a night. The door is a 75/25 split and the Planets have to provide the PA.” True enough, CBGB did not own a PA at the time. Of course, I leapt at the offer. “Fine, load-in is at 6:30.” Dismissed. Click.
The gig was a little over a month away. My band decided it would be wise to ingratiate ourselves with the club’s management in the meantime. So we went to CBGB and hung out several times. Back then, the older folkie fella, who turned out to be the owner, Hilly Kristal, was serving food. I tried the burger first. Wow, pretty good! A week later, I decided to try “Hilly’s Chili.” It was fantastic! In fact, it was so good, I walked back to the kitchen to tell Hilly how much I liked it. He was standing there, in his red plaid wool coat, slowly stirring an industrial-sized pot of the chili as if in a trance. And, with Hilly obviously oblivious, about a foot behind his right boot was a fresh and wet pile of dog shit, about the size and shape of half a cantaloupe. My gag reflex instantly hit fifth gear. Needless to say, my eating-at-CBGB days came to an abrupt and permanent end. The club stopped serving food not long after.
As our weekend with the Ramones drew near, I started getting nervous. Ork’s “You have to provide the PA” proviso was a problem: the Planets didn’t have one. Or a friend with one. Or the cash to rent one. So, on the first of our three nights, we got to CBGB early and set my two 4×12 Marshall speaker cabinets on little tables on either side of the stage, with three borrowed microphones plugged into a borrowed Technics four-channel mixer the size of a toaster running into my 50-watt Marshall guitar amp. I would play my Les Paul through our singer Tally’s Fender Super Reverb.
The first two Ramones to arrive were Johnny and Tommy, wearing their band uniform: motorcycle jackets, white T-shirts, jeans blown out at the knees, Chuck Taylor Cons.
“This is the PA?!?” blurted Tommy. Johnny wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence. He just snorted with undisguised disgust and stomped past me.
And now, oh man, here was that ultra-weird singer, walking in the door. I was convinced that we were screwed. We would not be on this bill after tonight. I ran up to Joey Ramone, quickly introduced myself, told him that I’d recently heard his band’s demo at an A&R guy’s apartment and how much I loved it (I didn’t tell him that everyone else at this record label exec’s cocaine party hated them) and I that was really sorry but this was the only PA we could come up with, and I know that this sucks, and… uh… Joey smiled down at me (from his lanky 6’6” scarecrow frame) and said in a peculiar lilting voice, “Oh, that will do just fine.” Whew!
Dee Dee showed up last and never even noticed our band or the guitar amp substituting for a PA. (At the end of the night he let me know that he “liked Power Pop a lot, too.”)
The Ramones were just starting to draw, and we’d hassled all our friends to attend, and so we played for a nice-sized crowd, maybe 75 people. To my great relief, we went down well.
At the end of our very first set that Thursday night, as I was walking off the stage, Joey Ramone, who’d been watching me leap around and windmill from the pool table area next to the stage, walked straight up to me and said, with a happy smile, “I’m a big Who fan, too!”
Our bonding was instant and forever. From that day forward, there was never a time that Joey wasn’t friendly and happy to see me. A genuine sweetheart. Smart as shit, too!
And his band? Well, as someone who was there, I can emphatically say the myth is justified. You had a band (in 1975) that had synthesized the New York Dolls and the Stooges and the Velvets, and, unlike those three bands — the Ramones’ truly revolutionary wrinkle — had gotten rid of the entire concept of lead guitar. Onstage, they were utterly overloaded with charisma. All four Ramones were stars. And they really did do 12 songs in about 20 minutes.
“1-2-3-4!” And… that … was… that!
Everyone I ever turned onto the Ramones loved them. My favorite convert was my high school buddy Paul Stanley. By the time CBGB was in full swing, KISS was already almost huge. One night, while Paul was off the road and back in New York for a minute, I dragged him down to a Ramones show at CBGB. Up ‘til that point, he’d thought they were a joke. Paul and I climbed up the ladder to the crow’s nest lighting booth and from our above-the-crowd vantage point, within the first three minutes that they were blasting onstage, Paul turned to me and yelled over the band’s roar, “Oh my God, I love them!” Just like everyone else.
And, no, much as I dug them, I didn’t see the punk revolution erupting. I was standing way too close and just saw a really cool daring oddball band trying to land a record deal just like the rest of us.
Regarding CBGB… The Planets were one of the first 15 or so bands to ever play there. We never played with the Ramones again, but our next two gigs there were three-day weekends opening for Television. Across a few decades, I wound up playing CBGB more than 60 times.
Terry Ork soon left CBGB under vaguely negative circumstances and never returned. Hilly Kristal took over the booking. Some believe he was clueless and lucky; that couldn’t be further from the truth. He had an open mind, an open heart and open ears. His slow, deep New York drawl and hungover demeanor led people to underestimate him. But, aside from Ork’s early role, CBGB became the international institution it rightly deserved to be because of Hilly.
Over the years, he became something of a surrogate father to me and many other musicians in New York. On a regular basis, he’d amaze me with his insightful musical acumen. More than a few times, I would do a show, introduce some new songs in the set, and at the end of the night, as I was loading out the gear, Hilly, slumped at his desk by the front door, would sleepily say something like, “I liked the first new one you did tonight, especially the lyrics [yes, he’d listen to the words!], but the second one’s chorus feels unfinished. You need to go back and work on that song, Binky.” And… he’d be right!
They made an awful movie about CBGB with the late Alan Rickman playing Hilly. I’m privileged to have experienced the real thing.
Coda: I was never tight with Tommy Ramone, but I was in touch with him a while back. This quote he E-mailed me is perhaps my most treasured compliment: “Binky Philips and the Planets were one of the star bands of the original CBGB scene. They were already around when early ’70s rock transitioned from glam rock into the punk movement. There was a lot more variety at CBGB than people might now be aware of. The Planets were a great example of the virtuoso-led school of music, just one of the ingredients that made a night out at CBGB an eclectic event.”
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