‘Every night there was a different group at CBGB – it became like a second home’

New York club CBGB was the stuff of punk legend, spawning such bands as Blondie and Talking Heads. Bettie Ringma was there as it happened

Faces from the heyday of punk venue CBGB – in pictures

I moved to New York from Holland via Washington DC in August 1976, after I completed my art therapy master’s degree. One day I was trying to park my Super Beetle on the Bowery, where I lived with my then-boyfriend Marc Miller, and I saw a bunch of people standing in front of this building. So I ran back home and told Marc: “I think there’s something happening in this place.”

Every night there was a different group at CBGB, and it became like a second home; we were going four or five times a week. It was a very small space, like someone’s living room. There was a bookcase, a bar, and in the back there was a teeny-weeny little stage. It was very rarely not packed, but it wasn’t hard to get in: there was an open-door policy. They charged three dollars for admission; later five.

For me, everything was new, everything was fascinating. So it was natural for me to walk over after the gig and ask, “Would you mind if my boyfriend takes a picture of you and me together?” I very rarely had people refuse; it was very sociable. A lot of these pictures, like with the Ramones and Talking Heads, were taken before the bands even had their first record out. We have over 100 in total.

Joey Ramone
Bettie Ringma with Joey Ramone: ‘he was a real sweetiepie’. Photograph: Marc H Miller and Bettie Ringma, courtesy Of 98 Bowery

You had two different art scenes at that time: the slick galleries in Soho just a few blocks west, and then the more alternative art scene, who hung around in rock shows at CBGB. Fashion-wise, the musicians were very punk: leather jackets, black and safety pins and studs. Otherwise it was just anything you could get, torn T-shirts, whatever. I had my own little style. I wasn’t really trying to be a punk: I liked colours and being pretty.Marc and I were both very limited financially then, but CBGB was at our level, so we could relate to the people there. But the area was not safe: there were about 3,000 homeless people living in the Bowery, sleeping in flophouses. I had friends uptown who had a hard time visiting me.

At the time, I didn’t get the impression that something musically and culturally important was happening – we were just living. CBGB closed in 2006 over a lease dispute; now there’s a store where it used to be, some type of men’s fashion business. Like most of downtown Manhattan, the Bowery has been cleaned up and gentrified over the last two or three decades. But just round the corner there’s a new little place called Pinks where they play the same kind of punk music. So it’s not dead yet.


Interview by Kathryn Bromwich

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The 100 greatest BBC music performances – ranked!
As the Beeb celebrates its centenary, we take a look at its most memorable pop moments, from the birth of grime to the first sightings of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, plus TOTP goes Madchester and countless classic Peel sessions

Guardian music

06, Oct, 2022 @12:12 PM

Article image
Fear of Music by Jonathan Lethem – review
Jonathan Lethem's exploration of Talking Heads' extraordinary third album is stylish and illuminating, writes Dorian Lynskey

Dorian Lynskey

07, Jul, 2012 @11:04 PM

Article image
David Byrne: 'Spike Lee and I have a lot in common'
The former Talking Heads frontman on the importance of performance, covering Janelle Monáe, and his hope for the American experiment

Sean O’Hagan

13, Dec, 2020 @9:30 AM

Article image
David Byrne: 'It feels like the end of history in pop music'
David Byrne tells Sean O'Hagan about the hidden forces that lie behind everything we listen to

Interview by Sean O'Hagan

15, Sep, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
The big picture: punks and skins in harmony
The photographer who captured the spirit of punk has released a book of her most arresting portraits

Tim Adams

07, Jul, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
The big picture: Yan Morvan captures counterculture in Thatcher’s London
The French war photographer was fascinated by the creative fusion of the world of mods and punks in 1979

Tim Adams

21, Nov, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Anarchy in the UK: punk's early years

Sheila Rock's fascinating photographs of punk document the scene in its thrilling infancy. She shares her memories of those years with Sean O'Hagan

Sean O'Hagan

27, Apr, 2013 @6:00 PM

Article image
Patti Smith: ‘I am who I am with all my flaws’
At 75, the punk poet, singer, artist and author talks candidly about life, loss, loneliness and her acclaimed new photography project

Kate Kellaway

13, Nov, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
On the road with the trailblazing record label 2 Tone
Chalkie Davies’s 1979 shot of musicians from Madness, the Specials and the Selecter captures the cultural power of the emerging ska scene

Killian Fox

25, Apr, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
David Byrne review – still making sense
The cerebral ex-Talking Heads frontman rolls into town with an immaculately drilled and dressed ensemble – and joyous music

Kitty Empire

23, Jun, 2018 @3:00 PM