Capturing CBGB’s Glory Days With Photographer David Godlis

(Left) Patti Smith, Bowery 1976 by Godlis and (Right) Godlis, Bowery 2016 by Melissa Guerrero

(Left) Patti Smith, Bowery 1976 by Godlis and (Right) Godlis, Bowery 2016 by Melissa Guerrero

In 1976, a young photographer came upon a black haired woman outside a club on the Bowery. In mid-conversation, he stopped and asked for a photograph. With barely a second to spare and the street lamp his only source of light, David Godlis produced a grainy black and white image of a young Patti Smith, her hand on her cheek in a deadpan expression. She would become one of his many muses at the legendary CBGBs music club.

Godlis, originally from New York, moved to Boston to study photography. He wanted to be a street photographer, and later came back to the city to document the street scene and begin his post-grad job search. In the process, he stumbled upon an ad on the Village Voice about a club downtown featuring oddly named bands like Blondie, Television, and the Ramones. On his first visit, he saw a Velvet Underground album on the wall and decided that this was the place to be. A few weeks later, he began photographing the club, just as it was, without the aid of a flash, for three straight years. Some forty years later, the images have been immortalized in his new self-published book, History Made at Night.

Godlis documented the punk rock club — from the bartenders to the bathroom, to teenage musicians hanging out along the Bowery — as he saw it. I recently spoke with the photographer to discuss his kickstarter-funded book, his adventures on the street and how he stumbled upon the holy grail of music venues in the punk rock scene.

Why did you decide to be the man behind the lens?

I was always looking for something to do artistically. I tried to be a writer, I was okay at it but the people I knew who were doing it were better than me. When I got my first camera in 1970, a Pentac Spotmatic, and started taking pictures of my friends, I became fascinated with photography… You take to something and you say, “Okay, this is my thing.” People pick up a guitar and say that’s their thing. For me, the camera was my guitar.

Blondie by Godlis

Blondie by Godlis

What was it like living in the punk rock scene at that time? 

CBGBs was the one [club] I felt really comfortable in from the minute I walked in…I immediately recognized that they and everybody in the club that night were my kind of people. And punk rock wasn’t defined yet. There wasn’t a definition for people who listen to the The Velvet Underground, MC5, or people who liked Iggy Pop.  They were over there trying to make something out of nothing because nobody was listening, nobody cared about it that much.

I can only imagine what it was like to be there when they were starting…

I remember telling myself, if you run into one of these scenes, keep your eyes open. I didn’t go looking for the scene, I don’t think, but I recognized it the minute I walked into CBGBs. You knew something was happening, you could just feel it. I was a photographer that photographed things on the street during the day but I thought maybe I should be photographing this, like it was street photography, except doing it at night… But they were two worlds that don’t mix that often. I was the guy that was equally comfortable in both worlds.

Your pictures capture people just the way they are at that moment in time. When we see any celebrity, musician or cultural figure, we forget that they’re real people that do boring things.

That’s also why I wanted to photograph everybody. To me it felt that…there wasn’t that separation where you’re watching Blondie, or idolizing Blondie, because Blondie was sitting down at the bar in between sets, hanging out, they weren’t disappearing into a limo somewhere. My way of doing photography is to make things look the way they look, shooting with no flash.

How did you transition from outsider looking in to CBGBs house photographer?

Hilly Kristal was the one. He let me photograph whatever I wanted to photograph.  There was another club, The Bottom Line, if I went there I had to get all kinds of okays to shoot. When I went into CBGBs, Hilly let me shoot anything, anytime, no quid pro quo.  I would come in with a box of pictures and show them to everybody. I was seeing the same people every night and at the same time I was learning how to do it. I moved through the club organically until everybody pretty much knew [what I was doing].

It’s interesting that you decided to self-publish. Where did the Kickstarter idea originate from?

A collector that bought some of my pictures wanted to meet me and he suggested a Kickstarter campaign. I knew about Kickstarter; I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that a book could be done in this way. It felt a little bit scary but the it felt right to do it. It gave me a lot of freedom to [edit] the book in a way that I wanted to put it together. It really worked out.

Ramones by Godlis

Ramones by Godlis

Why did you decide to publish a book on your CBGBs photographs and not, for instance, your street photography in New York, or in Miami, or Boston?

Those are all books I want to do. Aside from the fact that this is an easier sell, these pictures mean a lot to me and I wanted to get this book out to the world first. It’s taken me, what, 40 years? It’s ridiculous. [Eventually] I’ll get on with my street books. Or a more expanded version of this book.

A favorite memory of an image that you distinctly remember the moment you took it?

It has to be the Patti Smith shot.  I knew the light was perfect because she was standing at a spot I knew well. It was like my studio out there, you know? She was having a conversation, I tapped her on the shoulder and she just put her hand up. I remember thinking…if I don’t fuck this up, this is going to be a great shot. But I didn’t know until I developed the film, and one out of two was a great shot.

Favored music venues in NYC now?

I don’t go out as much but I go to places that people play. But I’m not like a regular…the only place that I would say I’m a regular would be the Bowery Electric, because a lot of the people I know still play there. That’s the place.

Upcoming projects?

I usually shoot what I like to do or things that I think are interesting. For book projects, I want to do the street photography book. Either a book of street photographs, not exclusively in New York City, or my pictures of Miami Beach in 1974. I have a funny feeling that I might go with the Miami ‘74. Those pictures were, in a way, are as close to me as my CBGB pictures. That’s when I really knew, from that point on, I was going to be a photographer.

Image by Melissa Guerrero

Image by Melissa Guerrero

Good Morning!


Tuesday, August 4, 2015 | Here’s a late day shot in Chinatown, showing the former Citizens Savings Bank, an historic landmark, in the foreground. That’s a 22-story hotel going up next door | Weather: We’ll see some clearing as the day goes on and a chance of thunderstorms with a high of 92 | Happening Today: Tito Nieves performs at East River Park, starting at 7 p.m. | Send us your photos and tips | Subscribe to our daily newsletter.

Canal/Bowery Intersection – Scene of Fatal Crash – is Supposed to See Safety Improvements This Summer

Good Morning!

bowery stanton

Monday, June 1, 2015 | Here’s a recent shot on the Bowery at Stanton Street | Weather: Rainy off-and-on today with a high of 69 | Happening Today: There will be a rally at noon at the Seward Park Library, part of a citywide push to restore full funding to New York’s public library system | Send us your photos and tips | Subscribe to our daily newsletter | Please consider supporting our campaign for a yearlong reporting project on small business survival.

New “Slow Zones” Coming to Bowery, East Houston Street

Man Attacked on Bowery Overnight; Police Seek Suspect

Armed Robbers Steal $60,000 From Bowery Whole Foods

Police are searching for two suspects who robbed the Whole Foods on East Houston Street and Bowery Sunday night.

What Does $62 Million Get You on the Bowery? Take a Tour

A closer look at the 11-building Bowery portfolio purchased last month by hip hop clothing entrepreneur Joesph Betesh for $62 million.

Bowery Portfolio Sold For $62 Million

219 Bowery, one of the buildings in the big transaction.  Photo by Robert K. Chin.

219 Bowery, one of the buildings in the big transaction. Photo by Robert K. Chin.

A family trust has sold a portfolio of 11 properties on the Bowery, stretching from East Houston Street to Canal, for $62 million.  As EV Grieve noted, the large transaction was reported in this morning’s print edition of the Wall Street Journal, although it hasn’t been posted online. The new owner is Joseph Betesh of Milestone Equities.

The properties are located at 83, 85, 88, 103, 105, 219, 221, 262, 276, 280, and 284 Bowery.  All together, they include about 140,000 square feet “above grade.” The buildings are not adjacent but many of them are clustered. The properties have been controlled by the family trust since the 1930’s.

“For the most part it was a retail-driven portfolio where a lot of the retail expires in the next few years,” Massey Knakal’s John Ciraulo told the Journal. The firm represented the seller. Faith Hope Consolo, who heads Douglas Elliman’s retail division, added, the Bowery “is the place to be.”  She expects rents to rise to $325 per square foot in the area five years from now.  Right now they’re $175 per square foot.

The transaction includes 282 Bowery, where Keith McNally’s Pullino’s is located.   Betash owns Dr. Jay’s, the hip hop clothing retailer.


LES History: A Look Back at the Bowery “Blue Book”

Sleeping it off under the El [or whatever] in 1932, photographer Berenice Abbott.

Sleeping it off under the El [or whatever] in 1932, photographer Berenice Abbott.

The following column was written by TLD contributor Eric Ferrara of the Lower East Side History Project:

If you were down and out on the Bowery in the 1940s or 1950s, you wouldn’t want to earn the reputation as a “toes-up mokus” or aggressive “pinker” because you just might “catch some heat” from the “bulls” – or worse – you might be ostracized by your contemporaries and “outed” publicly in the Bowery Blue Book.

The legendary Bowery began hosting a notable homeless population as early as the 1870s. Many struggling Civil War veterans migrated towards major cities like New York in search of occupational prospects, only to find competition in a workforce already saturated with incoming immigrants and thousands of other Americans attracted to urban areas for similar opportunities.

Saying Goodbye to the Old Bowery and (For Now) to Billy Leroy

Photo by Daniel Levin.

One observer quoted by the New York Times called it a “museum of madness and beauty.”   Over the weekend, about four dozen people came to the Bowery to say goodbye to Billy’s Antiques.  After 20 years, Billy Leroy’s tent was taken down to make room for a new building.  Friend of The Lo-Down’s Constanza Mirre came upon the event Saturday; Daniel Levin (one of the directors of “Dirty Old Town“) was kind enough to send her this photo, which she forwarded to us.

More Scenes From the Water Main Break at Delancey and Bowery

Bowery, Delancey Street and especially the Williamsburg Bridge are still a traffic mess this morning, even if most of the flooding has subsided. As we’ve been reporting a water line burst around 7 a.m., forcing the city to shut down one of the neighborhood’s biggest intersections during rush hour.  While there are still major backups on the bridge and the Manhattan Bridge is not much better, it looks like the Brooklyn Bridge is running relatively smoothly. A couple more photos from the scene:


Photos: Water Main Break at Bowery and Delancey


Crews from the Fire Department, Con Ed and the Office of Emergency Management are still trying to fix a water main break that occurred near Bowery and Delancey streets around 7 o’clock this morning.  Officials says it will likely take most of the day for repairs to be made on the century old water pipes that flooded the intersection and forced the city to shut down both major arteries during the morning rush hour.  Delancey is closed from Elizabeth to Christie streets, and the Bowery is closed from Delancey to Broome. Click through for more photos.


Man Arrested Following Sexual Assault in Bowery Subway Station

Michael Torres.

Police have arrested a suspect in a brutal sexual assault Wednesday  in the subway station at Bowery and Delancey streets.

The incident happened just after 1 a.m. The woman was riding the escalator when, police say, Michael Torres, 29, grabbed her from behind.  According to WNBC, he dragged the victim to the end of the J Train platform, threw her on the tracks and began assaulting her. Torres, who was armed with a screwdriver, then took the woman to another section of the station and, investigators say, raped her.

The Battle for the Bowery – Grit vs. Glamour

135 Bowery. Photo by Robert K. Chin.

A battle for 135 Bowery has focused new attention on the broader struggle to protect the Bowery from over-development.  Yesterday, the New York Times filed a substantial piece on the subject, noting that the state is expected, in a matter of days, to announce its support for adding the thoroughfare to the National Register of Historic Places.