Backstory: Requiem for punk rock's ultimate shrine
New York's famous and infamous CBGB club closed with a high-voltage tribute from star alumni.
NEW YORK — It was like walking into a time warp. If you closed your eyes and were deposited under the off-white awning with the famous red logo, it could have been 1975 all over again. The decibels were loud. The hair often long. The lyrics rebellious and boisterous. Even the door to the men's room was still missing.
When the CBGB nightclub – the shrine to the punk era of rock 'n' roll – closed its doors for the last time this weekend, it was at once a eulogy for an institution both famous and infamous and a bow to a genre that still enjoys a cult following four decades after its insurgent debut.
Remnants of some of the era's big bands and the club's seminal acts – the Dictators, Blondie, the Patti Smith Group – were on hand for what was the rock equivalent of an Irish wake, as was Hilly Kristal, the longtime owner of the club. Clad in jeans and a CBGB T-shirt, he was sitting in his office and milling around amid the adulating masses like a proud punk father.
He had reason to feel good. When he first opened the dingy nightclub called CBGB & omfug in New York's Bowery District in 1973, he had a modest goal: to book music represented by the letters of the name – Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and "other music for uplifting gourmandizers." It was supposed to be a place where street rockers, with their torn jeans and raucous guitar licks, could congregate. Many weren't very good, even by Mr. Kristal's estimation. The club became a petri dish. "They were experimenting with the public," he says. "They got better."
He soon opened the stage to nascent punk bands – the Ramones, Television, the Talking Heads, the Cramps – and a young audience found its way to the dim and dank redoubt. The club became the ultimate garage for the garage rock-band movement – characterized by a do-it-yourself aesthetic and antiestablishment attitude. In its early days, groups like Patti Smith would play seven shows in a row. The Ramones would play 17-minute sets – all the music they knew.
"There was a time lightning struck here," says Lenny Kaye, guitarist for Smith's band. Patti Smith herself calls Kristal "our champion."
The nightclub embodied many of the traits of the sound it was giving voice to. This was no disco for the laser light and Lycra-pants crowd. The club then – and now – was as dark as a coal mine. Graffiti was grafted on top of graffiti and posters on top of posters on the walls. Above all, the sound was boisterous and bellicose. "We were outsiders not embraced by the world," says Julie Jacobs, who used to photograph the bands at the club for New York Rocker magazine. "I'm grateful to have been part of it."
It was the kind of club you wouldn't want in the neighborhood. But then again, the neighborhood wasn't much at the time either. It was decrepit and dirty. Broken glass littered vacant lots. Rents were cheap.
Today the Bowery District has been yuppified and gentrified. There are gleaming steel-and-glass apartment buildings, trendy restaurants, designer boutiques, and a Washington Mutual Bank. Despite being a virtual landmark and tourist attraction, CBGB – fittingly – has become the hooded sweat shirt in a closet of Brioni suits. "New York has changed, the Bowery has changed," says Andy Shernoff, bassist-songwriter for the Dictators. "It was a dangerous street in the '70s."
The change is the main reason CBGB is closing. While the raucous nightclub has long been anathema to many in the neighborhood, economics ultimately lies behind its demise. True, the club does maintain a cult following. Its T-shirts are sold around the world and worn by characters on TV – a testament to the enduring appeal of the gritty and rebellious in music and in life. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a suit and tie, held up one of the club's shirts earlier this year, declaring CBGB a "great New York City institution."
But punk isn't what it used to be, and rents in the Bowery can go for $65,000 a month. Even Steve Van Zandt of "The Sopranos" and Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band couldn't save it with a joint campaign. "It's all about the money," laments Blondie guitarist Chris Stein.
Kristal had been involved in a long-running dispute over back rent with the subletting Bowery Residents Commission. It ended up in court, and Kristal agreed to vacate the premises 14 months after the lease was up in August 2005.
"I would have loved to have stayed here," says Kristal. "It went down because the lease was up, and they didn't need a reason to evict."
Like any good punk club, though, CBGB went out clamorously. Signature songs of the era echoed through the hall this past weekend – "Blitzkrieg Bob," "Poison Heart," "Sonic Reducer." The hierarchy of punk celebrity was in evidence: The Dictators, Blondie, and the Patti Smith Group all played Ramones songs.
The capacity crowd of 300 was a mixture of nostalgic baby boomers, some still sporting ponytails, and young converts to the genre. The bands gave the send-off the appropriate amount of artistic punch, knowing the historic importance of the moment. "This is what a rock club should be," say guitarist Kaye, now graying. "I'm going to play like I always play, with a lot of heart for a great rock dive."
Others just enjoyed being enveloped in the punk oeuvre once again. Mandy Stein first visited CBGB when she was 3 years old, as the daughter of a record executive who signed the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and the Dead Boys. Now she's making a documentary about the club. "This last week has been so special," she says. "Hearing peoples' stories, watching them say goodbye was excruciating. I found a home [here]."
Similarly, Blondie singer Deborah Harry says the club was her "childhood." "Life has been good to me and, partially, it's because of this place," she says.
Around the corner on East 2nd Avenue, letters are stenciled on the sidewalk: "EVICT CBGBS." It's a reminder that not everyone loved the club's noise, image, or the crowds it attracted. But Kristal, enjoying the adulation and emotion of the final weekend, shrugs it off. He, after all, is intending to keep the punk flame alive. Though in ill health, Kristal is planning to open a CBGB in Las Vegas. (As former Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth puts it: "Old punks never die, they just to go Vegas.") Kristal is also thinking about a retail shop and another club in New York.
"We can't forget," he says, "the brand is valuable."