NEW YORK — A throng of reporters, cameramen, middle-aged punks in bomber jackets and porkpie hats, celebrities like Chloë Sevigny, Elijah Wood and Ed Burns, cigarette-scrounging panhandlers, the Hungry March Band and a Segway-riding man in a pink trench coat flooded the sidewalk outside 315 Bowery Sunday night.
It was the last night for seminal punk club CBGB, which is closing this week after a lengthy rent dispute ended with the building’s owner, the nonprofit Bowery Residents’ Committee, opting not to renew 76-year-old owner Hilly Kristal’s lease.
The media folk were gunning for just the right shot — which they got when punk legend Patti Smith, CBGB’s final performer, stepped outside into the crush to snap some Polaroids of the club’s faded awning. The aged punks — who seemed to feel it was their right to be there even if they didn’t have a ticket for the gig — wanted to be a part of rock and roll history and kiss one of the city’s most beloved musical landmarks goodbye. The rest of the mob just wanted to party.
The police showed up too. The cluttered sidewalk choked off the flow of pedestrian traffic, forcing the club’s security to constantly ask revelers to move along until something dawned on them — if the club was issued a ticket, “We won’t have to pay it,” as one employee declared.
At that moment, reality seemed to finally hit everyone who’d been standing outside the grimy club for hours in the brisk fall cold like a brick to the forehead — this was it. Tomorrow, CBGB would be boarded shut, its contents packed up for the club’s impending move to Las Vegas. Kristal, the club’s owner for all of its 33 years, has to be out by Halloween (see “CBGB Owner Relocating Club — Urinals Included — To Vegas This Spring” ).
Despite this heavy truth, the mood inside CBGB wasn’t one of mourning, but of celebration. For most present, Smith’s closing concert was about honoring the bastion of punk’s fabled past, its lasting impact on a still-vital genre and all the bands whose careers the decrepit place helped to launch, including the Ramones, Blondie, Television and Talking Heads. American punk rock may not have been born here, but Kristal — who is battling lung cancer — certainly gave the genre its first big break (see “Good Charlotte, Audioslave, Blink-182 Weigh In On CBGB’s Plight As Deadline Looms”
Watch Bono, Beck and more share their favorite memories as the seminal punk club closes its doors.
Still, that didn’t stop reporters from asking Smith whether she considered the event to be the equivalent of a punk-rock funeral during a brief press conference that preceded CBGB’s swan-song gig. And Smith’s response proved she still possesses plenty of punk-rock attitude: “That’s too much of a f—ing stupid question for me to answer.”
Smith, punk’s poet laureate, stood at the edge of the club’s sticker-coated stage, the rim of which has been worn away from years of hearty slam dancing, and talked about her favorite CBGB memory (the first time she set foot in the venue, to see Television in 1974), the prospect of playing the Las Vegas CBGB (“We had a job in Las Vegas four years ago and we sold 85 tickets and they canceled the show — I vowed never to return”) and what the institution’s closure means for the future of underground music (“CBGB is a state of mind. and what’s going to happen is young kids all over the world are going to have their own f—ing clubs and they won’t care about CBGB because they’re going to have the new places, and the new places are always the most important.”)
Backed by her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye, drummer/bassist Jay Dee Daugherty, multi-instrumentalist Tony Shanahan, and, for most of the night’s second set, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea on bass, Smith rocked the beer-swigging audience members, who were crammed uncomfortably close to each other in front of the stage and down the length of the club’s bar. Television’s Richard Lloyd took the stage for a rendition of his band’s classic track “Marquee Moon.” Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads wandered the crowd, as did E Street Band guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt, who had battled to keep the club open amid a very public, venomous rent dispute (see “Public Enemy, Blondie Rally For Naught: CBGB Lease Expires” ).
Dozens of well-wishers approached Kristal at his private table to shake his hand and thank him for the musical legacy he’s leaving, while Smith and friends ripped through two raw, impassioned 90-minute sets plus an encore. The night began with Smith’s “Piss Factory,” and included several apropos covers, including “Tide Is High,” which was made popular by Blondie, the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” the Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer,” the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the Who’s “My Generation,” and a medley of Ramones classics — “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Beat on the Brat,” “Rock and Roll Radio” and “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.” Smith’s voice was smoky, and the band was tight — but the show wasn’t perfect.
Smith stumbled through several songs in the first set, cutting the band off and then taking it from the top after she forgot the words. She had to refer to lyric sheets, insisting, “It’s not a result of old age. I had to do this 30 years ago. I’m not good at memorizing stuff. That’s why I didn’t become a mathematics genius.”
During the second, stronger set, a newly energized Smith swayed back and forth and bounced across the grungy stage as the band tackled tunes like “Redondo Beach,” “Free Money” and “Pissing in a River.” The entire audience seemed to sing her words back at her, as they danced atop chairs and tables under the neon light of the beer signs hanging from the dingy ceiling.
Flea, who turned 44 at the stroke of midnight, was treated to a thunderous and heartfelt “Happy Birthday,” supplied by Smith’s band and the crowd. After a few political rants in which Smith implored the crowd to take action to change the world — specifically referencing the environment and the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay — she concluded with a high-voltage rendition of “Gloria,” at times replacing the “Gloria! G-L-O-R-I-A!” chorus with “Hey ho, let’s go!,” a fitting homage to the Ramones.
Before she left the stage, Smith played a somber “Elegie,” which concluded with a list of the many musicians who have died in the years since they’d played CBGB, including Joe Strummer, Johnny Thunders and Joey Ramone. The moment brought tears to her eyes, and many in the crowd paused to consider the gravity of the club’s closing before they strode out the entrance for the very last time. Some tore mementos from the walls as they left.
This week, Kristal will pack up as much of the club as he can with plans of re-creating a CBGB franchise in Las Vegas this spring. CBGB’s lease with the BRC expired on August 31, 2005, but the club continued to operate for several months before both sides reached an agreement that mandates Kristal vacate the premises by October 31, 2006 (see “CBGB Served With Eviction Notice” ).
Last week the Bowery Residents’ Committee’s executive director, Muzzy Rosenblatt, refused an interview request from MTV News to discuss what the future might hold for the CBGB space.