By Jamie Wendel
Early Monday morning on October 16, 2006, the punk rock venue CBGB officially closed its doors after a long fought battle between the club founder, Hilly Kristal, and venue’s landlords. For the past 33 years CBGB, located in the Bowery district of New York City, was the home to punk rock bands and their followers, famous for its dirty bathroom, three urinals, graffiti and warm beer. Although it was originally intended to be a venue for country, bluegrass, and blues music, CBGB became a venue for the punk rock and new wave music scene that emerged in New York City in the 1970s that Kristal agreed to book. Some of the most famous bands to play at the club were The Ramones, the Dictators, the Patti Smith Group, Blondie, Joan Jett, Television and the Talking Heads.
However, a rent dispute between Hilly Kristal, now 75 and undergoing chemotherapy treatments for lung cancer, and the Bowery Residents Commission forced Kristal to close the doors of CBGB. The Bowery Commission argued that Kristal owed them almost $100,000 in rent, which Kristal argued he was not informed of until it was too late. Unable to pay the sum, Kristal lost the legal battle. He was left without a lease and forced to close CBGB in its original location.
It seemed that every band that found their fame at CBGB wanted to say goodbye to the historical venue before it officially closed its doors. In the days leading up to its closing, a number of bands came to, in a sense, pay their respects to the club, its owner, and of course, their fans in a farewell set. In the final days, the bands Murphy’s Law, the Stimulators, the Bad Brains, the Dictators, the Waldos and Blondie played.
The farewell sets of past bands culminated on Sunday, CBGB’s closing night. Over the course of two and a half hours, Patti Smith and her band performed what would be the final set ever at CBGB. In the set, she performed her own work, largely from the album Horses, as well as covers from bands who made the club famous. She also highlighted her performance with stories about CBGB, as both a performer and as an audience member. For part of the set, Smith and her band were joined on stage by Flea, the bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Richard Lloyd, one of the guitarists of the Television.
In the final song, Patti Smith’s emotions seemed to overwhelm her as she read out the names of deceased punk musicians who helped to shape CBGB over the past three decades, such as Johnny Ramone, Joey Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Thunders, and Richard Sohl. As she read their names and sang “Elegie”, her eyes welled up with tears while looking at the last audience to stand at CBGB. In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Smith described the emotion she felt at this particular moment:
As I was reading that little list, those people seemed in that moment — because of the intense emotional energy in that room — to be alive. Everyone in the room knew or heard of or loved one of those people. That collective love and sorrow and recognition made those people seem as alive as any of us.
For many at CBGB, the final night was a celebration; a reunion for past performers, employees, and fans. Old friends and strangers alike hugged and rubbed shoulders in the audience. A former employee, looking back on her days at CBGB, remarked that, “It was amazing. It was wonderful to be a part of history, to be a part of a place that was part of the music scene.” Another musician reminisced, “A lot of bittersweet memories are coming back. C’est la vie.”
While some reminisced about the past of CBGB, others expressed fear for the future of underground music venues. One musician remarked on the closing of small rock clubs, “It seems to be happening everywhere. It’s the gentrification of America, it’s all whitewashed.” Others expressed fear not only for the future of music venues, but for the New York and American music scenes in general. Another fan and former performer said, “Manhattan’s turning into Disneyland. You’ll never see another Blondie or Patti Smith or Dictators, because this was before everything turned into videos and what you’re wearing. I mean Jessica Simpson is a pop star.”
For Patti Smith and many others, the final thought on CBGB is hopeful. In her set, Smith told the audience, “It’s not a fucking temple — it is what it is.” This will serve as a reminder to an audience disillusioned over the closing of the home of punk rock that it is not the venue that made the music, but the people. She said, “Screw CBGB. It’s nothing. What makes it is the people and their collective energy. The people make CBGB. You can all start your own.” Whether CBGB is relocated to another location in New York City or to Las Vegas, CBGB will live on in the memories of the performers, employees, and audiences, all of whom are ultimately devoted fans.