Part 3: Burn It Down
Last night at CBGB—Photo: Jason Gross
It’s October 15, 2006, the last night that CBGB’s will host a New York show. I’m in the neighborhood but not to attend the funeral there. Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson is giving a rare NYC reading at the Bowery Poetry Club to a packed crowd, seemingly unconcerned about the other show down the street. The other bars in the area show their sympathy and support with signs outside bidding farewell to CBGB’s and thanking them.
Afterwards, I walk past CBGB’s and there’s a mile-long line waiting to get in to see Patti Smith deliver a joyous eulogy. Dozens more are gathered outside who won’t be going in. People are snapping pictures of this historic evening, including myself (for this article). News vans are parked in front with one of them running a video of an interview with Kristal. The once burly bear now looks gaunt and pale, most likely after rounds of chemotherapy that he’s gone through but also after all the legal wrangling. Though I can’t make out everything, the gist of it is that the reality of his surroundings have finally crystallized in his brain. “The neighborhood’s changed…” he sighs.“I guess it’s just a place for the rich now…”
Inside the club, writer Jesse Jarnow is enjoying not just the final show but also the people-watching that he can do there.
“Celebs included Flea & Richard Lloyd (sitting in), and—wondering around Chris & Tina from the Heads, Ed Norton (who I was apparently next to for the whole night, though didn’t realize it), Jim Carroll, some ex-Dead Boys, Elijah Wood (allegedly), and maybe a few others…Oh, and Little Stevie Van Zandt.”
“Patti’s set was a lot of fun. Not sure how it’ll hold up on tape, but the encore of Land > Gloria was quite intense. My Generation closed the set before that. The covers were great, too—Sonic Reducer, Gimmie Shelter, Rock and Roll Star, a Ramones medley, Marquee Moon (with Lloyd), Little Johnny Jewel, etc.. I wish I could hear Lenny better, because—when he cut through the noise—he was fantastic.”
Shortly afterwards, the CBGB website mentions that CGBG’s Fashions will move down the street and has this piece of brief, cryptic news about the club itself: “We will reopen in the near future.”
* * *
It’s October 15 again. A Big Apple double-decker tour bus is cruising down the Bowery on its way to Chinatown, just passing Second Street, the corner of which had been christened Joey Ramone Place in 2003. Just like in October ‘06, everyone takes out their camera to get a picture of the place.
“And if you look on your left, you’ll see the former spot where world famous punk club CBGB’s once stood…”
The tour guide goes on to describe the building under construction there, the CBGB fashion store that resides two blocks to the West and the new club under construction in Nevada, complete with the urinals that Kristal promised to yank out of the old club.
“What is this… punk…?” one of the tourists wonders.
* * *
Even if Kristal has decided what’s to become of CBGB’s, what does he leave behind? Physically, nothing. He promised that what he wouldn’t ship off to the new locale, he’d sell off. As the end of lease drew near, all that they were auctioning on E-Bay were 18 sets of chairs from the main room. According to their listings, “They have been banged up, graffitied and covered with stickers. These chairs have barely survived the multitude of punk rock shows and historic final concerts. These are being sold for memorabilia “as is”. Each lot will come with a certificate of authenticity signed by the club’s owner Hilly Kristal.” Each lot of two-to-four chairs was going for $20 and wouldn’t be shipped anywhere—you had to go to the club to pick them up. As of the last weekend in October, there was a grand total of one bid on a single set of two chairs.
As for its once famous, earth-shaking home bodies, they’ve variously scattered and reassembled. The Ramones front-line is now sadly deceased. Blondie made two albums since reuniting in the late ‘90s and has done plenty of touring. Television has been reuniting on and off since the ‘90s. Richard Hell has mostly devoted himself to writing. Talking Heads have no interest in reuniting, it seems, while David Byrne maintains a fascinating solo career. Only the Patti Smith Group is still fully active and actually making some of their best music in the last few years.
As for punk itself, nobody really believes that it’ll disappear, no matter how old or worn out it might seem at times. It’s too much ingrained in the musical landscape by now. Whether it’s the pop-tinged ‘mall punk’ (multi-multi-platinum Green Day, who played at CBGB’s) or the old-school hardcore style or the hundreds of other variations in its homeland or abroad (where each place can claim it as its own), it’s here to stay for a long time in one form or another. Any style that can’t survive a club isn’t worth saving and by now, there are still too many believers.
Don’t bet that CBGB’s won’t thrive in the desert, either. With millions of tourists going there, showering the town with billions of dollars and show after show catering to fans who can only hear their favorite music on satellite radio, now, and a place where merchandise is embraced rather than frowned upon (though Virgin Records in NYC offered a sentimental CBGB’s stand with Ramones and Blondie paraphernalia), Vegas looks like a much friendlier place than NYC for a place like CBGB’s.
But that’s bad for Gotham. Even if you don’t mourn the end of the club itself, its closing still means that another cultural institution is gone from NYC. For the same reasons, I felt just as bad hearing that the Coliseum Books and the Tower Records chain were both shutting down. It wasn’t just the rents but also the online and big-box retailer competition that helped do them in. Say what you will about Tower versus a smaller indie store like Other Music, but Tower still had the best and largest selection of jazz and classical music in the city. Coliseum boasted not just best-sellers but also lots of intriguing smaller publishers that you wouldn’t always find at larger retail stores. Having all of these places wiped out while the likes of 7-11, K-Mart, and Home Depot set up roots makes New York city less and less distinguishable from its own suburbs.
As such, maybe CBGB’s memory will stand as a cautionary example. It’s a reminder for the rest of the clubs to be savvy instead of too complacent or cocky—especially with ever-skyrocketing rents and an increasingly adversarial local government constantly threatening their lives. Having a website, MySpace page, 100-CD jukebox and newsletter / mailing list should be second nature by now for any club. Even along with a prosperous merchandising business, that alone wasn’t enough to keep CBGB’s going.
As one-time CBGB’s denizen David Byrne noted, concerts are the one thing that cyberspace isn’t able to co-op (at least yet), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that fans will flock to a venue no matter how strong its rep is or how far back it goes. The Lounge/313 area was a good start but that wasn’t enough, either. You also need more outreach, not just to other music organizations but also to your own neighborhood and the larger city area including other clubs, arts organizations and civic groups for starters and to always restlessly look for and try out new opportunities and ideas, even if some of them flop. Also, in a harsh, dog-eat-dog environ like Gotham, you also have to put aside some pride and egalitarian spirit to pack in the patrons with known musical entities, at least sometimes, while preserving a unique identity if you want to stay around. Highbrow institutions from the ever-innovative BAM to the more traditional Lincoln Center know this too well and struggle with this problem every year. If smaller rock venues don’t do the same, they’ll wind up like CBGB’s, only they may not have a city out West to relocate to.
Other punk clubs and rock clubs will come and go, though none of them will have the same pull as CBGB’s, but some will make their own history, drawing in fans and new bands. Even in the rosy scenario that Ben Sisario recently painted in the New York Times for new clubs, they’ll still have to face the same difficulties that plague other Gotham venues. And don’t fool yourself: many of them won’t be open a few years from now. Talk to any NYC club owner and they’ll regale you with the same problems: the dreaded cabaret laws, the housing crunch, liquor licenses, noise laws, getting visas for musicians from overseas, health care for their employees and many other considerations and headaches. No matter how many new clubs open up (and close down), the same kind of forces that helped usher CBGB’s off the local map are still in play and still threaten the vitality of the music scene in New York. There are groups like the New York Nightlife Association and a burgeoning NY Music Commission (which I’m involved in) who want the music scene to thrive and grow, but that will only work if a network of club owners, musicians, promoters, labels and fans can convince the city (not just the government but also the constituents) that it’s in everyone’s best economic, social, and cultural interest to keep Gotham a music-friendly locale.
As for the fans and musicians who once flocked to CBGB’s or marveled at stories about it, the club’s closing is a milestone not just for Kristal or NYC, but also for themselves. For anyone who’s really despondent about this, they can always venture out West to discover their uprooted roots now planted in a multi-billionaire dollar oasis in the middle of the Nevada desert.
Hell: “CBGB’s moving to Vegas? It’s hilarious and cool—if that’s the remaining option as a way to enter the club, that’s alright with me. The club is an amazing artifact. It’s like I love going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and seeing the inside of a tomb. I wouldn’t specifically go to Vegas just to see it but if I was passing through town, why not?”
* * *
Michel Estaban sends out an October 21st communiqué from his label. His message is mixed with a certain amount of nostalgia but also grim defiance and determination. He talks about his zine “Rock News” which he started in ‘75 and how he covered all the classic early bands at his favorite New York club.
“2 years later, I stopped taking pictures and writing about rock in order to create ZE Records with Michael Zilkha. Hilly and CGBG’s certainly had a lot to do with it. THANK YOU & TO HELL WITH NOSTALGIA.”
* * *
Jason Gross is the editor/founder of Perfect Sound Forever, the longest running music publication on the Internet.
* * *