The closing of CBGB marks the end of New York’s musical century

[17 October 2006]

By Jim Farber

New York Daily News

NEW YORK—I admit it: I can’t remember the last time I went to see a show at CBGB. Not only was this sacred dump hardly a hotbed of scene-making lately, it hasn’t worn that mantle since the hard-core matinee era of the early-to-mid-1980s.

Yet every time I pass the place I smile and swoon, reminding me that some memories pull so hard on the senses that they feel more like events in the present tense than a glance into the rearview mirror.

Clearly, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Whenever I pass this homely piece of history I never fail to see people staring moonily at its crumbling facade, or eagerly pointing cameras at its drooping canopy, all dreaming of a past glory most of them probably never saw but which they each hold as dearly as if they had.

That’s what happens at historic sites: They resonate so finely with the past that, if you stand close enough, you can feel their spirit coursing right through you.

It’s also why, in a more reasonable world, CBGB would leave its squat home on the Bowery the same day the Statue of Liberty gets evicted from its harbor isle. That this club’s battered walls withstood their lasts blasts of striking noise Sunday night is both a crime to pop culture’s collective memory and a desecration of the city’s spirit. It also doesn’t do much for the local tourist board, which sells CBGB in youth-oriented guidebooks in every language short of Esperanto.

The shuttering of the club Oct. 31 also makes more distant and circumscribed some of the best events of my life - not to mention the thousands of others who bore witness to CB’s manic peak.

To my great and enduring fortune, I spent a significant portion of the mid-`70s drunk and gazing at the ratty rock bands who found their screechy voices mere feet away.

Like many, I first read about a new scene percolating at the place where Bleecker Street slams into the Bowery in a 1974 Village Voice article by the wonderful James Wolcott. I was 16 and so hobbled with just a learner’s driving permit. By the time `74 turned to `75, however, I had the necessary license to begin tooling my 1969 Chevy Nova down to one of the dankest intersections in the city.

Braving the squeegee men, robbers and ne’er-do-wells who ran the area at the time, I arrived with two friends in early `75 to see a band whimsically titled the Talking Heads. At the time, they were then a spindly, acoustic trio. “Psycho Killer” was their signature piece, and it sounded funnier, darker and more wondrously odd than anything I’d heard up until that point. Soon, we saw the Ramones, who played faster and shorter than anyone had in history; Blondie, who brilliantly turned girl pop into punk; and Television, who found an impossible intersection between Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead.

Because I was still in high school, I took the genius of all this for granted. Having idealized Manhattan as Oz, I thought that, naturally, one comes to the city and everything is brilliant.

Who knew that this would hold true only for the next five years?

Back then, the best of the CBGB bands were not only great, they were great in such different ways. Contrary to the tidy “punk” term that bound them, none of these groups looked or sounded anything like each other. They were connected solely by the tightness of the scene, a point underscored by the jukebox that spun almost exclusively house bands. The result sealed this place as its own world, fostering the gloriously laughable notion that the Ramones were every bit as big as the Rolling Stones.

Amazingly, the CB’s scene remained remarkably small throughout its heyday. Though every national publication (save Field & Stream) glowed about the bands here, you’d see the same 200 freaks there every week. I remember the first time Television finally managed to get off the Bowery and play the Palladium, as the opening act for Peter Gabriel in 1978.

They got booed off the stage. If they couldn’t make it to 14th Street, I thought, how could they possibly make it on Main Street?

Of course, most of the bands never did make it - at least not financially. All, however, have made it into the annals of history. The bands of CB’s lore cemented a legacy that smart fans and talented kids will refer back to forever. That well of inspiration will endure regardless of whether the physical space of CBGB does or not. So why should we beat our chests over its loss?

Because history benefits incalculably from rallying points, from anchors you can touch that hold its tales. CB’s decaying ceilings, graffiti-strewn walls and hellhole of a bathroom, all bear the sonic impression of undying greats. More, when this place goes so does the last vestige of a Bowery accessible to new generations of youth on the creative make.

Losing this landmark also stands as another colossal failure on the part of our politicians and businessmen to stand up for the city’s musical history. It’s the same petty negligence that led to us losing the bulbous facade of Electric Ladyland Studios on West Eighth Street (to a video store) and the site of the Fillmore East and the Saint (to yet another bank).

It may be true that little of what’s crucially new happens at CB’s anymore. But neither do they happen at the Guggenheim or the Frick museums. And we aren’t about to take the wrecking ball to those places.

As everyone knows, now the plan is to move the guts of CBGB to Las Vegas.

The question is: Why bother? Losing this place brings New York one step closer to becoming Vegas itself.

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