10 Years Ago: CBGB Shuts Down After One Last Show
Being one of the most legendary venues in rock history doesn’t pay the bills. At least not in Manhattan, where storied punk club CBGB was forced by a rent dispute to shutter its doors in 2006.
Decades earlier, New York City was a different place. The Lower East Side, in the ’70s, was a gritty neighborhood filled with young artists and plenty of characters. One of those characters was Hilly Kristal, a former jazz club manager and bar owner who opened CBGB and OMFUG in 1973. The initials stood for Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers, because those were the genres Kristal planned to feature at the club.
Instead, a different kind of music took root in the club at 315 Bowery. By way of Kristal’s open door policy – along with a rule about no cover songs – CBGB became home to a generation of raw, poetic and even artful musicians. The club became synonymous with punk rock, and a breeding ground for bands such as Television, the Patti Smith Group, Blondie, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Dead Boys and the Ramones.
Because of the groups, and the scene, that it spurned, CBGB became a mecca for like-minded musicians. Elvis Costello and the Police played some of their first American gigs there, and the club turned into a hardcore punk venue in the ’80s. Because of its history, it also slowly turned into a rock shrine, paid worship by fans and rock stars via black t-shirts with the club’s famous logo printed on them. Old gigs became the stuff of lore. The nasty bathroom became notorious.
But all that history, fame and awe didn’t matter so much when Manhattan was continuing a trend of urban renewal in the 21st century. Kristal and his landlord, the Bowery Residents’ Committee, began feuding over rising rental fees. When CBGB opened, the upstairs was a flophouse. In a sign of changing times, it was now a homeless shelter, run by the BRC – whose only commercial tenant was the famous punk club. A lawsuit was filed over unpaid rent, and BRC and Kristal reached an agreement that resulted in CBGB moving out.
“The emotions are very mixed, you put 30 years of your life into something and it becomes your home,” Kristal said during the final weeks of CBGB. “I mean I’ve probably been here more than I have in any other place for all these years. It’s like all of a sudden getting kicked out of your home.”
CBGB didn’t go down without a fight. Talking Heads’ David Byrne and E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt both tried to intervene and find a way to preserve the club, but to little avail. Instead, CBGB turned its last weeks into a celebration of its storied history. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein played an acoustic set of Blondie tunes. Patti Smith performed two sets for the last-ever gig, playing to a packed crowd in the tiny venue, and people listening on satellite radio, on October 15, 2006
Smith and company didn’t just play from their influential cannon of poetic punk, but honored the many CBGB bands that had proven to be so influential on music. She welcomed special guests Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Richard Lloyd (of Television). Guitarist Lenny Kaye took lead vocals on a bunch of Ramones tunes. And after rampaging through “Horses/Gloria,” Smith performed “Elegie,” name-checking all the punk musicians and supporters who had died over the years. Although this occasion was worthy of tears for Smith, she reminded fans that punk wasn’t limited to one venue, no matter how famous.
“Kids, they’ll find some other club,” she said from CBGB’s angled stage, “that nobody wants, and you got one guy who believes in you, and you just do your thing. And anybody can do that, anywhere in the world, anytime.”
Kristal had hoped to move CBGB, along with its famous urinals and other ephemera, to another place in New York or, possibly, Las Vegas. That didn’t happen before Hilly died at the age of 75 in 2007, from complications related to lung cancer. A fashion boutique moved into the club’s old home in 2008.
CBGB has since become a brand, associated with a radio channel, music festivals and an airport bar in New Jersey. It’s also become a rock ’n’ roll artifact – its awning moved to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, its former address included in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, its iconic t-shirts worn all over the world.
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