Last night, the most hallowed ground of American rock music was sealed off forever and delivered to its rightful place in history. CBGB (actually CBGB & OMFUG) has lost its ongoing battle with the New York Bowery Resident’s Committee, and has been likely banished to – of all places – Las Vegas.
For those of you unfamiliar with CBGB, you have to imagine the lower regions of Manhattan. Just think of any Cagney or Bogart noir that takes place in the city, and chances are some of it took place in the Bowery. Once one of Manhattan’s most elegant strips, the Bowery became New York’s “Skid Row” populated with transients, alcoholics and the homeless from the 1920’s to the 1980’s. Most people steered clear of the area during the 70’s and 80’s due to the high crime. CBGB was at the heart of the Bowery – on Bowery Street itself with Bleeker Street pointing right into it’s front door. It was surrounded by – to use the pre-PC vernacular – flop houses and tenements. Mostly “men’s hotels” as they were once known.
The club itself was apparently designed along the lines of a shotgun shack. It was very long and very narrow. It had a bar running down ¾ of the left hand wall and ending just before the stage – a very small trapezoidal shaped stage that stood about 3 feet tall. The ersatz dressing room and bathrooms were behind the stage.
The man behind the club, Hilly Kristal, was a very no-nonsense guy. I had 2 conversations him. Once was when verifying directions and a few items on the contract rider we had given him. The other was when I was getting our money after our gig. Both times I felt like the biggest rube to come in from the sticks. He gave me the impression that he had seen it all, and I’m not sure he hasn’t. In the pictures I have been seeing of him lately, he looks like he has. When I last saw him, though, he had a full head of curly hair and a beard, and he looked like a younger version of Topol.
There are two things I will always remember about the set we played. The first is that it was hot and loud and once people found out we were from Mississippi, they kept screaming for us to play “Freebird”. I guess they didn’t trust non-southern bands to play it properly. Needless to say, we obliged – even down to the 3 guitars. The second was when I stood in the dressing room for about 20 minutes just reading all the graffiti on the walls. The New York Dolls, the Ramones, Television, the Talking Heads – all of them had played that very room and written things on those very walls. That will always be with me. And the photo I took of everyone standing under the awning…
So last night, Ms. Patti Smith gave the final show. Debbie Harry was there, too. I'm sure the party was long and lound. I wonder if anyone played "Freebird"?
I still have old copies of “Rock Scene” magazine from the mid 70’s full of shots of Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye, The Damned, Richard Hell, the Heads, the Ramones, Wayne County (ewwww) and a multitude of names and faces that meant so much to me. I remember being in Junior High and just imagining the scene. I used to read these magazines and dream of playing those cool Manhattan clubs. (I guess the equivalent of the stereotypical b-movie fodder - “the girl from Kansas reading the movie magazines and jumping on the bus to Hollywood”.) And while I never had the chance to play Max’s Kansas City or the Bottom Line (closed, closed), I will always have my memories of CBGB.
I don’t know if I like the idea of Hilly moving the club to Vegas, though. It might be a spectacular addition to Fremont Street, but it could never be the same. And perhaps he isn’t looking for it to be the same. And while I love Vegas, it’s hard for me to envision the gritty, dirty environment that I will always picture as the Bowery and CBGB and then reconciling that with the slick, choreographed, specatcular and money-grubbing Strip. For all it’s grime, CBGB also had a sort of innocence (not the right word, but go with me) that Las Vegas will strip away quickly and then turn her into a whore! I go to Nevada frequently, but I don’t know if I will be able to go to CBGB there. We’ll see…
By the way, CBGB & OMFUG means “Country, Blue Grass and Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers” (although I always believed it was “…Other Music for Under Ground”. I told you I was a rube!)
For more info, please visit the CBGB website.