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One Last Howl at the Marquee Moon

Patti Smith contemplates building a better shithole
photo: Tricia Romano

I'd never really been to CBGB. Before it closed last Sunday after a prolonged landlord dispute, I'd set foot inside fewer than five times. The soft spot the Bowery club occupied in my heart was an imagined one—a piece of manufactured nostalgia that triggered an unnaturally strong memory for a place I barely knew. Because I was one year old when Television first played there in 1974 (an event Patti Smith cited as one of her favorite shows), and because I was only seven when Blondie headlined the club in the '80s, CBGB would always just be a place that belonged to other people but falsely felt like my own.

"I do not feel nostalgic," said Patti Smith at the Sunday press conference. "Nostalgic. Nostalgic. Nostalgic," she repeated, as if trying to assess whether that was the truth. She had entered the venue with a phalanx of photographers facing her as she tried to take her own final photo of the awning. "All these cameras," she said. "I can't believe all these cameras. Well, I have one, I'm no different." She pointed and clicked.

Whatever faded form it took in its final years, CB's contributed to the mythology of New York as the place where people come to find themselves. It represented a certain type of grittiness, one of the reasons that many outsiders think of New York as a place where inhabitants keep their middle fingers permanently raised. Handsome Dick Manitoba, whose seminal punk band the Dictators headlined that last Saturday night, said, "I remember the good old days when we could go to a punk club on the Bowery and get fucked up." It's a sentiment that is now truly past tense.

The club's 33 years proved what so many anti-nightlife lawmakers and community members don't seem to get: A nightclub isn't just some annoying necessary evil to be tolerated—a place like this can have a real impact. There is no better example than CB's of a nightclub positively affecting art and culture—without it, would the Ramones, Television, Blondie, and Talking Heads have been so important? But if you tried to open CBGB today, it would never happen. Neighborhood residents would bemoan adding another club in an already saturated area. Yuppies would complain about the noise and the smokers outside. Authorities would deny it a liquor license or a cabaret license or both. And then what?

You have to believe what Patti Smith said, or else you will lose all faith: "The new kids are going to have their own places. New places. They'll do what we did—find some shithole and play in it."

Walking the line outside on Sunday night—wrapping around the block and including both ticket holders and those without tickets who were hopelessly devoted all the same—I came across several people who had never set foot inside. A few said they'd been there from the beginning. And in both camps, many had arrived from out of town just for the occasion.

Two girls from Finland, standing in line even though they didn't have tickets and had no chance of finding some, just happened to be visiting the city and thought they'd try their luck. I came across another Finnish family, including two teenage brothers who with their blond curly hair and angelic faces were the aesthetic opposites of the Ramones, whose emblazoned T-shirts they wore. The brothers had come all the way from Finland specifically for this, but didn't have tickets either and would never see a place they wanted to remember so badly.

They could only imagine the memories others had. "I never went to my high school reunion," said Deborah Heller-Robischeau, who worked in the club in the '70s. "I don't care to. I never went to a college reunion, and I don't care to. This is my reunion. This is it. This is the end of my era. I have four or five friends here who all worked here in the '70s and '80s, who were all here when AC/DC would come here after playing the Garden and hop up onstage and play a set. And the Police came in, did the same thing. We were here when Richard Hell and the Voidoids would be here. Blondie and the Talking Heads. And the Ramones were constant. I saw all of this, yes. I saw this and more. I saw more legends. I can't explain. It was all really important."

I do not feel nostalgic.

On Saturday night I ended up crushed between two generations of women—one that had been around for the good ol' days, and two girls who looked to be barely 21. They'd waited since 5 p.m. to get a good spot near the stage to see Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, who gave several Blondie favorites the acoustic treatment. Blondie was perhaps my one real connection to the club: Parallel Lines was the first rock record I ever owned, given to me by my stepmother shortly after my mother died. But the day I got it I accidentally left it in the car. Because we lived in Las Vegas, the record melted and warped. I still have that damaged copy.

My stepmother knew that I loved Blondie, because I explained to her, the same way I explained to my real mother, that I loved the lady with the yellow hair and the brown spot on the top who waved around a scarf on TV. I was talking about the "Heart of Glass" video. I lived 3,000 miles away. I was seven.

This summer, when I heard the club was finally, definitely closing, I took a short walk from the Voice to visit Hilly Kristal, CBGB's legendary owner. After more than a year of battling with his landlord and the courts, Kristal finally had to close the doors. In the cruelest twist of fate, just after he'd won the right to stay open for another year last fall, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Now he sat, as always, in the club's "office"—the beat-up front entrance. He'd just gotten out of the hospital—"It's operable, curable," the 74-year-old said. "I am just so weak"—and was visibly tired as he ate a healthy lunch of steamed veggies and brown rice.

Hilly was a father figure of sorts to the many bands and kids that wound their way through the club. "Hilly shepherded us," Patti Smith said at the pre-finale press conference. "He always gave us a job—just like tonight. He was our friend, our champion. In these days there are very few." So now, while the New York CBGB is forever closed, the venue may re-open in Vegas—coincidentally, my old hometown. As pleasing at that might sound, I must agree with Patti Smith, who sniffed at that possibility on Sunday night: "When you only sell 85 tickets out of 2,000, you don't go back."

During my conversation with Kristal this summer, tourists and other curious types came by and wandered through the club. I asked him if they still got a lot of visitors. "Yeah, a few hundred a day," he said, laughing for the first time during our conversation. "They wanna see the place." I'm glad I finally did.


flylife@villagevoice.com


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