CBGB’s Messy Finale
After 33 years, CBGB’s — the legendary birthplace of Punk Rock — had its final notes played on its stage last night by the iconic Patti Smith. While I couldn’t make it to New York for the final show (and surely couldn’t have gotten a ticket anyway), thanks to my Sirius satellite radio, I was able to listen to Smith and her band play the last show live. It would have been cool to have been there, but listening to it in my kitchen saved me the annoyance of having to breathe in urine fumes, get elbowed in the side constantly (CB’s is a remarkably tiny space) or stand next to that guy who kept yelling “‘Gloria’!” after every song. It was a perfectly fitting end to the CB’s era, as Smith and her band played a three-hour-plus set that can only be described as a “glorious mess,” a perfect descriptor for the club itself (though, oddly, none of the actual reviews of the show this morning mentioned how completely shambolic the performance was; guess it’s an “Empress’ New Clothes” thing).
Not that Patti’s performance wasn’t a complete joy to listen to, bad notes, out of tune guitars, off-key harmonies and multiple false starts and all. Smith’s between song rambles were erratic but riveting, as she told both CB’s-related stories (like how last night reminded her of the communal spirit she remembered from the club when owner Hilly Kristal’s dog died several years ago) and meandering stories about how Michael Stipe bought her a house in NYC after she moved back from Detroit a few years back.
Patti’s ragged set (for which she was joined by Flea for several songs on bass, as well as her long time band, including guitarist/”singer” Lenny Kaye) was heavy on cover tunes, odd considering Kristal’s only rule for the club early on was that the bands play only original material. Along with her own songs, like “Free Money” and “Rock & Roll Nigger,” Smith & Co. played covers that were both fitting (like a Ramones medley, The Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer,” a dash of Blondie’s “Tide Is High” and a sketch version of Television’s “Marquee Moon,” with Richard Lloyd on guitar) and off-the-grid (the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” The Byrds’ “So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star” and The Yardbirds’ “For Your Love”). The covers were endearingly sloppy — the band played what had to be the worse cover of “My Generation” ever, and, for The Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” Patti stopped the band twice a few seconds in to restart the song. She had a great sense of humor about it though, saying, “It’s exactly like it was in 1974. We are here to prove that we have not improved” and, later, “I just never been good at memorizing stuff. It’s the reason I didn’t become a mathematics genius — my dream!”
Things got more emotional as the show neared the end. For her last encore, Smith did “Horses” and “Gloria,” changing the lines near the close to “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not CBGB’s” (she later joked, “Goodbye CBGB’s. 33 years … it’s the same age as Jesus!”). She peppered a lot of songs with spontaneous environmental and political messages, but her most touching comments came at the tail-end of the night, as she said “This is not a fuckin’ temple — it just is what it is,” and encouraged everyone to find new places to be creative and freely express themselves however they see fit: “You just got a place, just some crappy place, 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, any time.” Punk isn’t/wasn’t about a place or geography; Punk is about freedom and uncensored, natural expression. CB’s is moving to Vegas (!) reportedly (three syringes on the Johnny Thunders slot machine means jackpot!), but it’s the spirit of the ideal of the place that will live on forever.
Anyone been to CBGB’s? Any favorite memories? In the early ’90s, I was lucky enough to play the club with an old band and it was a pretty moving experience. The club itself was nothing special — when people talk about how gross it, and particularly the bathrooms, are, it’s not understatement. But just knowing that I was standing on a stage that The Ramones, Television, The Police, Bad Brains, etc. had played pivotal shows gave me goosebumps. The club kind of became a place mostly tourists would go and, despite booking some bigger acts occasionally, the schedule was mostly littered with average-to-mediocre touring and local bands. But that was something that was great about it — the club still gave practically anyone a chance to play right up until the end, just like the old days.
The last time I was there was probably 10 years ago, during the CMJ festival. I desperately wanted to see one of my all-time favorite bands, The Geraldine Fibbers, but they were too full and stopped letting people in. In true Punk spirit, I sneaked through the neighboring gallery space, through the basement, passed those notoriously crappy bathrooms and ended up standing four feet away from Carla Bozulich and Nels Cline. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I’ll miss CB’s, and I’ll never forget it. — Mike Breen