Owen Gleiberman wonders what the death of America's most legendary rock club says about us

By Owen Gleiberman
Updated October 20, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: The Ramones: Leland Bobbe / Retna Ltd.

Owen Gleiberman: What the death of CBGB says about us

In case you hadn’t noticed, the 20th century, after several years on life support, finally expired earlier this week. The beautiful, doddering old century — remember rebellion? punk rock? bohemian dreams? the days when people bought real estate to live instead of living to buy real estate? — died not with a bang or a howl or even a whimper but with a weary shrug of ”Good riddance.”

I refer, of course, to the closing of CBGB, the greatest and most famous and influential and talked-about rock & roll club in the 50-year history of rock & roll. (Apologies to the Cavern Club, launch pad of the Beatles, which has to be reckoned a close No. 2.) Technically, CBGB wasn’t the birthplace of punk; that would be my hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich., where Iggy Pop and the MC5 unleashed their anarchy in the USA during the mid-’60s. But in 1973, when CBGB founder-manager-guru Hilly Kristal (who personally preferred country music) began to allow his stage to be used as the showcase for a new kind of generational snarl, the club quickly became punk’s great, dirty, noisy nursery, home to the wailing feedback-and-buzz-chord tantrums of the Dead Boys and the Plasmatics and the Ramones and Patti Smith, to the feverish art rock of Television and Talking Heads, to the sublimely romantic power pop of Blondie. But what if they shuttered a monument and nobody cared?

Apart from a handful of disgruntled East Village nostalgia groupies, wearing their T-shirts of outrage (fight the power, kids!), almost no one could muster anything beyond an eyeroll of cynical apathy for the shuttering of CBGB. In the weeks leading up to the final show, which was headlined by Patti Smith this past Sunday night, the point was made, over and over again, that the club was now a shadow of its former self; important bands no longer played there, and hadn’t for years. The venue’s demise was written off as just another casualty of the insanely skyrocketed New York real estate market — though, in fact, Kristal owed just $75,000 on the place, and the conflict that closed it down wasn’t a battle with greed-head condo developers. It was with the adjoining homeless shelter whose proprietor held the lease. That said, punk always wore its live-fast-die-young-and-don’t-give-a-f— ethos on its torn, ragged sleeve. To mourn the end of CBGB, to view it as an occasion for sentimentalizing the bad old days of safety pins, puke on the floor, and speed-rock anthems that took less time to play than it did to go to the bathroom, would seem an act of profound wimpiness.

And so here was Richard Hell, former leader of the Voidoids (who once enjoyed their day and night on the notoriously skewed CBGB stage), penning an editorial in the New York Times in which he playfully saluted the fact that the fabled club was now scheduled to be moved — brick by brick? graffiti scrawl by graffiti scrawl? — to Las Vegas. Las Vegas! Home of the Disneyfication of the world! True, one could make the case that there’s something quintessentially punk, something very Johnny Rotten-on-Tom Snyder, about a former hellion like Richard Hell celebrating the transplantation of CBGB to Las Vegas. It’s sort of like putting Sid Vicious’ dog collar in the Smithsonian — an idea so terrible, so wonderfully wrong, that it’s almost right.

CBGB, by the end, wasn’t more than a symbol of its former glory anyway, so who cares if it’s now history? Yet let us consider, for a moment, why a symbol can matter, and why the fact that CBGB was pressed into closing its doors may say as much about punk, about the life and death of underground culture in America…may say as much about us as the club ever did when it was alive. ”There’s new kids with new ideas all over the world,” said Patti Smith before her set on Sunday. ”They’ll make their own places.” Sure they will, but the question raised by our numbly robo market-survey music industry is: Will those kids ever be heard? Will they get a chance, like the CBGB upstarts once did, to make sounds that reverberate around the planet?

It was a place that became as famous for its dingy, bat-cave-in-the-wall infrastructure as it ever was for its music. When you stood in CBGB and looked toward the stage, staring down that long cramped horizontal bar, there was something about the layout, about the whole claustrophobic feng shui of the place (combined, in the early days, with its scuzzy clientele of punks and derelicts), that made it feel, in the words of the critic James Wolcott, like a ”subway train to hell.” People came from all over the world to experience that dank, encrusted-with-legend interior, to live in it for a night. You can call it an accident that CBGB was housed on the Bowery, but what the low-rent setting gave the place wasn’t just a whiff of local skid-row color. In the ’70s, the bands that slithered on stage, in their spikes and acne and home-dyed hair, were like vipers that had crawled in from the gutter outside, and that meant that nothing — no radio whore, no uptown hipster tastemaker — could gussy them up. The place discovered its freedom in that cracked-concrete, urban-swampland setting, where no money was expected to be made and therefore no money was at stake.

That’s one reason you can’t move CBGB to Vegas. As a physical space, it’s part of the Bowery, part of the New York streets. But since there’s no denying that the club, in any creative sense, faded away a long time ago, what, exactly, should have been done with it? Am I saying that I wanted to see it converted into a museum, a leather-bar version of the Hard Rock Café, with Blondie Burgers on the menu and waitresses in torn-fishnet uniforms?

Well, perhaps that would have been preferable, in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame world, to chaining its doors and paving it over. The end of CBGB was greeted, from the moment it was announced, as a fait accompli: an inveitable consequence of the housing market, of the yuppification of everything, of time marching on. But, in fact, the way that these things work, it was anything but inevitable. With a little more of a push from the pop-music aristocracy, from local zoning officials, from Hilly Kristal (who, admittedly, was tired of the damn place), from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who winked at preserving it), from old Television fans or young Ramones fans…with a little bit of a push, who knows what might have happened? Just as a single person reveals him or herself even in apathy, taking action by not taking action, New York City, and maybe America, revealed its feelings about what CBGB represents by not taking enough action to save it.

Perhaps I’m prejudiced because I happened to recently take my first trip to Rome, a city where 2,000-year-old ruins jut up from the streets like urban heirlooms, revered like the priceless national DNA they are. If Italy could save the Colosseum and the Pantheon, then surely we could find it within ourselves to preserve several thousand square feet of a dank, grungy, history-spattered rock club that, like the Sun Records studio in Memphis, was the home of some of the most revolutionary and exciting pop culture this country ever created. I can’t resist the thought that in letting CBGB slip into oblivion, so that no one will ever get another chance to stand inside that subway train to hell, we are burying the importance of what rock & roll ever meant, and what it could mean again.