End of a Punk-Rock Institution Whose Attitude Won't Die
By JON PARELES Published: October 16, 2006
Just after 1 a.m. on Monday morning, the last notes of live music rang from the stage of CBGB & OMFUG, the Bowery club where punk-rock invented itself. Patti Smith finished the club's final concert with her ballad "Elegie," growing teary-eyed as she read a list of dead punk-rock musicians and advocates. But just before it, she had worked up a galvanizing crescendo -- from poetry recitation to rock song to guitar-charged incantation -- in a medley of "Horses" and "Gloria," proclaiming with a triumphant rasp, "Jesus died for somebody's sins/But not for CBGB's."
The songs came from her debut album, "Horses," which was released in 1975, when Ms. Smith and CBGB were making each other famous. She was a poet turned rocker, tapping and then redoubling the energy she found in basic three-chord songs. The club -- its initials mean Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers -- was a hangout in a dire location. But its owner, Hilly Kristal, agreed to book artistically ambitious, high-concept, generally primitivist bands that defied the commercial imperatives of early-1970's rock. It was a neighborhood place in a low-rent neighborhood that happened to house artists and derelicts side by side, inspiring some hard-nosed art. During her set, Ms. Smith described CBGB as, "This place that Hilly so generously offered to us to create new ideas, to fail, to make mistakes, to reach new heights."
In some ways CBGB, which opened in December 1973, ended its life as it had started. It never moved from its initial location, which was originally under a Bowery flophouse, now a homeless shelter. It never changed its floor plan, with a long bar lit by neon beer signs on the way to an uneven floor, a peeling ceiling, a peculiarly angled stage and notorious bathrooms. Through the years, the sound system was improved until its clean roar could make any power chord sound explosive. Mostly, however, CBGB just grew more encrusted: with dust, with band posters stuck on every available surface, with bodily fluids from performers and patrons. Ms. Smith did some casual spitting of her own during her set.
But in a historical long shot, CBGB got lucky. The concepts of bands booked there turned out to be durable ones: Ms. Smith's blunt, visionary and primal songs; Talking Heads' nervously oblique funk, and especially the Ramones' terse, blaring, catchy rockers, which came to define punk-rock. Having nurtured bands like those--and later post-punk bands from Sonic Youth to Living Colour--CBGB became a rock landmark. Its reputation grew strong enough to coast on. Even as its regular bookings grew far less selective through the 1990's and 2000's, every now and then a big-name band would play there as a pilgrimage. Full story.