Legendary punk club CBGB closed five years ago tomorrow. In its final week, the venue hosted a string of shows paying tribute its storied thirty year run, and it all culminated with a headlining set from Patti Smith. There were only a couple hundred people lucky enough to get tickets to that last hurrah, and one of them was me.
I don't really romanticize New York City. I know a lot of people do, but I'm a Midwesterner who likes to drive, hates crowds and has a mild case of germaphobia. Mostly, I'm resentful on principle. I don't like that one little place gets so much attention when there are plenty of other cool places and people outside of NYC that are rarely recognized.
That said, if I could live in any place and time, the Lower East Side in the 1970s would be a top contender. Maybe I'm a victim of selective history, but I've been led to believe that it was a vibrant place full of magic and creativity. And the music! Mercy. Most of my favorite music from that time came out of that little pocket of the world, and at the center of it all was CBGB.
Founded by Hilly Kristal in 1973, CBGB was originally opened as a country and bluegrass club, but quickly morphed into a place where the mohawked were welcomed. Kristal only had one rule for the club: no cover bands, and bands were encouraged to play music that they wrote. This was intended as a precaution against ASCAP fines, but the rule unintentionally made the venue a receptive to original music. Known mostly as the venue that hosted early gigs by the Ramones (Who I never gave a crap about it. I know, I know. Save it. It's too late for me.), CB's also launched Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, the Cramps and countless other legendary punk and new wave bands.
Sometimes all it takes is one little building to change the world. CBGB stayed open for 33 years as a functioning little rock venue, continuing an open policy and giving hundreds of bands a place to play their first shows. And because of all of the greats that had played the space over the years, touring bands considered it an honor to play the tiny diagonal stage at CB's and made the venue a priority on tours.
In 2006 some news came that saddened punx the world over: CBGB was going to close. As a result some sort of gentrification disaster and a rent dispute, the club that had helped to build the neighborhood for the past 30-plus years had also built its own displacement. The management at CBGB could no longer afford the rent for its home at 315 Bowery. Kristal hosted various fundraisers, but to no avail. Kristal had cut a deal with his landlord to be able to afford rent during the last year that the club was open, and as a condition of that legal battle he could not attempt to have the venue registered as a historic landmark. Kristal died of lung cancer less than a year later in 2007, prompting many to conclude that he was simply too weak to fight for the place.
CBGB announced a series of shows in the week leading up to the closing night on October 15, 2006. Bands like Bad Brains, the Dictators and Blondie would come out and play to celebrate the place that gave them their start. The headliner for the last night was Patti Smith, one of my all-time favorites. I'd been keeping up with all of the press covering the closure, and I read an article that said that tickets were going on sale the next day. I figured, "Hey, I'll give it a shot. I mean, somebody has to win the tickets, right?"
So on Sunday, October 1, I woke up and shuffled over to my laptop. As the clock hit selling hour, I was there hitting "reload" on Safari. Just then, the crap internet connection that I was pirating from my neighbor went out. I got back online and tried again. The site crashed. I tried one last time. It was already seven minutes past sale time, but the ticket gods were on my side and a few short minutes later I got a confirmation email. It took a minute to sink in. Wait -- did I really just get two of only a couple hundred tickets to the concert event of the decade? I mean, sometimes dreams come true, but this was akin to winning the lottery. I called the ticketing agency to confirm. The guy I got on the phone at customer service laughed at me and asked me to hold while he checked my transaction number. I heard him tap tap tap on his keyboard and then he said, "Holy shit. You got 'em!" followed by "Do you need a date to the show?" I didn't. I called my friend in NY and passed on the good news: two weeks from this day we were going to see Patti Smith at the last show ever at CBGB. Ten minutes later I had my flight booked to NYC and it was all set. Holy shit is right, my friend.
That night outside CB's was a madhouse. Though we arrived hours early, the line snaked down around the block. As it turns out, most of these people didn't have tickets, they were just hoping to get in. From our spot in line at the corner of Bowery and E 1st, we had a good view of the circus under the famous CBCB awning while we waited. There were news trucks everywhere, photographers documenting the scene, journalists with tape recorders interviewing people in line and fans hanging out on the sidewalk just looking for a street party. Details were scarce and the line would take a while. In an attempt to cut off scalpers, the ticketing rules were strict. Two tickets only and no paper tickets at all. If you "got tickets", your name went on a list at the door and you had to show an ID to gain entry. And because of sound check and photographs that had to be taken, they weren't going to let the audience in until right before the show started.
Faces I recognized were streaming past, but I couldn't place most of them. Most of them were older men who were probably in punk bands. Chloe Sevigny (fresh off of her heels-with-rubber-bands fashion statement) was about ten people behind me in line for a bit before she was whisked inside, not to be seen again. It was bitterly cold outside. So cold, in fact, that this night marks the one time in my life that I deigned to wear fleece. And right in front of Chloe, no less! The horror.
Finally, they let us in. We all thawed out quickly; it was already about a million and two degrees inside the venue. We made it to the floor in front, about seven feet from the stage. The music was already starting. We were quickly surrounded by the rest of the crowd. This would be our spot. We would not be able to get a cocktail. We would not be able to visit the bathroom. Not for fear of losing our place, but because it was so packed that we couldn't move even if we wanted to. I took a deep breath and removed any extra clothing. It was going to be a long night. I looked around and tried to take in the scene as the show started. Also, I was trying to peep out Michael Stipe of R.E.M. I couldn't find him, but about five feet to my right was David Fricke of Rolling Stone. He's tall and his hair is easy to spot. And in front of him was Elijah Wood. This would mark the third out of maybe eight times that I've found myself standing next to Elijah Wood at various musical events. Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, SXSW, he's at all of them. (And I'm taller than him. This is rare.) Also in the house was music industry insider Danny Fields, photographer Bob Gruen, writer Jim Carroll and Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads.
Then I saw him. Standing directly behind me was Brian. Motherfucking. Eno. I nearly fainted. I told myself that my eyes were playing tricks on me. I had nearly convinced myself of this, too, until I heard him speak and I took another peek. He was wearing intimidating, industrial strength earplugs. Of course he was! Those ears are like Tiny Turner's legs or Dolly Parton's rack -- they are his finest and most bankable quality. (Hopefully, they're also insured.) And when I say that he was right behind me, I mean really right behind me. He was breathing on the back of my neck and the convex curve of his belly was arching perfectly into the small of my back. (Does this read like pornography yet?) We'd only been inside for a few minutes, but everybody in the place was hot, Eno included, and it didn't take long for his sweat to get all up in my biznass. It was so dreamy...but I must say, Eno's presence was a point of distraction all night. He was super quiet and low profile, but people kept whispering and pointing at him. But I was in heaven. I was all, "CBGB who? Patti Smith what? I don't care, I just want Brian Eno to stay pressed against me."
And then I looked up, and there she was. Patti Smith is an interesting creature. She's half wise old lady and half wide-eyed little girl, and she's been like this all of her life. She dresses like a boy, but has always had the strength of a woman. She uses at least five different voices: 1. the sweet, child-like talking voice, 2. the monotone poetry-reading voice, 3. the Dylan-esqe singing voice, 4. the soulful, robust singing voice, 5. the angry, barking rebel voice. She's both a goddess and a hobo. A wild-haired rock star and an introspective bespectacled poet. Worldly but down-home.
She came on stage with Lenny Kaye, Jay Dee Daugherty, Tony Shanahan and a big smile and started with an impassioned reading of Piss Factory. Her singing started out a little shaky, with a few false starts. It seemed like nerves had gotten the best of Ms. Smith. She apologized, bashfully, and made a joke out of it. ("We're here to prove that we have not improved") And then she got back to work. It seemed like she knew that she had a big job to do there that night and she was a little intimidated. But with every song she gained more confidence and soon both she and the crowd were having a good time.
Smith's personality shown through when she spoke in between songs. She's all love and praise when she's telling stories and she has a sweet kind of old timey way of speaking. She says "piana" instead of "piano" and she never, ever pronounces the "g" on anythin'. Sometimes it's jarring when she goes back to singing because it's hard to reconcile the difference between the sweet little story-teller and the powerful woman-goddess singer.
Smith was careful to make sure that everyone possible was acknowledged. On top of the cover songs that she and her band played, she read lists and lists of names from the heyday of CBGB. Some on the lists had passed, some were in the audience, some were on the stage. She gave shout-outs to people from both the music and writing world like Richard Sohl, Deborah Harry, Blondie, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, Richard Lloyd, Tom Verlaine, Television, William Burroughs, Nick Tosches, her manager Jane Friedman and tons of others. Smith has always been very concerned with respecting her elders. (And personally, I think she's a little obsessed with dead guys.)
Once it seemed like her acknowledgment duties were over, she loosened up and the gig turned perfect -- even transcendent. During the show, she was joined on stage by both Richard Lloyd from Television and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I don't even like RHCP, but Flea is such a lovable character. I was thoroughly entertained watching him try to restrain himself and not to "Flea-out" and do that full spine roll head bobbing thing that he is known for. Flea was particularly impressive during the always-creepy "Birdland" where his bass led the band into a crazy, frantic jazz-like ending. Smith repaid him by leading the crowd into singing "Happy Birthday to You" to him on stage -- it was his 44th.
Her set included both rarely played older songs and covers of classics from the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes" to Television's "Marquee Moon" to Blondie's "The Tide is High" to the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer" to the Yardbirds' "For Your Love" and the Who's "My Generation." She and the band also did a Ramones medley near the end of the set that the crowd loved. Still, the high point of the night for me had to be when she unleashed the musical trifecta of "Free Money" then "Pissing in a River" followed by the Rolling Stone's "Gimme Shelter." It was absolutely amazing. Even Brian Eno had to bop around a bit.
Looking back, it's probably the best show I've ever seen. It would have been even if it wasn't at CBGB, and even if it wasn't the last ever show at CBGB. I've seen Patti Smith quite a few times, and this was the best show that I've ever seen her play. It was certainly the most important. I witnessed rock and roll history. Smith was on the cover of the New York Times that I picked up at the airport on the way home the next afternoon -- it was a photograph of her taking a photograph of the famous awning.
When I think back on the show, I remember a lot of details (and a lot of Eno), but one thing really stuck with me. Thankfully, recordings from the night allow me to transcribe it here exactly. Smith had told stories of the first time she went to CBGB (Easter night, 1974, to see the third ever Television gig) and about some of her favorite nights at the club. Then she said:
"Now, you know, kids will find some other club. They'll need some place to play. (boos from audience) Yeah, no! Yeah! Cause that's what's supposed to happen! This place is not a fuckin' temple. It's just what it is. And the greatest thing about it, and the best way that it can serve the people, is just show an example of what you can do. You just gotta 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. Anywhere. Anytime."