the last chord: cbgb’s last day
There was no enormous emotional wallop as I got off the 6 train and walked down Bleecker to CB’s, probably because that was never the way I walked to the club back in the day: the stop was too dangerous and that block of Bleecker to be avoided at all costs. If I had been thinking, I would have gotten off at Astor Place and walked down Bowery; to my mind, in my mind, that’s the ‘proper’ approach. Chapter 2 of my novel starts with the main character running to CB’s that very route. But I was nervous, and 100% certain that, previous evidence to the contrary, there would be 1000 people in line already, so I opted for the quickest route instead of the most ceremonial. Now I’m sorry I didn’t.
Like the lunatic that I am, I arrived at 4pm to get on line. There were maybe 20 people ahead of me, and only half of them had tickets. We were unified by the fact that we became zoo animals instantaneously. Every person who walked by took a picture, bought a t-shirt, gawked at non-stop. Tour buses, SUV’s with Pennsylvania plates stopping, rolling down a window, arm with a camera sticking out. it’s been here for 33 years, I wanted to yell. 7 days a week, you could have come down here and gone inside. most of us are slightly aghast at the entire thing. We contemplate providing all photographers with “the CBGB’s salute” as their background; instead, I make a sign reading STOP GENOCIDE IN DARFUR and hold that up instead. It’s not that I’m particularly active in that cause, it’s just that the complete and total out-of-proportion coverage, and willingness to interview the lamp post in front of the club began to wear a little thin.
Patti walks in, she is engulfed in cameras. The freak show is in full force. Crazy babbling homeless guys, random village idiots, some long-haired moron with a harmonium that we start calling Kenny G, and David Peel (as in David Peel and the Lower East Side). He later joins forces with a handful of other musicians and they start playing a song for the cameras:
Punk rock forever
Forever punk rock!”
The composition was soundly derided by just about everyone in our group, but I did feel the need to point out that, on some level, it wasn’t that far from “Hanging out on Second Avenue, eating Chicken vindaloo”.
I had brought a book, a radio, things to keep me occupied. None of it got used. Morons walk by and ask “is it sold out?” along with the classic, “where’s the line for ticket holders?”
We point towards Houston St.
“No, no, we have tickets,” they stress.
“So do we.”
They look at us in disgust and go ask at the door. We see the bouncer’s arm pointing south.
Later, a noted line jumper of my acquaintance attempted the classic line cutting move entitled “But I’m Just Going To Talk To My Friends [Gesture At Front Of Line]”. Unfortunately for her, she tried it right next to me.
And this was all before the fucking door opened at 8pm.
I couldn’t get my mind over it being the end, or how I was supposed to feel about it being the end. How many clubs have I seen close in my lifetime? I never cried because the Marquee Club closed, or the Fillmore shuttered its doors. As I like to remind people, I didn’t make it to CB’s until well after the fact. My years there were chasing Sonic Youth and a whole host of other bands of the post-punk/new alternative era, some forgotten, some less so. I can’t even tell you the name of the band who I used to go to see every Tuesday night over about three months, always in the 1am slot, because I wanted them to hire me to take their promo photos. By the time I snuck into CB’s for the first time, everyone was long gone. The closest kinship to those days (aside from spirit) was the ritual of sitting on the sidewalk outside the club and saying hi to Lenny Kaye as he walked his dogs down Bowery. I seriously impressed a whole gaggle of bands from Austin one night in 1985 when Lenny walked by and we started talking. After their jaws came off the concrete, I made the introductions, and for the rest of the night the bands treated me as though I was some kind of punk rock goddess.
I remember the club in tunnelvision, which is not exactly inaccurate because the club is a tunnel. I was either arriving late and running to the front, arriving early and running to the front, or arriving really, really early and helping some band carry their equipment in. But I never paused much between the front door and the stage. I always stood in the same place – well, after getting kicked in the head at an unfortunate toasters gig in the 80s I always stood in the same place: far house right, against the speaker stack. I would bring one earplug so I could stand there and not lose half my hearing.* I also liked that side because I didn’t want to be in the interminable procession to the bathroom or the dressing rooms. I never sat at the bar, I never played pool there, I never went to the ladies’ room, I never had to order bad white wine to fulfill the two-drink minimum at the tables, and I never ever bought a fucking t-shirt.
Last night was not quiet communion or ritual contemplation. It was a media circus, a colossal hassle, a shoving match inside. You had the one chick who always complains that you are trying to get in front of her (no, seriously, she does this at every show), you had the enormous guy and his wife who shove you out of the way to get to the stage (and this dude was a Mets fan, I was trading scores with him all night until he knocked this tiny little photographer chick from Olympia sideways), the wacko in the front row who lectures you on how they know the band so you better not touch them, the drunk moron walking sideways through the crowd, and as always, the skinhead idiot in a Ramones shirt who wants to slamdance through every single song and when people attempt to calm him down, lectures us all that none of us really understand this music.
In short, a typical night at CB’s.
She began with the book held open, reading. Reading “Piss Factory,” and the emotional resonance is so obvious and so overwhelming I wonder how I’m going to get through the rest of the night. I have a necklace that has the last two lines of that song engraved on it:
“and I will travel light./oh, watch me now.”
And to think that for about half an hour I debated whether or not I needed to be here tonight.
The first half of the show was quieter, lacked a little punch; the monitors were bothering all of them (except Lenny) and they had to start several songs over again because of bum notes all over. The cameras, the live radio broadcast, none of this boded well – “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Kimberly” into “The Tide Is High” and Richard Lloyd onstage for “Marquee Moon” notwithstanding.
They took a short break and came back, and the radio was supposed to be off; apparently it wasn’t, but thinking that it was seemed to help, as Patti had more energy. Then again, coming out and starting with “Sonic Reducer,” one of the CBGB top 10, certainly didn’t hurt. OMG, that was fucking awesome. There was a Ramones medley from Lenny and Tony Shanahan that was sweet, and they did a phenomenal cover of “Gimme Shelter” that gave me goosebumps. “We just learned this one, you might be familiar with it, so if you are, please sing along.” Pause, beseeching look: “FEEL FREE.”
Just before what would become “Rock n Roll Nigger,” Richard Lloyd comes onstage, and as one would expect from Richard Lloyd, there is much discussion about tunings. Patti turns around: “Lloyd. *I* just played guitar. No one is going to notice if you hit a few wrong notes.” It was the directive of one long-time friend to another, and we just happened to be eavesdropping.
I would guess that I haven’t heard Patti do “My Generation” for 30 years. This is the one that made the most sense to me, the one I would have wanted to hear if you’d given me the cover list and asked me to choose. This version was so blasphemous when it was released, Who fans are still up in arms over it. Flea did a kick-ass Entwistle interpretation (note: not imitation) during the bass solo. “WE CREATED IT, YOU TAKE IT OVER,” she exhorted us. When it was over, the woman next to me, with whom I had bonded around the time of “Free Money,” noted: “Now we’re part of history!”
“Land” at the end, not as incendiary as it can be, but it was already well after Patti Lee’s bedtime and it did the job just fine. This all changed during the segue into “Gloria,” where the sense of finality and farewell started to sink in, and I started to cry, and the grey-haired woman with the elegant cheekbones in front of me started to cry, and then Patti is openly weeping, which didn’t help either of us.
“Elegie” is to be expected, but what was not expected was the reading of the list of names, those in the family who are no longer here. I cheered loudest for Lester and for Helen Wheels and for Peter Laughner and for anyone who was lesser known, JT and Jerry Nolan did not need my applause. She choked up at the end, second-to-last name, Richard Sohl.
But it was the last series of names read that did us all in – at least if you have any semblance of a heart and soul. Slowly, shakily, haltingly, Patti reads:
“Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee.”
I am crying now, again, writing this here, and all bets were off when I am standing two rows from the place where that band was born.
“Patti, you forgot someone,” from a voice in the crowd.
A bunch of names are yelled.
“Fred.” the voice insists.
She stops, I am unsure whether that was inappropriate or touching, and then she smiles:
“They’re all here, whether I read their name or not.”
As soon as it was obvious it was over I said brief goodbyes to the people in my immediate vicinity and made my way out. Everyone was pushing forward, wanting something, wanting to not have to leave, wanting to not say goodbye, wanting the evening to not be over. It took forever to get out, and I was almost glad, taking the mental photographs: the bar with its roof and railings that I always tripped on. The canyon of neon signs. The uneven floorboards. The ancient band fliers everywhere. The stickers, likewise. Jesse Malin at the bar. Bob Gruen holding court.
I slow down as the exit approaches. Snap, snap, snap, all in my head, as though I couldn’t build a movie set from my memory as it already existed.
The door. I pause, touch the door jamb with my palm as though a mezuzah is there, but I meant the gesture in the same way.
Benediction, for myself as much as for the place.
A breath, a goodbye, and I push open the doors.
A million people taking my photo, a huge crowd, someone offering to buy my wristband, other people asking me if I knew what the score was (I was wearing my Cliff Floyd t-shirt, who is my favorite player for the Mets) – of course I forgot to mention that I was keeping up with the playoff game during the show, via text message and an insane friend who was listening to the game and the show. I grab the boyfriend’s hand, I start to walk, I feel like lot’s wife in that I don’t want to look back but I can’t not look back. What will that block be? What will happen here? Will people still come here on Joey’s birthday and leave flowers? Where do we go when the next one of us passes?
But for now, we say goodbye, and we mourn a little.
**this is how I will always remember it**
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*I did do serious damage to my hearing at CB’s, but not when you think I would have: it was at a Dictators reunion show during the CBGB anniversary week in December 94. I remember sitting in Kiev after the show and being asked to leave because we were all screaming at each other because our ears were ringing so hard.
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