So it’s finally happened: CBGB is gone. But long live CBGB -- Hilly Kristal is apparently moving on to a new career using the brand name in Vegas, which is a such a splendidly theatrical sellout move that it's downright punk. Kristal is old enough that he can hardly be blamed for wanting to go somewhere warmer.
I’m amazed it lived as long as it did. I’m amazed it was still there for me when I was a college freshman in 1986 -- the first time I went there, with my fake ID, I wound up on the guest list by nefarious means. (There was only a little tongue involved, and no, I’m not going to say which band. Frankly, I’d been in love with the idea of CBGB for so long I’d have put my tongue on one of its justifiably legendary toilets just to see the place.) My eyes were the size of dinner plates, I’m sure (dilated wide due to the darkness) and I wasn’t even shy about it. Sometimes I had no choice but to reveal that yes, in fact, I did just fall off the turnip truck.
New York always had that effect on me, cumulatively. I had read so much about it, you see. I could point to the undistinguished storefront on Saint Mark’s Place and say, “That used to be the Dom and the Velvet Underground played there.” I knew where to look for the small plaque that marked the spot where nearly 150 workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I knew what McSorley’s meant. And I knew what CBGB meant, at least in some awed “George Washington slept here,” sense; sometimes you just feel a need to touch the bed.
I’m amazed CBGB was still there the last time I went to New York, in 2001. Even if I didn’t go in, I always had to walk by it every time I was in the city. The sight of its ratty-ass awning was reassuring in an illusory way, as if the whole history of the Bowery wasn’t being whittled away all around it bit by bit. I think now of the long and tearful but joyous farewell parties Lounge Ax got, and I think of the way city agencies and landlords are so often completely oblivious, if not actively hostile, to the way certain clubs and bars become second homes and hubs for a scene around them that’s much, much larger than any one business. (This does not appear to be the case with CBGB, however; the long legal battle involved a nonprofit organization that works with the homeless, and a lot of back rent -- considering this is Manhattan, it’s very likely both parties’ hands were simply tied).
Mostly, though, I remember the night it was crowded behind all human endurance, and a friend and I were hiding out in the women’s bathroom because there was oxygen there (you can imagine the quality of such) and then Henry Rollins burst in and proceeded to relieve himself with the stall door wide open, and at our incredulous stares, shrugged and said, “Great place to meet women.”