CBGB's Final Show With Patti Smith (A.K.A. The Day I Got Covered in Brian Eno's Sweat)
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.