“Thank you for the great fuckin’ memories,” said Dictators singer Handsome Dick Manitoba, pouring his heart out one last time from the stage of CBGB on the next-to-last night of the New York club’s existence. The Dictators had just concluded their October 14 set with the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,” Manitoba sharing vocals with the Ramones’ founding drummer, Tommy Ramone. Chills, smiles and tears flooded the most famous rock club in the world.
Among Manitoba’s memories were shooting heroin in the filthy men’s room — he’s been clean 23 years — and dodging the backstage feces deposited by owner Hilly Kristal’s dog, Jonathan. But as Manitoba put it, “It is a wonderful shithole, and it’s our shithole.”
CBGB’s final weekend also included performances by Blondie, Patti Smith and several support bands. Kristal had waged a rent dispute with the subletting Bowery Residents Commission and reached an agreement to vacate the premises 14 months after the lease ran out in August 2005. Kristal said the BRC would’ve tripled his rent had he stayed.
It had been almost 33 years for the narrow rock box, which was intended to be a showcase for country, bluegrass and blues (the letters in the club’s name) rather than the punk and new wave movement of the ’70s. But it quickly became a home for the Ramones, Dead Boys, Television, Talking Heads and many other original bands with no place to play. The decrepit, dangerous Bowery neighborhood was just part of ?the allure.
“It’s like my childhood,” said singer Deborah Harry of Blondie, who preceded the Dictators with a set that included Ramones and Gun Club songs.
“Part of me is dying,” Dictators guitarist Ross the Boss told Kristal on Friday — Kristal himself is 75 and undergoing chemotherapy.
On Sunday, Patti Smith called CBGB “a state of mind” that will inspire kids all over the world to “find their own shithole.” Smith opened with her first-ever recorded song, “Piss Factory,” about escaping dead-end suburbia for New York City, and played a Ramones medley, a Blondie bit, a couple of Television songs (with TV guitarist Richard Lloyd), a Velvet Underground selection, a Dead Boys number (“too slow,” complained Dead Boy Jeff Magnum from the crowd), the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the Who’s “My Generation” and the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love.”
“There was a time when lightning struck here,” said Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye.
“A lot of bittersweet memories are coming back,” said Walter Lure (once of Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers) after playing a set with his band, the Waldos. ?“C’est la vie.”
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Kristal recalled the early days. “I remember Patti Smith doing seven shows in a row. The Ramones played for 17 minutes — a wall of energy as loud as they could get. They didn’t play very well in the beginning, most of them. They got better. I felt that playing what is within you is what’s most important.”
The club looked much the same as ever. The white awning with the famous red logo hung over the door. In the skunky downstairs men’s room, the infamous three urinals (one nonfunctional) were still in place. Graffiti on top of graffiti, posters and stickers on top of posters and stickers. But the neighborhood has changed. Gleaming steel-and-glass apartment buildings have shot up on the empty lots, a process that accelerated in the past two years as the Bowery became Manhattan’s latest upscaling project.
Kristal has plans: another New York CBGB, a reopening of his retail outlet — and a Las Vegas location.
“They say old punks never die,” quipped ex–Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth. “They just go to Vegas.”