Nostagia has never served me well. Perhaps that’s why until recently I’ve been ambivalent about the closing of CBGB’s, which has been a fixture on New York City’s Bowery for over 30 years.
For the last 11 years I’ve lived just a few blocks away from the club. And for at least as long I’ve listened years to the stories of friends who experienced a rite of passage at CBGB’s. Whether it was being pelted with spit from the audience while playing on a stage sanctified years earlier by the likes of the the Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, or Blondie, or simply getting drunk and vomiting in the bathroom or on the sidewalk outside, where know your favorite punk rocker once did the same.
By the time I moved to Manhattan in the early 90’s the punk scene was history and the club had taken a turn for the worse. I’ve been to CBGB’s many times over the past several years and other than a recent King Missile re-union gig, I don’t remember any of the names of the bands I’ve seen.
I almost found myself agreeing with those who’ve said CBGB’s is barely a shadow of its former self and should close because it had outlived its usefulness. But upon reflection I realize that’s nostalgia speaking. If we look at the present situation in downtown Manahttan, CBGB’s relevance is obvious. It is not just a historical landmark, but one of the last of an endangered species in Manhattan - a rock venue that books unknown bands while charging fans an affordable price.
The club’s presence becomes particularly important once you take a walk around the neighborhood. Hardcore punk has been replaced by hardcore real estate development. At first glance the change doesn’t seem so bad. I confess I don’t miss wading through the wasteland of junkies, pimps and dealers that once occupied the blocks between my home and CBGB’s. But in their place has come a different kind of degenerate culture, one based on cashing in on a bloated real estate market without regard for the history, culture or even the physical character of a neighborhood. Large blank condo complexes have replaced turn-of-the–century five and six story apartment buildings that defined the look of the area, a decidedly less commercial neighborhood than midtown or neighboring Soho, which underwent a similarly aggressive gentrification decades earlier.
How much does it cost to live on the Bowery now? Let’s just say that no hardcore band can match the obscenity of the neighborhood’s real estate prices.
Keeping CBGB’s open won’t halt excessive development or revitalize NYC’s rock scene, but it would remind those strolling down the new, sterilized Bowery that downtown was once culturally vital; that artists, musicians and poets once lived and worked here without commercial backing or a trust fund. That’s not nostalgia speaking, it is an acknowledgement of the urban pioneers who came here to make art and inadvertently created an environment that became attractive to a yuppie class with money. Stockbrokers and lawyers living in million dollar condos need to remember that the CBGB’s T-shirt they wear on the weekends isn’t just a hip fashion statement. It is the symbol of a creative force that was the result of an unusual coalescence of talented people in an environment that, no matter how economically depressed and downright hostile, allowed for a new powerful music to be created that was heard around the world.
Perhaps it is fitting that the interior of the club is being shipped in its entirety to Las Vegas, the place where family fun meets legalized prostitution. I don’t know where the club will fit into Sin City’s weird cultural mosh pit but it’s probably the best way to remember CB’s without auctioning off its hallowed urinals and barstools on Ebay.