NEW YORK – Legs McNeil remembers the night back in 1975 when he walked into the dingy storefront club perched in the even dingier Bowery neighborhood. The band onstage, four guys in leather jackets and torn jeans, was the Ramones. McNeil sat at a nearby table, watching their set with Lou Reed.
It was unforgettable. But as McNeil would soon discover, it was just a typical night at CBGB’s, the club that spawned punk rock while launching the careers of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Blondie, Talking Heads and the Ramones.
“Every night was memorable, except I don’t remember ‘em,” said a laughing McNeil, co-author of the punk rock history “Please Kill Me.”
After Sunday, memories are all that will remain when the cramped club with its capacity of barely 300 people goes out of business after 33 years. Although its boom years are long gone, CBGB’s remained a Manhattan music scene fixture: part museum, part barroom, home to more than a few rock and roll ghosts.
The club didn’t exit without a fight. An assortment of high-profile backers, including E Street Band guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt, battled to keep the legendary club open. But in the end, it was a simple landlord-tenant dispute – and owner Hilly Kristal saw the handwriting on the club’s dank walls.
“I knew the closing was inevitable, because my lawyers said, ‘You can’t win this case. The law is that your lease is up, and they don’t even need a reason to put you out,’ ” Kristal said.
When Kristal opened his doors in December 1973, CBGB’s stood for country, bluegrass and blues – three musical styles that wound up in short supply. Tommy Ramone, drummer for the Ramones, recalled how a new breed of bands gravitated to the space.
“At that time, there were no places to play in New York,” Ramone said last year. “It was a very dead time in New York City, doldrums all around. But CBGB’s allowed bands – original bands, no less – the freedom to go and play and do whatever they pleased.”
The first punk-scene band at Kristal’s nightspot was Television, soon followed by Patti Smith. Punk poet Smith will play the closing night as well, a booking that Kristal described as effortless.
Smith isn’t the only veteran playing one last gig. The ’80s hardcore band Bad Brains and ’70s punks the Dictators are both scheduled for the final week. Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein are also stopping by.
Kristal plans to move the club far from its roots with a new CBGB’s in Las Vegas. The owner plans to strip the current club down to the bare walls, bringing as much of it to Nevada as possible.
“We’re going to take the urinals,” he said. “I’ll take whatever I can. The movers said, ‘You ought to take everything, and auction off what you don’t want on eBay.’ Why not? Somebody will.”
Even a longtime CBGB’s devotee like McNeil thinks the best advice for the 74-year-Kristal is go west, old man.
“I always said Hilly should go to Vegas,” said McNeil. “Girls with augmented breasts playing Joey Ramone slot machines. It would become an institution.”