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,'" said Kristal.
How long can I fester and squirm, watching New York lose it's soul, morphing from a place for people to live into a place for corporations to get richer and for petty business people to make themselves feel important by doing shitty things simply because it will line their pockets more thoroughly and there's no law in place to stop them?
My first time at CBGB's, I could afford either the cover or a drink, but not both. While I was dithering on the sidewalk, trying to decide if it was worth getting in line, a random guy in line hooked his arm around me and pulled me into his group of friends. I paid my own cover, and I sat the rest of the evening at a table with his crowd of NYU students. He bought me one beer, and I drank water the rest of the night, until one of the girls bought a round of shots for the table, including me. We all toasted our worthless college degrees. It was fun and wild and everything that being young is supposed to be. The band onstage was loud, fast, and really interesting, and of course I can't remember who they were, and they never made it big. I remember joking at the time that we should buy one of their CD's since it might be worth a fortune someday. Everyone laughed. We all knew Ceebee's was, in 1995, what it had once been - just a place to hang out and hear some music.
And that's exactly why it's closing is so tragic. Maybe, if CBGB's had retained its legendary status and continued to book bands that went on to play Letterman and attain the platinum albums, the landlord might have given a damn and let Mr. Kristal renew the lease. Because then the place would be making money. For starters, the cover might be fifty bucks instead of fifteen. The bartender would be mixing far more Grey Goose cosmos than Red-Bulls-and-Vodkas. And the crowd would be well-dressed. And older. And quieter. No more tables full of NYU students drinking one to two beers apiece because that's all they can afford. That would be a business worth keeping around, wouldn't it?
Oh but wait. There are already plenty of places in town for that, and you can go contribute your hard-earned cash to those million-dollar enterprises all you like. Stand in line for two hours with a bunch of people who don't even know what's inside. Once you get in, IF - and it's a big IF - you can find a place to sit down, your beer will be imported and overpriced. The cocktails will be overly sweetened and mostly mixer. After your second drink, The waiters will hover around you in their costumes, looking at you like your mother waiting for you to spit your gum out, until you finally agree to buy something, anything, even a COKE, from the bar, just to justify your continued presence, because the manager harasses them to do so. The crowd will not talk to anyone other than the people they came with, until they get drunk enough to try and pick someone up. Oh - and don't wear jeans and a T-shirt, unless the jeans cost over $100 and the T-Shirt has Juicy Couture bedazzled onto it.
Those places make so fucking much money. Yeah.
Wait - do you hear that? From all the way across the Hudson River, that sniveling landlord of 315 Bowery Street whining "But where's miiiiiinnnnee..."
This is not a bitch and moan because a historic music club is closing - not really. This is a rant about the continued corporatization and soullessness of New York City. A place where the integrity of a business is meaningless if someone else, somewhere in the city, is making more money. It's not enough to rent space to a legendary place, a place where new forms of music that changed the cultural landscape of America were nurtured, music that changed the dialogue between parents and kids, between classes, between political extremes, between country and city. Nothing to feel good about there, nothing to take pride in. Making more money is all that matters.
I want to live in a place where musicians can play live gigs simply because the club owner liked the audition, where people like meeting new people without an agenda, just because people are fun. Where rock and punk and opera and jazz and symphony musicians can all find a place to just relax, where your hangout isn't a strategic place to network. Where a club owner can push the tables and chairs against the walls when the joint starts jumpin’ and let people dance - and they will simply dance - without fear of being shut down. Where being nobody makes you feel like somebody, just because you're there. Where we look at the Statue of Liberty showing us her ass and laugh about it, because we don't expect anything more from her but a welcome, and we've gotten that. We're not afraid of hard work. We don't mind who else is here, and we don't want something because it's what someone else has. I want to live in a place where what you do is more important than how much you make doing it. Where civilization evolves. Where money is simply a tool.
There was once a time when those in power, who owned businesses and property here, felt civic pride. When New York's wealthiest citizens put their money into libraries where immigrants could learn English by checking out books for free. The philanthropists developed the parks, where we could sit and read those books without someone accusing us of loitering, or threatening to report us to the government for reading subversive or ungodly material. There have always been corrupt landlords - but there were some mayors in the past who worked to pass laws to protect tenants and force landlords to do business fairly, and keep rents reasonable.
Because, see, once upon a time, that's what Liberty really meant. New York City was populated by people from all over the world, looking to make an honest living in a home of their own, with time to relax and enjoy a little cooking or fiddle playing or dancing on the weekends. People who just wanted to exist.
There have always been people who cared about New York City as a whole, about the people in it, about the fertile art scenes here, about the accomplishments of the people, accomplishments that, if you had the power and ability, you could feel good about facilitating in some way, not because it made you money, but because it furthered the development of the city itself.
Now there's too many skyscrapers and not enough people who can afford to live in them, or keep a business there. Maybe they were right, those people in the midwest where I used to live, who said there are no values in New York City, just greed. Maybe this is Gomorrah.
But somehow, I can't lose sight of the city I used to live in, where I shared a clean, roach-free $900/month one-bedroom on 95th street between Amsterdam and Columbus, while my roommate traveled with a touring musical and I sang in concert operas, where I worked a 9-5 job for %15 an hour and felt proud of everything around me. I can't forget that. It wasn't so long ago.
I can't stop thinking that the essential element of New York City is almost gone, and what little remains is disappearing bit by bit, year by year. I also can't stop believing that it can be recovered. I can’t turn my back on the place.