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CBGB Brings Down the Curtain With Nostalgia and One last Night of Rock

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Patti Smith, one of the first musicians to play at CBGB in the 1970’s, arrived for the last concert at the famed East Village club.

She had played there many times over the last three decade, but last night, before making her last appearance there, Patti Smith made sure to snap a picture of CBGB.

Last night was the last concert at CBGB, the famously crumbling rock club that has been in continuous, loud operation since December 1973, serving as the casual headquarters and dank incubator for some of New York’s most revered groups — Ms. Smith’s, the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, Sonic Youth — as well as thousands more whose blares left less of a mark on history but whose graffiti and concert fliers might still remain on its walls.

After a protracted real estate battle with its landlord, a nonprofit organization that aids the homeless, CBGB agreed late last year to leave its home at 313 and 315 Bowery at the end of this month. And Ms. Smith’s words outside the club, where her group was playing, encapsulated the feelings shared by fans around the city and around the world: CBGB is both the scrappy symbol of rock’s promise and a temple that no one wanted to see go.

“CBGB is a state of mind,” she said from the stage in a short preshow set for the news media whose highlight was a medley of Ramones songs.

“There’s new kids with new ideas all over the world,” she added. “They’ll make their own places — it doesn’t matter whether it’s here or wherever it is.”

Crowds had been lined up outside since early yesterday morning for a chance to see Ms. Smith and bid farewell to the club, in an event that was carefully orchestrated to maximize media coverage. Television news vans were parked on the Bowery as fans with pink hair, leather jackets and — the most popular fashion statement of the night — multicolored CBGB T-shirts (but not necessarily tickets) waited to be let in and Ms. Smith’s band played a short set for the assembled press.

Curiosity about the club’s last night was mingled with harsh feelings about its fate.

“It’s the cultural rape of New York City that this place is being pushed out,” said John Nikolai, a black-clad 36-year-old photographer from Staten Island whose tie read “I quit.”

Added Ms. Smith outside the club, “It’s a symptom of the empty new prosperity of our city.”

Ms. Smith was CBGB’s last booking as well as one of its first. In the 1970’s, she was the oracular poet laureate of the punk scene, and her seven-week residency in 1975 is still regarded by connoisseurs as the club’s finest moment. With an open booking policy, its founder, Hilly Kristal, nurtured New York rock’s greatest generation, and in turn those groups made CBGB one of the few rock clubs known by name around the world.

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“When we first started there was no place we could play, so we ended up on the Bowery,” said Tom Erdelyi, better known as Tommy Ramone, the group’s first drummer and only surviving original member. “It ended up a perfect match.”

It has been a long and painful denouement for CBGB. After settling in 2001 with its landlord, the Bowery Residents’ Committee, over more than $300,000 in back rent, Mr. Kristal, a plucky, gray-bearded 75-year-old, landed back in court last year. The committee, which has an annual budget of $32 million and operates 18 shelters and other facilities throughout the city, said the club owed an additional $75,000 in unpaid rent increases.

Celebrities including David Byrne of Talking Heads and Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band and “The Sopranos” lined up to help mediate, but an agreement was never reached. Last December, three months after the club’s 12-year lease had expired, it agreed, at the prodding of Justice Carol R. Edmead of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, to finally close.

Muzzy Rosenblatt, the executive director of the Bowery Residents’ Committee, has said that a new tenant has been found for the space. Both Mr. Kristal and the committee also say that CBGB’s accounts have been settled and that there are no outstanding debts.

CBGB (its full name was CBGB & OMFUG, for Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers) is the latest and highest-profile rock club to vanish from Lower Manhattan in recent years as rents and other expenses have continued to skyrocket. Last year the Bottom Line closed over a debt of $185,000 to its landlord, New York University, and Fez and the Luna Lounge shut down because of development. The Continental, another ragged temple of punk on Third Avenue in the East Village, quit live music last month. Other clubs have sprouted up in Manhattan, but the center of gravity of the city’s club scene has gradually been shifting to Brooklyn.

Mr. Kristal is looking as far as Las Vegas. With the help of the mayor’s office there, he has been inspecting spaces in that city’s Fremont East district, a zone that the city intends to make into “a walkable live entertainment area like Bourbon Street or Beale Street,” according to a statement from the mayor’s office.

The office of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg helped find a new space in New York but the space it offered, on Essex Street on the Lower East Side, would have taken a prohibitive $5 million to prepare for use, Mr. Kristal said. Calls to the mayor’s office for comment were not returned late last week.

“I’d love to have the place here,” Mr. Kristal said. “If not here, then I’d love to have it in Vegas. I’m going to keep it active no matter what.”

The club’s interior — a narrow corridor with a bar to the right, the stage to the back, stalactites of grime dangling from the ceiling and miles of ancient posters and graffiti all around — is almost as cherished as its music.

“It’s like it’s grown its own barnacles,” said Lenny Kaye, Ms. Smith’s guitarist and a longtime rock critic and historian. “You couldn’t replicate the décor in a million years, and dismantling all those layers of archaeology of music in the club is a daunting task.”

The club’s architectural history stretches back much further than the Ramones era. Marci Reaven, the managing director of City Lore, a nonprofit arts group in Manhattan that studied CBGB in a joint project with the Municipal Arts Society, said it is a rare example of the Bowery’s long past as an entertainment mecca.

“When you get beyond the layers of interior decoration that is CBGB,” she said, “the architecture of the structure probably evokes the 19th and early 20th century years of the Bowery better than any other building on the strip that we know of.”

Mr. Kristal said he planned to preserve as much of the interior as possible and transport it to a new club, wherever that might be.

But CBGB’s symbolic legacy may far outweigh the value of its graffiti and its notorious urinals.

“When I go into a rock club in Helsinki or London or Des Moines, it feels like CBGB to me there,” Mr. Kaye said. “The message from this tiny little Bowery bar has gone around the world. It has authenticated the rock experience wherever it has landed.”