- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

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. Mr. McNeil sat at a nearby table, watching their set with Lou Reed.

It was unforgettable. But as Mr. McNeil would soon discover, it was just a typical night at CBGB (www.cbgb.com), the club that spawned punk rock while jump-starting the careers of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Blondie, the Talking Heads and the Ramones.

“Every night was memorable, except I don’t remember ‘em,” said a laughing Mr. McNeil, co-author of the punk rock oral 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 remained a Manhattan music scene fixture: part museum, part barroom, home to more than a few rock ‘n’ 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,’” said Mr. Kristal.

Mr. Kristal sits beneath a platinum record from Joan Jett, a CBGB clock and a few of the endless band stickers that blanket the interior. Mr. Kristal, who is battling lung cancer, wears a black and white CBGB T-shirt with a matching baseball cap.

He once managed the Village Vanguard, the renowned jazz club where he booked such acts as Miles Davis. Things were a bit different at his new club: “In rock, the bands were creative — but at first, they didn’t play so well.”

The first punk-scene band at Mr. Kristal’s nightspot was Television, soon followed by Patti Smith. Punk poet Miss Smith will play the closing night, as well, a booking that Mr. Kristal described as effortless.

Miss Smith isn’t the only veteran playing one last gig. The ‘80s hard-core band Bad Brains headlined at the club Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and ‘70s punks the Dictators are scheduled for tonight and tomorrow night. Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein are also stopping by tomorrow night to play a special acoustic set.

When Mr. Kristal opened his doors in December 1973, CBGB stood for country, bluegrass and blues — three musical styles that wound up in short supply. Tommy Ramone, original 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,” Mr. Ramone said last year. “It was a very dead time in New York City, doldrums all around. But CBGB allowed bands — original bands, no less — the freedom to go and play and do whatever they pleased.”

Mr. Kristal plans to move the club far from its roots with a new CBGB 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 devotee like Mr. McNeil thinks the best advice for the 74-year-old Kristal is go west, old man.

“I always said Hilly should go to Vegas,” said Mr. McNeil. “Girls with augmented breasts playing Joey Ramone slot machines. It would become an institution.”

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