Rock poet Patti Smith headlined the Sunday night concert, CBGB's last before eviction by its landlord — the Bowery Residents Committee, a homeless advocacy group that owns the property. The club will close Oct. 31.
Hundreds of music fans packed the small downtown club Sunday, while reporters hovered outside. The mood was both somber and raucous at CBGB, hailed by many as the birthplace of punk.
"This place is not a ... temple," Smith said during the concert. "It is what it is."
She refused to wax nostalgic, instead claiming at a pre-show news conference that doubled as a sound check that "CBGB's is a state of mind" that will carry on elsewhere for a new generation. She later noted with relish that CBGB, at 33, was the same age as Jesus.
Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea surprised the audience, joining Smith's band for much of her second set. Having turned 44 at midnight, he was treated to a loud, enthusiastic "Happy Birthday" by the band and crowd.
Much of the concert was filled with reminders of changed times. Sirius Satellite Radio broadcast the show live, and digital cameras populated the audience.
Nevertheless, Smith often struck a '60s vibe, urging change and awareness of issues such as the disputed treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. She sang covers of the Who's "My Generation" and the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" with obvious parallels to CBGB.
The club was founded by Hilly Kristal in 1973 and over the years helped spawn the careers of such acts as the Ramones, Blondie, the Talking Heads and Television. Though its glory days are long gone, it has remained a symbolic fixture on the Manhattan music scene.
The crowd paid tribute to many of the bands forever connected to the club — including several chants of "Hey ho, let's go!" from the Ramones' classic "Blitzkrieg Bop."
Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads were on hand, as was E Street Band guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt, who had battled to keep the club open during the protracted dispute over its future.
The Bowery Residents Committee's decision not to renew CBGB's lease when it ran out in August 2005 sparked protests, tributes and vigils for more than a year. Kristal recently gave up his legal fight to stay.
Though weary from his battle with lung cancer, he remains combative about his club's exodus from the Bowery, and said Sunday he was "very disappointed" in Mayor Michael Bloomberg for not saving the club.
Still, he says he remains focused on "generating the energy" for CBGB, which he plans to move to Las Vegas. It's very much alive as a brand, too. Kristal will transplant its store, CBGB Fashions, to a new location a few blocks away on Nov. 1.
"I'm thinking about tomorrow and the next day and the next day, and going on to do more with CBGB's," Kristal said Sunday.
Frantz said he and his wife, Weymouth, had to attend the finale because CBGB is like the "center of gravity for us." He reflected on the club where the Talking Heads got their big break.
"It just had a super cool ambiance or electric vibe ... even though it was pretty much a dump," Frantz said.
With a capacity of barely 300, CBGB was founded as a place of freedom for different musical acts. Smith said Kristal "always gave us a job, just like tonight."
"He was our champion and in those days, there were very few," she added.
Though its letters stand for the music Kristal originally planned to present there — country, bluegrass and blues — it quickly came to represent the physical epicenter of early punk and the storied downtown scene of 1970s New York.
Smith's final encore was a quiet poem listing many of the musicians who have died in the years since they played CBGB, but perhaps the more fitting send-off came right before it. The band played the punk staple "Gloria," verging back and forth between choruses of "Gloria! G-L-O-R-I-A!" and "Hey ho, let's go!"
The crowd shook its fists high for the Ramones' classic — an anthem to CBGB and so much more.