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Hey! Ho! Let's Go!
Musings at the last night of CBGB
Victor D. Infante
Photo by Lea C. Deschenes

Photo by Lea C. Deschenes

Patti Smith beat me down like the punk I am. And I deserved it.

It was the sound check for the last show at New York City's CBGB, and Smith was playing and answering questions for a hoard of reporters who's spent more than an hour swarming outside the legendary punk club. A reporter, in all earnestness, had asked her where young bands would play now that the place that spawned Talking Heads, Blondie and the Ramones was gone.

"They'll do what we did," said Smith. "They'll find their own shit holes to play in."

At which point I asked, "So this isn't a funeral for punk rock?" The question, quite understandably, was greeted with jeers and derision. Said Smith herself: "That's too much of a stupid question for me to answer."

And the crowd went wild. Hell, I was laughing too. It did seem like a stupid question, with the punk-rock priestess holding service right before our eyes and a line outside stretching blocks down Bowery Street looking to catch a glimpse of something historic and important before it's gone.

But it's also hard to look at the media swarm, both inside the club and out, and not get a sense that there was a fervent desire for this to be a funeral. Oddly, the crowd itself was joyous . celebratory. I remarked to a guy carrying a TV camera on his shoulder, "This doesn't seem funereal." He replied, "It's early. Maybe someone will start wailing or something." The implication being, that would make good television.

It probably would, but that wasn't what was happening there. The mood was surprisingly light and goofy. People were saying "good-bye," certainly, but there seemed to be a sense that the club, whatever great music it had produced, had served its purpose. People reminisced and took pictures out side with their kids. The club itself was moving to Vegas, to be preserved with other such bits of family-friendly Americana as Elvis and David lee Roth. Whatever else the club had been or even still was, it wasn't dangerous anymore.

It wasn't the first time this thought has occurred to me. Indeed, earlier this year, it had hit me when I heard Green Day playing in the bathroom at a Country Buffet - the epitome of family-friendly fare - that rock had lost its ability to threaten. How could it, when almost everybody had grown up with it in one form or another?

Thirty odd years after its inception, punk rock had become accepted enough to make the Six O'clock News - something that would have never happened in the late '70s, when the bands dwelling there were playing to near-empty rooms and playing music that genuinely challenged rock 'n' roll's increasingly pretentious sensibilities. And if the club had shut in the late '70s? Well, that would have been a far greater tragedy, and not one damn camera would have shown.

Indeed, right across the street, at the Bowery Poetry Club, Jamaican dub-reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson was giving a rare reading to a large, mostly black audience, reading poems about the Brixton Riots and police brutality, and there was nary a camera in sight. Yet somehow, the absence of media didn't diminish the event, just as its presence across the street was almost-entirely beside the point.

Because Smith had it right: CBGB was, ultimately, just a place they played, no more punk rock itself than, say, the Democratic or Republican Parties are freedom and democracy, or a poetry slam is poetry itself. Ultimately, these things and places are merely vehicles for working out ideas and enacting values, be they political or artistic. Like any tool, there comes a time when you have to put it away, because holding onto the tool often comes at the expense of the things it was used to build, the values it was originally used to express.

I was a teenager the first time I heard the Ramones, blaring out of a friend's stereo, and from that moment on, I've held a deep-seated love of punk rock. The music's joyous defiance and outrage, its visceral desire to recapture the freshness of rock's earlier eras -

it all reverberated from me. And seeing Smith on stage at CBGB, the bullshit of the media circus fell away. For one brief moment, Patti Smith was the only thing that was real in the world. And when her sideman Lenny Kaye took the lead on a Ramones medley, it was hard not to bop, to sing along with a bouncing Smith singing "Hey, Ho! Let's Go!" It was electricity and magic and . yes . dangerous again. I was a teenager again, hearing "Blitzkrieg Bop" for the first time. I had missed that feeling, missed the surge in my pulse the first time I'd heard it.

Across the street, Johnson had that same air of electricity around him. Both he and Smith rose to prominence decades ago, but they've not been diminished by time since. If anything, they seem more solid - regardless of whether the media was there to see them or not.

"It's the end, the end of the 70's," sang Kaye, from the Ramones' "Do You Remember Rock 'N' Roll Radio." "It's the end, the end of the century."

Oh yes. I don't know if it was the death of punk rock, but something ended that night. And even if it was , that doesn't undercut the power and importance of those songs, songs that can bring reality crashing from the sky when it's dangerously close to becoming a television show, songs that probably saved my soul when I found them. No, nothing can take that away from them.

And really, the only thing punk rock ever asked from us was change .