Hilly Kristal

Founder of CBGB's, home of punk


Hilly Kristal, club owner, manager and singer: born Hightstown, New Jersey 23 September 1931; married (one son, one daughter); died New York 28 August 2007.

In the mid-Seventies, the New York music venue CBGB's welcomed the local bands no other club would book and became the home of punk rock in the United States. Its owner and founder Hilly Kristal gave artists like Television, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie their first break. Located in the once unfashionable area of the Bowery, on New York's Lower East Side, CBGB's became the template for hundreds of graffiti-covered venues around the world. It was as important to the US scene as the Cavern and the Marquee had been to British music in the Sixties.

When British groups like the Damned, the Police, Elvis Costello and the Jam began playing outside the UK, they used CBGB's as their launchpad into the American market. CBGB's influence went far beyond the United States and came to epitomise a certain kind of independent spirit, even if many people sporting CBGB's T-shirts around the world had never set foot in New York, let alone inside the venue.

By 2006, after the gentrification of the neighbourhood and successive rent increases, Kristal fell into arrears. Despite a battle to save the venue, the Dictators and Patti Smith played the final concerts there that October. The irony of it all was that Kristal, the figure around whom CBGB's revolved, had started out playing folk and classical music.

Born in 1931, he was raised on a farm in New Jersey and studied the violin and singing. "I grew up thinking I was going to be a concert violinist," Kristal said, "and I played with the high school orchestra when I was eight or nine, but I kind of backed into folk music." He moved to New York after coming out of the Marines in the mid-Fifties, and would appear at Radio City Music Hall and then go down to sing at Café Wha in Greenwich Village. "Those were fun years, the beatnik era," he said. "I started to become a folk artist. I wrote for myself as a performer."

Kristal recorded demos for Atlantic Records but the deal fell through and he only got round to recording his party piece, "Mud", about a pig's preferred present at Christmas, on a single in 1976. "The Shirts and a couple of other groups helped me put it together," Kristal said. "The whole thing was recorded and mixed in four hours. I never really released it, I just made up a lot to send as Christmas presents."

In 1959, he began managing the Village Vanguard, booking performers including Miles Davis, Roland Kirk and the Modern Jazz Quartet, before moving into producing package tours playing university campuses around the United States. In 1966, Kristal opened Hilly's, a club on West 9th Street which showcased cabaret, comedy, theatre and improvisation, where Bette Midler became a regular, appearing over 80 times and honing her skills as a singer and performer.

In 1969, while walking down the Bowery to get some pots and pans, Kristal noticed that a lot of artists had taken advantage of the cheap rents to move into the area, and he decided to set up a bar to cater for their crowd. Having acquired from an ex-boxer the lease of what was originally called the Palace Bar, situated under a doss-house, he started Hilly's on the Bowery at 315 Bowery in December 1969, which eventually became CBGB's in 1973.

"CBGB stands for Country Bluegrass Bar, which is what I intended to do when I started this place," he explained. "More folk-country than Nashville but not the kind of music we became famous for." He added that the "OMFUG" on the venue's marquee – and iconic T-shirts – stood for "Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers". "At the time there was no scene, no place where these people could play their own music at all in New York," he said. "You couldn't do it."

Kristal had seen Max's Kansas City and the Mercer Arts Center put on the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls, but struggle to remain open in competition with clubs where bands covered Top 40 hits. "When I started CBGB's, I said the only way they could play here was to do their own, original music," he said.

They had to do it. Then all these bands started to flock here. That's when it started to become a scene because it was the only place where creative musicians could come and do what they wanted to do as a means of self-expression.

Kristal's move away from folk and country began when he booked Television in March 1974, charging one dollar admission. He booked six bands a week but made sure they shared the bill over two days and played two sets on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, thus giving them a chance to grow and develop a following too. At first, he hated Television and their friends the Ramones but decided they were bound to improve.

"By the end of the summer I thought, that's pretty neat," recalled Kristal. "It taught me to be a bit more forgiving about judging new bands. Originality was prime, technique came second. At least I didn't kick them out."

In March 1975, Patti Smith started a four-nights-a-week residency which lasted seven weeks and got her a record deal with Arista. CBGB's was on the map. Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Reed and John Cale of the Velvet Underground all dropped by to find out what all the fuss was about. This new scene attracted coverage in The Village Voice and The New York Times as well as Rolling Stone magazine and the British and French music press. A few months later, Kristal organised a festival of the best unrecorded rock bands in New York. "That's when we started hearing about the movement," he remembered. "What we called street rock became punk rock."

The CBGB's scene had even more impact overseas than it did at home. In July 1976, the Sex Pistols and the Clash saw the Ramones between the Flamin' Groovies and the Stranglers at the Roundhouse in London and the event proved a catalyst for the British punk scene. Over the following 18 months, Britain also welcomed Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and Mink DeVille – who had all got record deals thanks to their appearances at CBGB's.

For Kristal, the scene was always far less unified than it looked to outsiders, though:

Everybody thinks that this is probably a punk club, but there was just a variety of people wanting to do their own thing. Patti Smith was a poet, an exceptional artist. Talking Heads I don't think were punk, they had something that was creative and interesting. The Ramones were punk. But most of them were different forms of rock and hard rock and garage type things. These were people who wanted to say something and picked up instruments to have their say.

CBGB's hardly changed even when the media interest moved on and the crowds thinned out, only to return if someone like David Byrne was playing a secret show. When I visited the club in the early Nineties with friends who had been regulars since the mid-Seventies, they confirmed that little had changed there and, indeed, there was Kristal with his faithful dog Jonathan. When I spoke to Kristal at length a few years ago at the Midem music industry show in Cannes, his passion for new music remained evident. Most of all, he loved originality and despised "artists copying each other, trying to be popular."

As the tramps and bums disappeared and the rent on 315 Bowery quadrupled, Kristal remained a defiant spirit. "CBGB, to many, became a place where they could express their frustrations, desires, anxieties and maybe even dreams," he claimed.

Many New York-based musicians knew they owed their eventual success to Kristal's CBGB. "Hilly is the punk patron of music and art," said Deborah Harry of Blondie. "Without him, where would we be now?"

Pierre Perrone

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