It is nearly a year since Manhattan's legendary underground rock club, CBGB, was forced to close after a tenancy dispute with its landlord. Now the man who started it all and helped to launch the careers of the Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith and others has followed his graffiti-plastered bar to punk pastures new. Hilly Kristal, who may have done more than anyone to foster the US punk rock scene in the 1970s and early 1980s, has died in New York from complications from lung cancer. He was 75.
A violin prodigy as a child, Kristal moved to New York from New Jersey as a young man and worked for the jazz haunt, the Village Vanguard. Soon, he spotted a dank, ground-floor space in the Bowery district and dreamt of turning it into a country music bar and restaurant. The full name at its opening in 1973 was CBGB & OMFUG – short for "country, bluegrass, blues and other music for uplifting gourmandisers". However, it was not country that found its spiritual home at CBGB. Rather, it drew rebellious musicians from the burgeoning new art rock and punk scene.
Unable to find anywhere else interested in showcasing their brand of angry song, the groups that used CBGB as a launch pad famously included not just Smith, Blondie and the Ramones but also Sonic Youth, Television and Talking Heads. Sid Vicious hung out there, too. As these and other groups took off globally, CBGB, as Kristal used to boast, somehow always remained their home base. "He loved country but he loved music even more and, as a singer-songwriter himself, he knew rock musicians needed a place to play their own music," his daughter, Lisa Kristal Burgman, said last night.
David Byrne, the lead singer with Talking Heads, added: "Other clubs were all about models and beautiful people. He was about letting the musicians in for free, to hear music and get cheap beers. It automatically created a scene, and we'd just hang out all night."
"There was no real venue in 1973 for people like us," Smith told The New York Times. "We didn't fit into the cabarets or folk clubs. Hilly wanted the people that nobody else wanted – us." And, happily, punk rock had fans who would pack into CBGB, which became as beloved for its detestable lavatories as for its musical policy. Later, as the first punk explosion faded, the popularity of CBGB did not.
Kristal began showcasing heavy metal bands and, in the 1990s, introduced matinee shows by the new generation of punk groups for fans too young to drink legally. CBGB remains a shrine to punk rebellion today, even though Kristal succumbed to pressure and shut the bar last October following a tenancy dispute. Among the tributes tacked to the shutters of the defunct club yesterday, one spray-painted message read simply: "RIP Hilly – we'll miss you, thank you".Reuse content