Perfect Sound Forever

Hilly Kristal

Photo © Spencer Drate, from CBGBs website

Big Brother to Punk Rock
By Danny R. Phillips
(February 2008)

Though I never personally had the good fortune (or depending on his mood, some would say misfortune) of meeting Kristal, I feel I know him in my own small way. The abrasive, sometime charismatic Kristal is responsible, at least in part, for the birth of the sub genre of rock that has shaped my view of the world since first encountering it during my long, boring days stuck in a small, Midwestern country-music-dominated high school.

Even though I was thousands of miles away from the Bowery in New York and the dirty, dark, shithole of a bar that was the epicenter for the late 1970s punk movement, I felt I was part of something that few, if any, in my isolated world knew anything about.

When Kristal died of complications due to lung cancer last August 28th, the music known the world over as punk rock lost its big brother.

A lifetime music fan and musician (he was a borderline prodigy on the violin and played Radio City Music Hall at only nine years old), Hilly opened CBGBs in 1973 as an outlet for live acts playing his favorite types of music, Country and Bluegrass. When it became apparent that NYC did not have a big listening audience for "mountain music," Hilly opened the bars doors to anyone who had a band.

In 1974, encouraged by Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell and desperate to draw business to his floundering bar, Kristal begrudgingly let rock bands play. One of the first bands included four guys from Queens who could barely play, known as The Ramones. They and a handful of other soon-to-be-legends took the stage and as quick as you can say "1,2,3,4!" the landscape of music history was changed forever. The New York punk scene was born. Soon the word got out that anybody could play CBGBs odd shaped stage and unique bands began to pile in.

With The Ramones anchoring the new anti-corporate rock style, other bands followed: The hot chick fronted Blondie, the musically more advanced Television (whose Hell and Verlaine first opened CB's to rock acts), the art school avant garde Talking Heads, the overblown female Lizard King poet Patti Smith, The Dictators and the man that the Sex Pistols stole their fashion sense and everything else from, Hell himself who later appeared there with Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers and later his own group the Voidoids.

Along with the legendary acts that we, as quasi-music historians talk about constantly, there were thousands that played CBs stage that have and will be forgotten about through time, remembered only by those few that actually saw there set. Which is to say that every band that Hilly booked, even in the early days, were not necessarily legends waiting to happen but enough did make an impact to give the club a grimy hipster vibe.

As punk began to grow past New Yorks borders and took hold in Great Britain, CBGBs became a Mecca of sorts for bands that wanted to prove their punk rock cred. The Police played their on their first tour of the States, The Clash brought their reggae inspired breed of the genre to Hillys dive, The Jam played there... Everyone who was anyone made the trek to the drunk infested, skid row part of town. While all the "beautiful people" partied uptown at Studio 54's disco haven, the not-so-beautiful folks had a place they were accepted and appreciated. There was no velvet rope, no dress code, at least for a glorious moment.

The early days of "the movement" seemed both wild and sincere. It was a place that seemed to encourage musical freedom. Punks incubation happened in that dungeon of a club but as with any scene, it can be corrupted. Word gets out and Kristals club became a cash cow.

Record executives began to take their limos downtown. Seymour Stein of Sire Records signed Talking Heads, Blondie and The Ramones. Television was grabbed up by Elektra and recorded Marquee Moon. Richard Hell brought his Blank Generation to the cool magazines of the world, as courtesy of Sire. Beat Poet king, Allen Ginsberg hung out there, Legs McNeil, creator of PUNK magazine was a fixture there, Lester Bangs, the worlds greatest rock critic practically lived there. The pretty people from uptown were now heading downtown for some weekend "slumming." It seemed as though everyone wanted to be seen there. It wasnt just for the punks anymore. Punk rock was going corporate and Kristal got credit as its benefactor, lining his pockets and saying, in a roundabout way, "Yeah, punk happened because of me."

As the ball ringing in the 1980s dropped, CBGBs had become a major stopping point for the road warriors that established a new kind of music what would come to be called "hardcore" and "alternative" (or "indie" if you like). Among the forerunners to play the bar with the worlds grossest bathroom were Sonic Youth, Big Black, Gorilla Biscuits, Minutemen, Husker Du, Nirvana and Mission of Burma.

For years, CBGBs breezed by as a shrine to the disenfranchised and in the process become more of a trademark than a club. Everyone and their dog had a CBGBs t-shirt; girls could buy CBs underwear. With that much cash rolling in, youd think Hilly could keep up on the rent. This, my friends, was not the case. In August of 2006, the Bowery Residents Committee, a non-profit organization funded by the city of New York, with the encouragement of board executive Muzzy Rosenblatt, raised Kristals rent on the building to between forty and fifty thousand a month. "I just cant afford that kind of money" Hilly is quoted as saying. Who in the world can afford that kind of money? This move was obviously a push to get the undesirables out of the neighborhood so the buildings owners could take advantage of NYC's booming housing market.

With public outcry at an all-time high, CBGBs was able to put off the closing until October 15th, 2006, when Patti Smith played one last star-studded show before the club closed its doors forever, or at least until a rumored move to the most un-punk rock place on Earth, Las Vegas, can be finalized.

I know its not cool to talk shit on a dead man but Kristal was a businessman and apparently a poor one at that. In the scheme of things, CBGBs was not punk. Punk is a creature that lives in the soul of anyone who has ever spit in the face of authority. It is a beast that cant be sold at Hot Topic, a name to be stitched on a dogs sweater or something that can be used as a theme for a slot machine in a Vegas casino. Many things played into the closing of this landmark. Hillys too liberal booking practices were one, developers worrying about property values another.

And lastly but perhaps must importantly, kids believing that punk is the screamo crap that they see every year now on the Warped tour, too lazy to do some digging and discover the real punk rock out there in the world.

Little Steven Van Zandt, the do-ragged second fiddle to Bruce in the E Street band, is quoted as saying upon Kristals death, "There would be no Ramones without Hilly Kristal. Losing CBGBs meant it was only a matter of time before Hilly followed."

Well, Little Steven I must disagree with your statement. Hilly Kristal did not create punk or The Ramones; The Ramones were four guys that wanted to play music and Hilly shouldnt be given credit for that. What Kristal did was play the big brother role to punk, he gave it a place to hang out, spread its wings and experiment with the new, snotty brand of rock and roll that these groups had breathed life into. Yeah, you could say that history was made thanks to Hilly letting these and many other faceless bands in the door but now, Big Brother is gone and the old hangin spot is closed.

Done is Done. End of story. Now open a fucking museum.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER