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HILLY KRISTAL R.I.P. (1932-2007)

Hilly Kristal, founder of CBGB, the birthplace of punk rock, died August 28 from complications involving lung cancer. [Go to the source at www.cbgb.com and see "Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club - Popular Music and the Avante-Garde" by Bernard Gendron for historical perspective.]

Hilly founded the club in 1974, renaming it CBGB (for "Country Blue Grass and Blues") from its former title "Hilly's On the Bowery." (Hilly owned a club on West 13th Street called "Hilly's" and this was meant to differentiate the two). He had a lot of experience in the music industry by this time in his life, as a performer and from booking acts at the Village Vanguard and helping found the Shaefer Festival in Central Park. [More historical perspective: JohnBuckWLD's list of Schaefer acts.]

Although Hilly was never a big fan of punk rock music (he was famous for telling the Ramones that they "weren't very good, but I'll let you play again anyhow" and warning other bands that the Hells Angels in his club wouldn't like their music at all), it never would have happened without him. Hilly knew a good thing when he saw it, so he quickly began promoting the punk rock bands who were appearing at CBGB in 1974 and '75 when they began to draw crowds. The first big series of shows featured Patti Smith and Television, and as Patti Smith became a big name and started touring nationally Hilly started the "Summer Rock Festival" in 1975 to promote its other bands like the Ramones and the Talking Heads.

Hilly, as a professional musician himself, knew what bands wanted: a good sound system, a fair door policy and a decent amount of promotion. He provided this and more for the the bands that played at CBGB and it's why he's so beloved. His club made a lot of those people very rich and famous. When I first heard the news about Hilly a Ramones song was playing during the ESPN movie The Bronx Is Burning. And as I write this I can hear them during a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. I doubt anyone would have ever heard of the Ramones if it wasn't for Hilly. [Check out The Bronx Is Burning here.]

To me, it was Hilly's insistence on keeping the club the way it was (low cover charge, cheap drinks, dive bar atmosphere) that helped the punk scene in the US grow over the decades--giving punk rock its notoriety (the Bowery was a notoriously dangerous neighborhood in the 1970s, with its ever-present bums and high crime rate), and keeping it alive in its lean years. Although there were many other venues that allowed punk bands to play, there was something about "CBGB: The Original" being open and available for all aspiring punk bands to perform on that famous stage that helped keep the punk myth alive. People often tried to talk Hilly into taking the club big time--renovating the bar, fixing the bathrooms, and raising the prices to compete with other nightclubs--but he always insisted on keeping the club the way it always it was, and even encouraged bands to deface the walls with band posters and stickers. Whether it was his thrift or his business sense, Hilly kept CBGB open and thriving for 33 years, when even NYC's most famous clubs (e.g. Studio 54, Mudd Club, Max's, Steve Paul's Scene, Electric Circus, Coney Island High, The Continental), were lucky to stay in business for ten.

The nicest thing Hilly did for PUNK Magazine was to host our 1977 benefit. Virtually every band in the scene (except the Ramones, who were on tour) performed over two weekday nights, and the total take (around $2,000--good money in the 1970s) enabled us to publish PUNK #10 and stay in business for another year or two. He was too cheap to take out an ad, but that was his business decision to make. (Although I still think it would have been cooler if he had backed us; we might have stayed in business!)

But he always let us in for free any night we showed up (along with so many others from the scene). This is what truly built what soon became known as the CBGB scene. We were always welcome guests in his humble abode. And it did feel like a home, since there was a couch near the door, a pool table in the back and after that a pinball machine near the front, and an ambience that made you feel that you could anything you wanted to do.

The list of bands that played CBGB is phenomenal (and the first bands to appear there became the best known): Television, the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, Blondie, the Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Suicide, The Mumps, the Dictators, the Cramps, The Fleshtones, the Beastie Boys, Bad Brains, Living Colour, the Plasmatics, Murphy's Law, the Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, Reagan Youth, Sick Of It All, Warzone, The Undead, the Goo Goo Dolls, Sonic Youth, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Pussy Galore, L.E.S. Stitches among many, many others. [See Wikipedia's "List of Musical Acts That Have Played at CBGB".]

There were also the people like film directors (Jim Jarmusch, Nicholas Ray and Mary Harron), writers (James Wolcott, Jim Carroll and Lester Bangs), and fashion designers (Tish and Snooky, Natasha) who hung out there. You might run into someone who'd give you a job or otherwise help your career. It was an important networking center before there was an Internet--and a whole lot more fun. In later years this helped the club spawn the East Village art movement (almost every artist started a band that played CBGB at some point), and was home to the burgeoning hardcore movement in the 1980s. [See "East of Eden" about the East Village art thing, and ManicPanic.com (great theme song) & NatashaNYC.com for the fashion angle.]

Hilly managed two successful CBGB bands: the Dead Boys and The Shirts (whose singer Annie Golden went on to appear in feature films and TV). Hilly also attempted several other CBGB-related ventures over the years: The CBGB Second Avenue Theatre in the late 1970s, CBGBs Pizza and CBGB Radio in the 1980s, and CBs Art Gallery and Downstairs at CBGB, a basement bar, in the 1990s and 2000s. There was also a collection of photographs, a CBGB chocolate bar and of course, the famous t-shirt. A feature film, directed by Mandy Stein, on the history of CBGB has been in production since its closing was announced. PUNK Magazine contributor Pat Byrne also directed Saving CBGB, a student film that chronicled the efforts to save the club in 2006. [You don't believe the chocolate bar? See "The CBGB Collection" at Allison Nelson's Chocolate Bar. Also see CBGB Online Store for more plausible offerings.]

Hilly had aspirations to be a singer. His ex-wife Karen once told me that they met when they were both taking opera lessons in the 1940s--when he was a teenager and she was an older woman in her 20s. Hilly once revealed to me that his shot at stardom took place in February 1962, when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. However, by the time Hilly recorded "Man In Space" and it was released several months later, the Cuban Missile Crisis was underway, the space race forgotten while the world faced nuclear annihiliation. Hilly's budding singing career was unplugged. [Up for some more historical perspective? Go to "The John & Annie Glenn Hisoric Site & Exploration Center" , and if that ain't enough, try "13 Days & History".]

A lot of misinformation has been published out there and we'd like to correct one thing: CBGB didn't close because of a rent dispute. Exactly two years ago the club's lease ran out and when it became clear that the building leaseholder (Bowery Residents' Committee, a.k.a. BRC, who had been given the rights as leaseholders to CBGB several years before), refused to offer Hilly the opportunity to renew. He worked out a deal to close the club in October 2006 if he could remove the contents. This was a difficult decision for him to make, especially after the musical community, led by Little Steven, did everything we could to keep the club open. He had hoped to open a new location during lease negotiations, but the current prices in New York are so high that he was forced to consider other locations, from Las Vegas to New York. Currently the club is represented by a small clothing store on St. Mark's Place, near other punk clothing stores like Search & Destroy and Trash & Vaudeville. Hilly had hoped to open the store near Times Square in 2005 but the publicity from the lease dispute with the BRC made that impossible. [See how the BRC is working to "restore hope and dignity by offering opportunities for health and self-suffieciency". See Little Seven's take on it at LittleSteven.com as soon as he gets his shit together. Meanwhile you can go to LittleStevensUndergroundGarage.com for some good tunes.]

When Hilly opened the club in 1973 the rent was $600 per month. By 2004 it had risen to $19,000 per month (for the club, the art gallery and the downstairs bar). In his last year at that location, the rent was reportedly $65,000 per month, and they are now seeking approximately $200,000 for the space--among the highest rates in the city.

It's not surprising that the former CBGB space has been empty ever since.

Hilly was always bitter that Mayor Michael Bloomberg had offered to join the crusade to "Save CBGB" in 2006, but did absolutely nothing but use this as an opportunity for self-promotion. It's true that if the mayor had really wanted to save the club, he could have. In fact, I believe if this was any other city in America, every effort would have been made to keep CBGB open. Its cultural influence was greater than any other music space in US history, really, except perhaps the Grand Ole Opry. And wouldn't any city fight to keep a cultural landmark like that intact? But there have been many rumors that Bloomberg was involved with the other corporate interests that funded the BRC, and that the BRC itself was just a nonprofit front for corporate interests. Certainly Bloomberg's actions fuel this conspiracy theory. It was in the best interest of New York City to keep CBGB in its original location.

Hilly spent a great deal of time and energy looking for an alternative location but never found another suitable place. He was heartbroken to lose his club, and shortly afterwards came the diagnosis that he had lung cancer.

But there's a more important aspect to his life that might not be chronicled anywhere else--his generosity and kindness towards the people who worked at CBGB. I heard many stories through the years about people who developed serious drug, alcohol and/or psychological problems while working there. Although Hilly wasn't exactly paying his employees huge salaries, if someone had a problem he would set them up with medical care, and the door would always be open for them to come back to work at his club. His employees weren't treated like wage slaves; they were like family to him. More than one person told me that Hilly saved their lives.

Of course, his legacy will be CBGB. Hilly was no fan of punk rock but that wasn't what mattered. In fact this highlights why we should all develop higher standards than what kind of music someone enjoys. Hilly was punk rock's best friend. He allowed it to inhabit his home--no matter how unruly the guests became (see the hardcore movement of the 1980s). And he always welcomed bands looking for their shot at the big time. He kept everyone's hopes alive...

Hilly's surviving family (daughter Lisa Kristal Burgman, son Mark Dana Kristal, son-in-law Ger Burgman, grandchildren Jenny and Adam Burgman) plan to open a new club in the future. Of course, we all look forward to its next incarnation, even though there will be sadness that Hilly won't be there for the opening.

A public memorial will be held at a later date. Contributions in Hilly's honor may be made in his name to the American Cancer Society or to the Hilly Kristal Foundation for Musicians and Artists (168 Second Avenue, PMB 207, New York, NY 10003). You can also buy a copy of his CD Mad Mordechai at cbgb.com.

Joe Cahill
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