NEW YORK—For obvious and legitimate reasons, Hilly Kristal was best known for nurturing the mid-`70s underground musical explosion thrown together under the umbrella of “punk” or “new wave.”
CBGB, the club he ran for 33 years at 315 Bowery, seeded that music as surely as the Waldorf-Astoria spawned the Waldorf Salad.
But CBGB never would have happened at all if Kristal, who died Tuesday at 75 after a long battle with lung cancer, hadn’t understood and applied a larger and even more admirable lesson: All good music is worth hearing.
He grew up listening to classical music and opera. He studied classical violin and popular voice. By the `50s he was singing what he later described as country music, though at the time it was still called “folk.”
He booked Miles Davis at the Village Vanguard. He opened a country music club. His original vision for CBGB was a small intimate room where acoustic artists could play authentic country and blues music, free of the commercial corruption that in his mind was already compromised both genres.
It was only when scruffy young rock `n’ rollers started frequenting the place that it began to evolve toward the CBGB of legend, where these scruffy kids created their own rock `n’ roll both different from what came before and deeply rooted in it.
The Ramones may have taken the three-chord, two-minute song to an extreme, but its roots reach clear down to Chuck Berry, Elvis and the center of the rock `n’ roll earth.
Kristal would later say he didn’t think some of those bands were very good at first, and he could have said the same thing for some of the young bands that he was still inviting into CBGB 30 years later.
But he understood that didn’t matter. There’s good punk and lousy punk, just as there’s good classical and mediocre classical.
The point, which he may never have said in exactly these words, is that the best of any musical style will reach and speak to someone.
That may seem like the kind of platitude that used to show up on the back of a John Denver album with a smiley face.
But it’s true, and it’s also one of the first truths that a lot of music fans forget once they start to define their own preferences.
Millions of rock `n’ roll and rhythm and blues fans, never mind jazz, classical or opera fans, will declare they hate rap music. Many of them will declare it’s not really music at all.
Point out that it has hundreds of millions of fans around the world, and they will say, in so many words, that doesn’t matter.
Actually, it does.
Abetted and at times guided by radio and the music industry, which find it much easier to sell musical product in narrowly defined niches, music fans are subtly encouraged to dismiss what they don’t personally enjoy.
It’s not one of the better qualities of our contemporary cultural age, though it’s probably been around since the first caveman told his kid that if he didn’t stop beating those mastodon bones together, there’d be no extra helping of wooly mammoth tonight.
Hilly Kristal’s story suggests that if one keeps one’s ears open, there just might be in something worth hearing in all styles of music.
Kristal didn’t go around philosophizing about this sort of thing. When he was asked in 1999 if there were a musical connection between the music he enjoyed early in his life and the punk rock he was presenting then, he said no, not really.
But he could also have said yes, because they all touched some chord that gave him satisfaction or pleasure.
Music from all over the spectrum is good at that.
// Notes from the Road
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