When it comes to classifying music industry participants as legends, scant few non-musicians make the cut. On that roster, the requisite label bigwigs (Ahmet Ertegun, Clive Davis) jockey for position with prime media movers (Dick Clark, Murray the K), as well as behind-the-scenes wizards (Sir George Martin). And despite the noteworthy accomplishments of this SRO crowd, the guest list would not be complete without a reserved spot for the late Hilly Kristal, who passed away this week at the age of 75.
Like Bill Graham (Fillmores East and West) and Uncle Russ Gibb (Grande Ballroom) before him, Kristal will forever be linked with the music club he started, a quaint skid row refuge known as CBGB. Viewed by historians as a sacred musical mecca on Manhattan’s seedy lower east side, the Kristal palace is universally credited with being the House that Punk built. For those who came of age within the club’s grimy, cramped confines however, it will always be affectionately known as a decrepit shithole… but a decrepit shithole that they were always able to call their own. It was a place of the people, and for the people, rising to prominence long before New York City’s latest renaissance. It was the perfect setting in the rough-and-tumble blight of 1970s Manhattan, and it was Kristal who made the dreams of hopefuls and wannabes into realities, in most cases for merely a single evening.
The shared importance of Kristal and CBGB to a generation of rockers and disenfranchised youth cannot be understated, for it was down at the intersection of Bleeker Street and the Bowery that the Ramones (most notably), Patti Smith, Blondie and countless others got their creative starts. The 1970s was a glutted musical universe, with stadium acts reigning supreme, amidst a multitude of blossoming alternate genres. But for everyone who railed against the pompous grandiosity of big ticket arena fillers, the cumbersome plodding of jam bands, and the desperate remnants of the dying hippie movement, CBGB provided safe haven. Prices were cheap, space was limited, and Kristal kept the mic open to anyone brave enough to stand on the cluttered stage. Going head-to-head with NYC’s other major player of the time, Max’s Kansas City, CBs quickly became the place to play, and the place to play. Punks, drunks, dopers, street urchins, and sundry East Village freaks congregated on a nightly basis, with Kristal as their host and Master of Ceremonies. For audiences and artists alike, Kristal was a den mother-cum-impresario, and the conduit for their collective self expression. And no matter how large CB’s legend grew after opening its doors in 1973, Kristal and his club never seemed to change, always providing opportunities for those who didn’t fit into the parameters of the musical or social mainstreams.
As the years passed, music trends came and went, as did the clubs where up-and-comers could showcase their wares. CBGB never wavered. It remained where it stood, with Kristal comfortably (and defiantly) at the helm. For nearly 35 years, CBGB was a mandatory stopping point for bands touring the East Coast, and a proving ground for every local act struggling to crack the brutal New York market. Playing on CB’s modest stage, whether before a packed house or sparse turnout, became a rite of passage. For active club goers, catching shows at CBGB was not an option, but a given. And over the thousands of nights from ‘73 forward, Kristal and the CBGB name became synonymous with music, primarily punk, but everything and anything else. Though it seemed that he never invested a cent into the club’s updating, Kristal succeeded in preserving CB’s uniquely grimy charm well into the 21st century, while parlaying the club’s notoriety into a tidy merchandising enterprise.
When CBGB recently closed its doors after a protracted legal struggle centering around back rent charges, it seemed to fans, friends and loyalists that Kristal had finally been defeated by the establishment that he, and the club, had stood so proudly against. Maybe he was legally in the wrong, maybe he’d played his hand out and succumbed to inevitable urban progress, but whatever the case, Kristal had nothing to be ashamed of. He had built the shabbiest chic castle the world will ever see. Once the CB’s awning came down for good and Kristal rode off into the Bowery sunset, New York City had officially lost a pop cultural and historic landmark, one never to be replaced or experienced ever again. In the legal aftermath, Kristal had talked about moving the club to Las Vegas, but such an idea appeared perversely incongruent with CB’s utilitarian legacy. Kristal and CBGB were the personification of Nu Yawk, and would not have fit in with the lavish glitz of the Vegas Strip.
For better or worse, Kristal didn’t live long enough to see the move out west, and it’s a sad coincidence that his passing comes so soon after his club’s demise. But Kristal’s memory will live on with the aging punk rock generation of the ‘70s, and anyone who caught a gig at CBs. The world over, starry-eyed teenagers and trendy fashionistas can be seen sporting CBGB t-shirts. Most of them probably never even set foot in the club, and are simply making their own fad-driven style statements. Be that as it may, there will always be a single name linked to those shirts, and the club that inspired them: Hilly Kristal. A good guy, who gave us all a hell of a lot to be thankful for.