Volume 20 Issue 17 | September 7 - 13, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Clayton Patterson

Left on the shuttered gate of CBGB after Hilly Kristal’s death last week, a photo of him outside the club once again with its famous canopy and a farewell note.

Kristal, ‘father of punk’ and CBGB, dies at 75

By Sarah Ferguson

The Lower East Side lost another icon last week. Hilly Kristal, founderof CBGB, the legendary dive bar on the Bowery that gave birth to punk in the 1970s, died on Aug. 28 at Cabrini Hospital after a yearlong battle with lung cancer. He was 75.

If a man’s legacy can be measured by words, then Hilly’s role in incubating a vibrant counterculture on New York’s former skid row should earn him a place in rock’s Hall of Fame.

Immediately following his death, tributes were posted on the Web sitesof Time, MTV, London’s Independent and the Sydney Morning Herald — manypenned by veteran rock critics who offered fond memories of Hilly presiding over chaos from his battered desk at the front of the dank club like a laid-back father figure.

Rockers who launched their careers at CB’s sang his praises.

“Hilly was an integral part of the punk scene from 1974 until his death,” said former Ramones drummer Mark Bell, a.k.a. Marky Ramone. “In an era when disco was the mainstream, Hilly took a chance and gambled. The gamble paid off for both him and for us. We are all grateful to him and will miss him.”

“He was a big help to Blondie and to the New York music scene for manyyears,” said Deborah Harry, who was one of scores of performers who played benefit shows last year in a last-ditch effort to save CBGB from eviction. “His club CBGB has become a part of New York lore and rock and roll history,” Harry wrote in a press statement.

Patti Smith dubbed Kristal “the good shepherd of a flock of blacksheep.”

“I’ve played a lot of places, and it was the only place I’ve ever played that felt like our place. He had put the community on the map,” Smith said of the rambunctious scene that jelled around CBGB in the early 1970s.

Such outpouring of sentiment makes the shuttering of CBGB last Octoberfollowing a protracted legal battle with its landlord, the Bowery Residents’ Committee — a homeless shelter and social services provider — seem all the more bitter.

For many, Kristal’s death feels like yet another nail in the coffin of a Downtown music scene decimated by rent hikes, the exodus of hipsters to Brooklyn, and a cutthroat city economy that offers young performers neither the time nor place to cultivate a following, let alone talent.

“CBGB was a tragic loss New York will never recover from, and maybe it’s better Hilly doesn’t have to watch the town that invented personality slowly turn into the Mall of America,” remarked Steven Van Zandt, the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, in a scathing statement released by his publicist last week.

“Losing CBGB meant it was only a matter of time before Hilly followed,”Van Zandt said. “It was his whole life. He created the space to allow indie rock, pop-art rock and punk to be born. There would be no Ramones without Hilly Kristal. And who would want to live in a world without them?”

Of course, Kristal’s legacy as the “father” of punk was in many ways accidental; Hilly always acknowledged that his role at CBGB was really a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Born in 1931, Kristal was raised on his father’s chicken farm in Hightstown, N.J. After high school, he served briefly in the Marines, then moved to New York in the mid-1950s to pursue a career in music.

Trained in opera and violin (he was playing concerts by age 9), he got a gig singing in the men’s choir at Radio City Music Hall, alongside the Rockettes. After the shows, Kristal would head downtown to Café Wha and Café Bizarre in the Village to sing with all the folkies.

“Those were fun years, the beatnik era,” he recalled in a 1987 interview with the now defunct Downtown magazine. “I started to become a folk artist.”

Though he recorded a few demos for Atlantic Records, a record deal never materialized. (In 1976, he released a jokey folk single called “Mud” about a pig.) Seems Kristal’s true talent was as a manager, not an entertainer. In 1959, he began working at the Village Vanguard, booking performers such as Miles Davis, Oscar Petersen and Lenny Bruce.

He then landed a job producing the Ford Caravan of Music, touring college campuses with artists like Nina Simone and Herbie Mann to promote Ford’s new Mustang car. Though that project he met Ron Delsner and worked with him to launch the popular Central Park Music Festival, then sponsored by Rheingold beer.

With some money in his pocket, Hilly decided to go into business for himself. He opened two bars — a cabaret called Hilly’s on W. Ninth St.where folks like Bette Midler, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara honed their chops — and then a laid-back country joint, also called Hilly’s, on W. 13th St.

Both businesses barely broke even, so Hilly took jobs driving a beer truck and a cab to cover expenses.

In 1969, he went to the Bowery to buy some pots and pans and took notice of the all the young artists flocking to the Lower East Side. He decided what the scene needed was a place for folks to network, and quickly landed a space at 315 Bowery for $600 a month — the rent was cheap because it was located directly beneath the Palace Hotel, a quintessential flophouse for Bowery bums.

Originally he called the joint Hilly’s on the Bowery, but then reopenedit in 1973 as CBGB & OMFUG — with the aim of staging live country and bluegrass acts. (The infamously oblique acronym stands for Country Bluegrass Blues & Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers.)

Kristal built a stage with wood scrapped from the street and began booking jazz and folk bands. Then, as legend would have it, Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith stopped by on their way to visit Beat writer William Burroughs, who then lived a few blocks up on the Bowery.

Verlaine persuaded Kristal to book his band Television. For their next gig, they brought the Ramones. The rest, as they say, is history.

Young punks and other garage bands needed a place to play, and Hillylet them, with the one dictum that they play original music. He didn’t always like what he heard — in fact he thought the Ramones and Television were terrible at first — but he could appreciate the energy building.

When Verlaine brought in Patti Smith, Kristal liked her so much he booked her as a resident act, playing twice a night for four nights a week for seven weeks.

Beyond disaffected punks looking for a place to escape disco fever, CBGB was soon drawing local celebs like Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Reed and John Cage of the Velvet Underground, as well as record execs looking to cash in on the frenzy.

The buzz spread to the U.K. when the Ramones and other CBGB veterans toured, inspiring acts like the Sex Pistols and the Clash with their raucous merriment.

Later, when British bands the Damned, the Police, Elvis Costello and the Jam came to tour the U.S., they used CBGB as their launch pad into the American market.

CBGB became a must-play mecca for punks and rockers around the world, its name an emblem (and later cliché) of rebellion, even if many of the folks sporting black CBGB T-shirts never set foot in the place.

But Hilly remained true to his diverse tastes. Beyond punks, he alsobooked acts like Living Colour, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and country star Alan Jackson.

Admittedly, he wasn’t always the keenest businessman. His effort to subsidize the club with a pizza parlor next door flopped, and the pirate radio station he launched in the mid-1990s to counter the corporate consolidation of the airwaves was quickly shut down.

As crowds began thinning in the mid-’80s, Hilly started booking heavy metal and all-ages hardcore shows. Kristal kept true to his formula of charging low covers to make the shows accessible, even if it didn’t always pay the rent. But as the punk scene narrowed, the shows became more generic, and many said CB’s had lost its edge.

He had some success with CB’s 313 Gallery, which he opened next door to the club in the late 1990s to showcase acoustic acts and smaller alternative bands as well as poetry, art shows, and many a Downtown benefit.

But in the end the only real profits he made were from the ubiquitous CBGB T-shirts, sweatshirts and underwear he began marketing heavily around the world. (By 2005, he was reportedly making $2 million a year on the fashion line.)

CBGB became a trendy logo of rebel spirit, even if the dank club with its sticker-encrusted walls and infamously foul bathroom stalls no longer drew in the same kind of crowd willing to associate dirt with danger.

In many ways, CBGB failed to keep pace with the rapidly changing real estate market on the Bowery. Even as the area’s flophouses and restaurant supply houses began converting into trendy bars and Euro boutiques, Hilly was still operating by old-school rules, running the monthly rent checks up to the Bowery Residents’ Committee whenever they called to ask for payment.

That laid-back style got him into trouble when the B.R.C. was taken overby Muzzy Rosenblatt, a veteran homeless services administrator from the Giuliani administration, who was determined to tighten the reins.

In 2000, B.R.C. sued CBGB for $300,000 in back rent. After a seven-month court battle, CBGB was ordered to pay off roughly $222,000 in monthly installments.

Then in 2003, in the wake of the Great White fire in Rhode Island, cityinspectors cracked down on CB’s with a raft of building and fire code violations. B.R.C. sued again when Rosenblatt found that Hilly had failed to keep up with the annual rent increases stipulated in the club’s lease.

Worse, B.R.C. moved to double the rent to close to $40,000 a month — far more than the club could earn. To an outsider, it seemed like the fight between Kristal and Rosenblatt had devolved into a battle of egos.

Despite the efforts of the Mayor’s office and Councilmember Alan Gerson, no one could get the two sides to reconcile.

“Muzzy was greedy, but he would have probably compromised with my father, but he couldn’t get my father to talk to him,” said Kristal’s son, Mark Dana Kristal.

“Hilly was stubborn,” his son continued. “He felt he didn’t owe that rent and shouldn’t have to pay it, and when the judge offered him a deal to stay for another year, he took it.

“He could have gotten billionaires to help him,” Kristal’s son added. “At one point he had Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks offering to back him. But he would have had to give up a huge share of the business, and my father was not willing to do that.”

Rosenblatt did not return calls for this article. Kristal was hoping to open a new CBGB in Las Vegas, but no deal was reached before he died.

So now, a year later, CBGB remains shuttered, its landmark awning gone, with nothing but the loving tributes of fans spray-painted on the gray padlocked rolldown gate to mark the epicenter of punk that once was: “R.I.P. Hilly — We’ll miss you, thank you.”

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