Hilly Kristal, the founder of legendary New York punk-rock venue CBGB, died Tuesday from complications from lung cancer at age 75.
Kristal, who opened the now-defunct venue in 1973 in the then-gritty Bowery neighborhood in Manhattan, is credited with helping to launch the mid-’70s punk revolution with his championing of bands such as the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Television and Patti Smith. Following a final show in October 2006, Kristal had discussed plans to take the venue to Las Vegas (see “CBGB Owner Relocating Club — Urinals Included — To Vegas This Spring” ).
“I am very sorry that Hilly is gone,” Blondie singer Deborah Harry said in a statement released to MTV News. “He was a big help to Blondie and to the New York music scene for many years. His club CBGB has become a part of New York lore and rock and roll history.”
“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. “He was always supportive of the genre and of bands like the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and will hold a prominent place in music history. We are all grateful to him and will miss him.”
CBGB, which opened in December 1973, was officially called CBGB & OMFUG, which stood for “Country, Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers.” But it was the decision by the gruff, bespectacled and bearded Kristal to offer a residency to a then-obscure rock band called Television in March 1974 that helped kick open the door for a raft of bands that would spark the punk-rock movement across the globe.
Intent on showcasing bands playing original music, Kristal offered his stage to thousands upon thousands of young acts over its three-decade-long run. A fixture at the ramshackle club’s front door, Kristal ran the club for all 33 years, overseeing its growth from punk’s incubator to a tourist attraction — albeit one with legendarily putrid bathrooms and poster-caked walls — whose iconic logo can be seen on T-shirts all over the world.
According to his son, Mark Dana Kristal, Hilly “was suffering” a great deal during the final weeks of his life. “I think he thought he was going to get better, but he didn’t. I just wanted him to be in less pain,” he said.
As for his father’s legacy, “He already has recognition for helping people with music,” Mark said.
At a time when many experimental New York musicians didn’t have a club to call their own, Kristal provided a kind of incubator that helped the bands find their sound, according to Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, a longtime friend of Kristal’s who used to live across the street from the club.
“He provided this place to play for a lot of disaffected musicians, and he did that by having an open-door policy,” Kaye told MTV News. “The only real thing that was important for CBGB was that you played original music. If you did, he was willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and the time to figure out what the music was.”
Kaye experienced that policy firsthand as a member of Smith’s group, which played a seven-week, two-show-a-night residency at the club in spring 1975. Kaye said the residency was key in helping the band to “settle into” its musical style. “It’s the kind of environment that musicians need, like [New York's] Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1960s, or 52nd Street in the 1940s when bebop was taking shape. Those times had venues where people could see who they are.”
Even after the golden era of punk had faded, Kaye praised Kristal for keeping that open-door policy over the next 30-plus years, inviting a variety of acts to play and asking them back if they could draw a crowd. “I saw such varieties of music in that club,” Kaye recalled of the long, dimly lit room where curious masses shuffled past Kristal’s desk beside the front door toward the low, cramped stage in the back. There fans would find acts that hoped the club would become part of their legend — or at least add them to its storied history.
“Hilly always gave Sonic Youth a break, from the moment I walked in there looking for a gig,” Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore told MTV News. “He knew I had been going there every night since 1977. I think we made $8 on a Tuesday night in front of hardly anyone [on that first gig], but Hilly was there, listening, and he told me that we could next play a Thursday night. He was fatherly in the truest sense, always having the time to talk with you without any condescension. Amid the chaos of Bleecker & Bowery, he was a figure of decency.”
After the heyday of New York punk passed, the club continued its streak of booking bands that would go on to bigger and better things, as well as those who just wanted to get a taste of its storied past. That includes Living Colour, Guns N’ Roses, Pavement, Elvis Costello, PJ Harvey, AC/DC, the Beastie Boys, the Cars, the Pixies, Soundgarden, the Police, Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney and Sonic Youth — who launched their summer 2006 tour at the club and filmed the video for “Do You Believe in Rapture?” there as an homage to the venue.
The club began to lose out on bookings by the mid-1990s to the raft of other venues in the city, and turned its attention to lesser-known punk and hardcore acts. But it still had an allure for newer groups that were aware of its history (or that wanted to celebrate its status), attracting acts such as Green Day, Good Charlotte, 30 Seconds to Mars, Blink-182, Hawthorne Heights, Devendra Banhart, Smashing Pumpkins, Korn, NOFX, Pearl Jam, Rancid, Linkin Park, Coheed and Cambria, the Dave Matthews Band and the Strokes. During the 1980s, it also expanded into a space next door, opening a gallery/shop that featured acoustic music and an underground “CB’s Lounge” that also hosted shows.
“Sometimes you forget, in terms of the mythology, how great a place it was to see music,” Kaye continued. “It had a great stage, a great sound system … and [Kristal] was always there, at the front desk, seven days a week, rain or shine, watching the [crowds] come in. He was a great New York character. He was family.”
Though the venue was shuttered last year after a bitter, protracted battle with the owner of the building that housed the club (see “CBGB Owner, Landlord Reach Accord: Club To Close On Halloween ’06″ ), it closed with a flurry of farewell gigs (see “Flea Jams With Patti Smith, Punks Weep At CBGB’s Last-Ever Show” ). Kristal’s daughter, Lisa Kristal Burgman, told MTV News she will continue her dad’s work, as he directed, by working to revive the CBGB name. “There will be clubs, more than one,” she said, adding that they may or may not be in New York.
Kristal Burgman, who was 18 when CBGB opened, said people might not realize that her dad was also a musician and songwriter. “He sang at Radio City Music Hall when he was very young in the men’s chorus,” she said. “He could hit a bass C and he had perfect pitch. He loved music and his whole life was about music. My favorite memories of him was when he’d play guitar and sing at my birthday parties. But what made CBGB unique was that it was not about a man starting a business to make money, it was about a man starting a business to give artists a chance to be heard and play their music.”
CBGB attendees would often see Kristal sitting at his desk, strumming an acoustic guitar and humming or singing in his deep voice, no matter how loud the noise emanting from the stage.
Kristal exhaustively documented the club’s layout before its closing, with an eye toward reopening it — the club’s bar, stage and other fixtures were put into storage (see “CBGB’s Last Hours”). “I have to fight [to keep the club open],” he told MTV News in 2006. “We should be right here. New York is a wonderful city in a lot of ways, and we’re part of it. Not because of me. It’s only because of what these musicians who played here say.
“I didn’t make this reputation, they did,” he continued. “I cannot let this thing down. I can’t give up if I think we’re right in being here.”
A private memorial service is planned, with a public memorial to be held at a later date.
On Wednesday, outside the now-vacant 315 Bowery, where CBGB once stood, fans had erected a makeshift memorial. The wicks of a dozen or so candles flickered in the breeze caused by delivery trucks speeding past the intersection of Bleecker Street. Few signs of CBGB remain, except for some band stickers plastered across nearby lampposts, messages fans from around the world have etched into the building’s metal shutters — and, of course, the street sign that says “Joey Ramone Place” (the official second name of that block of East 2nd Street). One of the notes scrawled on the shutters reads, “R.I.P. Hilly, we’ll miss you.” A handful of bouquets were strewn along the sidewalk, one atop an orange-and-purple baseball bat — perhaps a nod to the Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat”?
One passerby, who stopped to snap photos of the shrine with his cellphone camera, said, “This is now a punk rock chapel.”
[This story was originally published at 10:50 a.m. ET on 08.29.2007]