Hilly Kristal’s Gone

Yesterday a great New York City club owner died. His name was Hilly Kristal and he thought he was opening a bluegrass club on the Bowery in 1973. Didn't work out that way at all. No, the club he named name for Country, Bluegrass and Blues was never a big draw for those types of music. CBGB's, however, was sure as hell no failure. He found out quick that his best customers and most talented pool of musicians were that new bunch hanging around the Village, a fairly wide range of characters called Punks.

They were later called New Wave, and then Alternative but at the time they were a new breed on the rock and roll scene, everybody’s red-headed step children and whipping boys. They were called no-talent malcontents, spoiled whiners, idiots, freaks, all sorts of unflattering names. So, what did Mr. Kristal do with his brand new club and sizable investment? He adopted the controversial Punks and made his club their home away from home.

And what did they do? They changed the face of rock & roll and popular culture, that’s what they did, and went on to produce some of the most exciting and memorable music to ever come out of New York City. I remember seeing a band there called Stiletto with a beautiful black-haired singer. She died her hair blond and the band changed their name to Blondie and Deborah Harry and her band mates did alright.

One night I was gigging with my band at a club down the street when a friend told me “you just gotta see this band over at CB’s!” So between sets I cruised over and caught an exciting show by a very tight trio with a decidedly quirky and frenetic lead singer. I decided right there that this band would either become major stars or get locked up in an asylum. Well, Talking Heads added a keyboard player and the quirky singer David Byrne wrote some incredible songs and they did okay too.

The Ramones shows at CBGB’s are legendary. The place launched a lot of careers, people like Patty Smith, Richard Hell and the Voidoids and Richard Verlaine’s innovative and influential group Television, to name but a few. Hilly Kristal booked them all and treated them decently. And any musician who ever played the place will tell you it had one of the best sound systems in any night club anywhere.

Many more punk clubs sprang up in New York and all over the county, some real decent joints and some deplorable dives. Hilly Kristal’s joint was both, and it was smack dab in the middle of New York’s skid row, home to thousands of street winos. It became an institution, ironically the kind of place that punk was invented to rail against. But Mr. Kristal kept on keeping on, oblivious to criticism and resistant to complacency. He was a bit of an irritable prick, just the kind of guy you like for a club owner.

He was a no bullshit kind of guy and he’d book anybody he deemed to have something original to say. He did not insist that every band had to be a big draw right off the bat, giving bands he thought worth the investment the chance to build up a following even after some near-empty houses at their first shows. He was in the night club business for the long haul and had an incredibly long run for a rock joint, closing only a couple of years ago when he lost his lease after a public battle with the landlord, some so-called charity group that supposedly helps the homeless (and a lot of success they’re having on that front). They really want to cash in on rising real estate prices on the Bowery so monied preppies can “gentrify” the area by tossing out the poor and ridding the area of colorful, original places like CBGB’s, likely replacing them with generic sushi joints and predictably hushed and chic white
wine bistros, like that vermin hasn’t ruined enough neighborhoods around the city.

He created a New York landmark, launched some great careers and gave New Wave music its first outpost, putting them on the map forever. Hilly Kristal lost his battle with lung cancer at 75 years young yesterday. Hilly and his club are gone but neither will be forgotten. For a guy who thought he’d operate a quiet bluegrass pub in a forgotten corner of the city, he created a sensational scene and provided the first stage for a movement. So long, pal, the city’s gonna miss you.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top