Hilly Kristal, CBGB Founder, RIP
photo by Tricia Romano
The light has gone out of the Bowery.
When CBGB closed this past October, Lenny Kaye remembered in the Voice:
Give [Hilly Kristal] credit. He let [CBGB] happen. Though his original idea, carted over from Hilly's in the West Village, where he was general manager, was to feature Country, Blue Grass, and Blues, it was only retroactively that he realized he was uttering the alchemical formula for rock and roll. Add a little OMFUG and a biker-and-bum bar underneath the Palace Hotel, perpendicular to Bleecker Street as it collided with skid row, and he had his newfound mecca, off the beaten paths of the East and West Villages, situated on a forgotten stretch of crossroads that still had a frontier aura even though it was only a few short blocks from anywhere in the art colony of Lower Manhattan. There was little street traffic, except for those already lying in the ridge between curb and gutter; it was out of the way, in more ways than one, and it gave Hilly, and the bands that would use his stage as a framing device and mirror, a venue to figure out who they might be, beyond anyone's expectation, Hilly's included.
He opened in December 1973. Though he couldn't have planned it, it was the perfect moment for a new rock joint, especially one that relied on local talent playing original music. This may seem far-fetched for anyone who has lately perused the entertainment pages of this bohemian hometown rag, but turn-of-the-'70s New York had become a hard place to find footing for a band, ever since the glory years of the post-folk Greenwich Village Night Owl scene. Even the Velvet Underground mostly played outside the city of their birth until they provided a summer's worth of dancing entertainment at Max's Kansas City in 1970. Most Manhattan clubs only provided a showcase haven for visiting national acts, or were resolutely still flying the folk flag.
When Tricia Romano attended CBGB's "Last Howl at the Marquee Moon," she recalled a conversation with Kristal:
This summer, when I heard the club was finally, definitely closing, I took a short walk from the Voice to visit Hilly Kristal, CBGB's legendary owner. After more than a year of battling with his landlord and the courts, Kristal finally had to close the doors. In the cruelest twist of fate, just after he'd won the right to stay open for another year last fall, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Now he sat, as always, in the club's "office"—the beat-up front entrance. He'd just gotten out of the hospital—"It's operable, curable," the 74-year-old said. "I am just so weak"—and was visibly tired as he ate a healthy lunch of steamed veggies and brown rice.
Hilly was a father figure of sorts to the many bands and kids that wound their way through the club. "Hilly shepherded us," Patti Smith said at the pre-finale press conference. "He always gave us a job—just like tonight. He was our friend, our champion. In these days there are very few." So now, while the New York CBGB is forever closed, the venue may re-open in Vegas—coincidentally, my old hometown. As pleasing at that might sound, I must agree with Patti Smith, who sniffed at that possibility on Sunday night: "When you only sell 85 tickets out of 2,000, you don't go back."
During my conversation with Kristal this summer, tourists and other curious types came by and wandered through the club. I asked him if they still got a lot of visitors. "Yeah, a few hundred a day," he said, laughing for the first time during our conversation. "They wanna see the place."
From the CBGB press release: "A private memorial service is planned. A public memorial will be held at a later date."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.