Hearing the news that Hilly Kristal died last week at age 75 after a year of battling lung cancer, I couldn’t help but think about the metaphorical and weird parallel that he became ill at the same time that his nightclub, the original punk-rock birthplace CBGB, was about to take its last breath. Was Hilly heartbroken? Was he tired of fighting? Like so many of us, we become what we create.
Everybody knows CB’s, one of the most popular rock clubs in the whole wide world and now only a trendy T-shirt (sold even at Bloomingdale’s) worn by thousands who probably never set foot in this magical musical piss house. Not many really knew Hilly, either. Born in New Jersey in 1931, he began a singing career at an early age and in the 1950s ended up performing at Radio City Music Hall alongside the legendary Rockettes. As a folk singer, he played on bills with the likes of Lenny Bruce in West Village nightspots. He managed the Village Vanguard in the early ’60s. He recorded a country folk album for Atlantic Records. He opened Hilly’s on 9th Street, and, most importantly, opened CBGB on the bummed-out, broken Bowery in Manhattan’s mid-’70s depression.
He created a place where the imperfect could create genius. You could swing a chain, sing in drag, chainsaw a guitar in half, light the stage on fire (well, you might get 86’d for that one), do backflips, become a Sic Fuck. The place meant poetry, feedback, leather jackets, sneakers, T-shirts, speed. You could minimalize, deconstruct, revive, and transform rock ‘n’ roll into punk rock forever.
Other endeavors included a pizzeria, a gallery, a radio station, and a live “Off the Board” record company available on cassette only. There were successes and failures. Hilly let the kids have their way, hundreds of them sprawled out all over the Bowery in daylight on a Sunday afternoon for “Hardcore Matinees!” way before moshing or punk were household words.
Hilly kept a close-knit group of characters working for him who seemed to inherit his seemingly antisocial disposition. In the middle of all the debauchery and musical chaos, his family always seemed to be around, whether he liked it or not. He mastered the art of doing business at a desk while bands loaded in and out, blasting away on what Dr. Know of the Bad Brains hailed as “the best sound system of any U.S. club.”
A fashion plate, he wore flannel or denim shirts every day well before grunge was popular. My longtime friend and super-roadie Michael Sticca told me that when Hilly was managing the Dead Boys, he went on tour with them to California, and while everybody had bags of luggage, Hilly walked off the plane with only a plastic trick-or-treat bag containing a blow dryer and one flannel shirt.
I knew Hilly for more than 27 years, but had very few exchanges with him. I first played the club when I was 12 years old on one of those Monday audition nights. Nobody cared that we were underage. We didn’t pass the audition, but I would eventually play there at least a hundred times. I could never tell if he liked me or not. Then one day, he walked over to the bar on an empty Tuesday night and bought me a beer. We spoke about his time there, and he told me he liked the bands that came back to visit after they had made it big. He told me he liked the Talking Heads because they lifted their own equipment. Maybe he liked me because I was lifting other bands’ equipment with my “Man with Van” schlep rock job.
In the mid-1990s, we were neighbors on what is known as the safest block in New York, East 3rd Street between First and Second avenues (next-door to the Hells Angels). We would occasionally wave to each other from across the way as he’d be walking home with his black leather briefcase. One night, I ran into Hilly at a party at Don Hill’s nightclub: He had told me that he’d just
gotten back from Beijing, China. I tried to visualize this Bowery cowboy in the great Red East. I figured he deserved to have some fun, and what else was he going to do with all that T-shirt money?
While it seems almost impossible to exist as a young artist on this rich island some of us call home, CBGB still remains vacant, with a large “for rent” sign above it. Kids have moved out to the boroughs to create the next scene. Hilly Kristal, you gave it to us for over three decades. Rest in peace.