Thursday, August 30, 2007
Hilly, I Barely Knew Ye
Rest in peace Hilly. That is Hilly Kristal (photo above) to those of you that don't know. He past away this weekend of complications due to lung cancer according to his son Dana. He created an establishment he called CBGB & OMFUG. This was to mean Country, BlueGrass, Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers. Truthfully a Gormandizer is a voracious eater of food, but to Hilly it meant a voracious devourer of music. To be honest Hilly was personally a country music fan. He only began letting almost unknown bands play at his bar when country bands wouldn't come there for he was located in the Bowery and the bands pestered him until he gave in.
The names that he permitted to play are the stuff of legends. And his requirements go hand in hand. They had to play their own compositions. You could get one cover a night, do two and he'd pull your plug and you might not get another gig there for a long time. He fostered the new sounds from the newest bands. The Ramones, Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth and Patti Smith. Patti was the last artist to play there last fall when CBGB closed permanently. It closed because he was a victim of the old adage, "location, location, and location." The Bowery went from being the last place you wanted to visit, to a hub of artists and upscale renters. He simply couldn't afford the rent because the rents around him went up. Consider that the crafty or lucky Hilly actually made on the order of 2 million dollars just on his tee shirt concession with the simple statement CBGB.
Ah, he could be a pain in the ass. He liked country and here he was listening to guys that could barely play, much less competently. The Ramones are legend among his gripes. They argued, they walked off stage, they played very loud, the members played different songs at the same time, they simply didn't know how to play at first. But he let them come back. Why? Who knows. Hilly was known to say once they became a legend of their own, "Shit, they got better." And maybe that was all Hilly needed. I think he lived for the crazy people that showed up like Wayne Country. His joint became an icon before we of that era knew what icon meant.
I never made it to CBGB. In 1978-1980 I wanted to. I had begun hearing the Ramones, the Clash, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, and more and they all ventured through those doors. By then the bar was a magnet for more than just bands and their victims, er fans. A close friend got the chance to go while on a NYC trip. He met a mutual friend we knew that lived in NYC and they took the subway and walked down to CBGB. He was really excited. He was close enough to hear it and see the line of people out front.
When out of a dark alley stepped 5-7 Puerto Rican youths. The one closest had the always dangerous "Saturday Night Special." A cheap black .22 revolver not known for accuracy, but its ability to go off at the wrong moment. His graduation watch, his cash, his entire wallet in fact. The pal had used the old trick of holding back a $20 and a few subway tokens in a shoe. It was all they had. They caught a cab/subway home. No tee shirt even.
I've always kept that story as the epitome of Midwesterners visiting CBGBs. Just as likely to see a cool band, you could see some dud that you'd not remember two weeks later. And you could as likely be mugged. Few mention the seamy side of the Bowery. That is how that neighborhood really was. People got beat up in the street. Read any of the books by the people that lived in the era. Drugs were easy to find and so was the trouble.
Just the same, without CBGB a lot of bands wouldn't exist. The goofy guy with the goofy name with the most notorious bathrooms in history made it happen. No one can say what might have not happened without him. Its impossible to separate the music era and its history without Hilly. I'm sorry I missed out. Damn youth is wasted on the young.