Hilly Kristal, owner of CBGBs, which since December 1974 been synonymous with underground music and the birth of American Punk Rock talks to Rowan Chernin
Living next door to the Hell's Angels on Manhattan's 3rd Street is not where you'd expect a seventy year old to find peace and quiet. But for Hilly Kristal his neighbours are from the old New York of the early 1970's where artists, musicians and misfits edified their own reality. It was a time when rent for $100 a month was deemed expensive and the commercialised hippie and rock culture stank as bad as it looked. But from this world American punk was born and by chance, Hilly's venue CBGBs provided a stage for the unsigned to develop without any corporate interference or PR hype into the most influential bands of their generation.
Back in December 1973 Hilly opened a club in an rundown long narrow bar beneath the biggest flop house in the Bowery district of Manhattan. At that time around half the radio stations were playing country and the duke boxes were full of bluegrass and blues. Up on the club's awning Hilly painted the bold black letters CBGB's, which stood for Country Bluegrass Blues, and beneath it the mysterious word OMFUG, Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers (Gormandizer: obsessive consumers of music). This baffled all but the derelicts, drunks and lost souls who plagued the streets of the old Bowery district, fighting, knifing and mugging each other liquor and dimes.
But this was the least of Hilly's problems. Finding original talent from the genres the club was named after was proving difficult. While fixing the CBGB awning he noticed "three young dudes in torn jeans and T-shirts" quizzing over the CBGB - OMFUG lettering. They were three members of an unknown rock group called Television. Three days later their speedy-mouthed manager Terry Ork persuaded Hilly to open on Sunday and let his band play because he whole-heartily believed they were "going to be the hottest thing since John Cage (composer of 4.33 which was four minutes thirtythree seconds of total silence) first played a clothes line on stage."
Though unimpressed by Television's lack of paying customers and what Hilly now describes as "terrible, screechy, ear-splitting guitars and a jumble of sounds he just didn't get," he was again persuaded by Terry Ork to let them play alongside another "hot" new rock group from Queens called The Ramones. There was a lack of venues in New York allowing new and original rock music to played unless the bands had a recording contract. Artists used to practicing in their lofts and basements now had a stage to perform and dream upon. "Originality was prime and technique was second place," remembers Hilly. "The formula driven disco music and long drawn out solos in much of the rock of the late sixties and early seventies encouraged a lot of disgruntled rock enthusiasts to seek the refreshing rhythms and sounds of simple high energy rock and roll which seemed to take shape at CBGB. We called this music "street rock" and later punk. Come as you are and do you own thing rock and roll."
Back in 2002 the venue is still functioning for both the signed and unsigned to split ears and dream. Hilly is over in London to finalize his CD, CBGBs And The History Of US Punk. There's four years left on the venue's lease before its fate in the hands of the (land) lord and commerce decided its future. We join him for tea at The Holiday Inn. A relaxed white bearded old man who despite his seven late nights a week and accidental hand in the formation of Punk has kept his hair, teeth and loathing of the music industry.
RC: How were the UK bands of the late '70s received in New York?
HK: "I tell ya, the British generally played better. Much better musicians. I have a feeling that over here, from the time you're very young, you get a lot more discipline. We had Wire, X-Ray Spex, Squeeze, The Hot Rods and The Clash who all played well. Despite what people say, the Sex Pistols didn't play CBGBs. But John Lydon was an exceptional person. He came in when the Pistols broke up and sat at the end of the bar every night for two weeks. He had to end it (the band), it was torture for him. I assume that related to Sid Vicious. He genuinely was vicious in those years after they broke up. He was hated and disliked. He was mean. He was on drugs and everything, he was famous and he knew it. It wasn't nice for us in club."
RC: Are you still inspired by the new bands you see at the club?
HK: every now and then something good comes up but the record labels don't care, they want hits, immediate hits. Years ago they'd give a band 2 or 3 records to make it. Even someone like Bruce Springsteen had four or 5 low charting singles before he made it. There's so much out there now that it is getting harder to push. Record Companies say they're all for the artist but they're out to make money. Now AOL bought Time Warner and they control the purse strings which doesn't include the music of artists to grow which is not just a bottom line thing. You have to put out more money then you bring in. They have to figure out how to develop some of these new bands and then things will happen. Hopefully this CD will show something of the past and inspire some new artists."
RC: Can you recount any tales from the aftershow parties?
HK: Nothing disastrous. In the early years we stayed open until 4AM. Now it's much earlier, only the dance clubs open later and stay open later. Nowadays people have to work for a living. You know in the '70s things were so cheap, you could get an apartment for 75 bucks a month, now they're $1200 a month. People have no choice but to work these days."
RC: Has CBGBS ever had anything to do with the dance music scene?
HK: "We haven't stiffled anthing but I generally stay within the broad sense of rock, rock'n'roll, punk, hardcore and metal. I also run a gallery where generally everything else goes from acoustic right up to electronic. I'm not out to do one thing but I find that I can't personally get into the dance music where things go on and on. It's really a music just for dancing and I'm into music as more of an expression which aligns more with poetry and art. I once put on a rap group from Yugoslavia. You couldn't understand them but they were wonderfull. They went back and we never saw them again. I hope they're alive?"
RC: Was the recreation of CBGBs in Spike Lee's film Summer of Sam accurate?
HK: "He wanted the doors to be exactly like they were in '77. So we had to take the present doors off and dig out the original doors still piled with stickers and junk and extra boards which covered the broken windows. I'll put them on ebay one of these days. It was not a wonderful film but it was good recreation of CBGBs and the punk scene. You know it looked like punk did except the spikey hair came in a little after that."
RC: Has the Bowery changed much?
HK: "Alot in last 7 or 8 years. I think the affluence of the '90s happened all over the United states. New York is nicer and the Mayor (Guliani) did some things that some were good, some not. I don't think the answer is to hide people by locking them away but there did used to be some very bothersome characters on the streets. Not only in the Bowery but all over New York. It was so annoying. They'd just get in your face. Now there's not so many because the cops pick them up fast."
RC: What is the future of CBGBs as a live venue for unsigned acts?
HK: "I've got four more years left on my lease then I don't know. I might try and do something with artists and DVDs. I realise one thing I haven't done through the years is put the emphasis on making money. It's never going to be the same again but one way or another at least you gave it the opportunity to happen, so we'll see what ever we can do with the future. There is a lot of joy, as you know, when you champion something and it happens. You put yourself into it and you just love it and boy that is what is exciting about life. That's what I started doing. I would do it for the next 30 or 40 years if I could and well, we'll see what happens."