Hilly Kristal’s Long Road to the Bowery and Rock and Roll Legend
Hillel (Hilly) Kristal, founder of legendary rock club CBGB, was born on September 23, 1931 in New York City. His early life, well into adulthood, might not have given any hint of the legendary status he would earn in the Pantheon of rock and roll, and particularly as one of the prime forces behind the punk revolution of the 1970s.
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants Bertha and Shamai, Kristal grew up in Hightstown, New Jersey, where he studied music from a young age. He later attended the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia and joined the Marines. He then moved back to New York City where he was a singer in the men’s choral group at Radio City Music Hall. From there, he become the manager of the Village Vanguard, where he booked artists including Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. In the mid-1960s he co-founded the Rheingold Central Park Music Festival and opened Hilly’s, a restaurant and bar at 62 West 9th Street. In 1969, he headed to the Bowery.
Kristal opened a biker and dive bar at 313-315 Bowery called “Hilly’s on the Bowery”. In 1972, Bill Page and Rusty McKenna persuaded Krystal to allow them to book gigs, and the concept of the venue shifted. Renamed CBGB in 1973, “Country, Bluegrass, and Blues,” the bands booked turned out to be not very country, bluegrass, or blues. The music they played was something brand new, so Kristal added the OMFUG “& Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers.” Kristal noted that gourmandizer is a voracious eater. In this case, a voracious eater of music.
Kristal had two very DIY rules for the bands that played at CBGB. 1) they must carry their own equipment, and 2) they must play mostly original songs. The precursor-to-punk music being played at CBGB in its early days varied greatly from the disco, pop and bloated corporate “arena” or “album-oriented rock” (AOR) music of the day. Kristal said “The height of the Disco era brought an increasing dissatisfaction among rock musicians and their fans. The formula-driven disco music and the long drawn out solos and other complexities 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 (BACK TO BASICS) high energy rock and roll, which seemed to take shape right here at CBGB. We called this music ‘street rock’ and later ‘PUNK’- ‘come as you are and do your own thing’ rock and roll…..I certainly didn’t love every band that played CBGB’s but I did love to encourage them to do their own thing, to challenge the establishment. I’ve always felt the stronger you are about yourself and your own ideas, (in this case musical ideals) the more satisfying your success, hopefully, the more rewarding your future.”
This music gave CBGB a reputation as a sanctuary for counterculture misfits and underground rock. CBGB became the epicenter of the punk music genre and launched the careers of The Ramones, the Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The Cramps, and many other legendary bands. In the 1980s it became known as a hardcore punk venue. Village Preservation recognized CBGB’s with an annual Village Award in 2004 as part of a tribute to five Bowery theaters. The award cited the extraordinary contributions the theaters made to the artistic history of the neighborhood.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the Bowery was a much different place. According to Kristal, “Having a rock club on the Bowery, under a flophouse (believe it or not), does have some advantages. (1) the rent is (was) reasonable (2) Most of our neighbors dressed worse than, or more weird than our rock and rollers (3) The surrounding buildings were mostly industrial and the people who did live close by, didn’t seem to care about having a little rock and roll sound seeping into their lives….The Bowery was, to repeat, a drab ugly and unsavory place. But it was good enough for rock and rollers. The people who frequented CBGB didn’t seem to mind staggering drunks and stepping over a few bodies.
For over 100 years the Bowery was infamous for flophouses, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling, and other pursuits of the rough and lowbrow. But by the late 1990s and early 2000s changes were going on in the neighborhood, eventually leading to the closure of CBGB on October 15, 2006. Kristal passed away on August 28, 2007. While some Bowery blocks are still a little rough around the edges, the street is also now the home to luxury brands, high rise condos and hotels, and still some wonderful architecture.
In 2013, the 313-315 Bowery (the former location of CBGB) was added to the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Bowery Historic District.