Hilly Kristal, the man behind CBGB, died on Tuesday following a battle with lung cancer and perhaps an even more debilitating battle over the last few years to keep the punk rock warhorse open:
By now the first 17 years of the CBGB story is so ingrained in pop music’s unconscious that it probably only needs to be thumbnailed. Folkie Kristal opened the club, formerly a Hell’s Angels dive, in 1973 on the Bowery as a way of avoiding nosy neighborhood associations, and a few years thereafter its freedom from noise ordinances allowed it become a home for wayward punk rockers, hosting all the names that have since become inseparable from its legend, and slam-dancing Kristal’s beloved Country, Bluegrass, and Blues right out the door for good. The non-feigned seediness, the pretentious unpretentiousness, and the permanently (and infamously, to the point of rock cliche) filthy crapper helped it to become the prototypical punk rock club, and once the original crop of ’70s punk and new wave bands had ascended to mainstream stardom or fizzled into nothing, it became the place where teenage hooligans sped up and thugged-out their rock minimalism until it became boneheaded New York hardcore.
For many of us who were born just as punk rock was first kicking off at places like CBGB, our first pilgrimage to the club sometime in the ’90s turned out to be a bit of a nostalgia-fueled let down; maybe it was because we were watching some terrible bunch of since-forgotten alt-rock nobodies rather than the Voidoids tearing through Robert Quine’s skronk-jazz leads, H.R. from the Bad Brains treating the front rows like a living jungle gym, or shielding our face at a late ’80s hardcore matinee where you had to keep an eye on your teeth. All of which we had only read about, of course. The club continued on throughout the ’90s and into the 21st century, an institution whose position as an epicenter of new trends had largely eroded after 1990. But by then the club was renowned around the world as the official, trademarked, copyrighted Birthplace Of Punk, the punk club that had turned into a tourist destination, a reputation that was cemented once the industry devoted to chronicling punk rock history took off in the ’90s. The club wisely (if contentiously) branched into merchandising, including a CBGB store that managed to outlive the club, the kind of punk rock irony that writes itself.
The modern rock audience taking CB’s for granted may have helped contribute to the club closing its doors for good in 2006, after Kristal was unexpectedly (or so he professed) hit by a tab for unpaid rent that ran into the tens of thousands, a huge amount for a punk club, even a famous one, to come up with on the fly, but perhaps a typical amount for a Bowery that had been creepingly gentrified to the point where Kristal’s scummy hole, a place he once picked because no one cared what you did or who you did it with, was real estate that could be put to better use than as a place where teenagers loitered and rock bands made a racket. Maybe an Olive Garden. Unable to come up with the money, deadlocked in his legal wranglings with his landlord, and having failed to get the city to declare the club a historic landmark–a fact that’s hard to argue, unless you hate rock music and all it stands for–Kristal finally claimed CBGB would be reborn elsewhere, perhaps even outside of New York, but those plans obviously came to an end yesterday. Kristal was 75, more than triple the age of the average kid at CBGB in the 21st century, having outlived many of the members of the bands who played there over the years, and he is survived by his two children and his legacy, shepherding a music that many still believed helped saved rock from expiring entirely in the dog days of the 1970s.