In 1970, punk rock began to emerge from the seedy underground clubs it was bred in. With much reluctance from the mainstream and loads of controversy following closely behind the “Fuck you, I’ll do it my way” subculture, punks and their louder than life sentiments, started to hit up venues in hopes of discovering “someone” that would give them a spot to play. On West 13th Street in New York City, music entrepreneur, Hilly Kristal, was that “someone” the punk crowd was searching for.
Kristal boasted a unique character, a professional musician with a “don’t give a shit attitude.” With more interest and experience in jazz and bluegrass, Kristal wasn’t the biggest fan of punk music; however, his instincts knew when something was worth investing in and sharing with the public. In 1970, Kristal opened up his short-lived club called “Hilly’s on the Bowery,” located in what was then known as the armpit of New York City, where the streets were not only dangerous, but a proven sanctuary for the homeless and crime.
Yet, it wasn’t until 1973 that Kristal opened the doors of what would become one of the most seminal and widely-recognized music clubs, “CBGB and OMFUG” (Country, Bluegrass, Blues, and Other Music For Gormandizers). CBGB undoubtedly proved a pillar in the most pinnacle time of punk rock and eventual new wave scene. Kristal remained steadfast in the way he ran his business, insisting CBGB follow his longstanding motto: cheap drinks, good sound system, and minimal door charge. With Kristal’s mantra and the notoriety of punk rock growing, CBGB opened its doors to eminent acts like The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and Patti Smith. With its walls fashionably vandalized with band posters, stickers, and other printed ephemera CBGB turned into a home for New York’s most prominent punk rockers and fans, especially since CBGB didn’t mess with any of that 21 and over nonsense.
Kristal didn’t just host renowned bands at his more than thriving venue, he also went on to manage infamous CBGB bands including: Dead Boys and The Shirts. He hosted the 1977 benefit concert for PUNK Magazine, which was the first to publish an article about CBGB and springboard the venue into popularity. The CBGB scene wasn’t just a venue filled with smelly punks, but a hang out spot to discover film directors, fashion designers, bands, and lifelong friends. CBGB made everyone and anyone feel like they could do just about whatever they pleased. Although Kristal was far from “punk” by definition, he became an indispensable figure of the rising punk rock scene…the “founder of punk” in New York. Without him, there could have easily been a world without The Damned, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and Pussy Galore; let’s face it, that’s not a world worth living.
Sadly, a year after the club’s closing in 2006 due to rental issues, Hilly Kristal passed away because of complications from lung cancer. Behind the tough exterior, Kristal was a generous man and always left the door open for anyone who was in need of help. CBGB is his legacy and Hilly Kristal will continue to live behind the records of those he pushed forward.