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CBGB's Hilly Kristal Championed Punk-Rock Spirit

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CBGB's Hilly Kristal Championed Punk-Rock Spirit


CBGB's Hilly Kristal Championed Punk-Rock Spirit

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Hilly Kristal has died. That name may not ring a bell right away, but the four letters that he used to name his club might, CBGB. The legendary New York club was an incubator for punk rock and became a model for music venues around the country.

Joel Rose of member station WHYY has this appreciation.

JOEL ROSE: Hilly Kristal named his club CBGB after the acoustic music he loved.

HILLY KRISTAL: Country, bluegrass, blues.

ROSE: But that's not the music that made the club famous.

Hilly Kristal ran a club in the West Village. When he moved it to the Bowery in 1973, it was a neighborhood littered with empty wine bottles and flophouse hotels.


KRISTAL: A lot of the people from the West Village and other areas didn't really want to come over here to the Bowery, where, you know, people would throw up in their face, you know, stuff like that.

ROSE: But people who did lived in the neighborhood included poets, artists and punks. And as soon as the club opened, Kristal says bands started nagging him for a chance to play there. At first, Kristal says he wasn't very impressed by The Ramones.

KRISTAL: They were yelling at each other on stage, and fighting, and their amps would go on and off. It was a fiasco. But they all wanted to play and, of course, lo and behold, they did get better, didn't they?


JOEY RAMONE: (Singing) Hey, daddy-o, I don't want to go down to the...

ROSE: The experience with The Ramones helped to convince Kristal to change the club's policy.

KRISTAL: I said, the only way you can play here is you have to do only your own music. It didn't bring in loads of customers, but it sure brought in a lot of bands.

ROSE: It was a time when punk and art-rock bands had few places to play in New York, and CBGB helped launch dozens of careers - Blondie, Sonic Youth, the B-52s and Talking Heads.


DAVID BYRNE: (Singing) This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no fooling around. This ain't no Mudd Club, or C.B.G.B. I ain't got time for that now.

ROSE: The first band Kristal booked was Television. At the time, Richard Hell was the bass player. He played many times at the club and says it had a first-rate sound system. But otherwise, it was definitely a dive.

RICHARD HELL: Charred, scotch-permeated wood with beer signs and neon leading from the door down to the stage. And I'm really glad that I was always very drunk by the time they turned the lights on at 4 a.m., because you would not want to see that place with the lights on sober.

ROSE: Nevertheless, CBGB became an unlikely icon. Kristal bragged that the club was even part of New York City's pitch to attract the 2012 Olympics.

KRISTAL: They have Statue of Liberty, they have Lincoln Center, and me, I mean, CBGB.

ROSE: Those four letters made it around the world, on millions of T-shirts he sold in a shrewd business move that helped finance the club. In the end, fame wasn't enough to keep CBGB open. Kristal was forced to close last October 2006 after a bitter dispute with his landlord. Patti Smith performed the last song ever at CBGB.


PATTI SMITH: Thank you, Hilly.

ROSE: Right up until he closed the club, Kristal continued booking bands no one had ever heard of. He said his advice for those bands never changed.

KRISTAL: Don't copy somebody. Do your own thing, you know? You will like it better if you're a success.

ROSE: Hilly Kristal died yesterday of complications from lung cancer. He was 75 years old.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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