Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

In Memoriam: Hilly Kristal, 1931-2007

Right place, right time. A hippie who worked as a mover and then as booking agent for the Village Vanguard jazz club, Kristal opened his bar in what was then no man’s land, the lower Bowery, in 1970. He changed the name to CBGB/OMFUG in 1973. CBGB stood for Country and Bluegrass Bar: OMFUG stood for Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers (the word gourmandizer was apparently a stoner invention of his: it’s supposed to mean connoisseur). The Ramones stumbled upon the place a year later because their drummer Tommy was (and still is) a bluegrass fan. And the rest is history.

In typical New York club owner fashion, Kristal did nothing to promote the scene that sprang up there: it was a spontaneous, underground, word-of-mouth thing and he left it at that. Never particularly ambitious, Kristal let the bands who played there spread the word. Lest any of you oldtimers out there try to romanticize things, the CBGB scene, even in its prime, wasn’t much better than the music scene in New York in the present day, such that it is. Bands didn’t play CBGB because they wanted to: they played there because they couldn’t get a gig at Hurrah’s, or Gildersleeves, or Max’s. Most of the CBs acts were pariahs in the more mainstream clubs because in the late 70s and early 80s, most New York bands sounded pretty much like New Jersey or Long Island bands: everybody wanted to be Aerosmith. As Bob Gruen recounted in the documentary NYC 77, the CBGB clientele was basically just musicians coming out to see their musician friends. Your typical NY music fan didn’t go there because most of the bands who played there weren’t that popular and the club was in a scuzzy neighborhood.

As punk gained popularity, so did CBs and Kristal. A brief stab at starting a record label was a failure; however, the development of hardcore proved a boon to the club and its owner, whose Sunday afternoon hardcore matinees brought in thousands of underage kids from the suburbs to beat each other bloody, drink and puke. This was in the days before Rudy Mussolini.

In the late 80s, booking was taken over by the members of Prong, an atrocious heavy metal trio, and the acts playing the place predictably followed in that direction. As usual, Kristal remained a hands-off owner. His greatest achievement was to open CB’s 313 Gallery in 1992, which quickly became the place for acoustic music in New York: the sound and most of the acts who played there were consistently good, and for awhile the place even served pizza (the pizza ovens were still there when it closed last year). Meanwhile, the main venue went into decline, to the point where in the last couple of years before it closed, they were booking cover bands from New Jersey for Saturday night shows. The Gallery somehow managed to remain a first-class venue until perhaps the final two years.

Kristal was a shy, retiring person who let others take advantage of him: relatives meddled in his affairs, employees stole from him and it was only the licensing of the CBGB clothing line that made him a millionaire. In the battle that saw the venue finally lose its lease, he testified that for a time, it had been difficult to make the rent and there’s no reason to believe he wasn’t telling the truth. His greatest achievement? That he was there, openminded enough to let good things happen (he was a hippie, after all) and didn’t get in the way.

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August 29, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, New York City, obituary, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments