I guess punk really started because they were using it as a point
of self-expression. A lot of them learned to play their instruments so
they could say something. They had their lofts or their basements to
practice in, but no place to play. When I saw so many bands around that
wanted to play and do their own thing, I made the policy: the only way
you could play here was to write your own music.
— Hilly Kristal, owner, CBGB/OMFUG
In New York City, the stuff that's hip and the stuff that's passé change,
literally, from day to day. Night clubs come and night clubs go, but they don't
last very long. There was, however, one outstanding exception. A tiny spot at
the end of Bleecker Street in New York's Bowery district on the lower East side
opened in 1973 and for thirty-three years led the pack in rock music innovation. The name was CBGB/OMFUG, or "Country,
Bluegrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers."
The name came to be because the club's owner, Hilly Kristal, had owned a
successful Country/Blues spot in the West
Village for awhile. Kristal had found plenty of talent to play on the West
side; but in the Bowery neighborhood (suffice it to say it was New York's skid
row) he had to find other talent to fill in the spots between the blues artists.
Shortly after the club's opening, Kristal became aware of an entirely new
underground music scene; a genre (literally) screaming its way from basements to
garages to loft spaces but without a true commercial venue at which to play. Not
at all materialistic, he figured he'd try something new because he saw through
the tough appearance and attitude of these young musical pioneers and
found that they had something to say. He took it upon himself to give them a
place to say it.
Kristal, deep-voiced and intense, with a biker style of dress, knew music
inside and out. He was born in 1932 in Manhattan to Jewish parents who fled New
York City to run a farm in central New Jersey. He studied music at the
Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the 1950s and '60s, he
performed with various musical groups in New York City. At some point in his
life, he spent a stint in the Marines. Prior to his West Village venture, he
managed the famous Village Vanguard jazz club, which played host to such
luminaries as Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane and myriad members of
the jazz A-list.
CBGB, physically, was all of less than 150' deep and only 25' wide at spots.
At the time of its opening sported what was reported to have been one of the
finest sound systems in New York. A red awning with funky white lettering
sported the club's acronymic moniker. Originally the Palace Bar, located in the lobby of what
was the Palace Hotel, a flop-house, little was changed but for the addition of
a stage. The exterior was kept as clean as any building in this area of the City
could be kept. But inside, chaos reigned. So many flyers and bumper stickers and
whatnot adorned the walls, stage, ceiling and bar there wasn't need for paint.
The stage had no steps to assist performers; the talent had to make it up three
feet on their own. Kristal quipped in an interview “If you need to get up there,
you will, especially if you’re 20 years old.”
CBGB was to rock and roll what the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem was to
R&B music. The club served as the "incubator for the diverse
underground scene of New York in the 1970s and early ’80s, with acts like the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, Television, Talking Heads and Sonic
Youth playing some of their earliest and most important concerts there, at a
time when there were few outlets in the city for innovative rock music."* The
famous Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols was ejected by Kristal personally from
the club after he threw a beer bottle at a fellow musician. The Velvet
Underground found a home at CBGB after receiving mixed receptions at other
In 2006, times changed for Kristal and the club. A Manhattan Social Services
agency had purchased the old Palace Hotel and turned it into a shelter and
rehabilitation center, but continued to rent the club to Kristal for a whopping
$20,000 a month. At one point Kristal stopped paying rent, not because he didn't
have the money, but, as he explained to a judge, "You know, there was a blonde
girl who used to come down and ask for it every two weeks, and then she stopped
The Agency that owns the building, as well as six other buildings in the
up-and-coming neighborhood, the Bowery Residents' Committee, ("BRC") is headed
by a man by the name of Muzzy Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt, who has dedicated his
career to helping the homeless since his graduation from Wesleyan University.
When CBGB's lease ran out in October of 2006, Rosenblatt proposed escalating the
rent to the "market value;" or $40,000 monthly. Kristal fired back that
Rosenblatt is paid $150,000 annually by the BRC; which is more than he pays his
staff or himself. Not materialistic in the least, Kristal had always made it a
point to put earnings back into the club, taking care of his entertainers (he set the standard for fair pay and quality hospitality for musicians and they returned the courtesy by remaining fiercely loyal to Kristal, occasionally playing for free long after they'd achieved international fame) and
providing top-quality acts for his customers.
After many efforts by a diverse group of organizations to keep the club open,
it finally closed. One group convinced New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to don a CBGB t-shirt and speak on the club's behalf.
Kristal was thinking about moving everything lock-stock-and
barrel to Las Vegas, Nevada, a better place to house what would perhaps become
a "museum of punk rock." A store in the East Village on St. Mark's Place still offers CBGB clothes and trinkets for sale.
Mr. Kristal died at the end of August, 2007 due to complications of lung
The Internet Movie Database (IMDB):
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0961234/ Accessed 9/10/07
*"Hilly Kristal, A Rock Midwife, is Dead at 75" by Ben Sisario
The New York
Times, August 29, 2007
"CBGB Founder Hilly Kristal Dies at 75" by Cortney Harding, Billboard
Online, August 29, 2007
CBGB ONLINE: http://www.cbgb.com/
"Between Punk Rock and a Hard Place" by Keith Gessen, New York Magazine June
20, 2005 http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/music/features/12023/ (Accessed 9/10/07)
"The Little Club That Made a Big Noise: an Interview With CBGB's Owner Hilly
Kristal" By Richard Abowitz and Jayson Whitehead, Gadfly Online February,