The kosher birthplace of punk

The 1970s regeneration of rock started in CBGB, a tiny New York club owned by the son of Russian immigrants

By John Belknap, June 11, 2009
Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (centre) with Arturo Vega, artistic director of the Ramones, at CBGB in the winter of 1976

Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (centre) with Arturo Vega, artistic director of the Ramones, at CBGB in the winter of 1976

Much has been written about a club in New York where punk rock was born. CBGB, founded in 1973 by the late Hilly Kristal, the son of Orthodox Russian-Jewish immigrants, was the place in New York City where experimental music could flourish in a turgid age of glitter, glam and prog rock.

One band after another discovered they could come to CBGB on the Bowery, a bleak skid-row populated only by tramps and winos, and play their original material. No matter how far out, no matter how strange, as long as it was theirs, they could play it. After a
couple of years of marinating in this downtown creative soup, the best-known — Blondie, the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads and Patti Smith — emerged to become world-famous.

Many of their members were Jewish, and they radically reset the course of rock music. Their backgrounds were a cocktail of atheism, communism, 1960s pop and post-hippie skepticism, which helped shape their ironic wit and rebellious attitudes. When the Ramones toured the UK in 1977, that attitude helped inspire the later, angrier British version of punk.
The man who literally set the stage for all this was Hilly (born Hillel) Kristal, son of Shamai Kristal, a Russian pogrom survivor. Shamai started a successful poultry farm in the middle of the New Jersey countryside, where Hilly grew up.

“It wasn’t easy being Jewish out in the country,” says Hilly’s daughter, Lisa, who was in London recently for the opening of an exhibition of her photographs of CBGB’s heyday. “It was easy in New York, but there was no work there. Out in New Jersey you had prejudice, suspicion – you even had the Ku Klux Klan.”

Presumably, a tough, Russian farmer born in 1896 might have been a bit unbending as a father, and Hilly, who worked on the farm and trained for classical violin, ran away to Canada in 1946 at the age of 15. He turned up in New York a few years later, tried his hand at music, and eventually got into promoting it at various clubs and big concert arenas.

Hilly Kristal outside CBGB. The awning is now in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame

Hilly Kristal outside CBGB. The awning is now in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame

By the time he came to open CBGB, Hilly had huge experience setting up bars and concert venues. But in this dark, run-down former Hells Angels dive, he had a vision that country, blue grass and blues musicians would come and play their own material, instead of the disposable chart fodder they were forced to play in uptown clubs.

The performers he got instead were poets and punks, all attracted by the blank canvas he provided. A bonus, oddly, was the dilapidated neighbourhood, where there was no pressure to be slick and polished. You could dress up, change your name, and play the most outlandish music in town.

Where else could the Ramones have played their tongue-in-cheek Blitzkreig Bop? Where else would a young, goggle-eyed David Byrne of Talking Heads sing about a Psycho Killer? And where would the stunning, wisecracking Debbie Harry sing about Charlotte the Harlot, a song that somehow never made it on to any of Blondie’s albums?

I should mention a personal interest in all this. During the ’70s I had a job designing adverts at the Village Voice newspaper, whose offices were near the club. Once a week, the larger-than-life Hilly used to squeeze himself into a chair next to me, his lumberjack shirt smelling of beer, sweat and smoke. He’d pull out scribbled notes and we would set up that week’s advert for the bands.

One week I mentioned to him that on top of my day job, I too was in a band, called Joe Cool. After a quick audition, we joined the army of support bands trooping down to the Bowery to help keep the club’s relentless schedule of two to four acts a night, two sets each. Our first gig there was supporting the Ramones, which we did many times after that, and eventually we played with all of the groups that later became famous. But in the early days, the club was so unknown that only other musicians were in the audience.

Sometimes Lisa would show up at the Voice in Hilly’s place. She helped run the club and in her time there, she took the opportunity to photograph the musicians and punters. She is now married to a Dutch photographer, Ger Burgman, has two children in their 20s, and still dedicates herself to carrying on what she sees as Hilly’s mission.
She points out that one thing that marked him apart from other club owners was that he cared about his performers. And not just the headline acts. He was too unpretentious to be starstruck and approached everyone with respect and affection. He had a calm presence and an occasional steely look that kept a lot of big egos in check.

Being at the club was always comfortable, never intimidating. There was no social hierarchy; all the players hung out together at the bar and came to each other’s gigs. I remember one night when everyone turned out to see The Jam on their first visit to the US. I sat at a table with Chris Stein and Debbie Harry from Blondie, Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band, and Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads. And got a ride home with Debbie and Chris!

It sounds corny to say Hilly treated everyone like family, but he did. Even now Lisa talks about famous CBGB alumni like they are brothers and sisters. She rattles off various bits of gossip. “Oh yes,” she says, “Chris and Tina have two boys now,” in answer to a question about how two former members of Talking Heads are doing.

“Dad never gave up on people. He supported them the way his own father sponsored Holocaust survivors after the war. Was that being Jewish? Or just being him? I don’t know.”

The club itself lasted until 2006, an extraordinarily long life in a town where venues open and fold within days. But its last few years were troubled, with a massive legal battle over a supposedly unpaid portion of its rent. In the middle of all this, Hilly succumbed to lung cancer. There have been other legal problems since which have dragged on for years.

But now the good news is that CBGB will live again. The club was sold and packed up piece by piece — all except for some of its most famous bits, like the front awning and its graffitied urinals, which are now in the New York annex Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame — ready to be opened again in a new venue.

The guys that bought it, James Bluweiss and partner Robert Williams, have ambitious plans to create a second generation of CBGB clubs all over the world.

“In the next couple of years we’re going to roll out CBGBs in Tokyo, London, New York and other cities,” enthuses Williams, “plus a college tour, travelling exhibition and multimedia tribute.”
Lisa Kristal herself has set up the Hilly Kristal Foundation for Musicians and Artists, to continue helping young bands get established in the original spirit of the club.

“CBGB is not just a place,” she says, “it’s a… it’s a...”
“Philosophy,” finishes her husband.
She grins.

John Belknap is Creative Director of the JC

CBGB: The Home of Underground Rock is at Proud Camden, The Horse Hospital, The Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, London, NW1 ( until August 9

Last updated: 5:59pm, June 11 2009