hilly kristal

Hilly’s little club might be the most important live venue in rock’n’roll history, it’s gone now and Hilly survived for less than a year after its demise. The club was known as CBGB’s and the bands that played there in the ‘70s created a scene that influenced western popular music and culture greatly, spawning imitators and inspiring new bands to this day. This small club, fifty-five yards long by eight and a half yards across, was where punk was born. Hilly estimated that over 50,000 bands had played there over the years, a conservative figure that takes into account bands that didn’t turn up as “they broke up in the van …, or were too drunk to find the place”. His policy was that the bands took all the door money whilst all the bar takings went to the club. He would also only put on bands that performed their own material and preferred booking local or unsigned bands.

Born in Manhattan in 1932, Hilly wanted to be a jazz singer when he was younger. He never made it but stayed involved with music by managing a club in Greenwich Village called The Village Vanguard, booking people such as Miles Davis to play there. He opened his own place called Hilly’s On The Bowery where bluegrass bands played and in 1973 changed it’s name to CBGB, this stood for Country, BlueGrass and Blues – the sort of music he planned to put on there. He was up a ladder putting up the new sign when he noticed “three scruffy dudes in torn jeans” who engaged him in conversation. These three were Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, and Richard Lloyd; they were in a band called Television.

A gig was arranged, it was a disaster. “The place was empty and the band were terrible; a screechy, ear-splitting jumble of sounds” the owner recalled. This didn’t stop him putting on another Television gig, this time supported by a new band from Queens. Hilly thought that Television were the worst band he’d ever heard, until The Ramones played. Even fewer people turned up this time but Hilly persisted with both bands and an emerging scene coalesced around them and Hilly’s club. Television and The Ramones played over a hundred sets each at CBGB’s, Richard Hell left Television and formed a new band with Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan of The New York Dolls – this band was The Heartbreakers and became stalwarts of this new scene.

Back then New York City was very run-down compared to how it is now; the city authorities were bankrupt, rubbish littered the streets, urban decay and neglect were everywhere. CBGB’s was situated under a destitute’s hostel, the rent was dirt cheap but the neighbours a rather unusual bunch – hookers , transvestites, drunks and junkies, drug-dealers and pimps as well as any other kind of freak or low-life that New York could muster. Hilly remembered “most of the people who lived in the Bowery dressed far worse or were more weird than our clientele”. Other bands that played regularly at the club at that time included Blondie, the Dead Boys, Talking Heads and Suicide whilst Patti Smith was booked to play four nights a week for seven weeks. People such as Andy Warhol and Alan Ginsberg were seen amongst those coming to CBGB’s where arty and intellectual types rubbed shoulders comfortably with dissolute losers. In 1975 the NME sent Charles Shaar Murray to investigate rumours of a vibrant new scene in New York and his breathless despatches found avid readers back in the UK. The New York punk scene was much more diverse and inclusive than the narrow, snobby, angry and political one that later sprung up in England.

Hilly kept his club going for well over thirty years, continuing his unusual booking policy and putting on all sorts of bands. New York was changing and the Bowery becoming increasingly gentrified, rents became increasingly exorbitant and the club’s existence evermore precarious. After legal battles Hilly was evicted by the building’s owners and the club closed for good in 2006.

Hilly was never a visionary, nor claimed to be – he was just in the right place at the right time. His club was struggling to survive in the early days and so he was quite happy to put on anything that brought a few punters in, and would give a chance to anyone in a band that couldn’t get one anywhere else. This turned out to be crucial in the creation of a small scene that eventually exploded and had a world-wide influence. (Laurence)

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