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Between Punk Rock and a Hard Place

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Hilly Kristal in his office at CBGB.  

The timing could not have been worse: In August, CBGB’s lease expires, and Rosenblatt now wants a market rate (which could be double the current $20,000 a month). Kristal says it will be too much, and adds that Rosenblatt makes $150,000 a year—“That’s more than I pay anyone on my staff, including myself.” Rosenblatt says he’d be willing to negotiate the increase, but the unpaid money, which is not substantially in dispute, is eating him up. “That $90,000, that’s a van out there doing outreach,” he says. The fact that they’re in court makes him furious. “This isn’t,” he says, exasperated, “what we do.”

Kristal has responded with a strenuous Save CBGB campaign, plus a movement to landmark the site and a threat to move CBGB to Las Vegas. “They were very nice to me in Las Vegas,” he says. He has fallen in love, in his old age, with the idea of turning CBGB into a museum, and Las Vegas, already the museum of so much discarded culture, offers just that. “There’s a very nice space on Fremont Avenue, in downtown. It’s the right size and the right shape.” Kristal would rather stay in New York, of course, but the Las Vegas climate is warm and dry.

Now a young door-to-door salesman ducks into the club: He offers bathroom-cleaning and odor-refreshing products. “No, no,” Kristal cuts him off authoritatively. He was raised on a farm in central New Jersey by Jewish parents who’d escaped the city, his father having returned to the States in the twenties after fighting with Allenby in Palestine and then in the Haganah. Kristal moved to New York in the early fifties and sang at the cafés and clubs of Greenwich Village. Eventually, he managed the Village Vanguard. As the salesman turns to leave, Kristal says, in his deliberate way, “We like the way it smells.”

CBGB opened in December 1973, a time of particular shabbiness for the Bowery. The space had been occupied by the Palace Bar, catering in no small part to the residents of what was then the Palace flophouse upstairs. In what would later become the norm when magazines like this one began to give “dive bars” their own category in listings sections, Kristal kept the small neon beer signs that hung over the bar’s single aisle. He put in a quality sound system—for a long time the best in the city—and a stage, though, in what is perhaps another of his managerial philosophies, thriftiness, he failed to build steps to that stage. (“If you need to get up there, you will,” he says now, “especially if you’re 20 years old.”) He initially hoped to host country, bluegrass, and blues (thus CBGB), but the place quickly became home to abrasive, experimental rock music: Patti Smith, Television, and Talking Heads. The Ramones played their first show there in August 1974. Kristal thought they weren’t very good. “But they had something. They were doing their own thing. That’s all I’ve ever asked of anyone.”

For his part, Kristal kept the bar stocked, took out ads in the Voice (eventually running up a huge bill), and made friends with the local Hells Angels. Something was happening here, even if, as his detractors always claimed, Kristal didn’t quite know what it was. The Bowery was the avenue of despair and in its way punk expressed this. By the mid-seventies, mainstream rock had become the province of virtuoso, bourgeois professionals playing ten-minute songs in enormous stadiums—music where “the trappings and the tinsel and the construction become so important that it doesn’t really matter at all what’s inside,” as Lester Bangs wrote of Jethro Tull. The Ramones, by contrast, were a group of glue-sniffing delinquents from Queens whose entire set lasted fifteen minutes, in part because their musical repertoire was so limited; as Johnny Ramone advised Joe Strummer: “We’re lousy, we suck. If you wait until you can play, you’ll be too old.”

As the years went on, the things that had all been called punk at CBGB splintered. They became death metal, hair metal, hardcore punk, electro-punk, art rock, math rock. But CBGB remained pretty much the same, the bathrooms covered in graffiti and the walls in layer upon layer of punk-rock stickers. Bands continued to pass through, including great bands, but when the glory days are so glorious, everything else is a letdown. By 1977, the Sex Pistols were already making fun of the downtown clubs; Jonathan Lethem’s recent The Fortress of Solitude depicts CBGB well ensconced in the quotation marks of its own celebrity as early as 1981.

History had anointed CBGB a punk-rock temple, and Kristal wasn’t the sort of guy to buck history. He occasionally had ideas, but they were unremarkable: He signed on as the manager of a few bands—the Dead Boys, the Shirts—that never quite made it (“Actually, they lost me money”); for a while, he rented the premises next door and ran a radio station, opened a pizza shop. “I always said yes, yes, yes” to offers for CBGB franchises elsewhere. “The English were going to do something, the Japanese were—but nothing ever came of it.”


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