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Between Punk Rock and a Hard Place


Dee Dee Ramone (with Joey's leg in the foreground) at CBGB, 1977.  

In the late eighties, when Kristal’s landlords decided that, what with the crack epidemic raging and the city cutting back on social services, maybe the flophouse upstairs wasn’t such a going concern, they offered Kristal a chance to bid on the place. He could not raise the $4 million–plus asking price. “Owning a business in this city, even for many years—it doesn’t count for much,” he says. I ask if he at least owns his apartment, and he laughs. Though he did recently buy a house in Asbury Park, New Jersey—“the first place I’ve ever owned. Actually, the bank owns it. I’ll own it outright when I’m 103”—he lives in a small rent-stabilized place on East 3rd Street, next to the Hells Angels club. As for the building, the BRC took it over with a 45-year lease in 1993; it was thought the group would be best at dealing with the flophouse tenants.

“Maybe I was stupid,” Kristal says now, “but I never tried to make any money off this. Whenever I got anything, I put it right back.” These days, he maintains an art gallery next door that also stages folk-rock and theatrical productions, and a lounge downstairs, for avant-jazz and parties.

But here’s the way the world works now: By not making ingenious business moves, by not recognizing the truly outstanding bands and signing them, by not capitalizing early and often on the CBGB name, Hilly Kristal managed to maintain the place in its pristine original form, and when, not long ago, he finally got around to marketing CBGB clothing in earnest, he had on his hands a brand both authentic and cool—a commodity so rare and so precious, it was as if he’d discovered a mound of treasure behind a wall in the basement. Last year, the CBGB clothing line, led by the flagship CBGB T-shirt, grossed $2 million. This year, it might do better, what with the tote bags, shower curtains, and toddler outfits. Hipsters make fun: “It’s cool,” one indie blogger recently joked, “that a clothing company has gotten successful enough to open a rock club,” but then hipsters have always made fun of Kristal. No one ever digs the cat who keeps the plumbing going and sells barf bibs on the Internet.

The dreaded inspector finally arrives at CBGB. He is doing a certificate of occupancy for the downstairs lounge area; he is early and asks if he can check out the famous bar and stage before heading in for the inspection.

The phone rings often as we talk, and Kristal usually picks it up himself, announcing “CBGB” in that wonderfully low, slightly drawling voice of his. Franco, the original bassist for Millions of Dead Cops (famous for its 1981 anthem, “John Wayne Was a Nazi”), calls from New Mexico. He thinks Kristal should organize a contest for the best “Save CBGB” song. “That’s a good idea,” Kristal says. “We can put it on the Internet. It’ll get out there if we put it on the Internet.” It so happens Franco has already written a song, which he now performs. “That’s good,” Kristal says. “That might be the winner. We should think who’s going to judge this. Should I? . . . Well, Joey Ramone’s dead. Johnny too. And Dee Dee. Yeah. They’re all dead.”

Kristal’s roll call is interrupted by the initial report from the building inspector—it is delivered by a punk-rocker in his late twenties, with long hair and a cool loop ring in his septum: “He says we need to put a handlebar in the stall for handicapped people.”

“A handlebar?” says Kristal.

“Right. For handicapped people. Should be easy.”

“Okay. Is that it?”

“So far, yeah.”

Kristal looks unconvinced.

And the music? The night before, I had attended the famous amateur tryout night at CBGB—the night when just about any band can play, and maybe get a shot at a gig at CBGB. Except it’s not hard to get a gig at CBGB, and as far as I could tell, the industry heavies had stayed home. In fact, the place was dead. There were a few foreign graduate students, by the looks of them, and no one beat them up; we all listened peacefully to a rock band from Rochester that sounded like Green Day and a ska band from Worcester that sounded like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

The next night, I saw Dylan Nirvana, a pint-size bleached-hair punk-rocker who looks a little like Kurt Cobain. There were now maybe fifteen people. After the show, the bar staff stood around complaining. “He was supposed to finish at 11:30, he stayed on there until 11:40,” one said.

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