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The Impresario of Imps

Published: 8/28/2012

When an era came to a close, five years ago today, Obit-Mag summed it up: Hilly Kristal's CBGB helped make punk rock happen in the U.S. Originally published August 2007 on Obit-Mag.com.

Hilly Kristal, the founder of the CBGB, the legendary punk rock club in New York City died on Tuesday, August 28, 2007 at the age of 75. He died less than a year after the club, which sat amidst restaurant supply stores in the Bowery, closed its grimy doors for good.



CBGB rock club owner Hilly Kristal, seen in the club in this December 16, 1993, file photo, died Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2007, at the age of 75. Kristal, whose dank Bowery rock club served as the birthplace of the punk rock movement and a launching pad for bands like the Ramones, Blondie and the Talking Heads, Kristal, died after a battle with lung cancer, his son said. (AP Photo/Rim Rasmussen)

CBGB rock club owner Hilly Kristal, seen in the club in this December 16, 1993, file photo, died Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2007, at the age of 75. Kristal, whose dank Bowery rock club served as the birthplace of the punk rock movement and a launching pad for bands like the Ramones, Blondie and the Talking Heads, Kristal, died after a battle with lung cancer, his son said. (AP Photo/Rim Rasmussen)

 

 

If you’ve never heard of the Punk-rock venue CBGB in New York City, perhaps you have seen their t-shirts draped upon the wiry frame of a teenager at your local mall. Adorned with cryptic white lettering CBGB & OMFUG emblazoned atop a pitch-black field, the t-shirts and the club are a study in irony.

The first irony is that the club’s name, CBGB, stands for “Country, Blue-Grass and Blues”, but has become a moniker for music that bears little resemblance to those genres.

The second irony is that while CBGB was home to the birth of American Punk during the 1970s and early 80s, a movement of dereliction and defilement, of philosophical bravado aimed at the destruction of consumer society, it has become a product, a t-shirt, and nothing else.

These ironies belie the importance of establishing a home for a genre of music whose musicians often seemed homeless. Hilly Kristal moved the club from its original location in Hell’s Kitchen to the Bowery in 1973 because there were no noise ordinances there. The club saw the emergence of such luminary acts as Television and the Talking Heads, witnessed iconoclasts like The Ramones and Patti Smith, and hosted thrash-oriented hardcore acts like Bad Brains who performed Sunday matinees in the 1980s.
 

 

 

 

 

By all accounts the club had lost its magic in the 1990s but stuck around and became an ossified monument to New York-based rock. After a dispute with the Bowery Residence’s Committee about back rent, Kristal tried to get the city to declare the site a historic monument. His legal battles failed, and the doors were shuttered.

Kristal was a casualty to the ever-shifting demographics of the island of Manhattan. The once desolate Bowery now commands steep rents and borders some of the most expensive real estate in the country.

The upside to the story is that Hilly Kristal fostered artistic growth and, in doing so, helped art claim a space for itself, on its own terms, with its own distinctive odor.
 

 

 

 

 

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