Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Steven Van Zandt On Hilly Kristal and the Significance of CBGB - Rolling Stone
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Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Steven Van Zandt On Hilly Kristal and the Significance of CBGB

As Rock Daily reported earlier today, CBGB founder Hilly Kristal died in Manhattan yesterday after a battle with lung cancer. He was seventy-five years old. Though Kristal originally opened his Bowery bar in 1973 to showcase country, bluegrass and blues music, the gritty East Village club developed into the hub of 1970s punk rock and then gradually evolved into a spot for emerging bands to showcase their talents in the later Nineties. In the past few years, Kristal engaged in a very public struggle to keep his beloved club open, but he and his landlord ultimately failed to reach an agreement. After Patti Smith stepped off the stage for the last time on October 15, 2006, Kristal carefully dismantled the bar, shipping its most precious pieces of memorabilia to Las Vegas, where he aimed to reopen the venue (notoriously nasty bathroom and all).

A few months prior, Rolling Stone spoke with Kristal about the club’s history. “I never did this as a point of making a lot of money,” he said. “I found it, or it found me, or we found each other, this new music. And I got to love these people and what some of them were doing, and of course, hate what some of the others were doing. You get very involved in getting these people who are trying to do something, especially this creative music, a chance.”

Here are some memories from artists who benefitted from getting a chance at Kristal’s club over the years, including Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Steven Van Zandt, Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz and the B-52’s Fred Schneider (and click here for a photo gallery of bands performing at CBGB):

Debbie Harry: “I am very sorry that Hilly is gone. He was a big help to Blondie and to the New York music scene for many years. His club CBGBs has become a part of New York lore and rock & roll history.”
Patti Smith: “Hilly dying made a flood of things come back to me. On that last night [at the club], he knew that we loved him. He stood up and we saluted him. I’m not trying to romanticize anything because in some ways it was a shithole. The sound was crappy, there was always things breaking down and glasses breaking and people vomiting and the rats scurrying around in the back, but it was our shithole and that was the greatest thing. I’ve played a lot of places and it was the only place I’ve ever played that felt like our place. He had put the community on the map. It doesn’t matter where I’ve been in the world, people have CBGBs T-shirts. It’s not just some marketing thing. CBGBs wasn’t just about Hilly or the people who played there or New York City, it represented freedom for young people. To me the name CBGBs could be a slang term at this point meaning freedom. Hilly offered us unconditional freedom.”
Steven Van Zandt, speaking backstage at a Save CBGB benefit in New York’s Washington Square Park, August, 2005: “We started the Underground Garage [his radio show] for one reason: To support new rock & roll bands. That’s what we’re doing for five years. CBs has been doing it for thirty-one years. You can still go as a new band and play the club, because half the clubs are charging people now, really uncool. You can be a new band and be on the same stage as the Ramones. That is really cool. People come from Japan and New Zealand to do that. It’s not only an historic site, CBGBs is a sacred site as far as I’m concerned. It won’t come again.”
Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz, speaking backstage at a Save CBGB benefit in New York’s Washington Square Park, August, 2005: “We love CBGBs and we’re very grateful for everything that CBGBs and Hilly Kristal enabled us to do as a band. It was where our band was born, you might say. Without getting too sentimental about it, I think it’s still a really great place for young fans who don’t have connections in New York and don’t have management and don’t have agents and all that. They can go to CBGBs and get a gig there and play and maybe, who knows, things will happen for them. Even if they don’t in a commercial way at least they can happen in an artistic way. They have the freedom to do that. When we started playing there, there was nobody there, maybe ten people, eight of whom were working there.”
B-52’s Fred Schneider: “CBGB is way at the top of rock clubs. Back in the day you had to play. There weren’t music videos, you had to have a single, radio wouldn’t play you. It was just chaotic fun, a smoky boozy rock and roll joint with the worst toilet in the world.”


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