From being raised on a poultry farm in New Jersey to becoming the Godfather of Punk Rock. A story of randomness and entrepreneurial perseverance.
“Punk rock was the tsunami that threatened to drown us all in 1977” — Pete Townsend, The Who
I didn’t know what to expect. It was loud, smelled nasty, smoke filled, and was much smaller than I thought it would be. When I walked into that music club in 1977, the high energy level was not to be denied, and even though I was not a big fan of that style of music, I was about to be a small part of punk rock history.
In the heat of the economic depression that ravaged the world in the 1930’s, Hillel “Hilly” Kristal was born in New York City on September 23, 1931. Considered by many to be the unlikely godfather of punk rock music, his journey to that point took many interesting twists and turns. He was born in the year the unemployment rate rose sharply to 17% (on its way to 25%), and legendary mobster Al Capone was convicted of five counts of tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Hillel was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and the first serendipitous intervention that led to his rise to punk rock stardom occurred well before Hilly was born. His father was just able to survive the Russian pogroms that took place during the late 19th, and early 20th centuries. Of course, had Hilly’s father been one of 150,000 Jewish victims murdered during the pogroms, what Hilly would eventually became famous for, would never have happened, and potentially the landscape of the music industry might have been severely altered.
At a young age, Hilly’s parents decided to move out of New York City to try and provide a better life for their family. They moved to Hightstown, New Jersey where they started and ran a successful poultry farm. His parents provided Hilly with music instruction, and he developed an interest in playing the violin and singing, becoming an accomplished amateur musician. Years later, after attending the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, Hilly enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and was stationed at North Carolina’s Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station. Because of his background in music, he was assigned to the special services entertainment division serving on the radio station and as a country music singer. That unexpected experience provided Hilly with unique access to learning about various aspects of the entertainment industry and prepared him for a future career that would not occur for decades.
After leaving the military, he returned to New York City and pursued a career in music. After never attaining significant commercial success as an artist, in the late 1960’s he entered the other side of the music industry. First, co-founding the Rheingold/Schaefer Beer Central Park Music Festival (later became the Dr. Pepper Music Festival) with legendary American music promoter Ron Delsener. During that time, the entrepreneur in Hilly drove him, to open a club at 315 Bowery Street, in what was at the time a seedy section of the East Village of Manhattan. The rent was inexpensive, and the club quickly became a biker dive bar “Hilly’s On the Bowery.” The club failed to pan out, and in 1973 Hilly elected to close the club.
This failure did not deter Hilly, and in fact he decided to return to his roots in music by re-opening/re-branding the club to feature unknown country and blue grass artists. The original name he came up with for the new club was extraordinarily long, but nevertheless, The Country Blue Grass and Blues club (later added to the venue name — Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers) was born. As you might be asking yourself at this point as I once did, what the heck is a gormandizer? The literal definition is someone that is a voracious eater. However, Hilly took it to mean uplifting consumers of music.
Hilly thought there was a gap in the market for aspiring blue grass, blues, and country artists to have a place to perform their original music. This assumption turned out to be wrong, as an insufficient critical mass of people and artists in New York City in 1973 had much of an appetite for his concept. But, in an unexpected sequence of events, that blue grass and country music club would catapult Hilly to a place he never envisioned and create a unique experience for me in my younger life.
As you have most likely realized by this point, the abbreviated name for this iconic music venue is CBGB’s OMFUG. In his own words, Hilly described CBGB’s as “a place where [artists] could express frustrations, desires, anxieties and maybe even dreams”. He sacrificed everything to get the club opened and to sustain it through the early days, living in the back of the club and working side hustle jobs to generate income to support himself. He had two simple rules for bands desiring to perform at CBGB’s. First all bands had to bring in, setup and bring out their own equipment. Hilly did not have staff or money to provide instruments or help unloading gear. Second rule, all bands had to perform original music.
During the first few years, Hilly realized that it was becoming difficult to find country and blues talent to perform, so he expanded into some jazz and rock bands as well. CBGB’s began to become what it became by happenstance. A local underground rock band called Television had a rehearsal loft down the street from CBGB’s and approached Hilly to ask if they could perform there. Despite a bad audition, they somehow convinced Hilly to give them a chance to perform on Sundays, a day that previously CBGB’s had not been open. They argued that they could bring in new business on a day the club was not generating any income. The decision to give the band Television a chance changed everything. The band ended up not attracting enough of an audience, and as Hilly was about to pull the cord on their weekly performances, they once again persuaded Hilly to stick with them, this time promising to recruit a second act, friends of theirs that had started a band in Queens New York that they told Hilly had developed a bit of a following, even though at that time that was a not true. That band turned out to be the Ramones — considered by some to be the first true punk rock bank. The Ramones were the first, but were soon followed by other artists like Patti Smith, Deborah Harry (Blondie), Talking Heads, Beastie Boys, the B-52’s, the Dead Boys, and Joan Jett to name a few. The British rock band the Police even made their first American appearance at CBGB’s in 1978. As they say, the rest is history as CBGB’s is concerned.
My CBGB Experience
Growing up in New York, I had become aware of CBGB’s and it always struck me as a place that would be interesting to see a performance. Beyond the artists that performed, there was a unique mystique that surrounded CBGB’s, and there were many stories people would share, some true, some made up about what went on there. At that time in my life, I had taken up the drums, and my parents (and my sisters and neighbors) not only put up with my drumming in a New York City Apartment but provided me with a chance to take drum lessons from an outstanding drummer by the name of Greg “Stix” Nickson. Greg had a really cool loft apartment/music studio in the Chelsea area of Manhattan where I would go for my lessons. Greg was in a band called the John Collins Band, who performed regularly at another popular New York music venue called Max’s Kansas City. Over time, as I got to know Greg, I was able to go to Max’s for free and in turn help Greg setup and take down his drum set before and after performances.
In addition to Greg’s band (John Collins Band), I had a unique chance to see some phenomenal performers at Max’s. As luck would have it, the John Collins Band was set to perform at CBGB’s in the spring of 1977, and that is when I experienced CBGB’s for the first and only time in my life. It was a loud, high energy and memorable experience.
Greg had invited me to come to their shows, and when writing this article and trying to figure out which date I went to CBGB’s, I remembered eliminating the June date because I had purchased tickets to go see Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden that evening, and CBGB’s or not, I was not going to miss seeing Led Zeppelin. So, I picked the April 8, 1977 date. As I recall, the atmospherics of CBGB’s was unusual to say the least. First of all, I was accustomed to going to Max’s which was in a far less seedy neighborhood, so when I entered CBGB’s I knew I was in a different place. The club had a nasty odor, and the venue was really small inside. But there was a high level of energy that was inescapable. Once the bands began to play the sound was loud and that became part of the happening.
As it turned out, the night I was at CBGB’s, the John Collins band performed before a headliner called the Damned. I didn't realize it until writing this article and doing a little bit of research that the Damned are considered by some to be the first British punk rock band. I can remember to this day having not known in advance who else was performing that evening other than Greg’s band. In fact, I never even heard of the Damned, but I can recall feeling both a bit scared and exhilarated by their performance. While I never became a big fan of punk rock music, it turns out that the Damned are considered to be one the most influential British punk rock bands in history. Yes, there was the Sex Pistols who claimed that mantle, and the Clash who achieved great mainstream success, but do a little bit of research and you will uncover the influence that the Damned have had on the evolution of punk rock music. It was by pure luck that I ended up at CBGB’s that evening.
CBGB’s closed in 2006 over a rent dispute, but the legacy of Hilly Kristal and all of the serendipitous events that unfolded remain an important part of New York City and music culture. I feel very fortunate to have stumbled into an opportunity to experience CBGB’s in its grungy glory. I cannot recall how my parents found Greg Nickson to provide drum lessons to me, but I doubt I would have experienced that evening at CBGB’s had they not supported my interest in playing a musical instrument and finding a way to pay for drum instruction.