RIP Hilly Kristal
So, Hilly Kristal passed away yesterday. He outlasted his former business, legendary punk venue CBGBs by less than a year. I can't help but think that trying to keep it going was a big factor in his demise, although 75 is a pretty good innings, especially by the standards of punk rock survivors.
Kristal led a series of increasingly desperate rearguard actions against the club's eviction from its building. It was at one of these, a benefit featuring the Willowz and Ted Leo, that I first experienced the venue. Indeed it was just this morning that I was listening to the Willowz and reflecting that it was only during these last-gasp performances that he regained his knack for booking exciting bands.
I've hated on the venue before, and it would be grossly uncharitable for me to rehash these arguments at this moment. Still, it's worth reflecting again on the sentimentality and love that the venue, indeed the whole late seventies punk scene in New York engendered.
I don't quite know why this is, since by the time I moved to the city its music cognoscenti had become remarkably indifferent to the loss of music venues. I suspect that CBGBs, and punk music in general, exploited a time when cultural bottlenecks in the city were the most pronounced that they ever had been.
This isn't quite true, since CBGB was not the only game in town. Max Kansas City, now occupied by my office's nearest deli, was another stallwart. But Kristal seemed to take more risks, which suggests that finding shitey venues to play unpolished music was much harder then than it is now.
In a city where bands had an ever-expanding suite of options, it became harder for CBGBs to maintain a grip on the most exciting ones. Which meant that it became more of a home for fringe genres (hardcore, metal). Still, and I need to stress this right now, it made it possible for the US to hold its head high in underground music again, and that's worth almost anything.
[UPDATE: the Voice is reprinting Lenny Kaye's elegy for CBGB. It's reasonably close to my own sentiments, although I offer that not as recommendation. The article is just very good.]