course, there were a few who were ahead of their
time: in Detroit The MC5 and The Stooges, in
New York The Velvet Underground and The New
York Dolls and in Boston The Modern Lovers.
But in every way that matters American punk
was born and raised at a club in the Bowery
of New York City with the unlikely name of Country,
Blue Grass and Blues. Beginning with shows
by Television, the scene that formed around
CBGB's eventually included Patti Smith, The
Ramones, Blondie, The Dead Boys, The Talking
Heads and Richard Hell & The Voidoids. Club
owner Hilly Kristal, an ex-marine, still operates
the tiny 167' by 25' club which remains at the
dead end of Bleecker Street.
did you start CBGB's?
in '73 I had a club on the West Side. I was
doing country, bluegrass, blues. A lot of artists
lived in the area in those years. They seemed
to be into that kind of music. It worked in
the West Village, but over here [in the Bowery]
I couldn't find enough bands. Subsequently all
these musicians came around who had no place
to play. There was nothing open then. So, I
started putting in other things to fill up the
time—like rock and jazz. And then more and more
new bands started to come around. It was a big disco era, and I think a
lot of these new bands were tired of the way
rock was going. I guess punk really started
because they were using it as a point of self-expression.
A lot of them learned to play their instruments
so they could say something. They had their
lofts or their basements to practice in, but
no place to play. When I saw so many bands around
that wanted to play and do their own thing,
I made the policy: the only way you could play
here was to write your own music.
Television the first of the punk bands to play
came in the spring of 1974. We charged a dollar
at the door. I didn't think the band was very
good at that point, and nobody came to see them.
They got another band from Queens called the
Ramones to play with them and they were even
worse. And so it went, but gradually they got
the Stillettoes. The Stillettoes were a lot
of fun; they were good.
that Debbie Harry of Blondie's early band?
they were fun, and campy. There were a lot of
others. I kept having them back and they got
better and better. They worked at it, and they
got very good. Patti Smith came in the early
spring of 1975. I think Patti and Tom Verlaine
[Television] were friends. They played here
and liked it. So, they did seven weeks straight.
that when you realized that a scene was developing
after Patti, it started to go downhill. Patti
was well known as a poet. It was the first time
she ever did anything as a rock group, and she
was great—as if she had been doing it all her
life. It was wonderful. She had a following
that brought in a lot of people. But then it
went down, down, down. I decided to have a festival
for the top 40 unrecorded New York rock bands.
I ended up with about 70 bands. We just kept
having them in every night. We put big ads in
the Soho News and the Village Voice.
People came from all over. The press came. Rolling
Stone, which was then in San Francisco,
came and covered it. NME, Melodymaker
from the UK—everybody covered it. They couldn't
believe that there were so many young bands
around they never heard of. Blondie played,
The Ramones, Talking Heads, Mink Deville. The
Village Voice, The New York Times,
The Aquarian, started writing about this
new phenomenon that was happening.
back now, would you say that CBGB's was the
breeding ground for punk: that it crystallized
didn't call it punk, but I guess punk will do.
what did you think when the Sex Pistols and
British punk came along? Were they ripping off
the style from American bands?
weren't ripping it off. I think they [were developing]
at the same time. They were called bar bands
then in the UK. They didn't play in clubs, there
weren't clubs then. These bars closed and everybody
had to get out of the bar at quarter of eleven.
They went on at 8 o'clock, then around 9 or
9:30, two bands each did a set to a crowd of
punks. Then they closed up. That was their scene,
but nobody was writing about it until they saw
it happening here. Then The Ramones signed with
Seymour Stein [Sire Records]. He was very fluent
with what was happening in the UK. He did a
lot of business there as a record company. He
brought them over there, because he knew that
England would love them. I think they did seven
or eight dates, and all of a sudden it stimulated
what was actually happening there. The press
started writing about it, and it took off. Actually,
punk probably took off much more there than
it did here.
was your impression of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm
didn't know him. I really don't remember ever
meeting him. But I knew of him. In fact, the
first time that I knew that The Sex Pistols
came in was when they broke up. Johnny came
in and sat at the end of the bar here with a
guy from NME. He was pretty sad about it. Then
later on when Sid Vicious came in a few times
he was not very nice at that point. He was pretty
far gone. He was a problem, a bad problem.
did you think of the different members of the
Sex Pistols that you met?
liked Johnny Lydon. When I was in London I went
over to his house. I was with him for about
4 or 5 hours. We were talking about music and
musicians. I think he gave a negative impression
on stage, but he really loved other bands, and
other kinds of things. He knew a lot about rock
from way back. I was very impressed. He was
a nice guy. He certainly knew much more than
I did about rock and about what was happening,
what had happened. He was very pleasant.
about Sid Vicious?
was a problem. I threw him out myself a few
times. He once threw a beer glass at Cheetah
Chrome [Dead Boys] and then he started to fight
with somebody else. He picked fights. I think
that is why the band broke up. There was so
made you decide to write a book about CBGB's?
said you ought to write it all down. We did
the book mostly through other people's eyes—people
who played here or were customers or whatever.
We thought it would be fun for people to read.
There were wonderful times, there were miserable
times. Actually it was very exciting back then.
was your overall impression of the music that
was being played in your club?
I think at first it was not good. I had managed
the Village Vanguard for 3 years. I heard some
of the best musicians in the world: Miles Davis,
Monk, Cannonball Adderly, Mulligan, I heard
them over and over. I wasn't used to this raggedy
edge. But when they got better, I found it fascinating,
because it wasn't this normal pop music. It
wasn't calculated. They were really reflecting
what they were feeling. Blondie for instance
were a very raggedy band. They didn't give a
damn how they sounded it seemed. But the writing
was really good, and Debbie always had a sweet
voice. She had a nice sound, aside from being
very beautiful. I introduced Chris and Debbie
to Richard Gottehrer [producer], and they signed
with him. He produced the first record. In the
few months that he worked with them, they really
learned to play. It showed that all they had
to do was be given the incentive. It was a changed
band, and they made it so you could hear Debbie,
because they didn't play on top of her, and
the music was surrounding her voice. That was
Ramones were doing this same sloppy thing for
a while. Of course, they didn't have any money
then. They would have bad amps, break strings,
bad guitars. Everything went wrong, and they
would start and stop. But somehow they decided
to just run their sets and not stop. I don't
think anybody ever did that before. These one-minute
songs just went on from one into the other,
and it was seventeen minutes of energy. It was
interesting and they really put it together
of those bands did you like the best?
liked every performance of Patti Smith. I think
she was marvelous. I loved the Talking Heads.
There are various times I liked Television a
lot, before Richard Hell left the band. I loved
the Dead Boys. They were nice sweet guys on
the surface but underneath they were punks.
They were wild. They played their instruments
very, very well.
would you describe the bands playing at CBGB's
are so many more directions, of course. Music
has blossomed into a myriad of styles. I think
the bands play better. They are generally better
musicians. What was interesting back in the
70s is they developed this style learning to
play from scratch. They were would-be musicians,
and so when they got their music together it
was different from anything else. Also it was
simpler. They would play all the time, they
loved to do two sets a night. They would play
Christmas Eve, Thanksgiving—the place was packed
on some of these nights. Now, you can't get
them to play on them, which is good. It shows
they have a different kind of life and a different
kind of feel.
Youth played CB's quite a few times.
they played [first] back in 79.
you remember your first impression of them?
used to have a day a week when we would have
art rock bands. They were kind of experimental
and nobody came. I don't even know if Thurston
looks older today than he did 20 years ago.
He still has an angelic look. They're nice people.
They're very dedicated and have stayed dedicated
to the way they do things, which I think is
marvelous. I like them, and the Swans. Both
of them were on kind of an equal footing at
that time and they did similar things. Just
before that there was DNA. That was another
very good band, but they had internal problems
and they separated.
has been alleged that back in the 70's there
was a racist trend because some of these bands
wore Nazi regalia or swastikas. Did you ever
see anything like that?
I think a couple of The Ramones were Jewish.
The Bad Brains were black. I don't think it
meant anything. I really don't. I mean, I am
Jewish. There was nothing. It was a white scene,
but not deliberately. There were black bands,
and there were black people in bands, but not
a lot. Hardcore mixed up pretty well. But I
would say that on the whole it was initially
a very white music in that sense. Rock was at
that point. I didn't like the swastikas, but
it didn't mean to them what it would have meant
has the audience changed over the years?
there was a scene and there were like two or
three places. Of course, you had the Mud Club
and Harrah's and all kinds of things in the
early 80s. All of a sudden there were thirty
clubs, so the scene spread out. Each place does
their own thing, and there are different audiences
for different bands. The Hardcore audience is
even split up. Back in the 70s people just hung
out continuously to hear what was new, what
was happening. Now, people are more selective.
There are so many places, and so much rock,
people find their niches.
of the bands over the years, is there anyone
you expected to go far and didn't?
Tom Verlaine is a very talented guy, Richard
Lloyd and the whole band were very talented,
but somehow it just never went anyplace. At
least they got signed. There are a lot of bands
that never got signed that were quite good.
I think that is one of the sad things--so many
very talented bands are not signed anymore.
It's painful. They are good, and they just don't
have the luck.
do you explain the loyalty CBGB's bands have
shown over the years? You said Patti Smith is
about to play there.
think she feels at home. This is where
she really started. She did do things
before CB's, but this is where the band
started. And she always came back. Some
of them came back and some of them didn't.
I am thankful for the ones that do. Television
never came back. Tom Verlaine and I got
along. I don't know what it was, but he
just never came back. I thought he was
extremely talented, and I enjoyed talking
to him. Of course, Richard Hell left.
But Sonic Youth just played here a couple
times. They come back. I am thankful that
they do. I think they feel good about it.