The Little Club That Made A Big Noise
An interview with CBGB's owner Hilly Kristal
By Richard Abowitz and Jayson Whitehead
From Gadfly February 1998


Of 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.

How did you start CBGB's?

Back 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.

Was Television the first of the punk bands to play CBGB's?

Television 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.

Wasn't that Debbie Harry of Blondie's early band?

Yeah, 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.

Was that when you realized that a scene was developing around CBGB's?

Well, 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.

Looking back now, would you say that CBGB's was the breeding ground for punk: that it crystallized there?

We didn't call it punk, but I guess punk will do.

So what did you think when the Sex Pistols and British punk came along? Were they ripping off the style from American bands?

They 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.

What was your impression of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren?

I 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.

What did you think of the different members of the Sex Pistols that you met?

I 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.

What about Sid Vicious?

He 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 much in-fighting.

What made you decide to write a book about CBGB's?

Everybody 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.

What was your overall impression of the music that was being played in your club?

Well, 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 really remarkable.

The 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 very well.

Which of those bands did you like the best?

I 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.

How would you describe the bands playing at CBGB's nowadays?

There 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.

Sonic Youth played CB's quite a few times.

Yeah, they played [first] back in 79.

Do you remember your first impression of them?

We 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.

It 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?

Well, 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 to me.

How has the audience changed over the years?

Obviously 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.

Out of the bands over the years, is there anyone you expected to go far and didn't?

Television. 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.

How do you explain the loyalty CBGB's bands have shown over the years? You said Patti Smith is about to play there.

I 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.