It’s hard to believe that it was over 30 years ago that I first ventured into a seedy bar called CBGB’s. I ended up spending a lot of time there over the next few years. What went on there was all about the newest, loudest, strangest, and most incredible music scene, possibly ever. It even surpassed Sun Records in the sheer volume of new bands that got their start there.
And, just about every night, I’d see this old gruffy kind of guy named Hilly who owned and ran the place (old indeed- I’m older now than he was then). It just always seemed odd. He didn’t seem the type who would really like this kind of music, yet here he was, in the center of it all, with all these wild bands whose music 99% of the world hated at the time – if they had even heard it. Yes, even most of the heavy metal kids at the time thought the Ramones were just a lot of noise and just didn’t get it.
Was it a stroke of genius and that Hilly was a great musical visionary that made CBGB’s what it became? I sort of doubt it. My guess is that it was more of an ‘anything to get people in the door, let’s see if these kids have any friends who will come into my bar’ type of mentality that first opened the door to the unusual bands that later became icons. But, Hilly was smart enough to see that something was happening, and had enough musical knowledge to know that this could be a good thing. So, the bands played, and the kids started coming. When I first started going there, it was still basically a corner bar with a pool table and not even very crowded. But, slowly, more and more people started coming every night. And Hilly was always there. As the ‘scene’ grew, I really don’t know if Hilly was really clever enough to manipulate it so that his club became the center of the new wave/punk rock world, or if it was that he just let it happen, and didn’t bother to interfere with it. Either way, CBGBs became one of the most important places in musical history. And, without Hilly, it would never have happened.
There were other clubs at the time, most notably Max’s Kansas City. But, they were more into the fashion of it. Yes, some great punk bands played there (and some awful ones), but Max’s didn’t have the ‘let anyone play’ attitude that allowed the scene to take on a life of its own.
When CBGB’s was forced to close, the world took notice. It was a major event. Maybe, the closing brought a bit more of a sense of just how important the club, and the way it was run, really was to so many people, myself included. And, hopefully, Hilly Krystal saw this, and was able to realize, before he passed away, what a huge difference his existance had made.