CBGB rock club owner Hilly Kristal died Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2007,
at the age of 75. Kristal, whose dank Bowery rock club served as
the birthplace of the punk rock movement and a launching pad
for bands like the Ramones, Blondie and the Talking Heads,
died after a battle with lung cancer, his son said.
Hilly Kristal never intended to build his tiny little Lower East Side
club CBGB into the epicenter of punk, where The Ramones,
Blondie and Talking Heads would launch a global musical and
artistic movement, roaring to shake off suburban boredom and
raging to shake up the establishment.
A classically trained violinist, Kristal wasn't even a fan of loud,
aggressive rock at the time his club opened, but Kristal was a
man who appreciated the struggle.
Kristal died in his sleep Tuesday morning at Cabrini Medical
Center, after a long battle with lung cancer, according to his
daughter, Lisa Kristal Burgman. He was 75.
Kristal kept his cancer battle private, as he waged a high-profile
battle to keep his famous club open after a rent dispute with its
landlord. Though CBGB -- which stands for "Country Bluegrass
Blues," the music Kristal loved -- lost its lease and closed in
October after 33 years in the same location on the Bowery, the
club's spirit lives on in the music of punk rockers such as Green
Day and in punk-influenced pop stars ranging from Fall Out Boy
to Avril Lavigne.
"When CBGB started in December, 1973, the Bowery was a
place you didn't want to walk down," Burgman said. "But my
father had respect for the homeless on the street. He had
respect for every single one of them. That's the type of guy he
"It allowed him to hear the beauty in all types of music, even the
hardcore that I still don't understand," she said. "As he saw the
beauty of the essence of a person, he also saw the beauty in the
essence of music."
It was Kristal's open-door policy at CBGB that turned it into a
musical hotbed in the late '70s. He would hold open auditions
every week and would let nearly any band play at the club as long
as they performed their own music.
"He offered us artistic freedom and his gruff, yet unconditional,
love," said punk poet Patti Smith, who headlined the final show
at CBGB in October. "We evolved, we left and went out into the
world like prodigal children. When we returned, he always
accepted us with open arms."
Marky Ramone, of The Ramones, called Kristal "an integral part
of the punk scene." "He was always supportive of the genre and
of bands like the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and
Richard Hell and Voidoids and will hold a prominent place in
music history," Ramone said in a statement. "In an era when
disco was the mainstream, Hilly took a chance and gambled.
The gamble paid off for both him and for us."
Born in the farmlands of New Jersey, Kristal worked hard to keep
CBGB going. For years, he drove a cab to keep the club
financially afloat. Even until the club's end, he would work during
the day at his desk next to the front door, surrounded by walls
covered in stickers from bands that had played there. At night, he
would be in the club, watching the bands and doing whatever
needed to be done.
"He was the Mayor of The Bowery -- he knew everybody, he knew
when they would be walking by to get their coffee and he would
always be willing to help," said Scott Goodstein, a former
employee and the coordinator of the Save CBGB campaign. "He
would always be there, eating a sandwich from Katz's, talking on
the phone and giving a tour at the same time. This guy's New
York, man. They don't make guys like this any more."
Over the years, what CBGB stood for became more important
than the actual building. A new retail store in the East Village
sells t-shirts and memorabilia bearing the now- defunct club's
name. However, Burgman said her father had been working on
deals to open CBGB clubs in several cities and that she would
continue those plans.
Kristal's granddaughter, Jenny, said her favorite photo of her
grandfather is of him on a New York rooftop, eyes closed, playing
his violin. "My grandfather loved music and he loved us all very
much and a lot of people loved him," she said, recalling how
Kristal always wanted to hear about what she and her brother,
Adam, were doing. "That's the sort of man my grandfather had
Though many of CBGB's early bands have since entered the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and thanked Kristal for his help,
Kristal's biggest thrills included singing onstage at Radio City
Music Hall and the release of his own album "Mad Mordechai," a
collection of songs he would sing to his children.
Kristal is survived by his daughter Lisa Kristal Burgman, son
Mark Dana Kristal, and two grandchildren. A private memorial
service is planned and a public memorial will be held at a later
date. Contributions may be made in his name to the American
Cancer Society or to the Hilly Kristal Foundation for Musicians
and Artists (168 Second Ave., PMB 207, New York, NY 10003).
"Hilly Kristal was the good shepherd of a flock of black sheep,"
Smith said. "We are forever grateful."