Hilly Kristal, owner of the nightclub that became ground zero for the American punk rock movement, died Tuesday at Cabrini Hospital in New York after a battle with lung cancer. He was 75.
Kristal’s bar on Gotham’s Bowery, CBGB and OMFUG, birthed punk rock as it launched the careers of the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Television and Patti Smith in the mid-1970s. Its reputation as an important place to perform spread quickly and acts such as the Police and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers made their New York debuts at the small, graffiti- and sticker-covered club.
Kristal, who initially thought Television was bad and the Ramones were worse, was the only owner of the club. It was closed last year after 33 years of presenting live music following a dispute over the rent. There were plans to open a Las Vegas outpost of the venue.
At its final show in October — headlined by Patti Smith — Kristal was using a cane to walk and was clearly in ill health.
“In an era when disco was the mainstream, Hilly took a chance and gambled,” Marky Ramone said. “The gamble paid off for both him and for us. We are all grateful to him.”
Although the venue carried on in the 1980s and ’90s by presenting little-known bands, Kristal was able to keep the doors open by selling clothing and accessories such as guitar straps at CBGB Fashions, a space next door to the club that was initially opened as an art gallery. (The retail shop still operates on St. Mark’s Place.)
CBGB & OMFUG — which stands for Country, BlueGrass and Blues & Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandizers — was not attracting much of an audience beyond the area’s down-on-their-luck residents after it opened in December 1973 with country, Irish and jazz bands. It had formerly been the Palace Bar, named for the flophouse above it.
In early 1974, Television founder Tom Verlaine asked if his band could perform at the venue and Kristal said yes, figuring it could attract a crowd on Sunday, a night that the club had been closed. Television performed there regularly for three years including a two-month residency in 1975.
In late summer of ’74, Blondie, the Ramones and, a bit later, the Patti Smith Group and Talking Heads made their CBGB debuts, and by the summer of 1975, the club was the epicenter of what was then considered avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll.
It blossomed at a time when many of the city’s rock venues had closed. And after the initial wave of punk bands outgrew CBGB, the club became the home of the “no-wave” movement that included Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, the Contortions and DNA.
CBGB also developed a reputation for having the best sound system of any New York club.
Throughout the years, CBGB had rented its space from the building’s owner, the Bowery Residents’ Committee, an agency that houses homeless people. In the early 2000s, the committee went to court to collect more than $300,000 in back rent from the club, then later successfully sought to evict it.
Survivors include his wife Karen, son Mark and daughter Lisa.