Hilly Kristal, the patriarch of punk

It’s hard to believe that Hilly Kristal is no longer with us, because the music that his famous club, CBGB, nurtured is today so much a part of our culture. Punk, new wave and, later, speed metal, hardcore, crust core and the rest may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the music left a profound mark on New York lore and music history. Last Tuesday, Kristal, who was 75, died after a battle with lung cancer.

Kristal opened CBGB in the early 1970s when the Bowery was still very much “skid row.” Although he planned to feature country, bluegrass and blues music — which is what the club’s acronym stands for — he opened his doors to the neighborhood’s burgeoning new music scene, and his club became that scene’s epicenter.

A laid-back father figure with a kind and gravelly voice, all he asked was that the rockers played original music. No cover charge and cheap beers helped keep the creativity flowing.

The rest, as they say, is history. Bands and performers like Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, the Ramones, Patti Smith Group, Blondie, Talking Heads and B-52’s all honed their sound and their personas at CBGB.

When groups like the Ramones took their acts overseas to England, they spread the punk virus abroad, giving rise to groups like The Clash and Sex Pistols that, in turn, exploded the new music even more and then returned to the U.S. to give a new jolt to the music here.

Almost a year ago, Kristal vacated 315 and 313 Bowery after losing his battle with the Bowery Residents’ Committee, which holds a master lease on the property. Although some said the punk music mecca had recently “lost its edge,” its closing elicited both an outpouring of grief from rock-and-roll fans and fears of the gentrification of Downtown and the city as a whole.

Before the club’s closing and afterward, Kristal was working to reopen CBGB at one or more locations, possibly Las Vegas or elsewhere in New York City. CBGB — and its rock-and-roll myth — remained alive. But with Kristal’s death, the reality has finally sunk in that CB’s is gone. Whether the club ever resurfaces — either as a tourist attraction or the real deal — remains to be seen.

Today an alternative music career can be launched with a homemade video on YouTube. But back in the 1970s there was no Internet or music downloading. Back then, it took a dingy dive bar — with an offbeat club owner and manager — to give birth to a revolutionary new sound that knocked disco and arena rock on their respective butts. With attitude, thrashing guitars, passion and cutting humor, young musicians found they could be rock stars, too.

Whether one is a fan of the music or not, one has to appreciate that Kristal — like so many others before him in different art forms — provided a venue and support to grow a movement, one that changed popular music to this day — and probably forever.

Thanks, Hilly, for allowing it all to happen — you rocked!