Hilly Kristal is Dead

Somewhere, a guitar gently pukes. Hilly Kristal is dead and American degeneracy is more aimless than ever. He was an entrepreneur who saw promise in a neighborhood crawling with junkies, poets, beatniks and bums -- not that there was much of a difference between them all -- and built a bar in a former flophouse. He called it CBGB. Pretty soon it was an institution, then a cultural landmark. A few months ago it became a rotting façade again.

His fame is through his club (though "club" is perhaps too strong a word for a joint that stank so strongly of piss and beer), but what a club it was. Punk rock was invented there, for what it's worth, where poets and glue-sniffers gathered to play guitar, sing about Rimbaud, and dance the blitzkrieg bop. Hilly welcomed them all, and so that his joint would have character he ordered his bands to play original music, not covers. It made all the difference in the world.

If there were anything resembling a guiding principle for the punk movement, it was nothing more creative and less revolutionary than a four-letter word. It was a repudiation of the bloated, pretentious shlock that had come to define mainstream rock, a chain-smoking Bronx cheer in a leather jacket.

The music that blared across the Bowery soon emanated across the Hudson and ever outward from there. In London it got politicized by anarchists and spiked with eyeliner by goths; in Los Angeles it snarled faster harder until it became hardcore; and here in Washington it turned into an underground movement described by two phrases: DIY (do-it-yourself) and emotional hardcore. It could credibly be described as the parent of both indie rock and current emo, whether or not it recognizes its own paternity.

By the time all that happened, CBGB's best times were firmly in the past. The Ramones called their 1980 album End of the Century, and it was already the end of an era. CBGB's was a small venue and punk was giving way to the next big thing. Bands like Blondie and Talking Heads, who had first played on CBGB's dirty stage, were coming to define the vastly more commercially successful genre of "new wave," and lent their prominent synthesizers and chunky guitars to the top of the charts for the next decade.

But don't feel sorry for Hilly Kristal for being left behind. He made his money. Like Lorne Michaels, he birthed a New York institution in the mid-70's, helmed it for a few years with an unerring ear for talent, and then kicked himself upstairs and lived off the proceeds for the next 30 years. He wasn't a leech, a svengali, or a charlatan. He was merely a man who defined his own era and profited well from it. Like any protestant reformation, punk has a lot to answer for, and the Martin Luther who created it did not die sinless. Through the music he nurtured that lives on, as it was said, "loud at any volume," he atones. May he rest in peace.