Hilly Krystal: Freedom Deferred

When Hilly Krystal died this past week at the age of 75, it was less than a year after his legendary club closed its doors forever. Krystal, who had battled with lung cancer in recent months, founded one of rock n’ roll’s most influential club in US rock n’ roll history: CBGB. Its closure was a tragedy, and with the death of Krystal the chance of its return in any form
is most likely dashed.

It is impossible to express how huge a loss this is.

It’s humorous today to think that a club whose initials stood for Country BlueGrass and Blues could end up an oasis for the insurgent punk movement, but that’s exactly what it was. Krystal was an accidental Moses, bringing something real to the underclass of a city in deep turmoil. While New York went bankrupt, endured blackouts and was sent into a frenzy by the Summer of Sam, it became only natural that punk would spring up there. Without CBGB, though, who knows if it would have taken root?

The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, Talking Heads, Bad Brains, Television — all brought the rebellion and grittiness back to rock, all nurtured at CB’s. Smith recalled exactly how much the club meant to her after Krystal’sdeath:

“I’m not trying to romanticize anything because in some ways it was a shithole. The sound was crappy, there was always things breaking down and glasses breaking and people vomiting and the rats scurrying around in the back, but it was our shithole and that was the greatest thing. I’ve played a lot of places and it was the only place I’ve ever played that felt like our place. He had put the community on the map. It doesn’t matter where I’ve been in the world, people have CBGBs T-shirts. It’s not just some marketing thing. CBGBs wasn’t just about Hilly or the people who played there or New York City, it represented freedom for young people. To me the name CBGBs could be a slang term at this point meaning freedom. Hilly offered us unconditional freedom.”

Through the years, Krystal continued to play host to the loud, the brash, the uncompromising. Hardcore became a fixture at the club’s Sunday matinees. Art rock and indie would be featured there. It’s impossible to exactly place where musical innovations take place, but from the looks of it, a lot of them were at CB’s.

The millennium turned, and the city changed. In the name of progress, the oases were bulldozed and replaced with glossy nothingness. Alphabet City? Gone. Harlem is being eaten alive by Columbia University, and Brooklyn is steadily on its way to becoming Hipsterville. It was only a matter of time before the sights were set on CBGB.

In 2005, the Bowery Resident’s Committee sent Krystal a bill for $91,000 dollars back rent. Krystal had never been informed of a rise. First he tried to negotiate, then he took legal action. When that didn’t work he filed for historic landmark status for CB’s. A campaign was launched to save the club. But when cities are willing to cast aside decent housing for the poor, why should they give a damn about the music?

The final show was played on October 15th, 2006. Patti Smith headlined. Krystal planned to strip the club down to the bare walls and take everything he could to Las Vegas and reopen the club there.

Krystal died on August 28th. There is no word if anyone else plans to reopen CB’s. Perhaps it goes without saying that it wouldn’t be the same anyway.

Little Steven Van Zandt, who campaigned hard for CB’s salvation, wrapped it all up when he spoke of Krystal’s death:

“Losing CBGB meant it was only a matter of time until Hilly followed. It was his whole life… There would be no Ramones without Hilly Krystal. And who would want to live in a world without them? He loved this city and in the end, the city spit in his face… CBGB was a tragic loss New York will never recover from and maybe it’s better Hilly doesn’t have to watch the town that invented personality slowly turn into the Mall of America. Rock and roll will miss him.”

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Vikki said on September 5th, 2007 at 7:26pm #

    Hi Alexander,

    I came across your article and would like to correct one of your statements. i’m a volunteer at ABC No Rio and I can assure you that the building is NOT a condo. The volunteer collective that forms ABC no Rio negotiated with the City of NY a decade ago to get the building IF we agree to renovate it WHILE STILL KEEPING IT OPEN FOR COMMUNITY PURPOSES. We got the title to the building last summer and are still working on raising the money to begin renovations.

    In the meantime, we still have DIY punk/hardcore shows most Saturday afternoons. Doors open at 3 pm and, in true punk style, the bands usually don’t start till 4. We also have an open-access computer center, silkscreen shop and photo darkroom. If you’re in the city before the end of the year, stop by and see for yourself.

    I don’t know where you heard that from, but over the years there has been a lot of misinformation about ABC No Rio. I’d be happy to write to whomever told you that No Rio is now a condo and correct him/her as well.

    Vikki Law
    volunteer at ABC No Rio

  2. michael miller said on September 5th, 2007 at 10:37pm #

    Hilly, rest in peace.
    Little Stevie, bless you for your perceptive, good and loving words.
    Let’s just hope that old truth still holds true: “Rock and roll is here to stay/It will never die..”

  3. Kat said on September 6th, 2007 at 1:19pm #

    Hilly’s last name is spelled with a ‘i’. Kristal, not Krystal.