Thursday, February 23, 2012

February 23: Hilly Kristal

Throughout the entire course of music history, there have been various people who have created the proper environment for certain aspects of musical developments to flourish.  In a number of cases, the most important moments and growths within the music industry are rather by accident, and yet one cannot deny their overall importance.  At the same time, it is often the evolution of an individual that can become the catalyst for an entire musical revolution, and this was certain the case in the life of Hilly Kristal, as one can make the argument that there was no other "non-musical" figure more important to the development of the punk rock sound.  As the founder and owner of the legendary CBGB's music club in the Bowery section of New York City, it was the notoriously inviting demeanor and open musical mind of Kristal that led to the rise of countless critical bands from The Ramones to Blondie to Patti Smith, and a wide range of others.  However, most are unaware that even before he opened CBGB's, Kristal had already been a part of some of the most legendary clubs in New York City, as well as having a rather short-lived musical career of his own.  Whether it was due to the space he provided, or the bands that happened to be playing in the area at the time, there is simply no overstating the importance of Hilly Kristal.

It has been well documented that Hilly Kristal's love for all forms of music began at a very early age, and he spent his years studying at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, PA before "formally" pursuing his career as a singer.  Performing with larger vocal groups (including one that performed at Carnegie Hall), as well as other configurations, Kristal released a few singles, one of which, 1962's "Man In Space," has garnered an almost cult-like following as the decades have passed.  After it became clear that performance would not be a "liveable" career choice, Kristal moved to New York City and began working on both the band and club management side of the business.  Along with overseeing a handful of bands over the years, Kristal spent a number of years managing the legendary Village Vanguard jazz club.  It was during this period that Kristal gained a love for quieter, often acoustic music, and in 1973, he opened his own club, calling it "CBGB's."  Though many different interpretations for the name have arisen over the years, the anagram actually stands for: "Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers," with the original intent of the club to be focused on those styles of bands.  Kristal used the word "gormandizer" as a reference to people who wanted to consume massive quantities of music, and this is exactly what he provided over the more than three decades that the club was in business.

The transition of CBGB's to the legendary club it is now known to be is largely attributed to when the band Television stopped by the club to ask for a gig.  Kristal was more than willing to let "just about anybody" play, and their appearance was soon followed by a large number of bands that have since achieved legendary status.  Though there were many other clubs in the city that were willing to book "punk" bands, such groups stayed largely loyal to CBGB's due to not only Kristal's personality, but the fact that he was well-known for treating the bands fairly in terms of shows and payment.  Furthermore, Kristal was notorious for booking bands even when he didn't "understand" their music, and this would become the breeding ground for countless musical innovations.  Through this, Kristal would become the managed for both The Dead Boys and The Shirts, and the CBGB's name would eventually expand to an international icon that is recognizable across the world to this day.  However, in 1993, the building that had housed the club for three decades was purchased by new owners, and a battle began to keep the club in place for more than a decade.  But in 2006, CBGB's finally lost its lease, and in October, a week of concerts marked the end of the club, with Patti Smith being the final act, joined by a number of guests throughout the show.  Less than a year later, Kristal passed away, and yet there is simply no arguing that a number of different musical styles would have never developed had it not been for the vision and personality of the great Hilly Kristal.

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