Hilly Kristal began his nightlife career in 1959 as the manager of the jazz club the Village Vanguard, and went on to open Hilly’s on East Thirteenth Street, where he booked folk and blues acts throughout the 1960s until changing the bar’s name to CBGB in late 1973.
CBGB had been around since 1969 in an earlier incarnation, Hilly’s on the Bowery, which was named after owner Hilly Kristal. He began his nightlife career in 1959 as the manager of the jazz club the Village Vanguard, and went on to open Hilly’s on East Thirteenth Street, where he booked folk and blues acts throughout the 1960s. Like many in the downtown’s bohemian circles, Kristal put down roots on the east side. “One of the drinking places we went to when I was doing shows at the Old Reliable was a place called Hilly’s on the Bowery,” recalled playwright Michael McGrinder. “It was a big, big, place. One day there was a new sign outside and it said, CBGB & OMFUG. I said to Hilly, ‘What’s going on? What do those letters mean?’ He said, ‘CBGB—Country, BlueGrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers.’ I don’t know if it was a whim or what the hell was going on, but Hilly couldn’t put his name to anything because he had no credit left in the world. Everything was in his wife Karen’s name.”
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Television’s first gig was at an art house cinema on 122 West Forty-Fourth Street. They rented the Townhouse Theater, charged two dollars admission, and advertised the show by posting flyers around Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side. Reflecting the multimedia experimentation that permeated downtown, the group’s first show mixed live video, broadcast television, and rock ’n’ roll. “My idea for ramping up our presentation was to place four or five televisions onstage,” Richard Hell recalled. “During our performance each was tuned to a different channel, while one of them was hooked up to the Portapak of the video guy who’d been taping our rehearsals. He roamed the theater shooting our act as we played, as well as the audience, and that stream was fed to one of the monitors onstage, too.” Hell also helped define Television’s early visual style, wearing ripped T‑shirts held together by safety pins and, in one case, a shirt with “Please Kill Me” handwritten on the front (a cheeky and somewhat brave thing to wear downtown in the crime-ridden 1970s). Soon after their Townhouse show, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd asked Hilly Kristal if they could play at CBGB, but the owner declined because he wasn’t interested in booking rock bands. They returned with their manager, Terry Ork, who suggested that Television play on the bar’s worst night—Sunday—and guaranteed that all their friends would make the bar’s cash registers ring. It was music to Hilly’s ears.
“The people that were at Club 82,” Clem Burke said, “Lenny Kaye, Joey Ramone, Tommy Ramone, myself, Gary Valentine, Debbie and Chris, Johnny Thunders—essentially, everybody took their platforms off, cut their hair, walked around the corner, and wound up at CBGB. That’s basically what happened, because everyone was living in the neighborhood. It literally was around the corner from CBGB.” Hilly Kristal didn’t change his Bowery bar’s name until late 1973, but it’s not as if he did any significant renovations when it became CBGB. “It was pretty much the same when it was called Hilly’s,” Suicide’s Alan Vega recalled. “The bathrooms were already horrific, even before it was renamed CBGB.” After Marion Cowings’s band Dance broke up following the Mercer Arts Center collapse, he was in a band named Squeeze that occasionally played at CBGB. He recalled that Hilly’s dogs used to run loose and defecate on the floor, so people had to watch where they stepped. “He was like a wild Bowery guy,” Cowings said, “just wild and dirty. At that time the Bowery was the Bowery. There were lots of bombed-out buildings and fleabag hotels, and lots of people sleeping on the street.”
Blondie first came to his attention when Richard Gottehrer was recording a 1976 music festival at CBGB. “I was in the truck recording all the bands for a live album for CBGB’s,” recalled Craig Leon, who was then working for Instant Records. “We did a sound check and Debbie came in the truck and she saw Richie and me sitting there, and she said to Richie, ‘I want you to make a record of me.’ ” The no-nonsense Gottehrer set up a rehearsal for Blondie to see if they had what it took to be stars—or at least release a catchy single. “I remember grinning from ear to ear throughout the whole rehearsal because the songs were so great,” he said. “She was great. You could tell right away they were special.” Unfortunately, Gottehrer had no luck convincing any major labels that Blondie was marketable, though he finally persuaded an old friend from his Brill Building years, Larry Uttal, whose label Private Stock Records was home to the 1960s pop singer Frankie Valli. Uttal agreed to release one Blondie single with an option on a full-length album, and Leon was dispatched to record their debut. The obvious choice for a single was the Valentine-penned “Sex Offender,” with “In the Flesh” as the B-side. That single was recorded at Plaza Sound (as were their first two albums), a midtown studio above Radio City Music Hall. Debbie Harry’s suburban parents took her to see Christmas shows at Radio City in the 1950s, when CBGB owner Hilly Kristal was in the chorus that backed the Rockettes. It is quite possible that Harry heard Kristal sing during a Radio City holiday show long before either was involved in punk rock. Plaza Sound Studios was a huge room that had previously been used as a radio studio for the NBC Symphony Orchestra and a rehearsal space for the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini.
From Chapter 33 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore