Hilly Kristal had no idea what he was unleashing when he welcomed a rash of unknown bands onstage in his dank Bowery dive: Television, the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, the Patti Smith Group.
Kristal, a New Jersey farm boy whose musical tastes ran to tamer fare, had opened CBGB as a haven for country, blues and bluegrass music. Instead, his cramped club became the epicenter of the punk rock movement, setting off a three-chord musical revolution that spread around the world.
Kristal, 75, died of complications from lung cancer at a Manhattan hospice after a long fight with the disease, his family announced Wednesday. CBGB closed last October with a blowout concert by Smith and her band, ending a 33-year run for the dingy space where Kristal operated from a small desk just inside the entrance with its familiar white awning.
“He created a club that started on a small, out-of-the-way skid row, and saw it go around the world,” said Lenny Kaye, a longtime member of the Patti Smith Group. “Everywhere you travel around the world, you saw somebody wearing a CBGB T-shirt.
At the club’s boarded-up storefront Wednesday morning, a spray-painted message read, “RIP Hilly, we’ll miss you, thank you.” There were also a dozen candles, two bunches of flowers and a foam rubber baseball bat — an apparent tribute to the Ramones’ classic “Beat on the Brat.”
David Byrne, lead singer with Talking Heads, remembered Kristal’s low-key demeanor and generosity.
“Other clubs were all about models and beautiful people, and he was about letting the musicians in for free, to hear music and get cheap beers,” Byrne said. “It automatically created a scene, and we’d just hang out all night.”
Kristal was an unlikely avatar of punk music, opening his own club in 1973 after booking acts such as Miles Davis at the Village Vanguard. “At first, they didn’t play so well,” he once said of the seminal punk bands that came to CBGB.
But he became a beloved figure to the performers who used his small venue as a launching pad to stardom, including several that reached the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also served as manager for the Dead Boys, whose appeal was summed up by their album title “Young Loud & Snotty.”
“In an era when disco was the mainstream, Hilly took a chance and gambled,” said drummer Marky Ramone. “The gamble paid off for him and for us. We are all grateful to him.”
The influence of Kristal’s club was pervasive, extending to generations of bands around the country and the globe. Even the landlord who finally evicted Kristal from CBGB first kissed his wife inside its walls, which were plastered with mementoes from bands across the decades.
Kristal’s plans for a club attuned to his tastes disappeared when Television, led by Tom Verlaine, began playing Sunday nights in the mid-1970s. Other bands were soon joining them, and CBGB became the place for punk fans to mingle with performers like Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry or the doomed Sid Vicious.
The club lasted into the next century, still adhering to Kristal’s insistence that it would only book bands playing original material. He started a lucrative CBGB marketing arm, selling T-shirts and accessories with the club’s familiar logo.
In recent years, CBGB became embroiled in a bitter rent fight with its landlord, the Bowery Residents’ Committee, an agency housing the homeless. Despite the efforts of musicians to keep the club open, Kristal — who owed a reported $300,000 in back rent — agreed to vacate the club last October.
Kristal, who once hoped to have his own singing career, was survived by son Mark Dana; daughter Lisa Kristal Burgman and her husband Ger; two grandchildren, “and the thousands of artists and musicians who played the club,” the family said in a statement.