Remembering Hilly Kristal And CBGB

Remembering Hilly Kristal And CBGB

Entrance to the legendary CBGB

I’ll get to CBGB in a moment… For a few years in the late 80’s I was lucky enough to run WRFL 88.1 FM in Lexington, KY as a general manager and serve as an on-air individual. Within the station’s studio a lot of history was made, but those are stories for another time. This evening, I want to start with a door that was utterly covered with every obscure band sticker we could find. It was a door I loved.

There is a long history of record companies sending radio stations tons of stuff to get them excited about the music they’re hyping. WRFL was no exception and on any given day, we would get 2-3 boxes of t-shirts, promo albums, CD’s, posters, press sheets and, yes, promotional stickers. A little over half of those stickers would somehow end up stuck to that ever thickening door which housed our station’s second sound studio.

Acting as back-up to our primary on-air studio, we mostly used this room to listen to new music late at night, hang out and cut tape on the reel-to-reels for promo carts. We would splice together a little bit of everything from music to spoken word in an effort to build our own unique sound and give our station its own voice. Yes, back in the day, we were quite the pre-digital splicing bandits. We would spend hours building our own audio one splice and one bit of tape at a time. It was a lot harder than it is in today’s digital world and the time I spent trying it only served to build respect for the true pros there who were cutting tape each day. We really loved the finished product and often gathered together whoever was around, and there were always people around, to unveil the newest work of audio art. Needless to say, a lot of good memories tie to that room and, quite literally, hinged on that sticker covered door.

In 1989, I traveled by train to New York attending the CMJ Music Convention on behalf of the station. The show took place in, of all places, the World Trade Center. It’s sad what time and terrorism would eventually do to that great building but my memories aren’t of death and destruction, but rather talking with Joey Ramone, hanging out with Ace Frehley (pictured below), spending an afternoon getting to know Ice-T and talking up the importance of our little station with an army of industry types.

Ace Frehley with Charlie back in 1989

As part of the convention, bands were performing throughout the city and our CMJ ID would get us into the clubs for free. We spent the nights lurking our way across the New York subway hopping from bar to bar taking in acts like the Butthole Surfers, George Clinton, Lilac Time, Nine Inch Nails, 3rd Base, Soundgarden, Poi Dog Pondering and many others.

One evening we got off the subway one stop too early and decided to walk the rest of the way through Alphabet City. We were traveling over to a club called The World to take in the Surfers (a show that I can honestly say had a profound impact on my life … again, a story for another time). On the way, we passed a couple blocks barricaded off by cruisers and manned by police. We asked an officer what was taking place and he calmly explained “a small riot”. Needless to say, it was an interesting night.

While in New York, I had the opportunity to visit the legendary CBGB and take in a show. That club made a real impression. I couldn’t tell you the name of the band I saw there that night (some punk, metal band) but I can tell you the impact the bar made on me. It felt like it had a life of its own and I think, in many ways, it did. It was one of those rare places where it seemed as if the people visiting were trying to live up to the expectations of the walls rather than vice versa. Those walls, covered as they were in band stickers, graffiti and rock history, reminded me all too well of our little modest sound studio door back home. I loved the place and spent as much time reading the walls as listening to the band.

For years after my return from New York, I proudly wore a CBGB sweatshirt from the club. Looking back, I probably wore it far more often than I should have. It’s pictured in that shot with Ace. One night I lost it at an all night party. I hated to see it go, but if I had to lose it, that seemed like a fitting way for it to strike out for a life all its own.

Many years later, I would sit in my home and watch news reports detailing the fight to keep CBGB from closing. It wasn’t lack of interest that threatened those hallowed halls but rather a fight with a local Bowery restoration committee and the actual owners of the property. CBGB was always, at its heart, just rented space. In the end, despite the hard work of many of music’s finest, the club lost its battle and closed in October of 2006.

That next year, I would sit in front of that same television and see reports that Hilly Kristal had died at the age of 75 to lung cancer. Hilly started CBGB and helped give a home to the birth of punk rock in America. He provided a venue that helped launch bands such as the Ramones, the Dead Boys, the Talking Heads, Blondie and so very many others. Just for giving us the Ramones alone, CBGB should have been deemed a national treasure and preserved. Instead, it ended with the words “RIP Hilly, we’ll miss you, thank you” spray painted on its long closed doors. CBGB closed in 2006 and Hilly died in 2007. It was a very tough couple years for rock n’ roll.

Now, five years later, I may not be opening a club but I am starting to evolve into a life that allows me to bring bands together and put on shows here in Cincinnati. I’ve spent a large chunk of my life loving and seeking out new and innovative music. I look forward to the coming day when the doors to some beer stained club open and I’m the one who helped put on that show. From the days in that sticker covered air studio to today, I feel like my life is just now starting to realize so many of those long sought aspirations of independence that resonated so clearly on the walls of CBGB. I feel like, here in this podcast, I’ve finally found my voice.  Thanks for listening.

One Responseto “Remembering Hilly Kristal And CBGB”

  1. Calamity Dawn says:

    After reading that I think I luv you just a little more! :-)