Hmm. What can you say about Hilly Kristal, the owner and brain behind the new NY epicenter of “New Wave” and punk music, CBGB’s? I thought he was a nice man, very fatherly in a bearded, shambling, slow-boned, drawling way. His reddish-brown bushy hair, beard, and china-blue eyes belied a kindly soul who was also keen to make his fortune somehow. I didn’t know it at the time, but CBGB’s at Bleecker and Bowery was a former Hell’s Angel’s hangout. That makes sense, just because Hilly DID somehow resemble a biker -- but a non-violent, avuncular Hell’s Angel kind of biker -- a friendly one, like a friendly gh-gh-gh-gh-ghost.
I must have been nigh oblivious back then, because these biker guys would regularly sashay into the place, get a drink, glare at the music scenesters, and lumber off to their (pray-to-God untouched) Harleys on the street.
Word was, Hilly made a deal with the Hell’s Angels that they could drink free and would “protect” the bar -- i.e., not kill any of us. Sounds good in retrospect; what the heck! Hilly liked to make a deal and he was a really good “people person,” very accessible. We approached him in early ’77 to get a gig there (for Nervus Rex) and he was amiable enough about it -- we did get the gig and played there, regularly.
To my recollection, the way it went musically was, Television started out at CB’s as the Neon Boys in ‘74, playing regularly, like paid rehearsals (probably not much $ but they’d get a few rounds of drinks, most likely). Then later in ’74, 75 Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and the Ramones joined in. . . then in like, ’76, along came The Shirts, Blondie, Tuff Darts, the Mumps, and other pretty darn interesting groups, including Richard Hell and the Voidoids. But then, I’m not acting as fact checker here so some of my info could be slightly off (but just slightly!).
Hilly managed a few of the bands -- like the Shirts -- and later on, Artie Lamonica of the Shirts lamented, if only they’d have done a cover song like the Talking Heads did with “Take Me to the River,” they could have had bigger success. But most bands were too proud to do anything but original songs. At CBGB’s, we in Nervus Rex would always enjoy doing covers like “Stop, Stop, Stop,” “Baby Blue,” or “Venus” and throw them into our sets. But then, each band had its own rules, its own goals and priorities.
And The Shirts had the adorable, talented, hard working Annie Golden, whose onstage vocals cut through like a mini Grace Slick with curly hair, cracking gum and talking Brooklynese. All of The Shirts were very talented -- and real nice guys, very down to earth. My recollection of them is either onstage or hanging out, smiling -- esp. Artie Lamonica, bless his heart! His later band, Rome 56, was quite good and more rootsy, to boot.
And as much as I liked being part of the CBGB’s scene, and seeing Hilly, Roberta, BG, and Mort with his ever-present hardhat -- and Charlie the hippie soundman (he was a really good guy, too), I didn’t like when everything changed. . . but change things must, as that’s the only constant in life: change.