Debunking CBGB Myths: An Interview with Dana Kristal
ASCAP, CBGB t-shirts, and the truth about Tom Verlaine
I am not going to start this article with a quote from a punk band.
I've been uncomfortable with the press surrounding Hilly Kristal since his death on August 28, 2007. Even on the first day of coverage, news sources across the country chose to portray Kristal's death as a symbol of the death of the Downtown Manhattan music scene and Kristal himself as a tragic hero. “Losing CBGB meant it was only a matter of time before Hilly followed,” Steven Van Zandt is quoted as having said in a recent piece in The Villager. “There would be no Ramones without Hilly Kristal. And who would want to live in a world without them?” Articles about Kristal have continued to pour out in the past two weeks, but rarely have they contained any mention of the man's life outside of CBGB. Any biographical information has typically been limited to music-related events in his past and remarkably shows little concern for Kristal's life as a whole.
At a much younger age, long before I had ever heard of punk rock, I lived at 21 East Second Street, around the corner from CBGB. Also residing in this building were Hilly and his son Mark Dana Kristal, known to friends as Dana. I sat down to talk with Dana last Tuesday. As he was the one to report his father's death to the press, I had seen his name appear in almost every related article, though he was rarely quoted. I had read his somewhat critical comments about his father in the aforementioned Villager article. And I had read the New York Post's report that he was struggling with his sister over control of their father's assets. This was the first subject Dana chose to discuss with me.
“I asked [my sister] about a funeral, and she said they're having a memorial in October. I said, ‘Didn't you think to even ask me? I'm his son.' I guess that's why I contacted the news, was for her arrogance. She didn't treat me with any respect for feelings. She wanted to keep it a secret.” When I asked why his sister would want to keep their father's death a secret, Dana explained, “My sister wants to sell the label. But she's trying to make it quiet. They don't want me to talk about it to the news.”
The label he is referring to includes the CBGB-logo-bearing clothing sold at the CBGB Store. As the club itself suffered from financial troubles in its later years, it was this merchandise that kept business afloat. While the music itself became less profitable, the banner above it became increasingly valuable.
“I guess most of my life was an accident,” Dana postulated out loud. I had asked him to tell me about growing up around CBGB. He explained to me that he had lived with his mother during his young childhood. “I started seeing my father at Hilly's on Ninth Street when I was about nine years old. So I started hanging out in the bar. I didn't belong in a bar, but that's where I ended up.”
“So I just kept getting older, and Hilly's on the Bowery opened when I was maybe 12 or 13. Hell's Angels hung out there... it was a neighborhood bar, skid row. It was more exciting than it is now. It's very gentrified now and there's Duane Reade everywhere and NYU owns most of the land.”
“I met a lot of interesting people at Hilly's on the Bowery. Television was friendly. The Talking Heads were friendly... I thought Patti Smith blew me a kiss [during a show]... but I couldn't talk to her because I was too shy.”
“I was coming of age at the time Hilly's on the Bowery was... coming of age. I kept a journal right when it became CBGB. And people were telling me, ‘You could get a lot of money for it!' So I gave it to the floor manager and asked him to take it in the back and burn it.”
I asked Dana to talk more about the early CBGB years, but he seemed reluctant to discuss any events that are already part of the public CBGB mythos. “I don't know, it became this famous club and...” He started to walk away, mid-sentence. “Everybody already knows all the stories!”
Midway through our conversation, Dana began, with little provocation on my part, to set the record straight on certain matters of history. While many recent articles have cited Hilly as the co-founder of the Central Park Music Festival, few have mentioned how he lost his involvement. “[Co-founder Ron Delsner] gave my father a contract, and in the fine print, it said that if he ever changed sponsors, then he would no longer be the co-owner.” According to Dana, when his father switched from Rheingold Beer to a new sponsor the following year, he unwittingly surrendered his share of the rights to the festival.
While this news surprised me, it was simply an unfortunate detail omitted from mainstream coverage. Dana's next revelation, however, was far more radical. I was not prepared for what I was about to hear.
“Bill Paige and Rusty McKenna started punk rock.” I had never heard of either of these people. The official story, written by Hilly in his history of CBGB and rehashed by countless news and music publications, proclaims that punk rock began one day in 1974 when Tom Verlaine happened to stop outside CBGB. Depending on who is telling the story, he was either accompanied by Richard Lloyd and Richard Hell or by Patti Smith. Soon after, Hilly had booked Television to play on Sundays. Television's arrival brought along The Ramones, who were in turn followed by seminal punk artists such as Talking Heads, Patti Smith, The Stilettos, and The Dictators. And “the rest, as they say, is history.” This particular piece of history, however, seems to deserve a solid revision.
“[Bill Paige and Rusty McKenna] were here, and they convinced my father to let bands play at Hilly's. And that's really when punk rock started... This was in 1973, right before Hilly's became CBGB.” Upon hearing this, I couldn't decide which was more intriguing, the existence of a series of early, unknown, undocumented punk bands or the untold story of some of punk rock's earliest ideological founders. I decided to start by asking who these mysterious forefathers were. Dana told me that McKenna had died a few years ago, but, to the best of his knowledge, Paige was still alive.
“Bill wasn't a musician. He was just a guy who loved crazy acts... One time, I had a bag on my head and Bill Paige said, ‘Do that! People will love it!' That was his attitude towards performance.”
“Not any of the punk musicians that you read about were ever there when Original Music started.” Dana seemed outraged. “It wasn't called ‘punk rock' when they started bringing the music in, but it was punk stuff... Tom Verlaine saw them playing, and he asked if [Television] could play. I don't know why they don't print that.” This seemed to remind him of another public misconception about the history of CBGB.
Hilly Kristal has often been revered for his refusal to let bands play anything other than original music, a policy many believe to have been essential to the creative development of the New York punk scene. As Dana tells it, however, the rule came about because Hilly could not afford to pay royalty fees to ASCAP. By forbidding covers, he avoided this expense entirely.
“Isn't it incredible that my father could dominate the media so that they wouldn't interview anyone else?” I got the feeling that I was not really being asked a question. “I don't think he was consciously doing it... His motives were normal human motives. If they didn't write about ASCAP, then it would look like he had this genius idea.”
I have never owned a CBGB t-shirt. I have never felt that I deserved to, as I was never a part of what it represents. I never saw The Ramones play. I didn't even listen to them until 1999. The times I did go to CBGB were during what could safely be considered the club's least exciting and innovative period. In fact, by the time I even became vaguely aware of what the CBGB logo stood for, it had come to represent something else entirely. It had become a symbol of cool, and its proliferation had diluted the meaning until it actually, at least in the circles I traveled, came to represent the opposite. Today, it can safely be assumed that the majority of CBGB-shirt-wearers have chosen the logo for the image it represents, rather than as a matter of true personal allegiance.
This sort of thing happens frequently in popular culture. An idea, like the “punk” idea, naturally creates aesthetic representation, like the CBGB logo. An outside party, not privy to the creation of the idea, attempts to recreate the idea by appropriating its aesthetic representation. Taken out of context, this representation creates and becomes intrinsically linked to a new idea. The original idea, stripped of its tools of representation, becomes unrepresented, and therefore loses power.
But the CBGB shirt is not the issue at hand. The idea that is quickly losing power is that of CBGB itself. The club's wistful legend and symbolic significance are quickly replacing the meaning of the events that once took place there. People are more concerned with mourning the death of the downtown music scene than with remembering its life. The same fate, sadly, seems to have befallen Hilly Kristal.
“I feel really bad that my father went through this,” said Dana, toward the end of our conversation, referring to his father's illness. “I got very close to him in the last six months. Talking about the history is a completely different thing from talking about that.”
“I kind of resented that people took CBGB so seriously,” he told me. “It was never about the place. It was about the people. What my father did is not as important as my father.”