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The Moses of Punk

America’s most storied urinals were lost to history last week. Hilly Kristal, the founder of CBGB’s, died on August 28 of lung cancer, just a few months after his legendary punk club closed its doors with the intention of reopening as a retrofitted knock-off venue in Vegas. As much as it pained me to envision CB’s as some kitsch attraction at New York, New York, the hotel, in a way the proposed transport and reassembly of the joint made sense. Kristal was the Moses of a Lower East Side rebellion. I can’t envision a better tribute to his legacy than to have his piss-stained ark wind up in a desert as dry as the Sinai.

CB’s fans acknowledge Kristal’s managerial genius without quite realizing that his father’s Zionism was the crucial factor. Hilly believed all musicians had to stake their own claims, envision their own identities; they couldn’t depend on headlining acts, especially in the gruesome era of disco. Genres were made to be broken. Kristal inaugurated the Do It Yourself style to independent music, a style embodied by the pluck of a young American kibbutznik.

Kristal was raised on a Jewish-Socialist collective in upstate New Jersey. Kristal’s father, a Russian immigrant, and his great-uncle were the founders of the Jersey Homestead, a farming collective for Jews trapped in city slums, and their philosophy could be summed up in one word – self-determination. Like the 19th century Romantics, they were firm believers in the restorative powers of nature. Indeed, their back-to-the-land visions included the utopia of an inviolable motherland, a Zion. Both became followers of Herzl. As Kristal told me just before his club closed, they wanted to “get Jews out of urban areas like Philadelphia and New York and out into the country” – the same impulse that led those original Zionists to hightail it to British Mandate Palestine and set up Kibbutzim. These weren’t religious zealots – they were nationalists who believed that Jews of the Diaspora could only achieve full personhood when they had a country of their own, one in which they could till the soil and subsist.

This “my way” philosophy was later adopted by Kristal even after he chose to leave the Jersey Homestead and head back to New York City. Once there, he pursued a music career in a variety of forms, all of them subject to diminishing returns. Giving up his cherished violin, which he’d never been able to perfect due to his chores on the farm, Kristal opted for a more “possible” future as an opera singer. For years he took classes, attended auditions and leant his tenor voice where he could. But when it ultimately became clear that this wasn’t working, he took to singing on a more modest level: he was a bass in the Radio City Christmas pageant headlined by the Rockettes. A Hebrew on high-kicking Broadway.

After a brief stint in the Marines, Kristal moved to the other side of the aisle, first as a salesman of Tin Pan Alley sheet music (a “rack jobber” in the lingo of the era), later as a manager of prestigious music venues such as the Village Vanguard. There he met Miles Davis, John Coltrane and that ultimate Jewish punk Lenny Bruce. By the late 1960s, Kristal was not only running his own Greenwich Village nightclub – Hilly’s On 9th Street – he was making plans to expand into the low-rent East Village, then an artistic slum of beatniks, bohos and drunks.

That East Side club, Hilly’s On the Bowery, didn’t open till 1969, and when it did, it was so sparsely attended that Hilly rapidly changed its name and focus, making it an Americana-only venue in the hopes of attracting a hip, post-Dylan audience. And yet the ingredient-limited melting pot of Country, Blue Grass and Blues (CBGB’s for short) didn’t prove any more accommodating than jazz in the ghetto of winos and Hells Angels. So when a couple of kids with bad skin and worse attitudes came in asking if they could perform, Hilly said yes, on one condition; that, like his father, like the Kibbutzim, like the new Jews of the post-shtetl Diaspora, they did it for themselves.

“You’ve got to perform your own music,” he told them. Unlike almost every other New York club owner at the time, he refused to settle for covers. He wanted originality, individualism—anarchy! Unable to take the stage himself, Kristal took to setting it for a new genre of live music. It was the birth of Do It Yourself rock, whence a whole tradition of garage bands and alternative scenesters soon followed.

Yet who among them realizes that the source of their most cherished punk principle is also one shared by the original settlers of Israel? And who among them wouldn’t be surprised to find that in Israel today that impulse has been turned on its head? Israeli punks no longer protest the occupation of the West Bank – they’ve become occupiers themselves, taking over abandoned buildings in Tel Aviv as part of a growing Squatters Movement. The exodus from the Bowery to the holy land has reduced the avenging flame of punk to mere embers, and two of Kristal’s great passions – homeland and music – have thus collided. CBGB’s was always a locus, whether it was supposed to be or not, for cultural and political revolution. It’s impossible to imagine Patti Smith’s vegetarianism, or David Byrne’s technocratic humanism without the wooden platform Kristal cobbled together from scratch. But if the maddening crowds of punk must now thrive elsewhere, in distant lands, they too will have to do it themselves. Hilly wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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