Rock'n'roll fans love their Meccas: Memphis' Gracelands besieged by pensioners in early August, Liverpool's Strawberry Fields enduring a constant dribble of tourists. The closure last October of CBGBs in Manhattan signalled the end of an overlong era for a generation of rockers who saw the sound that erupted from New York's Bowery dive - "punk rock" - as a call to arms. Hilly Kristal, founder of CBGBs and its lifelong seer, has now also expired. With no building and no bands, it's almost as if Hilly ceased to exist. That said, he was 79 and lung cancer isn't known to be kept at bay by three thrashing chords.
Hilly was unique, entering rock mythology without playing a note. Steeped in the New York music scene - he once booked Miles Davis at The Village Vanguard - Hilly lost his West Village venue, Hilly's, due to complaints about noise. So he shifted to 315 Bowery, perpendicular to Bleecker Street as it collided with skid row, and opened CBGB & OMFUG in December, 1973.
The club's full name stands for "Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers". Both by location and music format, CBGBs appeared immediately doomed. Then two austere young musicians, Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, approached Hilly, asking if their fledgling band, Television, could play CBGBs. Hilly gave Television a Sunday night residency and American rock music began reinventing itself.
Back then CBGBs was the only New York venue ready to give new bands somewhere to play. Initially, it was a quiet revolution: 1974 found The Stilletoes (featuring Deborah Harry) and The Ramones joining Television. February 14, 1975, saw the Patti Smith Group debut and CBGBs soon was the centre of a sonic hurricane: The Heartbreakers, Mink De Ville, Talking Heads, Suicide, Blondie and legions of others followed. When Malcolm McLaren realized managing The New York Dolls was a dead end he tried to entice Richard Hell back to London. Hell refused so McLaren borrowed his image and attitude and invented The Sex Pistols.
London vs New York punk: it never really was an issue. UK artists - The Jam, The Damned, Elvis Costello - landed and played CBGBs and Hilly's enthusiasm for new rock music ("no cover bands" was the rule) meant anyone trying to break into New York wanted to play his club. From Crowded House to Guns N' Roses, The Strokes to The White Stripes, CBGBs hosted them all. Not that Hilly was all embracing; having hit the punk jackpot he kept his music policy loud, noisy and white. No funk. Forget country, bluegrass and blues. Rap blossomed in The Bronx but never made it to The Bowery. Lenny Kaye, who played CBGBs final night with Patti Smith, estimated some 50,000 bands played over the venue's 33 year history. When New York rocked - which it hasn't for a long time - CBGBs was its heartbeat.
Those who played CBGBs vacillated about the venue: Joey Ramone lived in an apartment nearby and was a regular; his wake was held there. Willy DeVille, whose career was launched from CBGBs, told me: "I never go to any of those reunion things they invite us to. I'm not being snotty but that place was so horrible and they paid us so badly. I got crabs in the toilets. Johnny Thunders' crabs! Hilly didn't treat us with respect back then so I've no desire to revel in some nostalgic bullshit. We were all labelled as part of this American punk thing but I really didn't see any of us having much in common."
Like any stations-of-the-cross obsessed rocker I visited CBGBs when first in New York in 1990. Some godawful band were on stage. It was a filthy, graffiti-covered mess. Crowded, bad sight lines, no air conditioning, smelly, surly service. Yet it was CBGBs, the world's most famous rock'n'roll venue. London's 100 Club is older and arguably more prestigious but it lacked a Hilly . . . a someone who engages with the music and the kids and will endure the tiresome drudge of dealing with musicians night after night, year after year, decade after decade.
Eventually, I met Hilly. He was promoting a CBGBs -hemed punk compilation CD and happily admitted that he never noticed Television's early promise and initially thought The Ramones "dreadful". He chuckled a lot. As a man should do after opening a bluegrass venue then, somehow, giving birth to punk. Hilly made no great claims for himself: rents were cheap then, he noted, and he just wanted to put on original music.
New York changed radically over the decades but CBGBs remained grimy and noisy. Hilly reveled in the fact he ran the world's greatest, most influential rock'n'roll bar. When CBGBs was finally evicted by the Bowery Resident's Committee last October he announced the club was shifting lock, stock and urinal to Las Vegas. Why this never eventuated I've no idea but am pleased it didn't. Call me sentimental but punk rock, CBGBs and Hilly Kristal lived and died in the Bowery.