As far as I know there are not any bar owners in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but that needs to change. I nominate Hilly Kristal founder and owner of the famed CBGB. His story is the stuff of American dreams, as he helped user in an era and an entire genre of music as his Bowery New York bar introduced the world to Punk rock.
Few single locations are ever so entrenched with the beginnings of a movement. Take the Grunge for example. It is often described as “the scene” in Seattle associated more with a general location as opposed to a specific address. Sure there was Sub Pop Records but mostly the movement was driven by magazines and actual studio recordings as opposed to a single bar or night club. The CBGB was Punk.
Opening in late 1973, Kristal’s seminal club demanded young bands play only original material. The bar, benefiting from its location in the downtrodden neighborhood of a depressed New York City, happened to be near the home of a displaced Chicago poet named Patti Smith and four hoodlums who adopted each other and the surname Ramone. These acts and nearly 50,000 others performed nightly (often times performing numerous shows in a day) in the dimly lit dive that used concert fliers for wallpaper. CBGB was anything but its ironic acronym of Country Bluegrass and Blues. Though perhaps that’s what Punk was –the melding of all forms of true American music. But that’s a subject for another day.
I finally got around to watching the 2013 film release “CBGB.” Though panned by critics who felt its film style and mimicked performances of seminal rock stars falls flat, the film deserves another perspective. I suggest it be viewed as an important document of a time when America finally actually shaped rock and roll as opposed to just commercializing it.
“CBGB” the movie focuses exclusively on the patron saint of Punk- the aforementioned Mr. Krystal- through a series of anecdotes. Though some may find the comic book visuals and side bar commentary of John Holmstrom (Josh Zuckerman) and Legs McNeil (Peter Vack), -founders of the seminal fanzine Punk- and influential film director Mary Harron (Ahna O’Reilly) to be a missed opportunity, I give the film high marks for its historic content and substance. Every rock fan should watch this film to ascertain, if not a better understanding of Punk, at least to grasp its significance and heft as a movement.
I personally thought the Patti Smith (Mickey Sumner) scenes were well done and the hard to emulate bravura of Iggy Pop (Taylor Hawkins) and Blondie (Malin Akerman) are also quite serviceable performances of legendary acts; though, I can see how some might define them as mere caricatures. I suggest a more literal viewing of this movie. Watch it as a homework assignment for your History of American Music class. Much like viewing a film in high school, this picture may lack Oscar performances (though I thought Alan Rickman was very convincing as Krystal), it’s more important as a document of an era that gave the rock world iconic artists such as The Talking Heads, Television and for good measure The Dead Boys amongst hundreds of others. It’s also a fitting homage to Hilly Kristal future hall of famer.