CBGB and Hilly Kristal at the Stereo Society
CBGB and Hilly Kristal
B G Hacker In Interview
BG Hacker was interviewed March 21, 2011 at the Stereo Society, New York.
BG was often the first person you’d meet on starting an evening at CBGB, defining a pleasant mood on the way in. So many establishments overlook how much the mood and pleasure to be had inside reflects the people at the door. He manned front of house for years, courteously, socially and firmly. Later, he kept on at weekends even when pursuing other activities during the week. Like so many at the club, he felt part of the family and a previous job became a vocation.
B G Hacker
Mike Thorne: How did you arrive at CBGB? What was the attraction in the very early days?
BG Hacker: Initially I arrived at CBGB as a customer. You know, as a fan looking for music, and I’m trying to think if I had my band already or not, because that was very early on. I guess not because we played in the studio for a couple of years before we actually attempted to get gigs and play out. So, I’ll say that going into CBGB probably preceded that by a year. You know the back door was something that you had to have been there already to know about, so yes, most people were at the front door.
When did the club really get lift-off?
I think that maybe in the year 75/76…I think that was a very active year for the club.
There was a broad range of musical styles. Was this a particular attraction?
No, I won’t say it was, I mean it was always great to go because you never knew what you were going to see. So the range of styles going on there made it exciting, I might not have always have liked everything that I saw but it was always good.
What phases did you see the club go through when installed at the front door?
Well, I think in the beginning, there was a core group of people who were there every night. It was the same people: it was mostly musicians, it was bands, and I guess it was like everyone’s local pub. You could go there, you would see a whole bunch of people that you knew. Someone you knew might be playing, and there was a sense of community there. As the music scene became publicized people started coming down to see what was going on, and then there were sort of two groups there. There were the people there who were there all the time and there were people there who would come to observe, and then when the Mudd Club opened, all those people that had…might have been about ’78 maybe?… A lot of people who had been coming every night, and sort of made that their local hangout, gravitated there; and, we lost a little bit of that core group because the Mudd Club was doing different things, they were doing theme nights and the programming there was extremely eclectic. So they’d have local bands one night and Eddie Kendrix the next – that is something that would have never happened at CBGB. And, there was another sense of community going on with these theme nights that they were doing and I think that was appealing to a certain group of people who were going there every night.
Eventually, the club scene in New York would decline under pressure from local regulations and the rent. When did that start to hit CBGB?
Well it came maybe in waves. Ultimately it became the end of CBGB but I think there were some lean years in the ‘80s. There were a lot of clubs that came and went. We always had, I guess you could call it the nostalgia factor, the fact that something significant had happened there and people really wanted to come and see that – to see where it had happened, which was an advantage we had over any other place that was open at that time, where maybe the only appeal was to go and see a band. We had a history and the place remained unchanged for its entire life. So I will say: in the ‘80s, there was a drought and things were lean, and then, I guess around 2000, the downtown scene became so popular and the real estate became so incredibly overpriced which made it difficult for people to open clubs.
Even as you were developing your activities and business away from the club, you kept coming back to work the door at weekends. What kept you coming back?
Well a couple of things…I mean it was my friendship with Hilly which spanned 30 plus years. I really liked coming and I really thought of it as helping out. It was the family of people that worked there, it was the bands that came in. In a way it was like coming to a party every weekend and being the host. It wasn’t a job that you dread or don’t look forward to. It was easy for me because I’ve been doing it so long and I knew exactly what to do and the people who worked there were so great and it was always such a great experience, I mean: the music was fantastic.
Who got in for free, and why?
So we always had the policy that musicians that played there could come in for free. So if you played, you could get in for free. It didn’t mean you could bring somebody with you but a musician who played at the club could come in for free. That doesn’t mean that if you played there once fourteen years ago you could come back and say, ‘I played here once in 1984,’ but if we knew you, if it was within the last few years, if you were in a band…most bands that came were repeat customers, so to speak. They didn’t just play once, people played several times over a period of years and a lot of them certainly became like extended family.
Did you ever turn away a serious pop star because it didn’t fit the rules of the house?
No, never because it didn’t fit the rules of the house, there were a couple of instances where we were well beyond capacity and weren’t letting anybody else in. That showed it was incredibly popular, when people were just backed to the door and someone would show up. I know Drew Barrymore came once with some people. Her boyfriend was in a band – I can’t remember the name of it – and we couldn’t let them in, I felt horrible. Another time very, very, very early on I think Richard Hell was playing and it was a similar situation, we were way over capacity and people were just backed up to the door. I think Mick Jagger came, I didn’t actually see him but somebody who was working the doors said ‘I just turned Mick Jagger away’ – it’s an undocumented case.
The local police precinct seemed unsympathetic, but the club never made the police blotter. How did you keep order?
You might be talking about two different things. We were definitely harassed by the cabaret squad so to speak. The people who came in to make sure that all your licences were in order and that the liquor bottles were properly stored, we had all the sanitation, the dishwater was a certain temperature, these kinds of things. The Building Department, those people were constantly harassing us but the actual local police we had a fantastic relationship with. I credit a lot of that to the staff who were working security, who really knew what they what they wanted to hear and how to deal with things. They knew that we were on top of things in terms of people getting out of hand and we knew what to do. The precinct itself we were OK with, we didn’t really have issues. It was more the cabaret squad.
Security was always very low-profile…
We always used people who were sort of in bands or patrons of the club at one time. People who knew the way that we liked to operate and knew that it wasn’t a place where fights broke out. We just really tried to keep things orderly.
CBGB seemed to have fewer fights than elsewhere…
Yeah I think so. I knew of course you know…early on it was Merv, his physical presence and the way he was able to deal with people. He was incredibly calm and knew how to handle people, and that was always great. People were really there to hear music, it wasn’t so much a pick-up bar, it wasn’t full of testosterone. Everyone was there to hear the music and because of these two things we had less issues than did a lot of other clubs.
The tone of a place is always thanks to front of house…
I mean we never had a door policy, we never discriminated against anyone because of the way they were dressed or if it was a large group. We were open to everybody, it was really for all people.
What were your most memorable nights?
I think the Blitz Benefit back in ‘77, the drummer for the Dead Boys Johnny Blitz, had been injured in a fight and there was a benefit over three days, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, to raise money for his hospital bills and defence. It was one of those situations where everyone came together. It really was like a community thing, but that community was Blondie and the Ramones and of course the Dead Boys and it was just local bands, smaller bands and stars – John Belushi played drums for the Dead Boys. It was a real community event and it was great to see that show of support for a fellow musician but the talent that weekend was also stellar, so every night was incredible and that always sticks in my mind as being a jam-packed three days of music, Patti Smith certainly performing many, many times, always an incredible performance, always riveting. John Cale always put on an incredible show, so there were a lot over the years, but those things stand out.
You keep returning to ‘community’. How did it evolve?
I don’t know if it was deliberate, I think it might have been a by-product of the fact, just sort of our door policy, letting musicians in for free who had played at the club. That certainly played a big part in developing that community. A lot of people who worked there played in bands, everybody had that in common, that interest and our policy sort of supported that. I don’t know that it was intentional, I mean the intention might have been to sell more drinks.
How much was Hilly a father figure?
I think Hilly was definitely a father figure to a lot of people, there’s no question about that. He was available, he was always a presence there. I know a lot of people didn’t feel they could approach him, but the people who did I think really developed a relationship with him and found him to be very fatherly in his advice. He always had advice for everybody, about their bands and if people had questions about their personal life, he had advice there as well.
Do you see any contemporary clubs fulfilling the role of CBGB?
I don’t know of any clubs that fulfilled the role of CBGB although I’m sure that there are. I don’t go out as much as I used to and when I do go out it seems like most places are just venues and not hang-outs. I think any place that fosters local talent and provides a sense of community for musicians offers that role of a place like CBGB, but I’m not aware of them and I couldn’t list them.
What comes first, community or music?
I think community comes first. People with common interests getting together. That’s how you meet other musicians, and listening to other music is inspiring to a lot of people and I think the community comes first. You can go just about anywhere and hear music, there’s no shortage of that, but places you can actually meet people with similar interests in a social setting that’s not stressful or conductive to that sort of thing: it’s hard to find.
What clubs were parallel with CBGB?
You know Max’s Kansas City and the Mudd Club are two clubs that really come to mind. Max’s and the Mudd Club both definitely had a sense of community that endures to this day. Other clubs came and went, certainly had great shows, certainly had communities of their own. Danceteria was different. They always had music, they had a great booking policy there. The Peppermint Lounge…there were all these places but they weren’t as exclusively…well the Pep Lounge was more musically orientated but I don’t think they had that sense of community. Danceteria definitely had a community but it wasn’t as band-orientated as the Mudd Club and Max’s were.
Were there imitators?
Well there were other clubs at the time that didn’t endure, Mother’s on 23rd Street, the 82 Club on 4th Street, the Mercer Arts Centre, the Broadway Hotel, that building. There were always other venues but nobody really had the longevity, places just kind of came and went.
Why did CBGB persist beyond all others?
You know partially it had to do with Hilly’s commitment to our audition nights on Mondays and Tuesdays. It really gave people an opportunity to put themselves out there. A lot of these other clubs didn’t have that, so we kind of gave people a leg-up and of course if people were good they were invited back or if they had the potential to develop they would also be invited back to play. So, I think in a large part that helped contribute to it. The other thing that helped contribute to our longevity was our sense of history: people kept coming because we had a reputation and because something significant had happened there.
CBGB always seemed to run on time…
Well we tried. The technicians and the engineers always tried to run on time. It was different in the early days when bands were playing two sets. There would be two bands a night and you’d play an early and a late set. In the 80s, to accommodate the huge number of bands who wanted to play we changed to one set. We went from having two bands a night to three and sometimes four bands, four sets a night. Of course it went from there, so sometimes we had five depending on the evening, that leaves time for people to run late, people to run over, the change-overs. It became more difficult but we always tried to run on time.
Do you think online has changed the way music develops?
It’s definitely altered the way that people get their music, I don’t think there’s any substitute for going out and seeing a band live. There’s nothing like that, watching a snippet or a video from a club on YouTube will never replace actually going and experiencing it. And sometimes when I go to live shows I’m astounded by the number of people holding digital devices recording the band rather than being in the moment but I guess that’s just generational.