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CBGB and Hilly Kristal at the Stereo Society
CBGB and Hilly Kristal
Charlie Martin In Interview
A shorter period as general manager, chief engineer, booker (and probably chief cook and bottle washer) at Bond’s Casino in Times Square was followed by 14 years as chief engineer and occasional promoter with Jerry Brandt at the Ritz, probably New York’s most energetic mid-sized club in that time 1981-94. At the time, he worked as executive producer of the MTV show Live From The Ritz.
In 1994, going against the grain in believing that video on the Web would be huge, he co-founded his Webcasting company Media On Demand, which was bought out but continues with him in management as OnStream Media. He was right. His passion is still concerned with music, having contributed to the careers of Randy Fredrix, Brian Setzer, Steve Forbert….and of all the CBGB performers for whom he provided careful sound.
Charlie was interviewed by Mike Thorne at the Stereo Society from 4pm September 5 2013.
You are a music person and still very active. Was your first visit to the club in search of a gig?
Yes. I had come from Chicago with my band – I was the manager. We had closed some sort of spec production deal at Electric Lady with Eddie Kramer involved (in which we were actually paying for the time but he was going to make us rich and famous after that). We were staying at a benevolent pot dealer’s mansion in Brooklyn, and basically all of us were refugees from the south side of Chicago. The leader of the group, Randy Fredrix, told me ‘Oh you’ve got to go over to CBGB, see what’s up.’ So we had recorded at Electric Lady and then went over to CBGBs on a rainy day. At the front door was Hilly Kristal, with his guitar, all by himself. And another guy, Jonathan the saluki, was lurking somewhere. I liked Hilly immediately because at that point I hadn’t found anybody in the music business who was interested in music. You know: my experience had been the south side of Chicago, and the north side of Chicago, and the west side of Chicago, which are not known for their aesthetic sophistication. I came to New York and ran into Eddie Kramer and some other folks, and still hadn’t found anybody who was just in the music for the music. And Hilly obviously was, from the first moments we exchanged glances – this was somebody who had a heart-felt love of music, and a very eclectic love of music. And I think I could claim that too. So we were simpatico right from the beginning.
The club was very eclectic in style – you could go there in scruffy T shirt and jeans or a tuxedo. The music was also widely varied…
It’s true. It has the reputation for being a punk club but it was more than that, I think in stark contrast to most of the famous clubs and scenes that have existed in music throughout history. They tend to be very genre-narrow. At CBGB, you had artists breaking out of such diversity, and even the punk label that was applied there was very broad. You know: to call Blondie a punk band, and that stretches all the way to the Dead Boys, and that stretches to the Ramones. There are a lot of Blondie ballads, and it’s very hard-pressed to see how that would fit into punk. And then you walk on over to the Talking Heads. This is such a broad range you start to wonder – does this really fit into the term punk? – and then you can go even farther and you can start talking about some of the other artists that broke out of there, Steve Forbert (who I was instrumental in helping along).
The thing we tried to do there (at least I know Hilly did, and when I had the opportunity later to expand my roles from stage manager to engineer and eventually to booking agent): neither one of us had an artistic axe to grind. We weren’t committed to any one genre, but tried to listen to folks who had good ideas, good songs, good sounds, something new. We just put that up and tried to respond to what worked.
There was also this thing that the groups supported one another. They were very supportive of each other even though they were extremely diverse in their artistic bent. So that was most encouraging, I thought, and it was really what I was looking for. I wanted the place to be a laboratory where new groups were developed, and of course that’s why we built that enormous sound system in 1976 or something? ’77? We spent $107,000 on it in a club that was a slum and was supposed to hold three hundred people. (Of course we’d put in six hundred.) The numbers are just madness, but it was as advanced and as custom-crafted a technical solution for that room as you could come up with.
Oh, absolutely. And in fact the sound man at one point for Max’s [Kansas City] claimed Max’s went out of business because all the groups wanted to play at CB’s, because of that sound system. Even though acoustically the room was a real difficult problem. It got smaller toward the back, and you had to figure out where to push sound into it and we came up with a system that had long-throw 12” boxes on the top to push the mid-range and we had a low end that was created with 15” W bins, so you had an enormous amount of ability to really push, but you didn’t have the floppiness of 18”s. And then you had a whole array of JBL horns scattered all over the place, some long-throw some short-throw some pancake some super tweets, just all over the place.
And on top of that we had something I really insisted on: we got a 16-track [tape recorder] in there. And so the idea was you would record a band while they played, and you would work after you got them, playing in the same acoustic environment with the tape, and mixing in the same acoustic environment. And, of course, after the bands were gone at four in the morning we’d crank it up and work all night. And it worked wonderfully.
What would be a typical work night for you?
The hours were just a function of mad youth and other inspirations. There was a point when I was living in the club because we had no place to live. The day would start at about noon – you would recover from the night before and have something to eat and start your engine. And then you would be on the phone trying to book the joint and handle the logistics of getting the whole thing going. Then, later on as the thing started to pick up steam and people would be buying tickets, you’d start the transition to the load-in of the bands, which would start in the late afternoon. Then you’d start to bang through some sound checks, start to give the show some shape. And then there’d be the madness of the people crowding in and then you’d actually do the shows. We’d get done with the shows at 3, 3.30 in the morning. Sometimes we’d be blessed with an earlier stop but often-times it went that late. Then we’d get rid of the crowd and crank up the 16-track.and start going over the tapes. Obviously the only way you can do that is if you’re inspired, not just spiritually, unfortunately (laughter). I remember my personal record was a little over three days of continuous inspiration, doing the set-up, show, record, set-up, show, record.
But you know it was a very effective laboratory and there were a lot of bands that broke off that tape deck and closed deals that didn’t even come from our scene. The Police I think closed their record deal with a 2-track that we recorded while they played live, that we handed to A&M. And I think the same can be said for AC/DC – their show I think sealed their relationship. There was a big show they came down and did after they had played the Palladium [on East 14 Street]. And there were many others I’m sure that I can’t remember.
Yeah, it was a good laboratory, it was something else.
In earlier days, we’d joke about CB’s time, in other words that everything ran later and later. But by the end of the 70s, the club ran like a well-oiled machine. Did you ever think you’d see that transition?
Well, you know: no. But after a while you get it down. And there was a certain difference in the dynamic by then too. Early on, it was more of a workshop kind of a thing, and even though bands came in from all over the world, in some ways it was a more leisurely paced affair. Later on we had a larger number of bands that came in, and we pretty much had to stick to a schedule, or you’d have people who came from far away and wouldn’t be able to play. And we got better at it too.
But all the way through we kept hatching great groups. Later on were the Bloodless Pharaohs, which I thought should have been the next big thing to carry on the New Wave, or whatever they were calling it at the time. That should have been the center group to propel the next thing. I ran all over town with their tapes. Nobody would sign. Nobody even knew what we were talking about, and by that time I realized the A&R people had just left the planet. They weren’t the kinds of people who used to create the scene. They didn’t know what it was, they didn’t know what real music was, they were involved with all kinds of other things, who knows what. I shudder to think, in some cases. And this was a band that was filling large clubs, they were packing out the Heat and these other places that held six hundred, a thousand people and so forth. Couldn’t convince anyone to sign them. Who knows what they were signing at the time?
The record companies had fallen back into their signing ‘this thing’ or ‘that thing’ instead of recognizing something new. And then Brian Setzer went to England and started fooling around with the rockabilly thing. When he came back, I said we’ve got to make this happen, we’ve got to make this Pharaohs thing happen, this is our artistic destiny, and on and on. I made another run around town – nobody would sign them. And then he packed up and went back to Britain and got rich and famous as a rockabilly Stray Cat. But it was a tragedy in a sense. What I saw happen at that point to the New York music scene, and I think to music scenes in general, is that the mechanisms to take it to the next level had simply completely atrophied through money and decadence and arrogance and ignorance. [At this point, Thorne was connected with EMI Records in London and Capitol in the US. He tried, independently, to warm them to the band, but failed.
CBGB was never about ‘finding the next Sex Pistols or the next whatever. CBGB was always about ‘now’. Ronnie Ardito (of the Shirts) put it nicely: he said, when asked was this punk or new wave or whatever, said, ‘none of those. It’s our music.’ But then another transition: CB’s saw the return of the bands which had been signed, and turned into a showcase venue…
Yes that’s correct. It became a situation where bands would want to come and audition. They would come in four or five, six a night, and that was also why the schedules became more solidified because you had to march them in and march them out. Earlier it was more of an artistic open-ended experience, and it was kind of hard to predict what people would do. But I suppose such kinds of transitions are inevitable.
The structure of the club just seemed to emerge. In the earliest days you just seem to have evolved a set of rôles between you…
Well that was true of all of New York too. The wonderful thing about Manhattan back then was that you could invent yourself. There was a lot of space to become yourself, and to develop yourself, and become new things. I came to New York with the idea of becoming a band manager and then I started helping stage-manage the club, and then getting more involved with the technology and suddenly somehow we discovered that I knew how to mix. And I started doing that in a serious way. Later on, I became a promoter and did some other things as you probably remember, the Clash at Bond’s [a large former disco at Times Square] and so forth.
I often said that you could walk into New York back then and announce that you were a guru, and if you did a pretty good job at it everybody would say, ‘he’s a guru.’ Nobody would check your credentials. ‘Sounds good, he’s a mixer.’ And I think a lot of people were like that: they invented themselves. It was the kind of environment where there were a lot of roles to be filled: we needed mixers, and we needed promoters, we needed this and that. It was a situation where you could just walk in and invent yourself and express yourself, both musically but in lots of other roles too. So it was wonderful. It was a paradise.
Now? You think now, the credentials, the hierarchy and the procedures that you have to do to do anything in music or out of music or in any other endeavor. But of course part of the reason for all that is was that it was complete chaos. New York had collapsed. For example: CBGB, for I don’t know how long, operated without a liquor license. I often called it ‘Apocalypse Now With Musical Instruments’. It was completely tabula rasa for somebody who wanted to do things.
And the other nice thing too was it was such a barter economy. It didn’t require any money, nobody had any money. You just existed, you lived off the chili and the burgers out of the back of the club. It was a time and place that people couldn’t even imagine. And that out of a neighborhood that was absolute oblivion, violence, poverty – you know the stuff that was going on on the street there. I will say to anybody who wants to listen that CBGB was the Fort Apache of the Lower East Side and the reason all those fancy assed condos and art boutiques (and I use the word ‘art’ loosely) and clothes and all that stuff is down there is because Hilly Kristal and CBGB settled the place. And the rest of us, who put our asses on the line. And it was not easy. We had the Hell’s Angels as our security and we needed them! It was a remarkable, remarkable time. It would be very difficult to even describe to people today. They can’t even take it in.
I always felt very comfortable at the club, even if there was mayhem outside…
Well that’s true, and it’s because it was a very inter-personal club. If you walked in and you were providing that kind of spirit to the place, it was incredibly warm and incredibly creative. But I sometimes thought, that if you weren’t a creative person or an artist, or a pretty girl, or a Hell’s Angel you really shouldn’t be at CBGB. You shouldn’t be wandering around that neighborhood, because you had to have those kind of credentials to fit into the dynamic of it. If you were too square, or too arrogant or too this or too that the forces of nature could be very dangerous (laughs). And could be conjured up spontaneously at a moment’s notice!
It always seemed to me that you just had to be sociable…
That’s true, but you had to have the right sociable. Like I said, creative, pretty girl or Hell’s Angel was really the best way to go (laughs).
Just don’t spill the Angel’s drink…
No, no, that’s bad, that’s really bad.
Easy question: what are your favorite performance memories?
That is actually a very difficult question. There were so many times that I was completely blown away and inspired. And you would look at the scene and think, ‘oh my goodness we are really doing something here.’
I can think of several. We did a St Mark’s church poetry benefit at one point, after it burned down, and my dear partner Helena Hughes, who collaborated with Allen Ginsberg and James Schuyler, brought in all the poets. I brought in all the rockers. For three days we had all the giant poets and rockers from around the world. You know, everybody came in. And that was one of those deals where you would look at the stage and the audience and you’d do a poet and then you’d do a rocker then you’d do a poet and then a rocker. Every once in a while you’d have a gig and this kind of feeling goes through you, ‘oh dear, this is something really historic, this is very different, this is a cross-genre inter-art kind of a thing, it really hadn’t been done before. There was a strange energy to the whole thing.
I was blown away by a number of the performances by Sun (of course I’m a bit biased about them), Randy Fredrix’ power rock which was on the CBGB live album, with a rather remarkable explosion on one song . I can think of times when the Dead Boys would blow me flat. As a mixer, you have to have a certain distance from it in order to be able to do your job, you have to be thinking about levels or, in their case, just holding onto the system like you’re on the back of a tiger. But there were times when they would blow me out of my professional mind space and for a moment I would become a fan. I’d have to stop that and get control of the situation again.
And then I could go on and on, you know, moments with Patti Smith, moments with John Cale, the list could really just go on and on. Dozens, dozens, dozens of times that were really just completely remarkable. Steve Forbert a couple of times were remarkable experiences for me. Very difficult question actually…
The artists must have been very comfortable, and therefore co-operative…
They were very comfortable. Again, it goes back to that sound system, back to the completely artistic – everybody in the place was artistically oriented. It was a very personal expression. That sound system was so powerful, and the way it was built meant that the singer and the performers were really having the same acoustic experience as the audience, because the sound would back up onto the stage. We didn’t have that much of a stage monitor thing going on: we really just had two side fills and a wedge for the drummer to kind of glue it together. It was really just one huge, very tonal, powerful unit that everyone experienced at once. I think they were very comfortable in that respect. There weren’t all the things that would remove you from directly communicating with the audience in most venues now. There are very few situations now where the players and the audience are really in the same space, both physically and acoustically. So it was a very intimate experience.
Do you see any small clubs around now that resemble CB’s back then?
When I go to clubs I don’t unfortunately see the kind of scene that we used to have. But it might be just because I’m square, I’m out of it now. But you know, how could you? How could you do what we did then? You’d be arrested! I mean, all joking aside, it would be impossible. It was just so free. The police didn’t look at us because they saw, ‘the neighborhood’s better with them around than without them, so whatever they’re doing, who cares?’
There was less trouble.
Exactly, You know we had creative young people coming in there, terrible to say, but they were probably underage. That’s not to say anything bad was going on with them because we were very careful about what was going on – you know, drugs and everything. Very careful, very intimate. But some of these kids were extremely creative and they were often connected with very wealthy and significant families in the city. That could never happen nowadays. The way the whole dynamic worked with the bands, and the hours that we kept – now everything is so locked down. If somebody smokes a joint nowadays, they’ll shut a place down. It’s impossible. How could you possibly have that kind of experience that we had? Impossible.
Did it shock you when CB’s became establishment? It was the place to play, but less so much for emergent bands. There had been a golden era.
I think that was kind of inevitable, because as things became less secret, less esoteric, you know it had to, that had to happen. It’s just inevitable. You can’t have that kind of a creative cauldron for long. Two weeks before I got there CBGB had its famous article in Newsweek, But you know when a place gets too famous and too exposed – and the city was changing itself and the neighborhood was changing – you can’t have that kind of madness that creates new groups going on. You can’t have that kind of interaction between the arts. When you think about the way poetry interacted with the early groups: Patti Smith with the poets and some of the other groups. The authors and the poets and the rockers were all mixed together and they were all hatching all of these wonderful things. That kind of cross-pollination couldn’t occur later on because the city was changing. Things became less esoteric and less unpredictable.