CBGB and Hilly Kristal at the Stereo Society
CBGB and Hilly Kristal
Cosmo Ohms In Interview
Like many at the club, Cosmo made up the rules as he went along as CBGB developed to become a new music focus. Here, he tells of his own dramatic start in lighting, and reflects on the club during the classic period from the mid-seventies to the nineties.
Cosmo is currently managing Dianne Meinke. Dianne has had two number one hits on the Independent Music Network and recently took the Most Favorite Mainstream Artist of 2012 Award.
You started out as the food guy at the club, when providing it was a condition of the license. How did you become the lighting guy?
Things change. Karen [Karen Kristal, Hilly Kristal’s wife who was involved with the running of the club] came in. I’d made her a lovely omelet. She said, ‘this is not suitable for my dog’. And I said, ‘you know what you can do with this omelet, Karen? You can take this, and the pan it came in and shove it where the sun don’t shine.’ I grabbed a meat cleaver off the butcher block, slammed it down on the butcher block and said, ‘Karen, it’s time for you to leave while you still can.’ And I chased her out. I was promptly fired for it, and Hilly said to me, ‘take a week off. Call me up next week, I’ll find something else for you.’ I think he secretly was very happy that I did it, because he couldn’t.
Karen, in the beginning, really supported the club. She had a job and she could buy liquor, and have money for the hamburgers and stuff to keep it open. And Hilly was also doing his moving business, they were all trying to keep the place alive. Karen was very important to it.
And part of it was when I came back for the closing of the club . I had a nice sit-down with Karen at the t-shirt store [on St Marks Place] the day after the club closed on Monday. And I said, ‘Karen, I gotta tell you – first of all any bad feelings that were between you and me I want to completely dismiss. Whatever I did I did it, I’m sorry for it but I gotta tell you I secretly really salute you and Hilly because you pulled off a miracle down here, and I’m thankful to be a part of it.’ She told me that she had met Hilly when he was a young man, he’d just come over from New Jersey and he wanted to be an opera singer. She said he was a really very handsome man. He had a beautiful voice, She said, ‘I fell in love with him and his voice.’ I learned something I’d never learned from Hilly about what brought them together, what brought Hilly to New York, and out of that came CBGB.
How did you arrive at the club, and what drove you?
I came to CBGB via Hawaii. I had a band in Hawaii called Theater Of Madness, and we had gone about as far as we could go in Hawaii. We were opening up for major acts there, Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf – bands that were big in the 60s. We were looking for a promoter to come here and lift us up and bring us to America and make successes out of us.
It didn’t happen exactly like that. We developed our theatre troupe Theater Of Madness and were integrating theater, real multi-media before it got adopted in computers, which was sensual integration: sound, lighting, movies, dance, smells, audience interactions. What we really wanted to do was Broadway, so we came into New York, got a lot of money which helped us get over here. We moved down, we were up in North New York for the first three months and then we moved down to Soho and started to get familiar with the New York scene. We heard about this club CBGB and it was still very much in the underground at that point,
This was ’72 – ’73. We got a residence at a place on 36th Street, Space Renovated Development. There were a lot of people breaking in: Joseph Chakin, Joseph Papp, Alwyn Nikolai. We were moving more towards that. Well the punk scene was just in its infancy in the underground. We’d played Theater Of Madness, we’d showed it a few times. We’d got kicked out of our space in the development because we were too radical. I don’t know how that’s possible in New York but we found the line.
At that point, by ’75 a friend of mine I’d bailed out of jail in Hawaii, which ended up saving his life. He wound up doing business with ABC Paramount. He calls me up and says, ‘hey Cos, I’m in New York, I’m working with ABC Paramount and I remember that you saved my life.’ He said, ‘I want to talk to you – what are you and Dosa doing?’ I said ‘We’re doing a new project called Theater Of Madness.’ He gave me a contract, I brought it back to the band and at that point our drummer was considering going up to Boston to join his parents and take over their business. So we’d finally got the witches tail – and the band broke up.
So I walked around for about eight months in a total depression, what the fuck am I doing, I came 5 000 miles to do this, I’m not going to leave the city like a dog with my tail between my legs. So Dosa and I put a new project together called Star Tune and we trimmed it all down to three minute songs, no long jams any more, no theater, no props – just what was the beginning of a punk rock group.
I came more from a Beach Boy background, surf music, but to me punk music was about surf music double-timed and stripped down with the rhythm section. And if you listen to the early Ramones, that’s the Beach Boys stripped down with a hard rhythm section and they got it turned up loud, and a throbbing rhythm section, and they just were like a Panzer division. They came in, came out, five minutes later 45 minutes had elapsed and they were finished with the set and created pandemonium.
So that drew us into the punk scene. We played CBGB – remember the band we saw last night, what were they called? New York Junk? Joe Stabnick. At the same time we auditioned, Joe Stabnick had also auditioned. And I remember distinctly there were four bands there. This was in the very early days, and I guess Hilly had promised everyone the 10 o’clock spot.
So there we were setting up stage, and of course all of us had reasons why we should have the 10 o’clock spot. That was the time the companies would come down and see you (if they’d come down and see you). So we were sitting there fighting over the spot. ‘Hilly told us we had the 10 o’clock spot.’ ‘No, we had the 10 o’clock spot.’ Other bands come in. ‘No we had the 10 o’clock spot.’ You go to the front to get Hilly and Hilly comes back – ‘Hey Hilly, who’s got the 10 o’clock spot?’ ‘Look , you can work it out amongst yourselves, or you can pack up and get out of the club.’ So obviously we worked it out. Joe had Uncle Sun and we had Startoon. And that was our beginnings.
We came all this way to play original music, and there was no place to do it. The few places we had found were exhausted. At that point there was only CB’s and Max’s [Kansas City]. And you either got in one door or the other, you know you belonged to one gang or the other. And I realized after I played there, and I was trying to get gigs with Hilly, and this was before speed dialing and robo dialing, you’d sit there banging the phone number until you got through. I started to realize, Jeez I gotta be closer to the action here. I’m only a block down the line from the fire hydrant and the water’s been unpurified. So I need to get closer to the source and be there on the inside. So I started hanging out there more.
First thing that opened to me was the cooking position. I took that, until that got rescinded. And then a week later, after I got fired I came back. Hilly was sitting over a beer mug and a slinger in it. And I said, ‘Hilly, I figured out what I should do to pay my penance.’ I said, ‘I got some lights in my studio, I’ll bring them in and give them to you for a week for free, so if you can see if you like what I do with lighting or not.’ And, ‘OK you can do that.’
So I brought the lights in, and that first week it was like all the stellar bands that came out of CBGBs were playing in rotation. I think the first night John Cale and Lou Reed came and jammed until eight in the morning. And I knew most of the bands’ music because I hung out there when it was all new and being a musician I could hear the arrangements and know where they were going with them. And I was just starting to get my toes wet in lighting, you know I’d done it with Theater Of Madness in Hawaii, more multi-media, but still had the timing and I was just starting to learn about theatrical instruments and how to patch and gang and stuff like that and when Hilly offered me a position I brought my lights in.
It was funny because the first night I was there I put the lights up and it was kind of jury-rigged but everything was safe and worked. Taxi [Hilly’s assistant] made a deal with me when I walked in the door. He said, ‘you can hang your lights up, but you have to take them down at the end of the night.’ ‘Alright.’ ‘And you have to put them away, because we still have problems with the fire department coming in. If they come down, they’ll see the lights and if everything isn’t up to code, they’ll probably bust us, take your lights, and close the club down. ‘
So of course I agreed to it, and as I got drunker and drunker during the night and during the show I started thinking – it’s got to three or four in the morning – hey, its time to go home. So I closed down shop, put my jacket on, had my bag over my back and started walking out the door. Taxi’s standing there with his arms folded, saying, ‘hey, we made a deal. You said you were going to take the lights down. You leave the club now, without taking those lights down,a) Don’t come back here, b) Your lights will probably disappear.’ So I took my jacket off, put the bag down stayed till six in the morning taking the lights down.
We moved them over to Cherri’s [English woman who became Cosmo’s lighting assistant], and that became a motif during the early days before Hilly made the changes and put in a light system – my light system went up every night. It worked with every group, and every time I’d get another five or ten bucks I’d go down to Canal Street, buy another dimmer, couple more lamps, some zip cable and put up another circuit. So way before Hilly had brought the system in I had 14 channels and 28 lamps up there.
I knew about all the bands’ material from listening to them, so I had the timing to be able to make changes when they made changes. And everyone was kind of blown out because there was no permanent lighting there.
There was one neon light over the stage and the only band that was smart enough to turn it off and then turn it on as they came on was the Talking Heads. David [Byrne] would turn the light off right after the sound check, and they’d go and get changed and he’d come up and he’d pull the string and he’d say ‘The name of this band is Talking Heads and we’re gonna sing you a song’ [hums the beat of Psycho Killer]: Psycho Killer.’ And it worked. And I was there from ’76 to ’80 doing lighting. So that’s kind of what brought me there. Also, the idea of being closer to the source so I could get bookings for my band and move them along. Everything reinforced itself.
Then you wound up being exclusively lighting. And you must have had one of the most uncomfortable work spaces in New York.
Once things changed Hilly realized that good sound was absolutely essential, and that it had to be the best that could be designed. So he hired people to design it. Norman [Dunn] and Charlie [Martin] ended up designing it, and Broadway Productions from Kansas City, Missouri brought all the stuff in. And part of the thing that came in is a new lighting setup for me, so I got twenty four Licos and two of the old TTI hand rocking dimmer boards.
It was fun, it was a growing experience. At that point I think we were all paralleling. I was there with Taxi, Charlie had joined us, Norman was in more and we were starting to locate as a group of people. We realized we had a force amongst us, and we had something that the bands actually felt comfortable with. Because we tried to look after them. One of the first things I learned in this, really from Mick Treadwell from Britannia Row was ‘Look after the bands, look after their needs, it’ll be good for you and it’ll be good for them.’ And it was very wise advice.
Even when I was cooking, that was at the time the Live At CBGB Album was being recorded. and most of the bands were poor and starving, no one had any money, and the bands would come back, David Byrne would come back, the Shirts would come back: ‘we haven’t eaten in two days, they promised us some money, and maybe a hamburger.’ And we’d say, ‘what do you want, just tell me what you want and I’ll make it for you.’ Kept a lot of people alive with that. So that’s what kind of drew me into it.
But I still remember your climbing up the ladder and disappearing into the loft…[Cosmo’s new space was ten feet off the ground].
The good thing about that space is someone could fit comfortably under the table there and not be seen, though there had some very interesting effects, because I had two rules there: you had to raise one head or the other, or preferable both.As punk rock it wasn’t the most comfortable, but you had to deal with what you had, and I had a space, that was built for me. I had an office in Manhattan, you know? Things were rough in those days, and you were either rough enough to hang in there and deal with it, or you weren’t part of it.
CB’s evolved eventually to be a well-oiled machine, spoiling the old joke about CBGB time (in other words: very late). But schedules might be to plus or minus five minutes at the end. That was quite an evolution.
In the beginning there were two bands a night. Each band had to play two sets in order to fill the time, and as the scene started to develop, the locks into the scene got a lot tighter. In the early days just about anything could come in the door, and still, until the end of the club, almost anything could audition, could get on audition night. Whether it moved on was a function of, a) was there talent?, b) was there anything there could be made into a marketable product, and could they put asses in seats, would they eat or drink? I mean you want to keep your banner up, I don’t care where your club is, where in America, where in Europe, where on the planet – you’ve got to put asses in seats and sell something besides the music to them. Its usually merchandising, marketing, booze, food. That keeps you open. And in the beginning, like I said, it was rough with everything, but people adapted to it and found positions for themselves, and then those positions became more and more vital, and more and more structured. And as they became more structured they became more formed to the organization of the shows, so it would generally be four bands a night, and then on festivals it could run a day, two days, three days straight ahead, 24 hours a day. And we had to figure out among ourselves the tech crew who had to do it, who had to deal with it. One of the chief things we had to fight was tiredness ‘cos we were always exhausted.
What sort of hours did you work?
As needed [laughs] – as required. The first nine months I was there I didn’t take a day off. I started to burn out and I started to realize, wow, I’ve got to find someone to be able to fill for me. And at that time Hilly had opened up the CBGB Theater. The stage was going, the club was going, the theater was going every day, and it was like – total exhaustion. You know you were running around, running around. I was realizing I was burning out, and at that point this girl Cherri appeared from England, first as a janitor for the CBGB Theater. She came up to me and asked me, ‘would you train me in lights?’ And I said, ‘why do you want to learn lights? Are you serious about it? Do you want to learn this as a profession or is it just to get closer to musicians and hang out with the guys more?’ And she says, ‘no, I’m quite serious about it.’
And I started having her come up in the booth, and I started to show her how the board worked, and everything, and when I felt that she was comfortable with it I said, ‘hey, you do a coupla shows.’ When she was comfortable with that I said, ‘hey, I gotta be somewhere else, cover me.’ And she showed up on time and did a good job, and she was interested, and to this day I think she’s still doing lights occasionally. In retrospect it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I’d found someone that was interested, and applied themselves, and I said, ‘I can buy you a meal, or I can teach you how to fish.’ And I taught her how to fish and she got very very proficient at it.
That seemed to be a characteristic of the people. Knowledge was always being passed along.
To me that was very necessary, and I think it’s necessary in the music industry, that if you occupy a position, you have to cover that position so that someone can cover for you adequately if you leave. All in all another brick in the wall, you know, and most of the people that were attracted to it, all through the history of it, had original projects that they wanted to push forward. They had a band, or they wanted to learn to play, or they wanted to play in a band, or they wanted to learn the tech side. It became really a school, as well as a performance space. And I always felt it was necessary. I felt I was blessed, and I was able to stand on the shoulders of giants, ‘cos some of the giants in the industry took an interest in me and helped me to progress – and I felt that was something I had to pass on. We had a family there, we really did, and it continued right to the end of CBGB. All the people who were attracted seemed to be attracted more for the music and the idea of doing something fresh and something new. A lot of people in their time came through there, learned their craft, and then went on to practice their craft on a higher level.
You mentioned family. Of course, the head of the family was Hilly. He seemed to be everybody’s mentor, everybody’s confessor.
Hilly was a father to us all. He was kind of a gatherer of the tribes. And at that point, like I said, it was ‘73/’75 there was no place you could play if you were an original act. You could play in your loft and do loft parties, and maybe get an opening spot for someone but they wanted something else. The industry wanted bands that sounded like it and weren’t going to detract from the main attraction. Basically warm-up acts are there to warm up the lights and the sound, and get the audience filling the seats. And I think everyone had to learn that, you know, CBGB was a launching ground, a springboard if you will, and Hilly was the guy that was allowing people on the springboard. And in the beginning days if you had something original and were willing to showcase and put your ass on the line Hilly gave you the space to do it. You had one shot. If you made that one shot work, then that could change into a career. So it attracted a lot of people that wanted that opportunity and were willing to pay their dues to get it. New York City rocks till dawn if you pay the dues to play. You can party all night long IF you rock the Bowery right.
At the club’s start, most others were just doing cover bands. Then CB’s became THE way to do music, and it all changed.
You know, it’s funny how you start with the seed of an idea that you think is a throw-away, and if you plan at it and support it and nourish it, it can grow – and that’s what happened. Hilly wanted country, blue-grass and blues music, but that’s not what came through the door. We got every miscreant in the Lower East side, and then in Manhattan, and then in the boroughs and then in Jersey. Then when the word started to spread out to the rest of the country, people were coming from thousands of miles away just to have that opportunity to play and get a chance for the industry – you know New York is closer to the real poker table. It costs more, the dues are higher, what you gotta pay is higher, but the options that come out of it can be world-wide. Hilly opened this place to a lot of people, gave a lot of people a chance, and I’m thankful for it: he opened the world for me to move up. What worked more for me was becoming a tech, you know, doing the sound and lights and producing people – but different doors open for you.
From the lighting booth, you had the perfect place to enjoy the music. What nights really stand out for you?
Oh, so many of them, so many of them. Jeez, the night that John Cale and Lou Reed played, and a lot of the [Velvet] Underground guys came in and jammed with them will stand out forever in my head. A lot of the nights that the Shirts played. The Shirts were a magical group. When they were on, the music was transcending.
The nine nights that Patti Smith… she played nine nights in a row, and almost every night you’d come in and it was packed to capacity, way over capacity with like 600 people in there, people sitting on shoulders. I remember one of the shows Hilly coming up, having to muscle his way through the crowd to get to the stage, and he says, ‘I know it’s tiring in here and it’s hot. You’re either going to have to get it together and make this work out or leave the place and we’ll cancel the show.’ And it was amazing, because everyone got it together, there were no fights, the show went great, Patti Smith was magical.
And a lot of the firsts that Hilly did: the first Police show in America, that was transcendental. I had been down there that afternoon talking to people at A&M, trying to sell Star Tune to them, and they said the Police are playing there tonight, and I said, ‘Yes, I’m going to do the lights for them.’ They came in and just blew everyone away. They schlepped their own gear. Their gear got hung up at the airport, in carné, so they had to rent gear from SIR and they became the schleppers and schleppees. I think one of the Copeland boys, not Stuart [drummer], one of the brothers [Ian] was helping them, maybe a manager at that time, but that was it. They were driving their own bus, and it was brilliant, their whole marketing thing was brilliant.
UK Squeeze’s first show, the Damned’s first show, Devo’s first show. Devo was brought in by the Dead Boys. Some of the Dead Boys’ shows were just wild, wild rock ‘n roll you know, it was like animal rock ‘n roll, raw uninhibited, uncensored, unsquashed, it was just in your face. You know Stiv Bators was a magical performer, he really was. The band wasn’t always in tune but they put on exciting shows .
Most days it wasn’t how good you played, it was how much emotion, and how much of a grasp you had of what was going on in society – what your lyrics were about. And the fact that you just got out there and played your music. All that would come later, all the refinement would come later – but the raw energy was there. In a way some of it was raw garbage, but some of it was raw garbage that was refinable – raw energy that when the right hands got around it were able to shape it into a very marketable product.
The Ramones, most of the Ramones shows once they got signed by Sire. They were just a phenomenal band. Talking Heads, Blondie, a lot of lesser known bands that no-one will ever know about that had come in and given incredible shows. For one reason or another they didn’t bring enough people or they didn’t keep up the contacts. They didn’t find their way into it, but there were so many magical nights there.
It wasn’t the money at that time, because it was very little, but it was the love of music, and we were in the middle of something new. I remember when I was cooking I walked out of the kitchen and I felt like I was in the middle of an oil field that hadn’t had stakes claimed to it yet. Pere Ubu was playing, and they just hit it and it was electric, and it was like unified field theory, whatever that means, I think I have a first-hand insight on that. You know you can be in a field of energy where that energy becomes so cohesive and so strong that it sucks everything around into the field, and it’s like, everything’s good in that hour, in those two hours, everything’s shining, giving out light.
That’s one of the things that CBGBs did.
We both enjoyed Jayne County’s set last night [at the Bowery Electric, a former electrical supplies store that Joey Ramone had wanted to change into a club many years before it finally made the transition], maybe 35 years on from the first time in London that I saw her, or him as she was. Is there a way of growing old gracefully, or does the rock+roll just stay with us?
Yeah, I think there is growing old gracefully. I think you gotta prepare for it, I don’t think you can just go into it blind. You get older, everything changes – your body changes, your emotions are subject to change, your relationships, its like the handicap goes up higher. But what you love is what you love, and you’ve got in your core being. And I think the people had a love for rock and roll in this city that created that scene, had a real burning love that still burns inside them. Even the ones that put down their guitars and their basses and their drums, and the lead singers or whatever, it still something that you live, it’s a life-style – it’s not a pin you put on or a jacket you put on that makes you cool. It’s what’s going on inside you.
What’s going on inside me is still very similar to what was going on then – I still like new original stuff. I had the privilege to be part of it, and in the middle of it, probably one of the best creative out-pourings of talent, of music in all fields in the last fifty years and I’ve come to use this as a standard to weigh against other things that I see.
The other time I saw so much original music coming out I was going down to Cartagena: ’93, ’94, ’95 and the whole Latin/tropical scene was just in the same state that CBGB was. You know the Miami Sound Machine was kind of ruling that, but there were all these great bands from South America, from the Caribbean basin, from Africa, it was like being in the middle of CBGB again, except in front of 30,000 people. And actually Seymour Stein sent – who was the kid who produced Madonna in the beginning? [Mark Kamins, who died February 2013] – he sent him down there to see the festival and to start signing groups from it. And it was like – this was the hot new music, but CBGB in the late ‘70s ruled the planet. It created the experience that got mailed out and sent out on the road, and still to this day it continues to influence music in general.
It’s funny cos I do these shows now down in Miami with the School Of Rock, and these are all young kids from eight to 16 years old, they’re playing for the first time live in front of someone. They put a band together, someone trains them to play tunes, and then they come out and they do a show. The last one I did was a tribute to punk rock 1977 and every band that played, played numbers by bands that I’ve worked with, and it was like old home week in my head. I don’t know if it was for anyone else, but you know I heard a band play Psycho Killer, or play a Blondie song, or play a Shirts song. It was like, ‘wow – I worked with those groups. You’re close, keep at it, because a lot of those groups when they first came out sounded like that. Keep working on it, keep singing with it, keep playing it – when it roots in you, you’ll know it.’