CBGB and Hilly Kristal at the Stereo Society
CBGB and Hilly Kristal
Hilly Kristal’s Mud
An Unauthorized Liner Note
by Mike Thorne
Even though they clearly broke the mold after they made him, Hilly Kristal is a traditional kind of character. So his record deserves a traditional sleeve note. Most people know Hilly only as the owner of CBGB, the rock and roll club on the Bowery in New York City, now probably the most famous in the world and where you can [before closure on October 31 2006] still sometimes catch him at reception with feet up, strumming a guitar. For over 30 years it has been a focus for the city’s pop music invention. Fewer people know that he sang on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, washed dishes in Montreal, ran the Village Vanguard in a jazz heyday, or that he was patted on the head by Einstein when he was just three years old. Such a physical introduction to physics must have been helpful when throwing transgressors out of the club. I have observed the process from a distance, shirt collars of transgressors lifted high in each hand and heading involuntarily for the door. But even fewer people have heard his songs or his extraordinary singing voice, a true bass.
I first met Hilly (a common first line for a downtown New York anecdote) in 1977, when I arrived from London to begin a production relationship lasting through two albums with the Shirts, the Brooklyn band that he was managing. After a beer at the club, he suggested that we walk round the corner to his home/office to talk about logistics and other serious showbiz things. To check each other out. He sat at his small, congested desk. I sat opposite, comfortably. Formality hadn’t melted yet, so the cockroaches that walked across the surface in front of him were very circumspect. We each watched them stroll peripherally, never acknowledging them by interrupting our conversation. He wasted each one, accurately and efficiently, never breaking his cadence. Later, when CBGB embraced the technological marvel of fax, their descendants would find a nice warm place to hang out. Flattened, they would emerge on a sheet of paper either there or virtually down a phone line. The area is less bug-friendly now, but the club and his music spirit persist. Some logistics worked. Technology still races on, helping us more than the cockroaches.
Mud, the story of the little wiggly pig’s preferred birthday present, was the B side of the 1976 CBGB Christmas record (the club had a 16-track tape recorder even then). While creating a countryish type of experience for its second coming, Hilly had originally written the song to sing, with his guitar support, to his young daughter Lisa on his knee. It stayed on the club jukebox for ten years, along with a few other curios including Hilly’s singing on a true period piece The Man Of The Sky.
I later found out that he had supported himself as a singer and writer for many years, even (typically) turning down a deal with Atlantic Records to go with a breakaway independent which went under without releasing so much as a single. Several years later, in the early eighties, after one beer too many for us both at the club’s bar, he suggested, ‘How about doing Mud to a disco beat?’ A mutant rap/dance/camp/party/pop/children’s record was too good an idea to let go, even the following slowly, compromised morning.
The person who got the plot instantly was Michael Zilkha, whose rambunctiously creative Ze Records exposed many adventurous artists in the early eighties. We recorded Mud in both birthday and Christmas versions. This was not to be just a Christmas novelty record, no barking chorus dogs, please, although there is one pathetic animal whimper late in the record. Paralleling Hilly’s previous record deal experience, the record was buried by the indifference of Ze’s distributing record company, Island Records. End of story, until I found myself with a powerful recording studio of my own.
I enjoy working with unusual artists most – people who take risks and make something novel used to be the foundation and wellspring of pop music. 1989 was a conservative time in the record business, and the big companies weren’t signing crazies. However, I knew many artists, friends, acquaintances and other misfits who I thought could make good records, could make good records people would like, and could make money making good records that people would like. I needed some trouble/stimulus in my life. I called Hilly and we remade Mud. Cut loose completely, we had even more fun recording it. We took the time and made an ambitious party record. And then made some more in our scarce spare time, and grew this album. A labor of love has turned into a real CD, and I’m still not quite used to the idea.
We still doubt if we could get arrested by the mainstream record business, even for a crime like this. So, finally, I’m happy [in 1999] to release it as the first on the Stereo Society label. As I write, we’re not in the record stores, our only presence being on the internet, at www.stereosociety.com, where you can also read more about the record and the artist. This means we can be self-sufficient with unusual little records that can’t enjoy the slim chance of a hit from a big company campaign. Technology has developed to help us even more since we first got all excited in pre-fax days at the club bar (www.cbgb.com). It has enabled us to put out a record which doesn’t fit neatly in an established category, rather like Hilly himself. Perhaps, soon, it will be able to change our hair colors back to our respective previous shades.
Little wiggly pigs might fly