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CBGB and Hilly Kristal at the Stereo Society
CBGB and Hilly Kristal
Tish And Snooky In Interview
They were downtown rock scene mainstays, performing regularly at CBGB with their bands, as well as being guest back-up singers for many luminaries including the Dictators, UK Squeeze, the Blues Brothers, Robert Gordon and Ronnie Spector. They also sing back-up on the Stereo Society releases by Hilly Kristal (Mad Mordechai) and the Reds (Cry Tomorrow).
The Bellomo sisters’ legendary tukuses won them the coveted title of ‘Best asses in NYC’ from the world’s foremost authority, Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi.
In 1977 they opened Manic Panic®, the first and all-time greatest punk boutique in the USA, with original designs and trends that changed the face of fashion. Their Manic Panic® brand changed the beauty industry by creating the world’s first and foremost line of alternative hair colors and cosmetics.
Tish & Snooky’s® Manic Panic® has been hugely successful, now with products sold all over the world. Their latest ventures include The Manic Panic® Style Asylum Boutique on Hollywood’s Melrose Avenue.
The sisters stay true to their rock & roll roots and still find time between their world travels to perform with the Sic F*cks and Blue Coupe, an all-star group comprised of Albert and Joe Bouchard (of Blue Oyster Cult) and Rock n Roll Hall of Famer Dennis Dunaway (of the original Alice Cooper band).
Tish & Snooky® were interviewed by Mike Thorne at his apartment in New York during a raging thunderstorm from 7pm September 12 2013. In the audio, Snooky is on the left, Tish on the right next to the rain hammering on the windows.
We didn’t separate Tish from Snooky in the transcript – they often finish each other’s sentences and things would have become confusing.
Tish and Snooky in interview
How do you feel sitting here reminiscing about a raucous club forty years on?
I wish I was there now! (laughs) Not that this isn’t beautiful, but I just can’t believe that 40 years has come and gone. It seems like only yesterday that we were in that show across from CBGB at the Bowery Lane Theatre. The Palm Casino Review, what year was it? Maybe 1973. And we would run across the Bowery to CBGB between our shows, our vaudeville show on the Bowery.
This is a show you were giving?
Yeah some of our friends were in this show. I think CBGB had started the year before we had done one. It was called The Palm Casino Review, and it was a lot of drag queens and very theatrical misfits like us. Eric Emmerson used to play there at CBGB with the Magic Tramps and we used to run across to do a guest spot with them, in these stupid little outfits, these sort of bathing suit things that we had from our ballet class that we made into showgirl outfits. Big head-dresses and stuff. Big blond wigs. We’d take off our head-dresses and run across the Bowery and sing with the Magic Tramps!
So you’d cross the Bowery under the Palace Hotel flophouse in unusual clothing…
Oh yes, in our outfits. People would be screeching to a halt in their cars, traffic would be stopping. Us with these big blond wigs on…
And you crossed the Bowery again and developed into the Sic F*cks…
Yes, later on, but I remember first going there and seeing the Magic Tramps, which nobody ever talks about, and Leather Secrets. The drummer in the Palm Casino Review was in Leather Secrets. What kind of a band were they…almost sounded country, didn’t they? Kinda country rock, which Hilly Kristal (I’m sure) loved. Then later on: Television, and then we were playing there with Blondie. That’s where Debbie [Harry] and Chris [Stein] saw us in the Palm Casino Review because we had mutual friends Guerilla Rose and Tomato du Plenty. They introduced so they asked us if we wanted to come and try out some backups. That’s what got us into Blondie. We played all the time with Blondie at CBGB and at Max’s [Kansas City] too. I guess: most of the time at CBGB.
It was a very flexible place in those days, putting it politely…
There were all kinds of acts. Remember Fayed and Tomato had some wacky act that they did? That was probably the first show I saw at CBGB, called Savage Voodoo Nuns, and it was like a really bad theater-type production with wacky costumes. They were some of the Cockettes from San Francisco and everything was just totally wacky, avant-garde, putting on a great show with great costumes and no rehearsal.
The club was open to all forms of music, and other forms of art, too…
All age groups were there too. Which I loved. I loved the idea that especially at the beginning it wasn’t young people, it wasn’t old people: it was a real mix of people. Max’s was like that too. Nowadays clubs are so geared to one age group. My husband likes to dance, and he’ll go to a dance club, and somebody at the door will say to him, ‘this isn’t for you – this is for young people.’ Everything’s geared towards age nowadays. Back then I didn’t feel it was. Maybe some places were but, certainly, CBGB was never like that. I always remember hanging out with people who were all different ages. At that time you could get in if you were fourteen, so you’d have a big range of ages throughout the club.
We’ve been painted into a corner by marketing and demographics, haven’t we? Those didn’t exist in Hilly’s mind…
That’s right, and he was always so open to anything original, all these wacky acts and bands that played there: just so long as it was original. I remember doing a tap dance there with Wendy Reeds with one of her acts. There was a heavy metal band on before us. They were blow-drying their hair, and they said to us, ‘so you’re going to go out there and kick some ass?’ We said, ‘Well, we’re gonna do a tap dance.’ And we did, right after them, which is pretty funny (laughter).
You’re sitting here now as hair-care products moguls. But you started small and developed almost in parallel with the club…
We did! People either worked there or at Manic Panic. Some of them would work at Manic Panic by day and CBGB by night, because neither place paid very much. I will be the first to admit it, but even at the low wages we paid we were still paying people more than we were making. So they would subsidize their income by working at both places. Manic Panic was the place where people went to hang out during the day and then CBGB was the place everybody went to at night.
There were some cultural collisions, such as your hayride round the Bowery…
That was so much fun. We loved it. We had this idea to do a country night, every Sunday at CBGB. You know Hilly had country roots…he just loved the idea, so we got all these East Village types to do country songs. A lot of people were closet country fans and they loved it – they loved the idea that they could sing a country song. A guy who lived next door to us – (did he work for us at the time, Don, he might’ve worked for us for a little bit?). He had a pickup truck so we got him to go get some bushels of hay, and put them in the back, I made a horse head, which is now next to my desk! (We just unearthed it recently, it’s this big horse head with a big smiling face, big eyes.) We stuck it on the front of his truck and took people for rides around the Bowery in the back.
The way we got all the press to come was (I had a nice big kitchen at the time)…. Snooky came over. We baked, I don’t know, about 30 pumpkin pies or something. Some kinds of pies. And we delivered them to all the press with an invitation to take a hayride around the Bowery with CBGB. At the same time I guess Hilly advertised in The [Village] Voice and stuff, and we offered people: if they baked a pie and brought it to CBGB they would get in for free. And their pies would be judged by the media, which was Roman Kozak (author of This Ain’t No Disco: The Story of CBGB), Lisa Robinson (accomplished music photographer) and more. (I think Lisa’s person called us back and said, ‘she’s on a diet, she can’t eat it,’ but I think she did judge the pies.) The press were the judge, because the press judge everybody, so they were perfect pie-eating judges. I don’t remember what the prize was…
Did Klaus Nomi show up with a pie?
Well he was a baker, he was a professional – no I don’t think he entered anything. He did however appear in hippy drag at our Bad Trips Night at the Mudd Club. We did a psychedelic hippy night.
When was that?
About maybe ’79, ‘78? When did the Mudd Club open? It was so much fun. We turned the Mudd Club into a psychedelic paradise. Upstairs was the good trip and downstairs…I think we drew a line down the middle…downstairs was the recovery tent for people having bad trips. We divided one floor into a bad trip half and a good trip. Bad trip had bats and insects coming down from the ceiling and the other side had flowers everywhere and all pretty things – and sugar cubes all over the bar.
And so Klaus did a guest appearance on Rainy Day Women, that was our ballad. ‘Everybody must get stoned!’ (both chant). And Tish played harmonica. He had on this long wig and it was just the funniest thing, everybody was so into it.
Around this time, CBGB became almost establishment. Did you care for this?
I think we liked the idea, I mean, we never really noticed because we’d always get in free. I think as long as we got in for free we didn’t mind any real…I remember thinking it was really weird when they put the bathrooms downstairs. It was…I hate change so all these things are upsetting, when they put the bathrooms downstairs and then there was no pool table! That was upsetting but I kind of understood what was going on.
There was a big change when the sound system was upgraded. You saw that from both sides of the glass…
Yeah, it just kept improving. They always kept getting better equipment. It was good, a great place to play, a great venue. It should’ve been a landmark, should never have closed. It just breaks my heart that its not there any more.
Starting out from very thin beginnings and then growing happened to many people in New York. Again, did you see yourself running in parallel with the club?
Yeah, definitely. We were like Hilly, because he was a performer. It seemed like he just figured out business as he went along which is what we did too. We weren’t business people, we just… we’re still figuring it out as we go along. As the business grows we have to learn new things, the things we learned two years ago are easy because we learned them. But now we have to learn all sorts of new things and you just have to keep on keeping on and not let anything stop you. And we totally related when CBGB lost their lease and there was all that commotion and the landlord wasn’t being reasonable. We had that happen to us when we were on St Mark’s Place. When we had moved in there the rent was $250 [per month] and then after twelve years it had gone up to $5,000 and we had to move out. It was so traumatic for us and we were fairly young at the time. I can just imagine what it did to Hilly because he wasn’t that young. It was just horrible. We were lucky it happened when we were younger and we lived through it. I always feel that that just killed Hilly, that whole fight. Emotionally, it drained him, and stress is the leading cause of almost every disease (including cancer, I feel). And I just feel horrible that he had to go through that.
We were lucky, we were younger, but I remember that when we had to move a paramedic friend of ours came into Manic Panic and said, ‘Are you guys ok?’ and we said, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, we’re ok’ and she took our blood pressure or something. She said, ‘You guys been running around?’ and we said, ‘no, we’ve been sitting here for an hour or so.’ She said, ‘you guys are in trouble. You know, your blood pressure is so high,’ and we were only in our 30s at the most? Yeah. It was really traumatic, it was so stressful, and we thought it was the end of the world, we did. But then new opportunities took over that were way bigger than the store itself. We just grew and grew the wholesale department because we didn’t have the retail department to worry about. And it ended up a blessing, but at the time it felt like the end of the world.
And we were struggling, we had nowhere to go, and all the rents were so high at that particular point so we just decided we’re not going to do a store, we’re just going to concentrate on wholesale, we’re going to do it out of Snooky’s boyfriend-at-the-time’s studio apartment on Prince Street, (Andy) which is smaller than this room. We would push these boxes that weighed about 40 or 50 pounds each – we would roll them up three flights of stairs, re-pack the orders, roll the orders down at the end of the day and get to UPS just in time before they closed. And we did it, you know, every day (laughs).
You reacted to the end of school by graduating, but Hilly didn’t. He just sort of drifted, which helped the clubs development….but it wasn’t so good in the end…
I think moving is always traumatic. And the older you get the harder it is when you’re used to stuff, used to places. They say moving is next to dying – it’s the most stressful thing. And you know he wasn’t young any more. I’m sure it was horribly stressful because that was his life! Going to the club and sitting at the door. His apartment was around the corner – what was he going to do, if he moved to Brooklyn with the club? People had suggested him to move to Williamsburg or whatever, but if he had moved there, how could he…it wouldn’t have been the same. He used to just walk out his door, walk a few blocks and sit at his club. That was his life.
Hilly was taken care of by the locals. At the end, he would have to sit down and rest on a stoop, out of breath, by the Hell’s Angel’s house. One of them might not ask how he was, but would just sit down with him and chat until he recovered. It was a tightly-knit neighborhood…
It was, it was – such a special time. Just got so gentrified you can hardly recognise it now.
Culture shock on the Bowery now…
When the city had been almost bankrupt, people could do things and develop more easily. Is this possible now?
It isn’t! I remember it being so much fun in the old days. Just having – nothing. We had no money but we always had the best time, and we could start our business with $250 each. You couldn’t do that nowadays. But you could do stuff like that: rent a cheap store front and just do what you want – make some clothes, bring some old stuff down from the closet at home and start a business. Yeah how many success stories have happened like that? A lot of people have started either bakeries or…the guy who started Benihana – didn’t he start with nothing and just kinda of build on it? A lot of people have done that, and they could do that in the early days. Now I think you could possibly do that, but not in New York. I can’t even imagine it in New York because there’s just no such thing as cheap rent. You can’t just move into a place and start a business.
The culture of the city is compromised because creative people have a harder time…
You have to be crazy to start a business because the odds that you’ll succeed are so low. So that’s what they say, what is it, 20% odds that you’ll make it with the business, with your own business?
Still better odds than those against making it as a musician…
There was a transition when people like Television and Blondie became started. That changed the tenor of the club, didn’t it?
I guess so… it made it more exciting for outsiders because everyone would still hang out there. You could see Joey Ramone there – almost every night of the week, he’d be there playing pinball or something. There were lots of people hanging out because everybody loved Hilly and everybody loved the club and that was our local. Yeah and it was exciting for everybody there that some of our own made it to the big time. Everybody got so excited. I remember they had this little TV at the entrance of CBGB the first time Blondie was going to be on, what was it, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert or one of those shows. Everybody gathered around this little TV to watch them (laughter).
Yeah and people would have their record release parties there, like when Robert Gordon’s record came out. I think you and Robert might’ve been having and argument or something – we usually were – and so I said to Snooky, we can you know take these plastic forks and we can roll some potato salad at them while they’re on stage, I was just joking. I was demonstrating with a little plastic fork and of course it just flew out of my hand and hit Sandy – president of the Hell’s Angels – on the head. And so we became best friends after that. He came out with, ‘that wasn’t very nice! Hey, kid, yourself. What d’ya think you’re doing?’ I just started laughing: ‘t wasn’t meant for you, it was meant for the band!’ (laughter).
You’re still talking as if you’re the same people as back then. When I see you on stage with your ripped fishnets and handcuffs dangling I’m reminded of our being told to ‘act our age’ by our parents. We don’t feel obliged to act our age any more, do we?
Certainly not, no. It’s no fun – I mean who would want to act pushing 60! Who would want to act that! Its just no fun when you look back at the examples of people acting their age. I’ll act my shoe size! And you do! I do indeed, its way more fun. I don’t think nowadays you’re required to, especially in the music business and in the hair dye business. We had a woman in her 80s dye her hair purple and it changed her life – we put her all over our website (and she is so cute). And she said it changed her life because all of a sudden she wasn’t invisible any more. She had people talking to her, taking their pictures with her. She felt alive again, and her whole family was behind her – they loved it. When she finally passed away they all went to the synagogue with purple hair.
That brings us again to the absence of ageism at the club. That was one of its strengths that continued to the end, didn’t it?
I think so because I never really felt weird going in there. Sometimes I felt – I don’t know that many people any more – I used to walk in here and I’d know everybody, but I didn’t even know the door person. But as far as age went I never felt, I’m too old to be here or something, like ‘fuck you, you little brat! Get outta my way!’ (W C Fields.) It never felt really like awkward being there, I felt like I always belonged.
You must have known how to be alone in a club, just propping up a wall in the right way. That wouldn’t last too long in that social environment, would it?
Well I did feel like he shouldn’t have been sitting in my seat, but usually I could find a place at the bar that I could sit at and wouldn’t feel that awkward or anything. Yeah, there’s so few places where you could go in by yourself and not feel weird. That was one of the places I could always go either with someone or alone, and it was fine. Towards the end I just figured as long as you know the bartender you’re ok. And we usually knew most of the bartenders, throughout the decades…