Have you ever presumed that New York’s CBGBs was run by a man? If so…we have some punk girl news for you…
Although Hilly Kristal was very much the public face of the famous CBGBs club in New York, behind the scenes it was his partner Karen who was actually the legal owner. As well as co-running the club, her talents even ran to designing the now famous logo using skills she acquired years earlier while studying at the Boston Institute of Fine Art.
It is said that, Karen and Hilly had certain rules for the bands playing at the club; rule one was that they played their own material, and the second was that had to move their own equipment.
Their son Dana recalls his mother’s reasons for insisting on original material had less to do with encouraging new songwriting talent and more to do with paperwork, “It was really because my mother didn’t want to have to pay ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] the royalties on published music“
Blondie, the Ramones, Patti Smith, The Dead Boys, Television, Talking Heads (who name check the club in “Life During Wartime”), and The Heartbreakers were among the bands that shot to fame out of the club, and to this day, there are still countless nods to its influence.
While Hilly was more comfortable playing the host with the most, Karen’s position as the legal owner and licensee of CBGBs threw her into the role of the club’s “bad cop”. A position from which she would apparently monitor the sound levels, check patrons’ ID on the door and generally try to keep order. She was also the instigator of the club’s Sunday matinee shows.
“It was all her idea. The club really started the whole hardcore movement in New York. I was more afraid of Karen than I was of the skinheads. They all had this respect for her,” – George Taub, former CBGBs employee. Likewise David Poe a former CBGBs sound engineer recalls, “I will always remember Karen on Sundays, checking IDs and calling kids’ parents when she sniffed a false one”
Another employee, Roberta Bayley who worked on the door before becoming better known as a rock photographer told The Villager in 2014,
“I understood much later that the liquor license at CBGB’s was in Karen’s name,” Bayley said. “So she was very careful about not getting busted — she would grab joints out of people’s hands! She got crazy about me drinking the Heinekens that Merv, CBGB’s manager, would bring me from Tin Pan Alley because CB’s didn’t serve that brand. They only had this vile import called Dinkelaker”.
Hilly and Karen, who married in 1951, moved into 315 Bowery in 1969, where it was known as “Hilly’s on The Bowery”, until about 1973, when they changed the name to CBGBs – which stood for “Country, Blue-Grass and Blues” – its full name was CBGB & OMFUG – the latter part of which stood for “& Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers”.
Hilly and Karen had divorced even before the club’s move to the Bowery, but Karen remained an active partner, licensee and designer until the end. The club finally closed in October 2006, after a long running rent dispute, after which Hilly announced that he intended to reopen in Las Vegas. Hilly died the following year, sparking a bitter legal dispute between Karen and her daughter Lisa over the rights to the name and ownership of the estate, until Karen herself died in 2014.
“In 2011, a group of unknown investors bought the remaining CBGB assets, including the associated intellectual property and original interior. The location is now occupied by John Varvatos fashions” – wikipedia
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