Hilly Kristal died a month ago. For those of you who don’t know the name, he was the founder of CBGB-OMFUG, the club in New York City where American punk rock really got started. Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell of Television literally built the stage, and bands like Television, the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Blondie, Patti Smith, the Heartbreakers, and the Voidoids found a home within. As Smith said in tribute, “CBGBs wasn’t just about Hilly or the people who played there or New York City, it represented freedom for young people. To me the name CBGBs could be a slang term at this point meaning freedom. Hilly offered us unconditional freedom.”
CBGBs represented something special to me too, even though I’ve never been there (and never will, as it’s now gone). It came packaged in a book I happened across in the South Bend public library—Please Kill Me: the Uncensored Oral History of Punk—a book that became an adolescent obsession. Every paper I wrote in high school touched upon it, and as I wrote in Notre Dame Magazine, my college admissions essay focused on the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” daring the school not to accept me.
My love for CBGBs also inspired an essay during my first year in graduate school, one of those things I’m still proud of but that never found a published home. I’d like to think it sums up the sense of possibility that CBGBs and its denizens awoke in me.
My Personal Bible
A book saved my life. Ironically enough, it was called “Please Kill Me.” It came to me when I was seventeen, in South Bend, Indiana, and caught in the beartrap of that age, when life passes by in the progression of pimples, meaning it can’t pass by soon enough. Like most kids, I needed a life preserver, but I couldn’t find mine in football, or Star Trek, or pot, or the school newspaper. Instead, what kept me afloat was a bunch of junkies, transvestites, and burnouts, and the scene they belonged to in New York City in the mid-70s.
They were all punk rockers—the New York Dolls, Television, the Ramones, the Heartbreakers, Richard Hell—and the book was one big morning after, cataloging the times. Everyone who was still alive was interviewed, and they didn’t hold anything back, talking about their parents putting them in for electroshock therapy, copping heroin in Harlem, and hustling men for cash on 53rd and 3rd. It was shocking, but that wasn’t what made it stick. Instead, what fascinated me was that every person in the book was their own creation, different from anyone else I’d ever met, and uncompromising in deciding who they wanted to be. They’d clawed their way out of small towns into New York City and made me believe that I could too.
I became an addict in my own way, searching down and gobbling up any CDs I could find by the bands mentioned in the book, delighting in the shredding guitars and nihilist lyrics. I became a music store junkie, pawing through the unalphabetized stacks, looking for my fix of Television’s Marquee Moon, The New York Doll’s Too Much Too Soon, or The Stooges Fun House. I incorporated punk into every paper I wrote for the rest of high school, and when it came time to apply to college, my admissions essay detailed the effect the Velvet Underground song “Heroin” had on my life. Somehow, this misanthropic missive, complete with a lyric sheet, got me into college.
My compulsion diminished somewhat in college, but still showed up from time to time. I continued trawling through the discount bins at record stores. I spent a small fortune on a bass and amp I never learned how to play, wrote a bunch of lyrics, and badgered everyone I knew with any speck of musical talent to form a band with me, with the laughable notion that I’d sing. One year I even sent in a demo tape for my university’s battle of the bands—it was recorded on a roommate’s computer, with a metronome as the drum line, and consisted of me howling as a good friend played power chords, and, I’m sure, struggled not to laugh.
Most of my college life, however, was unmarked by the signs of my once-consuming addiction. I met girls, studied abroad, and changed majors twice, with nary a mention of Johnny Thunders or Lou Reed. I still dreamed big, about starting a band or writing a novel, but I kept it all in my head as I took the MCATs and applied to medical school. Finally, halfway through my senior year, medical school acceptance letters in hand, I realized I’d come to feel like I was seventeen again, except this time the trap was of my own making. I didn’t want to go to medical school. I hadn’t prepared to do anything else. I was stuck. And the only thing that came to me was something I’d written my junior year of college for our student newspaper:
Joey Ramone died recently. He was the first of my musical heroes to pass on, although more will undoubtedly join him in the near future, succumbing to old age and the ill effects of their rock and roll lifestyle. Joey’s death prompts me to ponder The Ramones’ place in musical history and their influence upon a legion of fans. The Ramones are often credited with saving rock and roll…they sought to inject fun back into the music, to rediscover the stomp, recklessness and raucousness of rock’s pioneers—Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. Fueled by ambition, but almost entirely devoid of musical ability, the Ramones soldiered on, playing original songs from the outset, primarily because they weren’t capable of playing anyone else’s. This attitude—“Just Do It” decades before Nike made it a slogan—will serve as the Ramones most lasting legacy. It reminds us that sometimes it’s best not to know exactly what you’re doing, to leap before you look, throw yourself into the moment, grit your teeth, try your best, and see how far it takes you.
Rereading this letter, I realized that it was the single thing I’d done in college that I was most proud of. I decided to take my own advice, turn down medical school, and pursue a career as a writer. I signed up for some writing courses, took a year off after graduation, and am now a first-year graduate student in USC’s Professional Writing program, where I’m working on my first novel.
Sometimes I hope, in my wildest dreams, that my book will have the same effect on somebody that a book once did on me.
Oh, and I bought a guitar too. There’s no reason to stop dreaming.
I’ve since graduated from USC’s Professional Writing Program. That first novel is done and, well, it was a first novel, with all the limitations and navel-gazing that entails. The second one should be better; as a working writer, I get to practice daily.
As for the guitar, it’s seen a lot of use, most recently in a proto-punk ensemble dedicated to exploring the rhythms of the New York City scene Hilly Kristal made possible. Things come full circle, it seems, and then, if we’re lucky, they move forward.
Update: For a more humorous take on “Please Kill Me”, visit “Reading Lolita in Prison,” which I wrote for FLYMF.