Remembering Don Hill with a Few of His Closest Friends
Yesterday we talked about the incredible group of musicians gathering this Thursday for the Celebration of the Legendary Don Hill, the deceased owner of the club that bore his name, but rarely bored anyone. Rock royalty will show and renew their vows at this Irving Plaza event. A couple of weeks ago, I sat at a back table at Continental, Trigger’s Bowery and St Marks booze box, and discussed with Don Hill friends Michael T, Michael H, Queen V and Steven Blush, what the man meant to them in life and now in eternity.
Things got a little dicey as a tale of the joint’s demise and its effect on Don were talked about. It’s a tale of the business struggling to get up on its own two feet, but unfortunately stepping on a lot of toes in the process. The Irving Plaza gala will be talked about for years. The rockers will give it their all for love of Don.
Don Hill has passed, and a lot of people are getting together to celebrate his life. Since Don Hill went down, there’s not as many places where we can all gather. And let’s face it, Don Hill owned the place. He booked it, he answered the phones, and, we suppose, at the end of the night swept up the place. He was that kind of guy, and we all loved him. Let’s talk about who he was to each of you. Michael T, tell me why you’re involved in this event, and what did Don Hill mean to you?
MT: I met Don back in the eighties at Cat Club when I was very young. He opened Don Hill’s in the early nineties, and I was one of the first persons to perform there. Later, in the second run of Don Hill’s, I started to do my party, Rated X, there. It was really the first time that Don and I had worked together on a regular basis. It was super easy. Don was always the same. He was Don. It’s so rare in the business to have someone that’s just steady, where you know what you’re going to get out of him. We had a great working relationship, and a comfortable personal relationship. He was a straight shooter.
Michael H, how’d you meet Don?
MH: I met Don when Cat Club started to hire rock and roll bands. They were just experimenting. They’d just started this live performance rock and roll thing there, with Don Hill running the show. I remember him being this sweet guy, talking to me when I wasn’t even in the band. I was just there to do their sound checks and to see what the action was. I was very young as well, maybe a little older than Michael T, but Don was right away just a gentleman, very accommodating to someone just sitting in the corner. Don took care of me that evening, and I always remembered that. Coming back to Cat Club through the years, he was always the same guy, always caring if you had a drink, if you didn’t have enough money. Don was always making sure you had a drink in your hand and a smile on your face. As the years rolled on, we were one of the first bands to play Don Hill’s club. Instead of bothering him, he was calling us offering us gigs. In New York, you’d have to pull teeth to get shows. Don wasn’t that way. He handled his club a whole different way, in a manner of that you’d get a good slot, and you’d play, and he’d make it up to you if something happened. Down the road, Don was a big fan of what I was doing, and offered to manage my band, Bender. Bender got signed with a Columbia and Sony records, and he was very excited to have that accomplishment, that he’d helped out from the ground up. He was just so supportive of musicians who were struggling, who lived in this sort of environment of this city where it’s difficult to afford to put a band together.
As a guy who operated a bunch of joints, he made it look easy and it isn’t easy.
MH: One thing about Don was he was in it for the spirit of the music. He was never really into the money-making side of it. Don could have branched out a bunch of Don Hill’s probably, but he just kept it quiet.
Queen V. Who was he to you, how did he touch your life, and maybe to ask a hard question, what’s it like to not have him around?
QV: How much time do you have? Let’s break that up into three parts. Don Hill was a person, he was my friend, he was my brother, he was my mentor. He was there for me through thick and thin. Coming up as an artist in New York, he was my lookout on the west side. You had CB’s on the east, and Don Hill’s on the west. I didn’t know him as long as these guys did, but in the early 2000s, I was oohing and aahhing more than performing on stage. Don was very supportive. He was always open to a new idea. He let me do whatever I wanted performance-wise. I think the most important thing to me about Don Hill, besides the fact that he was a hell of a guy, was he let me cut my teeth on his stage and in his club. Through the Bitch nights, the Rock Candy parties, and having my band perform there in all kinds of other incarnations, it was a place that, as I’ve told Steve Blush before, it became my church. It became the place I could go and work out the demons, worship the lord I know as rock n roll, as corny as that sounds, and really work it out, get ready for other cities, other stages, bigger places, and hone what it is that I do, what I consider my life’s work.
I guess in rock it’s great to be a success, but being a rocker is its own success, almost like a religion. To people like me, who can’t listen to anything else unless I have to, and we all have to, we find purity in a small band. There’s a moment unlike any other moment when you see a young band coming up, a band that’s been trying and trying to make it, and all of a sudden it’s clicking. It’s an amazing moment. Don lived for that moment. He was not necessarily the boss, he was one of us.
QV: He was. And with his own little sprinkling of Nashville in there, his bandana, his whole thing, he made you feel like a success. That you were successful at what you were doing, that it was working. He really gave a sympathetic ear, little bits of advice. He was just there for you in every way.
Steve Blush, you’re a music guy. There was a time when Don, to make money, moved into hip-hop. It really wasn’t his thing, but he had to make money. So there was a lack of purity there. I guess I want to address with you, not only your own experience with him, but also the rebirth of Don Hill’s, the hope that he had in that second incarnation, the last incarnation, with Nur and Paul Sevigny.
SB: We haven’t talked about this before, but what we all share is that Don was so much more than a club owner. I never had a relationship with anybody who was a club owner like I had with him, and I’m sure everybody feels the same. His purity was almost corny, almost unhip, but most people didn’t get it. To me, that was like the ultimate hip. It was all about music and art. At his funeral there was like a thousand people that showed up, bikers and drag queens and suits and rockers.
I first started working with him when I came back to New York in the mid-eighties, and I was tied in with the hardcore punk scene. I booked Monday nights with Carlo McCormick over there for a couple years. I would get the Butthole Surfers, and he would get Lydia Lunch, and Don was just cool with the whole thing, until I put in GG Allen, who shit on the stage and threw it at the crowd and got me fired. It ended up as this big story, and Don was not even that upset with me. We maintained a friendship. Pat Kenny wanted to kill me, but our friendship never wavered. No matter what shitty club we were doing, he’d always show up. But the thing about the remake of the club, I have a sadder view of it. I feel like that’s not what he wanted.
MH: I think we all felt that way.
I didn’t feel that way. I was under the impression he was happy.
MH: Absolutely not.
Okay, then let’s get that out.
SB: I know deep down that’s what he didn’t want. That’s not the kind of club he wanted it to be. He was coming from a different angle, and he was the only club owner coming from that angle.
MH: A church is a place of worship, it’s not a place of greed. Well, I shouldn’t say that. But, ideally speaking, I feel the same way as Steve Blush. I knew the owners, and I knew what they were hoping for and promised. It came out electric. They had a killer week, which was amazing, but I think it was more than some of them could chew as far as the business side. Don didn’t really have an office, he had a little place where he answered the phone, like his little cave. The cave got taken over. I feel that’s what Don lost. He lost his little basement. It became more of a business center.
There’re so few rock clubs, and of course, the reason for that is that it’s really hard to make money booking bands. We’re sitting in Continental, which no longer has bands, because Trigger couldn’t make money with bands. He makes money with five shots for ten bucks. The reality of the situation is that Don wasn’t booking hip-hop anymore, and there were Iggy Pop and Hole on stage. In a sense, there was a chance. It only lasted a year, but there was a chance that it could find its own feet.
MT: But it didn’t last a year. It only lasted maybe six months, at best.
MH: And a lot of those bands just played on high, high, expenses.
MT: They were bought for Fashion Week.
MH: It was a De Leon tequila week. They brought in a hundred grand, or whatever it was. They could afford those names.
So it lost its purity.
MH: Totally. Those shows were bought. Those shows weren’t like the ones when you would have Green Day or whoever come because it was Don Hill’s and they wanted to be there. I had heard that you wrote something about the new takeover, and when I heard about the new players involved…
Nur Khan and Paul Sevigny.
MT: The word Kahn [con] would be the most appropriate.
Is that a Star Trek reference or do you mean “con”? We can go there.
MT: They’re friends of mine, as you know.
And friends of mine.
MT: I just don’t think those guys are the right representation of Don Hill’s because they go into a place and they do their thing. Their thing was nowhere nearwhat Don’s thing was.
MT: Thank you.
But that’s sort of like people defining you by the last girlfriend rather than the one you’re sleeping with now. Maybe Don needed the new girlfriend to survive, and survive is what he did. Maybe it was a means to survive. And it’s not necessarily a sell out, but a chance to keep it without hip-hop, without selling out in that way. I mean, at least Paul and Nur are rockers.
SB: It was kind of like a spiritual thing. There was two kinds of clubs, and Don didn’t represent that other kind of club.
MH: Bottle service.
SB: Yeah, he’s the opposite of that. He’s just about making it almost like a play pen, a cultural center, whatever word you want to use for it.
But with rents and insurance and all that you end up at White Noise as one of your only options.
SB: You know what Steven, this killed him. People say all kinds of things, something dirty happened. We all loved the guy, but he died of a broken heart.
SB: I don’t mean to be weird about that.
I’ve heard this said.
SB: I believed in the guy, but he was broken.
So like King Kong, it wasn’t bullets that killed the beast, it was a broken heart?
SB: That club was his life. He loved what he did.
MH: He didn’t want to be part of the new school.
SB: There are those clubs now, and he didn’t want to be that. He wanted to be where you actually make money, and people buy the drinks, and that’s how he survived all that time.
MT: The Page Six clubs are the six months clubs, or maybe if they’re lucky, the year club. Don Hill’s was the eighteen year club. There’s quite a difference. Frankly, I never saw Paul or Nur or any of those guys in there for the next ten years, at the door, downstairs, in the cave, grueling day after day with Don. I just didn’t see it.
SB: And I think it’s really important for us to do this. Most of us are pretty jaded. At least for me, to show up, it’s just because it’s Don. I mean, I wouldn’t think twice about it.
This is rock and roll royalty, New York City, right here. Queen V, you’re involved with this event. When the music’s over, and they turn up the lights, are we all going to be sad or happy, at then end of the night?
QV: I think it’s a bit of both. I miss Don, I miss him all the time. I miss going to the club. I miss running into various knuckleheads there. I’m not looking at Michael T. I was doing a party there the last couple years called Take Back New York because I was tired of the bottle service clubs. I wanted to do my own night, I was tired of complaining about not having a night to go to. I tried to pass on what I had absorbed from Steve and Motherf*cker and growing up here. So yeah, I miss it. I’m excited to do this at Irving Plaza. It’s a beautiful venue, it’s a historic venue, but I will forever miss the club known as Don Hill’s. That little, proud and pitiful one story shack amongst the high-rise buildings. I think it should be a museum to New York rock and roll. In the end, December 15th will be a night of celebration of the man, all the different people he brought together, all the nights, the artists, the debauchery, the worship, and the love.