Anyway, as I've said before, Hilly and CBGB provided the band with a sanctuary and an audience and more... a reason for being.
After the collapse of the Handshake deal, which followed Dave's leaving the band, Hilly remained involved quite heavily for about a year. Coincidently, his distancing himself from everyday band business coincided with Al's bitter argument with him. How much that affected him can never be known for certain. He was just as involved as the band in dreaming of clam glory, he may have viewed it as a betrayal. He certainly never spoke to Al again. (This is covered elsewhere). No one wanted the Clams (no one was signing anyone) and by the time MTV had (briefly) saved rock and roll, the band had slithered back to New Jersey. Richie remained very close to Hilly for the next twenty five years. Gary would sporadically appear at CBs looking for Hilly to say hello. Hilly was usually there. In the late 1980s Gary bought a Lincoln MKVII (still his favorite car ever) and promptly got into an Applegate fight with the people he was working with, told 'em "fuck you" and drove his new Lincoln up to CBs (on his way to Woodstock to find Dylan) Hilly thought the car was nice and he and Gary spent the afternoon talking and Gary calmed down and went home.
In the 1990s Brian would show up at CBGB gigs in his Limo. Hilly would point it how to people and say "That's the drummer's car." It was a far cry from the days of Al Spero and Gary's beat up yellow pickup truck.
Hilly, even with his later successes in the bowery, kept a soft spot in his heart for the Clams. Gary would drift into the city with business associates from Oklahoma or Utah, and he would always stop by the club. If Beege was at the door, everyone would get in free. A couple of times the westerners cornered Hilly and asked him if Gary's stories were really true. Word got back to Gary that Hilly would say something like "Gary and Richie were the best songwriters I know" or that the "Clams were a very good band." Thank you Hilly.
After 9/11 Hilly stayed downtown. How much that contributed to his illness I will leave to you. He was a non-smoker; but he did spend a good portion of his life in a little dark bar. He had a condo in Asbury and a little Mini-Cooper, but he spent a great deal of time downtown in the city. Richie and he would talk often and sometimes get together. He had successfully expanded CBGB and was making money on T-shirts. (selling world-wide) Then came the end of the lease and the fight to keep CBGB open.
At the Clams last gig at CBs, almost a year ago to the day; Gary spoke to Hilly for the last time. Gelb had been prodding Hilly about the set list telling him " you never heard music like this at CBGB before" and telling him how he was only going to play slow, quiet songs. So after the gig, Gary sees Gelb walking up the long bar from the front of the club. "How'd he like it?" Richie replied " He says we got a lot of nerve playing that kind of music here." Gary didn't know that Hilly and Richie had been verbally sparring about the set list for weeks so he went up to see what was going on. It was the first time he had seen him since learning of his illness. He did seem physically weak. In fact he looked weaker than Gary had expected.(He had been on television many times in the preceding months publicizing the fight for CBs; and he always looked like Hilly)
Gary: Gelb says you didn't like it
Hilly: You can't play those slow songs here
Gary: Well, Hilly I'm too old to play that fast anymore... nowadays it's more like half fast.
Hilly: (nodding,paused) What happened to your guitar player?
Gary: He doesn't want to do it anymore,
Hilly: (laughing) He probably couldn't play that slow
A few minutes later Gary's daughter Katie asked me to introduce her to Hilly. (she didn't remember but she had been to CBs as a little child and met Hilly more than once) I took her up front to see him but he was gone. He'd left, that was the last time I saw Hilly.
Richie got word about a week and a half ago that Hilly had taken a turn for the worse. On August 23 He went up to the city to see him. That was a Thursday, he called me the following Monday about 11:00 to tell me that Hilly was gone.
This is how I will remember Hilly... circa 1980... the vest... the smile... the central Jersey twang in his deep voice.
Photo: Stephanie Chernikowski/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images