Meeting Ivan Kral at the Gee Whiz Diner



Neighborhood: Tribeca

It’s a good night when shaking hands with Iggy Pop isn’t the most memorable part of it. Pop and the late photographer Robert Matheu had been at the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca, where they were signing Matheu’s 2009 book, The Stooges: The Authorized and Illustrated Story.

On 1973’s “Search and Destroy,” Pop refers to himself as a “street walking cheetah.” That’s not braggadocio. Despite being short in stature, Pop is intimidating. While he was tranquil, erudite, and polite at the bookstore, his eyes radiated the kind of intensity that could only belong to someone who wrote “Raw Power” and “Gimme Danger.” It’s not every evening you introduce yourself to somebody who helped create a genre of music. 

And it’s not every evening that someone who helped create a genre of music introduces himself or herself to you. On this particular evening, both of those things happened within a few hours of each other.

Following the book signing, my friend and I went across the street to the Gee Whiz Diner. While having dinner, we talked about music, which wasn’t uncommon. Over an hour into our conversation, however, something happened that definitely was. The middle-aged couple seated across from us, suddenly were standing at the edge of our table and staring at us with knowing grins. This could’ve been the beginning of a horror film. Instead, it was one of those occasions where living in New York City can feel as if there’s no difference between dream and reality.

“Hi, sorry for interrupting, but we overheard some of your conversation and were really impressed by how much you guys know about music.” As the woman said this, she and her husband smiled conspiratorially. When we thanked them, she pointed to the man with her and added, “This is Ivan Kral.” 

Turns out the couple were Ivan Kral, the second punk rock pioneer I’d meet that night, and his wife, the entrepreneur Cindy Hudson.

While thinking of a reply, I could feel my face contorting into an expression somewhere between shocked and beatific. There was only a finite amount of time to talk. How to proceed? As a member of the original Patti Smith Group, I knew that he’d co-written Smith’s 1979 song “Dancing Barefoot,” but in the heat of the moment, I wasn’t quite sure. With nerves, the first casualty is intelligence.

“You co-wrote ‘Dancing Barefoot,’ right?” It was a question phrased more like a statement, said in a slightly exaggerated, self-assured James Caan “New Yawk” voice, and my attempt to mask any doubt. When he nodded in affirmation, I responded in my normal voice, “That’s one of my all-time favorite songs.” Both Kral and Hudson’s faces lit up with genuine joy and even some relief. Hearing us talk about music for so long, it would’ve been embarrassing if we didn’t know who he was.

In the midst of the excitement, I completely forgot what specifically it was we had been discussing that had prompted their visit and felt a slight wave of self-consciousness. Kral seemed to sense my confusion. A native of what is now the Czech Republic, he said in his Eastern European accent, “You know, Gene was always like that.” That managed to be the gateway into the recent (10 minutes ago) past. My friend and I had been rhapsodizing about Warren Zevon’s 1976 self-titled album, Hall & Oates’ War Babies, and Kiss. The Gene Simmons reference Kral made was likely due to the awful impersonations of Simmons he’d presumably seen and heard us doing earlier that evening.

Kral had enlisted in the “Kiss Army” years before the term existed. One of their original champions, he was friends with the band when they started and attended their early shows at the Coventry Club in Sunnyside, Queens in 1973. He likely bonded with Simmons because they were both immigrants, the latter from Israel. Luger, Kral’s glam rock band at the time, would open for Kiss in August 1973 at the Hotel Diplomat on West 43rd Street. This was the fabled gig where Kiss met their future manager Bill Aucoin, and consequently went from outer borough oddities to kings of the nighttime world.

While I was talking with Kral, it was difficult not to think of his extraordinary past. His father, Dr. Karel Kral, was a reporter for the Czech news agency, C.T.K. In 1966, he had warned of the threat of his country being invaded by the Soviet Union, just two years before the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. By then, the Krals were living in New York as refugees, while Dr. Kral worked as a translator at the United Nations. The timing for Ivan was perfect. The teenage Kral left an increasingly repressive society for a city approaching the grimy, glorious dawn of the ’70s.

Maintaining a stealth ubiquity throughout that period, he performed with teen idol Shaun Cassidy, an early version of Blondie, and Iggy Pop, among others, which explains why Kral and Hudson had been at the book signing. 

Kral never received the fanfare of some of his peers, but he was as vital a figure as anyone in the ’70s downtown rock scene. That’s in large part because of his role as composer/guitarist/bassist for the Patti Smith Group, where he spent most of the decade.

During his time with the band, he co-wrote classics like “Kimberly,” “Pissing in a River,” “Citizen Ship,” and “Ain’t It Strange.” The aforementioned “Dancing Barefoot” bridges the gap between mid-’60s Byrds and early ’80s goth/alternative, with its haunting guitar buzz refrain, sci-fi/new wave noir synths, and swirling 12-string guitar solo. Ethereal, ominous, and alluring, the song perfectly captures the nocturnal metropolitan ambience of late ’70s New York.

“Because the Night,” from 1978’s Easter, and written by Smith and Bruce Springsteen, is another song that significantly benefits from Kral’s presence. When Smith repeats “They can’t hurt you now” before the chorus, you believe her in part because of Kral’s raggedly victorious guitar solo, which embodies the song’s defiant and romantic spirit. 

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, when Kral wasn’t playing guitar, he spent a lot of time keeping a visual record of his time in New York. This started when he filmed Murray the K shows with a Super 8 camera in 1967. In 1974 and ’75, he documented the emerging New York punk scene, capturing what was going on at CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, and the Bottom Line. Kral managed to get Blondie, Television, the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Patti Smith Group, Richard Hell and the Heartbreakers, and other newcomers on film, back when the general public hadn’t heard of them. 

Kral and filmmaker Amos Poe compiled all of those acts into a film called The Blank Generation, named after the Richard Hell and the Heartbreakers song that would later become an anthem in 1977 with Hell’s then-current band the Voidoids. Using silent 16mm cameras for the performances and behind-the-scenes footage, Kral and Poe edited the images with demo recordings of the different bands. The end result was avant-garde home movies that were essentially music videos before the term even existed. 

The Blank Generation premiered in New York City on April 22nd, 1976. The Ramones self-titled debut album, the abrasively poppy clarion call from Forest Hills heard round the world, would be released the following day. Once again, timing was in Kral’s favor.

Decades later, the timing of our serendipitous meeting was in both of our favors. I’d seen The Blank Generation for the first time a few weeks before at the Museum of Modern Art. I told Kral this and how much I loved it. Now it was time for him to look shocked. What were the chances this complete stranger he went up to would’ve just seen his influential, but relatively obscure film? When he asked what the reception was like, I flashed back to the image of a succession of annoyed elderly people leaving the theatre one by one, presumably repelled by the odd, brusque music, and experimental nature of the movie. With this in mind, I responded that it had been a good turnout.

While we said our goodbyes, Kral and Hudson told us about Kral’s YouTube channel, the “IvanKralVault,” which features clips from the massive amount of footage he accumulated over the decades. This includes silent footage of Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels at the RKO Theater in Manhattan in 1967, where a portrait of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson flashed on the giant screen behind them. The channel makes for a perfect escape, especially now with life in quarantine.

The day following our encounter, I looked up Kral online and was reminded that in 1982 he did the score, with keyboardist Bruce Brody, for Diner, one of the great films of the 1980s. I’d known of Kral’s involvement, but had completely forgotten about it. The previous night started to make a little more sense to me. It’s possible he saw my friend and I as the 21st century equivalents of the music and football obsessed characters from the movie.

On Super Bowl Sunday 2020, one of the most sacrosanct modern rituals in America, Ivan Kral passed away. In his final years, he saw his adopted country gradually moving toward autocracy. Unlike many of us, it’s doubtful he ever took democracy for granted. The silver lining is Kral never got to witness his beloved New York City become a mass grave site due to the coronavirus.

He also never got to see some of his fellow Michiganders (Kral ended up in Ann Arbor) putting lives at risk to protest the necessary measures keeping them alive. Mimicking the reckless and inconsiderate attitude of their leader, they whined about not being able to get their hair dyed as others quietly faded away, suffering lonely deaths that could’ve been prevented. For one last time, Kral was in the good graces of perfect timing.

His life was a great American tale that ranged from owning a video store in New Brunswick, New Jersey during the 1980s to in 2011 composing and performing a song at the memorial for Vaclav Havel, the playwright and dissident who later became the first President of the Czech Republic.  

Kral lived a New York story where dream and reality are indistinguishable. He left a country that banned rock and roll and then proceeded to become a crucial figure in that music’s evolution. 

Ain’t it strange?


Matt Leinwohl is a writer based in New York, where he is currently working on his first book. You can find his writing on his blog

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