Jimmy Webb leads us out of Trash and Vaudeville — the famed St. Mark’s store where he works as buyer and manager — to a spot across the street. Over the buildings he points to a white wall that has the word “Muerte” written in block letters at its top. That’s where there used to be an image of the face of John Spacely, a local junkie who wore an eye patch. Earlier inside his store, Webb was sitting next to us on overturned crates he had set out for the purpose of the interview, and he teared up describing his reaction to the mural being painted over.
“I remember watching it being painted over and for some reason it was one of those things that just made me cry,” he said. “It was one of those last things.”
“I think painting over or erasing history is not really that really good of an idea,” he continued.
A lot has been written about the changes in the East Village. Just this summer, the New York Times lamented the missing crust punks (they later came back). Blogs chronicle the demise of neighborhood staples like the Mars Bar, which will become a condo building. As the gritty East Village of the 1970s seems to be slowly evaporating, Webb, with his tight ripped jeans, tattoos and jewelry, looks like one of its last relics.
And he is, to a certain extent. He talks about Joey Ramone eating at Veselka, and he got a computer in order to email with Iggy Pop. But he also gets frustrated when people complain that his store dresses new school icons like Lil Wayne or Justin Bieber.
With Trash and Vaudeville making its way into the 21st Century — it got a Facebook and website just this year — we decided to get Webb’s opinion on the neighborhood nostalgia. We happened to visit on the same day it was reported that the CBGB brand was up for auction. Here are some of Webb’s thoughts on the ever-changing downtown area.
On the CBGB brand
It’s so funny because I just threw in Joey Ramone as the next CD. I don’t know why they are selling it. I’ll tell you this. People come here to try to buy a CB shirt all the time and it sucks that there’s not one available because of all the change and all the licensing and who is selling what and who owns what.
I think it’s cool to sell it so you can have the shirt, since there’s nowhere else to buy it. I don’t think you need CBGB surfer shorts. I think there’s nothing wrong with having it in an Urban Outfitters or anywhere else to buy it too or even in a Hot Topic or whatever. It should be available there so the history can be continued on. As for selling things, you know I always hear a lot of shit about a lot of things like Iggy’s “Lust for Life” for Carnival Cruises. You know what I mean? Why not, dude? The guy wrote that at a different period of his life in the true spirit of punk rock.
On the changing neighborhood
I’m more becoming middle of the road on it, and I didn’t think I’d be middle of the road on anything. I’m not a middle-of-the-road guy. Well, maybe. But in a different kind of way. I’m a firm believer in New York City, first of all. I believe it’s the city where only dreams can come true, and not only, it’s a city where true dreams come true. I call it a skin-your-knees kind of city. I call it an Iggy city. I use his name because it is the kind of city where you fall to your knees, you scrape them up, you stand up and you keep walking. There’s no orange tree in the backyard here. There’s no sunshine every day. The diversity of the weather is the strength of the character here. We’re an island, man. We’re surrounded by water. We’re a fortress. We’re a fortress of truth. I’m really fortunate that I get to be at one of the meccas of it.
I wish there were more stores on the block that offered more colored hair dye rather than colored frozen yogurt. I’m really, really, really, truly offended when the neighborhood is called Little Tokyo. It’s not Little Tokyo, it’s never been Little Tokyo, it’s the Lower East Side. It’s where Basquiat and the New York Dolls and, god bless him, Spacely came from and obviously Trash and Vaudeville. This shit’s been here 35 years. It’s still mom and pop, it’s owned by the same owner and his wife. We just did a Facebook this year. I love that we held out so long.
I miss kids outside flyering for all their band shows rather than everything done by Facebook and the internet. You know, when you can’t post bills all over the lampposts, or god bless Jim Power with his little mosaics, I mean that’s a piece of the culture of the history of the city. I don’t think it should be totally taken away. Like what if you only sold vanilla ice cream? Or coffee ice cream? You need 31 flavors of ice cream. Don’t you? You need more than that. I mean that’s the minimum. 64 crayons in the box is the minimum. If you change a city so much that you don’t have the 64 colors or the 31 flavors, you’re kind of robbing the city.
On the Mars Bar
I think it sucks that Mars Bar is closing. Not that I’m a regular there. It really sucks that Kim’s [Video & Music] closed. You know, girl, I’m so back in the day I remember when it was the Valencia Hotel next door, not the St. Marks, and that was the gay bathhouse. And this whole big gay pride thing that just happened. So many people came by and were like not looking for the bathhouse, but where was the bathhouse?
To see that whole façade destroyed even if the place isn’t there. Look at the monstrosity of the neon, and the signs in front of that, that metal. What? For a market that sold the same thing, a little store that’s sold at three other places? That the front of it’s destroyed, it’s not there? That’s really like kind of atrocious. I’m not really an advocate of so much change that the spirit is slowly washed away.
On keeping the spirit alive
Absolutely. I don’t think I have to, I think we just do. I think it’s a natural progression and if you find the youth out there that still believe in that. I think there’s still a culture that does it.
On Tompkins Square Park
The other side to what you’re saying, you know there are so many points to this big star, is look at Tompkins Square Park. It went from being great, Tompkins Square Park, little old Polish ladies, you’re little drug addict community like Panic in Needle Park, your drag queens, your trannies, your Polish ladies, your kids in the swing sets. Then it becomes like Squatterville or Shanty town. It’s like that was too extreme in one way or another. Honestly I walk through and there’s a whole section that’s like are you going to be part of the problem or the solution, and the whole open air stinks because no one decided to bathe. But what about the little old Polish lady or the little Christians handing out the Bibles and the free soup, and the students on the swing sets? The pendulum just seems to swing extreme ways.
On selling out
Am I a sell out because I’m dressing the WWF or the WWE? I don’t think so. It’s supposed to grow. That’s why you constantly have to stay a step ahead of the game.
Does Vivienne Westwood seem upset? All right, where did bondage pants come from? Trash and Vaudeville’s not upset. It’s been here 35 years and we’re still selling bondage pants. I don’t care that Britney’s dancers spray painted them. They bought them from us and are wearing them all over. And Jared Leto’s wearing the same pants.
You know I did kind of keep it on the down-low when Justin Ti — not Justin Timberlake. Who’s that guy? Justin Bieber. I mean, god bless him. He bought the same jacket as a bunch of other — I thought it might shoot the selling point of the jacket in the foot. But if some punk rock boy has it on and it’s on the cover of Vogue magazine, what’s the big deal?