MORE

Expose Yourself To Cro-Mags Singer John Joseph's "Fuckin' Photographic Memory and Stories Out the Wazoo" on His Walking Tour of the LES

Expose Yourself To Cro-Mags Singer John Joseph's "Fuckin' Photographic Memory and Stories Out the Wazoo" on His Walking Tour of the LES

For the past year and a half, maybe the coolest touristy thing to do in the city--even if you live here--has been the three-hour walking tour "The History of Art, Crime, Drugs, and Punk Rock on the Lower East Side," led by Cro-Mags singer John Joseph.

Warning: The following post contains the word "fuck" many fuckin' times.

See Also: - Here Is A Glossy Pop Cover Of The Cro-Mags' "Malfunction" - The Chrome Cranks: Stinking Up the LES Again

Most Sundays, the just-turned-50 hardcore icon has been hitting the sidewalks, painting a vivid picture of the LES of the '70s and '80s--the murders, the beatdowns, the gangs, the junkies, the hookers, the squats, the shooting galleries, the crooked cops, the riots, and all the incredible bands that came out of that shit-pit--for groups of a few dozen, taking them past the ghosts of landmarks like CBGB, Max's Kansas City, and Great Gildersleeves while regaling 'em with his own tales of mayhem and music stretching back 37 years.

"I had a front-row seat for the craziest, illest, most fucked-up shit you could ever fuckin' believe," says Joseph.

But if you ever wanted to take the tour, now's probably the time. For one thing, winter's coming fast, "and I'm not gonna be out here in fuckin' 10 degree wind chills and shit," he says. For another, Joseph--probably the fittest and busiest hardcore vet this side of ol' Hank Rollins--is becoming quite the triathlete: He completed the Ironman U.S. Championship here in NYC in August, and is soon heading out west to train for Ironman Los Cabos (Mexico) in March, with an eye toward qualifying for the Ironman World Championship next October in Hawaii. Plus, he's still touring the globe with his version of the Cro-Mags. Joseph's not planning to quit his tour-guide gig, but he's definitely gonna be scarce over the next several months.

"It's been a fuckin' blast so far, and I think I've gotten better at it since it started last year," he says. "You hafta have the great stories, but you hafta know how to tell them. You hafta have the audience hanging on every word. I've been studying the art of storytelling, really honing my craft."

The idea for the walking tour came out of Joseph's searing 2007 memoir The Evolution of a Cro-Magnon (he's currently adapting it for a screenplay), which unflinchingly detailed his childhood abuse, his travels through foster care--including his time as a heroin mule while living at the St. John's Home for Boys--his days of street crime, drug dealing, smoking crack, eating dogfood, getting shot, stabbed, and beaten up, becoming a Krishna devotee, joining the Cro-Mags, and finally getting his shit together. Toward the end of the book, he wrote about how much he'd love to give tourists a real taste of what the LES used to be before the Giuliani clean-up and corporate takeover.

Local promoter and manager Jake Szufnarowski--who founded the Rocks Off Concert Cruise company 12 years ago--read the book and reached out to Joseph. "He was like, 'Dude, that's actually a good fuckin' idea, how would you do it?'," says Joseph, "and he just kept askin' and keepin' on me until I got it going."

"I got a fuckin' photographic memory and I got stories out the wazoo," he says. Among his anecdotes: Living in the same building as Daniel Rakowitz, who in 1989 killed his girlfriend, dismembered her, then cooked her into a soup that he fed to the homeless in Tompkins Square Park. Hanging out at 171A while the Beastie Boys and Bad Brains recorded their first albums. Going to Union Square--"it was called 14th Street Park back then, that shit was the Wal-Mart for drugs"--to cop pills, weed, and acid. Cops busting through the door of his squat at 713 E. 9th and sticking guns in his face; thugs doing the same with shotguns and pistols while taking over another squat at Eldridge and Rivington. Watching the jazz guys go to Tompkins to score dope, then play at A7 'til the sun came up. Witnessing rival drug dealers and gang members killing each other in cold blood and warring with cops during Operation Pressure Point in Alphabet City in the mid-'80s.

 

"A lot of people in the city nowadays have no fuckin' idea, but it looked like a bomb hit down here," Joseph says of the LES. "The city was givin' these buildings away for a dollar, you just had to show them the receipts that you were fixing it up. We all joked, 'Who the fuck wants to live down here?' The guys who were smart enough to do that and bought five, six, seven buildings are all multi-millionaires now. It wasn't my thing. I traveled the world, I'm an artist, I don't wanna be no real estate person, I don't need those headaches."

"But back then the shit was insane. In. Fuckin'. Sane," he says. On the walking tours, he still runs into some of the characters from the old days. "The very first time I ever did it, this dude down there, I was like, 'Yo, that guy used to be an enforcer for this guy Junior, from 7th Street, that got locked up under RICO. He's a bad dude.' We seen him comin' toward us, the guy's fuckin' six-four, prison build, this monster black dude, and he's all, 'Yo, what you doin' What's up? What you doin' with all these people?' And I go, 'I do a walking tour now, it's like punk rock, hip-hop, and the drugs and the crime and everything else.'

"And he's looking at all the tourists with me and he stands right over them and he goes, 'Lemme tell y'all motherfuckers something right now, y'all better LISTEN TO THIS MOTHERFUCKIN' MAN cause none of y'all woulda been down here back then. NONE OF Y'ALL. He knows what he's talkin' about.' And then he's like, 'Yo, peace' and he walks off, and you hear the German tourists in the back goin', 'Oh my Godddddd,' like totally shittin' themselves. It was great! It wasn't planned at all, it just happened. I love that shit."

Though Joseph admits that he desperately misses places like CB's and Max's, and to some degree laments that areas like the Bowery have been scrubbed clean of grit and danger, he insists he's not trying to glorify the days of rampant crime, murder, poverty, and despair. "Am I glad that my mother doesn't have to walk down the street and get fuckin' mugged, like it was in the '70s? Yeah. But that shit's still happening, it's not like the city's all fuckin' safe now.

"When I take people by 2nd Avenue where [2nd Avenue Deli founder] Abe Lebewohl got murdered, I'm not glorifying that, I'm giving you a fuckin' history lesson," he continues. "When I talk about the fact that I saw this, this, and this, I'm not glorifying violence, but I'm like, 'Yo, this is what happened right at this spot.' You couldn't even walk some of these streets without gettin' mugged or shot, and people don't know about that shit now. That's the kind of thing I try to capture. I keep it intense. There's a lot of violence. But some of it's also funny. It's artistic."

Joseph laughs at the fact that he's gone from junkie squatter to hardcore-punk stalwart to gym-rat triathlete and tour guide.

"Never would have imagined on my 16th birthday, sittin' in fuckin' B3 of Spofford [Juvenile Center] in the Bronx, only white dude in the whole fuckin' lockup, that I'd even be alive and talkin' to you right now, nevermind bein' a fuckin' historian. But I do it because I've been all over this fuckin' planet, dude, between goin' to yoga meetings in Malaysia to touring Japan, Europe, fuckin' everywhere, and there ain't no fuckin' city cooler than this fuckin' city. And this part of the city, the history, it's being lost. So I do what I can 'til I can't fuckin' do it no more."

"The History of Art, Crime, Drugs, and Punk Rock on the Lower East Side" walking tour happens on Sunday at 3 p.m., meeting at the Cube in Astor Place. Tickets are $35, with a portion of the proceeds going to Hardcore Against Hunger--Feeding Vegan Meals to the Homeless. More info here.

Swans' Most Terrifying Songs On Odd Future, Rape and Murder, And Why We Sometimes Like the Things That Repel Us How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide



Sponsor Content