John Joseph understands that oral history beats anything ever written in textbook spiel. For the past three months, the Cro-Mags frontman has been inviting the public to join him on a walk through the Lower East Side – or, more accurately, a stroll through his past. Assuming the mantle of historian, storyteller and professor of punk, he’s found a way to educate the masses about New York City’s pre-gentrified past. It’s a lesson too good to miss.
He has our tour group meet at the Cube, a geometric eight-foot steel structure at Astor Place. There are a dozen of us – six Euros, six from the greater New York area – and judging by the low-level chatter, everyone seems aware of our tour guide’s past. Talk turns to his place in punk history, multiple arrests and, of course, the militant brand of veganism he follows to a tee.
But this isn’t your standard walking tour. It’s The History of Art, Crime, Drugs and Punk Rock on the Lower East Side. Nobody’s wearing pleated pants and a fanny pack, not even ironically. Instead, we’re a carefully cultivated mix of Chuck Taylors, tattoos and Black Flag T-shirts. History, in this context, revolves around desperate junkies, long-gone punk clubs, and the spot where our tour guide was once stabbed in the shoulder by a crazed Puerto Rican gangster. This is John Joseph’s Lower East Side. For the next three hours, he will show us how it’s morphed from a graffiti-covered world of violence, sex and three-chord progressions to the trendy consumer-driven district it is today.
Joseph’s accent is so classic New York you almost think he’s faking it. People in Manhattan don’t talk like that today, but then again, most of them didn’t grow up in New York. And they certainly didn’t sleep in creepy porno theatres to escape snowy winter nights on the street. “The experiences I had to go through were tough, because I was institutionalised in very bad neighbourhoods,” says Joseph. “It put me in touch with a lot of dangerous people and situations. The streets were wild and crime-ridden. My very first year on the streets was ’77. You had the blackouts, [serial killer] Son of Sam and drugs. The city was in chaos because it was broke. The cops were getting laid off. You name it; it was going on. You just had to watch your back.”
Joseph leads the crew down the infamous Bowery, an integral part of Lower East Side lore. Cutting north/south through Lower Manhattan, the Bowery was known as a lewd place long before the CBGB’s awning became a rock ‘n’ roll landmark. Bordered on the west by Five Points, the Bowery had been a dirty haunt since the 1800s (think Gangs of New York). Over the years, it became lined with bawdy saloons, unemployment agencies, whores, tattoo parlours and flophouses – a place where the homeless, crazy and addicted mingled and met. According to Joseph, the “reviving” of the neighbourhood has displaced many such unfortunates. “I like to point this out from over here,” says Joseph, directing our attention east across the Bowery. “There’s still a shelter over there and a few guys who are down on their luck. I don’t like explaining this to my tours while they walk in and out [of the shelter].”
John Joseph McGowan was born in this city and it’s amazing he hasn’t died here. For Joseph, the walking tour is an extension of his autobiography Evolution of a Cro-Magnon, published in 2007. According to the book, his father, a gritty Irish welterweight, turned to alcohol and lumping up his own family, leaving his wife too unstable to care for young John and his two brothers. Joseph was taken away by social services and moved to Long Island where his childhood became a punchbowl of hardships – a heinously abusive foster family, crime and a ghetto orphanage in Rockaway Beach. By fourteen, Joseph had been failed by the system one too many times and decided he was better off on his own. Then came his first experience on the Lower East Side.
“I was a heroin mule for a couple guys in Rockaway,” says Joseph, leading the group down the sidewalk. “I would come into the city to cop for them and run it back to Rockaway. There was a Polish neighbourhood and they said I looked enough like a little Polish kid that no one would give me a hard time.”
Joseph formed Cro-Mags in the early eighties with bassist Harley Flannigan. Colliding hardcore with metal, they were known as one of the hardest bands to come out of NYC. They toured relentlessly and enjoyed decent record sales, but never made any money – a fact Joseph puts down to corrupt management. Nevertheless, Cro-Mags reached legend status off the back of their intense live shows, and the fact that he and Harley, who were all but brothers for a time, had a personal war over rights to the band’s name. Thirty years since Cro-Mags formed, European concert promoters have reportedly offered sixty thousand dollars a show for an original Harley/Joseph lineup – but they refuse. “I just can’t do that anymore with someone who has to be the centre of attention,” says Joseph.
He leads the tour east to a region formerly known as Alphabet City, explaining the seventies nicknames: Avenue A you were “Adventurous”; Avenue B you were “Bold”; Avenue C you were “Crazy”; and any white boy who made it as far as Avenue D was “Dead”.
There were no boutiques in this neighbourhood thirty-five years ago – no double mocha soy lattes or wine bars. Mad hellholes tend to attract creatives and criminals alike, and while the seeds of punk rock were growing through societal cracks in London and LA, a sordid version was spawning on the Lower East Side. Joseph, possessing tendencies both bohemian and bruiser, was drawn to it like a fly to a rotting transvestite corpse. He knows the junkies who killed Sid’s Nancy. He knows what crack can do because he ripped off his best friends and family to get high. He knows about dirty cops and gang members because he fought both. “Now you have all these ‘supposed’ punk dudes here with [tattoo] sleeves up to their necks that don’t scare anyone,” says Joseph. “I chuckle at that shit. They have the look, but they didn’t really earn it or live it. It’s a watered-down version. The old-time punk rockers were crazy. It’s a different animal now.”
During the tour, locals are not shy to interact. An annoyed yuppie spouts, “Excuse me, foreigners!” An older Spanish fella gives Joseph a fist-bump, building on street cred earned back in the day. A strung-out waitress comes out of Paul’s Da Burger Joint with her own twisted tales.
And the stories keep coming. John explains how he once lived below a Daniel Rakowitz. He remembers when the eccentric artist had Monica Beerle, a Swiss dance student, move in with him. Soon, her mother notified the school from overseas that she hadn’t heard from her daughter in weeks. Apparently, the girl tried to leave Danny, and he wasn’t having it. Joseph tells the tale of Danny boiling her body and feeding her to the homeless people in Tompkins Square Park.
We stop off at the former Studio 171A, where Jay ‘Dublee’ Williams recorded the Beastie Boys’ first album. Joseph recounts how, while living at the studio on Avenue A, he became a part of the wider Bad Brains family when they recorded the Roir Sessions. The four black dreads from DC who played powerful, fast hardcore, punctuated by beautifully soulful reggae, not only revolutionised the New York scene, they helped define American-style hardcore. Although he was originally drawn to the violence of punk in the seventies, Joseph became more deeply involved in the scene in the early eighties, when he went AWOL from the US Navy in Virginia and fell in with the Washington DC punks. Returning to the Lower East Side, he started to see punk more as a community and outlet for activism.
John ‘Bloodclot’, as he became known, stops us at every address that once hosted raucous slam pits and historic rock moments. He remembers the Ramones at CB’s and Black Flag at the Peppermint Lounge. “I don’t need to go to fucking Wikipedia for this shit,” he says. “I lived it.” His memory is solid. The only time he refers to his notes is to rattle off the artists that played each venue. Public Enemy at the Ritz. Patti Smith performing with the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. He missed The Clash at the Palladium because he was serving eighteen months in upstate New York, but saw them plenty at Bond’s Casino. Some are still venues under different names. Most are sushi bars.
If Joseph majored in history at the University of the Streets, his minor was in gentrification. This is one of the most famously yuppified neighbourhoods in the world. He laments a culture caught in the crossfire of Mayor Rudolph ‘Rudy’ Giuliani’s war on crime in the mid to late nineties, and when he describes how the desperate economy is now causing the criminal element to threaten the new loafer crowd, there’s a subtle excitement in his voice. “But there are two good things to come out of the changes to the neighbourhood,” he concedes, without missing a step. “I don’t have to worry about my mother walking down the streets here anymore. And there are more places to get health food now.”
Joseph is in better shape than most guys half his age. He was practicing yoga twenty years before the rest of New York, and now hosts a weekly “plant-based Cro-Mag urban training session” with Nike. In the early eighties, Joseph was introduced to healthy living as part of a package deal with spirituality. And while he follows the teachings of Srila Prabhupada, a founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, he’s less enamoured with other chapters of the faith.
“I tell everyone to check out the website Iskconirm.com [a purist Krishna revival movement]. Prabhupada means ‘one who leads by example’. He was the most humble. Prabhupada was the one who slept on the floor, fed everyone, and renounced materialism. I still chant every day, read Prabhupada’s books and associate with devotees. I owe everything to Prabhupada. Without his teachings, I would be dead. It’s not a religion. It’s a spiritual process.”
In accordance with his strict vegan lifestyle, Joseph points to several of the Lower East Side’s original vegetarian joints. The Cauldron, said to be run by witches, is long gone. But Angelica Kitchen, which used to feed leftover vegan food to the street punks, is still there.
“When did people start equating eating an animal that’s been tortured its whole life with manliness?” asks Joseph. “Be a ‘real man’ and eat beef?! Are you going to be a real man when you get into your forties and fifties and they’re ripping your colon out of your ass? And then you gotta take all this medication, and you’re walking to the fucking pharmacy every day like some feeble bastard? They’re brainwashing us to eat that food. Nobody’s going to tell you not to eat that shit. This shit’s making you sick and the drug companies are making billions.”
This rant is the focus of his second book, Meat is for Pussies: A How-To-Guide For Guys Who Want to Get Fit, Kick Ass and Take Names. It’s a title that was sure to get attention and has drawn the ire of feminists. “It says right on the cover, ‘For dudes.’ It’s not for them!” yells Joseph. “But there’s nothing misogynistic about it.”
Through research, philosophies and menu ideas, the book dispels the stereotype of the skinny, unhealthy vegan. His theories, which link an over-processed American food industry to pharmaceutical companies, are eye opening. Recently, though, he has become linked to a more controversial belief: that the Japanese tsunami was the Karmic comeuppance of that nation’s raping of the seas. You have to wonder if Karma works like that.
“I was talking about collective Karma,” says Joseph, who insists that the quote, taken during his March interview with blog Approaching Oblivion, was taken out of context and run through the internet mill. “It’s not that I have anything against Japan. The whole planet is killing animals. The whole planet is getting ready for a big dose of Karma. But whatever it takes for the masses to wake up. People think they don’t have to face responsibility for our actions.”
So, what’s next for a hardcore frontman looking at fifty? There’s a Cro-Mags Australian tour, another book in the works, two screenplays, and he’s currently training for the first New York Ironman triathlon. He also claims that fake Krishna gurus have been sending goons after a West Coast friend. He wants to fly to LA with a “mob of his own hooligans” to see if the hired muscle will step to him.
He finishes the walking tour at what used to be Max’s Kansas City. Alongside a closing anecdote devoted to Iggy Pop – who apparently used to get into a giant bag and have the bouncers throw him down the stairs for fun – Joseph wraps things up on a characteristically chipper note: “The first time I went in here, I got my head kicked in. Back then, punk rockers would stab you in the face with a fucking bottle.”
This walking tour is anything but pedestrian.