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.
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.