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