a riotous disarray

Neil Robinson - continued from previous page

What year was this?

83. We started off in New Jersey, where she was living. We were going into New York a lot to see shows and that, so pretty soon we started looking for a place in New York City. She was going to NYU, she managed to get me in the dorm. This was Rubin Hall, right by Washington Square, and Dave from Reagan Youth lived downstairs. He'd come up and we'd talk politics for hours, and I really liked Reagan Youth. That's how I met Vic, he was in Reagan Youth, and he would become the guitarist for Nausea. While I was there, WNYU had the best punk show. Jen was friends with the DJ, he was the last person you'd look at and think punk, but he knew all his shit. So I'd just go sit with him and get to know the bands because the bands that were coming through, he'd play on his radio show. Around this time I was starting to hang out at CBGB's.

Then we kinda got tired of the dorms, and she was about to finish college. We got an apartment above Downtown Beirut on 1st between 9th and 10th. Downtown Beirut was the punk bar on the Lower East Side. That's when I started meeting the people that were squatting on the Lower East Side. And I started a job, I'd get up at 4 o'clock and go down and sit outside this moving company, and the owner would come out and go through the line and pick out who was going to work that day. I got in with this African-American guy, Freddie. He was kinda a mover-by-day and then a hustler at night. We'd often go out together at the end of the day and I'd make way more money hustling pool or whatever we could pull. He introduced me to dealing coke. And I wasn't making enough at the job during the day to make the rent. I hadn't really started dealing yet, I was kinda helping him do stuff. But then Jen and I split up.

I got another job at a restaurant, and my buddy was squatting the attic at this art gallery down off the Bowery, just over from CBGB's, and said I could crash there. I was there a few weeks, then the owner of the building found out we were up there. I think he knew, but he let us go, but then he came up one time, and he said, 'you know, I got that empty apartment that's being renovated, do you all wanna live there?' We were like, ahh, there's gotta be a catch, so he said, 'if you'd be my runner, I'll let you live there.' He was running coke. So I started working for him. I'd be going up to midtown and down to Wall Street. That was my introduction to how much drugs go through the Stock Exchange. It was incredible, nearly every fucking broker was high. That's where we first started the band. I remember we started doing Black Sabbath covers, that's kinda how Nausea begun. And then I was at CBGB's one Sunday and John came up to me and he was serious, he was like, 'do you wanna sing in a band we're starting?' I'm like, shit, yeah!

At the time, I was kinda hanging around with the Yippies, they had a building across from CB's. They didn't do much other than get stoned, by then I was much more into uppers than downers, but they'd do some cool stuff like die-in's uptown, and they always had lots of literature there. I think that's where I heard about a squat that a group of people were going to be opening up on 8th Street between B and C. I wanted an environment that was more political than the place I was at, I wanted to be around people that had values for building community. So 8th Street opened up and a lot of punks moved in. It was kinda right at the time when every empty building, people were opening up.

It wasn't common for there to be a political slant to a lot of the squats happening?

No, the squats that were there were there out of necessity. At the time I got there, the Lower East Side was a classic war zone. Drugs were just being dealt out of every abandoned building. Cops weren't allowed to go past Avenue A or 1st Avenue without two being in the car because if they stopped and got out, they'd jack the car. I think that's why, early on, they kinda allowed the squatters to go in, because all the abandoned buildings were being used by drug dealers. I mean it was incredible, you'd have a cop car parked over there, and there'd be people outside a building just lined up, with a brick that would come out of the wall, and right there were the cops, they couldn't do nothing. So drugs were rampant in the whole neighborhood. There was definitely a lot of violence. I realized there were set turfs, it was drug related, and it was interesting when I started working for Puerto Rican dealers, I could go between all the different turfs. I think that's why all of a sudden they allowed other people in, it was helping their business.

At the time there was this warehousing law, a landlord could buy a building and they could leave it empty and they would get the fair market value tax break. So most of the buildings were structurally okay, but then they'd buy em and have local kids set fire to them so no one would be able to live in them, and then they'd get a tax break. So there was no incentive for em to do em up. The city was kinda looking after em, for keeping them empty with a vision of... and I really didn't, at that time, have a long-term vision of what it meant to warehouse all these buildings, I really didn't understand gentrification then.

How large of a scale was the squatting going on at the time?

It was big. On 8th Street, there were like 5 squats, just on our block. We were right around the corner from Christodora which became synonymous with the Tompkins Square Riots, and Christodora was the first building that got slated for gentrification. I think that was really when the whole community came together, because they started realizing what it meant for everyone. You know, the Puerto Rican and Dominican community was very strong, you had a lot of family groups living together, a lot of people lived in rent-stabilized housing. But it became very apparent as 1st Avenue changed, businesses changed, and then when Avenue A businesses started changing, everyone was like, holy shit, this is not gonna stop here.

How did the environment, specifically, play a part in influencing the Nausea's music?

So we were opening buildings, There were protests. The animal rights stuff, it was very different living in New York City than in England, it wasn't like there were laboratories everywhere. There were hunt sabs starting out in Long Island, people were doing stuff out there. But the Lower East Side was a real tight-knit community, and it felt like it was under siege, so, really, our focus was to protect this little enclave of mixed-race, mixed-income community. Around that time, my friend got me a job working at this after-hours nightclub, Save The Robots. I got a job picking up cigarette butts and cleaning toilets, I ended up working there for ten years, I kinda became manager of it.

It seemed like you took things in a direction that not many other bands did - at least not many who have remained remembered through today in punk - was there anyone else who were coming from a similar place? Where did this direction come from?

It came from mine and their roots in English anarchist bands mainly. At the time it was mostly New York Hardcore; Agnostic Front, The Cro-Mags, and then the straight edge thing was really kicking in with Youth Of Today and Sick Of It All and those bands. It was interesting because we would play with all those bands, but with a very different message. We were definitely influenced by a lot of what was going on in England, and even bands over here, A.P.P.L.E. was around, Crucifix.

You weren't a part of the band's later recordings...

Back then, I had this thing, all our shows had to be benefits. That's why I left the band, every single show we had done had been a benefit for something, and at some point, I didn't really understand my economic privilege around having a job at the nightclub; it was a fairly flexible job and I only worked three days a week and I had it really well financially, so I would often foot the bill for the rehearsal studio and stuff. At some point we started getting offered money for gigs and at rehearsal one day someone said, you know, we should start taking money, and I said, No! It's gotta be all benefits. And we had a big argument.

Was anyone else on your side with that, or was it mostly you against the rest of the band?

I'd say it was me against the rest of the band, because... I was stubborn then, and I couldn't find the middle ground of, oh, we could take this portion to put into the band and then this portion can go into whatever benefit we want to do. It was like one way or... Which, years later, I regretted I wouldn't see that.

Did you stay on good terms with the band when you left?

Fairly... I don't know, I was pretty mad at the time. I was messing with a lot of drugs.

Was there ever a point where, as a political band, you sobered up, maybe the way Crass did, or was the drinking and drugs sort of a constant?

[pauses for thought] I think it was just kinda a constant through. You know, we were definitely aware of the issues of some of the alcohol companies, but we didn't act on it. It was very much part of the culture then that, during the day, we'd go out from the squat, we'd hang out on 8th Street or on St. Mark's Place, panhandle, get some money for pizza or some 40's, and go down and sit in the park, maybe fall asleep in the park. And there was really a whole culture around Tompkins. I think that's why when the Tompkins Riots happened, there was such a culture around it. It wasn't just a park, it was its own little community. There was the punks, the homeless, the characters of the Lower East Side, it was their home for the day, and often at night.

It was a really interesting time, because I try to go through my head, how did I... I had these strong values and these political ideals, but they all were kinda mixed in with this, fuck, total nihilistic drug alcohol life, and how was I sortin it out in my head, like... to this day I can't figure out, like... at some point I knew I had to get out of the drug game, you know. At this point I was still working at the nightclub. I don't think I started dealing when I was in Nausea. I was a user in Nausea. And that was when I stopped, my heart gave out one time, and I'd been up for... I'd been on a speed binge for a week, I hadn't slept. I got up one morning and my heart stopped. It was the scariest thing. And I went into the emergency room, and they were like, oh you had a heart murmur, or something, how long have you not slept? I told them and they were like, you gotta get off the speed and the coke. I mean there was a dealer next door to my friend's squat, and we'd go there, we were paying $75 a gram, and we'd buy a bag. I would cut it again and I was selling mine for a hundred a gram. So we'd be in there, we'd be spending $500 a day, we'd just sit in there for hours smoking one after another, and then finally go to work. And it just hit me, that this is wrong. You know, to get sucked down to this level. And when my heart stopped, I was like, okay, this is it. And that day I gave up drugs, alcohol, cigarettes.

At the same time, you were involved with projects that were going in a lot more positive directions. After Nausea, you were doing record labels and helped start Food Not Bombs, but I think one of the projects I knew you had a lot of involvement with that is still carrying today was the ABC No Rio space. Could you describe the early stages of that space?

ABC kind got started with Mike Bullshit. He was in SFA, Spastic Farm Animals, and had come out, and at that time, openly coming out in the scene on the Lower East Side was kinda risky. CBGB's was a really violent scene, it was extremely homophobic, and he was kinda sick of the violence at the Sunday shows. Every week there were stabbings. In the past, violence had always been outside of the hardcore punk scene, and all of a sudden at some point there was kinda a crossover where the popularity of the music and the scene had kinda pushed out, out into Queens, out into Brooklyn, into way more mixed neighborhoods, so all of a sudden you had this total mix going on and with that came some of the violence that was in those communities. So Mike didn't feel safe. And at the time you were also getting a lot of younger Jersey kids who didn't feel safe at CB's. So Mike broke off and found this space, ABC No Rio. It was an arts space and they weren't doing anything on one day of the week, so he asked them if he could do shows. What year, maybe 88, 89, 90, it all blends. He'd been doing shows for a while and I started hearing about them. I had started doing Tribal War by then, maybe it was Squat Or Rot back then [two diy record labels], and I went and started setting up the music. The bands played upstairs then. No violence. Lots of people just acting idiotic, or they could look completely normal, but it was safe. It felt really good to be there after CB's. And I started going there fairly regularly, and it was a different scene, cos no one looked like me, they didn't have the overtly punk... they didn't have the uniform.

ABC was also a part of the squatting movement that was going on at the time, right?

The original art space, and I think it's really key to have the background of how this space got going, a group of artists, who even in the 60's and 70's started seeing gentrification of the Lower East Side, got together and they put on an art show in an abandoned building. They had found this building on Delancey, and they had called it the Real Estate Show, and they wanted to get a message that these big uptown landowners were buying up the community and it was going to be at the detriment of the longtime community members. So they done this show, it was basically a squatted building, and the city had the cops come and padlock it, padlock the art show that night after the opening, because the opening was really big. The next day, they put together a party outside the place, they called up the media, there were some famous artists in the show, so the media was there talking about how these famous artists had their art stolen by the city. The city got real bad media, so they let them go back in, and they had the art show for about a week. Then, the city basically approached a group of the artists and said, 'we'll give you a building, we'll give you an art space a block away, if you move out of this building.' And that's how they moved over to ABC. The reason it had got the name ABC No Rio was just across the road there was a lawyer's office, and in Spanish it was Abogato Notorio, but the letters had fallen off and it just read ABC No Rio.

The city tried from the very beginning not to allow them to stay there. It finally got to the point where, this is just before I became involved there, the city was doing some work to a building next door, and there was a construction digger, and he said 'accidentally', but he smacked through the brick wall, the support wall outside our building. There were tenants living upstairs at the time. The city came and looked at, condemned the building, and they moved all the tenants out. But the art group would not go. They brought in their own structural engineers, who said it was a pretty easy fix. But the city was really trying to get them out. The city had been the biggest landlord, especially of low-income housing, and they were losing a lot of money because of it. So at some point, someone in the city said 'we got to get out of the landlord business. Let's just sell em all off.' That's kinda how in the Lower East Side, so many buildings got sold off to uptown developers. And ABC was one of the few buildings they were still trapped in because people were living there. So they couldn't do anything until they got everyone out. They did things like the heating system would go off during the winter and they wouldn't come fix it, the pipes would burst.

We started doing shows. We started allowing people to live upstairs, we figured if we squatted the building, it would make it harder for... sometimes at night people would come and they'd get into the building and electric wires would be cut. Just weird shit. We thought it was people from the city. They would come, they'd break our padlocks off and put their padlocks on. And I'd go and break theirs off and put ours on. So we figured we need people in here all the time. We put extra gates up, cemented up all the windows to the basement with cinder blocks, just really fortified the place.

Later, Mike was moving to a queer community down south, and Freddy Alva who'd been involved helping book shows with Mike called me up and asked if I was interested in booking some shows. And we wanted to move shows downstairs, it had an awesome basement, but it was a mess. So we went in there one weekend and completely cleared it out. We went to every dumpster in the neighborhood and filled them up. We installed a PA, built a stage, and then there was that one pole right in the middle in front of the stage, and we wanted to take it out but it was kinda the main support for the whole building, so we were like we better leave, and it was always there everytime a photo was taken. All of a sudden, I had booked Offspring, NOFX. Green Day was one that I booked and then they didn't show up. They had approached us, and I guess their booking agent had booked three shows on the same day and picked which would be the most popular and didn't tell us. I remember us getting together and I said 'that band's never gonna play in this state again.' [laughs]

We started having really popular shows. I think the most we had was 700 people at a show there, I mean, they weren't all in the basement because you couldn't fit everyone in the basement. It was incredible. The sweat was dripping off of everyone. And the energy was amazing. Just that feeling of... it was DIY. It was a group of young people who got together and said, we don't want businesspeople running our scene, we wanna run it in a way that's got value and meaning, and any people can get involved. The first thing people would see when they came in was that 'Leave your machismo at the door' that someone had spraypainted.

And you eventually left ABC and New York and moved to the Pacific Northwest?

I left there in 97. I had heard about this place, the Liberation Collective, they had a little office in downtown Portland. They had a motto, 'Linking Social Justice Movements To End All Oppression.' It rung out for me because by then I was not single-issue focused. I was linking all the different pieces of the politics, beliefs, and values I'd experienced, and everything was intertwined. I saw that, and it just resonated. And I'd wanted to get out of New York. The Liberation Collective, there were people putting on demos locally. Portland had the Oregon Health and Sciences University, one of their primate laboratories was out in Beaverton, so there was lots of organizing around that. At the time Craig Rosebraugh was one of the main people, and he had been in a few punk bands. But he was very passionate and a great speaker. You sat down with him and everything he said made sense.

Neil Robinson Interview continues here.

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the interviews:

John Girgus Aberdeen interview
Neil Robinson interview
Pleasant Gehman interview
Godfrey Reggio interview
Mack Evasion interview

A Riotous Disarray Drugs And Daydreams