Semi-Genius

One of the favorite periods of my life was when I was in my late twenties.  I had just moved into Manhattan from Long Island, just returned to work at OMNI Magazine – more accurately, the fledgling OMNI Book Division – after my failed attempt at being a public school teacher, and I felt like my REAL life was just beginning.  So I needed to be in the place where everything was happening, to live on the edge of coolness, in this next phase of self-discovery.

My first year in NYC was spent in a two-bedroom sublet apartment on East 21st Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, next door to the NYPD 13th Precinct with its constant beeping of backing-up police vehicles.  I even had a view of the Empire State Building if you stood at just the right angle in front of my living room window.  I had also inherited a cat, Livvie, who was my first “pet project”.  Livvie lived on a table and two shelves in the kitchen and was petrified of most people.  She had been left behind by her unfeeling owner (a nonfiction writer of some repute who was a co-worker at OMNI) and had allegedly watched her sister jump (or be pushed?) to her death out the kitchen window, not to mention that my two cats also mercilessly tormented her from the moment we had moved in.  (Another story for another day.)  After that first year was up, I had to get a place of my own, so I found a basement studio on East 1st Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues.  I had started spending quite a bit of time in the East Village during my year on 21st Street, primarily with a diminutive Englishman named Clive, or perhaps Lane, or some other entirely different name – he was a bit of an enigma and fodder for a blog post all his own, but today is not the day for a blog post about Clive.  Today is the day for a blog post about another fellow I met during my years in the East Village who was the lead singer, songwriter and all-around creative force behind seminal Oi! band (more on that in a moment) The Press named André Schlesinger.

I always likened André’s physique to a turtle, hunchbacked with his neck slightly retracted, usually scowling, pale and freckled and gingery, although he always kept his hair close-cropped.  He was, in fact, the local figurehead of the East Village chapter of S.H.A.R.P. – Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice.  Back in the ’80s, there was a cohort of kids who shared the look of the right-wing, Nazi-influenced British and American skinheads, with their Doc Martens and Fred Perry shirts and suspenders, but didn’t brook with the hard right politics – ergo, S.H.A.R.P.  In fact, these anti-skinhead skinheads felt strongly that it was THEIR look and music that had been appropriated by the racist skinheads.  The genre of music they favored was commonly called “Oi!”, after the mostly British (but American commandeered) all-purpose exclamation, “Oi!” as derived from footie fan chants in the U.K.  As André himself described it, “Oi! shares many similarities with folk music, besides its often simple musical structure; quaint in some respects and crude in others, not to mention brutally honest, it usually tells a story based in truth.”  [quoted in Wikipedia entry for “Oi!” from Ian Glasper, Burning Britain (London: Cherry Red, (2004)), p. 282.] [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oi!]

André always used to say he wore his musical influences on his sleeve, and those were easy to identify:  the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, Blitz, Cock Sparrer, the Four Skins, Cockney Rejects, etc.  And the Press’ songs, while certainly catchy, were a tad derivative.  His lyrics, though, were sharper than most, and he always carried around a beat-up composition notebook full of sketches and bits of brutal, beautiful poetry.  One of my favorite lines comes from a song called “Just Another Warning” that actually appeared on a compilation album featuring NYC punk and ska bands:  “You never have an answer/But you’ve always got something to say.” Perfect, right?  We all know someone like that.  His words were angry and sardonic and yet smart and funny at the same time.  I called him a semi-genius, a moniker he pooh-poohed but secretly liked.  I always imagined that he would be famous.  In fact, Boston punks the Dropkick Murphys did cover one of his more iconic songs, “21 Guitar Salute”.

André was such a presence in my East Village years.  So many heated conversations about music and politics, spiritualism and art!  André had many opinions, but as a conversationalist he was either silent and seething, hunched antisocially over a domestic beer in a corner of the bar in one of his regular haunts, Downtown Beirut or the Horseshoe Bar (aka Vazacs) at the corner of East 7th Street and Avenue  B, or impossibly garrulous.  I relished those nights when he was on one of his rants; I was transfixed and amused.  And there were so many Press shows, where I would get as close to the front of the stage as I could, often narrowly avoiding getting smacked in the head when he swung his microphone like a lasso, one of his few on-stage mannerisms together with his patter, alternating gracious thanks with “screw you” growls toward “you know who you are”s in the audience.

Someday I hope to write about those years in the Village in the late ‘80s, around the time of the Tompkins Square riots, when the area was gentrifying at a dizzying pace and the cachet of the neighborhood as the birthplace of punk, with CBGB at its epicenter, had long faded, leaving nothing there but wannabes (even though it was rumored that Joey Ramone maintained an apartment in the Christodora House on Avenue B, and he often popped up at local clubs, but I never managed to see him).  André was kind of a victim of that shift:  He was talented, without a doubt, with a significant following (not just the S.H.A.R.P. boys), but the record companies weren’t scouring the bars and clubs of the East Village for the “next big thing” anymore.  By that time, at the end of the 1980s, the “next big thing” interest had already shifted to the West Coast, from Green Day and the Offspring in Southern California to Nirvana and Pearl Jam in the Pacific Northwest (and their respective ilk).  Fortunately, my journals from that time are pretty intact (although I did lose a few to the flood), so my memories may yet see the light of day, especially now that I’ve begun loosening up my writing muscles via this blog.

So, sadly, The Press never became the “it” band to make it out of the East Village, much like the Strokes did about a decade later, when NYC was hip again and the East Village had morphed into the Lower East Side (and the TRULY hip were leaving for Williamsburg and Greenpoint).  André descended into darkness – literally.  He became a reverend in the Church of Satan, but much like his ironic appropriation of skinhead style in an anti-racist role, so was his Satanism never meant to harm but only to view life from a different, more authentic perspective than the tenets offered by organized (and oppressive) Christianity.  (Well, that’s not ENTIRELY true – much of his motivation was to cause harm to those who had done him wrong, I’m not gonna lie.)  But in general, his was a kinder, gentler Satan worship, more along the lines of Aleister Crowley, Satanist to the Stars back in his day.

A few weeks ago my ex (for whom André had a deep fondness, like a little brother) said that he had seen something online that made him think that André had died.  Ian and I both followed the FaceBook page of his current band, Maninblack, and I had even downloaded a couple of his recent singles – “Two Thousand Fifteen” (“There is no scene in 20-15”) and a paean to his home called “The NYC (There Will Always Be”), which featured a recording of actual NYC subway announcements – but there hadn’t been much new activity, so it kind of made sense.  It took me a while, but I finally did some Googling and, sure enough, André had passed away in February of 2016.  As described in an “in memoriam” piece by one of his friends, Peter H. Gilmore, self-described High Priest of the Church of Satan,  “The quintessential curmudgeon, the ultra-meanie of alt.satanism, the force behind The Press and MANINBLACK, Reverend André Peter Schlesinger of the Church of Satan was a man who lived life on his own terms, without compromise—ever.” [http://www.churchofsatan.com/in-memorium-reverend-andre-peter-schlesinger.php]  I also found a well-done article about André that even featured a video of a performance at Downtown Beirut II from around 1988-89 for which, in all likelihood, I was working behind the bar.  [Freddy Alva, “21-Guitar Salute:  André Schlesinger from The Press”, No Echo website, 2/17/16, http://www.noecho.net/features/21-guitar-salute-andre-schlesinger-from-the-press.%5D

I hadn’t seen the man in over a decade – I think the last time was way back in maybe 2000, before my friend Sue met her husband and got married.  The reason I remember the timing that way is because we had him do a Tarot reading for her at the West Village occult bookshop called the Magickal Childe where he was working at the time.  He was in a very rotund phase – he put me in mind of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now – but his steely blue eyes were still wounded, his scowl still intense.  In retrospect, his reading was surprisingly accurate:  He said she was going to meet and marry a man with two kids, which she eventually did, and, as I recall, he also said it would not end well, which remains to be seen.

But when I thought of him, when I saw someone who reminded me of him or one of his songs came on my iPod, I always liked to think he was out there somewhere, still creating his clever, angry music and writing his tortured poetry, lusting after a whole new generation of Christina Applegate-lookalikes.  André always loved Christina Applegate, circa “Married With Children” era.  I was just wondering the other day whatever happened to her – I think she struggled with cancer a couple of years ago – and then this week, as I was contemplating writing this post, she popped up on “Jimmy Kimmel”, sort of out of the blue.  I took it as yet another sign that it was time to honor my friend.  I hope you can rest in peace wherever you are, André, because you carried so much turmoil on this astral plane, although you managed to do it with just a touch of genius. 

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