By James Maher
Name: Spike Polite
Occupation: Musician, Lead Singer for SEWAGE, Actor, Model
Date: Thursday, Jan. 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Location: The Edge, 3rd Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue
You can read Part 1 of the interview with Spike Polite from last week here.
In 1991, I was caught up in these riots because [the police] were starting the process of [cleaning out] Tompkins Square Park. They had it in their minds to change the city, but I was just a kid so I didn’t know what was going on. It started because they beat up this guy Rodney for nothing. They didn’t give a crap about none of those people in the Park. It smelled like shit and there were crack vials and broken syringes everywhere and scary people. But you had your little groups. You’d find your people and you'd be safe.
They had been putting a lot more police presence on the Park out of nowhere and then they started harassing people and taking away their 40 ounces that weren't even opened yet. It wasn’t legal. You can only arrest them or ticket them if they crack it open, and then it's an open container. Rodney came out and the cops tried doing that to him and he did like some football move. He got off with it.
So they gave up on Rodney ... They proceeded to quarantine the area. They had been setting up for days. I just went to save my friend. Everything I was doing was just natural. So they had the bonfires and we got all the 40-ounce bottles and some people were making molotovs but they only did one or two. Sanitation came in and took the garbage away so you didn’t have any more 40-ounce bottles to throw. So then we had to go to the grocery store and get our ammunition there, at the SYP [at 100 Avenue A].
That's when I got accused of hitting a big cop in the head with a brick, but I didn’t. I threw a cantaloupe at him and a head of cabbage. They didn’t catch me then and there because he was a big dude and I was just a skinny punk rocker. They caught me because Newsday put a picture of me with my mohawk up and my band’s name spray painted on the back of my leather jacket. Even though I had a bandana on my face, the mohawk was made with glue so I tied it down but it just sprung back up and the hoodie came off. The cops caught me pretty soon after that because I couldn’t get the shit out of my hair, because it was glue. I got five years of probation.
I had been already dealing with that stuff my whole life, with abusive authority and all that, so for me, punk rock was just being natural. My ambition was always to make it with the music, but it wasn't the music that really happened. It was always that I had my punk-rock look and I got an agent and he worked for Eastwood Talent. He sent me out on jobs and I would go working as an actor. I got my [Screen Actors Guild] card and that paid my bills. I was a model for Armani. Then this agent found me walking down the street one day and he set me up. I worked for Deborah Harry's modeling thing at CBGBs, and then I got sent to "Law and Order." Things took off after that. That all started around ’94.
Then the band stuff took off because my manager from Kostabi World picked me up, Paul Kostabi. He started the ball rolling for it. Kostabi is a good guy. Then he hooked us up with Spike Lee. That was ’98. After that I did a thing with MTV. There was a guy on MTV who pretended to have a similar story as me. His name was Jesse Camp. He was an MTV VJ at the time. He would come out and hang out in the Park after the riots were over and after the Park was reopened.
He came around as if he were rejected and downtrodden like us punk rockers and squatters but he was actually rich. You’d feel something not right with him. Anyway, to get street cred, he hired one of us from the best bands at the time and put us in his band on Hollywood Records. We made a video co-starring Rev. Run as the gym teacher and Marky Ramone as the janitor. That was on MTV.
They’re showing this video every hour and I got the highlight of smashing the guitar that busts into pieces on the video and everybody knows that. And yet people were laughing at me when I walked down the street on St. Mark's Place, disrespecting me. I always command respect ... yet there were these people laughing at me. I was like, "Where the fuck are they coming from?"
That’s a thing that I noticed back in the day was that the people who would come here to see us and be with us but they couldn’t be us full time, so they would just be there on the weekends and be down with our scene and then they would act like we were scum the rest of the week. It’s like a nature show.
You need people. You just need a balance, you know? I never really liked people who were too normal, because I’m an entertainer. I have to be different, and I am different. I kind of had a disdain for people who were normal and see them as people who are condescending, but in all reality, you need people to do their thing. I’m not a political person but I understand systems. Rich people are needed but they're needed to run the system for the people, not to have disdain for them.
[In 2000, Polite was found not guilty in the murder of his Brooklyn landlord. However, he was convicted of second-degree robbery for "leaving the scene of the crime as a passenger in the landlord's 1982 Subaru." He was sentenced to four to 15 years in prison. He served 11 years and was released in 2010.]
I’m a New York State resident but I've been stuck in New York City three times. I was stuck here from my parents sending me to the social services system and to foster homes, then I got out and lived in the squats, but then I got in trouble with the riots. And then the music took off and the acting took off, and then I went and got into trouble again. I got off parole on Jan. 7, 2015. It's been a year and two weeks off parole. I've been stuck in New York. Now I’m looking to go back to Berlin and Amsterdam [on tour]. I’m sorry man, I look to escape from New York because I’ve been stuck here. Shit, they make it hard to live here now. You keep struggling and struggling and it gets harder, you know?
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.