By James Maher
Name: Rew Starr
Occupation: Host of ReW & WhO, Musician, Guitar Teacher
Location: The Bean, 3rd Street and 2nd Avenue
Time: Friday, Nov. 29 at 4 pm
I was born in the Bronx but I never lived there. My parents were both raised in the Bronx, when it was the country, but my grandparents all came from the Lower East Side. They were from Eastern Europe. My grandmother was in Vaudeville and sang the blues and jazz and supposedly worked with Jimmy Durante. And my mother was an actress and singer. She was an understudy on Broadway to Shirley MacLaine in "The Pajama Game."
I was raised in Westchester but I could never admit it my whole life. I used to lie all the time and say I was from the city cause that’s the only place I ever wanted to be from. I left home when I was 15 and I went to college at Maryland at 16. I was in a big hurry to get to somewhere. Then I moved to Philadelphia for awhile and ran a skincare salon for a few years. Then I came back here and never left. That was in the early ‘80s.
When I moved here my life hit rock bottom and then I met this total stranger, Paul, who had just moved to the city and it changed everything. He moved here because he loved the Ramones more than anything and he just wanted to play guitar and write songs. He told me that I looked like I could sing and write. It was a hidden dream of mine. I always wanted to do that but I never had the chance. So the two of us would meet and we wrote so many songs you can’t even imagine. We would write and write until we finally did our first open mic at the Sun Mountain Cafe in the West Village. Through that we started getting gigs and from then on we played all the time.
We were always called Black Flamingo. We played at Spiral and CBGBs a lot ... there was a place called Street Level, Downtown Beirut — all the local little places. It was fun, but eventually Paul left. He had wanted to add musicians to the mix because he wasn’t the best guitar player. We could write songs and we worked well together but once we got musicians to play with us, what would happen is instead of Paul’s mistakes being hidden they would be louder. The musicians would count and act like musicians and we were two little freak artists that had no training whatsoever. You bring people that know how to play into the mix and he used to get really upset.
Around then I began to hate being a singer/songwriter that didn’t play an instrument. So I learned to play a few songs on the guitar and I got cocky very quickly. Once I started playing I wasn’t codependent. And then I got a job playing sing-a-long in nursery school, so I was paid to practice. That’s why I feel like I’m a permanent kindergarden guitar player, which is my style anyway. I’m a simple writer. I have a punk rock heart but I tell too much information and I never realized until I started playing for kids how inappropriate every song I write is for kids.
I was Black Flamingo for so many transitions and then I got an email that somebody wanted to buy theblackflamingo.com. It was a store in Laguna Beach that did the clothing for the television show Laguna Beach and the Hills. So we became RewBee because my partner in music at the time was named Bee.
Bee was working doing computer stuff at this place on the Upper West Side called AriZZmARadio and they were starting to do these indie web shows, and he wanted to do one, but they said he needed a girl co-host. So we started this web show called RewBee’s world with mostly indie artists and musicians. But within six months our band fell apart and it was really ugly.
The show was every Wednesday and Bee quit on a Tuesday night. Overnight it turned into ReW & WhO. I decided I would have a guest co-host every show — it’s who’s going to be the WhO? Then I moved the show to Otto’s Shrunken Head, which was like my second home. We survive on donations now and we’re so lucky. We don’t expect it but that’s how we survive. Our show is all about rising stars and living legends and people of passion. We don’t exclude anything that’s passionate about something that they truly believe in. We’ve had politicians and the WhO’s are now booked far in advance. We’re also working with an organization called Guitars Not Guns, who give kids a guitar and lessons. Our show is totally guerrilla, it’s totally underground, we have no experience at all, and we keep it going.
I love the East Village and I’ve seen it go through many transformations. I used to live on Mulberry Street when it wasn’t Nolita. It was still Little Italy. John Gotti used to walk around the block and you could smell his cologne. He would take his walks around the block with his friends.
I worked at a shelter for moms and kids doing arts and crafts once a week on 3rd Street between C and D. You couldn’t even get a cab that would take you there. We had to call a car service. There were so many stray dogs and vacant lots. The only time you would walk there was at like 5 or 6 in the morning from the after hours clubs and the only people around were drug addicts and stray dogs with foam at the mouth.
But all I ever wanted was to have little city kids to grow up here, and thank the lord I have two. They grew up in the East Village and I live vicariously through them. They’ve found out that the city is a playground in the after hours. I forget that things like that still go on. They’re in the heat of it all. Fortunately they tell me a lot.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.