By James Maher
Name: Bill Gerstel
Location: Two Boots Pizza, 3rd Street and Avenue A.
Time: 12:10 pm on Saturday, April 19.
Happy Record Store Day. I got too much. I went to Kim’s and Other Music. I got my fun. I got my one obscure find. Everybody’s looking at all the new releases, the new special releases, of which there are some good ones, but I found this Al Kooper-produced band called Appaloosa that I’ve never heard of. That’s Record Store Day. Also, I’ve been reading the history of Stax Records, so I got Otis Redding’s first album and I got an Elvis Presley recording at Stax.
I grew up in California and I moved here in 1980. I was playing music in California. Van Halen and the Knack were real big then, and Television and the Talking Heads were here, so moving just seemed like a no brainer. I had to be here. I’m a drummer.
When I first arrived, I lived near Christopher Street in the West Village for a bit and then I lived on Gansevoort Street, which was just like meat trucks and hookers and transvestites turning tricks in the middle of the night. I got my first place in the East Village in 1986. I lived on 1st Avenue above Gringer Appliances, which is still there. I think that will always be there because they own the whole building. The owner’s not trying to gouge anybody. He’s not a great landlord but he’s not a horrible landlord either. So I stayed there and I was super of the building for awhile, which meant I just swept floors and hung out for the oil delivery. I really didn’t have to do much. Then we moved to this block in 1997.
I used to have a day job working for a music company putting out a cassette label. I was sort of marketing, promotion, radio distribution and everything. It was very small and for years it was just cassettes. But I haven’t had a day job in 20 years.
I was playing music all over the place. In the East Village, I played at A7, which is now Niagara. It was just a dirty punk club and if they didn’t like you they would sit on the stage. I played Brownies and I was in the band 3 Teens Kill 4 for several years, so we played at the Pyramid Club a lot and did a little touring.
I now play with Emily Duff [The Emily Duff Band]. It’s sort of like Americana, Bluesy, R&B stuff — great songs. I’m also in a cover band in New Jersey and that’s how I make money, because everybody wants to just hear a jukebox; nobody wants to pay for live music. I did a lot of Irish music for years and now I do classic rock covers — Bowie, the Rolling Stones. It’s more fun playing originals, but I don’t mind playing covers.
One of my favorite nights was playing at the Continental … and Johnny Thunders was headlining. We were opening for Johnny. It was a cold, snowy night and so he had a big overcoat on. He was leaving at the end of the night and somebody in the backroom was like, ‘Johnny, Johnny!’ I think they were going to pay him or whatever it was. He was all nervous and running out, and he stopped abruptly and two frozen chickens fell out of his trench coat that he was stealing from the kitchen. He passed on getting paid and just left.
The venues are disappearing in the city but there are a lot in Brooklyn. It’s really hard in the East Village now cause the demographic is changing. It’s crazy. When I first came here, everybody was going to the West Village. I would work over on Bleecker Street and everybody would go there looking for Mary Travers and Bob Dylan, and now everybody comes over here looking for Johnny Thunders. It’s just the lifecycle. It’s inevitable and with rents going up and now property taxes have gone up astronomically. I’m a rocker and I play music, but I’m also a homeowner, so I notice all of that as I grow older. Now we’re just part of the city.
There are things that I don’t miss. I don’t miss the danger of it. I wish it was a little more edgy, but I got mugged a couple times and I’m glad I’m not worrying about that anymore, and I don’t have to step over junkies and my son doesn’t have to step over junkies. Although he did see junkies when he was 6 years old, going, ‘What? How’s that guy doing that?’ It was a great place to have a kid because the parks were nearby and there were lots of kids and lots of people like me around. There were a lot of us that didn’t leave. You can take them to museums or to hear music. He’s seen stuff that he’ll never see anywhere else. My son has got a gig a two. He’s a guitarist and not a drummer, fortunately, so we can play together.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.
Bill Gerstel! Great guy, great musician!
great interview and great style!:)
Thanks for sharing the Johnny Thunders as chicken thief story, Bill!
I know Bill and he's The Man! I'm so glad he held still long enough for you to talk to him.
I've been seeing this guy on and around 3rd street for over 3 decades. I recall how he looked when he was younger, and obviously how he looks now. In a way, he has been one of the many ways I have gauged my own aging, and the ways in which my physical appearance has also changed over the years. Although we have never met, I often wonder if he does the same with the old timers he sees around the neighborhood. He always seemed like a nice and fun guy. And he looks as great now, as he did 30 years ago... I always wandered what his story is. Thanks Grieve. This blog is amazing.
Another great interview, James!
Bill! Hooray! Great photo, great interview.
Bill and I first met back in the mid-eighties, when he was tending bar at Dojo on St. Marks. I love him like a brother.
Rest in power, Bill. xo <3 Love to Robin and Sawyer.
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