Performance artist and activist Bill Talen, AKA Reverend Billy, has been raising hell in New York City for so long now it’s hard to imagine this town without him. Since first seizing his sidewalk pulpit in the late 90s to combat the Disneyfication of Times Square, the reverend has been consistently down with a host of local and international progressive causes. With the help of his raucous Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, he also puts on a hilarious and inspirational theatrical show. (Not to take anything away from Other Love, his quite moving solo piece.) November will see the release of a documentary concerning the cross-country travels of Reverend Billy and his choir, What Would Jesus Buy?, produced by Morgan Spurlock of Supersize Me fame. Tonight the Reverend brings his righteous lefty heat to Gothamist House; all are invited to come on down and testify.
So it's pretty heavy that your most recent arrest – in broad daylight, in plain sight of video cameras, IN UNION SQUARE – was prompted by your chanting of The First Amendment. Seriously, what the shit is going on in this city/country/world??? Reciting the haiku of freedom in Union square, in the soul shadows of Emma Goldman and Paul Robeson, it’s like an altar. The police going there in force and publicly disobeying the First Amendment, it’s like a high stakes religious war.
Okay, to be more specific, what do you think motivated Lt Daniel Albano – or his superiors – to order your arrest? Savitri D and I were very loud and we kept cycling through the 44 words of the amendment and it was a power thing. We were angry that there were so many cops, it was a military scene, more cops than bicyclists. It was Critical Mass Friday. Just that morning, the papers announced that the city was demanding a million bucks insurance and a police permit if you want to film with a tripod for more than 30 minutes in one place. So, they would have arrested Steiglitz for his picture of the Flatiron Building? Wasn’t that tripod picture responsible for modern photography in America? Cops need art more than artists do.
What are the merits of their official charge, "harassment of a public official"? Albano’s sense of holier-than-thou, in the Giuliani/Kelly era, was besmirched. So he claims harassment. I will say it again: The NYPD is not my abused wife. We are not in a romantic relationship.
What else you got cooking in the court system these days? There are two old arrests from the Starbucks Ethiopian campaign. But Starbucks has relented and now is recognizing the trademark claims of the Ethiopian farmers. Sidamo is one of their famous coffees. For years they were bringing Sidamo beans to Starbucks and getting such low pay per pound that their kids were dying. Starbucks was selling Sidamo for $26 a pound with Ethiopian graphics on the bag.
What happened during your recent visit to Hofstra? Oh, Long Island is our Orange Country. Plain clothes guy pushed us up against a wall and stopped our show. Have to be ready for that stuff. They paid us to leave. Maybe he was Albano’s friend. I don’t have time to check it out.
You said you're fasting this week. What's that about? As the anti-consumerist revolution picks up steam, we’re flying more and more – this summer to Iceland and Scotland and Berlin and Hawaii and Burning Man then down to David LaChapelle in Los Angeles to make our movie poster. We’ve burned so much fossil fuel while preaching STOP SHOPPING – a complete moral impasse there – so we were glad to be invited to the Globesity Festival and join Penny Arcade and Zeroboy for a few days of consumptionlessness.
Do you ever feel that a line is being crossed where fans are perceiving you as a source of real spiritual guidance? That happened after 9/11. I would be biking across the Williamsburg bridge to preach in Union Square that fall, and someone would be biking next to me clearing their throat and we’d slow down and make time for a hug and some slow talk about life. So began the pastoring for the post-religious. Until that moment I was basically a Saturday Night Live spoof.
Have you ever taken a position you regretted or said something as Reverend Billy you wish you hadn't? Well, I was raised by Dutch Calvinists in western Michigan. These are right wing hooligans who walk up to you looking like Boy Scouts. Blackwater USA comes from Holland, Michigan. My family prays with those people. Regrets? Heaven to my people is when you notice you’re not burning, but you feel guilty you’re NOT in hell. I was raised on regret.
Besides fighting your arrests, what other issues are you most actively involved in? It all comes down to this: In 2007, in New York City, a healthy neighborhood is radical. The law firm of Bloomberg, Doctoroff and Kelly are dedicated to the swallowing of neighborhoods by the mono-culture. We’re turning into a traffic jam next to a glassy tony condo-front. But we love the apple for the bluster and bombast and gossip and happy lies – all that comes from bodies colliding on sidewalks, a lazy hour on a stoop, shouting first names in doorways. Eccentric proprietors of shops that maybe need a wash. The mono-culture that fills the streets with packs of 28 year old stockbrokers is then the same issue exactly as bombing Iraq and heating the arctic. Like Jesus Christ – the Andy Kaufman of his day – once said: It starts with loving your neighbors. But wear a condom.
What can you tell those who have never seen you perform with the Stop Shopping Choir to expect from the show at Gothamist House? Expectations Schmectations. We need a good series of shocks to the gizzard. Let’s fall through space. We’ve got to PUT THE ODD BACK IN GOD!
You're in a receiving line to meet George W. Bush. What do you say while shaking his hand – before the Secret Service realizes who you are and tackles you? “Your pet pillow’s full of cockroaches and rat fetuses, you big cowboy.”
Sorry to make you think of food at a time like this, but I have some New York themed-questions and the first one is this: What's your favorite restaurant at the moment? Café Brama on 2nd Avenue and 10th. I’m always at St. Marks so it’s on the way to the F line for my Brooklyn escape. Kosta and Monica and the family and friends are there. Nice way station. Haven’t popped the “Is this coffee Fair Trade?” questions yet. But I will.
I used to see you around Windsor Terrace. Still there? Well Savitri and I decided to leap over Prospect Park to the other side. So our neighbors used to be that odd mix in Windsor Terrace, city employees (including lotsa cops) but then some hipsters and especially jazz musicians, too. Now we’re in this lively liminal space between Prospect Heights and Bed Stuy. This is rockin’. I take my bike back across to Windsor Terrace, though; I do miss Nicky at the Greenwood Grocery and Larry at the weekend garage sale up by the cemetery and of course Sal and Laura at Laura’s Bistro.
Please share one the strangest encounters with a stranger you've had in NY. First stranger to come to mind after reading your question: This elegantly dressed woman was coming down the subway steps at commuter hour; 14th Street and 2nd Ave. She’s really rushing, flying down the steps. I’m climbing toward the street but suddenly stopped halfway to the street with a massive memory of when I saw this trucker and this waitress having violent foreplay in the middle of the winter. They were bouncing and spinning against the side of this oil tank in back of the truck stop – this was in Casper, Wyoming. I was hitch-hiking and writing automatic bad poetry on a napkin and I was in a haze and blundered back out there looking for the bathroom and there they were slipping and sliding and swearing. It’s one of those memories you don’t have for 20 years and it comes up for no reason and smacks you. And this stylish lady appears in the daylight of 14th Street at the top of the steps and sees the whole thing hit me and I’m standing there stunned. She swooshes by me down into the tunnel and somehow she shouts out this intimate message “Well you saw them – did they see you?” I whirled around and she was gone.
If you could change one thing about the city, what would it be? For one election NYC politicians can’t accept money from developers. That would change things a lot.
If for some reason you could no longer live in New York, where would you reside? I’d go back to that truck stop.
Photo from Dogseat's flickr.