The Reverend Billy


Give a description of yourself...include age. avocation. day job. where you were born. where you grew up. where you live. length you've been in New York. New York motto (if you have one), etc.
You know, I don't think that biographies work anymore. There's this thing to figure out, which is -- how shadowed are we by the celebrity delivery system? You can argue that questions of a bio existed before the celebrity culture did, but they may have been important in a different way back before we were hunted down and crammed with celeb bios.

Protection of the First Amendment seems to be at the forefront of many of your recent sermons these days and you hold that the First Amendment is the only permit one needs to hold a peaceful protest. Why has this become your focus?
The First Amendment is attacked during times of institutionalized fear. After Bush decided to imitate his oil buddy bin Laden, we were in for the theocracy that directly opposes freedom of speech, and of the press, and the right of the people peaceably to assemble. In 1798 it was the Sedition Act. During World War One it was the Espionage Act. All along it was the legal defense of the Jim Crow laws in the south, which said only whites could have these rights.

In each case, the 1st Amendment was restored by a boisterous rising up of public and judicial opinion -- always involving jailtime and fines by often lonely Americans accused of eccectricity, anarchism and worse. We are in the American tradition here and the police know it.

At Ground Zero on our 22nd consecutive Tuesday, Savitri Durkee (my collaborator on the Reverend Billy project) was reciting the amendment while a policeman reached for his handcuffs and her incantation of the freedoms slowed him down and stopped him in mid-gesture. The First Amendment is talismanic.

Ed. Note: Reverend Bill has spent the last 28 consecutive Tuesdays, every 6:30pm-7pm, organizing "First Amendment Mobs" at the World Trade Center PATH Station (Ground Zero). The Mobs use street theater techniques and literally reintroduce the First Amendment to a space that the Port Authority claims does not include Free Speech and Assembly.

You and your loyal followers in the Church of Stop Shopping strongly abhor consumerism. Is consumerism really an evil that must be banished? If so, what would fill the gaping void? Where might a new politics begin?
If Americans didn't live our lives by products? That's the most exciting question you could possibly ask. I want to be there to watch what happens. Living life by products makes us stupid. The Iraqi War was sold as a product, and guided through the consumers' buying decisions by advertising people in the White House. One of the great advertising coups in history. Persuading 2/3's of the country that Saddam Hussein flew the planes into the towers.

That's coming in from one side. Consumerism is a way of life. It is this world where the act of buying is routinely described as the ultimate expression, rather than the vote or the act of love or prayer or helping someone as a volunteer. Nothing happens that is not bought and sold -- and the advertisers persuade us that this is normal. In fact the costs of all of it go up and up because it becomes so expensive to persuade us that this bizarre world is normal. Ultimately, Consumerism is always violent. The ongoing wars are tied directly to products that we seem addicted to.

You have been compared to Augusto Boal, and Abbie Hoffman. Both appropriated and transformed public spaces into public stage with the intention of engaging the public directly to provoke discourse and effect social change. Who do you think your influences are?
I am influenced by characters in the street who embarrass me. A screaming maniac is usually less influential than a Boal-like invisible dramatist. There are zones of fabulous theatrical people, i. e. the mix of Apple customers with bad logic boards at Tekserv and going west toward the Chelsea, all the blind and wheelchair folks, right in there. The face off between a blind person and a person running to a cab with three iBooks -- precious. The turbulent interface there, it's not a mall, is it?

The actors in our Starbucks plays are indistinguisable from the other customers, usually, for a while, then they come up in intensity and slowly build a voyeur field. Then sometimes it goes all the way up. A Shakespearean actress in Vancouver stood up in the massive Starbucks, boy it was diva-time -- she said I AM THE STARBUCKS MERMAID AND I WANT MY NIPPLES BACK!! It was just unbelievable. The gaping manager?s face. The greatest payoff for this work is to travel to Berlin or Texas or someplace and the people rise up and perform -- the most outrageious freedom-taking goes on. And that influences us in turn.

Do you think the Internet and other new technologies advance your cause?
Someone came up to me the other day, at a march, and said "Oh you're Reverend Billy, the internet star? I recognize your hair.? I'm not a celebrity who has product every four months and then the ensuing phalanx of publicity and marketing. So we go for months with nothing in the press. And we know that the Republicans won't cross the Hudson again in our lifetime -- Haley's comet will come back sooner. So we have hits now, blog talk and so forth. The journey to NY of hundreds of thousands of folks have everything to do with sites and Email. But with cyber discourse -- there are secret increases that don't seem to relate to great migrations of Republicans. Invisible meetings, down at the pixillated village square, has its own rhythm.

You've been quoted as calling Starbucks "an egregious, sinful, outfit..." You've staged protests at their retail locations and written a series of scripts giving your followers the tools to execute their own Starbucks "nonviolent civil disobedience" (i.e., "Death by Latte, A Tragedy," and "Virtually Hip"). Tell us about one of your recent actions. We also hear you've gotten into some trouble out West...
Information about Starbucks is easily found, googled in seconds. Start with infant mortality rates in Gautemala among the coffeeworkers. Starbucks isn?t necessarily worse than Folgers and Nestle -- it's just like they want us to believe that they are different. They will kill the community by buying out the leases of diners and coffeeshops that have been there for years. Then in the front window they'll put up a poster telling the passersby to "Create Community."

Two weeks ago, when we rallied in front of the Starbucks at 36th and Madison Avenue, the day before their union vote, the billionaire Howard Schultz was actually inside the place, there he was, handing out Mets tickets and pizzas, trying to influence the workers. He's a union-buster in ways that are less gentle-seeming. Their workers make 7 bucks and change an hour -- you won't let them organize? It's not the company to make apologies for.

Yeah, my trial in LA is September 15th. In the meantime, I'm under temporary injunction to cease and desist from "annoying, stalking, disturbing or sexually harrassing computerized Starbucks cash registers." They take the personhood of the corporation too far.

As the guiding force behind the Church of Stop Shopping, you must have some pretty powerful opinions about religion. What is your opinion, specifically, on organized religion?
We are post-organized religion for the most part. The way I see it, the thing that we have that is helping us survive living-by-products is -- each of us is walking around with a question revolving in our back brain. No matter how busy we are as New Yorkers, the question keeps repeating.

Sometimes I stand on a Broadway corner and I see everyone avoiding the question but hearing it, at the same moment. "What is this? What is this amazing thing that is happening to me? What is it, this, this -- what is LIFE? I'm living now, I'm breathing, I'm thinking, there's my left foot, there's my right, and what is it that I am doing. Living. LIVING. What the hell is this amazing, this LIFE?" Everyone tells me -- they think they know? Noone knows.

All the corporations say they know -- trust us and we'll take care of those questions. Corporations are the biggest fundamentalist church in the world - because they claim that they have the answer to the mystery of life. Fundamentalists say that -- Jimmy Swaggart is identical in his argument to the pretty actress selling Xanax -- "Here's the answer to life - here is contentment."

In fact, because we still sense that they are con artists, we keep asking the question. That is key. That is why there is hope. The revolution against consumerism can start at any time.

Can you tell us a little bit about Reverend Billy's alter-ego, Bill Talen? What is the relationship like between Bill and the Reverend? What was Bill's life like before the Reverend? Is Bill working on any of his own projects these days?
Savitri and I are grateful that lately the basic story of Reverend Billy is understood by more folks. But Reverend Billy's story feels more important than Bill Talen's, because the role of the artist as creative type has become a narrow careerist line of inquiry. I don't think of Bill Talen and Reverend Billy as separate identities. There isn't an "artist" inside the "actor."

Give an example of something you witnessed or experienced that had you think "only in New York" or "damn, I'm glad I live in this city."
I heard a story about Milton Glaser, the designer who came up with the I Love New York t-shirts and bags -- with the heart for the world love. He sat down in a meeting with a world reknowned company offering a million bucks for an ad campaign. He listened to them talk about color schemes and slogan ideas. He looked at them and said, "I don't wish to do business with you. The meeting is over."

Who is your favorite New Yorker (dead or alive) and why?
Edgar Alan Poe. He finished writing The Raven over there near Washington Square. His wife Virginia was dying and he asked that raven if there was a heaven. Is there a "far Edenic shore"? Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Since this is the "city that never sleeps," tell us a good 3am story.
During the blackout I walked to Union Square with Spalding Gray. it was late, maybe not three. No-one knew what time it was. I wanted to preach in Union Square but all I had was my bullhorn. So I began to preach in the dark there, and flashlights gathered their little spotlights, and I preached in a light that came to meet me. I had always been needy for Spalding to see my performance, like a kid brother type. That was the last one.

Billy's Topless is now a bagel shop, no more smoking in bars or restaurants, Times Square has been Disneyfied, what's next?
Oh they've won. The island is malled. I mean, they haven't had lease protection for small businesses since, what, 1981? The developers killed this place. But now it will come back to life I believe, because the 1st Amendment is doing a flanking action. When a policeman working for a developer comes up to you and says "This is private property." -- they will be wrong.

There are over 39,000 police officers in the Big Apple. Any out of the ordinary run-ins (positive or negative) with any members of the NYPD you'd like to share?
Yeah that one in the SUV that just about ran me over coming up from the F Train. I just shouted at him and he stopped and then we shouted toe to toe for a while. I think part of my thing is that I would cast as a cop in a tv show. I always find myself looking across at the same set of facial and body features. So in a sense I say "Wait a minute. You're an actor in my movie. This is a buddy film and you aren't the evil and neither am I." Police my neighbors in Brooklyn. They think the LA court order is outrageous. They all hate Starbucks. Are you kidding? The police have a strong union.

From Wall Street to Riverdale, Far Rockaway to Kew Gardens, Williamsburg to Red Hook, New York City is a city famous for its neighborhoods. What?s your favorite?
I've lived at 46th and 9th Avenue in Hell?s Kitchen, or -- well some people insist on "Clinton." And I've lived in Noho, at Lafayette and Bleecker, where my rent went from $700 to $2200 and I'm outta there. Gone to Brooklyn -- Fort Greene the first time, and now Windsor Terrace, near the Greenwood Cemetery and the lake-end of Prospect Park. My favorite neighborhood I haven't lived in? I like hanging out with the Hungry March Band in Williamsburg verging on Greenpoint.

Bloomberg... good, bad or just plain ugly?
I'd say the last three, bad, plain and ugly. The other day he said "Protest is a privilege, not a right." A privileged person says that.

Plans for Ground Zero... good, bad or just plain ugly?
First things first. My plan is we have 1st Amendment Rights there. Don?t tell me its private property and therefore city cops get to tell me to leave.

You hear all the time that "every vote counts," but New York State is pretty much of a given to go Democratic in the upcoming election. So... does every vote really count? If you really wanted to make a difference, wouldn't it make more sense to do something like move to Florida or Ohio?
I've got friends journeying to swing states. But in New York we have a job in the creation of meaning, of imagery, or creating the stage. Bush thought this was his stage, that he could use New York for its old role in the US mind, but now he's stranded.

What sources do you turn to for news?
A lot of my news comes from people who talk to me. I consciously struggle to keep the media in the distance, with bodies between me and it. I don't go to movies, I go to people who go to movies, the plots and stars become different as they go from mouth to ear. There are all those distorting mid-environments. One time I met Ethan Hawke. I said, hello, I'm Bill Talen. He said "I'm Ethan. What did you say your name was, GROVER CLEVELAND?"

There's a fire in your building and you have 5 minutes to get out. What do you take with you?
Savitri's body. And mine. I mean, I haven't experienced hers without mine.

If you could ask G-d one question, what would you ask?
Did you create me before I created you?

Photo by Fred Askew

Interview by Raphie Frank and Mindy Bond