Brad Will

Brad gave me my very first radio interview. It went down in a basement below the anarchist bookstore on Avenue B where he worked. That basement served as the control room for pirate radio station WSTR FM. (The “STR” stood for “Steal This Radio.”)

On his program Brad interviewed people and recorded the shows in a beaten-up tape deck set on a folding table. For the show, I performed a couple of impromptu rants and a poem I’d written in honor of my friend Michelle Robinson, who’d recently died from heroin. Raised in San Francisco, Michelle had her whole left arm inked in tattoos portraying the Cookie Monster and the other Muppets frolicking in a brightly-colored cartoon graveyard. Her back was covered in a tribal pattern. We met when she was working at Baby Doll Lounge, a titty bar downtown where I’d danced my very first sets. She made drinks. On one of her nights off, Michelle took me to her friend’s apartment on St. Mark’s Place, where we smoked crack cooked by the girl who lived there. It was the only time I’ve ever smoked crack, and I thought it was stupid. I’m interested in expanding consciousness, and this drug had none of that; its effect was more like really strong coffee. Back then I’d also been friends with a Jamaican girl whose brothers had a storefront on Avenue A where they sold weed and blow over-the-counter to the likes of Mary J. Blige. These were still the years in the City when you’d walk along East Second Street and suddenly your breath would catch and you’d stop in your tracks because you noticed the sidewalk was glittering, littered with used needles.

But back to Brad. We met in the days when we both frequented the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, where he hung out and I performed. A professed anarchist, Brad was tall and slender, smart, and sharp-eyed behind wire-rimmed glasses. When he didn’t wear it up in a bun or ponytail, his long, straight brown hair hung down to his ass. Brad always seemed to have with him both a book and a smelly, drab-colored canvas backpack. We met and he invited me to be a guest on his show. After that, we were friends.

I hear now about how he was such a ladies’ man, but I didn’t see him in that way. Brad lived in an illegal East Village squat with minimal utilities. One night I stopped by his place, I forget why. He opened the door and, though he partially blocked my view with his body, from the threshold I could smell the sex he’d just had with some dirt-smudged black-haired girl I spied through the cracked-open door. Brad wanted me to be jealous, but I wasn’t. My men were more dark-hearted than he, and I resisted Brad’s flirtations — also because he was unwashed. Now, after having lived in my car four months straight several years ago, I can understand how hard it must have been for Brad to stay clean in the squat without a shower.

He could be reckless. Not from stupidity, but because he really believed in and was excited about what he was doing, and often disregarded practicalities. Once, his unattended space heater started a fire that nearly burned down the squat. I remember how badly he felt after the accident; everyone blamed him for their personal losses. The illicit homestead adventure ended when the cops finally came to throw everyone out. Brad defiantly told me about it afterwards. The narrative was murky, but he described a sort of Western-ish stand-down, with himself on the roof in resistance.

Sometimes he amused us because he could be overly earnest, like an idealistic younger brother. One afternoon I was with Brenda and her husband at Veselka, eating chili, when Brad came in, crouched down on the floor, and effused about how excited he was to be with such amazing people. Brenda and I smirked superciliously at how he wore his heart on his sleeve. But now that’s one thing I most admire about him.

At the millennium I started leaving New York City, and we lost touch. It wasn’t until years later, after a West Coast detour, that I returned and learned of Brad’s death. He’d become a filmmaker and a reporter for a leftist paper. On assignment in Mexico, while he was covering a demonstration for workers’ rights, Brad’s camera was rolling when the cops came, started firing into the crowd, and fatally hit him.

The story was characteristically sensationalist: Brad, shot in Oaxaca, filmed his own murder by government lackeys. His footage captured not his own face, but those of the cops that killed him, and then the streets of Mexico that passed by ever-slower as he died while running and at last fell. That’s vintage Brad — though not even onscreen, he was still the star. A few months later, his tale was a Rolling Stone cover story: “Death of an Anarchist.” His final video aired on the major news shows. He was an instant cult hero. But because his death was one of self-sacrifice, it all went beyond tabloid fodder and Brad’s story took on a certain Christ-like dimension.

Yes, it’s tragic. Yes, it’s sad, a shame, and a waste. But it’s also rock and roll.

A lot of people walk around talking about how the world should be a better place in this or that way; and how, if the world were a better place, they’d do this or that. How, for instance, they want to join the Peace Corps or something, but can’t take time off from work. After a few youthful escapades that they love to wear thin in glory-days stories, in the end they always get jobs and settle into lives of obedient fear. People like that rot in their fat and condescend to characters like Brad for their naivete and poverty. Unlike them, Brad wasn’t all talk; he lived his ideals, and thereby achieved an unlikely fame.

Nowadays it’s hard to be real and not get physically and psychically destroyed. Well, Brad was real; and his body was killed. But his spirit lives. He won, in my opinion.

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