Julian Cashwan Pratt remembers coming of age at hardcore matinees when the Lower East Side was still for the freaks.
This article originally appeared in print in AdHoc 28.
New York may be home to thousands of artists and creators, but Julian Cashwan Pratt, frontman of post-punk and hardcore mainstay Show Me The Body, was actually born and bred here. Looking back on his youth in Manhattan, he credits one venue in particular with being hugely influential on his growth as an artist and person: ABC No Rio, a space for art and activism that opened its doors on the Lower East Side in 1980 and is perhaps best known for its long-running series of Saturday afternoon hardcore matinee shows. Since its Rivington Street headquarters got demolished in 2016, it’s endured as a collective in exile, booking shows around the city and doing community work. In this installment of Smells Like New York, Pratt talks to us about a time in NYC history when the Lower East Side was still for the freaks and ABC No Rio offered a home to them all.
As told to Mandy Brownholtz
Julian Cashwan Pratt: ABC No Rio was my community center. I was raised uptown, but I would come down here because we didn’t have anything else to do. If our parents knew where we were they would be worried, but to us, it was the safest place we could be. There were drugs and shit like that, and there was violence—but if you were a kid in New York who liked to go nuts, and you were a freak, you could go there and be yourself. Seven bucks at the door, and if you [didn’t have] seven bucks, then whatever you got.
ABC No Rio was a true co-op building. Maybe legally it would be defined as a squat, but it was a co-op. They had all these rooms: a dark room, a crazy infinite zine library, a small live room with two monitors in it, a backyard, and a rooftop. I started pulling up and seeing it firsthand when I was twelve or so, but before that it was just people saying, “Oh, I saw this crazy shit go down!” And you’re a little kid, and they’re not talking to you, but you’re like, “Yo”—you know, you’re listening.
For kids who didn’t really have a positive direction, it was a big deal for us to have a place to go and hang out. So many people would come from around the country and around the world. I saw Italian hardcore bands there—I saw Vitamin X there in high school, and it gave me a super international view and a broader perspective than just New York hardcore, realizing that there’s all this extreme music.
It’s funny for me to say “back in the day” because I’m not that old, but it was really different. LES ain’t for the freaks no more. Besides all the sick housing for working people they had around there, it was really a place for freaks who roamed the streets in a wild way, in a big way—straight-up junkies and older cats and stuff like that. But then you’d get to know these people and you’d understand—like, They’re cool. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.
I guess ABC No Rio was sort of a hold-out of freakazoid culture, of anti-society bullshit, for the Lower East Side and for the whole city. It’s so anti-society that it’s not about the art. It’s about animalistic tendencies, and primal nature, and community through expression of primal nature. That’s what a big part of this neighborhood used to be about.
ABC No Rio as a collective is still an active thing. The people who have always been there, like Dyami [Bryant] and Melissa [Staiger], are still booking shows. They do ABC No Rio in Exile shows. You can donate to them at any time. But in a certain way, there can’t be another space like ABC No Rio, because this city is not the same as when ABC No Rio was around. The city gave birth to ABC No Rio, but you can’t expect another woman to give birth to the same baby.
Show Me The Body only played there once, but that’s how much of a difference there is in the generations. Kids who come to Show Me The Body shows—unless they were like me and those other little kids going to shows at ABC No Rio, I don’t think that it’s part of their culture. Which isn’t to say that they’re worse off or anything—they just have different things. (Shout out to Hydro Punk in the Bronx—these kids who are putting together shows and doing it in community centers, trying to build something and hold down their own community.)
I think that being a freak in New York, being a freakazoid, being someone who likes punk music or hardcore music and you’re from this city, it ain’t no laughing matter. I say that with a fucking smile on my face because it’s good—that these kids feel strongly about what they’re doing and how they feel. No one wants to get used to eating shit. And when you’re from this city, you tend to eat shit. You see people die, you see people take things from you and your family, so it ain’t no joke around here. People who are from here, trying to do this, trying to live this life—take it very seriously.
ABC No Rio saved my life. It taught me to love extreme music, and I’m sure everyone who likes extreme music has a venue that they are attached to—[the one that made them go,] “Wow, this is beautiful. This is for me and my friends.” It made me realize that I could be positive and take out aggression in a positive way. And for all those people I met when I was younger—those people who took me to parties in Corona or down on Rivington Street, who looked out for me, everyone involved in those communities and everyone involved with ABC No Rio—I got nothing but love.