Beware False Prophets

One blazingly hot Sunday afternoon in 1980-something I went to the Tompkins Square Park bandshell for “Rock Against Redevelopment,” a 12-hour anti-gentrification rally-cum-concert to save the neighborhood.  “Give us our land, peace, and bread,” pleaded the posters, “Instead of leaving us stranded, fleeced and bled.”  False Prophets -my favorite hardcore band, although they weren’t hardcore per se- were scheduled to lead off, followed by a succession of acts every hour.  At least that was the plan.  Well past the advertised 2pm start nothing had begun and there were no spectators save for some bewildered Ukranian babushkas pushing strollers and a few supine winos jarred awake by the Prophets tuning up.  False Prophets were fronted by the brilliant but oft-misunderstood Stephan Ielpi, who cut quite a figure in his asymmetrical haircut with single sideburn, toothbrush moustache, and black mandarin-length fingernails.  His usual getup consisted of a military officer’s cap worn at a cocked angle, a monk’s cowl, knee-high engineer boots, and a shepherd’s staff topped by a taxidermied wolf’s head.  Stephan engaged in strident harangues between songs, and liked to get in people’s faces, sometimes literally.  One night at a benefit for Thwack magazine at CBs, just days after the San Ysidro massacre, Stephan jumped down from the stage and head- and chest-bumped audience members while warp-speed singing “Ideserveabreaktoday, Iwannahaveitmyway…”

The Prophets took the stage an hour late.  Stephan drummed the palm of his hand against the microphone to test it and swabbed his sweaty forehead on his cowl sleeve. “Wow, this is kinda early,” he croaked, holding his naily hands out at arm’s length to shade his squinting eyes, like Max Schreck futiley trying to fend off the sunrise before vaporizing. “This is a large iced tea from Ray’s, ” he announced to about three onlookers while brandishing a styrofoam cup with two straws stuck through its cover.  “It costs $1.95.  Whaddaya think it’ll cost next month when RAY’S RENT GETS TRIPLED?”  With that the band tore into the anthemic “Blind Obedience.”  At its climax Stephan crouched on all fours and mock-timidly whispered “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” before to rising to roar “We’re at Treblinka’s front door!”  while goose-stepping back and forth with staff on shoulder rifle-like and throwing sieg heils.

Mid-set a reeling wino in a torn t-shirt with underarms permastained yellow stumbled up the bandshell steps, grabbed the mike from Stephan and, with a halitotic blast, mumbled something incomprehensible.  Stephan threw an arm around the bum’s shoulders, hugged him and announced “I’d like to thank our president for attending.”  Then the doors came off.  Steve snapped the strap off his bass and flailed it like a whip as he chased away a fleeing bicyle deliveryman who’d been heckling the Prophets between songs, then in the middle of “Baghdad Stomp” a helicopter that had been circling high above swooped down low and hovered over the bandshell, drowning out the music with engine roar and rotorwash that rustled trees and sent leaves and litter whirling into eddies.  The Prophets stopped, Stephan squinted up at the intruding airship, twirled his mike cable and edgily said “I’ll wait,” although no one could hear him.  A man wearing headphones, sunglasses, and a suit leaned out of the copter with a camera and snapped several photos just before the craft abruptly climbed out of sight and hearing.  “NKVD, KGB, CIA, SAVAK, it’s all the same,” deadpanned Stephan, before resuming at the point of interruption: “Yes, in vicious circles/Hide hungry wolves…”   Ned’s drums continually slid away from him after that, leaving songs without a backbeat,  because the duct tape he’d used to anchor them to the cement stage kept pulling loose.

If you visit Alphabet City today you can see what a fat lot of good all of Stephan’s shrieking did.  But at least he was lighting a candle -albeit one that was snuffed out immediately- instead of just cursing the darkness.

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