Interview: George Tabb
I have been a fan of George Tabb’s writing for a long time. I first came across his columns in MaximumRockNRoll, back in the day. I drifted away from reading MRR as religiously as I used to, but one day a few years ago, Soft Skull Press sent me a review copy of George’s book, Playing Right Field: A Jew Grows in Greenwich: his memoir of growing up in WASP-y Greenwich, Connecticut. Like the “Gilmore Girls,” but much less charming. I loved his writing voice, namely the dry, self-deprecating humor. I could relate. I started picking up a few more copies of MRR, to see what “the kids” were into, musically, and to check out George’s columns.
Then, earlier this year, while poking around online and looking to see if he had written anything new, I saw that Tabb had published another memoir, Surfing Armegeddon, about his days as a young punk rock hoodlum in Florida. I also came across some disturbing articles. It said that George had been sick with what people are calling the “9/11 cough,” or the “September 11th Disease.” If you aren’t already aware, Tabb was living down in lower Manhattan on September 11th, and although he wasn’t hurt in the explosion, he (and his ex-wife) inhaled a lot of the dust and debris while trying to escape.
In the intervening years, George Tabb has had a myriad of health issues, none of which the doctors can explain. He has been on MSNBC to discuss it, and several years ago started a successful MySpace campaign in order to raise money to pay his medical and insurance bills.
I met George in March 2012 at his apartment in the West Village. I rang the doorbell, and a barrage of barking started. He opened the door, and the man who graced the Furious George albums I loved smiled and shook my hand. He was wearing a Ramones t-shirt, naturally. We sat down, and he offered me some water. We began to chat, about his health, his early love of glam rock (Kiss Alive II, Rocky Horror), about his introduction to punk via the Dead Boys (“It was comedy and awesome music!”), about his tenure at MRR and friendship with Tim Yohannon, about his friendships with the Ramones, Ray Cappo, Harley Flanagan, Murphy’s Law and other New York punk legends, and where he was going from here. One of his yorkies, Jet, slept on my lap the entire time, snoring.
We were chatting for a minute and then I turned my recorder on.
So, you were saying… about Maximum?
So yeah, MaximumRockNRoll…a couple of times, I could’ve moved out [to San Francisco]. When I met my ex-wife, it was 1986. I met this other girl. Then I went on tour with my band False Prophets. We went to the Maximum RockNRoll house. Met Jane who also used to write for MRR, the main shitworker, or whatever. Then False Prophets broke up after a while — basically, I left the band, and I came back for a couple months…stayed with them until they found somebody else.
So, I was in San Francisco and I fell in love with Jane. And I also fell in love with my wife, Wendy, in New York. But we had just met. So I didn’t know if I should go back to New York and be with Wendy, or stay in San Francisco and be with Jane. Tim was going to give me a room at the MaximumRockNRoll house. It would’ve been great — but my parents lived in New York, so I went back to New York. And then 10 years later, when Tim was dying, he flew me out there, talked to me, wanted me to take over MaximumRockNRoll. No one that works there gets paid, you know. I said alright, but are there any stipulations? He said, “Yeah, you have to keep all of the kids who work here.” Some of those kids I didn’t like. I begged him, “Please, let me move it to New York.”
So, this was around 1998?
Yeah…the year Tim was dying. So, I begged him. He said “No, but I’ll give you a house, a car — you just have to keep that Tabb sense of humor.” Tim had a really great sense of humor. All the good kids like Martin Sprouse were already leaving, you know, and the big fight with Larry [Livermore]…I don’t know.
So I turned down running it. Which was probably smart of me in the long run, because those kids have no sense of humor. Tim and I saw MaximumRockNRoll as… I used to do a lot for MaximumRockNRoll. I did artwork for them, came up with ideas, me and Tim would hang out all the time…’80s, ’90s. We thought of MaximumRockNRoll as a cross between early Rolling Stone fanzine and National Lampoon. Humor. I think when Tim died, the humor went. That thing is not funny. It’s not funny, and it’s way too political, and it has its head up its ass. And it doesn’t even know what it’s talking about. It’s embarrassing. Do you read it at all now?
Not nearly as much as I used to. I mean, back in the day, I’d read it every month. Every now and again, I will.
I can’t touch the ink, the paper. I’m allergic to it. (hands me the newest issue)
Oh yeah! I forgot about that.
Yeah! Actually, I just got rid of them…Had every one since like, 1982.
Oh my god.
There’s no room for it. But yeah…the early ones. Very funny. There was one… [I said] we should put on the cover, The Holy Bible of Punk Rock.
Yes, I made that joke many times.
Yeah, I was just thinking, these kids seem to take it so fucking seriously. If we call ourselves the bible, maybe they’ll laugh and not take themselves so seriously. It was the opposite. MRR! They are such egomaniacs! It’s a joke. It’s satire. But then, Tim and I loved that. The more to stir the pot…people to make fun of, if they don’t get it, fuck it. That’s what I loved about MaximumRockNRoll: a lot of stuff was just complete tongue-in-cheek. Tim was always fighting with somebody…
So what do you want to talk about?
I thought that that was a pretty good start!
So, I met Tim years ago…when I was in Roach Motel. That was my first band. Nineteen-eighty…one? 1980, maybe? We put out a demo. Sent it to MRR, with a picture of us, and Tim ran it. This was early, early on, like the first few issues. People didn’t have records out yet. In ’84, I was out there with False Prophets, and Tim said, hey Roach Motel, you want to do New York scene reports? I was like, yeah! So I did the scene reports for years, and finally, in like 1990, I asked if I could do a column, and he said, “I haven’t offered you a column yet? Or course you can have a column!”
Now, I may be mis-remembering this, but False Prophets was on the New York Thrash comp?
Yeah, before I was in the band. On ROIR records. “Taxidermist” is a great song. I saw an ad in the Village Voice saying that False Prophets was looking for a guitar player — and in the very same week, Artless, Mykel Board’s band, was looking for a guitar player. So I auditioned for both bands. And Artless rejected me, which is a funny story, and False Prophets wanted me. They wanted me, along with this girl Debbie, who also auditioned. She auditioned for both bands too. But she wanted to be in False Prophets with me. I always loved the two-guitar sound. Mykel said, “I actually wanted you in the band,” but he thought she was cute and could sleep with her. I go, Mykel, you schmuck! Truthfully, if Artless had said “you’re in,” I never would have gone to False Prophets — ’cause I like Mykel.
I heard False Prophets “Taxidermist” on ROIR: “Oh, okay, this is just like what I was playing down in Florida.” I had a band together called Atoms for Peace, [a different band than the Thom Yorke/Flea band] the Eisenhower idea…building nuclear weapons for peace. And at the time I started that band, I was very much into, you know, Lords of the New Church…later DK’s, stuff like that. I was really into the politics of it all, and the New Wave punk sound. Oh, and The Clash too. So when I joined, I was like, Oh that’s the music I’m playing anyway. And when I joined the band, they recorded an album, but they couldn’t find a label. They said, “Do you know anyone who has a label?” I said, “Yeah, my friend John.”
So I asked John, and he said, “You’re not in the Wetbacks anymore?” That’s what he called Roach Motel, because we had a song called “Wetback.” So I said, no, False Prophets. “Oh,” he said. “Stephan [Ielpi, vocalist of False Prophets] drives me nuts. Alright, we’ll put your album.”
So False Prophets put out their album, and I was on the cover, except I didn’t play until the next album. Pretty funny. It was great at first. Six months after moving to New York from Florida, I have a band, we are playing gigs, and have a recording contract. And the band got huge — when I joined False Prophets, they were playing Tuesday nights at CBGB to three people.
Terrible. I said, “You guys, I will join this band. I am used to running my own band…I have an idea that will make this band really tight, and make people want to see us.”
They said go for it. So, my favorite band is the Ramones — so no chit-chat between songs. Just tune up and start playing. We’d do three or four songs in a row, then we’d stop, three or four songs in a row, then we’d stop. Debbie and I are both playing, so we’ll stand on opposite sides of the stage — we have to coordinate a little bit. They hated this part: “Oh, you’re such a Nazi, blehhh…” Move up front during the choruses, move back during the verses. Coordinate. So, within months the band got huge. We were selling out CBGB. Also, people knew Roach Motel. And although Roach Motel wasn’t the biggest band in the world, it started New York hardcore.
When I started Roach Motel, this guy named Ray came down to Florida. He was into this local band called the Irritations, New Wave. And Ray was this crazy guy who ran away from Virginia Beach and had heard that there was this great scene in Gainesville, Florida, because of this band, Roach Motel. We played to three people ourselves. We were a punk rock band. No one liked punk rock. In fact, one of the studio engineers said, “What are you doing? You can’t do that.” We were playing hardcore and we didn’t even know it. The only reason we were playing hardcore is because we couldn’t play slow enough. We didn’t think we were hardcore. We were punk rock, like the Ramones.
So, we are playing, and Ray comes to our shows. He’s got “PCP” on the back of his jacket — the word PCP — got long hair, and he’s into rockabilly and PCP. Crazy.
Yeah. And he’s into that. I go, “Angel dust is so bad, dude!” He’s a crazy man, but I let him stay at my house in Florida for three weeks. Then I finally kicked him out and moved to New York. He has this friend — Carlos, some other crazy guy. But what I didn’t know [was that] he was friends with Vinnie from Agnostic Front. And he started a band called Warzone later.
Yeah. Of course.
He’s friends with all those guys. I would come up for summers, for college, stay with my mom. So I was up for college, in 1981, I had “Roach Motel” on the back of my jacket…and all of these skinheads come up to me, red laces and everything. And they start giving me noogies! I went, “Huh?” And it was Ray! And he says, “Hey, Roach Motel!” His friends were saying, “Roach Motel? We love you guys! You sound great! You wanna hear our band, Urban Waste?” And they were imitating us. They wanted to be Roach Motel. Murphy’s Law…Jimmy Gestapo…all these kids thought we were cool. So, the New York hardcore scene started, and I know we influenced that stuff, because they would always say, You guys are fast, and you guys are mean, and it’s fun.
So, years later, I joined False Prophets, and that whole right-wing [vs.] peace punk thing is starting…people are beating the shit out of each other. And I thought I was going to get killed. One day, all these skinheads surrounded me at CBGB — this was ’85; I’d been in the False Prophets a couple months, and all these skinheads surrounded me saying Left-wing, liberal, blah blah…and all of a sudden, these skinheads step out of nowhere, and it’s Ray and Vinnie and Harley [Flanagan] — I’ve known Harley since he was 12, all those guys — and they say, “Don’t touch him, he’s Roach Motel.” They go, “No, he’s False Prophets.” And they said, “It doesn’t matter. He started Roach Motel. We started bands because of him. In a way, he started New York hardcore…He gets a free ride forever. This guy, he’s one of us, okay? In fact, when you see George, you shake his hand with respect.”
It’s a like a mafia thing. They said, “If he ever asks you for a favor, you do it.” And Stephan is shooting his mouth off. They said, “We are giving carte blanche to False Prophets, even though we hate their guts. Since George is in that band, no one gets touched.”
So, the False Prophets were able to do things that other peace punks weren’t able to do — without getting killed. But Stephan abused it, like everything else. These were nice guys — but they weren’t that smart. But really nice. But Stephan really pushed it; he said, “You guys are Nazis!” But they really weren’t. I remember when I left the band, Jimmy [Gestapo] said, “I heard you’re not in False Prophets anymore. Does that mean we have to be nice to them anymore?” I go, “Nope.”
The next day, he beat the shit outta Stephan. But he asked for it, you know? He was bothering them. Saying, “You can’t touch me, nyah nyah nyah.” It’s just one of those funny punk rock stories, you know. But yeah, Roach Motel was the prototype New York hardcore band. We wanted to play like the Ramones, but we couldn’t play slow enough.
When did you become Georgie Ramone? Or did they not give you a name?
I became Georgie Ramone in high school, for god’s sake. I was a roadie for the Ramones for a little while, but it didn’t last for more than a few days because I had a hurt back, which now is broken. Johnny [Ramone] hired me to be the guitar tech. I didn’t know it at the time, [but] that meant I was a roadie. First day, I got the guitars, tuned the strings, shined them up; the second day I was lifting refrigerator-sized amps and driving all night long. And these guys were running guns and drugs. I didn’t wanna do that.
Wait, who was?
The roadies. They had a case. It was full of guns. Machine guns. I asked them what they were doing, and they said, “Selling guns.” And I wasn’t allowed to touch the drum stuff. The drum tech, the main roadie. Turns out they stored all the drugs inside the drum stands. In the cymbal stands. They were running drugs all over the place. Me and Monte, he was the manager, didn’t know. He didn’t know until after the band broke up. I didn’t like those people, the roadies, so I left that job.
Then, later, I called John. “I want to be your bass player,” I said. John goes, “You play guitar.” And I’m like, “Yeah, and I also play bass.” He goes, “You play both?” I said, “It’s only two strings more, John, Jesus fucking Christ.” He’s like, “I don’t know, George. You’re a guitar player. And your back. I don’t know.” I said, “Come on! You know I’m right.”
So, I got the audition, and I went there — spiked the hair, wore Ray-Bans, looked just like Dee Dee. Exactly like Dee Dee. And I had been trying for years to play like Johnny and Dee Dee. So, I had the moves down.
When I walked in there, they were like, “Who the hell is this guy? Who are you? George, is that you?” Yeah! So I auditioned, played a couple of songs. They were like, “What do you want to play?” So I said, “Do the whole set.” There were three sets: A, B, or C — we did set B.
So, they said, “Okay, Georgie Ramone, do you have a passport? You’re playing Japan in a month.”
Wow. So, did you?
One thing — John likes this guy named Chris. He wants to give Chris another chance. John was impressed that he drove in from Long Island on one day’s notice to audition for the Ramones. I told him that I’d fly across the world to audition for the Ramones. Chris is CJ, Chris Ward. And Chris had been AWOL from the Marines. He was a bad-ass. Super nice kid. I had been in the band for two weeks, and Monte [Melnick, Ramones manager] calls me: “You’re not in The Ramones.”
“I can’t tell you now, but talk to the band, and you’ll find out.”
We didn’t even play our first gig together. We might have done one show in New Jersey. False Prophets opened for them…I might have done one set. Everyone thought I was Dee Dee. I had the hair and the sunglasses. I asked Joey, “What happened?” They were waiting for Dee Dee to come back to the band. “Dee Dee quit, but he’ll come back.” He left his wife at the same time. But they thought, He’ll come back. He’s just throwing a shit fit because no one liked his rap stuff, or whatever. But he has nowhere else to go.
But Dee Dee was an artist, and I knew he wouldn’t come back. I admire Dee Dee for leaving. Those guys fought like cats and dogs, and he just wanted a change in his life, after twenty-something years of playing “Blitzkrieg Bop” every night of his life. They played more shows than any other band ever!
After the band broke up in 1980, they realized that this was the only thing they could do. So, Joey and John got the band back together. But they would split the profits 50/50. Dee Dee was a good songwriter, but Dee Dee didn’t want any part of the business — he didn’t own any shares. Dee Dee was a hired gun. They gave him many a couple grand a week to keep him comfortable. Marc [Marky Ramone] was paid $250 a week. I found out that when I was going to join the Ramones, I was going to make $250 a week — to be in the Ramones — plus $25 a day, per diem. No royalties, and John gets all the t-shirt money. John owned the t-shirt company; he owned the name. Joey made his money back writing songs, so it all worked out.
They didn’t think I’d last very long at $250 a week. Of course I wouldn’t. [But] they didn’t understand the passion I had for the Ramones. They also didn’t like that I was older.
I’m still much younger than them, but Chris was 10 years younger than me! And they wanted somebody they could boss around. But most importantly, they wanted somebody who they didn’t know. They didn’t want me to take sides. Because no one in that band was friends with each other.
So, here was Chris… he’d always say “those guys.” Well, weren’t you in the Ramones? He said, “They were the Ramones. I was the hired help.” He always felt that way. He’d ride his motorcycle when they were in the van. He was paid shit. Married Marky’s niece, had kids. They always wanted Chris to side with somebody. He’d had it with those guys.
I was really good friends with John and Joey, and those were the two guys fighting. I was good friends with Dee Dee. If I was in the band, it would have blown up in a week. People would have sided up against each other. Joey said he didn’t want me to see him when he was yelling and all upset. Joey would start crying. Johnny could be really mean, and Joey didn’t want me to see him like that. Johnny was, for the most part, a really nice guy, but the chemistry of those guys was just crazy. So, that’s why I was never in the Ramones. Chris tells me, “You are so lucky. If I could take it back, I never would have done that.”
He said, “I used to love the Ramones. They were my favorite band…but being in them…”
It’s like hot dogs. You love to eat them, but you don’t necessarily want to see how they are made.
Right! Exactly! So, in a way, I’m glad I wasn’t in the Ramones, because it would have ruined it for me. Hot dogs. Exactly.
After Dee Dee left the band, he and I became really good friends. Did a fanzine together…I helped him xerox his fanzine. He was a little bit…mentally slow, so… But he was a good artist. I had him on my Destroy TV show. It was called Destroy Television; it was on for 10 years, in the city, and I had Dee Dee on it a lot — and Joey. There was this big interview with [Dee Dee] at the Chelsea Hotel, but it never aired. Too depressing.
But I’d go hang out with Dee Dee all the time. He’d met this girl Barbara from South America. They got married, and I was the best man at City Hall. We were really close friends for a while.
But then I wrote an article for the New York Press about Dee Dee getting married, and I made a joke at the end: “The way the bass is held” — Barbara played bass — “Those arms, those legs, that chest. Wow, I am so jealous.” Making a joke. Dee Dee thought I was gay. He said, “You’re gay? And you’re hitting on me? Fuck you!” And he pulls knife out. “I’m gonna stab you to death, motherfucker!”
Everyone told me, No matter what you do, he’s going to flip on you. So, he flipped on me, and that was that. I was still friends with Marc. He called me when Dee Dee OD’d and stuff… But he flipped on me. As he flipped on everybody. But I still love the Ramones. (goes to get water)
(from the other room) Did you know I wrote for the New York Press, too?
Yeah, I remember you writing something about that.
(comes back, sits) Yeah, I was “the Ramones guy.” They used to call me all the time. My ex-wife was furious. So she put a “Ramone-atorium” on our house. I’d get like 30 calls a day. After a while it was like, “Hey George, it’s Joey. What’s goin’ on?” Wendy would say, “He can’t talk to you, there’s a Ramon-atorium in this house!”
When was the last time you wrote for them?
I was really solid there from like ’96 to 2002. And if didn’t get sick from 9/11.. . I got cover stories. The only other guy who got cover stories was Jonathan Ames.
Oh yeah, the novelist?
So if I hadn’t have gotten sick, I’d be where Ames is now. Novels, TV shows… 9/11 fucked up everything. I should show you… Did you see the cartoon of me on the New York Press? When we are done talking, I’ll show you Destroy Television. It had about 60 or so episodes. It was comedy and music. MTV wanted to buy it, and throw me out, and I said no… I was on E! Entertainment Network for a while…went national for a while…mostly stayed local. It was fun!
I played [Roach Motel] for Johnny Ramone. And he listens to it, and goes, “What the fuck? It’s like you took us and sped it up 20 times. This is really good.” We tried playing The Ramones, but we were too hyper.
Right. Like Loco Live.
John said, “We are going to play like you. Show these kids how it’s done.” Some of those songs like, “I’m Not Jesus” and stuff, were really fast. False Prophets was in the studio, doing their second album. We were in the same studio. So I would go in there, and help them record hardcore songs. It was fun. I met Richie.
The elusive Richie Ramone.
That was fucking years ago. He’s elusive now. Back then he was a hotel manager. Still is. He also got $250 a week.
What happened was John promised him a contract negotiation. One night they play a show…John says, “I’m not giving you a raise. Well, $275, that’s as high as I’ll go.” So Richie quit. John made a big deal of it: “He quit, and blah blah blah.”
I keep doing these Joey Ramone Birthday Parties that Mickey throws every year–
Yeah. I get up there and sing “Wart Hog” or whatever. I see the guys all the time. Sing a couple of songs. The only one who doesn’t like me is Marky Ramone. He hates my guts. Because of that Ramone-atorium thing that happened, Marc was upset. And the kicker was, Dee Dee played on a Furious George record and Joey played on Gets A Record, so Marky wanted to play a song. I said, “That’s great Marc, you pick a song.” He said, “No I want to play drums on the whole album.”
I thought, Marky Ramone, in my band? That’s great! But I said, “I’d love to Marc, but I can’t.” He goes, “Why not?” I said, “Because I have a drummer. And he’s my friend, and he’s been working hard for two years, and I just can’t throw a friend out of the band.” So he goes, “You know I’m a much better drummer. You know I could kick this guy’s ass on the drums, right?”
[Marc] is my favorite drummer. He really is. But I don’t fuck my friends over. He really wanted to do this, so I let him play drums on a couple of songs. So he said, “You’re turning down Marky Ramone?” He always talks about himself in the third person. “Marky Ramone can’t be in Furious George?” And I go, “Marky Ramone can be on a couple of songs by Furious George. It was more than Joey or Dee Dee.”
“No, Marky Ramone wants to be your full-time drummer.” I said no. So, Marc said, “Fuck you. You have no idea what you just brought on yourself.” He turned around and told the media, badmouthing me — and it got to a point, where we were doing the Live At The Continental picture, Joey, Marky, and Dee Dee played in a band called “The Ramainz” after the Ramones broke up–
Marky was also playing with Joey. But Marky didn’t want to be in the same photo with me. He said, “I hate that motherfucker.” I said, “I’m going to tell everyone why you’re so mad at me.” He said, “Shut up, I’m getting onstage,” and he got on stage for the picture. Everyone wanted to know why he was mad at me, so I told them.
Furious George wasn’t doing much at that time, anyway! Put out two albums, and I don’t know, relaxing. Furious George wasn’t a serious band. We never intended to be a big band. All I wanted to do is play on a few records, tour a little bit, and see our friends.
You were going to say, a minute ago, that you were doing the TV show — but then, 9/11…
9/11 destroyed a lot of things. I had a contract to turn my stories into movies, all that shit. 9/11 destroyed everything. I got paid by the Ad Council. I was the new face of Pork.
Pork, like meat?
I’m Jewish, so it’s hysterical. But I don’t like pork.
So you’re not fully observant.
No. I love pigs, so it made me feel guilty. What happened was, there was a girl in my building who said she was looking for someone to be the new face of pork. Started as like 5,000 people, and I made it. I was picked. I did these photo shoots — they were going to put these five-story high billboards of me. I had black glasses on, dyed blond hair, young, hip, whatever.
Of course, with my luck, 9/11 happened, and pork decided it wasn’t the time to change anything. So I lost the gig. I was set to make tens of thousands of dollars. Two-hundred-thousand dollars the first year. But that got ruined with everything else.
So, when did you start getting sick?
A month before 9/11, I was walking home from a bus stop. I lived in a luxury high-rise building that was north of the Twin Towers. The reason I could afford that building is because they had low-income housing for artists. Rich people lived there. People were paying $4,000 a month, and the artists were paying like $400 a month. It was subsidized by the city.
So, I lived there with my ex-wife, and it was great. But a month before 9/11, I’m walking down Lafayette, or Broadway — I think it was Lafayette — I saw what looked like a Confederate soldier, two blocks down. The guy’s walking; he has what looks like a bedroll on his back. He looked really gaunt. Had really blue eyes. Why is there an actor playing a Confederate soldier? Must be some sort of reenactment or something, I thought.
I got within a hundred feet of the guy, and he looked odder and odder. And so finally, we’re on the same block, and we are looking at each other, and I swear to God, he was so emaciated that his face looked like a skull. Very blue eyes. Very, very pale. It was actually a Confederate outfit. But his hat had the Union symbol on it. I walked past him, and I felt freezing cold. (pause) And I turned around, and he was gone.
Vanished. I turned to Scooter, and said, “Huh. Death came from downtown.” I said that.
Now, I come from a family of Hungarian gypsies, going back to Siberia. We have ESP in my family. It runs in my family. I can tell you stories that will blow your mind. It’s like that show, “Medium.” I can’t control it. I can see things happen. I know things. So, wow, Death was downtown. And I didn’t give it much thought after that.
I go home and say to my wife, “I just saw Death.” She goes, “What?” And I say, “Wendy, Death was walking downtown. He was dressed up as a Confederate soldier.” She goes, “Eh, we’ll probably hear about it in the news.” Then 9/11 happened, which makes sense.
So where were you again?
I was three blocks north of it.
Oh my god.
I lived in the highest high-rise facing the Twin Towers. My window was facing the Twin Towers. I was on 16th floor. There were 50 floors. The city gave real-estate funding money to build buildings, if they would allocate 20 percent of it for poor people. So they call it 20/80 housing.
And I was one of the 20 percent. So, the morning of 9/11, I’m lying in bed. Wendy is getting up to go to her studio. She was a jewelry designer — is a jewelry designer. I got the window open, and I see a flash of red and white. That’s all I saw. And a fucking loud noise. But it couldn’t have been a jet. Flew right by my window. So the window shut and cracked a little. I said, “What the fuck?” and then I hear boom! Oh my god, a plane just hit the Twin Towers! What? Well, planes hit buildings sometimes. So I looked out the window. And it looked like a cigarette ember burning. It was bad.
It took me about an hour to get out of the apartment because my wife didn’t think it was that big a deal. She saw garbage bags being dumped out of buildings. But those were all the people jumping. Her mind wouldn’t let her see what was going on. I would see couples holding hands, jumping. I saw a woman holding a baby — I saw a woman throwing a baby. I saw the worst shit in the world. And when they landed, it was this loud popping, explosion noise. We all thought we were bombed — but they were people hitting the ground. Anyway…e
I had a motorcycle helmet. I wanted her to wear it after the first plane went down. We saw the second plane coming. We were like, “Oh my god, oh my god, look out.” We were watching out the window. My eyebrows got singed. My face got burnt. She didn’t want to look stupid. Obviously, she was in shock.
I grabbed the dog. I threw her a duffel bag and said, “Wendy, here’s a duffel bag, throw whatever’s valuable in here, we have to go in five minutes. Don’t expect to come back.”
“You’re being so dramatic.”
“No , I’m not.”
So I grabbed Scooter, and we were out the door. Body parts all over the place, and still falling. As we were running away, the cloud hit us — it was like Godzilla. Dark as night. We walked to the West Village, to here, where Nick lives — my stepfather. And on the way here we saw the craziest shit. This woman getting into a cab. We said, “Where are you going?” She said, “I have a meeting at the World Trade Center.”
“You don’t want to go down there,” I said. “There is no there down there.”
People were so fucked up. It’s crazy. People were coming out of laundromats, looking at us. Staring at us, and I didn’t know why. Turns out we were covered head to toe in white dust. We looked like ghosts. Covered in that shit. Coughing it up.
When I got here, I had a nervous breakdown, started crying. I said, “We have to hire a guy with a boat to get us to New Jersey, then to California.” My stepdad thought I was overreacting. To each his own. I was like, Let’s get the fuck out now. I wanted to see my brother in North Carolina, or my brother in California. I just wanted to leave.
So, I ended up getting asthma attacks…eyes bleeding from the fiberglass.
This is you?
Me and everybody else. They got GERD, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. Where the flap between your stomach and your esophagus locks open.
Yeah, I heard about that.
You are puking up blood all the time. You’ve got bile in your throat. Teeth rotting out because of that. I’ve got cysts growing inside me, the size of grapefruits, and they don’t know what they are. Everyone thinks I’m dying.
I saw a doctor last week — gastro. I hate seeing doctors, because they’ll take a blood test and think I’m going to die right there. “Oh my god, your blood pressure’s 165 over 110. You have to go to the hospital now. You’re going to have a stroke in the next five seconds!” No I’m not. I’m just fucked up. They have been saying this for the last six or seven years. I’d rather deal with my doctor, but he’s out of town. He will never say that stuff to me. He will just tell me my blood pressure’s high. He’s not going to get alarmed. We’ll try to deal with this the best we can.
I’m allergic to most heart meds. The only way to bring down my blood pressure is to bring down the pain. I’m in a lot of pain, am on painkillers. It doesn’t make me high or anything like that — it just brings my blood pressure down.
Aren’t you working with activist groups?
I have been. But as this thing is progressing, I have good days and bad days. Good weeks and bad weeks. Last week I gained 25 pounds — in seven days, I gained 25 pounds. How the hell did that happen? I didn’t eat anything. All of a sudden, my pants are ripping. That why I was seeing a gastro. He said, “It’s not my problem,” so I’ll see my regular doctor next week, and we’ll figure this out. It’s probably a thyroid fuck-up.
So how old are you?
Just turned 50. I wake up with the weirdest things. Woke up, blind in one eye — had to spend a week in the hospital. Six months ago, I had trouble walking. And I was really tired. Turns out… I had all of these stomach surgeries, my abs are gone. And they hold my back in place. My back snapped in half — my L6 was shattered into little pieces, and three discs below it. So I had three discs replaced, and the bone.
I had spinal fusion surgery in October . I have been doing good with that. Walking around. But there is a chance I may never walk again, you know. They put these big bolts inside of me. They said it was dangerous surgery, but to me it was easy surgery.
I have had six abdominal surgeries, a few of them being colon recesses where they go in and take out part of your intestines and sew it back together. It’s so fucking painful. And then they break open, and they have to do it again. If they break open, everything in your intestines spill out into your body and go toxic. And if they don’t get it all out in two hours, you’re dead. I’ve had this shit happen.
Do have insurance and stuff?
Yeah. I had the “Help George Tabb” video online. I raised money that way, for years. Meanwhile, I applied for SSI [supplemental security income]. There was this place… (pause) This is so fucked up. There was supposed to be a program opening up at Bellevue in 2007 to help people who were sick. It was called the World Trade Center Health Environmental Health Center. [They said], “Here are some free asthma drugs, and by the way, your sinuses are shot. We can fix that if you want. And you’ve got polycystic kidney disease, and cysts growing all over…your blood pressure is crazy…we give you a year or so to live. See you in six months.” Yeah, fuck you guys.
And I got divorced in 2005. My wife went a little nuts after 9/11.
Thanks. Her name is Elena. I’ve known her for 20 years. She is actually Wendy’s old studio-mate. She and I started a company that makes guitar straps, which I’ll show you. I’m lucky I met her. I love her so much. I had crush on her way back when.
[Anyway...] So, I’m at my house, visiting, in California, [my wife] asks for a divorce — all of it blows up. I tried to kill myself and ended up in a mental hospital for a few weeks. Overwhelming. Later, my lung collapsed, and I had to have surgery. They did a shitty job [and] didn’t take into account the 9/11 dust. The incision came open. I’ve had to have multiple hernia surgeries also.
That’s why I told you, each day when I get up, I don’t know how I’m going to be. The polycystic kidney disease… My kidneys are fused together with cysts. My thyroid is fucked up, so in the groin area, I think that’s what going on with the weight.
I applied for SSI. [But] I didn’t want to go on welfare. Fuck that. So, I started this “Help George Tabb” thing on MySpace to raise money for myself, to buy health insurance. And it worked — for four years, starting in 2006. I paid for health insurance that way — up until last September. But I couldn’t pay the doctors and the insurance. [I owed] seventy- to eighty-thousand dollars. I figured I have to go bankrupt again. They’d never get that money — but at least I’d have insurance, stay alive.
And Elena’s great. She helped me with my health insurance, and she also moved in here to help take care of me. She looks better than she did back then. Now she’s 43 and she’s drop-dead gorgeous. And she has a real job. I get SSI, which is $500 a month. It’s a joke. No one knows how impossible it is to get health insurance. I get food stamps. $49 a month, they expect you to eat on. It’s a joke.
So, you’re not going to Whole Foods?
I want to go bankrupt. I don’t want to drag her into any of that. I want to be free and clear — it’s my debt. This is my stepdad’s house. It looked like a shithole when she moved in, in December. My stepdad’s a really nice guy. (Gets up for more water) So, with all of these diseases, I ended up in St. Vincent’s a lot.
Which is no longer there.
I loved them. They were a nice Catholic hospital; they helped the poor, it was great. I wanted to give back somehow. Also, when I was in the hospital, I missed my dog, Scooter. He’s my best friend. He’s the only thing I’ve got after 9/11. My wife’s gone. My whole family turned against me because they can’t deal with illness. It’s just me and the dog. So, I applied for, and became, a therapy dog person.
So Scooter and I did therapy dog stuff. We worked with terminally ill children — cancer patients, mostly. And since I’ve got a foot in that world, sort of…although my fiancee doesn’t like to say that. She wants me to think positive. I have been thinking positive, and I have lived six-and-a-half years longer than they predicted. So, I can live a full life. You never know, right? I’m doing great. So I brought Scooter in to do therapy dog things, and he became the mascot of St. Vincent’s. And we went on CNN, and talked about therapy dogs, and 9/11, and I became a big voice, because I think it helps people.
You asked me about activism earlier. Yes, I was on CNN, on MSNBC debating about the air — after the Washington Post article. I was asked to only talk about asbestos. But as soon as I did a test of my living room… UC Davis did a test of my living room. On the table, they found 500 times the lethal amount of asbestos, 60 times the amount of lead — plus a lot of dead people. Their tests were so old, you couldn’t detect anything.
I went on MSNBC, and I’m supposed to talk about asbestos, and Brian Williams said, “George, after you talk, we just found out [that someone from the EPA] is going on as a rebuttal witness.” I said, “Rebuttal witness? What’s there to rebut? I’m just telling you my story.” This is like five seconds before I go on the air live.
So I said, “My friends and I are worried in Tribeca because we heard rumors of a 30 million-gallon mercury generator at the Trade Center (which is true), the PBCs, the mercury levels — we are afraid of all that stuff. And we also heard there was nerve gas.” The EPA came on and said, “Well, that’s true. When Freon burns at a certain temperature, it turns into nerve gas.” I said, “It’s spread all over the neighborhood.” So I got her good. I got her so good that two weeks later she got fired. I got her to say some things she shouldn’t have said.
Then I went on CNN. I became a very big activist. Did a lot of talking. Went to a lot of rallies. I am working with firefighters and cops — a lot of my friends are firefighters and cops. They are getting screwed out of their pensions. I helped them get their pensions by proving this stuff. So now I’m happy — even the residents downtown are going to get a settlement. It’ll be a joke, but whatever. We wanted something to prove it was real. I testified before Congress, met with Hillary Clinton. It’s all going to happen now. What I learned from the dog therapy was…people with cystic fibrosis, people with cancer…
There was woman named Jane. I met her the day she was admitted to St. Vincent’s. They told her she had stage IV pancreatic cancer spreading throughout her body. She had just found out two hours earlier, when Scooter and I walked in.
How old was this woman?
Late 50s. Anyway, I hug her; she’s very nice. Motherly to me. Loved Scooter. I would go to St. Vincent’s three times a week. So, I went and saw Jane every day. She hadn’t called her family yet. We would sit and talk for hours. She said, “You are helping me through so many things in my life, talking about it.” She wanted to come to peace with a lot of things. And just by talking, and petting Scooter, she was able to say things she hadn’t said before.
Then one morning, I got up to see her, and the bed was empty. I said, “Where’s Jane?”
“She died last night.”
She hadn’t told her family yet. This was a week later. She was supposed to have a few more months. What I realized was that I did more good in that week with Scooter than I did in my whole life, with this activist shit. Everyone fucks you, calls you a liar. People calling me a crazy person. By the simple act of sitting there with Scooter, listening to someone talk, she had a peaceful end to life.
She’s not the only one. I sat with a lot of kids who had cystic fibrosis, getting sicker and sicker, and dying. They looked forward to his visit every day. I lot of people with cancer; I’d sit and talk to them. They loved Scooter.
This woman was in a coma, and I put Scooter under her nose so she could smell a dog. Scooter curled up in the crook of her arm and went to sleep. The woman woke up.
I’m not religious…I told you I have some kind of psychic thing…I don’t believe in organized religion, but I’ve seen some pretty incredible shit like that. And it did good. It did good. My goal is to get healthy enough. But Scooter’s getting too old. He’s 16 this year. His bones hurt, he aches. He’s losing his sight and his hearing.
But Jet, he’s just a puppy. And he’s being groomed to be a therapy dog. So hopefully in a few more years. He’ll fall asleep, but he’ll wake up and be violent.
The reason is, I have PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. I would wake up and start breaking things. I would wake up with bloody knuckles, cold sweats and stuff. He probably got it from me.
Pet therapy is much more of an activist thing than yelling at politicians who lie. They are just trying to keep their jobs. You spend a long time trying to get through to people, and eventually you do — by pressure. Like the way I got through to Hillary Clinton was to threaten her with going public that she wasn’t doing anything! That’s how all these people work.
Chuck Schumer, too. He was the worst. He wouldn’t talk about anything. Congressman Manler held these hearings; I was at these hearings for the ombudsman of the EPA who was fired a month after 9/11. The best way to put this is…a Superfund site is where there is too much pollution. 9/11 should’ve been a Superfund site — and they killed the Superfund site. They knew it was wrong, and they shut anyone down who said so.
My friend Andy, who worked for the EPA, helped clean out my building — took everything to landfill in Staten Island. Said it was toxic. Andy from the EPA was not allowed to tell us it was poisonous. Under national security. They were only allowed to give you advice. He said, “My advice, George? Move the fuck out of here. Yeah. As far as possible.”
They weren’t allowed to wear masks — neither was my friend Teddy, a firefighter — because they didn’t want to alarm the public. People won’t get their pensions because they spoke up, or wore a mask.
My friend Chris [CJ], from the Ramones…Ramones break up in 1996. Chris’s father is a duct cleaner. Cleans ducts in office buildings. After the Ramones, Chris gets a job cleaning ducts, wearing a mask with his father. Cleaning the Deutsche Bank building. The Deutsche Bank building has what they called “supermold.” It would grow for months. The mold mixes with biological toxins and created a new kind of supermold that is silicone and organically based. One drop of that in your lungs will kill you. That fire was started on purpose. It was so dangerous.
The fallout from 9/11 will go on forever. I call it Chernobyl on the Hudson.
The building I lived in, the vent in the bathroom blew backwards. Again, my building was a few blocks from the Twin Towers. It had a vent system on the roof — it was open that day. Everything went into my building. They did particle tests. I had three times the amount of particulate matter than any other apartment in the building. The air in my apartment was horrible.
I wanted to move here earlier, but my stepfather didn’t think it was that bad. He said, “Oh, George, it’ll be fine.” He wanted me to go California and stay with my brother. I stayed [in the apartment] for about a year afterward. Ended up getting really sick. This thing…it takes something you already have and makes it worse.
I have no immune system. I got ulcers and shit like that. It takes whatever you might have and multiplies it by a hundred. I have a cold right now. I have a cold every two weeks. On the subway, I wear a coat over my face. I don’t like to eat out because I get food poisoning all the time. Normal people, they eat it and they are fine. I feel like the boy in a plastic bubble a little bit.
I want to do a third book on it. I hope to feel better enough to do that. I’ve started a few times…but the thing about writing, with me, is it comes from someplace I don’t even know. It just happens…and I like to be funny. Sometimes, things aren’t funny.
Furious George played a gig at the Continental, in January. We play a gig once a year, which is fine. It’s about all I can handle because I get sick afterwards. But I’m lucky to be alive, I know that. A lot of my friends are not alive. I keep thinking I survived for a reason.
Josh Medsker is a writer and educator from New Jersey (via Alaska). His journalism, poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction has been published in a variety of publications, including The Anchorage Press, The Brooklyn Rail, OVS, and We’ll Never Have Paris. Since 2001, he has published the literary/culture blog (and sometime zine), Twenty-Four Hours. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. This interview was originally published at Twenty-Four Hours.