Volume 75, Number 42 | March 8 -14 2006

Villager photo by Bob Arihood

Bobby Steele playing “The Lady Is a Tramp” on his acoustic guitar. Although he’s known as a punk musician, he also enjoys playing jazz standards.

Guitarist gets hardcore in fight to keep apartment

By Lincoln Anderson

Bobby Steele has never been one to back down from a challenge. He was born with spina bifida, a life-threatening spinal condition, then was paralyzed by a spinal tumor — but recovered — and after that contracted polio, which left him with a limp. As a teenager he had to wear a metal leg brace, which is how he got his name. But that didn’t slow him down or keep him from joining a tough gang in the working-class New Jersey town where he grew up. When he was fought, he’d use the brace to advantage, grinding his foes’ faces into its sharp spring.

“You could do some serious damage with that thing, man,” he said.

For the last several years Steele, a a hardcore guitarist and mainstay of the East Village punk scene, has been waging another fight — against his landlord. Steele charges the building’s owner, Mautner-Glick, which took over the property in 1986, tried to force him out of his rent-regulated apartment by removing the bulkhead on the roof covering the top of the stairway in September 2002 and then leaving the stairway open to the elements for sometime under a month. This happened during a season of especially torrential nor’easters; water regularly poured into the five-story E. Fourth St. building, especially affecting Steele, who lives on the top floor. Water streamed into the fuse box in his apartment. His ceiling was seriously damaged. Even when a new bulkhead was installed, it wasn’t sealed properly, and the leaks continued. In all, the problem lasted for a year.

Steele feels the negligence was intentional.

“They figured I was an easy mark because I was crippled and I would be a pushover, a f——g nobody on Social Security,” said Steele, who walks with a cane. As for why they wanted him out, it’s simple, he said — his rent. “Four hundred and ten dollars — values [in the neighborhood] were skyrocketing.”

A year later, when ceilings collapsed in two other top-floor apartments where low-rent tenants were also living, the landlord sued Steele for more than $200,000 in damages, charging that he hadn’t let them into his apartment to make repairs, which, the landlord claimed, had somehow contributed to the problems in the other apartments. Steele countersued for $350,000 for damages and harassment.

Last Sunday at his one-bedroom, loft-bed apartment, Steele showed The Villager videotape he logged of rain splashing onto the landing outside his door and trickling into his apartment. He showed shots of the stairway left open to the sky with rain splashing down the stairs.

“I’ve got hours of this stuff,” he said.

A call to Mautner-Glick was directed to Charlie Pisani, the building’s managing agent.

“He complains a lot,” Pisani said of Steele. Asked why the landlord didn’t install a new bulkhead and left the stairway open, he said, “It takes a long time. It was a bad winter — employees are not going to work in the winter…. Last year, we gave him a new paint job and the apartment wasn’t too bad.”

However, David Swetnick, Steele’s attorney, contends what happened to his client was a clear case of harassment.

“I think that landlord went after him,” he said. “His unit was uninhabitable for many months. I think the landlord is now not pursuing him because he’s fighting back. But Bobby doesn’t have the money to pursue the landlord.”

Steele’s monthly income is $600 from Social Security disability and a little more than $600 from royalties from The Misfits, the seminal hardcore band he played guitar in from 1978 to 1980. But hiring a lawyer and fighting a court battle takes money. Also, Steele’s girlfriend recently fell while working as a waiter in Brooklyn and broke two vertebrae and he’s now helping her pay her medical bills, which are steep.

Steele is hoping to raise funds for his legal fight at his upcoming 50th birthday bash at CBGB on Fri. March 17. In addition to Steele’s current band, The Undead, the show will feature Michale Graves, the Nihilistics, Hymen Holocaust and other bands.

Steele says he sold a Franz Kline painting a few years ago that he picked from the garbage, which garnered $15,000. But that money’s almost all gone now. He says he wishes he could have spent more time touring and promoting his band in recent years but has had to put his money into his battle with the landlord. He’s also fighting a San Francisco musician over the rights to The Undead’s name.

“I’m one of the biggest legends in punk rock,” he said. “The Undead was one of the first three bands in the world to be called ‘hardcore,’ ” he noted. “It was like The Undead, Heart Attack and the Stimulators. It was The Undead show at the old A7 that kicked off the East Village music scene. Before that, you came here to be killed. This was like the most blighted place in the country.”

Real hardcore music is “down on the street,” Steele said. “It had nothing to do with playing fast. It was like life on the street. Not this candy-ass stuff today.”

His political views — basically, he’s hardly politically correct — come through in his lyrics, like in “There’s a Riot in Tompkins Square” on The Undead’s 1998 album “Til Death”:

Anarchists and communists and people dressed in blue

I disagree with all of them so what am I to do

Steele is also a big medical marijuana advocate, since smoking pot relieves the constant pain he’s in from his spinal condition.

But right now, his focus is on getting redress for what he claims his landlord put him through. What happened to him he sees as being part of the larger trend going on in the neighborhood, where real estate pressures are driving up rents and forcing out longtime tenants.

“I want to get the message out that that the party is over,” Steele said. “That if this crippled guy can fight the landlord, so can we.”

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