March 20, 2016

Rockets Killed Sid, But Who Killed Rockets?

When Michael Morra died in 2001 at age fifty-two, the causes of death were cited as hepatitis, kidney failure, cirrhosis of the liver, and complications resulting from morbid obesity, but I knew better.

            Better known as Rockets Redglare, he’d been a seedy but charismatic East Village fixture for decades, though at the time of his death he was best remembered for having parlayed his rep as a colorful and storied neighborhood character into a career as a character actor, providing brief but memorable turns in over two dozen films in the Eighties and Nineties, including Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and three Jim Jarmusch films. For the most part he was cast to play assorted pimps, dealers, cabbies and lowlifes, which you might say was a bit of typecasting.

            Back in the Seventies he’d been one of the East Village’s most popular and recognizable heroin and speed dealers. His fifteen-year-old mother had been using when she was pregnant with him, so Redglare was quite literally born a junkie, and remained one for much of his life. Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of his regulars. Redglare was most notorious for not only being in the hotel room in the Chelsea the night Nancy Spungen was stabbed to death, but was also the man who supplied Sid Vicious with the hot shot that killed him four months later, something he seemed to take as a certain point of pride.

            In the late Nineties, after appearing in his friend Steve Buscemi’s film Animal Factory, Redglare pretty much retired from both acting and heroin, switching out junk for beer and quickly ballooning to over three hundred pounds. As he explained, he always did whatever he liked in excess. He remained a regular sight around the Village, and in fact was pretty hard to miss, hobbling down the sidewalk with his clear Lucite support cane. But he was still a character, and a man full of endless stories about his admittedly insane life. Problem is, sometimes I just didn’t want to hear them.

            One afternoon Morgan and I stopped by d.b.a., a bar on First Avenue that we hit three or four days a week back then. Rockets was already there when we showed, sitting at the bar and chatting up the bartender. We moved past him to a table in the back corner. The place was otherwise empty and quiet, save for Rockets. Rockets was loud, and as per usual was once again regaling the young bartender with tales of his experiences filming Down By Law with Tom Waits and John Lurie. They were great stories, yes, but I just wasn’t in the mood and he was inescapable.

            At the time the New York Press was gathering material from all the writers for its annual and snotty “Best of Manhattan” issue. I was expected to write twenty or thirty entries, so I went home that night and wrote a vicious and savage attack on what at that moment I considered an overblown, bloated blowhard of a has-been. Or something like that. I didn’t think anything of it. That shit was par for the course for “Best of,” it’s what we all did and what was expected. The fact the pieces in that issue all ran anonymously helped free up everyone’s inner demons, allowing them to say a few things they might not normally want to have attributed to them.

            Well, it was about a day or two after the issue hit the streets that the ripples began floating back my way. Again, everything had been anonymous and it was generally understood you did not reveal the author of a specific bit unless the author made it clear it was okay. Fact is I didn’t know who’d written what apart from my own, but since I was a staff writer I guess it was assumed I was in the know. Don Gilbert, the production manager came back to my desk and asked me who’d written the Rockets piece. Don was one of my favorite people, and as cool as they come. He was a surfer and a first generation New York punk who knew everyone from Iggy Pop and Richard Hell to the Hell’s Angels. He also had a heroin habit, so it only made sense considering the circles he ran in as an East Village fixture himself that of course he was a friend of Rockets. Given the respect I had for Don, what could I do but play dumb, right? I wasn’t about to let him know I’d just publicly pissed all over a friend of his. Instead I told him I was out of the loop and didn’t have a clue who did what, so had no idea who’d written the Rockets hit.

            He then asked if I knew who was behind another one, an equally vicious swipe at the asshole owner of a neighborhood hipster guitar shop. I freely admitted to that one, not pausing for a second to consider that he, too, was of course another friend of Don’s. But the guy had been a dick to Morgan and me one day when we’d stopped in the shop for something, and come “Best of” time, that’s all it took to earn an entry. But I knew reacting against someone who’d been a dick was different from reacting against Rockets simply being Rockets, and doing so with a bunch of fat jokes, which is why I figured it best to keep my mouth shut about the latter. Don seemed to accept my explanation, but before he left he asked if I could do some poking around, see if I could find out who’d written about Rockets. Because, see, another woman who’d worked in production for years, a quiet but tough rock and roll chick, was living with Rockets at the time, and both of them were pretty pissed and hurt about the whole thing.

            Oh, my. Yes, well, I told him I’d do what I could.

            Two days later, my phone rang at the office, and unlike my home phone, I was obligated to pick up. ”Jim?” a woman asked. I didn’t immediately recognize the voice.


            I could feel something in my head tighten a notch when I realized it was the rock chick from production, calling from home to ask the same question Don had—namely, did I know who wrote it and could I please have him or her call them back to explain why they’d done it? This was all getting a little too close and weird, but I gave her the same runaround I’d given Don. Then she told me to hang on a second.

            A moment later there was another voice on the phone. “Hey Jim? It’s Rockets.”

            Oh. shit. This was not the first time this had happened to me after having written something unpleasant about someone. When I’d been the paper’s receptionist it happened all the time, but at least then I had the advantage of “just being the receptionist” and therefore not knowing anything about anything, and so could anonymously sympathize with what a cheap and stupid bastard that Knipfel guy was. Now I got the sense they all had their serious and justified suspicions, and were just trying to get me to come clean. By that point, however, it was no longer a question. I was starting to sweat—this was the guy who’d killed Sid, after all—but he was perfectly friendly and charming, even suggesting we go out for a couple of beers sometime soon. I told him that sounded like a swell idea, and again promised to look into what bastard was responsible for writing such a load of cruel and unjustified shit about him. Then I hung up.

            A couple of days later I got another call from Don. Doing his best Vito Corleone, he rasped, “People, they keep coming to me and they say, ‘Don Gilbert, what is it with this Knipfel, and why does he keep saying these terrible things about us? We ask you Don Gilbert, please, for your help in these matters.’”

            By that point I had a pretty clear idea Don knew full well, but I still wasn’t saying anything, craven son of a bitch that I was. Whether he knew or not, Don was a stand up guy, and I knew he wouldn’t say anything. At least I hoped he wouldn’t.

            The next issue of the Press included a full page ad featuring a photo of Rockets and the guy from the guitar store giving the finger to the camera. It wasn’t promoting anything or selling anything, all it said was “Fuck You, NY Press.”

            After that, other people started asking me, and still others started asking other people. Soon the whole damn paper, from the art department to the ad reps, was abuzz with the question, “Who wrote that terrible thing about Rockets?”

            Two weeks later, on the night of that year’s Best of Party at the Puck Building, always a major and wild and drunken bacchanalia, I was standing on the steps outside having a smoke when Don sidled up next to me.

            “So tell me,” he said, “Seriously. Who wrote the thing about Rockets? It really hurt him deeply, and he just wants to know.”

            This had all gone on way too long and I was tired of it. I also hated the idea of continuing to dance around the truth with Don. “Oh, who do you think? You know damn well it was me.” Who the hell else would have done such a thing? Rockets was a fucking lowlife icon, and far too revered in his own way for anyone to make cheap fat jokes at his expense. Anyone but me, I guess. I explained the whole story, which again he seemed to understand, and when he headed back into the party I got the idea Rockets would know within a matter of minutes.

            I never heard from Rockets again, and we never got that beer. Don never mentioned it again, either, but when I opened the New York Post about two months later and saw Rockets had died the night before, I took the story into my editor and showed him. He immediately started guffawing. “Well,” he said. “You sure went and did it this time—you killed the guy.”

            Fifteen years later now, I don’t regret having written what I did—mean-spirited as it was, it was still pretty funny. I do regret, however, after learning so much more about him in the meantime, that we never got that beer.


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