My heart dropped on August 25 when I looked on Instagram and saw that John Fredericks, aka the musician John the Baptist, was leaving Manhattan. I was sure John and his wife Karly were either upstate- or west coast-bound — another loss for New York City after months of being ravaged by the scourge that is the coronavirus, and another nail in the coffin for the once vibrant East Village.
Mind you, I didn’t know John personally, but I knew of him thanks to a video that circulated far beyond his 7th St. fire escape back in May. He was the guy playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his electric guitar as part of the daily 7 p.m. city-wide cheer, which was typically a cacophony of claps and clanking pots and pans. John delivered a rendition faithful to the Jimi Hendrix version, made famous and eternally evocative following its performance at Woodstock in 1969, and it reverberated throughout the neighborhood for weeks as the COVID-19 lockdown confined residents to their apartments.
I was flummoxed: how could this local hero and shining example of good abandon his home of more than a decade? So I got in touch via a friend of a friend — because even ex-New Yorkers like myself remain, if not committed, connected to the city — and it turns out, he didn’t go far, trading in 7th. between 1st and A for Brooklyn’s Carrol Gardens neighborhood, a mere F train-ride away with more square-footage to accommodate a growing family (Karly is in the final weeks of their first pregnancy).
“We’re both originally from Encinitas, north of San Diego, so we weighed going to California,” John explains on the phone. “And our parents are obviously begging us to come back because we have a kid on the way.”
But, as sometimes happens in New York, luck and opportunity presented itself in the form of an available two-bedroom that Karly found on the internet. Says John: “There are so many vacant apartments, we were kind of able to get a deal. I mean, everyone is leaving. I know brokers who are, like, ‘We’ve never seen this many vacancies ever.’ So it happened fast. We got more space in a neighborhood that’s family-friendly and perfect for the next phase of our lives. It felt very meant-to-be — like we had approached a bit of a crossroads.”
The pandemic is more than partly to blame here. In addition to his music career, John works as beverage director for two restaurants, curating the menu of beer, wine and cocktails, and has experienced the bar business’ nosedive firsthand. His two brothers are both ER doctors and first responders, so he’s seen the tragic toll Covid has taken on their lives and of their patients from up close. All the while, John and Karly watched their neighborhood transform from a humming hub of nightlife to an eerie silence during the Spring months.
“We saw a pretty big change when it hit,” says John of the city’s lockdown in March and April. “At first, I was like, this is fun. No one had to go to work. Like, let’s do a puzzle! Then it got really dark and scary. It felt like there were sirens blaring basically all day. And at the same time, it felt really quiet. You went through a series of emotions. But we also saw the community come together really beautifully.”
The Fredericks looked forward to the 7 p.m. clap — “that moment when everyone could poke out the window and be a part of something,” says John. “All these people that we’ve been surrounded by that we don’t really know anything about, it was an opportunity for us to come together.”
It was also a chance to make “an offensive amount of noise,” says the guitarist of his somewhat spontaneous decision to blare “The Star-Spangled Banner” out the window. “It felt really scandalous to be that loud, even though it was just a little Fender amplifier,” he says. “The first night, somebody hollered, ‘See you tomorrow!’ So I played the next day, and the next, and the next, at which point, I thought, ‘We can’t do this every single night.’ We didn’t want to annoy people. Or to make it about us. So that Monday after doing three nights in a row, I was like, ‘We’ll just do it on the weekend.’ So we go to lean out our window and there’s, like, a dozen people on the street looking up at us, saying, ‘Where’s the guitar?’ From that point on, we did it every every night until phase one started.”
By John’s count, he performed the anthem between 65 and 70 times. “And my amplifier only blew out in the middle of it once,” he adds with a laugh. “Literally fried in the middle of the most soaring refrain.”
Video of John’s performance from his fifth floor walkup circulated swiftly, garnering attention from the press and praise from locals. “It was something that people in the neighborhood looked forward to, and it felt good to know that people needed it, whether it was patriotism or anti-patriotism or whatever you needed to get from it. So that’s why we didn’t stop … until June.”
That was when the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, which prompted nationwide protests in support of Black Lives Matter and against police brutality, skewed the pre-Civil War anthem’s significance.
“When the protests started happening, we felt very conflicted,” says John, speaking on behalf of himself and his wife. “We didn’t want the anthem to sound like we were in support of the institution [of] nationalism at a time when everyone was rising up against police brutality. So we had a hard think and decided to kind of double-down on it. We made a couple of signs — one said BLM and the other ‘New York Strong’ — and it felt more like a demonstration in a way. Karly would stand on the sidewalk holding a sign over her head like a statue, and I brought my [guitar] pedals down from the fire escape so I could make this really aggressive, angsty sound. … We turned the tone of the whole thing very dark and serious, and the few we did towards the end felt really powerful.”
Indeed, what John and Karly brought to the streets of the former Alphabet City was powerful: hope and resilience, two entrenched traits of the city’s inhabitants going back centuries. Certainly that must have made the decision even to cross the East River all the more difficult?
Not really. “We’ll always have that time in the East Village to reflect on, but we’re both 100% eyes toward the future,” says John. “For whatever reason, people have kind of fled the city. Over the last decade, it’s been a steady diaspora to places like Detroit, L.A. and Nashville — where you can get a warehouse and own a huge house for $200,000. In a sense, it can be a good thing [for New York] because it might reset the cycle a bit — hopefully push some prices down and maybe encourage creative people to come back in.”
As for their own dedication to the city, John pauses when asked if he feels like a New Yorker now. Remembering earlier parts of our conversation spent describing the air of Tompkins Square Park on a Sunday morning, or seeing the “old-timers” who case the streets daily saying hello to familiar faces, he dares not compare his experience to the lifers, but offers: “We do feel like New Yorkers because we feel very much a part of this city and a part of the community. And being in Manhattan during Covid, we lived through some stuff. I don’t think anyone could take that away from us.”