Messiahsez is a regular at the Russian & Turkish Baths in the East Village, which has been there since 1892. It's the kind of place that really doesn't exist in New York City anymore. Its two owners, Boris and David, alternate weeks running the Baths and have different staffs and membership cards. Its regulars include everyone from NYU students to Orthodox Jews. Visit the Baths on day and you'll engage with people you'd never come across in your daily life. You'll realize how easy it is to become closed off even in such a vibrant city.
I first began speaking to Messiahsez, who is there three or four days a week, when he offered me some of his homemade salt scrub to put on in one of the steam rooms. Over the next few years, we discussed everything from psychedelics to meditation to the merits of Dire Straits. But it wasn't until I saw one of his countless videos on YouTube that I realized he was an Internet celebrity. His 2015 video “Slide Guitar Blues Lesson In Open D On My National Steel NPB12 With Insanity!!!” has over 1.7 million views to date and he has over 70,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, which is updated daily with guitar lessons, rants or just advice on his diet or spiritual practices.
I'm not the only one who is fascinated by Messiahsez—documentary producer Adam Pogoff has been making a movie about him for the past four years—but I hadn't seen anything written about him despite his massive online presence. For that reason, while Messiahsez was recovering from minor eye surgery, I decided to go to his apartment in Park Slope and get to know how this bearded and bowed enigma went from an industrial tool salesman to someone who seems to fluctuate between enlightenment and madness in a uniquely authentic way. If Eckhart Tolle and Allen Ginsburg could merge their consciousness and incorporate a love of Delta Blues along the way, you'd end up with Messiahsez.
How did you get the name Messiahsez?
I went to Amsterdam in 2007 and used magic medicine, people can call it whatever they want, but it's medicine. The medicine does this amazing thing for the brain by opening up its ability to be aware and conscious beyond what is normal. I did that for two days in a row, a large amount, and it completely changed me. When I went [to Amsterdam] I was an angry, aggressive New York businessman and when I came home I was full of love and empathy to the point of infinite awareness. My son made a website called “Messiahsez,” which has me looking like a Jewish rabbi which I can very easily do and it says, “Messiah loves you, Messiah knows everything, ask Messiah a question.” You click on it and it puts out three sentences and it's gibberish; it's just my son's idea of what Messiahsez. [ Laughs.] Then came the camera, then Reddit and then Facebook and 6.3 million YouTube views. I haven't cut my hair or beard since 2007 by the way.
A lot of people have those types of transformative experiences and then go back to a more routine existence. How do you think you were able to carry that feeling with you?
The first time that I had the experience I was eight years old and I've had the experience off and on in a variety of different means ever since. This one was so powerful and the place that I went to was so perfect, I got to the source of that loving energy. I found where it comes from and it filled me completely. I still am a regular person but I never get angry. I will get sad, I will get hurt but I never get angry. I don't hate and I've been known to say that I will love the bullet that kills me. I'm not afraid of anything because I've learned that there's nothing to be afraid of. It's hard to upset me. When there's nothing to be upset about why would you get upset?
How long have you been going to the The Russian Baths?
The first time I went to the baths was '88. I went everyday from '89 to 2005. On September 11 2001, my job was south of Houston street so there was no traffic allowed there so I walked to the baths that day.
What was that like?
It was weird. When 9/11 first happened people weren't aware of the enormity of what had occurred. Another thing which is interesting is that both times that the World Trade Center was bombed my company supplied the people who rebuilt it and repaired it [with tools] and we also supplied the fire department. Because of that we got a letter from the fire department, which allowed us to drive south of Houston Street. I drove home to Brooklyn and there was not a single car on the road in southern Manhattan. It was as odd as can fucking be.
How did the videos start?
My family got me a Flip Cam for Father's Day in 2010 when they were building the bike lanes on Prospect Park West. Prospect Park West used to just be a wide boulevard and now they've put down so I made a video dressed like a Hasidic Jew ranting about, “The fuckin' bike lanes on Prospect Park Fuckin' West! They took fuckin' Prospect Park West, the crown jewel of fuckin' Brooklyn and they turned it into fuckin' Flatbush Avenue!” I posted it on Reddit and then Gothamist picked it up and then suddenly there were a huge number of views and YouTube started to promote it and then I started to make more videos after that.
Last night I watched your video with 1.7 million views, “Slide Guitar Blues Lesson In Open D On My National Steel NPB12 With Insanity!!!”
Yes, that one made it to the front page of Reddit and it got 33 million Facebook views. It's crazy.
What do you think it was about that video that connected with people?
I made that video for the guitar lessons Subreddit on Reddit and I think the mixture of both the relatively sane guitar lesson with the totally insane fucking lunatic doing it paired with the calmness of the Both Ross of the voice and then the insane craziness, I think that's what it was. People continue to just like it.
How did you initially get exposed to the blues?
The first time that I left my body and experienced that cosmic consciousness I talked about when I was eight was when a teenage son of my parents friend was playing slide guitar. I can relive it right now after all these years and the sound of that music that was my first experience with cosmic consciousness. My parents were left wing liberal types in the fifties so folk music like Pete Seeger was in my house and then Bob Dylan started when I was twelve. Then there was the Renaissance of Blues music: Mississippi John Hurt, Muddy Waters... in fact Elvis was the one who started it. Elvis and a few others took black music and played it on TV. It had been forbidden and then suddenly there was the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones with the British Invasion. In fact, The Rolling Stones went and met Muddy Waters and said, “this is what we do, this is why we do it.” I was entrenched in that and that's where it started for me and it never went away.
When did you start playing guitar?
I started playing guitar in 1962. I was playing folk music, Bob Dylan... and also there were a group of girls in my school who were into it so that was a good way to hang out with girls. I played pretty constantly until about 1980. In the eighties I didn't play that much then I started taking lessons from Bobby Radcliff, who is a local blues guy and he gave me lessons for a long time. I went to a show that he did the first time I saw him and he played Magic Sam's “Looking Good” and I levitated. I swear to god, I lifted off my chair slightly and long story short, I asked him to teach it to me and he said “no.” He said Magic Sam had shown it to him but he didn't teach it to anyone else. So 25 years later Bobby was at the Terra Blues, I went and saw him with my wife and he showed it to me and it's on my Web site now. Then I took lessons from Dave Von Ronk a little bit later and finally from Jeremiah Lockwood, who taught me how to play slide guitar.
How big of a chunk of your day takes up making and maintaining the videos?
Easily four hours or more. In other words I'm constantly checking it because I don't have anything else to do. [Laughs.] No, seriously, recently I have stopped Redditing as much and started reading and listening to philosophy but I'm still constantly checking it because I do respond to every single comment.
Does it ever feel like work?
Very rarely is it like work. Sometimes there are trolls, but very rarely. Also because of the nature of what I do and the nature of my attitude towards it, interestingly enough I help people. People who are down watch it and it makes them smile and they say, “Thank you I was having a terrible day and you just made my day. I love the way you combine the music with the crazy stuff, thank you so much.” I get that a lot and it's flattering and for me to be able to bring joy to someone else. That's why I do it.
Have you thought about recording an album and releasing it digitally considering your online following?
There's lots of people who want me to do that. One of the reasons that I don't do it is up until this point I've never made any money off [the videos]. Of the 6.3 million views I have, I've made .69 cents revenue. which was a mistake. So if I [made an album], I mean people do that to sell it. There are no ads in front of my videos. Actually there are a few ads in front of my videos but some of them have copyright claims and I don't get that money personally.
What advice would you have for people who want to learn blues guitar or to just have a happy life? Because those concepts seem inherently connected for you.
What I say to people and what I am willing to be quite certain about, although I'm not willing to be certain about anything, is the passion and the feeling that they have inside themselves as human beings is able to be translated and then transformed into music. People can feel that and hear it and it means everything to them because as far as I can see or tell, the vibration of the music is as close to the universal flow of energy that human beings get. They feel very connected to it and the reason they feel connected to it is because it's actually happening inside of them. We are moving, everything inside of us is moving and there's a rhythm and a flow to it and the music connects to that. So if they were going to ask me that question, I'd say find that feeling inside of yourself and then learn the technique to make it come through the strings.