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First Person

When your real-life friend is your Facebook troll

‘Ross the Boss’ never used to talk politics. Something changed.

By Jim Sullivan

Here are some of the charges levied against me: I am a “libtard” and “Commie,” or sometimes, a mere “socialist.” I’m a supporter of Sharia law and a fan of “screwy louie farakan.” [sic] I consider Barack Obama the “Holy prophet Hussein savior of Iran.”

All this, and much more, comes via Facebook — from a friend. His name is Ross Friedman, though in the rock music world, he is known by his longtime moniker “Ross the Boss.” For decades, Ross was lead guitarist in the proto-punk/hard rock band The Dictators. He also co-founded the power metal outfit Manowar, and now fronts the Ross the Boss Band. He’s made 31 albums in his 65 years.

Photo courtesy of Ross Friedman
Ross Friedman, who now fronts the Ross the Boss Band.

I met Ross, a Bronx native, in 1977. He was fresh off a gig with the Dictators in Bangor, Maine, and I was writing a feature on the band for a music magazine. That night, we indulged in all sorts of rock ‘n’ roll mayhem and merriment, ending with a 4 a.m. breakfast at Denny’s. In the decades since, I covered and hung out with the band many times — and always found Ross to be spirited onstage, happy-go-lucky after the show, full of sweaty hugs and good cheer.

Skip ahead to the 21st century. Enter Hillary and Trump. Enter social media. Exit civility.

And enter a new phase of my relationship with Ross, who is now my most prominent, irritating, and antagonizing Facebook correspondent. In the virtual world, my friend has become — how to put this gently — a troll.

I wanted to learn how it happened.

Our conflict, I realized, is not precisely about politics, something Ross and I never discussed in all our years of hanging out. It’s more about behavior. Ross never references his political views when he plays in concert. On his own Facebook page, he posts almost exclusively about music.

But there’s an “other” Ross who festers, flames, and fulminates on other people’s home page posts and in private messages, peddling vitriolic right-wing memes and gifs, crappy jokes, and the occasional link to the Daily Caller. Some of our Facebook friends-in-common, who tend to be Democrats like me, curse him or goad him. Ross smacks back with his arsenal of memes, cliched insults, and links to dubious websites. He owns a batting facility in Queens called The Cage, and often fires away from behind the counter on his iPad, acting the part of what one pal calls an “inappropriate friend.”

Some people shrug him off; others block him. That latter group includes Cheetah Chrome, guitarist with a punk band called Dead Boys, and one of Ross’s closest real-world friends for more than 40 years.

For a while, Cheetah told me, he enjoyed sparring with Ross on Facebook — these two polar opposites from the punk rock world, putting on a heated performance with the written word.

“When people could see it, it was more fun. It got pretty amusing at times,” he said. But the act wore thin, or at least one-sided.

“It got to where he was bombarding me with all these right-wing memes, and I was deleting, like, ten things a day. It was borderline harassment,” Cheetah said. “It got to be kind of a microcosm of how the country’s gotten these days.”

Yet their online conflicts never spilled into the real world.

“When I see him in person, we’ll be fine. We always are,” Cheetah said. They talk guitars, music, and family. Politics goes unmentioned.

“I’m trying to be abrasive. Why not? You’re expecting it. It would be boring if everybody had the same view.”

Curious about the roots of this online Ross noise, I reached out to his former Dictators bandmates, all of whom have blocked or unfriended him. My questions: Was he a volatile extreme right-winger back in the day? And if so, how did you relate to him?

None of them — guitarist Scott Kempner, songwriter/bassist Andy Shernoff, drummer J.P. “Thunderbolt” Patterson, singer Handsome Dick Manitoba — could remember Ross talking politics, in the band or out.

“Years ago I never ever saw a snippet of that,” Manitoba said.

“He loved heavy metal, The Beatles, B.B. King, The Who, and his guitar,” Kempner agreed. “I try and remember that when I see Ross going off on that stuff.”

“He did tell me he posts to get a rise out of people,” Shernoff said.

At this point, I needed to hear from Ross himself. When did he become a true believer? Or did he believe at all? So I called him on the phone. I thought we’d drop some of the latent hostility if we talked live, and I was correct. On the other end of the line was the cheerful Ross I remembered, more thoughtful and philosophical than his irascible online self. 

“I never was political,” he told me. “I was too busy playing and learning guitar and trying to get somewhere with my life in the music business.”

But there was something about the way politics spun out on Facebook — “or Crackbook, as I call it, because it’s nuts,” he said — that drove him to act up.

And so, passing time at the batting cage, “I come in and upset people,” he told me. “Half the time I’m doing it just to do it. I’m trying to be abrasive. Why not? You’re expecting it. It would be boring if everybody had the same view. No one’s converting anybody, no one’s moving the needle left or right either way on Facebook. It’s digital waste.”

This might be the key to Ross’s online persona: It mirrors the sound and fury he wields onstage, the fierce metal energy, this time directed toward his real-life friends. In his metal-rock circles, after all, hating Trump is the establishment thing to do. And Ross has always been driven to buck the establishment.

“You lob a zinger in there and it’s easy. It’s never personal. Even when I’m called the worst thing…I remain in good spirits, happy,” he said. His lax approach extends to his own posts, which, he conceded, are not always entirely accurate. “If I call somebody a Commie, it’s not really right. Democrats are not Communists.”

You call me that all the time, I told him.

“Everything that I do is with a sense of humor, with a chuckle in the background,” he said. “I know where you guys are coming from and you know where I’m coming from. I’m really not that extreme.”

I know that. I also know that I’m complicit in this mess. Like many of us living in Trumpworld, I think, I have become more obsessed and reflexively political. I goad Ross, too. Sometimes our banter is friendly and cajoling, sometimes not.

And our virtual conflict is unlikely to resolve. What was that Cheetah said about Facebook as a microcosm of the country? I figured that not long after our friendly conversation, we’d be back online and at each other’s throats.

Sure enough, soon after, Ross called me a “libtarded turd.” Some songs go on and on.

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Jim Sullivan is a writer based in Boston.

Illustration by Lorenzo Gritti.

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