More than ‘Spiteful’: In-depth with Sonny Vincent Pt. 3

Sonny in New York City circa 1976
Sonny in New York City circa 1976

Sonny in New York City circa 1976

I’ve been reviewing my notes and have decided to make this the final installment of our current series (Part 1 and Part 2 here). There is an even deeper story emerging within the notes, but it’s a bit more complex than the rest of the interview has been. Sonny and I have agreed to continue our dialog. In time, I will tease out the underlying story arc, then post the results at a later date. Enjoy the rest of this interview!

ElDorkoPunkRetro:  I’m having a hard time articulating these questions in a way that’s not redundant. But they really are at the forefront of what musicians and fans are confronted with in a world where music is essentially free and the history of punk can be made small enough to carry in your front pocket. On the other hand, kids across the world are creating more music and art than ever before. What do you think this technological revolution has brought us that is of real benefit to musicians?

Sonny Vincent:  Having something to say and express has no limits or exclusions. Although hearing the sheep I mentioned earlier going “ Baaa, Baaaa, Baaa” is not something I like to hear much in music. Sometimes I think it’s all because there is no particular “movement” these days. When I was a kid, there was a song on the radio called “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills and Nash. It was about the National Guard shooting and killing four Kent State University students for protesting the war. I didn’t even like the song very much.  It was OK, but the message was something that resonated with all of us kids.  It was “our” message and it played in public. These days that kind of stuff, which comes from young bands, is quashed in favor of the crap mindless music the “industry” promotes. I know there are young bands out there today with something to say, but it’s minimized, disenfranchised, and there is no chance for their music to become part of the larger community.

These days there is a lot of neutered Pop crap music being foisted around. There IS a chance for something special to be heard if you search it out, although like I said, it not really given the light of day.  All that said, I believe “Punk” is like a sleeping giant, not really sleeping but…it’s a very likely choice of a music format for a rebellion. Considering the young underground bands that still use the style, it’s the most likely format for a future rebellion in terms of a “community” sound that resonates. What else- fuckin’ lite Jazz? Or electronic pussy music?

EDPR: You and I are part of the last generation to know life before this great increase and decrease in freedom, known as the Internet…what have we lost because of this massive increase in data transfer?

SV: I’m not really sure.  Definitely there is a loss in the fact that people spend a lot of time online. We all know that. But I must admit, when my computer broke for a few days, I was all freaked out!!! Actually something I don’t like is the “framing” done on the Internet. Like, “Oh look! So and so is fat on the beach, or look this one had plastic surgery.” It’s a bit sickening because they leave the part out that maybe I would appreciate.  Maybe the person they are framing is a person who is reflective and soulful but perhaps a bit vain, so they get plastic surgery. What do I care about that? I’ll take a Mickey Rourke any day over a wrinkled up, all natural, sour George Bush Sr.

Or, if a certain actress is a bit chubby on the beach but is a fantastic mom and partner, what’s the point?

I even saw very circulated close up photo detail of an actress’s cellulite! Fuck that! I really think that’s such tedious bullshit that they feed the public so they are distanced from what matters.

All this framing occurs in the political realm as well as the entertainment world.  “Oh my God, Oh my God LOOK! She is giving her baby a sip of Coca Cola, she really must go to jail!!” And then you have politicians letting you know they did their best to avoid bombing schools. And the bankers steal folks’ retirement funds. None of THEM get put in jail.  Well good job dudes!!  Fuckin’ hell!

Most people who know me are aware that I really love Noam Chomsky. He’s a baddass. He is able to calmly outline information that uncovers and reveals the venom inherent in the media. The media does a lot of framing and it’s pretty sick. This fixation on what a celebrity has “the nerve” to wear is all fine and well, but there is a lot happening in the world that folks just don’t track with.  If they were presented with the information that is important, they could be on track with what matters.

EDPR: Let’s get into life in NYC in the early to mid 70s. No cell phones, computers or video games…just kids listening to music on LPs, maybe some Elton John or Olivia Newton-John. What was your life like at that point? You said you’d left home at 13 and travelled the USA, when did you return to the city? What was New York like at street level?

SV: I never really left the city, I simply made excursions to other places. There were different periods where I lived in NYC. The first I was around 12, a runaway kid and I stayed at a variety of places. A girls’ dorm at NYU is one place I lived for a few months. The dorm was cool. I got free food delivered to me by the girls I was staying with, meals they brought to the room for me from the cafeteria. I was pretty young but I lied and said I was 16. No need to be graphic but it was especially fun at night sleeping in the dorm room. A very entitled stowaway.

Another place I stayed for a while was a weird kind of satanic commune.  Well, it wasn’t satanic per say, but the leader had a robe and oversized rings and a pointy beard. It was creepy there. I stayed there for a few weeks but it was all occult and freaked my ass out!

Also I stayed at various cool hippie communes. That was really cool and great veggie food and lots of hugs, really!! I was very lucky because normally I met super nice folks that took care of me. It was an exciting vivid time to be in NYC and be so young. I eventually wandered into The Factory where I met Andy Warhol. At that time the city had a cool “Post Beatnik” vibe. The hippie thing was in full flourish but, unlike the California hippie scene, there was this great Beatnik influence from the 50s still strong in NYC.

But I do remember the stoops on St Mark’s place were all painted day-glow and Hendrix was playing the Electric Circus while David Peel was busking on the sidewalk in front!

The second notable time was of course when I had my band Testors in NYC. I had left the city to write songs in Florida where I met Gene. Taught him how to play guitar and then we high tailed it back to NYC after reading an article about The Ramones!!

At that point the city was a mess, a cool, odd, David Lynch, Eraserhead mess. Really kind of shabby and bombed out looking. The middle class had ditched the city and moved to the suburbs, so there were a lot of super cheap lofts and rental property for bands and artists. The city was in default and the garbage was often piled sky high. Graffiti was everywhere, freakin’ disco music blasting, heroin, cocaine, roaming gangs, hookers on 42nd Street, broken glass, and burned out buildings. We used to flyer most of Manhattan. For a Monday night show, me and Gene would typically put up 3,000 handmade flyers. We first played Max’s Kansas City, the club the Velvet Underground put on the map, and then CBGB. Eventually we played once or twice a month. Lots of violence on the streets. Here another excerpt from my screenplay. It’s entirely a true story. Don’t worry, I don’t carry a knife anymore. But your question is asking me what it was like on “street level” back then… well… it was like a jungle.  Read below:

EXT. NEAR 2ND AVE-LATE NIGHT NYC 1976

Sonny and Gene are all geared up with wheat paste, the brush, the bucket of water and flyers.

Gene’s wearing a bizarre raincoat with TESTORS painted on it. They’re postering a line of their flyers across a huge billboard. Out of the darkness walking toward them, comes a gang of 5 Puerto Rican toughs.

SONNY
Gene, just keep working let me handle this.

LEADER OF GANG
Hey Man! What are you-ziz’ guy-ziz’ doooing?

SONNY
Oh, were just putting up some flyers to announce a show we’re gonna to play down the street.

LEADER OF GANG
Show? What show, Maaaan?

SONNY
We have a band.

LEADER OF GANG
Oh you mean like music? Like geeetar?

The leader looks about 19 years old, when he says “geeetar” he is animating this word by making his arms and hands raise up to show he is playing a little imaginary ’Geeeetar’.

SONNY
Yeah, we’re playin’ down the street at C.B.G.B., did you ever see that place? We’re playin’ there next Wednesday.

LEADER OF GANG
Oh yeah?? But these posters you’re putting up are making the city dirty maaaan, you should take em’ doooown.

GENE
(speaking to Sonny)
Maybe we should just take em’ down and come back later.

SONNY
Just keep puttin’ the flyers up, don’t pay attention to them.

At this point the gang moves in closer demonstrating aggression. The leader is now up close to Sonny.

LEADER OF GANG
I doooonnnee theennnk you heard me.

The leader makes two fists and hits himself hard on the chest with his fists, like Gorilla’s do. GOOOMPH!

LEADER OF GANG (cont’d)
Take em’ downnn, now!

The group of toughs move in even closer, with very aggressive, menacing looks on their faces. Sonny takes one step back, fast, military style and flicks out a very dangerous looking switchblade.

SONNY
(loudly)
Now motherfuckers, one step closer and I’m gonna cut you a new asshole! Try me you fucks! One step closer!

He holds the knife up threateningly and looks very serious.

LEADER OF GANG
Oh! Big Man with the knife.

SONNY
That’s right fuck, one step closer, I swear to fucking God I will stab you. Any of you moves, you’re fuckin’ DEAD!!

The gang moves backwards, walking away, looking back.

LEADER OF GANG
Yeah Madecon’ big man with the knife.

SONNY
That’s right, Big Fuckin man, just keep fuckin’ walking, cocksuckers, I will fucking kill you.

The gang gets further away,throwing bottles at Sonny and Gene and shouting obscenities in Spanish. Giving ’the finger’.

VARIOUS GANG MEMBERS
Chuppa me pinga, Madecon, Tu madre dorma Chocha!!!!!!

Gene and Sonny are visibly shaken,  they finish their last row of fliers, Gene angrily punches the wall.

GENE
I’m sick of this shit! Mother Fuckin’ bastards! We weren’t doing anything to them. This city is covered with graffiti and posters.

SONNY
Man I’m shakin’ all over. Look at my hand.

Sonny shows Gene his hand shaking.

GENE
Well it looked pretty dang steady before.

SONNY
I think I’m all adrenalized out.

GENE
They just wanted trouble.

SONNY
Yeah and if we would have taken the fliers down ..what was next? They make us go with them?

GENE
Jack-offs.

SONNY
They’re like street dogs lookin’ for trouble. But that’s why I have this big fuckin’ knife, I am fuckin’ trouble, You found it, Asssssssholes!

Sonny and Gene finish and leave the billboard area, go down to the subway.

_____________________________________________________________________

SV: I’m not trying to show I’m such a tough guy, but honestly in those days you were either tough or got chewed up!

EDPR: A lot of the bands that later got called punk were playing much earlier. This experimental stripped down form of rocknroll seemed to spring up worldwide and almost simultaneously…do you remember feeling that change come, or was it a more organic growth out of MC5, Stooges and New York Dolls? Do you bristle a bit at the term “punk”? Was it, in the end, just another marketing scheme by the record industry?

SV: It was all building up from the early snotty garage bands, to the Velvet Underground, Stooges and MC5. Although I must say I was in bands seriously, starting from around 1970 (Distance, Fury, Liquid Diamonds) and I was writing my own material in my own style. Honoring lineage is important and valuable (I have always paid homage to the Detroit brothers) but there definitely was a point of delineation where the early NYC bands found their own voice. Richard Hell and Johnny Thunders must be mentioned as well as Television, Suicide, and the Ramones (and others but I’m not gonna type out a whole list, suffice to say.)

The term “Punk”? At first I didn’t really like the word/term “Punk”. I had spent time in prison and there it meant something entirely different. Anyway, none of the bands used the term in the beginning, although John Holstrum’s cool magazine was called that. A few years later, the music industry tried to soften the approach of the new music and they invented the term “New Wave”.  At that point, we began to embrace the term Punk, we were sayin’,”What da fuck is New Wave? Some watered down Punk?  Fuck that.”

It wasn’t until the mid- to late- 80s when I began actively using the term. I think I saw it on a Ramones’ album cover that had a detail of a flyer/poster. So for me that sort of canonized the term. Now I like it.

EDPR: Would you tell us a few stories about Dee Dee, Stiv and some of those infamous nights as the scene was first coming into its own? You said earlier there was a visceral reaction against punks by people on the street, how was it within the circle?

SV: Dee Dee was very special.  I got along well with him, although he had troubles with other people because he was very emotional and sometimes off the hook! So was I back then, so we had a good rapport.

Too many stories to tell here. I can sum up a small aspect of Dee Dee with a statement he made upon entering our dressing room one night, “I don’t know what’s wrong.  All day I said, “YES” to everyone, but they all said, “NO” to me.”

I don’t know what other people’s reports will be about Dee Dee, but mine is that he was a beautiful, charming, naughty boy.

Stiv was also a special complex person. I often miss him, a consummate performer able to throw a microphone with the cable over the top of the water pipes on the ceiling of CBGB and then wrap the cable around his neck and hoist himself up in a virtual self-hanging!

I did an early tour across the USA with my band Testors and the Dead Boys, so you can imagine the debauchery. Personally in private, Stiv was a gentleman, although when he hit the stage he represented a wildman on a destructo mission. Personally he was smart, reflective, and charming.  But it wasn’t some fake shit, that onstage he was different, there was this duality. The thing that maybe differentiates us back then thematically, and maybe philosophically, from later Punk themes– and definitely rap and hip hop themes– was that the anger didn’t come from a particular hatred of people.  It didn’t usually target individuals (I’m better than you, East coast versus West coast, I fuck you and kill you). Most of the anger and dissatisfaction was something pointed at the “system” and media. So that the fact that Stiv could be very sensitive and sweet to people did not separate him from the anger he expressed onstage. It was real.

And to move along within your question concerning the reaction …. Well… it was very brutal and odd. Certainly we were into having our own image, an image that separated and divorced us from the late 60s and what had become of ‘Rock’. So many of the cool bands from the 50s and mostly the 60s had become wealthy ‘Rock Stars’ and we saw it all as very fake. We were dead sick of the rich rock stars and the music had gotten soft and lost its resolve. So we stripped down the sound and wore provocative clothes.  We knew we would get a reaction.  I wore an opened tuna can on a string around my neck!  People were freaked by that! Disgusting!! AHHHHH! But we didn’t know or predict the intensity and profound reaction that we soon got. For the most part, the pubic in general had a very, very, very, negative reaction to us. From the reaction of the people on the streets and from society in general, you would have thought we were on our way to liberate and make the banks public, to tie up the police and puke on them, and then fuck all the bankers and police officers’ daughters. Walking down the street for us back then was a real circus. People would yell at us. Insults! Fights! And it all represented this fear they had of us. Like as if the whole world as they knew it was now teetering on a dangerous edge that edge was us and the music and they must repel it! There were many fights and physical altercations. Mainly they yelled stuff.

And that was in NYC, the intellectual, fashion, design, and art capital at the time!! Outside of New York it was often even worse. Once we played the Hot Club in Philly and there was a real riot in the club. Half the audience was screaming, “ Learn how to play! Go back to New York!” and the other half loved it and went mental devouring the raw power of the music. Eventually the whole P.A. toppled over, they yanked Gene off the stage by his ankles, and the whole place was fighting till the pigs came in.

Some inside personal stuff that I can share and help answer your question concerning “inside the circle”, we were close friends with the Cramps.  I was also close with Ivan Julian,  Johnny Thunders, Tony C, the Dead Boys, Joey, and Dee Dee. Too many friends and associates to list, generally there was a great feeling of camaraderie between most of the bands.  There was a feeling that something was happening. Something vital. Especially in the earlier days when we all went to each other’s shows. Another thing was these clubs were places we went to hang out. We didn’t only go to see a specific band.  We basically hung out and whoever was playing was almost always intense and inspiring.  As well, there were other activities all around, various personal soap operas and dramas, along with major drug action. Max’s Kansas City had a curtain across the stage and that was something interesting.  You would get yourself all ready and then a guy would open the curtain! Bam! The audience would see you suddenly, all set up on stage, and then you would play! That is more unusual these days, the curtain. Also, Max’s had a different vibe from CBGB.  Somehow more art types were there or the intellectuals, not that people at CBGB were not, but Max’s was definitely different. Back then you were either a CBGB band or a Max’s band. But Testors didn’t care about those rules and we played both clubs. CBGB was very wild and more youthful in the vibe and atmosphere. Max’s had a beatnik club feeling in a way. At first CBGB didn’t have a P.A. system or a stage. The guys in the group Television built the first stage and later that year Hilly got a proper P.A. system. The main thing I can comment on, as far as those two clubs go, is that to us they were the most important places in the universe.  Until those places came around, the world was desert wasteland for a lot of artists/bands. The atmosphere at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB was highly charged with excitement, electricity, and inspiration. Also, with everything else, all sorts of trouble and action, like John Cale falling down the steps etc!! I myself got kicked out of CBGB for awhile because I caused the water sprinkler system in the club to turn on by setting a TV set on fire on stage. Also because of a fistfight I had with Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith Group during a radio interview that was broadcast live. For a while, that group was God at CBGB and I was the naughty bad kindergartener who didn’t give a shit.  I must admit that for a time there I was going too wild and although the press liked it, it was maybe something not politically correct. I was not allowed in the club for 2 weeks because of a variety of cracked stuff I had done. I would show up at the front door and they were like “No way!” Yes, crazy actions I guess! But from my point of view at the time I thought it was strange that some artists had elements of anarchy in the lyrics of their songs and then in real time they could be so uptight! Anyway – you can re-read what I have written to a soundtrack of glass breaking! I am glad to have survived it all, me and Lenny Kaye are friends these days!

EDPR: Are you a music fan? I know you’ve got trunks of your own stuff, but do you have a record collection? If not, did you have musical influences outside of the people you were playing with? You mentioned Detroit and NYC artists as part of your lineage, and that’s hard rock…what about earlier artists? Did you follow the changes in punk over the years as it grew into every little section of the country and morphed into hardcore?

SV: I am a huge music fan.  Of course I have records, but I’m very particular.

I grew up hearing Hendrix, the Kinks, The Doors, all that great stuff, and earlier the 50s music. I could make a long list, but its too much! Al Green comes to mind. Certainly the Beatles and Yardbirds. Suicide, Stooges… ahhh!! Soul music, Early Blue Grass, too much!!

I saw a transition into hardcore, I like a lot of the hardcore stuff. A guy did his doctoral dissertation on hardcore and made a family tree and put Testors on top. He noticed that songs like “Primitive”, “I See”, “Detention”, and “Don’t Tell Me” were very early examples of the direction. The hardcore history misses some details, such as the fact that the dudes from the Bad Brains made early excursions to NYC and saw my band Testors. Our songs were definitely not Blondie or anything like The Ramones’s “Rock Away Beach” (although I Love both bands) comparatively we were pretty fast and brutal for the times. I leave it up to others to listen to those songs and make their own determination in terms of a lineage. Certainly the fact that we didn’t come out with an album didn’t help later historians make the connection!! The Testors stuff came out decades later, years after we broke up. In my opinion, we are the rightful heirs and godfathers of Hardcore and more!

Fact is that Testors was playing out and recorded those songs way before Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and Black Flag were even existing as bands. And if they don’t like it, I’ll have to do a fuckin’ drive by on their sorry asses! Haaa Haaa!

Don’t get me wrong I adore those bands (Husker Du too) But we were first, (he says thumbing his nose and holding some serious ordnung in hand).  Nah, nah, na na na nah.

The fact that our influence has not been honored and basically disenfranchised doesn’t change the fact that if you listen to the early Testors stuff, there is nothing from that early period quite the same. Thanks to Tim from Crypt, Barney from Incognito, and John Reise from Swami, the Testors material finally came out! Just recently Alien Snatch records re-released the “Testors Complete” double album. It’s in the grooves!

EDPR: Would you like to go into your prison experience in a little more depth? What got you there? What was the term of your sentence? What was it like? How did it change you?

SV: First time was reform school, “kids’ jail.”  Later, I had bad luck and got busted for small amounts of pot. Back then, they would have shot you if they could for that. It’s all too much and too brutal to retell here. First it was a year and then subsequently I was locked up for two years, a stretch I did for possession of two joints. A year per joint I guess. The prison I was in had some fucked up people in there:  killers, creeps in for rape, fuckin’ psychos, all of them. First thing on the agenda is they intimidate you and try to rape you in there. I had to do something quick and decisive to avoid that. Some young guys didn’t, it was a pity to see them after. The guards didn’t care, they were all in-bred and actually liked all that kind of stuff happening. I don’t wanna think about those times right now.

EDPR: I’d like to get some details around the Spiteful release. Which are your top 3 favorites off the record now? Has that changed since you started recording it? What are those particular songs about? Do you hear the similarities between what you’re doing now and your Testors material?

SV: It changes, right now I like “Silver”, “Disinterested” (mp3 link), “Now That I Have You (mp3 link)” and “Inflection”. “Inflection” is not on the album, though it is coming out on the single, an exclusive on Big Neck Records.

It’s hard for me to sort out the relationship between these songs and my Testors’ material.

I was hoping to have the early vibe mixed in with an immediate feeling of urgency while still incorporating a certain amount of swagger that can come with bad assed, dyed in the wool bastards.

EDPR: Could you paint us a mental picture of each of the Spite guys?

SV: Rat- Very cheap with money and smelly, like patchouli oil.

Glen- Always talking about sex.

Steve Mackay- Believes in ghosts and spirits.

EDPR: Let’s close this thing out with an easy one…how have you kept your voice so strong? It hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years!

SV: I drink Unicorn blood. But truthfully, it’s because I’m not overdoing drink and drugs, although like I said, I condone them and encourage all Republicans to try magic mushrooms for breakfast.

 

So there it is, kids…I’d like to give a huge thank you to Sonny for taking some real time out of his life to do this for us. He’s a great guy and I hope all of you will follow the links and buy the new record and go to any shows that get close to your locale. In a world filled with shitty music and horrible role models, Sonny stands over it all with integrity, authenticity and a spectacular back catalog. Search it out and stay tuned for more!

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eldorkopunkretro

I'm the leader of the punx over at that other crappy blog, Punk Retrospective and punk promoter in Northern California at Seismomatic . I sing, write and play guitar in the frightening and enlightening 3-piece punk outfit, Pug Skullz. Once in a while I drop a video on Blip or an mp3 on my Punk Retro Facebook page. If you want a lot more info go read my Manifesto. Doug Skullz Instagram Don't be scared...

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