Ramona Jan is the living embodiment of artistic evolution. To her, being an artist isn’t an ephemeral experience. Being an artist is a state of being– it’s less of a “distinction” and more of a lifestyle. For her, making art is unavoidable. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s not a direct path that leads to a known destination. It’s a journey. Making art is a process within each of us that allows a mystery to unfold, a way to enlighten various parts of ourselves, and to identify with one another along the way.
Nowadays, a sculptor, dressmaker, visual-artist, jewelry-maker, musician, and mother, Jan wrote a poem at the age of three, picked up the guitar at thirteen, then never looked back. Back in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s she was one of the first female sound engineers and she played in various new-wave and punk bands in New York City including the Comateens, Dizzy and the Romilars, Nursery School (Epic Records) and Venus Fly Trap. I had a chance to talk to her about her experience as an artist. She shared a lot of wise words and recounted some wild stories from CBGBs.
RAMONA JAN TALKS ART & EXPERIENCES IN THE NYC PUNK SCENE
CR: So, just exactly what name or names do you go by?
RJ: I was born Ramona Lee Janquitto, however, I did not like the word ‘quit’ in my name so I shortened it when I was only a teenager As a young adult, I changed it legally. For decades now, my legal and only name is Ramona Jan. I dropped the middle name Lee because I saw it as unnecessary. My band is JANTURAN. My husband and partner is Andre Turan. Our last names combined create the band’s name, making it hard for either one of us to ever leave the band.
CR: When did you start making sculptures and playing music?
RJ: I wrote my first poem/song (one sentence about a piece of clothing) when I was about three. I took a few guitar lessons when I was thirteen and then played in folk groups at church. That was a bit odd for me for a couple a of reasons. I was not religious and I liked rock music. I left home at 19 and moved to NYC where I became one of the first women recording engineers.
In NYC, I began playing music seriously at CBGB’s, Max’s, etc. in various bands including Comateens, Dizzy and the Romilars, Nursery School (Epic Records) and Venus Fly Trap. All along I did some form of visual art, though I didn’t consider myself a visual artist. I even had art shows in Soho. In particular, I made and sold jewelry, which was the forerunner to my sculptures. All art was a form of therapy for me. I put my music into my sculptures.
CR: You’ve played a lot of different genres of music over the years. What one do you think is most “you”?
RJ: Each one was ‘me’ as I was at the time. For example, in Comateens, I played a form of New Wave/Punk because at that time all I wanted to do was express myself, which IMHO is the bane of punk music. I wasn’t really interested in songwriting as a high art. Now I am into crafting lyrics and telling edgy stories with words that create vivid pictures. This is ‘me’ now and as much ‘me’ as I was back in the ’70’s.
CR: What was it like being one of the first women sound engineers in the late ’70s?
RJ: It was a trial. Unless you were a singer or played an appropriate instrument like violin, women, in general were highly discriminated in the business particularly in anything technical.
CR: How did men act toward you? How did other women act toward you?
RJ: I was bullied quite a bit by my male peers, musicians and some of the other engineers. At the time, there was no word or discussion about bullying so I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t have much self-esteem to begin with so it took a toll on me. I developed an eating disorder and went into therapy for it. There was also much sexual harassment on a daily basis, again something that wasn’t named or heard of back then.
There was only one other female engineer, Liz Saron. She was 10 years older than me and I looked up to her in many ways. She was also very much a ‘suffragette’ and later became the President of the League of Women Voters. She was more astute that me. She could see things that I couldn’t see like when the studio gifted all the men a bottle of Scotch for Christmas and Liz and I bath salts. She went into a rage and got the Scotch for us, too. I was happy with the bath salts. The Scotch almost killed me. I never understood why she was so unhappy. Now, of course, I do. There was inequality all around.
“As has been reported over and over again, CBGB’s was filthy. It smelled like piss and beer but after about an hour or so, you couldn’t smell it anymore. There was a vibe there that was very alive, very electric. It was the hardest and the best of times.”
CR: Ugh. Well, other than that, what was the music scene like? We’ve all read about CBGBs and heard lots of stories, but what’s your take? Any fun stories you want to share?
RJ: As has been reported over and over again, CBGB’s was filthy. It smelled like piss and beer but after about an hour or so, you couldn’t smell it anymore. There was a vibe there that was very alive, very electric. It was the hardest and the best of times. Hard because in the beginning we had to play slots like 1 or 2am. Best because we were forging new territory and going places with music that no one had gone before. Most of us were self-taught and just expressing ourselves. It was a movement. And it was happening in front of Hell’s Angels because those were the people who hung out at CBGB’s until Hilly realized he could fill the place and make more money with the kids.
One fun moment: When I first got on stage with Comateens I thought it was sexy to wear a white leotard and tights. Yes, that was my outfit. I was only 19 years old! And when I got on stage in front of all those Hell’s Angels one of them yelled “Raquel Welch”. I looked all around the stage and then into the audience and only then realized, oh, talking about me? Another time at Max’s I jammed with Sid Vicious when he came into my dressing room alone. He was very, very drunk or high or both. I was alone and he just walked in and picked up someone’s bass and said, “Let’s jam.” I figured I better say alright. Anyone could have jammed with him especially in the state he was in. Nancy followed shortly and after punching my keyboard player in the stomach grabbed Sid by the hair and dragged him out. Two weeks later, she was dead.
One of my very best recollections happened at a club called Hurrah’s. Comateens had just released a single called, ‘Danger Zone’ and I went into the DJ booth to give it to the DJ whose name I don’t remember. All of a sudden a hand reached out for me and I was pulled into the arms of David Bowie who then gave me a very romantic kiss on the lips. I was stunned. We had some small talk. He was very British, very polite and then I excused myself. The next day, the receptionist at Mediasound said she picked him up at Hurrah’s and took him home with her. Could have been me, I suppose. But glad it wasn’t. My heart breaks too easily.
CR: Wow. Sounds like a really wild time. Aside from all that, why is making art important to you?
RJ: For me, art is more unavoidable than important. Making art began as a coping mechanism–an escape from a physical and mentally abusive home environment. I often wonder what I would have done with myself had I been raised under different circumstances. To this day, art and music help me survive. I am happy to have an acceptable and very useful vice that others actually understand, enjoy and perhaps even find identifiable.
CR: How are you able to make art such a large part of your life?
RJ: The simple answer is that I am an insomniac so I have lots of hours in the day. And because of my insomnia and tendencies toward anxiety, I’ve never been a routine type of a person so I’ve been led to side-jobs that don’t require office hours such as writing and dressmaking–ways of making a living that can be done from home. However, JANTURAN (all caps) now has a Patreon page and we are beginning to be supported directly by fans. This helps a great deal. Fans can support us on our House Tour with as little as a dollar a month and for that they get a FREE MP3 download of a JANTURAN song each month plus tips on what to do with Toilet Paper Rolls. I like to say, “They come for the music and stay for the Toilet Paper Roll Tips.”
CR: What would you do without the ability to create?
RJ: Save the world? Be a brilliant scientist? Kill myself?
CR: What advice would you give to young artists and creatives?
RJ: For most people, there is no overnight success. If your passion is strong, stay healthy and keep going. Seek only the advice/opinions of those you respect and then take what you need and leave the rest. Always try other people’s suggestions while at the same time holding on to yourself. Communicate with your band members. Never doubt that your contribution, even if misunderstood, is important mostly to you and secondarily to those who identify with you. Get exposure by entering contests (free or inexpensive ones), playing live, having a YouTube channel and on other social media. Strive to deeply understand all aspects of your craft.