“I feel almost a sense of duty– not of obligation, but of duty– to the fans just to reciprocate. Because without the fans, what are the bands? Nothing.”
Arturo Vega was never, at least to my knowledge, a member of a band, but considering the two decades he spent as the Ramones’ artistic director and guardian angel, he has as much right to say that as anyone. Arturo was present at all but two of the pioneering punk rock band’s 2,263 shows, and to put that into perspective, that’s as many as their three primary drummers combined.*
From his loft apartment in the heart of the East Village, fortunately within crawling distance of CBGB, the Mexican-born artist managed to shape the image of the band that would eventually go on to inspire the first wave of Punk and the many who followed in its wake, selling merchandise, painting backdrops, and working as lighting director among other things. He even designed the band’s legendary Presidential seal logo, which is thought to be second best-selling band logo in history, right behind the Rolling Stones’.
But the great fame of Arturo’s logo– he is first to admit– has not been without cost. The phenomenally successful logo, which was inspired by Arturo’s belt buckle, has been ripped off in a multitude of contexts, both respectful and decidedly not. I asked Arturo just how it felt to have created such an iconic and oft-recognized image– was he proud of the way it has gained a life of its own, or annoyed that it might have lost its original meaning? “It bothers me a lot. It also makes me a little proud… One thing I really like about the fame of the logo is the way people have adopted it to express something very personal, not just for the pirates and the bootleggers. It became something you adopted; it became something you used for something you wanted to do. I find that flattering. I’ve seen a Christian t-shirt in Mexico; instead of Ramones, it says Romans. And the eagle– exact same font and everything– instead of the names, there’s a phrase from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans.”
Arturo told me of one particular day when he was standing outside of the Ramones museum in Germany, where he was confronted by several teenagers who believed the Ramones were an H&M brand. “There’s some betrayal… it just becomes fashion.” What’s more, the great fame of the logo has inspired much of Arturo’s recent work. “There’s a series of art I’ve been working on called ‘Fame Is A Disease,’ which also comes from that concept– the betrayal of art by culture.”
T-shirt talk out of the way, I also asked Arturo what he thought of the upcoming biopic of CBGB founder Hilly Kristal, which is to trace the club’s beginnings as a birthplace of the first wave of Punk in New York City, and will include Alan Rickman, Joel David Moore, Malin Ackerman, Estelle Harris, and Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters as well as a cameo appearance from Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome, who will also be portrayed by Rupert Grint. “I am excited because it seems like a quality production. I mean, they have top talent as actors– two guys from Harry Potter. And not only are they good actors, but they don’t come cheap. I’m sure the quality of the script must be good for these people to get involved.”
“As a matter of fact, I am meeting on July 1st with the guy who’s playing Dee Dee. We have some common friends and he kept asking people ‘when do I meet Arturo Vega, when do I meet Arturo Vega?’ so finally, we made the connection and we communicated… somehow, and I’m not sure exactly why, this really touches me. The Ramones as a band, as artists, mean a lot to me. Like Dee Dee said himself, ‘to Arty, the Ramones were art,’ but besides that, we were close, we were very very close. Particularly Dee Dee– I loved him, I still love him very much. So something moves me just about the possibility of someone portraying him in a serious movie. I want to make sure I can contribute in any possible way. I really want to meet this guy. I want to help him do the best job he can.”
“Nobody in movies, I think, cares much about accuracy. I’m sure there will be a degree ofexploitation about Dee Dee’s personality– after all, his personality lends itself to exploitation because of the things that were prevalent in Dee Dee’s life. The drugs, the sex, the rock and roll… Dee Dee has it all. But I think the project has very, very good possibilities.”
Arturo was amused when I informed him that I’d had to convince my father that the Ramones were older than he was. He gestured to one of his Ramones paintings behind him, with the band as they appeared around the start of their career. “People will always think of the Ramones like that. It’s part of the magic.”
And that is true. When I came into Arturo’s loft, the band’s 1984 album Too Tough To Die was blaring. While, sadly, this title has gained sobering irony since the record’s release (as of 2004, the entire core of the band has been dead), their music has not lost its steam. And through people like Arturo Vega, the Ramones’ staunch belief in giving back to the fans has outlived them as well.
*If you’d like to check my math, four drummers played with the Ramones– one of them, Clem Burke of Blondie, played with them for only two shows. That leaves the total of shows played by the other three, Tommy, Marky, and Richie, at 2,261. And that, my friends, is how many Ramones shows Arturo attended. You’re welcome.