Arturo Vega Interview

“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 and the Ramones outside the loft in the 70s

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’.

Dee Dee Ramone wearing a shirt with Arturo’s legendary logo

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.”

The CBGB exterior to be used in the movie,  Savannah, Georgia

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.”

Arturo’s loft in 1975, in front of the very first Ramones backdrop. Loft and backdrop appear in some very early Ramones footage.

“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.”

The logo, with the original lineup of the band and the original “Look Out Below” written on the flags

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.

Advertisements

Crushed Butler

Every once in a while, when the School Machine has not given me enough to do, I will stroll one and a half hilly-but-pleasant suburban miles to the nearest public library, and seek to educate myself on something or other. More often than not, given my general state of mind, the “something or other” in question is at least tangentially related to the sort of nonsense that ends up on this blog. Yesterday, when I reached the library at approximately the same time as I finished the first disc of Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, I had put myself in a definite rock and roll mood, but as such moods often do, it lacked any specific direction.

Crushed Butler in 1970: Jesse Hector, Alan Butler, and Darryl Read

Blindly searching the rock and roll section, I happened to pick up what turned out to be an excellent book, Phil Strongman’s Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk, and proceded to discover yet another candidate for the endless “who started Punk?” debate: the explosive UK rockers, Crushed Butler.

Crushed Butler, it is important to note, were not of the brand of pure garage noise that one would expect to lead to the punk movement of groups like The Sex Pistols, X-Ray Spex, or The Buzzcocks. While yes, John Lydon was an Crushed Butler fan before he went Rotten, the group actually reminds me more of very early Black Sabbath, who released their first album while they were together– a fuzzy, messy guitar tone,  strong, riffy bass, drums that seem from the school of Ginger Baker or Mitch Mitchell, and prominent, gritty vocals. A full-on, reverb-heavy sound that pulls out all the stops. Indeed, in terms of both style and chronology, it appears that Crushed Butler is somewhat removed from the late-70s punk movement, definitely more akin to the heavy psychedelic and proto-metal of the late 60s that at least helped inspired  Punk with its sheer rawness, volume, and departure from the late-60s peace-and-love sensibility that many felt was rapidly turning to cliché.

Crushed Butler in 1969

The history of Crushed Butler is surprisingly difficult to find– the bio listed on the band’s own website leaves a lot to be desired, and further information tantalizingly sparse, apt to leave a researcher interested, but begging for more.

From what I can discern, the band was formed sometime around 1968. In the beginning, guitar and vocals were covered by Ray “Jesse” Hector, also a member of The Gorillas and of The Jesse Hector Sound. Hector was a constant member, remaining a part of Crushed Butler until their name change (to Tiger), personnel change (when Neil Christian of The Crusaders became their manager) and eventual disbandment in 1971. Bass was covered by Alan Butler at the beginning, but he had departed by 1971. A succession of  bassists after him included Stan Aldous, Arthur Anderson and Barry Wyles, who would later join Smile with future members of Queen. Actor-musician Darryl Read serves as drummer. In addition to a short stint later in Krayon Angels, he would go on to collaborate with Mickey Finn and Bill Legend of T. Rex, and record with Ray Manzarek, formerly of The Doors.

While Crushed Butler did not record any full-length albums in their short-but-influential existence, there are several recordings in existence from demo sessions throughout the band’s short life. They were eventually released as a collection, Uncrushed, in 1991. The best-known of their songs is probably the A-side of their 1969 single, the garagey  “It’s My Life,” a ferocious attack that sounds almost like an angrier, more distorted and less psychedelic Seeds, and heavily features Darryl Read’s steady barrage of drums, which propel the track relentlessly forward for its disappointingly short 2:16 running time.

Crushed Butler’s more heavy-psychedelic side is represented by the band’s extremely Black Sabbath-sounding “Love Is All Around Me,” recorded in 1970. Note, of course, that this similarity in sound might have something to do with the band’s involvement with Don Arden, who aside from managing The Small Faces and ELO was not only Black Sabbath’s manager, but also Ozzy Osbourne’s father-in-law. But no matter who influenced who, “Love Is All Around Me” is a great heavy psych song– driven by palpably aggressive unison riffing between guitar and bass and a song form complicated enough to be interesting, and simple enough to have an almost irresistible hook. In addition,  bluesy but inventive guitar lines provides a classic example of psychedelic guitar work.

All in all, with so few Crushed Butler songs available– all of seven, by my count (one of which I have not heard, as it is only available on the Uncrushed collection), I would recommend listening to every one. From the raspy psychedelic blues of “High School Dropout” to the terrifically primeval rock of “Factory Grime” and “Love Fighter,” the slow, crushing epic that makes its rather silly title seem like a mockery, Crushed Butler might have made even the staunchest of flower-power advocates wonder just how much raw aggression will be able to survive into the Age of Aquarius, and whether it will be enough to feed the utter intensity of this truly heavy music.

In Defense of The Ramones

They played the same six songs from 1974-1996 on over and over again using approximately four chords for each, and occasionally granted us more than ten lines in a lyric. Their idea of a guitar solo is the same note sixty-four times in a row. And that note is an open string.* Collectively, they have as many addictions and mental illnesses per capita than any cast of Celebrity Rehab. At least we like their leather jackets, and know they can count to four.

They are the Ramones, and especially from an outsider’s perspective, it is admittedly puzzling that so many people like them. I’ve been there– until I really thought about what they were doing, why they were doing it, and where they were coming from, it was hard for me to look past what tended to be rather uninteresting songs and uninspiring musicianship. It’s hard to point to any certain moment I began to understand what in hell they were trying to accomplish, but I came around.

Johnny, Tommy, Joey, Dee Dee (l-r) at CBGB in New York City, 1977

I suppose I must’ve realized that you have to have a lot of guts to onstage and do what the Ramones did– play simple songs. Especially by the late 70s, people had been so conditioned towards complex song form, technical virtuosity, and clean production that in a way, some of them had forgotten about where rock n’ roll started.

Rock n’ roll arguably began with an attempt to create simple music that reached people. It did not turn inward like the blues, but turned powerfully outward. Although the rock of the 1950s seems unbelievably tame compared to what was to come later, it was at the time the absolute most aggressive and most potent music you could find– loud, primeval, and danceable. As the years went on, the criteria for rock n’ roll became vaguer and vaguer, but this crude, simple backbone always remained.

Johnny, Marky, Joey, and Dee Dee (l-r)

Whether it was a conscious choice or not, the former Jeffry Hyman, Douglas Colvin, John Cummings, and Erdélyi Tomás decided to carry rock n’ roll’s primitive flame. On Doug’s suggestion, they all took the surname Ramon from Paul McCartney’s former alias (and somewhere along the line, added a final e) in a showing of unity. They changed their first names too– to Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy respectively. They wore their jeans, t-shirts and leather jackets onstage, scarcely ever took more than two minutes per song, and developed a reputation for arguing on and off-stage.  Their first audience outside of New York City in June, 1976 was to a grand total of around ten people in Youngstown, Ohio.

Let’s examine some of the traits in the paragraph above, one by one.

First, the name change. Ever since the earliest blues days of Black Ace, Pink Anderson, Barbecue Bob, and Leadbelly, the name change has always been important to rock n’ roll. It represents the adoption of a persona, the shedding of a former identity– it allows a personality of the musicians’ choosing. Although the Ramones repeatedly rejected analysis of virtually anything they ever did, the names they chose say a lot. Not only do they dig back into the roots of the music they loved, but there is something in the first names that is classic, defiant, and youthful.

Then, the short songs. Watch this:

Even if you are unfamiliar with the music of the Ramones, you can probably see the sheer power of this extremely basic song– a cover, by the way, of Bobby Freeman from 1958 (although the most famous version of the song is by Cliff Richards)– lies in its pure energy. And pure energy is something that even the staunchest Ramone-opposers must admit that this group had a whole lot of. You can look in depth at what the Ramones were doing musically and write it off for its simplicity, but it is very difficult to write them off in terms of their live performance. The Ramones’ shows were quick and intense. I’ve heard that some of their earlier live sets were seventeen songs and just a little over thirty minutes long. Maybe they weren’t soloing like The Dead, maybe they lacked the performance-art mentality of Pink Floyd or The Who, but the Ramones’ concerts were more relevant to their audience than anything else could be.

It is critical to understand where the Ramones were coming from– dull, middle-class Queens. All of the original members were outcasts as children and as teenagers for one reason or another. For them, as it has for so many, music became an escape. They were playing for people like them, bored kids who wanted something to do, and were fed up with the kind of canned culture they were so often being fed. The Ramones never really claimed to be anything more than they were: a rock band that was depressed by politics and was looking for a way out, looking for a good time, and looking to be loved by the people they were playing to. The Ramones never rejected their roots, from their oft-admitted love of older music to their essentially anti-glam stagewear.

Even the squabbles are typical– rock n’ roll is a very angry genre, and frankly, much of the time, the Ramones were very angry guys. They made a choice not to hide their fights from the fans or the press. Nor did they travel to the other end of the spectrum, as they felt as though bands like the Sex Pistols that were purposefully offensive and radical were phony. While some could say that the Ramones were just as (if not more) inauthentic, it is true that they never denied where they came from.

Lastly, the failed gig in Ohio.

Today, we think of the Ramones as rock stars, but that was not always the case. Especially within the United States, their success was frankly rather limited. In order to survive, the Ramones had to work very, very hard, touring and gigging almost constantly. For years, the group depended on their t-shirt sales for most of their income, as their airplay was relatively limited (especially early on) and their record sales were none too fantastic. The band’s 1979 It’s Alive concert recording got as high on the American charts as the Ramones would ever get– number thirty-eight.

For more than twenty years, the Ramones did what many were afraid to do– write and play music as raw and simple as that which decades earlier had spawned the very beginnings of rock n’ roll. No matter what we think of their music, the Ramones were a band that did their own thing for their own reasons– something we should really  admire. Anyone can speculate on the band’s technical capabilities, but the impact they had on the music after them was (and has continued to be) absolutely huge. From Punk, to pop, to alternative rock, you can probably find hundreds of acts that count The Ramones among their influences.

Four borderline delinquents from Queens turned absolute legends– a classic rock n’ roll story.

*That’s in “I Wanna Be Sedated.” I didn’t believe it, so I counted.