SV live in France, 2011
Interview by Jack Partain
When New York punk legend Sonny Vincent formed his first band Testors in 1976, it's unlikely that he thought that 30-plus years later he would still be working in music, not to mention being known as a punk legend. But throughout a career that can best be described as notoriously tumultuous, Vincent has developed a reputation as one of the more intense figures to emerge from the scene around CBGB's and Max's Kansas City. He is a steadfast punk rock idealist whose musical talents are as strong as his will to keep his music pure. As a result, he has become one of those figures you hear about more than you actually hear and you hear the stories about his exploits more than you hear the actual music. He's been jailed and institutionalized; he's been banned from a college campus, and ejected from Canada; he's ingested more than his fair share of illicit materials, punched Lenny Kaye during a radio broadcast, got drunk with Bob Stinson, wrecked cars into buildings, hidden in dumpsters, and was nearly killed by members of Minneapolis' finest during a snowstorm.
But he's also written some really great songs and made some interesting films. He was one of Joey Ramone's favorite artists, and he's worked with artists like Mo Tucker, Ron and Scott Asheton, Wayne Kramer, Cheetah Chrome, Captain Sensible, and Bob Stinson (to whom he was not only a drinking buddy but a close friend and artistic peer as well). And he has managed to have a career in music outside of it's mainstream for a long time now, despite all of the supposed changes the music industry has experienced.
In 2011, Vincent returned to his roots and reunited Testors. He's also recorded a new solo album Bizzaro Hymns, which was released by Still Unbeatable Records in April. What follows is an email interview with Mr Vincent from late March, 2011.
PSF: I know that you probably get asked this question in every interview, but I love the story. Where did you get the name "Testors"?
Sonny Vincent: OK, you asked for it! 'Testors' was our favorite glue to sniff when we were delinquent kids. That is until they added mustard gas elements to it to curtail the sniffing/huffing of it. After they put in the additive, it really smelled like some super strong onions, so we changed brands! The Testors glue company was really out to save the kids from getting high!! Anyway, it's a long story filled with glue bags strewn all over the streets of New York, Black Panthers in Oakland, White Panthers in Detroit, shit loads of protesting Hippies and four dead in Ohio (yeah, America kills its citizens for protesting also!!). Certainly during those days they (the Nixon administration, etc.) did not want the young kids going around getting high. They'd much rather have American kids spill their blood and die in the process of killing other people in Southeast Asia! Perhaps this was one reason we didn't give a fuck about our lives, since our lives seemed so easily expendable anyway. Yeah, the administration was against drugs but they were way into killing!
Anyway, Testors was our brand for a while till we discovered other pastimes and delicacies. But then again, it was truly a combination of getting high and medicating ourselves. Anyway, like I said, it is a remnant from my early childhood. By the time, I had Testors together, I hadn't done 'glue' for ages! In fact Gene (Sinigalliano) from Testors had never sniffed it, till one day just as a matter of consistency (since that was the name of the group), him and I huffed bags full of it down in the NYC Subway system back in 1976. It's quite strong stuff, if you really go for it. It was very funny, Gene was jumping around the subway station, really off the hook! Later, the cops approached us and we were terrified since we were so high and out of shape. Finally, the cops left but Gene was really scared, man! Can you imagine? Thankfully, I didn't do glue too much. Although I still do feel that I am the ultimate God of all insects, plant life and sea creatures!
PSF: I've heard that you formed Testors after moving from New York to Florida and then back to New York after hearing about the scene forming around CBGB's. I heard that you were in bands before that, which played around Max's Kansas City and other such clubs. What can you tell me about those early bands? Were the Testors the first band you actually put together?
SV: In the early '70's, the scene in NYC was virtually dead. The Beatnik folksy thing that had been so vibrant in the city had long ago run its course and the hippie '60's thing was over too. The city was sort of abandoned and all we could find to play as far as venues were the husks left over from former times. Although this 'wasteland' landscape did sort of suit Alan (Vega) and Marty (Rev) from Suicide. I remember they pushed their equipment around the city in a shopping cart to play empty shows, one of them with an earlier band of mine, Liquid Diamonds. I decided I could make more progress if I isolated myself and wrote some songs. At one point, I packed up a tape recorder and my guitar and went down to Florida. That's where I met Gene (Sinigalliano).
Anyway to answer you, I certainly had bands together before Testors. And we lived in the urban leftover that was NYC, performing only occasionally. Some of the names of my bands were The Trespassers, Distance, Fury, Liquid Diamonds, The Way Outs. These bands didn't really fit into what was popular on the charts so that's another reason we didn't play out much. I really want to say it again that there simply were not many venues to play back then. In the '60's, there were tons of places for bands to play, but in my starting time, the times where I was really looking to go on stages, the early '70's, there wasn't much around. In that way, bands are lucky these days. Back then, there was virtually nothing till Max's and CBGB's. So we would play anywhere we could find. As I mentioned we played the Electric Circus, which was formerly 'The Dom' from the Andy Warhol/Velvet's days. It was a show with my band Liquid Diamonds and Suicide. Twenty people in the audience, as I recall. The Dogs from Detroit were also on the bill that night. Tough times.The Dogs were staying in some apartment in Harlem living on a giant bag of potatoes.
We also played an underground gay/tranny club in the Village called 'Club 82.' But like I say, before Max's and CBGB's, there were not a lot of venues for original music in NYC. The music from those earlier bands of mine is hard to describe. Sort of Rock 'n' roll with a razor sharp, amphetamine edge, combined with a psychedelic tribal groove. Although we did have some concise 'songs,' there were a lot of jams and points of departure.The lyrics were similar themes as in the Testors music, although maybe a bit more naive and hippy-like.
PSF: I could ask you "who are your influences?" but I'd rather know how/why did you decide to start a band. You seem to be a man of many talents so why start a band? Also, do you remember writing your first song? What was it like? What was your first time on stage at Max's Kansas City like?
SV:I started playing music because of the overwhelming feeling of excitement I had listening to rock 'n' roll. So many songs spoke for what I was feeling inside myself. Also it seemed very cool to be involved with guitars and noise. Mostly the attraction was about expression and a 'voice.' Whether the expression was rebellion or sadness, it all seemed so 'in the moment' and riveting. There was no other way for me. I wrote my first song the day I got my first guitar, a used 'Stella' guitar that I got hold of. The song was written on one string and shortly after, I wrote the song, I showed it to the kids in the neighborhood. Eventually all the kids on my block could play it. I was a bit surprised when I saw them playing it. Cranking down on that one string, with lots of raw fervor!
My first show at Max's was when Testors was a three piece. Two guitars and drums. It was 1976 and Gregory (R) was the drummer, Gene and I on guitars. I remember the soundman and the people at the sound check, "Hey man- where's you-ziz guy-zez bass player?" We told them "We don't use a bass player." It was like saying "I can turn into a big fat blue elephant on command." They just looked at us and scowled in disbelief. "No bass player? Dat's fuckin' weird!" I supposed they really had the John, Paul, George and Ringo thing firmly stamped into their heads. But we sounded just fine, cool in my opinion. We played our first years as a three piece, no bass player.
Max's was very cool. When you were there, you felt like you were in the center of the universe. Same feeling at CBGB's. Something was going down and it was exciting. Something I remember fondly about Max's was that there was a curtain across the stage. The curtain was closed and the audience only saw this black velvet curtain drawn across the stage. Behind the curtain you would set up your equipment and get yourself hyped and psyched. Suddenly they would announce you while quickly opening the curtain. Very dramatic. In some ways, Max's was the center of the universe. Trust me.
PSF: From what I understand, you were already making music before punk rock, for lack of a better term, exploded. So what were your earliest influences? And how much did punk rock eventually inform your own musical evolution?
SV: Yes, you are right about that. I was already writing and sometimes performing music before the 'punk explosion' as you call it. My influences were coming at me in two ways. One was the music I was connecting to on a personal level and the other was the music that was around me peripherally. If you grew up as I did in a lower income neighborhood, you could hear music of the other families through the walls. A lot if this stuff I heard before you could actually find it by turning the knob, searching on the radio.
Let me explain. A family down on their luck from the Appalachian mountains decides to put together their pennies and drive up to New York in hopes of finding work and a future. Of course they have to find a cheap apartment. Well, I was the kid lying in bed in the next apartment hearing all the music they brought with them from back home! I'm talking some roots, bluegrass and country. It sounded like music from Venus to me- I never heard anything at all like it. It was amazing. Then the apartment above was a black family and they were blasting their turntable, cranking out The Four Tops and James Brown, night and day! The folks to the left were playing salsa and everywhere else was The Four Seasons or some '50's greaser rock 'n' roll.
The first live music I ever heard in my life was when I was 5 years old and going down the steps to the subway in Manhattan. Some guys were singing 'doo-wop' down there- accapella in the tiled subway station on 42nd St. Also there was a lot of Puerto Rican music all around, blasting from homes. Puerto Rican people were getting together with Cubans on summer days on the street corners in groups of 15-20, with congas, bongos, shakers and all these rhythm instruments, jamming like mother fuckers! Again, amazing! Soon, the Beatles were out and that was a sort of ephiney. After that the Kinks, the Yardbirds, later Hendrix, Doors, Blue Cheer. Everything all mixed in with '60's soul and garage, '50's girl groups, '50's ballads and full-on blues like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. This was all around me. All the time. This was all my influence.
Now fast forward to Testors and a whole set of original songs I wrote before I even heard of CBGB and Max's. Now don't get me wrong- my discovery of these two clubs for me was something like a 'Columbus' discovery or like I had landed on the fuckin' moon and found treasure, because now I found that there was someplace I could maybe play my music!!!
Getting the shows there was an adventure in itself. I can tell you a bit. The group I had before Testors (Liquid Diamonds) had made a demo tape in a basement on a 4-track machine. After all our practicing and the recording, I think we played a grand total of two shows. But we did manage to make a tape with five of my songs recorded on it. When Testors got together we wanted to play CBGB's but Charlie Martin (soundman and booker of CB's) wanted a tape from us. Since Testors didn't have anything down on tape at the time, we just submitted the Liquid Diamonds tape with Testors scrawled across the front of the box. But I don't think Charlie even listened (to) the tapes people submitted to him. Eventually we just endlessly bugged him and Hilly until they realized that we would be playing CBGB's or die trying!
About influences prior to meeting up and seeing all the other groups I can tell you it probably wasn't as some people might think. I sort of grew up on the streets so certainly I was not introduced to the whole Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground thing in some art class. I did see some of Andy's films and wandered into the Factory but at that time I was really quite young. My influences were like I said before. But right away, I was floored with the realization that there were people and bands all around who were sort of kindred spirits. The Cramps, The Ramones, Patti Smith, Television,The Dead Boys, Richard Hell, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Steel Tips, Suicide and lots more. As time went by there definitely was some exchange and influence happening. But it is true that each band had its own identity and sound. Otherwise, what's the point? There were some influence transferring around here and there but 'individuality' was super important as well as originality. In most cases, this came natively.
PSF: The Testors have a reputation as one of the most uncompromising bands of the early punk rock groups in New York. Obviously, in the short term, it didn't help the band to refuse to sell out or compromise, but in the long run, has it helped your career to have that reputation?
SV: I don't know. I know the legacy lives on. We were very rigid with ourselves in a way. For us, it wasn't really about having fun. It was more like a sort of life or death struggle to keep our integrity and make a music that in itself has an integrity upon the listening to it without explanation. It wasn't such an idea or concept. We didn't really have discussions about it. It was simply the only way for us. We were aware of all the traps and pitfalls that could detour us. We stayed true for a long time and thankfully, we recorded and documented our songs ourselves. We never sent tapes or solicitations to record companies. We visited one once and they already at the first meeting were telling us to simmer down and play smoother! For some reason, we didn't give a shit about their opinions or anyone else's. We made our music and figured one day the world might come around. When I saw some of the resolve weakening in the group, I broke it up.
PSF: You left New York for Minneapolis in 1981, right? Why did Testors break up? Why did you leave New York instead of starting another band there? And why did you choose Minneapolis?
SV: Testors broke up because of many reasons, one is the point you brought up in the last question. It is difficult to keep something going that has no substantial support. Without some semblance of success, members will be pressed to review their lives and wonder if the path of 'no compromise' is a viable path for them. For me as the songwriter, it was easier to find my way through and besides, I sometimes have a strange romantic way of seeing things. So for me, the passion was quite fierce. After a very vibrant and alive few years, the scene in NYC was generally softening and people were getting more interested in parties and such. I was still involved with feelings of changing the world or at least shakin' it up. So standing around fucked up at a party didn't do it for me. I had a group together briefly after Testors called The Primadonnas. It was me and the bass player from Testors Kenny and Luigi (he played with Johnny Thunders and Bo Diddley) and the drummer Joey Alexander. We had some songs but the whole thing train wrecked, mainly because like I said it was more of a drug party than a band! Anyway, I was living on Bleeker and 2nd Ave at the time and the girl I was living with was from Minnesota. Since things in New York had changed I felt that maybe it was a good idea for me to go somewhere else. She talked me into going to Minneapolis!!
PSF: What was Minneapolis like in the early '80's? Did it take long to hook up with local bands and artists? Also, is that where your interest in film started or was it a long running thing?
SV: Arriving in Minnesota for me was very, umm, strange! Mostly only a few bands had heard of punk and the general population thought that Abba was a super fuckin' wild assed band!! Eventually I sort of fell in love with Minnesota but it definitely was not a match made in heaven. I arrived in tight black pants, Beatle boots and a switchblade. This was not the way people walked down the street in Minnesota, not in 1980!!! So after Testors broke up and a short time with the ill-fated Primadonnas line-up, I moved. Man, for me to move from the downtown area of New York City to Minneapolis was a real shock! Very different, these people were inviting me to go ice fishing for gods sake. AND I was wearing Beatle Boots!!! In shopping malls, kids pointed at me and said "Devo." I guess that's the only 'punk' thing they knew back then at the time, because I think Devo was one of the first to get any airplay nationally and they had a video out. The Minnesota people were incredibly friendly even though a bit strange in my eyes. Quite open and different from the snotty New York attitude. After I got used to the slow driving and slow talking natives, being there became a little bit easier on me.
When I arrived, I right away went to the cooler small clubs to see what was happening on the local scene. The first band I saw was Husker Du and I was impressed. Husker Du right away reminded me of my former band Testors, the spirit of it. I told them that and they seemed to like it. I was relived because right after I said it, I thought to myself "Hmm, that might sound condescending', but they took it the way I meant it. I was happy to see this all was happening in Minnesota. Later, I became friends with the guys in Husker Du, and eventually the bass player (Greg Norton) was touring in my band for a while. To me, it was amazing that they even knew of the bands in New York because everything was so underground then, style and news traveled slower. The media did not have this 'global' machine like we have these days. Anyway, I was pleased to see bands in Minnesota that had a similar spirit and energy that we had earlier in New York. It was great because that's exactly where my head was at. I wound up staying there in Minneapolis with my girlfriend and I eventually found guys to form a band with. We called it Sonny Vincent and The Extreme. We did tours of the U.S. and recorded some songs in recording studios (a few of these songs much later saw the light of day).
Putting a band together was fast though and we had a good run. Sonny Vincent And The Extreme with Mike Phillips, Mort Baumann and Jeff Rogers. We never made an album but we did tour a lot and like I said, we recorded some. It was a really great line-up and we had good communication. One of these days, I would like to release more of that material. In Minnesota, my interest in film and visual arts grew. I did some major installations that involved projections, tape loops, and sculptural elements. Environments using motion detectors and timers. And I did my first film there, a 16-mm celluloid project called 'Mannequin World.' Anyway, yes, Minnesota, tales of the police always bugging me, to the point that one night they very nearly killed me. Speeding around in my 1959 Caddy with no drivers license and a file on me a mile long. Big love and broken hearts. And an elevator telephone, the phone that you pick up in the elevator and a voice comes on and says "Otis elevator emergency line, can I help you?" We rigged that phone to make free national calls to book our tours!! Dear lord, I am so damn guilty!! Lord I done rigged that telephone in that elevator to somehow make free long distance calls, and Lord I do admit that we would 'emergency stop' the elevator in the basement of that building to quickly call nite clubs across America to book our tours. Forgive me O Lord!
PSF: Again, i know you've probably told this story a hundred times, but what happened at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design that resulted in your being banned?
SV: There were a few incidents that eventually led to me being banned from the grounds of MCAD. One was not such a big deal. I used to enjoy impressing Bobby Stinson with crazy actions. One was by driving my car in a wild unorthodox manner. He really would laugh like a child and it was so endearing that I would often do it just to get that reaction. Although I would do stuff like that without that inspiration as well! I guess I shouldn't try to blame it on Bobby- I enjoyed it myself as well. So, on one of the days me and Bobby were hangin out, I was driving my car on the grounds of MCAD, but I was driving in all the places where you really shouldn't drive, like on the grass. They nabbed me but had to call in the police to do the actual nabbing. Then the police had to arrest me and cuff me and all that. And when the tow company came and began to jack up my car (the 1959 Caddy) with the winch, some students from the photography department came out and started doing photo essays of the scene. Then Bobby took off his pants for them and he also got arrested. So a creative springtime drive turned into a police matter.
Also earlier that year, I had caused a disturbance there at a film showing of Independent Filmmakers. Not really anything violent but I was mocking the audience. The films were quite good though! And the final straw came when they discovered that I was taking various classes without being registered. So I got banned. I can understand their point of view. I didn't have a problem with the decision. But I did miss all the classes. I even woke up early for some of them. I'm a firm believer in education, even if you can't afford it. They didn't agree with my logic. Anyway, I did learn how to edit film on a Steenbeck flatbed editor and I also did a lot of work in the photo developing darkroom making artwork and promo pictures for my band. But anyway, my favorite media as far as visual arts is collage.
PSF: During the '80's you put together bands like Shotgun Rationale, Model Mrisoner, Sonny Vincent and his Rat Race Choir, bands that by today's standards would be considered "all-star" bands or "punk rock supergroups" (or something like that) with people like Bob Stinson, Cheetah Chrome, Captain Sensible, etc. Was it difficult working with such personalities or did everything work smoothly?
SV: Man! Sometimes, it was hell and sometimes, umm, it was hell! Nothing ran smoothly! Actually there really is a lot of heaven in there too. Cheetah was a combination of being a full on loose cannon and a well read intellectual. People don't know about that side of him, the sort of academic side of him. But he is really quite knowledgeable and well-read. That being said there were some insane events and actions going down during the times we played together. Everything from ripping a pool table into shreds at a fancy night spot, to flinging a bowl of soup at my entire record collection. In his defense, it was meant to merely hit the wall. We also had some fights on stage, a particular one in Milwaukee sort of shocked the audience. Afterwards, we made up and sat at the bar drinking and singing like two stupid sailors and a girl came up to us and accused us of staging the fight. We really laughed.
Also I had Cheetah and Bob Stinson in my band at the same time and that was very cool in terms of music but very incendiary in terms of insanity. If people reading this know anything about those two, then they must try to imagine the incredible force of mayhem the two of them created, exponentially. Here is how it all started. I called Cheetah Chrome, who was still in New York and I told him about the band I had with Stinson in Minnesota and I invited Cheetah to come out and join us. I knew it would be a short lived line-up, because both of those guys were on a kind of short fuse at the time, but I also knew it would be a real unique "once in a lifetime" event getting those two playing in the same band for a while.
So Cheetah came out to Minnesota from New York. He brought a strange white guitar. I don't remember but I think it was maybe a modified Strat. Cheetah in Minneapolis, what a crazy mixture that was. In personal matters, Cheetah was always a sweetheart but when he went out, he would get completely off the hook and cause all kinds of trouble, I stopped letting him borrow my clothes after a while because he would come home to my place after a night of debauchery with my fine 'threads' all chewed up and destroyed!
Anyway, the rotating line-up of Shotgun Rational did rotate it's way into including both Cheetah from the Dead Boys and Bob Stinson from The Replacements. You can only imagine the mayhem. I remember way before Cheetah arrived in Minneapolis, Bobby was constantly calling me and asking me shop questions. Bob, "Oh! What kind of guitar will he bring? "Oh, what gauge strings does he use? Oh, what kind of plectrums does he use?" Finally, Cheetah arrived in Minnesota at the rehearsal studio and he stood in front of Bob for the first time. I said "Bobby Stinson here is Cheetah Chrome." The first thing Bobby said to Cheetah was "Bend over!" There was a awkward pause and then Cheetah laughed out loud! Cheetah really liked that kind of humor and they got along famously. At shows, they would reach over each others guitars and play on each others guitars. What I mean is that they would reach over and would be fingering the chords on the others guitar -while kissing each other on the lips! No lie! Very funny stuff and quite a sight to behold!
Cheetah lived with me in my apartment for a while during that time in St. Paul and that was fun but at times, we were way too messed up! I don't know how to term it. Our behavior... Let's just say we were drinking, drugging, carousing and very often tearing places up. Bobby Stinson was also a good specimen for a case study in erratic, illogical, and interesting behavior. I loved him dearly but a lot of times I wondered if I had a psycho magnet in my pocket. Not that he was a clinical psycho but sometimes he seemed like the next best thing to one! There was also a lot of super endearing qualities to Bobby.
You mention Captain Sensible and again somewhat of a nutter but very soulful and smart. He saved my ass a few times from deep depression. Captain is a good one indeed. Anyway I'm glad you didn't mention too many names. Next question!
See Part II of the Sonny Vincent interview
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