SONNY VINCENT: A HUM, NOT A CLICK
Sonny Vincent’s Testors are the great lost punk band of New York City ‘77—high-intensity guitar warfare at its finest that went almost totally unreleased until a trickle of issues in the 2000s and a deluxe discog on John Reis’ Swami that presented the Testors in all their gory glory. Vincent has always played music—generally alongside the kind of people who use their instrument like a machine gun—and he brings thirty years of punk rock ‘n’ roll to Blue Star tonight. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
You say you use humor to get out of tough situations—ever make a cop crack up?
Oh yeah! In Minnesota—a lot of funny stories come from there, because I went out there it was still kind of undeveloped, and a lot of crazy stuff went down—sometimes when I dealt with the police, I handled it wrong and got the bad end of it. But sometimes I handled it right. I was driving back from a gig—pretty blasted, which a bunch of mascara on, in my Cadillac—and the cop pulled me over. He got me into his car, and instead being aggravated by the situation I was going, ‘Oh, man! You got a lot of cool shit in this car, man! Is that a fax machine?’ ‘Don’t touch that!’ I’m acting like a kid at the bridge of the Enterprise, and he eventually let me go cuz he just thought I was funny.
Were you really a Marine in Vietnam?
Yeah—I don’t wanna talk much about that. All I can say is when I was a kid I got busted one more time for possession of pretty harmless drugs, and they took me down and put me in the Marines and I shipped out. That’s a big chapter and I kinda keep it separate. I’d already been in reform school many times and now I was too old, and they took me to the office and the Army guy was out to lunch and the Navy guy had met his quota because during the Vietnam War everybody wanted to be in the Navy, and there was a Marine guy standing there looking at me with the people from the court. And I swear to God I didn’t know what the Marines were! I found out real quick. When I was a kid, it wasn’t because I came from a family that was politically correct or anything—I just didn’t watch war stuff on TV because I didn’t find it entertaining. So when I got in front of the Marines, I was searching my brain like a lexicon of information—‘What the fuck is this? Marines? There’s a catch here!’ I knew Marine means like … the sea. ‘Oh, it can’t be half bad—the sea!’ And then they shipped me out to Parris Island.
If only all those cops who pulled you over knew you were a Marine.
It was better than other experiences—where they’d pull us over and say where ya going? And I’d start talking really slow just to irritate them. ‘Well. Off. I. Cer. We’re. Going. To. A. Pig. Roast. On. A. Farm. In. Wis. Con. Sin. Where. They. Take. A. Stick. And. Put. It. Through. The. Ass. Of. The. Pig. And. Out. The. Mouth. And. They. Turn. The. Pig. Over. On. Fire. And. Roast. The. Pig. And.’ ‘Alright, get out of the car!’
You’ve got plenty of stories about playing for crowds who violently hated you—did anyone at the time love the Testors?
Oh yeah—you’d get taxi drivers and Hell’s Angels. The Hell’s Angels were often at our shows. One time I was sitting next to a guy and he’s like, ‘Where’d you get that name TESTORS, man?’ ‘You know, like when you’re a kid and you sniff glue—’ ‘Whaddaya mean WHEN YOU’RE A KID? I sniffed yesterday, motherfucker!’
Is it true the Testors people tried to sue you?
They had somebody send a letter to Max’s—like ’76 or ’77? Tommy Dean showed it to me. A cease-and-desist order from the Testors glue company. We’re thinking, ‘Wow, how did they even know?’ An underground group playing in the corner of the urban jungle? The groups then were in some kind of a way on a suicide mission. People did sometimes imagine, ‘Wow, what if we made it?’ But you can’t really imagine that when you’re calling your band Testors or Dead Boys. ‘And here’s the Academy Award for Stiv Bators and the group … DEAD BOYS!’ You kind of known in advance you’re on some kind of an other mission. Later when Blondie started making hits on the radio, you could see a pattern. Blondie, Elvis Costello—good but a little more palatable. We didn’t really give a shit. It wasn’t even arrogance. What would you call it? It’s hard to describe. We felt we knew what we were doing, and we kept it tight and kept it pure and whatever would come from it would come from it. We weren’t interested in changing to fit the mold. Later on as a songwriter, I thought, ‘Wow, all these bands from the Beatles to the Beach Boys had songs about girls,’ so I tried that. But in Testors—the subjects were more life subjects. They were impressions. A lot of the bands back then were fed up and frustrated with how things were going. Sometimes it was a little more than a shallow level. There were the melodies and the subject matter, and Testors music—you couldn’t really wrap your arms around it. It wasn’t like a fuzzy feeling.
There’s plenty of fuzz!
Fuzzed-out! But it wasn’t feel-good music! It was a little more serious. We felt good about expressing that. It wasn’t like we sat around having integrity meetings.
Smash the gavel on the bar?
‘Integrity meeting … IN ORDER!’
How did you save the tapes over all these years? Some of your songs took thirty years to see release. Giant trunks of masters?
I did actually cart giant trunks all over the place, and people complained to me! They thought I should be more compact! But I brought trunks from Europe to the States back to Europe … it was all those Testors photos, the originals of those, and the tapes and the mixes and I just carted ‘em around. Finally they came out. I figured they might some day. One thing that didn’t make it—we recorded in a studio in Manhattan before we played Max’s or CBGB’s cuz we needed a tape, and we went and were playing our music and the man was quite nice. But he was going, ‘Alright, you guys! Slow that song down, and do this and do that!’ ‘Hey, Mr. Abramson, this is not what we’re about.’ ‘Well, do you want something commercial?’ He kinda made us do all this crap, and when we were done, we were nearly in tears. I took that tape and rolled it down Broadway, and just watched it flickering. I’d probably like to hear that now.
So there were Testors masters in the actual New York gutter.
Other than that, I saved a lot. There was one thing—a guy in New York shot a film of us at Max’s, and we went to his loft and saw the film. He had a real good eye and captured a lot of good moments, but I don’t remember who he was. But there is a film of us at Max’s somewhere out there.
What made you keep it all?
It can be a pain in the ass—to constantly struggle and fight for the aesthetic you’re trying to achieve when people around you are trying to force you another way. What’s kept me locked in is I’ve found what I’m doing does mean a lot to some people. I don’t know how to respond, but I think it’s really cool. People are like, ‘Sonny, I wanna talk to you!’ And right away I already feel retarded—‘Yeah, sure, man!’ ‘Can we sit down? Your music … your songs, they are saying stuff I feel inside in my soul!’ ‘Wow … thanks a lot!’ I feel awkward! Like Sylvester Stallone—‘Hey! Thanks a lot, man! Your soul! Awesome!’ How do you properly respond? But it’s kept me locked in because I know people out there are listening, and that the things I put into focus are their focus as well.
What do you think has stayed consistent through all your different bands?
I don’t know. I ask everybody to give it their full expression, and don’t screw around with it. The term is ‘to live in the song.’ To be the song. Not just to surf on it. When people play my music and wanna solo—do not surf on my song! Do not take it as a wave you can surf on! You gotta get in the middle and make the wave bigger! That’s important to me—the commitment. The passion. There are plenty people who didn’t know the way around a fretboard and were pretty stiff, but there was an overload of passion, which makes up for it. Whether it’s someone I just run into today or someone from back in those days, it’s gotta be with a lot of passion. I still find it. It’s true a lot of people now just blag their way through—but there’s enough people out there to still do it.
How did you first learn to play and sing and write?
I was just a kid—like when everyone would go to the park and there’d be one guy with an acoustic guitar. But I didn’t take it seriously. When I got more into it, I got a reel-to-reel tape recorder and I’d lay down a rhythm pattern and play over it and do it for hours and hours. I was like 20. It wasn’t like I was a 16-year-old whiz kid. I started late but was into it and dedicated and I started writing my own songs. I didn’t bother to learn anyone else’s. A lot of Testors stuff was impetuous cuz it had only two parts. Later I said, ‘Can I actually write a song with a proper structure?’ That’s like ‘Time Is Mine,’ which is more planned-out. But I still like those amphetamined-out two-part songs. They’re kinda primitive.
What would you have done if you didn’t have a band?
Perhaps I woulda wound up in jail? You hear that from a lot of people but in my case it mighta been true. There wasn’t structure behind me. ‘When you’re done with high school, then you go to university …’ ‘You’re just out in space. I remember when I played CBGB’s the first couple times, I called the people from my hometown—people that didn’t know anything about punk rock and I hadn’t talked to ‘em in ages, and they were more or less going down the criminal path, or maybe getting married. I was like, ‘Hey, man, you gotta come down here! There’s a lot of people who are like how we were when we kids, but they’re all assembled together and they go to this club.’ But they never came down. A lot of the people that were in CBGB’s—most of ‘em came from some chaotic background and the kids back home were like that, too. If you go to the typical high school, we were the outcasts. This small group of kids—everybody else was going to Little League and we were taking drugs and reading ‘Howl,’ and we thought we were really advanced! Really we were medicating ourselves, but it boosted our self-worth to know that we knew things that the other kids had no idea about. So I figured they could have more of a sense of support if they were around a bigger crowd. And that crowd woulda been more diverse. There were a lot of cool people they could have met—opened up their mind a bit, too.
You even had a song called ‘Primitive’—what’s that word really mean to you when it’s used to talk about music?
It’s more organic. Did you ever like really late at night walk down the street and on top of a pole is a power transformer, and it’s humming? It’s not like a clock or a mechanical thing—tick tick tick. It’s organic humming—same as your blood when your heart is pumping, or the ocean. It sounds a bit esoteric but I think it’s related to that. The Eddie Cochran groove, the soul groove—primitive stuff has this sound behind it. You can make bombastic stuff that is also in it’s way primitive, like really scary produced techno-y monstrous productions. But in the end it’s a bit artificial. Primitive is more honest—it resonates with people because it’s got a hum, not a click.
If you had to do it all over, would you say yes to more things or no to more things?
That reminds me of something Dee Dee said one of the first times I met him. He walked in the room like, ‘I dunno what’s going on! All day long I been saying yes to everybody but they all said no to me!’ I said wow—this is intense. This is Sartre! I think I woulda said no to more things, which would have saved me more time.
SONNY VINCENT AND THE BAD REACTIONS (CARBONAS, BEAT BEAT BEAT, THE SORROWS) WITH MUERTA BLANCA, LA DRUGZ, ROUGH KIDS AND DJ CHRIS ZIEGLER (L.A. RECORD) ON THUR., APR. 26, AT THE BLUE STAR, 2200 E. 15TH ST., DOWNTOWN. 8 PM / $10 / 18+.