©2022 By Legs McNeil
I wrote this for a presentation remembering Arturo Vega that I read at the Howl Gallery on March 31, 2016, and while I was reviewing it, I thought something was missing…
Yes, Artie’s voice! That’s what’s missing! So, I thought it would be great if I found selected passages from my interviews with Arturo and edited them into my narrative remembering him. There was something very regal about Artie, as if he was a Latin Prince who had been dropped into the Bowery by magic, and helped to establish the graphics and culture of punk, and have a blast while doing it!
This is what I wrote for the intro to the Howl Gallery Presentation:
Arturo Vega was the most optimistic, jubilant and fun pal anyone could wish for. If it wasn’t for Artie, Joey Ramone and I would’ve starved to death in those early days. He used to give us each a buck fifty so we could each buy a quart of beer and a pack of cigarettes. Joey smoked Winstons; I smoked Marlboros, at 75 cents a pack. The quart of beer was also 75 cents. Which makes a buck fifty. I used to sit in awe and watch Joey and Dee Dee write those first Ramones songs by the windows of Artie’s loft with a two-string guitar. Everyone said it was a three-string guitar, but I never saw that third string. When things were at their worst, which was quite often, Arturo would laugh and say, “Happy, happy, happy,” like some twisted mantra until everyone was in a good mood again. If you wanted to get in a good mood, you hung out at Arturo’s. I miss him every day.
Legs McNeil: I remember when Joey and Dee Dee used to write Ramones songs by the front windows of Artie’s loft. Dee Dee would be sitting on a stool, strumming the two-string acoustic guitar, while Joey stood over him, clutching pieces of scrap paper with his lyrics on them. That’s when Arturo would tell me it was time for me to leave.
Arturo Vega: Yeah, I don’t know where Dee Dee got the two-string guitar. I don’t know if he bought it, or somebody gave it to him, but yeah, I think he still has it, I’m not sure. The guitar came with all the strings– and they just broke off. I guess nobody cared. Yeah, nobody cared. Well, actually I think he liked it like that, I’m not sure, you should ask him, cause I’m not really sure if he didn’t care, or if he actually liked it that way and wanted to keep it that way. I don’t remember.
Legs McNeil: I remember the time Connie Ramone grabbed Dee Dee by the ear and dragged him out of the loft and down the stairs, because he was flirting with Eileen Polk. Dee Dee and Connie had been thrown out of the loft because their fights made such messes, and Arturo was tired of cleaning them up. Dee Dee still hung out there, though, and wherever Dee Dee went, Connie was sure to follow.
Arturo Vega: Connie and Dee Dee were a pain in the neck. Joey wasn’t a problem. Yeah, Joey was great, we got along really well. We laughed a lot together and had a very good time, that was really cool. But Dee Dee didn’t last here very long, of course, because Connie was living here too, and they were fighting a lot and I didn’t take any of that. I think we came back from a show and Connie had freaked out, and they had had a fight. I came home and they had thrown my jars of paint at each other, and there was paint all over the place, and they had burned the floor with candles, so I told Dee Dee he had to move.
I guess it’s hard to tell when two people that fight all the time that they love each other, but that’s how they do it. People that are going through a drug experience together relate to each other in a special way, I mean, cause they did love each other.
Connie used to call me, “Oh Arturo my hate!” She’d say, “I could hate you but I can’t,” because I used to tell her the truth. I used to tell her, “Connie, you’re too old. You know, if Dee Dee has any success, he’s gonna leave you.” Ha, ha, ha! I’d say, “At least if you should stop doing drugs, maybe you’ll have a chance,” cause I liked Connie. I was just trying to help her, so I said, “You’ll have a chance if you stop doing drugs and convince him, that would create a real bond and link between the two of you, and even then, he’ll probably dump you cause you are too old.” And she used to say, “Arturo my hate, I wish I could hate you, but I can’t, because you’re right…”
Legs McNeil: I remember going to the loft with John Holmstrom and Roberta Bayley so we could photograph the Ramones for Punk magazine Issue number three, the one that featured Joey on the cover. Holmstrom and I picked up Roberta at her apartment on St. Marks Place, a six-floor walk-up, and she had a cold, or was hungover, and didn’t want to get out of bed. I said, “C’mon, Roberta, were gonna make history!” Roberta just looked at me like I had two heads.
Holmstrom, Roberta, Arturo and me huddling in what we called “the Ramones Loft, Artie’s place on Second Street, talking about what kind of picture we wanted. We decided it would best if we shot the Ramones outside, and all of us, including the band, marched down the stairs and out on to the street. We found a small playground down on Second Street and the Ramones posed up against the back wall. Roberta, Arturo, Holmstrom and I called out suggestions to the band on how to pose. We were trying to get a symmetrical line, but Joey was so tall, and Tommy was so short, that I suggested Tommy stand on his tiptoes, and that Joey hunch over a bit. Roberta snapped the picture.
Arturo Vega: We were taking the photograph Ramones album cover right here in the middle of the street– at the basketball court, that was where the Ramones cover was taken.
Legs McNeil: At the end of that photo session, Dee Dee stepped in dog shit and he chased Joey, Johnny and Tommy out of the park, waving a stick with the dog shit from where he’d wiped off his sneaker. If you look at the contact sheet from that session, you can see Dee Dee grinning, holding the stick with the dog shit on it. Dee Dee was kind of scary then. He told me he was a Green Beret in Vietnam. He wasn’t kidding. I asked Arturo, “Was Dee Dee really in Vietnam?” Arturo laughed and said, “No, of course not. That’s just Dee Dee being Dee Dee.” Soon I would come to know what that meant.
Arturo Vega: Dee Dee doesn’t have a real good grasp on reality.
Legs McNeil: I remember Arturo coming back to the loft one night dressed in a full-length fur coat. “Isn’t it wonderful?” he asked, preening in front of a cracked mirror.
“I guess,” I answered, unenthusiastically, cause I was watching TV with Joey. We were waiting for the double re-runs of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
“It makes me feel so good!” Artie sang. He was really excited by that fur coat.
“How much was it?” I called out.
“Money’s not important when it makes you feel this good,” Arturo called back, still dancing in the sliver of mirror.
“It makes me feel so, so, so,” Artie jammed his hands in the pockets and stuck a pose, grinning under those bug-eyed sunglasses, now down from the top of his head. He had some weird flat-top haircut. And he was struggling to find the right word.
“It makes me feel like, like, like such a FAGGOT!”
Joey and I looked at one another. Joey snorted, grinned, then went back to the TV.
“I’m so glad,” I mumbled back, just as Ted Baxter entered the WJM newsroom.
Arturo Vega: Once, when I was still in Mexico, I must have been about 16 years old, and I used to walk home after a night in La Sonna Rossa, Mexico City, ya know? La Sonna Rose is like a district where all the chic boutiques are, and the nice hotels and the art galleries– but there is no such thing as gay bars or anything like that– just gay hang-outs and restaurants.
And I used to walk home, and all these guys wanted to pick me up in their cars, and every time I used to tell myself, “I’m gonna ask them for money, I’m gonna ask them for money tonight!”
But it was too ugly. I never did.
Later, Tomato du Plenty and I used to hang outside bars in San Francisco in the 1960s and I didn’t have any ID, I was too young, so we couldn’t go into the bars, but I saw the Cockettes. Tomato and Gorilla Rose were in the original Cockettes and I thought they were unbelievable! They were not like other drag queens; well, some of them were like your typical drag queens that want to look feminine and act feminine and do lip sync to Diana Ross. But not everybody was like that. A lot of the guys were just a total mind-boggling association– or disassociation of personality, you know?
And because of the visuals– it’s very hard to tell now, because now we have seen it ALL! Now you turn TV on and you’re gonna see the most outrageous drag queen come out, like on “All In The Family,” or “Family Matters,” or whatever. But the Cockettes were pre-Alice Cooper– so I mean if Alice Cooper made an impact, imagine what the Cockettes were like?! This is absolutely the beginning of everything, the beginning of all glitter, the beginning of all glamor, the beginning of all the precious whore costumes, a la Alice Cooper! It was the beginning of everything, and just amazing to see, and something so SPECTACULARLY original and so glamorous! And at the same time, just weird!
Legs McNeil: I hated trying to drag Arturo out of the bathroom when he was shooting cocaine. He would be doing this coke-fueled obsessive-compulsive routine where he ran the inside of the syringe under ice cold water in the bathroom sink. There was a little stopper in the syringe, and Arturo was trying to flush it out under the faucet.
Arturo was so high and obessessed, he wouldn’t acknowledge me when I kept saying, “C’mon Arturo, you’ve done enough, lets go over to CB’s and see who’s playing…. C’mon, man…”
I’m sure I was a nuisance to his high, but I didn’t care, this was scary. I didn’t really know about drugs, and I hated needles, and was afraid of what he was going to do next. I didn’t want anything to happen to him. I loved the guy.
But Arturo was oblivious, he just kept running the syringe under the cold water.
It went on for hours. Sometimes I stand in the bathroom doorway, the same bathroom where “My girlfriend’s crying in the shower stall,” came from, for three hours trying to coax Arturo out. Eventually he’d come down, and be his usual happy self, and the night would resume.
Arturo Vega: I never did heroin; only twice to see what it was like, we did it. Me and Dee Dee. Did I like it? No, I didn’t like it at all. The first time I couldn’t move, I couldn’t get up, I felt like throwing up, and I was so like drowsy and sick. I was talking like you hear the junkies talk in the street and I remember Dee Dee saying, “Oh I can tell you’re really high, I wish I was. I can tell by your voice; I wish I was talking like you’re talking, that means you’re really feeling good.” I go like, “Oooh dear. Oh, no I caaan’t, oh I can’t get up Dee Dee,” ha, ha, ha! And he was like, “Oh great,” ha, ha, he was really feeling really good. I was like, “No I wanna vomit…. Ha, ha, ha!
Legs McNeil: Arturo believed he was an illegal alien for a few years, before he found out that his murdered father was a US citizen. But he wouldn’t find that out for a few years, and in the meantime, he had to get a passport so he could join the Ramones on their first European tour. I was at the loft the night he came back with a birth certificate he bought from some Puerto Rican junkie on Avenue D.
“Now I can go!” he beamed when he got back. He paid either five hundred or a thousand bucks for the birth certificate. Artie considered it money well spent.
Arturo Vega: The first time we went to England, the record company wouldn’t pay for my ticket. We had already gone through this when we were going to LA, the record company wouldn’t pay for my ticket, so I decided that I would print some t-shirts and sell them and that way we could pay for my ticket. I used to fly Icelandic, it was the cheapest thing to fly like from here to Iceland, and then you land, I think in Luxemburg. Oh no, you could get off in London, and if I wanted to go to the continent, you could keep going to Luxembourg, but I got off in London.
I enjoy travelling, I love travelling, I like going to new places and seeing new faces, ha, ha, that whole thing. And London was incredibly exciting, are you kidding me? I think London was probably an even more exciting than New York, especially in those days.
You know, New York and London always pass the ball to each other, it’s like New York bands influence London bands, and the London bands return the influence– especially with punk– and that’s exactly what happened!
We were there and everybody was like in the alley, trying to get in. I remember Johnny Rotten asking me if he could come in, he wanted to come in through the back door and he wanted to know if he could meet the band, and he says, “If they don’t like me, will they beat me up?” Yeah, he thought the Ramones were a real gang, you know? So everybody’s there and everybody sees the Ramones, and the Ramones are making it big, and the London bands thought, “If they’re making it and we can too!” So the Ramones influenced everybody, and then the Clash and the Pistols started happening and they influenced New York, and that’s how it worked.
We did three places in London on that Fourth of July weekend in 1976. We did the Roundhouse, and Dingwalls, and I don’t remember the third place. The Roundhouse show was with “Doctor Feelgood,” I think we opened for them, and the other two shows we were headlining. And it was just fucking madness, you know, it was really madness!
The only thing that disappointed me was that people were so dirty, and the places were so stinky! Everything was so dirty, ha, ha! I didn’t expect that, ha, ha, you know? I always thought that– I mean, of course I was used to CBGBs and everything, but I thought, “Well CBGBs is on the Bowery, you know, what do you expect?” But I thought that in London, with the good cousins that they are, the shows were gonna happen in good places, in nice places, ha, ha, ha! But everything was dirtier and stinkier! And I thought like, “Oh, okay, ha, ha, ha!” But the crowds were great!
Legs McNeil: I remember Arturo coming back in the morning from being out all night, and saying, “I just came back from an orgy!”
I was fascinated, “Really? What did you do?”
“Everything!” he snapped joyously.
“No, I want specifics,” I clarified, “I mean what does an all-male orgy look like? I mean surely that aren’t that many holes…”
Artie proceeded to tell me, specifically and in depth, more than I ever wanted to know about last night’s exchanging of male body parts. It sounded like fun, if you were gay. And it sounded like a nightmare if you were straight.
Arturo Vega: I knew Nancy Spungen from CBGBs, and I met her in London once. I was just walking around the King’s Road and I bumped into her and she was her telling me how easy it was to be a drug addict in England because the government would give you all the drugs and how great it was. Then we were walking down the King’s Road, it was a Saturday and those were the days when they used to have all these fights between punks and mods on Saturdays, and I didn’t know anything about it. I was wearing a black leather jacket and we see all these mods coming our way, and Nancy goes, “Oh my God!”
I said, “What?”
And she thought that I knew, she goes, “The mods are coming.”
I said, “Good.” Ha, ha, ha, you know?
Nancy goes, “No, get in here,” and she pushes me into a doorway and she stands in front of me and they come and they wanted to beat me up. And Nancy stood in front of me and saved me. Yeah, she saved me.
I said, “What’s a matter? Why do they wanna kill me ha, ha?”
She said, “Oh you don’t understand, they’re mean,” ha, ha, and I’m thinking, “What’s going on here?” So they tried to hit me and were growling in front of me, but Nancy blocked the way and she saved me. Yeah it was very nice ha. I didn’t know anything, ha, ha, ha!
Legs McNeil: Arturo and I shared a favorite book, William Shirer’s, Berlin Dairy, about the Nazi’s rise to power. We were both fascinated by Nazi’s; they were just so fucking evil. How the ever got to where they did, was beyond us, but Berlin Dairy did a great job of explaining it step by step. The book put you right there, in the Reichstag, and Hitler’s inner sanctums, so we could watch what was happening with the Nazi’s on a week to week, month to month, basis.
It was a fascinating read. And Artie and I often used the book as a measure standard for of excellence, like when we were talking about some band, and we’d joke, “Well they’re good, but not as good as Berlin Dairy…”
We both agreed, though, that the Ramones were as good as Berlin Diary.
But few things are as good as that book.
Arturo Vega: I always had this interest in Nazi Germany because William Shirer’s, Berlin Dairy was the first serious book I ever read. Having read that book; I think the real interest is in exploring the dark side of man; the dark side of the mind, the dark side of power. That’s always been an interest, like I always rooted for the bad guy in the movies like most people do, or a lot of people do. There’s a certain fascination about the bad guy– that’s what it is. And I also thought that the Nazi’s presented an incredibly powerful image, and, of course, everybody reacts to it. It’s a way of making people react. You’re presenting them with a big question hopefully about themselves, and about their position in life towards a lot of different aspects, could be political, could be religious, could be sociological…
Legs McNeil: Fernando, Orlando, and I can’t remember the other brother’s name, but they were three Puerto Rican Street kids who used to help Artie make the t-shirts. Fernando, Orlando and the other brother were all fathered by different men. I don’t remember how many kids were in their family, but their was a lot. They were real street kids without a prayer in the world. Real Puerto Rican mutts.
Arturo Vega: Fernando was this Puerto Rican kid who looks very white, very blond, very blue eyes and very sweet, but he’s like a total Puerto Rican Street kid, you know? So I dressed him up on the day of Dee Dee’s wedding to Vera, and he looked like a Prince! He looked like a very blond preppy and I put him in a white shirt and a tie and I remember thinking like, “My god, he looks like an uptown kid.”
Legs McNeil: Artie adopted Fernando, Orlando, and the other brother and paid them a fair wage for their help silk-screening Ramones t-shirts. Usually, Artie would be pissed at Fernando for being such a little punk, and getting into trouble all the time.
Fernando would sometimes be standing out front of the loft, looking sheepish and penitent, bumming a cigarette from me, when I arrived.
“In the dog house again?” I asked, lighting his smoke.
Fernando would nod, and I’d go upstairs and ask Artie what was up.
“When Fernando learns to stop stealing,” Arturo explained, having given the subject a lot of thought. “He can come back when he returns the money…”
I just nodded, and changed the subject.
The three brothers slept at home, but hung out at Arturo’s on most days. They didn’t seem to be in school, and Fernando couldn’t read.
I couldn’t stand the idea that he couldn’t read and tried to teach him the pleasures of reading by having him read porn books outloud. Real filthy tales of underaged teens and strict stepfathers with whips and handcuffs. It never really took. I guess my selection of porn books didn’t get Fernando excited. And my brilliant “porn-book teaching method” never caught on.
Years later, I found out that Fernando was stabbed to death on the lower east side.
Arturo Vega: I really thought of Joey and Linda Ramone as a couple, you know what I mean? They were something like Dee Dee and Connie Ramone, so I always thought of them as a couple. Joey and Linda were definitely a couple. Everything was fine. They got along very well. And they would share everything, you know? And Joey was nicer. I think that Linda was surprised in the beginning that Joey could be so nice and so much fun and so tender. And he was a great person, you know? I think they were very happy. Very, very happy.
I didn’t know that Johnny Ramone had entered the picture, until it was very obvious. Until it was obvious to everybody else, before it was supposed to be an open thing. But, at first, I refused to believe it. I guess the first times I saw or perceived things, I refused to believe it, that it could happen here. I just didn’t think that Linda was Johnny’s type, at all. Judging by Roxy and Roseanne, his wife, you know, Linda was too much of a happy girl for John. John liked more intense kinds of girls, more intense personalities, you know what I mean? I thought Linda was just too happy go-lucky, so, I refused to believe it.
When his brother, Mitchell, told Joey that John was seeing Linda, I can see Joey just refusing to see it. It’s a form of denial, he’s denying it. You know, it doesn’t happen, “No Linda wouldn’t do that, no Johnny wouldn’t do that. It’s got to be you, Mitchell.”
I can see that from Joey. It’s because of this tension that always existed between them. Mitchell and Joey were either nice and helping each other, or hating each other and attacking each other.
And later on, when I realized that Linda was with John, I was a little scared about what was gonna happen. From John’s previous experiences with girls; of what I’d heard of John’s girls, I thought, “Oh my god. Here we go!” I thought John was going to be a pest. And after the initial shock, I waited for Joey to start reacting to it. And, I was thinking, “What am I going to say? How am I going to try to patch this up? What kind of damage control can I do here? Once I was convinced that it was definite, it’s like you know, “Help Joey!” You know, “Help Joey, number one,” so that this doesn’t become about the band, number two.
Joey and I never talked about it. We never did. I tried, but Joey never wanted to, I guess it was so painful to him. I thought, “It’s got to be killing him.” I knew it was. And, I tried, but he never ever spoke about it. He never really opened up and explained or expressed what he was going through. So I thought, “Well, this is either a good sign or a really bad sign…”
The end result was that John married Linda and Joey stopped talking to Johnny. Almost completely. There was never an act of outright aggression. Or, nastiness between them. I was never a witness to it, but I know there was never one.
I was very relieved when Joey found Angela. Yes, very much. There were three sisters, Angela, Camille, the little one, who was after me for a little while. We used to call them the gypsies; you could see it in their faces– they wanted the money, they wanted the fun, and these guys were rock and rollers! They were like, “This is how we’re gonna make it! We got to get hooked up with these guys!” And Joey got the nice one. Angela was definitely the nice one.
I mean, Linda was a happy girl from the suburbs. Angela maybe had a little bit deeper and darker kind of personality, and she really cared about Joey too. Not that Linda didn’t, but from the beginning of Angela, I thought, “Oh my, this one is for real.” I approved right away. The only thing that made me distrust her was to see how the other sisters were behaving. You know, to hear them, even to see the three of them talking and plotting, you knew what they were up to. But they didn’t realize that Angela was sincere about the way she felt about Joey, so I thought, “Great!” I guess, she probably gave him the best sex he ever had, which was I guess, is everything.
Legs McNeil: I invited Arturo to a party at Norman Mailer’s house because Shrapnel was playing there. It was a real star-studded event– Kurt Vonnegut, Shelly Winters, Bob Collacello and Woody Allen were among the guests.
We knew Shelly Winters was there because she kept cackling, “Nooorman, Nooorman, I can’t get down!”
Ms. Winters had made the mistake of taking up Norman on one of his challenges to attempt to traverse his vertical-obstacle course. Norman had rigged all these gang planks and rope swings that you had to use in order to get to his third-floor office, a tiny cubicle a the top of the house.
Shelly was tangled in a rope swing, on the second floor, “Noooorman, I really can’t get down…”
No one ran to her rescue.
I remember at that party Arturo was watching as Woody Allen tried to escape the clutches of some middle-aged Jewish lady who kept cornering him, and telling him how great he was, and that she was his biggest fan. The lady was being really uncool.
Finally, Woody escaped into the bathroom and stayed there for a long time.
Arturo had to take a piss, and forgetting that Woody was in the bathroom, opened the door and saw the movie star cowering in the corner.
“Boy you really are shy, aren’t you?” I heard him say, before he closed the door.
“I don’t know why Woody doesn’t just tell her to fuck off?” Arturo asked me, looking for another bathroom.
Arturo Vega: Dee Dee used to tell me jokes about Seymour Stein wanting to sleep with him, “Oh you know Seymour– he really has the hots for me, ha, ha, ha, I don’t know what I’m gonna do; what do you think I should do?”
He used to ask me. And I say, “Do whatever you feel like doing, Dee Dee? You know if you think it’s okay and you feel comfortable, just do it, you know? I don’t think it’s gonna make any difference for the band’s career. It’s not like you have to do something for the band’s benefit. I don’t think it makes any difference, just do whatever you feel like doing.” I think Seymore was turned off in the end. Who knows what goes go?
I thought Seymour was great, and Linda Stein was a lot of fun– especially in the European tours. The European story was great, because me, Joey and Linda and Dee Dee used to go out. And one night went to the premiere party for the “Rose.” Bette Midler’s “The Rose,” and when we were arriving, we were in this huge limousine, a Bentley, and we were arriving at the party and Bette Midler was also arriving. She had a huge Mercedes, six door Mercedes limousine and she got out her car, I think she was bare footed, she saw Joey and go, “Oh the Ramones! The Ramones!” And she came running to Joey cause she was really excited to see him! It was really nice that day, and it was a huge party.
Legs McNeil: Whenever I came into the city; one of my first stops was always to Artie’s loft on 6 East Second Street. I’d spent so much of my life there, important moments, where ideas began to gel and take shape. From silk-screening Ramones t-shirts to Artie telling me about how the guy who was the head of the Warp Tour took him across the country on his private luxury bus. And how much fun he had on the Warp tour. Arturo really had a charmed life, because everyone loved him.
I remember the day Arturo told me all about going to “Ice Climbing School” in Vermont, a special course for mountain climbers who wanted to tackle more difficult summits, and how he got a wicked crush on his instructor, some classically handsome guy. Arturo had me sit in front of his computer and began scrolling through the pictures of a mountain with it’s face covered in a wall of ice.
“Great,” I said, “A wall of ice…”
Artie then clicked on the photo, enlarging it about 500 times, and two tiny specks appeared on the screen.
“That’s us!” he laughed.
“Fuck,” I gasped, feeling a touch of vertigo. I hate heights.
“You wanna see my instructor?” he asked, clicking to a photo of a small pup tent in the snow, before I had time answer.
“It was just you and him?” I asked, “Did you get him?”
“Oh no,” Artie smiled, “He was too good, ya know? He was just too pure, but he really knew his stuff, I mean we were out in weather that was ten degrees below zero…”
“But Arturo, what if something happened? How the hell was anyone gonna find you out there?”
“The Ice Climbing School knew where we were,” Artie answered, then clicked on a picture of his instructor, the handsome guy who looked like he just walked off the set of True Blood.
“I’m gonna be 65,” Artie gushed, “and I’m going to climb the highest mountain in South America…”
INTRODUCTION TO MY COURSE:
ZEN AND THE ART OF THE NARRATIVE ORAL HISTORY
©2021-2022 by Legs McNeil (Based on the techniques developed by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain)
Too long has the Oral History format been thought of as the bastard child of literature; assumed to be a “cut and paste” job for hack writers looking to make an easy buck. In other words, the bottom of the prose barrel. But when the art of the narrative oral history is mastered, it can transform the written spoken word by primary subjects—people who were in the room when the event occurred—into actually experiencing the event being described, with all the human emotion, even more so than the traditional omnipotent narrator.