MAKING IT HAPPEN! — Vital Van NYC
Many things that have made my life exciting happened completely because of timing, synchronicity and luck. While it is always good to try and plan a future and be prepared for anything, there are many situations that I couldn’t have plotted out. For instance, I was introduced to the VITAL VAN Community the same day I I interviewed Mick Ronson for Guitar World Magazine. After the awesome interview I met the VITAL crew while I was recording at the Vital Studio for a session that I had nothing to do with arranging. Within a couple of months, not only was my Mick Ronson article about to be published, but I had also served as a roadie and tech for Robert Gordon, Chris Spedding and The Merchants of Venus — Shane Fontayne’s band at the time. Chris and Robert need no introduction but if you are in the dark about who they are look no further than HERE. Shane Fontayne was in the under-appreciated band 80s band Lone Justice for a time and has also has played with a whole cast of rock superstars from Springsteen to U2 to Paul Simon. This was the beginning of a three year odyssey of meeting many different players and learning a MILLION things about the music business. Because VITAL provided moving, transportation and roadie services, I was able to put the experience I had from the previous years as driver/party set-builder to good use. But it wasn’t like I’d set out to do this, it just happened. After my experiences at VITAL were over I knew so much more about the music business and guitar playing that it’s hard to conceive how life would’ve turned out had I not had been involved and while I certainly can yap with the best of them, I did a lot of listening and the knowledge all of the great players I met became a part of me.
The East Village of NYC back in those days was like Tombstone Arizona in the 1880s; wild, wide-open and dangerous. The VITAL crew was perfectly at home in this environment and the vibe of the people involved attracted many other musicians and some of New York’s most eccentric characters. VITAL VAN started primarily as a partnership between the two guitar players in the band Letch Patrol, along with a couple of other guys in another band, Rats of Unusual Size, who had started Vital Music Records. Chicken John, founder of VITAL VAN, and guitarist/writer in Letch Patrol was and is a total man with a plan. Over the years Chicken has: been GG Allin’s guitarist, owned and traveled with the Circus Rediculous, owned and operated the Odeon Bar in San Francisco, built a truck that runs on garbage, sailed from California to Italy on a Junk Boat, was a candidate for Mayor of San Francisco in 2007, and about a billion other things. He was a mover and shaker at the very young age of 22 and at the time we met was on page 3 of the NY POST for being one of NYC’s most notorious scofflaws. He has a book coming out in this fall that I’m sure will be very entertaining and enjoyable. Mark, the other guitarist from Letch Patrol had his own van and contacts in the punk-rock underworld and was the Ying to Chicken’s Yang in the business partnership. They had been friends going back several years and had already been involved is some very wild and crazy times together. Jim and Tom from Vital Music Records were running the office, working jobs (my first official job was with Jim and we ended up playing in each others bands off and on over the next 5 years) AND were signing artists for singles on their new record label.
The company was based in a loft on 2nd avenue, four blocks south from my apartment at the time, totally in the middle of where everything was happening. A typical day at the loft was like being in the middle of an animal menagerie run by Monkey Business-era Marx Brothers with special appearances by Paola Passolini, Keith Moon and Freddie Mercury, as well as a host of other sparkling personalities. In addition to the van service and record company the loft was home to a guy named Harris, the singer for Letch Patrol. He was also a very well-known street bookseller, so every wall in the loft that wasn’t a window held a bookcase full of books. Less than a block away was the Cooper Diner, our food and hangout zone. A few years earlier it had been the Binibon Cafe, notorious in East Village lore as the place where writer, career criminal Jack Abbott stabbed a young waiter to death. We were treated royally by the Greek family who took over the place, especially The Guy who was a spitting image of Dan Ackroyd. Right up the avenue was Ron Wood’s club Woodys and CBGBs and St. Marks Place were within stumbling distance. As soon as I joined, the business really started to take off and while I have always brought a lot of energy to every situation, there was already plenty of energy and creativity at VITAL, so once again, it was all about the timing and luck. The company developed a good reputation and had many repeat customers. The first full year I was with the van service the business cleared more than $300,000 and we EARNED every dime.
This new relationship I was developing with the music business allowed me to see it from many angles. I had begun writing and interviewing musicians about 4 months prior to joining the van service so I was meeting people at the front of the business; performers, management, publishers, editors, publicists and they all tended to have at least a modicum of sophistication and polish and the settings were much more formal and polite…usually. Then there was the other side, which was loud, vulgar and dangerous at times. Away from the offices and publicists rock and roll can be pretty messy and it falls on the roadies, drivers, techs and sometimes the performers to MAKE IT HAPPEN! and GET THE JOB DONE! That was the VITAL creed, and I could more than handle that, but it sometimes made for uncouth appearances and conversations at the magazine offices or on Guitar World interviews. I went to interview Paul Stanley of KISS straight from a driving job and Paul was not impressed! I was dressed for roadie work, totally wound up from rushing from the job to the interview, awed to be meeting Paul Stanley and babbling like an idiot. I don’t know that Paul is overly impressed with anyone and when you are facing a guy who is sitting in an office with his feet up on a desk the size of a pickup truck that holds nothing but 2 speakers, and the rest of the room is bare except for a straight back chair and 3 walls full of Gold and Platinum records, you kind of just have to wing it and hope for the best. I did my best, but the conversation was a bit strained although maybe he was preoccupied with something else like “IS IT TIME TO BRING BACK THE MAKEUP?” It’s Paul Stanley after all, he had bigger things to worry about than our 35 minute interview. On the other hand, I interviewed Gene Simmons on the phone because he was in LA at the time and we talked for like 2 hours. Gene loves to talk and is a really sharp interviewee. I had been to see the Rolling Stones in concert at Shea Stadium the night before and he was impressed with that because he has always been a big fan. Gene’s got a pretty mean reputation in the business, especially these days, but he was a really nice guy when we spoke and was interested in my opinion on subjects we were discussing. That always blew my mind…that people like Gene wondered what I thought. He obviously didn’t have to stroke me and neither did any of the other people I interviewed. We had a really good rapport, especially since neither of us was fond of Hair Metal.
Doing the VITAL roadie gigs was a lot of fun and totally educational. Most of the bands were drag and drop — drive them to the gig and pick them up when they were finished. Sometimes on the weekends we would do as many as 8-10 different bands a night. Higher-profile bands like Robert Gordon, The Merchants of Venus, former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and others, we would help set up the equipment and then stick around to ensure the gig ran smoothly. This included changing strings, helping with sound, fetching drinks (shades of the Kool-Aid lady), dealing with any problems onstage as they arose and keeping people who were not known to the band away from the dressing room. This is when I learned things like the best way to string and stretch out the strings of a guitar before a gig, how to set up and take down a drum kit even though I wasn’t a drummer, how to set up other guitar rigs to the player’s specifications, how to stack and wheel large amounts of equipment effectively in and out of the club and that ROBERT GORDON ALWAYS USES A STRAIGHT STAND FOR THE MICROPHONE. The first time I set up the Robert Gordon band alone I did everything perfect and Chris Spedding and Kenny Aaronson gave me the thumbs up and they started playing and Robert came walking out and was making his way to the mic and then took three steps straight back and stood there looking at me and looking at the mic stand. DOH!! It was a funny moment and he was laughing too. I ran onstage bringing a straight stand to replace the boom stand that was there and the show began. During this time I learned all of this info and technique that I then applied to my own guitar rig and playing. Shane Fontayne used an Echoplex and I had just bought one so it was really fun to watch him work it and check his settings. He and Chris Spedding were real masters when it came to using echo/delay to create either a really lush sound or the classic slap-back that works so well for punk, rockabilly or rock and roll. Here’s Shane with Sting and punk legend drummer Josh Freese
Jean-Paul Bourelly was another guitar player we worked for on occasion and he was always fun to drive around — great guy, great sense of humor. One day while driving all over the Bronx picking up the other guys in his band he laid a rap on me about the Stratocaster and Jimi Hendrix that really made an impression since I loved Hendrix and the Strat was my guitar of choice at the time. I followed his advice to use 4 springs for the whammy bar and to set put the action “up a little bit” and that has been my set-up ever since. He totally blew me away when I saw him play, especially a very memorable gig at CBGBs. I still remember — it was the kind of gig where afterwards I just wanted to go home and play!
I missed being in on any Mick Taylor gigs. I’ve always thought his period with The Stones was really awesome and that he is one of the most underrated players ever. His guitar was at the loft when I first started and I was able to play it. At the time I thought that it might’ve been the one of the Les Pauls from the Get Yer Ya Yas Out period, but according to this thread that guitar was lost or stolen in the early 70s. Mick Taylor did like his Les Pauls with Bigsbys though ’cause the one I played had one as well! Chicken had some great stories of doing these gigs, like the band getting paid in nickels for a performance one night! Mick and Ron Wood have been stepping out together lately…Could a Lynyrd Skynyrd style 3-guitar line-up of the Stones be on the horizon? (Wouldn’t that be awesome?)
Another really cool cat was blues and rock player Jon Paris, who was Johnny Winter‘s bass player for a long time. Jon was a totally cool guy and not only played great guitar, but also sang well, played awesome bass and was a killer harp player. He is still at it too — I’m only writing in the past tense because I saw all of it in action many times. He had a Black Telecaster with a string bending/damping system that I haven’t seen before or since. It was a combination whammy bar meets Clarence White pedal steel B-bender. The first time I took him to a gig he took that guitar out of the case and I said, “hey I have a black ’72 Custom — WHOA what the heck is that thing?” I was pointing to the little metal arms and he just started fooling around and it sounded fantastic. I said “COOL” and then went and found a parking space for the van and came back and watched him play until I had start picking up other bands to take them home. Jon did Springsteen-esque sets, especially at a former blues bar on 2nd avenue, Dan Lynch. We usually didn’t go back and pick him up until 4:30-5:00 in the AM and it wasn’t uncommon to see Jon playing the guitar behind his neck and duck-walking Chuck Berry-style to a bunch of people who, by this point in the evening, could barely stand. He had superhuman stamina when it came to rocking an audience.
Not only did VITAL VAN move a whole lot of rock and roll guitar players, but we also had regular work with local businesses including Forbidden Planet NYC, and Village Comics. We also transported materials for art installations including several trips with a coffin that weighed almost 600 lbs. In addition there was a ongoing affair with local keys superstar Joel Diamond and his very heavy Fender Rhodes piano. We also got frequent calls from drummers, JT Lewis and Ronald Shannon Jackson…who described me as “the guy who looks like Jeff Beck”. Another regular client was The Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians. Their contact person, a woman named Ginny Wilson, was the greatest and they gave us a lot of work as they performed all over the country. We would sometimes have to pick up their drums and equipment from Kennedy airport at whatever hour. They were based in a studio on lower Broadway that was right out of the Three Stooges Ache In Every Stake short. (The Stooges are Ice Men trying to take a block of ice up a very long staircase) The staircase to the Laura Dean dance studio was that high…we’d get nosebleeds.
Guitar World was giving me a lot of interviews with the NOIZE genres: like punk, hardcore, metal and early alternative guys like Paris Mitchel-Mayhew from Cro-Mags, Piggy from Voivod, Jimi Hazel from 24-7 Spyz, Dr. Know from Bad Brains, Pete Koller from Sick of It All and others like Forbidden, Armored Saint and Shotgun Messiah. All of these bands were really intense and the shows they played were totally pummeling, in-your-face excitement. But talking with them was a blast ’cause they were all really mellow, especially Dr. Know, and Jimi Hazel from 24-7 Spyz. Paris from the Cro-Mags gave me one of the most quotable lines ever with regards to potential managers: “Don’t trust anyone who looks like Doug Henning or Geezer Butler…”. It was really enlightening that while many of these dudes played completely heavy uncompromising stuff, their range of influences was really broad. As Dr. Know said of his band’s mix of many musical styles, “man needs other things in his musical and nutritional style to keep him healthy.” I could certainly relate to that given all the different players I was meeting at the time. Page Hamilton from Helmet worked with VITAL for a short time just as his band was blowing up. Of course Helmet went on to own heavy music for a couple of years in the early/mid-90s and since I got the chance to see the band early on, hand out and talk with Page, it wasn’t any surprise to me that they did. He was a guy who knew exactly what he wanted and his band had a sound and live show that totally ruled.
Chicken roadied for Helmet on some of their first tours, but I had already departed VITAL VAN by then as had most of the others who had worked for the company. Like the other crew jobs I have written about, it was very easy to burn out on this kind of work and it was also hard for me to get something of my own going. That came later when I had a more stable kind of gig. Hustling and being in bands works for some people but I wasn’t able to concentrate on what I wanted to do while simultaneously having to worry about other bands and musicians needs. The weird and long hours thing had gotten pretty old too as I had been working that kind of schedule for almost 5 years. But what I learned during these days has stayed with me forever and still comes in handy from time to time. The advice, anecdotes, discussions and experiences became a part of the way I do things and for that I am eternally grateful.