Archive for Vital Van

Happy 2017

Posted in Education, Equipment, Music Business, Players, This and That with tags , , , , , on January 18, 2017 by theguitarcave


I hope everyone had a great holiday season and is looking forward to the New Year! It will definitely be one full of many challenges. I think we can agree on that, yes? No matter what comes along, music will help with anything the universe has in store. We’ve all seen how powerful the effects of music are on people in all kinds of situations and certainly I make it a point to never forget how healing the ability to play, listen and appreciate music is. Definitely one of the major joys of our existence on this planet. Never forget or take for granted!

Also, in the spirit of new beginnings, I am rolling out another type of Dispatch, one that will allow me to cover an assortment of small items within one post. It’s the same kind of formula as the GuitarSongs series, which I was really enjoying and will pick up again in a few weeks. ShortRiffs will cover everything going on in my life, music-related and not. The Gimme Shelter and Vital Van posts, which are full of music, but also full of other stuff, are two of the most popular posts I’ve done and I want to do more of that kind of writing. The name is a word play on the (guitar) riffs we all play combined with the old slang of “riffing”: a short piece of speech or writing that develops a particular theme or idea. Ideally, that is what I will attempt to do and maybe even have a thread that will snake through a few or several of these posts; like an old-time serial.

As always: I totally appreciate everyone who reads, comments, and sends notes. This blog is almost 6 years old with 116 posts and 50,000 visitors. I never thought it would be the thing it is today and I have only my awesome readers to thank for that! Take care and keep playing!

Letch Patrol Conquers the World

Posted in Music Business, Players, This and That with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2011 by theguitarcave

The late 80s and early 90s were a great time to be in NYC and were also a very transitional time in rock and mainstream music. By 1992, The Year That Punk Broke, many sub-cultures that had been bubbling under the radar of MTV and Main Street USA for years were projected out like hot spew from a volcano. Prior to this big eruption I was writing for a couple of magazines, meeting and interviewing many interesting axe-slingers and getting all kinds of free promo stuff. I had early promos of TAD, Mudhoney, Voivod, Sick of It All and many others that were really pretty electrifying. Hooking up with the VITAL VAN / LETCH PATROL crew took the whole thing to the next level because these guys were completely plugged into everything that was PUNK ROCK. We all lived in the The East Village of NYC and the neighborhood was a very different place then: dark, dirty, violent, dangerous and completely removed from the concerns and tastes of Main Street USA. This was reflected in the art, dance, theater and MUSIC that was created by artists living here because the environment allowed artists and entrepreneurs all of types to create their own realities. The punk rock scene began in NYC because of the dire economic realities of the 1970s/80s and because people wanted a reality of their own; an alternative to all of the mainstream music, fashion, art and lifestyles they found unappealing. They did what they wanted to do and created a monster that still influences and affects the musical and social landscape almost forty years later. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of everything that happened during this time and everyone I’ve spoken to has said the same thing. We knew at the time how lucky we were and how cool it was to be where we were, when we were. All of these experiences have stayed with us and continue to color our worldview today.

“As I said in THIS post, I met the Letch Patrol/Vital crew in the late ’80s, immediately after interviewing Mick Ronson for Guitar World magazine. We had all been in the same orbit for at least a year or so and were all in the immediate vicinity of the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988. In the space of a few weeks of meeting the Vital crew and recording at their studio I had joined Vital Van. I was playing guitar in an East Village punk band, The Role Models with two lovely ladies named Christine and Suzanne and a drummer named Nigel, who today is a really boss designer/photographer. Letch PatrolShortly thereafter I would be rehearsing with Letch Patrol, playing as a guest at Rats of Unusual Size shows and jamming and recording with anyone who was up for it. Letch Patrol had already played some big shows and had a very notorious reputation by the time I came on the scene. (This story is a bit incomplete because I missed those early days) They were like most people in the East Village back then because they were PUNK ROCK/HARDCORE 24/7 and I mean they ate it, slept it, slept with it, woke up in the morning and took nourishment from it like it was the sun. I have never been like that about ANYTHING. People who knew me before I moved to NYC always said I should’ve been born a blonde because of my youthful inability to focus on anything for longer than thirty seconds. (Or maybe because they thought I was ditzy, I dunno. Stereotypes are so unfair, doncha think?) This explains why I was never a full-time punk rocker from a social or musical perspective. In the East Village though, there was PUNK ROCK and there was everything else and PUNK ROCK was a complete and total lifestyle, a saturation bombing and a DUDE…I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand DUDE…across this line YOU DO NOT…”  Because it was THE SCENE and it made for a great soundtrack to the ferocious jungle playground everyone lived in. Wayne Newton or Huey Lewis and the News just didn’t cut it and even a lot of heavy rock sounded too happy, optimistic and predictable. However, from a musical standpoint, Letch Patrol and other 2nd generation punks incorporated hard rock, metal and hardcore riffs/chord progressions into their music and this helped create a huge, frenetic sound that gave the music ATTITUDE the size of elephant butt. If you want to get all intellectual about it you could say it was a giant DECONSTRUCTION of popular music; stripping away all of the non-essentials and focusing on the one or two ingredients that mattered most. Since one of those essentials is what I call THE ROCK: the attitude to go onstage and physically move people, I could relate to what these guys were doing and I loved playing the songs. Playing loud and full-on to an appreciative audience is the best rush in the world, BAR NONE. The first drummer for Rats of Unusual Size, Andy, was a lunatic who would usually kick all of his drums over at the end of the performance. It was great to be onstage with them, playing the big rave-up ending to the last song and out of the corner of my eye see the snare drum go flying by into the audience. Playing with Letch Patrol was also a lot of fun even though we all busted on each other constantly. When I first met them I told them they all sucked and they said the same about me and the music I liked. However, once we were playing together we just blasted the songs full-tilt and sounded friggin’ awesome. They were all really smart and funny guys under the snotty attitude and we got along because I had a snotty attitude at the time as well. We had to because if you didn’t have some armor NYC would chew you up and spit you out pretty quick.

Marc Rentzer (guitarist for Letch Patrol): I knew Chicken John when we were teenagers in Florida. We both worked at Burger King and were big fans of punk rock. I decided to run away and move to NYC and John came with me. Back then John lived to be annoying and he pissed a lot of people off, but there were a lot of freaks who took to us right away. At the time I was going to a lot of hardcore shows and many of the people I knew were from that scene. The East Village at the time was dark and dangerous and as you went further east it just got worse — there were junkie needles in the sandbox in Tompkins Square Park! I didn’t like the Letch Patrol vibe but I thought the songs were cool and George Tabb insisted I join the band so…I did it like a follower because I was told how much fun it would be. And it was FUN right away! At the time, George was also in The False Prophets and they were really legendary and had a million fans so Letch Patrol had loads of people at our shows right from the beginning. We acted like we were really big rock stars and people started treating us as such. But I did lose a lot of hardcore friends because here I am playing in a dress in this weird band with punk rockers and a homeless guy as the lead singer! It was worth it though because Letch Patrol got some really great recognition from people I still hold in high regard. Hilly Crystal (CBGB’s owner) loved us and took money out of his WALLET to pay us and said he hadn’t seen anything like us since the 70s. We were like The Dead Boys. We had a great live show that was full of fun, danger and unpredictability. We played with a whole lot of aggression because all of us had rage from our youth that motivated us to play as hard as we possibly could. We wanted to take over the world and just acted like we were going to and people responded to that.

Letch Patrol- Marc Rentzer, Harris Pankin, Chicken John, George Tabb

Even though there was a lot of rock and aggression in Letch Patrol there was also Chicken John’s desire to be a reinvention of PT Barnum. “For me, the story is the whole thing,” he would say. Even at a young age his media and people manipulation skills were finely honed (this was true of many New York rockers) and it led to a type of theater I will decline to try to name or categorize. While I and many others were content to rock, it was always very important to Chicken to throw a monkey wrench in the gears of the system. I think we all related to that because we would sit around and watch Marx Brothers movies together. But he always pushed the envelope as far as he could. For instance, one of the funniest things the band ever did was release a cassette called “…And Then There Was Nothing” which was basically a blank tape. It had a nice cover and all but the cassette was just tape leader (there was NOTHING on the tape — get it?) Cheapest recording ever made, but it’s not like you could write or tab it out. I guess you could but there would be a whole lot of RESTS. I still get a laugh out of that…maybe I’m easily amused. There was a whole lot of this kind of overlap between art, music and performance in the East Village at the time and while most of the time Letch Patrol focused on THE ROCK, there were all of these moments and ideas that involved irreverent humor and waving a middle finger aimed squarely at the conventional expectations of the audience. It didn’t always work, but when it did it was brilliant and represented all that is great about the prankster tradition.

Marc Rentzer: Everyone in the band had ideas of how it should be and sometimes we had power blocs that were always shifting. I didn’t hate the fighting because we always fought, especially in rehearsals. We would say horrendous things to each other and we had to stop inviting people we knew to our space. Physical violence sometimes happened. I thought some of what we did outside the playing was okay, but sometimes it killed the momentum of the show. Chicken always wanted to give out a door prize or something and a lot of that stuff was funny, but we’d lose the energy level…probably because we didn’t rehearse enough. We had to keep prospective drummers and bass players away from (lead singer) Harris until the last minute. But there were quite a few shows that were great. I remember playing with Cheetah Chrome very early on and it was a great show. Just completely chaotic and out of control. It was also true that we were learning things from all of those guys we used to work for and hang out with. I’m glad you wrote about that on the first Vital Van piece, because those experiences have really stuck in my head over the years. Shane Fontayne! What a classy guy! Total class. He would bow to the audience…and mean it. Chris Spedding! What can I say? A bona-fide legend. And Johnny Ramone always took off his guitar and pumped it in the air at the end of the set. I thought that was great!! Those bands were introduced at CBGBs, it wasn’t like they came out and said, “Hi we’re blah, blah, blah.” The intention was that this is a show and it’s special and both the audience and performers are worthy of this kind of formality because it’s THAT important. Letch Patrol always tried to have the same attitude even if some people thought we were trying to be bigger than we were.

Normal people usually had trouble with a lot of the vibes and personalities in the East Village back then, but very few people in the neighborhood or the bands cared about normal. Harris, Letch Patrol’s lead singer, had a reputation being difficult, but he was also one of NYC’s best-known and most popular street sellers during those years. He would stand outside in 35 degree weather for hours selling books and he knew his stuff and got good merchandise. I bought quite a few, even Chris Spedding bought books from him. One of my favorite memories is Chris and Harris haggling over the price of Gore Vidal’s Burr. Hilarious! In that way the neighborhood was like an asylum — everybody was a little bit crazy and you’d just learn to roll with it and accept other people’s lunacy as they accepted yours. Letch Patrol certainly weren’t the only band crafting musical mayhem and soon after I began hanging out at their loft the guys found out I wrote for music magazines and persuaded, cajoled, threatened, pleaded that I do a story on them. Jim Fourniadis from the Rats set up a group interview with the guitarists from Letch Patrol, Purple Geezus, The Reverb Motherfuckers and Rats of Unusual Size. It was a whole lot o’ fun and in addition to talking to Marc, Jim, and Chicken John, who I already knew, I also met John Terhorst, Roy Edroso and the late Jerry “Dublee” Williams. While I never got to know Roy very well, John Terhorst and Jerry were guys I would see frequently over the following years and even if it was on the street, there would always be a whole lot of music and guitar to talk about. Sadly, Jerry, an extremely awesome pioneer of a guy, who played a real important role in a lot of NYC music over the years, passed away last year. Here is a pic from the interview session.

(Back) Chicken John Rinaldi, Jim Fournaidis, Jerry Williams (Front) John Terhorst, Roy Edroso, Marc Rentzer

The article never ran in Guitar World but I don’t think it had anything to do with the guys I was interviewing or the way I wrote it. I had already received compliments from my editors on my ability to pull money quotes out of people and write a really tight article. But I was completely inexperienced on how an article should be pitched and it wasn’t until the following year that I was able to get anything published that I initiated (an article on Chris Spedding). Music magazines aren’t always the most forward-thinking entities around, but Guitar World sent me on quite a few interviews with underground/indie people so I think that the blame (if there is any) lies with me. It’s also true that when I did this interview I hadn’t been writing for the magazine for very long so maybe they thought I hadn’t earned it yet. My pitch went something like this (I’m in the blue type):

“So I wrote this article on these guys I know from the Downtown Punk scene. Totally irreverent, rocking out man! This stuff is taking off…ya know Seattle?”

“Can you believe that new Soundgarden album?”

“Uh-huh. I have pictures too and these guys look like a the kids, ya know…t-shirts and they just wanna turn it up and rock out. And there’s a lot of humor.”

“Humor? Guy-Man-Dude humor? or Teisco Del Rey humor?”

“Um..neither but I think the kids would enjoy reading about bands called Letch Patrol or The Reverb Motherfuckers. Gives a whole new perspective on bands named White Lion and Winger don’t you think?”

“I used to live down on Avenue B across from the Reverbs rehearsal space. Heard them practicing a lot.” (smile)

“Is that a good thing?”

“I really gotta take this call.”

I don’t have a transcript of the interview, but I remember most of what was said foreshadowed the music that would blow up in the United States a few years later and, in the process, make the overly-technical approach to rock/pop music that had occurred in the wake of Edward Van Halen’s appearance 10+ years earlier, obsolete. None of these East Village punk rockers had expensive rack mount units, a degree from a music college or a 10-hour a day practice routine, but then again, neither did Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden and all of those other bands who would be a big deal a year or two later. This is something everyone should consider now that Nirvana’s Nevermind is 20 years old: that album was the result of an underground scene that had been building for years and Nirvana was representative of literally thousands of bands who had the exact same outlook and battle plan for success. Nirvana happened to have been the band that made it but without that scene and many other bands, Kurt Cobain would’ve never been a household name. The 2nd band I had interviewed for Guitar World, Love and Rockets, were very vocal about what they considered to be outdated models of what a guitar hero is or should be and I would hear that repeated often on interviews. Technicality was on it’s way out and feel, riffs, songs and attitude were what people wanted to play… and hear. Letch Patrol and all of these EV guys were completely aligned with what would be front-page news in guitar magazines in the near future so even though the article didn’t run, it did, because it represented an approach to music that would from this time forward be thought of as LEGITIMATE.

Marc Rentzer:I was taking audio engineering classes but wasn’t doing too well with it…to the point that Jim Fourniadis and Dan from Vital were helping me with all my homework. Letch Patrol already had a vehicle we called the Letchmobile but John had started doing van jobs, casually at first, but then he realized there was a gold mine in this business so I decided making money was better than doing homework. He and I went out to New Jersey and bought a van, got business cards and pledged, just like with Letch Patrol, we would be the best. We undercharged other van drivers and we NEVER SAID NO no matter what time of day or what kind of job it was. Because we knew a lot of people, the business blew up right away. Louise from CBGBs gave me her Rolodex, can you believe that? We had phone numbers of bands and musicians who had just changed their number that day and I was already calling them and they’re asking me, “how the hell did you get this number?”. Both Hilly and Louise supported us and wanted us to succeed and that just shows you what kind of great people they were and what a fantastic community it was. I get emotional talking about it sometimes. We hadn’t been at it that long when Vinny, from Vinny’s Vans, a well-known guy in the cartage business walked up to me and said “You Guys Win”. We took all of his clients and we ended up getting thrown out of the original VITAL space because we were so successful and would come back from jobs throwing cash all over the place. I had to get a bank account because we were making so much money. Then we moved to the loft and then you came along and things really took off then. I can’t believe how busy it got. Working for all of those musicians you wrote about in the first installment was as great an experience as anyone could have. I knew as it was happening how lucky we all were.  Jon Paris — I went on tour with him and George Thorogood and everywhere we went people treated Jon like GOD because he had played with Johnny Winter AND because he is just such a super nice guy. They dressed me up as the Angel of Death for the Halloween show of that tour. I was backstage at a Robert Gordon show and there was this psycho there that everyone had to watch out for because he would wig and beat people up. So he fixed on me and started walking across the room toward me and Robert saw this happening and just cut the guy off. I felt like he saved my life and you know, if Robert Gordon said something, people listened. He just had that kind of vibe. We were the first van service that would go up to the middle of Harlem to pick up Jean-Paul Bourelly and his band and he ALWAYS hooked us up by giving us extra money. We had to charge more because it took a long time to go all the way up there to get them. It didn’t have anything to do with being in Harlem, it was all about the time factor. We had lots of bands that needed picked up so we had to be able to get to people, get them to their gig and go get someone else right away. Once Jean-Paul understood our situation we were best buds and what a player too! I remember when we all went and saw him play at CBGBs and I said afterwards it was like watching Hendrix. Of course I learned so much from Chris Spedding because he was around all of the time and I still use stuff he showed me back then in my playing today! We worked hard, but by being there and doing what we did, I had some of the best guitar teachers and influences right in front of me on a constant basis. When you think about it, how many people have that kind of opportunity?

Chicken John (guitarist/bass Letch Patrol):..My favorite moving job was the very first one. Someone gave me $150 to move their stuff. It was the most freeing feeling I ever had in my life. I remember every moment of that job. I was young. Strong. I shaved. Cleaned the van and then moved a lady’s apartment. Ate at DoJo afterward. Amazing.

Vital Van was completely intertwined with Letch Patrol and Vital Music Records. It’s hard to mention one without talking about the other. One example of this is that the van service did a lot of deliveries for the New York Art Studio Kostabi World and Paul “Ena” Kostabi, a great guitarist who’s been involved with some pretty major art and music stuff over the years and his band Youth Gone Mad were also very involved with Vital Music Records and the whole music scene that Letch Patrol and The Rats shared. This overlap led to lots of shared business, gigs, records and associations that constantly re-fertilized the creativity and business fields. As van drivers we did stuff that was completely crazy — going to places in NYC that were barely on the map because someone called us after finding our number on a flyer stuck to a light pole. One of my first solo jobs was moving a junkie lady of the night who lived on the edge of the Red Hook projects at 10 pm on a really cold November evening. As Marc says we never said “NO” and for 2-3 years we were the premier van service in NYC, which I’ve always thought was quite an achievement. There were many people involved who made it happen and that in itself made it a fun place to be. I’ve written stories from those days and I think it would make for a funny, cool and interesting book, not only because of the subject matter, but also because of all of the personalities involved. They define what NYC character is all about. While I don’t remember Vinny from Vinny’s Van Co., I do remember a guy named Eric Konheim. Eric was a total nut and the one guy who gave Vital a run for the money on the ability to go the extra mile all the time. His voice-mail said it all — “I AM NOT A MAN, I AM A MACHINE.” His van was an awesome tricked-out ride that looked like it had come right out of The Road Warrior: wire mesh on all the windows, huge bubble locks on the doors and a big wire cage separating the front of the van from the back. He lent it to us to do jobs occasionally and we loved taking it out. Like us, he would go to any neighborhood, at any time, to move whoever had the money to pay for it. Back then hardly anyone had credit cards, there was no Zip Car service, and people didn’t try to move their sofas on the subway (like now). There were way fewer cabs, many dangerous neighborhoods and the murder rate was a couple thousand per year. Eric usually worked for 10 months at a clip and then took really exotic vacations and during one of these trips he was killed in the spring of 1991. He was definitely a dude who had what Iggy Pop called, A LUST FOR LIFE and his death and the funeral we all attended affected us, maybe more than we knew at the time. That whole scene was about a lust for life and Eric’s death, in retrospect, maybe was the beginning of the end of an era.

I played bass in Letch Patrol full-time for 6 months and then came back later for their recording of the Bay City Rollers song, Saturday Night, which was produced by none other than Chris Spedding. As a session player, Chris had actually worked with The Bay City Rollers back in the day, so he was a natural choice. This all occurred around the time this picture was taken with the very lovely and legendary Tish and Snooky, Chris Spedding and Chicken John posing in a stairwell. Letch Patrol had gone through many personnel changes. George Tabb had left almost two years before and had put together Iron Prostate and they were already on their way to being well-known and semi-successful. Marc would leave Letch Patrol and Vital and would join up with Iron Prostate a year or two later. A really awesome bass player named Gavin had played with the band and worked for the company, but had then moved on and that’s when I started playing bass in the band. Before Marc left we rehearsed and played two shows together with me on bass, he and Chicken on guitars, Harris singing and the late Chuck Clearwater on drums. That period was very frustrating because even when Letch Patrol was trying, it sometimes felt like the universe had turned against us. I can remember waiting around a whole Saturday (watching some very bad bands) to play at some squat fest only to get onstage and have the NYPD shut the whole thing down just as we started our first song (we were supposed to close the show). Another show we were supposed to do got cancelled because of drummer issues. But it was fun playing the songs — I especially liked I Am the King, Drinkin’ Metal Intro and Bloodbath — and (later) recording with a legend like Chris Spedding. Since he knew all of us, he was a very low-key producer and his very funny and very British sense of humor made everyone feel at home and relaxed. I remember us discussing whether it was better to have the music real loud in the phones (which I liked) or a more balanced, low-volume thing (his preference). He said something about missing the nuance if it’s too loud and I said “nuance…in Letch Patrol? Really?” and Chicken said “nuance schmuance!” and we all started laughing and that was the end of that. Around the time of the recording, or a short time before, Pete Marshall started working with Vital and was also playing in Letch Patrol. He and I did some jobs together and had a good time and a few pretty memorable work days and we also alternated off and on being in the band for the next year, although Pete did most of the playing. I believe Marc came back and did a show or two, but he had begun pursuing other things as well.

Pete Marshall (guitarist/bass player for Letch Patrol): I was just always amazed that Spedding would actually voluntarily hang around with us! For awhile I had his yellow Flying V and ’68 Deluxe Reverb amp for some reason. At that point, the guitar was unplayable due to the Steinberger trans-trem, and no parts could be found. It was still cool as hell to look at and hold in my hands though. I used his Deluxe Reverb at the very last Ditch Witch show at the Pool Bar, then I think John took the guitar and amp back since I couldn’t find parts for the Trans-trem. (Leslie West used those pretty well in the mid-nineties. Maybe that’s why Chris had that guitar) I remember recording at Baby Monster studios on Broadway and they had a small box 50 watt or Marshall JTM 45 head on an old Basketweave 810 cabinet, and I was trying to talk John into at least trying that combo for some of the guitar tracks, but he didn’t want to for some reason. I brought a Musicman Stingray bass with me, and John hated it and wanted me to play the Gibson Grabber, which just sounded like mud direct to me. I think that’s why your bass track was used for Saturday Night. Through all of this Spedding sat there playing my black Epiphone Spirit, which was kind of a Les Paul special w/ humbuckers. I had my ’59 Junior there also, so I have no idea why he was playing that guitar. But he told me he really liked it, and it was a really big thrill to see him effortlessly playing Brown Sugar by the Stones on it. That guitar had an x2n Dimarzio pick-up in it; I figured he would have hated that. So I did my tracks and left and later I was handed a cassette of the finished tunes. I can account for doing 2 Letch Patrol shows, one at CBGBs and one at the Cat Club, but I’m sure there were more. Oh yea! New Years at Downtown Beirut! Sometimes I was in the band, sometimes I wasn’t. Sometimes I was a guitar player, sometimes I was the bass player. I did the short West Coast tour with them too and after that I think it was over.

The “Saturday” single was cool and there was another one after that called “The Ballad of Fred” that I didn’t play on. Letch Patrol had become like Vital Van in that there was a steady rotation of people. I saw my last Letch Patrol gig at the Cat Club in NYC late in ’91 and it was a lot of fun. The band was on and they were having a good time. There was a West Coast tour later that year, but soon after, the band disintegrated. Chicken went on tour as the guitarist for GG Allin, but then came back and worked for Helmet on a tour or two because Page Hamilton had also been working with Vital Van just as his band was getting big and knew Chicken would deliver in the roadie/stage manager capacity. A few months later I left Vital Van. Trying to be in bands that were taking over the world and simultaneously running a business that NEVER SAID NO! was hard on everyone and I think it was natural that we would burn out and have to move on. I was a few years older than the others and had been driving (professionally!) for almost 4 years before I started working at Vital, so I really needed a change of scene. In addition to carting bands, Vital went out of town as roadies, moved apartments and houses full of furniture, had corporate accounts and did last minute delivery-type stuff. Some weeks it felt like all we did was work. I found it hard to really focus on what I wanted to do musically and while it was great to be working for so many awesome musicians, my songwriting, guitar and bass skills really developed once I had moved on. It was also becoming obvious that the music scene and downtown NYC was changing. While punk rock was still very much in vogue, the old-school performance art/theater aspect of the 80s East Village was not as appreciated. The successful units of the 90s were no BS PUNK ROCK (like Iron Prostate) because that is what the kids wanted.

Marc Rentzer: In 2006 I was playing with George Tabb again in Furious George and we were one of the last bands to play at CBGBs before it closed. Of course we played with Cheetah Chrome from The Dead Boys and it was really a fun, but also sad night, because it was closing the book on a huge part of many people’s lives. I don’t know what can be said about it that hasn’t already been said. I know it was very important to me and I’m proud of everything we did and feel lucky to not only have been around so many great players and artists, but also to have met and spent time with so many quality people. That whole period with Letch Patrol and Vital Van completely changed my life and since then, nothing has been the same. Did we become rich and famous? No. Did we even achieve the modest success that many others enjoyed, especially in the 90s? No. But that era captures the imagination of many people. My son was reading a book the other day and Letch Patrol and Furious George are mentioned in it. He’s 12 years old and it’s basically a kid’s book, but we’re in there. I’m going to a photography/art exhibition later today that has all of this stuff from New York City’s punk years and I’m in a few of the photographs. I can say I was there and we accomplished enough that people still value what we did as important enough to document. I think that says a lot. It was a long time ago and my whole attitude on life and playing is different from what it was then. I play to have fun and rock people into having a good time. I’m not trying to take over anything and I don’t have all of that anger and rage I had back in the day. But I still have a lot of energy and our performances still convey everything that meant something in those days. Times change and people change, but the important stuff remains the same because it IS important and you always have to remember why you started doing it in the first place.

George Tabb and Marc Rentzer still play together in Furious George. Marc has also been the go-to guitarist for a whole lot of punk stuff in the city lately, from tributes to people like Johnny Thunders to playing with The Murder Junkies. Pete Marshall is currently playing in legendary lady Bebe Buell‘s band. Chicken John has written a book that probably explores the metaphysics behind Letch Patrol and life in general much more than this post does. Titled The Book of the Is, it’s a collection of essays on engineered disperfection or failure, if you’re into the whole brevity thing. I would encourage anyone and everyone to pick it up as I’m sure it will be remarkably entertaining. While this story seems to be a retrospective report and most of the bands, clubs and personalities from those days are something or someone else, the spirit that was so much a part of that scene remains the same and can be found in the youth of today. I just met a couple guys this week who took me back to that period — they have a very underground band and the one guy has a van and moves other bands around. It was really fun and a little bit funny to be in their presence for a couple of minutes because HOLY DEJA-VU! We had a mutual very-cool vibe with each other. It’s a real pleasure to know that the things that moved me and the things I was a part of are still important, especially to people who were barely alive when this story I’ve told took place. To be a part of this circle of life is tremendously rewarding and it’s important to recognize that participating in it is really the definition of success. Fame, money and extreme comfort are all very nice things, but there is something to be said for drawing satisfaction from being a part of this great ongoing thing that will continue without you, but always contains you because you were there and a part of it. While neither Letch Patrol or Vital Van conquered the world, the possibilities of the world were definitely made clearer to a bunch of guys who aimed higher and went further than they might have, had they not aimed for an impossible and distant horizon. They will also forever be a part of the great tapestry and tradition that is New York City Music and Entertainment (PUNK ROCK!) and there isn’t anything better than that.

ALL Letch Patrol group people photos and Guitar Interview photo courtesy of Marc Rentzer. Photo of Tish, Snooky, Chris Spedding and Chicken John courtesy of Chicken John.

Chris Spedding

Posted in Players with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2011 by theguitarcave

Chris Spedding with his Gibson Flying V

Chris Spedding — an absolutely stellar guitar player, and all-around cool guy.
I met Chris soon after meeting another awesome gent, Spedding contemporary, Mick Ronson, who I interviewed for Guitar World Magazine. I was introduced to Chris after I started working for VITAL VAN, the premier musician cartage and van moving service in NYC back in the late-80s and early 90s. My Spedding and Vital Van stories could’ve been combined into one really long novella of a post because they are so intimately intertwined, but that isn’t really suitable for the blog format, especially for people who don’t like to scroll, and Chris DEFINITELY rates his own entry. Like Mick Ronson he is a total Guitar Hero and the two of them are not only archetypal British guitar slingers and producers, they also have some very interesting similarities in style. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, check out Chris with long-time pal, Robert Gordon live on the Conan O’Brien Show.

Vital Van functioned as roadies for Robert Gordon’s band so I had the chance to watch Chris play up close and personal many times and we also had many conversations about Guitars, Guitarists, and Guitaring. There were some long drives back from gigs in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington DC and while the rest of the band was recovering from rocking out, Chris was happy to sit in the front seat of the van and talk music and guitars so I would stay alert and on the road (the traveling back to the city was usually 2am-to-whenever). So, as you can imagine, I was able to hear a lot about what he thought about guitar playing! Chris has a very compact, tasteful, lyrical style and he related at one point that someone he admired was George Harrison, because George’s solos usually functioned as a story within the story of Beatles’ songs. While George was certainly a major purveyor of this style of playing, he didn’t invent the concept and all you have to do to see how this evolved from the Jazz/Blues/Swing era to Rockabilly and Rock and Roll is read my post on The World is Waiting For the Sunrise. Like George, Chris is ALL OVER that hybrid of jazz/blues found in rockabilly and rhythm & blues music and playing with Robert Gordon has given him the chance to work this style for a long time. He has an arsenal of neat little tricks that he pulls out from time to time (see the next video), and unlike a lot of guitar heroes he doesn’t make the execution of tricky things a big production. They are just cool little technical moments that add to the atmosphere of the song. It has been years since I was involved with these guys, but I think Chris’s guitar stylings and Robert’s rockabilly boogie baritone have only gotten better with age. Both of their respective careers traversed much of the same landscape as the 70s and 80s punks, and I’m glad they have managed to age with the confidence and grace that is a characteristic of any of the great music icons. If you want to hear some great Rockabilly and Rock n’ Roll, they are the Real Deal.

Chris also hung out with the Vital Van crew from time to time — a real down-to-earth cat with a great sense of humor, and an avid reader. I remember him working his way through Gore Vidal’s Burr. The Vital scene was chock full of guitar players, and all of us picked up many a helpful hint just from being in Chris’s orbit. He also left his guitars lying around and at least 3 of us cut songs on our own recordings using a Chris Spedding guitar. He had a beautiful Gibson Hummingbird that I used on a song I did for a demo that included the awesome WORKDOGS rhythm section. At one point Chris mentioned that he thought that the Mickey Baker jazz books were a great way of learning how to read and play the kind of stuff he was able to work into his music. I’ve seen Chris start a set with a chord-melody medley of Christmas carols, totally cold (no warm-up backstage), and just kill. As a matter of fact I NEVER saw him warm-up for all the gigs I worked and he was always able to walk onstage, plug in and rock!

As a session player, Chris has been a very important person on some very great albums. It always knocked me out that he was one of the guitarists on the original Jesus Christ Superstar recording. Some of the other music legends he was involved with include Jack Bruce, Harry Nilsson, Roxy Music, John Cale, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits and Elton John. When I interviewed Leslie West in 1990 I mentioned that I had been working with Chris and Leslie had fond memories of his band, Mountain, touring with an early Spedding band, The Sharks, in the 70s. Chris later confirmed this and said that not only did the two bands share the tour, but also would get together at the end of some of the shows to have a big jam. Would’ve been great to see Chris and Leslie together on stage for a song or two don’t you think? Chris also produced some of the first Sex Pistols recordings, and for a long time it was rumored that it was him, not Steve Jones, actually playing on those recordings. I was successful in pitching a Chris Spedding article to Guitar World, (I wish I could find it, but I can’t). and before the interview my editor asked me to bring up the Sex Pistols rumor. I said “yea I’ll totally ask him” even though I already had, and knew the answer, I thought there would be a better chance for the article to get published by stalling. (I had already been handed a couple of rejections). As it turns out, not only did Chris not play on the songs, but his mixes weren’t used and you can read about it from the man himself HERE. Chris did have a whole lot to do with Steve Jones getting THAT guitar sound, which I’ve always thought was pretty flippin’ pro for a 1976 punk band and is probably the reason many people thought it was actually Chris playing. It’s the Spedding sound! If you read the list of credits on his Website, it’s obvious he is a player and producer who is home in many different settings and this is another parallel with Mick Ronson. Both Chris and Mick can be classified not only as superior players, but also as tasteful producers and idea guys for making music — Dudes with Multi-Vision! Here is Chris with Roxy Music from early in the last decade. After the rockabilly, you might think… What’s he gonna do on this song?…and then he plays emotionally and tastefully as he always does.

Chris was a long-time user of Gibson guitars and Fender amps…There are a lot of details on his guitar choices on his Website. He was telling me one night that he found it very easy to work with Les Paul Juniors because he only ever needed or used 1 pick-up (bridge position). On most guitars, he explained, it is impossible to get the sound he wanted on both the bridge and neck positions simultaneously, so it was just easier to get the good sound on the bridge position and use the tone knob or hand muting to produce a neck position sound on the bridge pick-up. As with all guitar players, I’m sure his thoughts on equipment constantly change through the years — at some point he started using a Gretsch, which suits his style perfectly, especially for the rockabilly stuff. He’s always had the slap-back echo sound working for him too and that is one of the two types of guitar echo I favor, especially the way he uses it. When we were working for him he used the Memory Man Deluxe and he would sometimes use a second Fender amp facing him from the front as a guitar monitor. One of my favorite gigs we ever worked was a Chris Spedding-fronted power trio gig in Boston, that included bassist extraordinaire Tony Garnier, long-time member of Bob Dylan’s band. I forget who played drums that night, but after the sound check, Chris, Tony, the drummer, Chicken John and I went and had Thai food and then we returned to the club and the band played something like this…

Of course the crowd dug it immensely just like they still do! It’s great that both Chris and Robert are enjoying a measure of success, because they are two of the very best at what they do. If you have a chance to see them, by all means go!! Hopefully, through the power of the internet, recordings and live performances there are younger players out there who will explore all of the possibilities of studying Chris’s style and will integrate some of it as I and others were able to do so many years ago. It is a way of approaching guitar that can definitely broaden the sonic palette and musical horizon of any player.

**Special thanks to Chicken John Rinaldi for providing the pic of Chris with the prototype Flying V. Chicken has been the proud owner of this guitar for many years. If you enjoyed this article or enjoy reading about Chris make sure you check out the VITAL VAN article when it is up (soon). Lots more on Chris, Robert Gordon, and NYC, including Spedding produces Letch Patrol!