By Legs McNeil
(Unedited VICE column)
“Really Arturo, ABBA?” I shake my head in disbelief, as I enter the
loft where the Swedish rock band is blaring from the record player next to the table that holds the entire Ramones silk screen operation—one long counter equipped with a wooden silk screen, cans of white acrylic paint, and stacks of black T-shirts. Arturo is busy making another pass with the squeegee over the latest model of the new Ramones logo, the one with the names of Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy encircling an American Eagle that’s clutching a baseball bat in one talon and an apple tree branch in the other. It will become their most famous design ever.
“Aren’t they wonderful?!” Arturo beams at me, looking up from the
T-shirt. I can’t tell if he’s talking about the music or the T-shirts,
since he’s never been self-conscious about his guilty-music-pleasures.
Let’s face it, even though ABBA are spectacularly popular, no one would ever accuse them of being a hip. Or of being played at the epicenter of punk rock, the Ramones loft at 6 East 2nd Street, Arturo Vega’s home.
But that’s the beauty of Arturo. He combines such wrong elements
together that frequently they actually work. Though I’m not so sure
about this ABBA nonsense…
“ABBA is like some Satanic bubblegum that you can’t stop chewing, ya know?” he explains, noticing my displeasure. “Es like what you think happiness should sound like, right?”
“I don’t know about that,” I say, considering his theory. The Swedish
pop music was way too loud.
“You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen/ Dancing queen, feel the beat from the tambourine/ You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life/ See that girl, watch that scene, digging’ the dancing queen!”
“That’s happiness?” I scowl, “Give me the fucking alternative….”
“Happy, happy, happy!” Arturo chuckles, mimicking the line from the
Ramones song, “Gimmie Gimmie Shock Treatment,” as he pulls the freshly printed T-shirt out from under the screen and replaces it with another.
The song lyric goes, “Peace and love is here to stay/ And now I can
wake up and face the day/ Happy, happy, happy all the time/ Shock
treatment I’m doing fine.” It’s become a mantra around the loft
whenever things aren’t looking too good for the band, which is quite
often. Arturo would smile that inviting smile of his—and overflowing
with irony, say, “Happy, happy, happy,” and everyone would kinda
snicker, suck in their gut and keep on going.
Sometimes a line from a song is all you have to go on.
Arturo holds the freshly screened shirt up for me to inspect, “Isn’t it
beautiful! Es so… so… so majestic! Like, rigid militarism combined with that ‘Beat on the Brat’ honesty, right?”
He isn’t just pleased with his new design, he’s thrilled. It really is
an iconic symbol.
“Wow, really cool,” I say admiringly, “Can I have one?”
Arturo rolls his eyes. “Donchoo ever have any money? Doesn’t Holmstrom pay you? You know Legs MucNeil, maybe you should be looking for another job?”
“Doing what?” I mope; knowing now isn’t the time to hit him for a loan for a pack of smokes and a Bud Tallboy. I only have three Marlboros left. Shit. At least the ABBA album finished, and Arturo didn’t restart it, like he usually does.
“I don’t know.” Arturo thinks hard. “There’s gotta be something you can do.” Then he breaks out laughing at the absurdity of his statement and says, “Nevermind, of course you can have a shirt, but you gotta wait till we get back from London, these has to last us the whole time!”
“Why are you guys going to England anyway?” I gripe, not seeing any
benefit to the Ramones upcoming weekend in the UK. I know about Malcolm McLaren and the cool rock ‘n’ roll fashions coming out of the King’s Road, but other than Dr. Feelgood and the Flaming Groovies, there isn’t much happening music-wise in London. And while Dr. Feelgood and the Flaming Groovies are okay, that don’t sound like the future of rock ‘n’ roll. Not the way the Ramones do. Besides, who was I gonna hang out with over Fourth of July weekend? Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the English punk rock explosion is waiting for the Ramones to show them how to detonate the bomb. It will only be a matter of days before the shit hits the fan…
“Come on, England sucks,” I gripe. “There’s nothing going there! I
mean, warm beer, you call that civilization?”
“You’d rather we stayed here and played My Father’s Place?” Arturo
deadpans, referring to the shitty nightclub out on Long Island that’s a hangout for the mullet-set, and fast-becoming a Ramones staple. He has a point. There aren’t many places that welcome the Ramones outside of Max’s and CBGB’s. It’s a pretty desperate situation all around, even if none of us can understand the resistance to the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.
“No, I think we should take over a radio station,” I offer, growing
excited, “We could, like, barricade ourselves inside the station and
just blast the Ramones for like 24 hours, until everyone can hear how great they are! You know like that DJ did in The Buddy Holly Story’ how he just barricaded himself inside and played ‘That’ll Be The Day’ over and over and over.”
Arturo just smiles at me, “You’re such a child, arenchoo? You know,
they do have SWAT teams now, ha, ha, ha! You’d be dead before Today Your Love/Tomorrow The World even finished…”
“Well, at least it was an idea,” I mumbled, defending myself, “There’s
gotta be someway of getting the music out there…”
I’m interrupted by Joey Ramone bursting through the door, also happy and excited by the prospect of a weekend in England, and gushing with a machine-gun greeting, “Hey Legs, what’s happening? What’s going on?
Where’s the party?”
He’s carrying a few packages, that he dumps on the kitchen counter and then joins us around the silk-screen operation. His enthusiasm for England only makes me sadder and lonelier.
“Hey,” I nod to Joey, “Where were you?”
“My mom had to take me shopping,” Joey explains, “I had to get some
shit for the trip, but when we went to get my vitamins, there was like
this crazy homeless lady inside the health food store who was screaming at the cashier. I thought she was gonna murder somebody, she was like really nuts. So we had to wait for the cops to come. I thought they were gonna pack her off to Bellevue, but all they did was take her name and address—and then they just left her there to continue her tantrum.
The cops probably went back to get more doughnuts. So it was taking like hours—and it turned out all she wanted was a birthday card for her nephew. So I helped her pick one out, a real funny one.”
“You shoulda mailed it for her,” Arturo joked, “I can just see the
headline, 27 massacred at 14th Street Post Office, little boy says his
Aunt never forgot a birthday…”
“She wasn’t that bad, for a nut, ya know?” Joey smiles as he loops a
strand of hair around his index finger. He never stops playing with his hair. Ever. “And she even paid me for helping her, she gave me a
“Save it for her legal defense fund,” Arturo quips as he runs the
squeegee over another T-shirt, “She’s probably one of these eccentric millionaires who es gonna leave all her money to her cats.”
“Maybe I can get Paul in her will too? Joey considers Paul, his cat,
inheriting a big bunch of money, as he grabs a shopping bag off the
kitchen counter and pours over it, looking for something. Whatever he’s looking for, he can’t find it. He’s even worse than me, and I lose
everything immediately. Most of Joey’s mornings at the loft are spent searching for shit: scraps of paper with girls’ phone numbers on them, articles of clothing, a pair of sneakers—anything. Searching for Joey’s stuff is a daily ritual.
“Yeah, she probably had millions stashed under her mattress,” Joey
laughs, abandoning the shopping bag, “That cheap bitch, she probably had thousands in cash on her. I shoulda frisked her, but she wasn’t smelling too good.”
And then we’re all in hysterical laughter.
“So whatta we doing tonight?” Joey asks, as he stares at some of the
finished T-shirts hanging out to dry. “Why does John’s name always have to come first?”
Arturo ignores the question. He knows better than to open that can of worms.
“Johnny says he can’t afford to pay me to go to England,” Arturo
explains, dodging Joey’s query, since he’s become an expert at
navigating the shores of the Ramones internal politics. “He said I can
keep all the money I make selling T-shirts, so I thought I’d make a
bunch of ’em to pay for my airfare and expenses. John said he didn’t
know why anyone would want to buy a Ramones T-shirt, but I was welcome to try and sell em.”
“Yeah,” Joey snorts again, “Always the optimist, isn’t he?” Joey was
already tired of Johnny Ramone taking all the enthusiasm out of the
Ramones creative possibilities with his excruciatingly practical
approach to band business.
“I think they look really cool, ya know?” Joey says, admiring the
T-shirt design, pretending to get past the order of names on the
shirts. But Joey could never let anything go.
“It’s like one of those Presidential things, ya know? Joey continues,
“That they hang on his desk whenever he speaks? What are they called?
“Presidential seals,” Arturo corrects him, as he puts the ABBA record
“Uh oh,” Joey cracks, “I feel a Dancing Queen about to rape me! You
know this is crap, right?”
“Es happy music!” Arturo laughs, singing along with the record, “I was telling Legs, es what happiness es supposed to sound like!”
“No one was ever that happy,” Joey cracks, “Except maybe you Arturo.”
”Oh go on and be your big punk rockers,” Arturo tells us, glowing, “It
makes me happy, and es all that matters, right?”
“Happy, happy, happy!” Joey laughs, mesmerized by Arturo’s assembly line production silk-screening the T-shirts. Arturo falls into a faster pace, bolstered by the Swedish pop music. We just stand over him, watching Arturo work.
“It would be really cool if we actually sold some shirts, ya know?”
Joey muses, looking at me and dreaming. “And then maybe we can afford to eat breakfast, ha, ha, ha!”
And then we’re all laughing again.