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Vincent chooses words carefully, often pausing mid-sentence, and you can almost hear him shaking his head as he recalls bits of his past. His story is one of survival. A story too obscure and too dark for a Behind the Music template makeover, but too fucked up to be fiction.
Vincent came up through a scene that bestowed upon the American pop panorama some of the coolest rock 'n' roll millionaires (Blondie, David Byrne), sainted survivors (Ramones, Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine), mythological RIPs (Stiv, Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan) and flounderers (Cheetah Chrome, Mink DeVille, Dictators).
Between 1975 and 1980, the then-teenage singer/guitarist/songwriter Vincent fronted the scarcely lamented Testors, a noisy punk group noteworthy for playing sans bassist and with a drummer who shunned high hats. The band gigged all the fabled New York venues -- Max's Kansas City, CBGB, etc. -- with the Cramps, Dead Boys, Iggy, Suicide, the like-minded Teenage Jesus and the Jerks.
In 1979, the Testors even ripped through a portion of the country on a tour with the dishonorable Dead Boys. A show in Madison, Wisconsin saw the venue's house sound man flee the mixing desk, too frightened of the punk dirge to mix the bands. Those were different times.
"I don't remember exactly how many cities we did with the Dead Boys, but it was great," Vincent recalls of the myth-making tour. He is speaking over the phone from his Los Angeles apartment. "As far as the Midwest goes, it was cool because it was kind of a groundbreaking tour. Groups like Blondie, they'd been around, but the early punk stuff . . . uh . . . it was pretty funny. We would come into town, you know, the Testors and the Dead Boys, and the way we'd dress . . . we might as well have been from a totally different planet."
Since the late '70s, Vincent has been in and out of jail and mental institutions. He's made records and toured with punk-rock legends, near-legends and infamous never-wases. He hung with broken drunks and junkies, or those simply sucker-punched to near-death after wishing upon rock 'n' roll's fizzled star -- guys like Ron and Scott Asheton (Stooges), Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys), Captain Sensible (Damned), Bob Stinson (Replacements), Wayne Kramer (MC5) and Richard Hell all worked with Vincent. Most sang his praises.
"Sonny's a real mover and a shaker," says resident Valley rawk-father Jeff Dahl, whose tale is similar to Vincent's, yet not as outlaw. Dahl's been aware of Vincent since the early days. "I mean, he's practically a magician. Anyone who can get the Asheton brothers, a guy from the Dead Boys and a member of the Damned in a room together and make a record must have something going on.
"Besides," Dahl adds, laughing, "it's good to see somebody as old as I am still going at it. I don't feel so alone."
Vincent's unruly solo single, "Lesson in Life," was a minor indie hit in the United States in 1987. The single proved to be the closest to mainstream success Vincent would find. He kept himself fed and housed in the meantime by working unskilled jobs -- factory laborer, taxi driver or "whatever I could get. You know, if we were on tour, we were making money."
Like many of the Max's/CBGB sets, Vincent ingested his share of chemicals -- a lot of it heroin. Once, after shooting a particularly potent bag of dope in a Prague hotel room, he nearly cashed it in -- like so many of his peers.
"Suddenly in the hotel room there were guys in orange suits wanting to take me to a Czechoslovakian hospital. I was really turning blue. But I wasn't gonna go for that. So I suddenly started to have some sort of energy. It sobered me right up."
After the Testors released the punk single "Time Is Mine" (on Bleeker Bob's infamous Drive In label) and had an onstage brawl with Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye that was broadcast on New York radio live from CBGB, Vincent found himself in an upstate New York mental hospital for three months.
A stint studying filmmaking preceded his formation of a band called the Primadonnas. The band included bassist Luigi -- who later recorded with Johnny Thunders on the infamous drug-addled ROIR sessions -- and Joey Alexander, a guy who once manned the drum kit behind the Shirelles.
"It was really a strange band because Joey would drop his drumsticks and then have to snort some coke," Vincent recalls with a vague chuckle. "Then there would be chicks there to buy these things called Quaaludes from Luigi. It was more like a drug deal than a band. It was just madness."
Vincent escaped New York for Minneapolis in 1981 in an effort to put together a band of "fresh musicians." He gave up on the idea of having a proper group, one with a "me and the boys attitude." Using a revolving door of players, he formed Sonny Vincent and the Extreme, released handfuls of records and toured the U.S. and Canada repeatedly.