The timbre of Sonny Vincent's voice carries a genuine been-there-barely-survived-it tinge, like some grizzled conspiracy theorist you'd find seated next to you at the counter of a Denny's.
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).
Hollywood Alley in Mesa
Friday, September 1. With Streetwalkin' Cheetahs. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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.
Turns behind bars ensued. Infractions included, but were not limited to, reckless driving, drug possession and assaulting police officers. Jailhouse walls became a sight as common for Vincent as the blue and green hues of stage lighting.
"I was in and out of jail ever since I was old enough to get in jail," he cracks contritely.
Vincent eventually hooked up with Bob Stinson, the late, storied guitar player who got kicked out of the Replacements, the drunkest band in the world, for being too drunk.
"We opened for the Replacements," Vincent recalls. "Stinson came up to me right after the show. I mean, Stinson was a very unique character. There was nobody like Stinson. He came up to me and the first thing he said was, 'I want to join your band.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He goes, 'I like your stuff, can I join?' And I go, 'But Bobby, your band is on the cover of the Village Voice!'
"Bob was really sweet; he was one of those types that never said a bad word about anybody. He was kind of damaged like the rest of us. He had a screwed up childhood and all that. There are so many stories I could tell you about Bob that were just crazy stuff. Just strange behavior. Like getting lost and being only 200 yards from the club in Germany and calling home to Minnesota to ask his wife the club's address. He had these weird habits like having to eat his food from a chair next to his chair. He wouldn't eat from a table, the food had to be on another chair. Very weird. Bob was great.
"I was on and off with that kind of [drug] stuff. My heaviest period with drinking was with Bob. I was actually going broke from it. I had all these ATM cards and was jacking around my bank account so we could drink all night in bars."
Vincent and Stinson formed Model Prisoner and made a record that remains unreleased. Vincent owns the master tapes and plans to release them if he can find a record company that's interested. "I would want it to be done in a nice package, you know, and kind of make it in Bob's memory or something like that. When he died [in 1995], it was very sad. I had just talked to him and he was going to do another tour with me."
Vincent formed the raucous punk ensemble Shotgun Rationale and recorded Who Do They Think They Are?. The record was produced by Velvet Underground's Moe Tucker. Soon after, Vincent joined Tucker's band as a guitarist and started touring Europe. He toured with Tucker on and off for nine years, an endeavor that earned Vincent overseas cult fame.
"The thing about touring with Moe over there is it was like the Beatles," he explains. "There's a lot of people out there who [think] the Velvet Underground is holy. I got a lot of contacts in Europe touring with Moe. I do have a nice situation where I can tour over there and make albums consistently."
At one point, Shotgun Rationale included both Bob Stinson and Cheetah Chrome -- a legendary punk lineup. The union of unsung guitar heroes lasted only a few months, but included short tours of Canada and the U.S. again.
"Somebody actually videotaped a show of that in Minneapolis," Vincent recalls. "It was a pretty funny show because they were playing each other's guitars and kissing each other."
In the early '90s, Shotgun Rationale released two more records -- Beyond Rebellion and Roller Coaster. The band's cast of players reads like a who's who of hipsterville A-listers: Sylvia Reed (Lou Reed's wife), Gumball's Don Fleming, Tucker and Sterling Morrison from the Velvet Underground, Ron and Scott Asheton, Richard Hell, and the Plasmatics' Chris Romanelli.
Vincent spent the next few years continuing to record and tour Europe and the U.S. with Shotgun Rationale, playing guitar in Tucker's band and fronting a short-lived group he formed in Holland called the Dons. His discography at this point was extensive, an endless list of singles, albums and one-offs. His following in Europe had grown to sustain headlining gigs and a meager existence.
In 1997, he put together a quartet called Sonny Vincent and His Rat Race Choir that featured Scott Asheton on drums, Captain Sensible from the Damned on bass and Cheetah Chrome on guitar. The resulting slice of punk rock rave-ups was called Pure Filth. The disc, which garnered thumbs-up from underground journals the world over, was followed up with a few extended plays and singles.
Vincent's just-released Parallax in Wonderland was produced by Ron Asheton (who adds guitar bits here and there) and again features Sensible and Scott Asheton, plus Kick Out the Jams guitarist himself Wayne Kramer. The music on Parallax is the bastard brat of Iggy's Raw Power -- guitars so loud that the bass and drums become a postscript. Vincent's frothy-mouthed vocals recall Iggy himself. It's a hummable collection of three-chord slices as good as anything ever to come from the Lower East Side.
"I figured if anybody can make the guitar loud, it's Ron Asheton," Vincent says of the disc. "We did part of the record in Detroit, and we got the record company to spring for a plane ticket for Captain Sensible. Because that's who I wanted as a bass player."
Vincent has seen many of his peers expire, pals from his days in the Testors.
"I'm sad that a lot of the guys are gone 'cause I would have liked to work with some of them. And they were pretty cool people, like Stiv and Thunders and guys like that. It would have been some cool collaborations around now. But it didn't work out."
He claims to be off the dope, off everything but the occasional beer and joint.
"Now, I'm drinking a little bit, you know, a beer after the show. Sometimes if we are doing a show and it's really intense and high-energy and stuff, I'll smoke a whole joint with like hash in it to come down, you know. But I wouldn't do that in Texas, for example. But if I do that in Europe, they don't care about that as much."
Without sounding maudlin, rock 'n' roll can be hard. So hard at times to just keep your head above water, to gasp for that breath, to keep that belief. If anybody understands this, it's Vincent.
He relates an episode where he had to travel from Munich to Holland after a recording session that paid him $100. The money was needed to pay off a phone bill for those who were putting him up. He missed his train connection.
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"I got stuck, but I was kind of close to the border. If I would've taken a hotel, the money I just made would have been gone. Same with a taxi. So I went out to the Autobahn. But people just don't hitchhike on the Autobahn. And here I am . . . I was all in black clothes and Beatle boots, I had my gig box and my guitar, and these huge trucks are going by me in the middle of the night. Nobody could even see me. I saw this sign that said 19 kilometers to the border and I thought, 'Oh, I could walk that.'
". . . By the time I got to my destination, I was pissed off at the whole world . . . most people in my situation and at my age could have just whipped out their gold cards and stayed at a hotel and just resolved the situation. They wouldn't have even been in the situation to begin with. I just [thought], 'Hey, man, I did it all. I gave my blood, my heart, my soul, and here I am fuckin' hitchhiking down a fuckin' wacky German Autobahn.' I just figured it was the time to quit."
When he got to a phone, he called up Wayne Kramer, a man who would often refer to Vincent as his protégé. Kramer gave the younger Vincent a pep talk.
"He was going, 'It's the music, man, it's all the music.' He just said, 'Don't worry about the rest of this shit.' Ever since then, I've been surfing on that little pep talk."