Catching up with an unsung legend of NYC punk
Angelfire is essentially the phonograph cylinder of personal websites.
But there’s one page left from this site from the super early days of AOL worth checking out, and it belongs to NYC punk legend Sonny Vincent.
“Throughout his history he has played with, and frequented the greats (Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground, Scott Asheton (Stooges), Captain Sensible of the Damned, Bob Stinson of The Replacements),” describes writer Alan Courte on the site. “Former punk leader of The Testors during the 70s, the New Yorker Sonny Vincent always kept his energy to publish albums with largely a garage-rock tint.”
Following a family tragedy and becoming the primary guardian to his young grandson, Sonny is back and ready to remind all of you sleeping punk fans exactly who he is in this exclusive interview with Rock & Roll Globe.
Did you have heroes when you were young?
I had a couple when I was a kid, but of course that changes when you are an adult. It’s tough to have heroes if you have never met them personally. I like what I know about Robert Kennedy and Jimi Hendrix. I like the work of Visconti, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Paul Sartre ,Yayoi Kusama, We all Love Serge, But heroes? I don’t really have or look at people as heroes. Mahatma Gandhi? Little Richard?
When you were a teenager, especially during the Testors, how did you see your future? Today, if there is one thing you would regret in your life, what would it be?
In Testors we were determined to make what we considered something ‘real’. We sometimes had visions of grandeur that the world would come to us but we never sought a path that would insure commercial success. The current position/juxtaposition of Testors is just as it should be. Very unknown and not easy to discover from corporate advertisements. To find Testors a person already must be an individual who searches beyond typical promotions and marketing. When a person discovers Testors they find elements of themselves to connect to. I’ve heard it is often an epiphany for a person to discover Testors music and see themselves in it, that is very satisfying to me. We kept it real.
One of my regrets in life is that I never moved to Boston and enrolled in a class that Noam Chomsky taught. For a long time he was teaching, I missed out on that.
What was the craziest thing that happened to you in your youth?
Many crazy things. I’ve been on my own since the age of 13. I was tall and always lied and said I was much older. I was a runaway. I wandered into Andy Warhol’s Factory and slept on a couch there once. The next day I went to Westchester and two cops started asking me questions. I was being flip and arrogant and they decided to arrest me for vagrancy. They were trying to handcuff me but I struggled fiercely. We all wound up on the ground wresting and fidgeting. By accident the police officers handcuffed each other together and I quickly sprinted away. This was very satisfying and of course hilarious to me , especially since I was no criminal, just a kid walking down the street that police wanted to harass. Later they forced me into the Marines (USMC) because they thought that would straighten me out. And a few years after that I played guitar, recorded and did many tours with Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison of The Velvet Underground. They were a bit older than me, I got a lot of ‘upbringing’ and love from them that offset the destruction the government and my family had tried to foist onto me. It was as if Moe and Sterling served as my older brother and sister. That set me on a good path.
VIDEO: Moe Tucker performs “Too Shy” with Sonny Vincent and Sterling Morrison
What do you think is the best line-up before your solo career, the best line-up during your Solo recordings? Do you have any anectodes about it?
Best line ups: ‘Testors’ and ‘Sonny Vincent and The Extreme ‘. Best solo stuff would be anything I did with Scott Asheton. But that’s nearly an impossible to assess. My stuff with Bobby Stinson hit some mercurial heights. Line-ups with my German friends Stephan and Bernward produced amazing recordings. Also The Bad Reactions (amazing line-up, passionate), The Hit Squad. As well Spencer P Jones of The Beasts of Burbon played with my band ‘Shotgun Rationale, he was amazing.
I have over 25 unique albums out there and toured my whole life. There have been so many talented and dedicated musicians who are in my tribe. I can’t separate them into ‘The best’ categories.
So many anecdotes! Ok, one comes to mind. Once in Switzerland I was opening for Wayne Kramer of the MC5. For that tour I had a young German drummer who didn’t speak English very well. I told him before the show “Whenever possible play less cymbals and concentrate mostly on the drums”. After the show Wayne complimented me, but said “Gee! your drummer really plays a lot of cymbals!”
The kid completely misunderstood me and thought I was saying “play as many cymbals as you can, all the time!!!”
To bad that show wasn’t recorded I would have had a great laugh hearing him slashing and bashing around on the cymbals all night long like a maniac!!!
You have always been in rebellion. What fight in your youth do you remember the best? What about this old anecdote of fighting with Lenny Kaye?
I had the classic difficulty with rebellion against hypocrisy and so called ‘ authority’ as a kid and young man. The police literally nearly killed me a few times. The fight with Lenny was not really a big deal, just a scuffle. It was broadcast live because we were on a live radio show and we were arguing and it turned into a fight. A year later when we met we thought nothing if it.
Lenny is good people, I was just being myself during the interview and Richard Hell and Lenny were blabbering on about Rimbaud during a radio show that was supposed to be focused on the performance my group Testors. I couldn’t bear it so I pulled Lenny’s chair out from under him and we fought. I could have handled it differently. During their ‘dissertation’ on the radio, I left the theater for some time. I had gone across the street to a record shop and they gave me a huge amount of cocaine. I’d never done that before and when I arrived back to the theater Lenny and Richard were now discussing ‘ existentialism ‘. I guess I wanted to show them some real time ‘Anarchy’ Lol!! After all it was supposed to be a ‘Testors’ interview!!
Years later Richard Hell recorded with me. He is a very sweet man, I admire him immensely. The incident was not consequential, just wild kid stuff.
I’m still sad when I hear the news around the world. Who would have known our lives would still be surrounded by so much brutality, inequality and unfairness? When I was a kid I always imagined more progress.These days I experience melancholy and anger about abuses worldwide. Many of my friends have dedicated their lives to helping people. Many friends rescue abandoned dogs and cats. In many ways the world is a hard place. We have Hollywood and the commercial music industry pumping kids heads full with the concept of success and dominance and money. As if the whole revolutionary hippie generation and age of Aquarius was some silly fantasy. When I was a kid in school they were very focused on the fact that the scientists and Medical researchers were always very intensely busy working to cure diseases, Who would have thought that in the future some guy would buy a pharmaceutical company and charge $6000 for one pill for aids. Who would have thought that the police in America can just shoot a black kid in the face because of a traffic violation?
And speaking of Richard Hell, one time I asked him ” Richard do you still go to protests and are you still ‘involved'” and he said “I do, I’m not really sure if it makes any difference but I have to do it because I know the bad guys are working 24 hours a day.”
AUDIO: Testors “It’s Only Death”
What is the most terrible feeling of confinement you have experienced in your youth and do you feel free today?
Being in jail sucked. I had bad luck or maybe it was arrogance, but I was always getting busted for weed as a young man. Wrong place , wrong time. I don’t even smoke it now and suddenly they start to legalize it !! But when I was a young man I was constantly busted with marijuana (and other stuff!) in my pocket!! Well I spent a lot of time incarcerated for it! In Paris too! By the way!! I bought some hash from a guy right in front of the police station, I didn’t know the police station was there! It had nice lavender lights and I didn’t realize it was a cop shop!
I don’t feel free today but at least Im not in the Gulag!
We’d love to hear some anectodes on your best youth concert experiences as a musician, the most beautiful concerts you’ve seen recently?
My best youth concerts as a young musician was- playing places that never heard of punk rock. Sometimes in the early days they thought it was just complete noise. Once in Philadelphia in the mid 70s there was a riot at our show. Half the audience loved us, They were yelling at me “James Williamson! James Williamson!” and I didn’t even know who that was at the time.! BUT half the audience really truly hated us, and they pulled down the PA system. Literally and physically tore down the PA system and yanked my guitar player off of the stage! It was a huge fiasco, But we kind of expected it, our music wasn’t something warm and fuzzy that you could wrap your arms around and feel good about. Our music was very visceral, direct, sometimes dark and edgy. At those times the songs on the radio were very soft and very produced. It was hard at first for some people to accept our raw approach.
I haven’t seen any beautiful concerts lately.
But I have been listening to Alex Chilton and Big Star. What a beautiful soul. Everything about him was the antithesis of a posing rock star.
What is the worst memory of a meeting with a celebrity you’ve met in the past, what was the circumstance? The meeting you’re most proud of today, why? How do you think a celebrity should behave?
There have been some very disappointing meetings with some celebrities. I really don’t like to slag people off and I don’t want to mention names, but it’s usually the people who have music, where they try to make themselves seem small, intellectual, accessible and easygoing. But upon meeting them, anyone can see they are just pricks with tons of ego. Very disappointing.
On the positive is Maureen ‘Moe’ Tucker of The Velvet Underground. She taught me more about being responsible and how to treat people and how to be a decent person than anyone I’ve ever met.
We spent years and years touring, traveling in a Van together all over the United States and Europe. Being a street kid from New York, I never had anyone to teach me anything. I simply learned from the streets, basic survival skills and then my stint in the Marines. I learned a lot from Moe About scruples and being conscientious.
Another thing comes to mind is that I never collect autographs but one time I was at an airport and James Brown was there. He was surrounded by his handlers and I went to one of his security guys and I asked ” Could I say hello to James?” The guy said “No it’s not a good time”, but when I entered the plane it was kind of sparse and I walked by James and he was sitting there alone. I went to my seat and before we took off I figured , well… I might as well give it a try! I walked over to James but I didn’t have any paper, so I took out my U.S. passport and asked “James would you sign my U.S. passport?” He looked at me nervously and said “Can I do that?” and I said “You absolutely can, you are James Brown sir.” He signed it “God bless you Sonny Love James Brown”. We talked a bit then I had to return to my seat. I still have that expired passport!
But I really do think a celebrity should be very careful of their safety because there are so many psychos in the world but in the right situations they should show a human side and help people. They should not hold on to their money so tightly. Many of them give the perfunctory 10 percent to charities but still are tight fisted with huge fortunes. I’ve read some very nice things about Keanu Reeves recently. Wayne Kramer of the MC5 also is a stand-up man.
AUDIO: Sonny Vincent and Wayne Kramer “Songs To Kick Your Ass By”
Sonny, you just mentioned you are heading back in the studio, what are your projects?
After taking care of my family for over four years who were in a tragic accident, I finally had time to get back to doing some music . The first thing I did was to ‘produce’ another artist. I figured that would be an interesting first step to getting back into it. One of the drivers from my tours also was working with Bobby Liebling from Pentagram. While on long drives he played all my music for Bobby and Bobby was hooked! We spoke on the phone many times and decided I would produce an album for him. What I thought would be an easy entrance with me showing up with a clip board turned into a huge project. At first I wrote a bunch of riffs and had my friend Hugo in Portugal go into a studio and record them in a ‘Doom’ style. Sent those to Bobby but he really didn’t want Doom style. I didn’t know. So we spoke more and he said he wanted to make an album more in my style. Bobby insisted I write the songs and play guitar. I really wasn’t ready for that but I wrote 14 songs and Bobby wrote most of the lyrics. I invited Jimmy Recca of the Stooges to play bass (he did an amazing job on the songs!).
VIDEO: Pentagram at the Tiger Room in Louisville, Kentucky in 2019
The making of the album was epic and the incidents surrounding the adventure could fill a book. All I will say here was that it was a very stressful, nearly soul draining experience, but in the end we remained brothers and the album came out amazing! The album is called ‘Caveman Logic’ and the group is ‘The Limit’. We just got signed a label. It’s coming out in January and it will drop some jaws, if I must say!!
I’m also close to finishing a new Sonny Vincentbalbum, it’s in the mix phase. After over four years of not recording and not touring I have made the opposite of a ‘Swan Song’ album. It’s more like a ‘Vulture Song’ comeback! You can count on me. What I’m trying to say is that the album is not me in slippers, playing an acoustic guitar riding unicorns over rainbows. The album does have beautiful songs but I’m still turning it up.
After that a new ‘Testors’ album is imminent. I went into a studio last summer with Gregory R (The original Testors drummer) and created the basic tracks For a new ‘Testors’ album- all new songs! We plan to do a Testors tour when conditions permit.
Well folks! Thanks for reaching out to me and thanks to all my friends and fans out there. I feel the love!