The Punkiest Man in Punk
Lee Ving is old-school punk's punkiest front man. Less obviously political than the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra, more survival-minded than the Germs' Darby Cras, and just plain scarier than Black Flag's Henry Rollins and his neck, Ving leads Fear, arguably the most reviled band from LA's original punk scene.
Formed in 1978, the hardcore quartet mixed Captain Beefheartesque instrumentals done at mach speed; Howlin' Wolf-meets-howling-beer-soaked-lout-tossed-from-a-Dodger-game vocals; and lyrics that somehow managed to make sexism, misanthropy and homophobia funny—especially to macho boys given to tearing off their shirts to slam into one another in sweat- and smoke-filled sewage pits.
"Fear gave the finger to political correctness and scene socialism," states The Old Punks Web Zine. "Beer, fighting, sex, Budweiser, war, crowd-baiting, beer, living the low life, hate and more beer—these were Fear's agendas and inspirations."
Fear's 1982 debut The Record is a punk classic (whoever thought they'd live to hear those two words in the same sentence?), but the band was best captured on the soundtrack to punkumentarian Penelope Spheeris' The Decline of Western Civilization, which featured Ving's proclivity for dressing down assholes in the audience ("Next time, don't bite so hard when I come, okay? You only spit as good as you suck, shithead!"). When she became a big-time movie director, Spheeris tapped Ving for a role in 1987's forgettable Dudes, and he has appeared in 25 to 30 other flicks—including Clue, Flashdance and Streets of Fire—and about as many TV shows.
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John Belushi so loved the band that he got them on Saturday Night Live's 1981 Halloween show. It's been touted as the best musical performance ever on SNL. Not exactly ingratiating themselves with their Big Apple hosts, Fear opened with "I Don't Care About You" ("Saw an old man have a heart attack in Manhattan/He died while we just stood there lookin' at him/Ain't he cute?"). Their hypercharged second set included "New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones" ("New York's alright if you wanna get pushed in front of the subway/New York's alright if you wanna freeze to death/New York's alright if you wanna get mugged or murdered/New York's alright if you're a homosexual"). By the time Fear got cut off in the middle of "Let's Have a War" ("It can start in New Jersey"), slam dancers who had been invited onstage had torn the set apart, someone had yelled "Fuck you, New York!" over the airwaves, and Eddie Murphy was royally pissed.
That appearance apparently led some fearful club owners across the country to keep Fear off their bills, and the band eventually petered out. Ving moved to Austin, Texas, in 1987 and fronted a country outfit called Range War. The original Fear lineup re-formed briefly in 1993. A couple of years later, Ving recruited three new sidemen into Lee Ving's Army, a punk band that later changed its name back to Fear. Ving and Megadeth's Dave Mustaine also recorded a CD under the name MD 45.
In recent years, Fear's hard-driving sound has appealed to young skinheads, whose presence at shows (including one where they allegedly beat the shit out of an African-American band member), coupled with the cover illustration on Fear's 1985 album More Beer (a drawing of an eagle holding a wreath containing two F's positioned to resemble a swastika), have led some to conclude that Ving's extreme right-wing leanings have drifted really extreme right-wing.
Ving and yet another Fear incarnation play the Foothill in Long Beach on Friday. Calling up his booking agent to schedule a chat, I was instead immediately put on the line with Ving. Here's the impromptu interview that followed:
OCWeekly:So, I hear you're planning a new record. Lee Ving:Yeah, we're busy at it. You're actually recording songs now?
We're making what you'd call samples to send around to folks.
You're not on a label?
Well, let's see: our last label was Fear Records, so at least for the moment, it'll be on Fear Records. We're also talking to Fat Mike about putting it out on Fat Wreck Chords.
Is this the same lineup as Lee Ving's Army?
It's virtually the same. Let me just tell you who's in the band: Andrew Jaimez. He's the drummer. On bass is Mondo Lopez. . . .
That name sounds familiar. . . .
He's done some TV acting, but we won't hold that against him [laughs]. Filthy Rich Presley is our other guitar player, besides me. Rich is blood kin to Elvis.
Yeah, we're tapping into Graceland.
How'd you find him?
Sean Cruse recommended him. Sean was our guitar player before Filthy Rich, so it's been a smooth transition. Now Sean is recording with Dr. Dre.
Is the sound pretty much the same as before?
Beyond increasing the amount of music—the musicality improves each time we make a personnel change—we try to make something that entertains me. For that reason, [the sound is] somewhat more complex because that's what I'm into. But it's the same musical formula, so we're not going to lose anybody. "Similar" is the word we wordsmiths use.
Funny you should mention that. I'm talking to Penelope Spheeris at this very moment about projects. I'm also talking to William Morris [talent agency]. You may turn on the TV, and there might be Lee Ving staring right back at you.
I understand you moved back to LA from Austin to get more acting and music work.
That was exactly it. It wasn't for the clean air or the beautiful people.
I've seen you called the toughest man in punk and the best actor to come out of punk. Do you agree?
Those who claim they're the toughest usually generate some trailings to those who want to prove otherwise. That not being a wisdom situation for a person who's a gambler, I'll let that one rest. I will, frankly, say that I am the best actor to come out of punk or to come out of everywhere—New York, Philadelphia, LA, Miami or anywhere else you want to say—Stella Adler and Lee Strassberg not withstanding. I never heard of them until I got into this business, but I'm sure they're good people, and I'm sure they make one helluva barbecue.
How has acting come so easy to you?
I don't know, and I wouldn't second-guess it. It's just something I did, what I thought they'd want me to do when someone said, "Roll cameras." After playing for the Fear audience and audiences like that, to emote, as it were, in front of a small crew of 30 people is like water off the duck's back, so to speak. I show up and take the money. Hit the marks, find out how many days off you get, and ask if you can keep the wardrobe when you're finished: that's called devotion.
Which pays better: Movies or music?
Movies, in general, are more lucrative. If you do well enough in the music business, you can also get paid gluttonous amounts of money. It depends what day it is and who you're asking.
Has [X-Files creator] Chris Carter used you yet? I'd think you'd be a natural for him, considering his affinity for punk.
We have good feelings about people in that camp. There may be some contact. If that happens, we'll take advantage of it.
If you spend a lot of time acting, does there come a point when you miss the music?
I think that this time out, we'll keep both areas covered. In that way, we won't have to take time out for either one. As long as there is good scheduling, we will not have to suffer. We'll keep the band moving, get a record out every year, do block touring around the world—there's time for it all.
So, what's the deal with beer?
It rhymes with Fear. Enough said.
Is Bud still Fear's official beer?
No. We had marks all over us from Budweiser not touching us with a 10-foot pole. Now, Shiner Bock is a great Texas beer. Also, Bass Ale and Guinness Stout. With those three, you'd pretty much be able to keep happy any beer drinker who is not with a Budweiser.
I saw—I don't know if you know about it—the newSaturday Night Live music compilation CD, and I noticed there is nothing from the Fear appearance on it. Yet that was the most talked-about performance in the history of the show.
Yeah, people from Saturday Night Live called me to clear the tunes again. It was about a year ago. They said something about an anniversary special and plans to include our footage and music in it. It remains to be seen what will happen. It would be natural to have it included. They have never rebroadcast that footage. It's the most interesting piece of footage of their entire run, of all 1,000 years of Saturday Night Live. If they choose not to show it, it demonstrates the reason why people are watching Mad TV and not Saturday Night Live. They are no longer taking chances. They beat jokes to death even if they're not funny. It was a great show when John Belushi was on it, but anyone with any brains could watch the whole show [now] and not have one belly laugh. They might as well have a test pattern on. If 20 years later, they're not going to show their most interesting footage, that's their problem, not mine. We'll be here long after they're gone.
Is a reunion with the original members of Fear out of the question?
Never say never [laughs mysteriously].
Can you repeat the question?
Is it fair to say that it was more important to get everyone moving than to think about politics—like the Dead Kennedys without the politics?
Name one band who had politics enter their music?
Uh, I dunno. The Clash?
You know, anti-authoritarianism . . .
That's not politics. They were spitting in the eye of the establishment. What you have to remember is our band can play. We've had musicians our whole career. I don't think everyone else did. We're into drinking beer and having a good time; I don't want to bore the audience with politics. But there are plenty of political platforms in this band. We mention them. We make snide remarks about what's going on. People can take that home and think about it, or they can work up a good sweat, have a good time, and go home tired. Nobody comes out to see a fucking punk-rock band for the politics. Most people in punk rock don't know how to spell the fucking word. And if they fell into politics, they would not know how to do anything while they were there, let alone how to get out. We venture into politics—listen to what I say, take it home, and think about it if you're not too drunk.
Okay. I want to ask about some rumors about you. Ready?
Did you study opera?
Are you a Nazi?
Absolutely not. Nazis suck.
I think people got that idea because of that logo you had with the eagle.
That's their problem. It's two F's. It has nothing to do with the German Army. Our boys went over and stomped them out. I have no allegiance to the enemy or all the shit they stood for. It's all bullshit, every bit of it.
Are you related to Dead End Kid . . .
. . . Leo Gorcey.
Yeah, that's it.
Oh, so that's the one you're related to?
He's the one.
How are you related?
[Pause, and then in a soft voice] It's a long story. Let's just say we were kin, and he's my main musical influence.
He was a musician?
It's a little-known fact.
I loved those movies as a kid.
So did I.
Does anything piss you off these days?
Sure, lots of stuff.
How much time do you have?
It's a slow news day.
The fact that they let that scumbag O.J. Simpson walk the same Earth as you and I do. That that rich prick in Boulder, Colorado, murdered his beautiful little girl and is walking the same Earth as you and I.
That they continue busing kids to schools that are out of their neighborhoods so they spend all day on the bus—in a strange neighborhood—instead of learning.
I would think that Fear would draw younger people instead of the people who saw you in the early '80s.
The audience seems to replenish itself. It's the same young faces.
Some guys from punk bands who played in the early '80s will say the young people today don't understand what it was to be punk back then.
I don't know if that's true. I do know that young people who play punk now don't play similarly. It all seems like a formula, like popular radio music, which is what this music stood against.
It's like KROQ, which used to operate like an independent station, and now it's like, I dunno, Top 40.
Yeah, like when we used go down there and buy our way onto the air with whisky, beer and hamburgers. We'd bring a couple of Big Macs, some large fries, and a pint of Jack Daniels because they didn't pay their DJs. And there we were: live on KROQ.
Fear plays with Union 13 and Wash at the Foothill, 1922 Cherry Ave., Signal Hill, (562) 494-5196. Fri., 9 p.m. $12. 18+.
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