Confessions and Misinformation
Fear's Lee Ving
Ask Lee Ving why he, his wife, and his family moved to Austin six years ago, and he'll tell you: "We had friends here, so we were gonna move here, anyway." Ask any of the usual civic-pride-type questions a mag like the Chronicle asks a noted rock musician who moves here -- what do you like about our fair city, etc., etc.? -- he'll tersely state in a jokey Texas accent that he won't divulge information that'll attract "foreigners." (An odd choice of words from one who moved here from Los Angeles by way of Philadelphia.) Make any sort of attempt to get a bearing on Lee Ving's pre-punk history, he'll "plead the Fifth."
In short, if you were hoping for the skinny on the man's rumored operatic training, singing waiter past, or long-whispered relation to Dead End Kid Leo Gorcey (which would explain much of Ving's appearance and thuggish stage persona), you won't get it here. Mostly because you won't get it from Lee Ving -- at least, not in print.
The longtime leader of Fear, the seminal L.A. band whose dirty-words-and-slamdancing appearance on Saturday Night Live 14 years ago probably did more than anything else to establish the American stereotype of punk rock, Lee Ving's a man with a very carefully constructed public image, one that's the design of a sharp and cunning mind. And Ving happens to be highly protective of both that image and of his private life. He loves to talk, loves to give interviews, but will only tell you what he wants you to know. Nothing more, nothing less. One begins to suspect he was granted such a tightly set mouth to ensure the only words he'd utter would be the ones he chooses to utter.
Too bad. Whenever someone's crafted a body of work as compelling as Fear's, you wanna know the inner workings of the minds responsible. And few hardcore bands cultivated a noise and stance as volatile and adventurous as Fear's. Constantly teetering on the edge separating Tex Avery slapstick from impending violence, Fear threatened as much as they entertained. Their pitch-black wit managed to make sexism, misanthropy, and homophobia deeply hilarious, and the band's immortal take-no-prisoners appearance in Penelope Spheeris' classic L.A. punkumentary The Decline of Western Civilization is all the evidence you need of how Ving managed to elevate crowd-baiting to an art form. ("Next time, don't bite so hard when I come, okay? You only spit as good as you suck, shithead!")
"Well, that's your responsibility as a person that does this kinda thing," remarks Ving. "It's to outrage, challenge authority. That's your responsibility. People wouldn't come and see you otherwise. I mean, what the hell? You can listen to the news at night. It doesn't challenge authority just to tell us about stuff. That's pretty placid. It doesn't get anybody going. You dig up sore spots and that kinda shit, that's what you wake up and listen to."
And for a punk rock band, Fear hardly fit either the two-barchords-and-a-leather-jacket, sub-Ramones idea of punk, or the inept Bad Brains impersonations of the hardcore bands that followed in their wake. Ludicrous time-signatures were set to breakneck tempos. Lead guitarist Philo Cramer made vomitory noises over Ving's viciously jacked rhythm guitar, suggesting a familiarity with Captain Beefheart made plausible by Cramer's off-the-record tales of hanging out with the Magic Band as a pre-adolescent in the Trout Mask Replica days. (Ving recalls Fear rehearsing down the hall from the Magic Band, but doubts that had any bearing on their musical ideas.) And Ving himself managed to evoke Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and a drunken, belligerent Confessionserent pipe fitter bellowing for the ump's head at a Red Sox game, all at once. Fear's two LPs should be all the proof needed that this band was not as moronic as their pose.
"They called us `musos,'" Ving grinned in recollection three years back, when he, Cramer, and drummer Spit Stix reunited and drafted L.A. session bassist Will MacGreggor to revive Fear's bad name. "'Cuz we knew how to play our instruments. But we weren't ashamed of that fact. Y'know, we wanted to bring as much strength to the thing as we could in knowing how to play the fucking instrument. Which," he laughed hard, "is a pre-requisite!"
Spit Stix figured the jazz-and-blues-bred sophistication of Fear music had little to do with the shape of their record collections. "I think that's our sense of humor more than anything else."
"Yeah," Ving agreed, "something to make ourselves laugh. We were entertaining ourselves, putting things in the songs that...
"...didn't belong!" smirked Stix.
"That didn't belong," Ving began clarifying, "or weren't really required, or were just there for our own amusement."
"Put things where it hurts," Stix asserted. "It's like, `Oh, there's a bar that's 33/16! Oh! Ouch!'" he laughed.
Philo Cramer: "There's an entire rule book that we could write, if we wished to waste our time, about how to do this kinda music. I ain't shittin' you: There's bands whose songs you can't tell one from the next, but they'd tell us, `Oh, you can't do that!'
"I can break somebody's fingers in triple time," he continues.
They were John Belushi's favorite punk band. They also must have been Hollywood's favorite punk band, not only in the civic sense, but in the industrial sense. Ever watch the "punk rock" episodes of Eighties TV series like Quincy and notice how much the "punk bands" featured resemble scandalous versions of Fear?
Ving was hardly surprised. "Hollywood, TV, and movies tend to do that to anybody. They make people be bigger or worse than they normally are. But I think that in that case, they really missed the boat entirely. They would take something that you should really be careful of if you run into it on the street, and made it look like clown amusement for children. Just an unrealistic medium."
Ving should know, having done plenty of work in that medium, usually playing "a bad guy that was able to stop in the midst of doing this mischief and sing a couple of song[s]." There was also a healthy chunk of movie credits, including films like Flashdance and Clue. Then, there's musical activity you would never suspect.
"I did some sessions and some touring and an album with Tom Scott, the jazz horn player. I wrote and sang a song with Ry Cooder that was a soundtrack tune for a Louis Malle film that was about the Baytown, Texas, shrimping industry and the immigrant problem after the Vietnam war and that sort of thing. There was a bunch of different stuff that was happening around that time." Including -- following Fear's '87 breakup -- a country band, Range War, that gigged in L.A. and Texas.
"We played in San Antone with the Gatlin Brothers, Ray Stevens, and Asleep at the Wheel. We opened up for Johnny Lee on a tour of the West Coast for awhile. We played in Nashville for some RCA people. That was awhile back."
It sure was. Since then, five years past Fear's disappearance, they reappeared. Why? "It was just obvious to me that Fear had really not run its race. The course hadn't really been run. There was a lot more to do with it, and it became more and more tempting to get back involved with it."
So, what happened, after a pair of tours, to Philo and Spit?
"They became fundamental Islamics and moved to Iraq."
Now, waitaminute! I happen to know that Spit is living in New York, and Philo is living in New England!
"Uh, that's probably our covert misinformation service. It works very well."
Well, I was told during our pre-interview conversation that Philo is raising a couple of kids in New England!
"No, no, that's an experiment. They're two test tube kids that he's been trying to generate from some cloned prehistoric fetal tissue that he was able to come by from an archeological dig in Southern Iraq, which was part of what drew him and them to try to relocate there, and also establish some punk rock in Baghdad."
So, why did this new Fear lineup (ex-Frank Zappa bassist Scott Thunes, drummer Andrew Jaimez, guitarist Sean Cruse) tour for awhile under the name Lee Ving's Army?
"That's true, we did a few performances under that moniker. But we were always Fear. It was just another kernel of our misinformation dissemination program."
Well, what have the new guys brought to the band?
"More skill. And that, of course, was the idea. I wanted people that could play complex things, but also enjoyed playing simple stuff. Actually, I was just looking for great players. That was the long and short of it." Later, Ving will remark that he likes to hear "players with lots of skill, where it's coming out all over the place.
"I've always been a big fan of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Roland Kirk, Charlie Parker, Django Reinhardt, McCoy Tyner on the piano, Archie Shepp, Beaver Harris," he says. "As far as popular music is concerned, I'm not seeing anything that I think is hallmark stuff: no historical, innovative things are happening at the moment, only at the regular rate of change. I don't see anybody breaking those barriers.
"But the business is never really geared towards anyone that does anything really different. Though you can't really say that, because every once in awhile, someone comes along who does something very differently, and they're able to attract attention and to make it stick -- make a commodity out of it. So we still think the gray matter in the American population isn't deep enough to absorb what we're doing. Not only that, but to take it to heart and to really like it so as to enable them to get the steam out on Friday night, or to put it on their record player or CD machine and get steam out whenever they put it on. And hopefully, it will get put on more for that reason than that the message is honest and positive and all that kind of shit. You know what I mean?"
Well, whether the 1995 model Fear will achieve that lost maverick soul Lee Ving misses remains to be seen. The players certainly have the skill, imagination, and credits to try, however, what with Scott Thunes' Zappa pedigree and all.
"Yes, indeed," says Ving, before practically poking a hole in his cheek as he adds, "He also played with Eugene Ormandy and Henry Mancini. And I think he directed the Norman Luboff Choir and did some consulting work for Mitch Miller."
Uh, yeah. The evidence available from the new Fear record, Have Another Beer With Fear, is that the new blood has indeed made the band potent again, resulting in their strongest work since the first Fear LP (even though the best Fear on record would doubtlessly be their cuts on the Decline soundtrack). And unlike that Slash LP, the rich quality of the production actually enhances the material, this time around. And as a lyricist, Ving is still as hilariously politically incorrect as ever. Of course, four songs alone are about beer. Three years ago, Ving declared Budweiser to be The Official Beer of Fear, "because it's red, white, and blue." Now, he says that still holds true, "unless there's a Shiner Bock handy."
I remember hearing you liked to shop at Whole Foods because they allowed you to drink beer while you shopped.
"I don't know where you hear these stories! You know, our misinformation service is a 24-hour operation, and we've gotta figure that they get a bunch of details out there that people have to weed their way through." n