Happy, Happy, Happy! - A Memory of Arturo Vega
Joey Ramone, Arturo Vega, and me in the studio in 1978. Photo by Tom Hearn
“Really Arturo, ABBA?” I shake my head in disbelief as I enter his loft, where the Swedish rock band is blaring from the record player. The record player is on a table, and next to it sits the Ramones' entire silk-screen operation—one long counter weighted down with a wooden silk screen, cans of white acrylic paint, and stacks of black T-shirts. Arturo is busy making another pass with the squeegee over the latest model of the new Ramones logo, the one with the names of Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy encircling an American eagle clutching a baseball bat in one talon and an apple-tree branch in the other. It will become their most famous design ever.
“Aren’t they wonderful?” Arturo beams at me, looking up from the T-shirt. I can’t tell if he’s talking about the music or the T-shirts, since he’s never been self-conscious about his musical guilty pleasures. Let’s face it: even though ABBA is spectacularly popular, no one would ever accuse them of being hip or guess they'd be on the stereo here at the epicenter of punk, the Ramones' loft at 6 East Second Street. Arturo Vega lives here.
That was the beauty of Arturo. He would combine elements that didn't fit, and sometimes the end result actually worked. Though, back in the late 70s, I wasn't so sure about the whole ABBA nonsense.
“ABBA is like some satanic bubblegum that you can’t stop chewing, ya know?” he explains, noticing my displeasure. “Es like what you think happiness should sound like, right?”
“I don’t know about that,” I say, considering his theory. The Swedish pop music was way too loud.
“You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen / Dancing queen, feel the beat from the tambourine / You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life / See that girl, watch that scene, diggin' the dancing queen!"
“That’s happiness?” I scowl, “Give me the fucking alternative..."
“Happy, happy, happy!” Arturo chuckles, mimicking a line from the Ramones' “Gimmie Gimmie Shock Treatment” as he pulls a freshly printed T-shirt out from under the screen and replaces it with another. The song's lyrics are “Peace and love is here to stay / And now I can wake up and face the day / Happy, happy, happy all the time / Shock treatment I’m doing fine.” It’s become a sort of mantra around the loft whenever things aren’t looking too good for the band, which is quite often. Arturo would smile that inviting smile of his and, overflowing with irony, say “Happy, happy, happy!” Then everyone would kinda snicker, suck in their gut, and keep on going. Sometimes a line from a song is all you have to go on.
Arturo holds the freshly screened shirt up for me to inspect. “Isn’t it beautiful! Es so… so… so majestic! Like, rigid militarism combined with that 'Beat on the Brat' honesty, right?”
He isn’t just pleased with his new design, he’s thrilled. It really is an iconic symbol. “Wow, really cool,” I say admiringly. “Can I have one?”
Arturo rolls his eyes. “Donchoo ever have any money? Doesn’t Holmstrom pay you? You know, Legs MucNeil, maybe you should be looking for another job?”
“Doing what?” I mope, knowing that now isn’t the time to hit him up for a pack of smokes and a tall boy of Bud. I only have three Marlboros left. Shit. At least the ABBA album finished, and Arturo didn’t restart it, like he usually does.
“I don’t know. There’s gotta be something you can do.” He thinks hard before breaking out laughing at the absurdity of his own words. “Nevermind! Of course you can have a shirt, but you gotta wait until we get back from London, these has to last us the whole time!”
“Why are you guys going to England, anyway?” I gripe, not seeing any benefit to the Ramones' upcoming weekend in the UK. I know about Malcolm McLaren and the cool rock 'n' roll fashions coming out of the King's Road, but other than Dr. Feelgood and the Flaming Groovies there isn’t much happening music-wise in London. And while those bands are OK, they don’t sound like the future of rock 'n' roll to me. At least not the way the Ramones do. Besides, who was I gonna hang out with over Fourth of July weekend?
Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the English punk-rock explosion is waiting for the Ramones to show them how to detonate the bomb. It will only be a matter of days before the shit hits the fan. I continue griping. “Come on, England sucks. There’s nothing going there! I mean, warm beer—you call that civilization?”
"You’d rather we stayed here and played My Father’s Place?” Arturo deadpans. He's referring to a shitty nightclub out on Long Island that’s a hangout for the mullet set, and quickly becoming a Ramones staple. He had a point. There aren’t many places that welcome the Ramones outside of Max’s and CBGBs. It’s a pretty desperate situation all around, even if none of us can understand the resistance to the world’s greatest rock 'n' roll band.
“No, I think we should take over a radio station,” I offer, growing excited. “We could, like, barricade ourselves inside the station and just blast the Ramones for 24 hours until everyone realizes how great they are! You know, like that DJ did in The Buddy Holly Story, how he just barricaded himself inside and played 'That’ll Be The Day' over and over."
Arturo just smiles at me. “You’re such a child, arenchoo? You know, they do have SWAT teams now, hahaha! You’d be dead before 'Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World' even finished.”
“Well, at least it was an idea,” I mumbled, defending myself. “There’s gotta be someway of getting the music out there.”
I’m interrupted by Joey Ramone bursting through the door, happy and excited for his upcoming weekend in England. He's gushing and fires out a machine-gun greeting: “Hey Legs, what’s happening? What’s going on? Where’s the party?”
He’s carrying a few packages, and he dumps them on the kitchen counter before joining us around the silk-screen operation. His enthusiasm for England only makes me sadder and lonelier.
“Hey,” I nod to Joey. “Where were you?”
“My mom had to take me shopping,” Joey explains. “I had to get some shit for the trip, but when we went to get my vitamins, there was like this crazy homeless lady inside the health-food store who was screaming at the cashier. I thought she was gonna murder somebody, she was like really nuts. So we had to wait for the cops to come. I thought they were gonna pack her off to Bellevue, but all they did was take her name and address—and then they just left her there to continue her tantrum, man. The cops probably went back to get more doughnuts. So it was taking like hours, and it turned out all she wanted was a birthday card for her nephew. So I helped her pick one out, a real funny one.”
“You shoulda mailed it for her,” Arturo joked. “I can just see the headline: '27 Massacred at 14th Street Post Office, Little Boy Says His Aunt Never Forgot a Birthday.'”
“She wasn’t that bad, for a nut, yaknow?” Joey smiles as he loops a strand of hair around his index finger. He never stops playing with his hair. Ever. “And she even paid me for helping her, she gave me a quarter!”
“Save it for her legal defense fund,” Arturo quips as he runs the squeegee over another T-shirt. “She’s probably one of these eccentric millionaires who es gonna leave all her money to her cats.”
“Maybe I can get Paul in her will, too?" Paul is Joey's cat. He grabs a shopping bag off the kitchen counter and pours over it, looking for something. Whatever he’s looking for, he can’t find it. He’s even worse than me, and I lose everything immediately. Most of Joey’s mornings at the loft are spent searching for shit—scraps of paper with girls' phone numbers on them, articles of clothing, a pair of sneakers—anything. Searching for Joey’s stuff was a daily ritual.
“Yeah, she probably had millions stashed under her mattress,” Joey laughs, abandoning the shopping bag. “That cheap bitch, she probably had thousands in cash on her. I shoulda frisked her, but she wasn’t smelling too good.”
And then we’re all in hysterical laughter.
“So whatta we doing tonight?” Joey asks, as he stares at some of the finished T-shirts hanging out to dry. “And why does John’s name always have to come first?”
Arturo ignores the question. He knows better than to open that can of worms.
“Johnny says he can’t afford to pay me to go to England,” Arturo explains, dodging Joey’s query. He's become an expert at navigating the Ramones' internal politics. “He said I can keep all the money I make selling T-shirts, so I thought I’d make a bunch of 'em to pay for my airfare and expenses. John said he didn’t know why anyone would want to buy a Ramones T-shirt, but I was welcome to try and sell em."
“Yeah,” Joey snorts again. “Always the optimist, isn’t he?” Joey was already tired of Johnny Ramone taking all the enthusiasm out of the Ramones' creative possibilities with his excruciatingly practical approach to band business.
“I think they look really cool, yaknow?” Joey says, admiring the T-shirt design, pretending to get past the order of names on the shirts. But Joey can never let anything go. “It’s like one of those presidential things, yaknow? That they hang on his desk whenever he speaks? What are they called? Emblems?”
“Presidential seals,” Arturo corrects him as he puts the ABBA record back on.
“Uh-oh,” Joey cracks. “I feel a 'Dancing Queen' about to rape me! You know this is crap, right?”
“Es happy music!” Arturo laughs, singing along with the record. “I was telling Legs, es what happiness is supposed to sound like!”
“No one was ever that happy,” Joey cracks. “Except maybe you, Arturo."
”Oh go on and be your big punk rockers,” Arturo tells us, glowing. “It makes me happy, and es all that matters, right?”
“Happy, happy, happy!” Joey laughs, mesmerized by Arturo’s assembly line production as he silk-screens the shirts. Arturo falls into a faster pace, bolstered by the Swedish pop music. We just stand over him, watching him work.
“It would be really cool if we actually sold some shirts, yaknow?” Joey muses, looking at me and dreaming. “And then maybe we can afford to eat breakfast, hahaha!”
And then we’re all laughing again.
Back in 1975, Legs McNeil co-founded Punk Magazine, which is part of the reason you know even know what that word means. He also wrote Please Kill Me, which basically makes him the Studs Terkel of punk rock. In addition to his work as a columnist for VICE, he continues to write for his personal blog, pleasekillme.com.
You should also follow him on Twitter - @Legs__McNeil
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