Painted Willie original line up @ Spinhead Studios, North Hollywood, winter 1984
Phil Newman, Dave Markey, & Nick Delaney (Photo by Alison Braun)
The Painted Willie Experience
In 1984 I was living in the back of a storefront at 10649 Burbank Boulevard in North Hollywood. I helped construct an 8 track-recording studio in this large storefront space during much of the previous year. The place was dubbed Spinhead (a variation of skinhead and pinhead) named, owned and operated by Phil Newman, bassist and budding audio engineer. It was also the name of his record label, the same label that housed our bands Sin 34 and eventually Painted Willie. It was a difficult living situation, but this was my first time living away from my mother's apartment in Santa Monica as a teenager and I couldn’t have been more happy. We had no shower or hot water. Bathing was done in the industrial backyard with a garden hose. The only kitchen facility was a hot plate. Phil also lived there along with Steve the dog, a stray black Labrador we had taken in.
Phil was attempting to run the studio as a business, but having a difficult time doing so. Sin 34 would rehearse and record there, in addition to a few other bands like Americas Hardcore and Bad Religion. Eventually Redd Kross, Sonic Youth, Screaming Trees, NOFX, Nip Drivers, White Flag, Bl'ast, Tater Totz (with Danny Bonaduce!), Greg Graffin & Greg Hetson's one off duo Greg / Greg, Chemical People, Celebrity Skin, and L7 would all track there at one time or another, Phil’s engineering skills improving with each session. In addition, Spinhead hosted many wild parties, including the night Black Flag rocked the house down.
SVDB (Saint Vitus Dance Band) were of the poppy / catchy / crunchy type so-cal punk variety; a tight live band with a definite Damned bent. Frontman Vic Makauskas would hang out and play music at Spinhead, and let it be known his band was on the verge of disintegration, as were many of the hardcore bands in Southern California at the time. Besides, there already was another band using the moniker of Saint Vitus, who had just recently signed to SST Records. In walks this kooky Canadian guitarist named Nick Delaney, ex of Vancouver's No Exit, who had just come to LA in search of the Punk Rock Dream. Nick was buddies with (second) former Black Flag singer Ron Reyes, and apparently Ron had filled Nick’s ears with stories of the Southern California punk scene, of which Nick became convinced he was going to conquer.
Meanwhile, Sin 34 was on the rocks, which allowed the focus to shift on to Painted Willie. Enter the post hardcore era. Phil and I had been playing for a few years by now and we had grown musically. Part of it was having the studio to play in 24/7. But also we had grown tired of the rigid rules and restrictions of hardcore, which was crashing and burning before our eyes. The genre had played itself out, suffering from clone conformity and gang violence. Around the same time there was an interesting scene emerging locally with 100 Flowers, The Gun Club, The Salvation Army, Green on Red, The Dream Syndicate, Redd Kross, and The Bangs (who would become The Bangles) dubbed “The Paisley Underground” by the local press, there was some great music here. But of course all the truly great stuff was appearing on SST Records at the time. Bands like The Stains, Saccharine Trust, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Black Flag and the best band on the label The Minutemen. It was an insane roster, unprecedented in American independent rock history.
Painted Willie started as 4 piece; 2 guitars (Vic and Nick), and Phil and I on bass and drums respectively. Phil dubbed the band from a 1950's Thesaurus he had found in a thrift store. Apparently it was an Old English acronym for homosexual, or more approximately transvestite or drag queen. Phil was straight, I think he just enjoyed the imagery and the confrontational aspect of the name. Right before our first show, at the Cathay De Grande dollar punk night, Vic suddenly dropped out of the band. Apparently his straightforward guitar playing didn't jibe with the wilder, avant-garde sty lings of Nick, who now took to calling himself "Willie" after the band). Willie was getting more and more out there, with so much energy and ideas constantly exuding from him. It was hard to tell if he was a genius or a complete freak (then again, what's the difference?)
In this incarnation. the band recorded a three song (one each from each member) 7" ep simply titled Painted Willie. Ragged Army (Nick's or Will's) best song by far, Paper Tiger (my contribution, with a definitive Meat Puppets influenced mid-section), and Phil's stunning Kill It as the B-side. It's a gritty and unique record, with odd time signatures and quirky arrangements. There was a fair amount of airplay of the single on KROQ's Rodney On The Roq show. But the music scene in LA in 1984 was a little whack. All of the clubs had closed, and punk rock, post-punk, post-hardcore, whatever you wanted to call it- had no venue after the Cathay De Grande shut it's doors. The venues that remained decided to shut their doors on punk shows. The second wave of LA Punk had crested. It was around this time I first heard the term "alternative", used in a review in Option Magazine to describe our debut single. Of course years later this “alternative” thing would become a different beast, a music business marketing moniker and a radio format.
Nick was an eccentric and awkward socially, but his guitar playing and song writing was unique. He shaved his head like a Hare Krishna, except for a small circle on the top, which he died blue, with, a black center. He would later explain this was the island on his head. He would affix a cocktail umbrella to the center of it, and claim to take naps there in the late afternoon. You can see Nick in the last scene of my 1984 film Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, playing (of course) a Hare Krishna. It only took a month or two of "Will" Nick's living with us in that crammed back room of Spinhead, for tensions to come to a boiling point. As much as I liked his songs, his erratic / manic genius turned annoying. Nick was given his walking papers.
Without missing a beat, Painted Willie recorded a 12" EP titled My Fellow Americans as a stripped down two piece, with Phil and myself comprising the line-up. Phil played the guitar parts, and I took the photograph which graces the simple black & white cover. What appeared to be a homeless man in downtown LA's skid row draped in an American flag was actually Lino Lousy of the band Crankshaft. The Los Angeles 1984 Olympics was underway. Ronald Reagan was reigning supreme in the White House. This would be Painted Willie's decidedly most political record in the band's history. My Fellow Americans opens the ep with a dirge instrumental with a somewhat humorous political discourse layered over the top of it. The left wing discussion is mixed to the left channel, spoken by the visiting Dutch punk band BGK. The right wing chatter is mixed on the right channel, spoken by various girlfriends of the band, one being Jennifer “Precious” Finch (future of L7), who was hooked up with Nick at the time. They were not speaking seriously of their political leanings, we told them to be as conservative as they could. It's an interesting track, and it was the one that got the most airplay on this disc. This is followed by Part Two, a Phil composition originally performed by Sin 34, but never recorded. The song was inspired by the gloomy movie On The Beach and tells the story of an atomic bomb survivor in his last moments of life.
Crossed Fingers opens side 2, which I warble lyrics of genuine hope vs. direct action. It's one of my favorite songs that I have recorded. I penned the new lyrics and Phil had previously composed the music during the early years of Sin 34. I recall Julie's (different) lyrics of that song, as it was then called It's The Great Punk In, Charlie Brown (too bad that was never recorded.) It's followed by a punk / funk anti-Ronny Reagan song I wrote and sang called Republican Suntan (later retitled Republican Sunburn on the Relics release.) It's decidedly lighthearted and comic relief on this otherwise fairly serious collection. The side closes with a psychedelic instrumental remix of the title track "My Fellow Americans".
Painted Willie was once again a rhythm section without a guitarist. For the handfull of live shows we played in the fall of 1984, Phil and I once again enlisted our old friend Mike Vallejo of Circle One on guitar. He was also an early guitarist in Sin 34. We played a hall show adjacent to Macarthur Park in Downtown LA (with the Red Devils) and a show at the Mabuhay Gardens as a part of a Maximum Rock N Roll night.
In early 1985 Vic Makauskas rejoined the band and we wrote a set of new material. The band subsequently became more straightforward punk / rock with Makauskas back in the fold. That spring two separate demo sessions would eventually yield a contract with SST Records and a six-month national tour with my heroes Black Flag in 1986. We were beyond psyched to be added to the SST roster, and even more excited to have our first tour of the continental United States awaiting us. If that weren’t enough, SST also agreed to distribute my new film Lovedolls Superstar. If I had been told a year earlier that I would be a part of SST, I simply would have not believed it. We re-recorded the ten songs we had done as demos with Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn producing. However, his production (over compression and lack of dynamics) stripped the material of its punch, and the subsequent LP release Mind Bowling suffered. In hindsight, it was the typical situation of the demos being far better than what would end up being released.
Just as we were preparing to hit the road the shocking news came of D. Boon’s death on the highway. Dennes Boon was killed as the Minutemen’s touring van went off the interstate 10 just inside the Arizona border in the early am hours of December 22 1985. His girlfriend Linda Kite was driving and had fallen asleep at the wheel. D. Boon was lying down in the back with a fever and was thrown from the van, decapitated in the accident. Linda survived the crash, as did her sister Jenene, who became permanently disabled and wheelchair bound after the accident. This was an extremely dreadful turn of events. All this looming greatness was eclipsed by this tragic event. I remember being locked up in an edit bay for days with no sleep, trying to finish Lovedolls Superstar before the New Year and start of the tour. I didn’t go to the funeral services; I just couldn’t deal with it at the time. My friends Jordan and Jennifer Schwartz recanted the service for me.
D. Boon’s death cast a dark shadow on the tour. Everyone was severely thrown At first I thought perhaps the tour would be postponed, but the show went on in the grand tradition of show business. For scores of dates that year, many who attended would come backstage to express their grief. I am blessed to have known D. Boon, and lucky enough to be a veteran of countless Minutemen shows. In addition to being my all time favorite guitarist, he was a super sweet guy. I recall the last conversation I had with Dennes. It was in front of the SST offices on Artesia Blvd. He was changing the spark plugs on the Minutemen van. The same van he would be killed in a month or two later. “Welcome aboard!” D. said smiling, knowing Painted Willie had just signed to the label.
I had known D. prior to my enterance to the SST world, thru punk rock parties and shows; he was a shot of life. I recall buying a copy of The Descendents "Fat" 7" ep, and The Minutemen "Joy" 7"ep (both on New Alliance, his label with band mate Mike Watt) off of him personally at the San Fernando valley dive Godzilla's! D. Boon also promoted shows early on at the Star Theater in San Pedro, where Sin 34 played once on an amazing bill with Red Cross, Mood Of Defiance, and The Stains. I remember being shocked when he handed me $100.00 at the end of the night, as Sin 34 never made that much money before, at that point. I recall hanging out with him in alleyways of Hollywood and the South Bay, getting drunk and laughing a lot. D. once dressed as a flasher for Halloween, he said it was the cheapest costume he could find, a trench coat he already owned, and his birthday suit. He flashed the audience in between every song that night at that Minutemen show at Cal Arts Halloween 1983. It was hilarious. I asked him to be in Lovedolls Superstar, playing the part of a baked potato (don't ask, I do not remember why). He was also going to record a song for the soundtrack upon his return from Phoenix, but alas he never came back. I dedicated the film to him.
The relentless six-month tour that commenced was an intense and sometimes grueling experience. The In My Head Tour was the title of Black Flag’s eminent swan song release. The tour itself ran with military precision; thirteen of us in all total, two white Dodge Ram 350 vans, and one International Harvester Truck for the massive PA system. Painted Willie would record and release a live EP titled Live From Van Nuys recorded early on the tour . Happily, I met quite a few interesting characters on this excursion, first and foremost Joe Cole, Mitch Bury, Dave “Ratman” Levine, Cel Revulta, Sim Cain and Andrew Weiss.
Yet there was more weirdness to be had in this reality of 1986. To me the writing was on the wall from the get go; this would be Black Flag's last waltz. I was under the impression Ginn decided to pull the plug on the band before this tour started. He just resigned himself to the schedule and situation and went with it. He seemed more excited about playing in Gone. The original plan was in fact to have Painted Willie back Ginn as Gone. I do recall us practicing in this incarnation. Thankfully Gone came together right quick before the start of the tour with the talents of Trenton, New Jersey’s finest rhythm section; Sim Cain and Andrew Weiss (which Henry would snatch up when he formed The Rollins Band in 1987, touche'.) I suppose then it wasn't so strange that in those six months I never once saw Henry Rollins and Greg Ginn speak. They traveled in separate vehicles and came together on stage, night after night. The oddest thing about it was how the tour went so seemingly smoothly. However, Rollins did give me a hard time whenever I broke my camera out. Apparently he wasn’t too thrilled that I was documenting the tour. His bad vibes did not deter me, I kept the camera rolling. I ended up shooting eight hours worth of material that I eventually edited together in a film I titled Reality 86’d. It’s a harmless little concert film, unfortunately Greg Ginn got in the way of its release. Ironically, it was Henry who wanted to release the film in 1994 through a distribution deal he had struck with Time Warner. Ginn was adamant my film would remain unseen, and this would not change throughout the coming years. Such a shame, as it is a valid historic musical document.
Painted Willie embarked it's own US tour in 1987 in support of the second LP Upsidedowntown to a less than positive response, and broke apart soon thereafter. The following year Phil joined the band I Love You, as they were involved in a major label bidding war. The band was made up of longhaired 20-somethings fresh from Suburban Florida who recently landed in Hollywood, and whom I had met through mutual friends (Redd Kross drummer Victor Indrizzo, Tate Mosesian; son of b-movie actor Sid Haig, and Fred Trujillo). I had placed them on a compilation I was producing at the time called The Melting Plot for SST (it was supposidly a benefit for an unrealized film project of mine, which, alas SST failed to fork over any coin whatsoever). The recording session was where they first met Phil, as he engineered it at Spinhead. I Love You did not come from the punk rock underground like we did. They didn't have much experience being in a band, let alone being courted by every major record label in tinseltown. A dark cloud immediately descended on Phil as he was now in line to be a Rockstar ® a'la Guns & Roses. This was a world we were never a part of. We were punkers who put out our own records, and toured rigorously in vans, sleeping on floors... but the late 80's were indeed closing in. Phil's tenure with I Love You would not last long. He appeared on their pre-Geffen release before leaving the band and the music business under much duress. Ironically enough, The David Geffen Company would end up releasing my next film (1991 The Year Punk Broke) a few years later.
In 1988 SST released a posthumous compilation of Painted Willie's early work on the LP Relics, this would be the band's final release, along with a cover of Captain Beefheart's Clear Spot for aforementioned Melting Plot. It's of my opinion that the band's early material is it's best.
One of the last shows, Ventura County Line, Fall 1987 Vic Makauskas & Dave Markey (Photo by Joe Cole)