David Lee Beowülf
The story so far…
Not too long ago, I was walking home from dinner with Daisy Lee Beowulf, when I spotted a sign outside Otto’s Shrunken Head Tiki Bar (visit when in New York City) indicating that my old pal Bobby Steele was playing — a solo gig even — right then and there. Turns out it was an evening of Bobby and his acoustic guitar crooning all night long. That’s pretty darn punk in these dark days of pre-manufactured uber-corporate music. Boy, when the crooners of the 1930s sound fresh and exciting, something’s really wrong with the world of pop music…
Bobby Steele, Undead is a punk rock catalyst, perhaps the only true in-yer-face “I’ll do it my way” punk rock entrepreneur, currently responsible for several punk bands in various states of hiatus (or rigor mortis), and former (“ex-” can be such an ugly prefix…) lead guitarist for the Misfits, the most famous and influential American punk rock band that’s still bigger than the Beatles and almost as big as Manowar, still remains Undead.
Bobby Steele is a punk rocker and has been a punk rocker since before most of the 18-34 demographic were born (do the math: 2006 – 1974 = 32 years; and that’s only because AP — anno punkrock — officially began 30 March 1974). It’s tough to be a real punk rocker, though, what with all the money to be made not being a punk rocker, what with all the bad behavior and risk-taking that should’ve killed you in your early 20s, and what with growing up being so hard to resist. Yet Bobby Steele resisted those temptations of a false normalcy and lives life on the edge — where he belongs.
And speaking of the “where are they now?” file, Bobby’s still in the punk spotlight, living dangerously in the heart of New York City’s East Village — and it’s mighty dangerous to be a loud and proud supporter of Republicans in this most liberal of liberal US cities — constantly revisiting the punk rock formula that made great music then and now, as there is a mysterious, secret new album in the works…
…and a special birthday party coming up in a few weeks.
For those not in the know, who is Bobby Steele these days?
I’m the guitar player from the original Misfits. The ultimate bad boy of rock and roll, the most hated person in rock and roll.
But the Undead has fans, right?
I get a fair amount of fan mail. I haven’t gotten any hate mail in about seven years now… I guess that means the Misfits are losing their grip…
What are the Misfits now?
I don’t know what it is. The last I heard was that Marky Ramone left. I know Michale Graves left so Jerry started doing the vocals… so is Jerry playing the drums, too? [no, Robo is back]. Maybe his daughter is playing drums?
So how are you the most hated person in rock and roll?
Because people in the music business don’t like somebody who won’t put up with their bullshit and I don’t put up with anybody’s bullshit.
What are some examples of people in history who won’t put up with the industry’s bullshit?
There’s been some in history, but they seem to put up with it until a point where they don’t have to put up with it. One of my favorite’s is George Michael. Once he got to a position of power he just…
Right, but he was the one who challenged the validity of all record contracts. He walked out of a contract [with Sony], based on the argument that since record companies have been allowed to terminate contracts on a whim, that the artist, on a whim, can terminate as well. And that’s what he did.
I did not know this. The only thing I knew was that he had some good hits and then revealed himself to the world as a public bathroom-stalking scoundrel.
He just basically decided he didn’t want to be their pet anymore. They had a hit song from him and they wanted him to do a video for “Freedom.” He refused and got a bunch of lip-syncing supermodels to do it instead.
Is that a creative thing? Let’s be honest about it: everyone knows that the record labels, when you start out, the record labels own the artist. They own your success. What do you get to do as an artist? Well, you get to go do your thing, you get to promote your music and play it live, and you’ve gotten yourself involved in the music business…
It’s getting to be too much about the business.
Since the 1990s, a long time ago when college radio meant something, nowadays, who cares, a bunch of people put together a couple of half-rocking songs, the record label snatches them up and they’re on the radio and it seems like it’s all about putting all this money and hype behind a new band that isn’t that good.
It’s mediocre, canned music that’s produced with a cookie cutter. They take one backing track and shuffle the beats around to make it a little different, but it’s all the same song.
What about some bands you know around New York City’s East Village?
How about The Strokes?
I am unfamiliar with the Strokes. From what I do know, they sound just like the Star Spangles, another local band.
OK, but let’s be honest that rock and roll is all about ripping off other artists.
Sure, but the Star Spangles are like a real punk band, struggling for years and deserve a break, but the Strokes are about rich kids with a rich daddy who bought them a record contract. Rock and roll is not for rich people.
Why? Because a lot of people who make it are, all of a sudden, the rich people?
Because you’ve got to have some pain, you’ve got to pay some dues, you’ve got to have something to be angry about.
What about rich people who are on drugs? They’re in pain, no?
They’re just sedated. That’s a big part of the problem with the music industry for the last thirty years. It’s no longer a way out of the ghetto, now it’s just a hobby. You pick up a guitar, learn a few chords; two weeks later you’re on the phone with the four-thousand-dollar-an-hour attorney negotiating a deal with Warner Brothers Records, sight unseen, because daddy’s got the money to grease palms.
You make a good point: just learn a few chords and you don’t even have to sing. I hear these people on the radio and there’s this whiney voice. I can’t see how girls can even like the way that sounds. I can understand the rock and roll thing, I can understand the attraction to some scumbag up on the stage, but the tired, lame voice…
And some of these people just process their voices so you can’t tell how bad they sound?
…had nothing to do with that… I didn’t see it until 1981 and I was like… woah! It’s funny that you mention that… The main character in the film is Swan [played by Paul Williams] and they couldn’t use the term “Swansong” for his record label because Led Zeppelin would’ve sued. Nobody’s confronted me about it in a long time, not in a long time.
Maybe after this interview Paul Williams might try to sue you or something?
That’d just be one more midget I’m having problems with.
You’re still having problems with that other person?
Oh, yeah! I haven’t had a chance to talk to any lawyers yet, but he accused me of some federal crimes in Circus‘ July 2005 issue.
Like what? Copyright infringement?
No, I’m just being defamed. According to the magazine’s interview with Glenn Danzig the reason the Misfits’ album 12 Hits from Hell didn’t come out was because [reading from the magazine] “… it was not a real CD, it was just something that Bobby Steele did on his own, he went in an re-recorded stuff; Bobby and someone at Caroline [Records] did that. That is one of the only times former Misfits’ bassist Jerry and I got together and agreed on something. That was not a real Misfits’ release. That was re-recorded and remixed without our permission. That’s why it did not come out…”
Boy, Circus Magazine called Jerry Only the former Misfits’ bassist. Are they that out of touch? Isn’t it odd that he’s talking about the band like they don’t even exist? Not to mention that [another former Misfit’s guitarist] Doyle is playing guitar for Danzig [along with Prong’s Tommy Victor and Type O Negative’s Johnny Kelly — not a bad band]?
So he accuses me of a fraud, plus, because it’s something that I did on my own that says that I own the copyright. Under United States law, the copyright belongs to someone who creates it unless there’s something in writing to the contrary, so they cannot stop me from releasing that album. So probably in Halloween this year, I’ve got a release that’s going to change everyone’s opinion about the Misfits and the Undead.
I wonder if, with Doyle in the band, Danzig is playing Misfits’ songs? He has or had a reputation for refusing to play any of them.
He’s doing a farewell tour and is playing Misfits songs.
It’s funny that he even mentions your name, because over the years, before the Misfits explosion from the mid-1990s, before that there was this air of mystery regarding the band, because Danzig wouldn’t talk about them at all.
I liked the mystery. I think that Jerry has totally blown the mystery out of the band, it’s lost the mystique. In the long run, I think it’s going to hurt financially.
Why? Because people won’t buy the records? Because people won’t care?
Because people are already like getting disgusted with it. They’re fed up with the shows, they’re fed up with the merchandising. it’s going too far. Anything they can stick the Misfits on, antenna balls, keychains. I think it’s at the point where people are thinking that the band is just milking the fans for their money. It’s product. It’s a collector’s item. I’ve got plenty of rare, collectible things and not one of them says “collector’s item”.
Are your records collectible?
Some of them are. I see some crazy spending going on these days. Just recently a copy of the Dawn of the Undead CD sold on eBay for $56! I was like “what the fuck?” I’m going to be reissuing the damned thing. At that point it gets strange. When someone spends that kind of money on something that’s going to be reissued and remastered… don’t spend big money on eBay on that kind of thing! It’s going to come out again!
What about at the used record stores?
Well, Undead stuff doesn’t seem to turn up at the record stores or sales. People with it tend to hold on to it.
What about mp3s and people trying to rip you off?
I don’t see much of it happening. Eventually I’m going to set up something on my website so people can buy and download songs, like an iTunes kind of deal.
How many people bought your records?
You mentioned that we should expect an album this Halloween. When you put together an idea for an album, do you have a concept in mind?
There’s a bit of a concept, but it’s loose. I tend to put together albums like the Beatles’ White Album. All different styles, all different songs. It’s inconsistent. You might have one song that’s like all classical like “Good Night,” then “Cry Baby, Cry,” to “Revolution Number 9” to like “Savoy Truffle” that’s really heavy, you know what I mean. I put together a collection of songs and I don’t need them to sound the same in context of the album. I try to keep things so I’ll always be interested. I like to put twelve to fourteen songs on an album. I like to give the people 30-40 minutes. I don’t go for quantity over quality. I’d rather have 25 minute record that’s great instead of a much longer mediocre record.
What do you think about the present state of live venues in Manhattan? First, what about the smoking ban imposed by [Republican] Mayor Michael Bloomberg?
Before the smoking ban, it was hard to play. Like the [East Village Venue] Continental was the smokiest place in town and I’ve got respiratory problems and I can’t have people smoking near me. It’s now possible for me to play at non-smokey places. And the businesses are booming better then ever.
They recently had a Germs reunion there and a New Year’s show with Murphy’s Law and the Dickies. Have you played there recently?
I’m banned from the Continental.
What did you do?
The owner’s just a jerk.
But what about the clubs closing, I guess the one that’s in the news the most is CBGB.
It’s really pathetic. Everything that happened in the 1990s ended up destroying the scene. It’s just a shame to see the East Village push stuff out of the neighborhood. It’s people moving here because it’s cool to live among the artists — but they’re on the phone calling 911 because the artist is practicing. It’s like these people who come here and complain about what drew them here. They’re trying to change the place. And another thing, these people forcing out the artists and changing the East Village are New York City Democrats, the people throwing out the homeless in the squats and building new apartment houses aren’t Republicans, they’re all liberal Democrats! When I was dominating the scene in the early 1980s, it was about making a scene. I played at the A7 club, at 7th street and Avenue A in the East Village, and it was the turning point for the Undead and the first punk show in this area. Back in 1981 people were afraid for their lives to come down past 1st Avenue, but we started it all with a show right there.
A moment ago you spoke of bands feeling pain… Speaking of rockers feeling pain, what ever happened to your pals the Pillage People?
Their bassist was playing with the Undead for a while, then he moved out to Los Angeles and he’s got all sorts of new gigs going on…
Will you join him out west?
I’m not going out there for about another year, this year I’m tied up in personal issues, just staying on the east coast. I’ll be playing at [legendary NYC East Village club] CBGB’s for my own birthday bash on March 17, I might be playing at the Snowboard US open in Stowe, Vermont as well. Those are this year’s plans, but I do want to get into the studio and start recording some new songs. I’m also doing an album of standards. Like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Al Jolson, characters like that. I did a lot of local gigs about a year ago singing Cole Porter, all the classics…
Joey Ramone has a birthday bash…
How do you feel about beating Joey Ramone and Dee-Dee Ramone to 50 years old?
I haven’t yet! That’s not until March 18th! My original plan was to do this last year — just in case I didn’t make it. But all sorts of personal issues (my girlfriend broke her back) had me put it off.
Speaking of 50-year old, punk rockers, are you the oldest of the Misfits?
No, Glenn’s like four or five years older then me, Jerry’s younger…
What’s it like to be a 50-year old punk walking around the street?
Not bad. I don’t look or think 50.
Shouldn’t you be changing your style at 50 to that of a lame singer songwriter? That’s so popular with the status quo these days.
No way! I’m the last punk standing! I didn’t sell out like everybody else did, I didn’t change my style like everybody else did to make money. I just stuck with what I’m doing… Yeah, I never made any money on it, but damn! I’m having a great time!