A Ten Question Q&A with RONN SPENCER

Arizona’s hidden treasure isn’t the Thing in the desert or the Martian landscape that is Sedona or even the Wig-o-Rama in downtown Tucson. No, its real contribution resides in an unassuming, wiry sexagenarian whose intellect, wit and vitriol is an inspirational reminder that you can get older and still keep your teeth plenty sharp. Ronn Spencer has lived the life of an aesthete, a Caligulan amorist and the indefatigable wise guy; if there were any justice in this world, his life story would be chronicled in multi-tome, leather bound editions. No shit. He’s been blessed with an existence you can't help but be immediately envious of, but he carries it off with such aplomb that you know he’s deserving of every shred of good fortune he’s worked for. It’s been a great pleasure to get to know Ronn over the last year or so and I’m elated that I got a chance to shoot the shit with such an eminently cool dude.

By the way, that's a photo of Ronn with his pal, Johnny Stingray of the Controllers/Kaos in '79.

I remember you mentioning that you'd grown up back east. What started your involvement with music and what precipitated your move to the west coast?

The music jones? It crawled on my back when Presley made his first national televison appearance on the Dorsey Brothers. I remember my old man sitting on the edge of his easy chair, bug-eyed and incredulous, pointing his Camel-stained finger accusatively at the boob tube and exclaiming to my mother, "Doris, this guy's a heroin addict!"
Remember, this wasn't porky, late-period Presley dressed in mint-green, spandex liederhosen singing "I wish I was in Dixie." This was a guy who, in the middle of the repressive McCarthy era, appeared to be a certifiable menace, a bona fide lunatic. Nothing in my drab New Jersey working class existence prepared me for that kind of Dionysian, unfettered, expression.
So, as a respite from all that was anesthetizing and humdrum and monochromatic in American postwar culture I kept listening to rock 'n' roll and always found something to be enthused about--right through the punk era.
Then, MTV irrevocably transformed the music into pernicious swill, and stripped it of anything novel or menacing. When rock 'n' roll became an endless and predictable, assembly line of unintentional self-parodying videos, I virtually stopped listening to new music.
What precipitated my move to the West? Watching Hopalong Cassidy movies as a kid, five consecutive, suicidal winters in New England and a stack of sun-drenched Beach Boys records. I never could figure out why people voluntarily subjected themselves to the gloomy Northeast weather.

How long did it take before you became involved with miscreants like Meltzer, Turner, Saunders, Panter, Groening, etc.?

Not long. Anybody ripe for change knew every other like-minded troublemaker in Los Angeles. There weren't that many of us.
By 1975, it was clear that the Topanga and Laurel Canyon junta's expiration date was fast running out. Guys like Panter, Groening and Turner were doing the undoable, saying the unsayable,--speaking for a newly emerging cabal of disenfranchised people bored comatose by the cultural status quo and all its self-congratulatory arrogance.

What inspired you to release the Vom EP? Why did White Noise stop after two releases?

I was friends with popular culture writer, Gene Sculatti, who, at that time, was best buds with Richard Meltzer. I went to a recording session, heard the music and I decided to put the record out. It just seemed like an interesting project with some very eccentric characters, so...why not? Future Germs manager, Nicole Panter, and rock scribe, Jim Bickhart were also instrumental in its release.
Why did we stop after two releases? After the Steve Jones-produced Avengers EP in '79? We had an "inside" tip on some stock futures, took our profits, invested them and lost our shirts. I desperately wanted to do an Alleycats record but the money was gone. We never even approached the band.
The label was briefly revived in the late '90s by Keith Bollinger, who released CDs by Negative Trend, The Mutants, The Young Canadians, The Rubber City Rebels and the 1978 Miner's Benefit at The Mabuhay in San Francisco.

I seem to recall you mentioning something about Greg Shaw and his attempt to assume control of White Noise. Details?

No, Greg wasn't trying to assume control of White Noise. Sculatti and I were trying to interest Petersen Publishing in an idea we had for a new music and culture rag called White Noise. Shaw loved the name and told us so. Then, several weeks later, we saw an announcement in Billboard that Shaw was going to launch a label called White Noise.
We were dumbstruck, pissed-off and a bit impressed by his audacity. To protect the name, I decided to get a record out before Greg. That led me to the Vom project.
Coincidentally, the band's tune, Too Animalistic, humorously commented on certain aspects of Shawsie's personal life. It wasn't premeditated, but the unintended sucker punch was sweet.
White Noise magazine, by the way, never happened but the record label continued, on and off, until 2003 under the guidance of writer and archivist, Keith Bollinger.

Favorite Black Randy anecdote, please.

Plain and simple, I have none. But, as you know, plenty of other people will gladly recount real or imagined ones. I will say this--Pass the Dust I Think I'm Bowie is one of the greatest album titles in recording history and Idi Amin and Marlon Brando are Los Angeles punk rock classics.

You took (now famous) photos of the Germs, Gears, Controllers, etc. Who were your favorite local bands and why?

The Controllers, Gears, Alley Cats, Angry Samoans, Germs, Mau-Maus, Weirdos, pre-Rollins Black Flag, Mad Society and the Circle Jerks. I've probably left out a half- dozen other great bands. Strangely enough, X was never tops on my list. As Brother Al Perry once opined, "They were the band that made punk rock safe for hippies."
I don't know if there's a common thread that drew me to all those bands. It's visceral, ineffable. Somebody blows your socks off and you have that immediate connection. It happened to me in '66 at the Dom in New York City, the Velvets were on stage and I just knew. Los Angeles punk was just like that--something desperately needed and long overdue. A revelation. It was time to thin out the herd and cleanse the palate.

I'm sure you're aware that you've achieved immortality in the public's consciousness by designing the cover for Back From Samoa--What other achievements are you most proud of?

Immortality? More like infamy.
It probably stimulated video rentals of The Monster from Piedras Blancas, the 1959 classic camp Mexican horror film we based the cover on. So some good came out of it.
Seriously, I still dig that cover. It's held up pretty well in nearly 30 years. A lot of the credit for its success goes to Gregg Turner who came up with the basic concept.
Other achievements I'm proud of? Besides my work with the lepers of Molokai?
My designs for the Sex Pistols American campaign (often erroneously attributed to Jamie Reid), Marshall Crenshaw, The Dead Boys, Talking Heads, the Troublemakers compilation and Al Perry's Always a Pleasure. The release of White Noise's Avengers EP.
And my 4-year stint playing Art Fraud on KCRW's "Cool & the Crazy," a music and satire program Sculatti and I cooked up in 1984.

What prompted the creation of the Catalog of Cool?

Gene Sculatti, the editor, had a lot of opinionated, loudmouth friends, like myself, who were quick to voice their cultural likes and dislikes whether prompted or not. Getting us all to bloviate under the cover of one book was Geno's innovative way of preserving all that brilliant lunchtime discourse for posterity. It was followed up about 10 years later by the equally biased and unassailably perceptive Too Cool.

What are the ten worst things about Tucson?

Ten? What kind of sadist would limit a discriminating person, like yours truly, to ten?
Al Perry best summed up my love-hate relationship with Tucson in his version of Bloodspasm's We Got Cactus. Except the rent isn't cheap anymore. Scratch that line.
Tucson isn't just a a cultural backwater--it's a metastasizing, purgatorial, strip mall of a city hell-bent on self-destruction. It's a real estate developer's wet dream.
These bastards are going to annihilate the rambunctious, dilapidated regional charm this city once had and transform it from a quintessential Western town into Muncie, Indiana with cholla.
For the most part, the 25,000 clods who move here every year couldn't give a damn about the Sonoran Desert or Hispanic, cowboy and Indian culture. For them, this is New Florida--a place where you can play golf all year and don't have to wear thermal undies.
In a classic demonstration of The Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome, the projectionists in our Municipal Screening Room are running a 35 mm promotional film through an 8mm projector backwards while the citizens applaud wildly. Everyone seems mesmerized by "'progress" and besotted by the idea of turning this once-unique burg into a satellite of one of the worst atrocities in the history of urban planning--that glorious metropolis to the north, Phoenix, City of Androids.
I've come up with two bumper stickers I'd like to see in wide circulation. One reads, "Tucson, A Warmer Place to Watch Television." The other, "Tucson, White Trash Living at Santa Fe Prices."
The good thing is, in the not-so-distant future, when the water runs out, this place will return to its rightful inhabitants--the scorpions and rattlers and bobcats and javelinas and a handful of people who understand the desert and know how to live within reasonable environmental limits.

We've discussed the sorry state of affairs in the 21st century, but there's gotta be something worthwhile going on. What're ten current/modern things that you would deem cool?

I'll be honest--I haven't a clue. My attitude is very simple--everything is fine when I'm in my studio. When I leave, however, I'm entering a particularly repellent bedlam, a place where gravity has been suspended and Daffy Duck is the most celebrated dialectition.
Therefore, if there's something cool going on it'd have a tough time getting through my psychological and cultural Strategic Defense Initiative. The last Tucson band I religiously followed was Rodeo Queen--and they broke up four years ago.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not just another old codger stupid enough to believe that my generation had an exclusive franchise on the creative spark. When I read your blog or hear something as hep as the Sneaky Pinks I'm reminded that the mutant gene still runs strong in the human species.
The problem is, you guys are being entombed by an avalanche of mediocre, corporate-fascist pablum that stubbornly and determinedly refuses to allow anything challenging or unorthodox into the mix. All the machine cares about is cranking out the same, predictable lowest-common- denominator claptrap to ensure its ever expanding profit margins.
The control freaks and mind police are in ascendancy. Watch your back and keep your belly close to the ground. Your job? Keep lobbing some hand grenades from time to time. It makes them piss in their Dockers.

Vom - Live at Surf City EP (White Noise, 1978)


I'm in Love with Your Mom / Electrocute Your Cock
Too Animalistic / Punkmobile / God Save the Whales