Remembering Arturo Vega, the "Fifth Ramone" and My Former Roommate
My three months living in the famous loft with the artist who created the iconic Ramones logo.
Arturo Vega has been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe it has to do with the fact that we're approaching the second anniversary of his passing or the fact that I recently attended his posthumous exhibit American Treasure at the Howl! Happening gallery but for some reason I can't get his kind face and gentle nature out of my head. If you're not familiar with Vega, he was known as the "fifth Ramone" and for good reason. He not only designed the group's iconic logo but also essentially came up with the idea of the concert T-shirt in the 70s when bands sold the type of programs you get at sporting events instead of apparel. (This is all chronicled on an episode of my podcast "Going Off Track" that we did with Vega and his roommate Lisa Brownlee in 2012.)
Vega was also the lighting director for the Ramones and only missed two of over 2,200 of their live shows (one of which because he was in jail). He moved into his loft space on East 2nd and Bowery in late 1973 while it was being built and shortly afterward met Dee Dee Ramone who was dating a woman who lived upstairs and liked the music that Vega—who had moved from Mexico to California and then the East Village—was playing and mentioned he was starting a band called the Ramones. The rest is punk rock history. Over the years, the loft functioned as a rehearsal spot, design and printing station, merch sales headquarters, and even housed Dee and Joey Ramone for a few years throughout Vega's nearly four-decade long tenure there.
Like most people who move to New York, I didn't have as much stability in my living situation and after splitting up with my girlfriend in the East Village ended up moving three times in 2012. After being evicted from a huge loft in South Williamsburg late in the year around fuzzy circumstances (the fact that we had a party where 150 people showed up, including the cops because people were peeing in the stairwell probably didn't help), I found myself subletting Brownlee's room when she was working on the road with the Warped Tour for a few months. I had met Vega a handful of times hanging out at the loft with her but we didn't really get to know each other until I moved into her room covered with butterfly knives and various other bejeweled weapons, my worldly possessions so few that they fit into a regular-sized cab.
The space itself was part apartment, part art studio, and part Ramones museum. It had huge windows facing south toward CBGB and was covered with photos of the band hanging out in the loft in the 70s as well as lots of original work by Dee Dee Ramone and Vega's own iconic prints like his Silver-Dollar paintings or the day-glow swastikas, which I'll admit threw me off for a minute until he explained the meaning behind the piece and how the fluorescent colors embodied man-made madness to him. Additionally, the place was teeming with reindeer horns, Ramones books, merchandise such as surfboards and skateboards and tons of other priceless art pieces that I was constantly scared that I would accidentally stumble on and break in the night. My most valuable possession at the time was probably my Manduka yoga mat. (In all fairness, these things are essentially the Rolls Royces of downward dog.)
Additionally the space functioned as Vega's art studio (although he had another studio in his hometown of Chihuahua, Mexico, where he also spent a lot of time), which was cool in theory but in practice was a little bit difficult when I was trying to make a salad while Vega's small army of assistants was washing out paint cans in the sink. Still that was a small price to play to live in such a historic space and also have full access to Vega—and as a music journalist, I was constantly bombarding him with questions about his art, the band, and the handful of Ramones shows that I had attended as a teenager, including the band's co-headlining tour alongside White Zombie in 1995 before I was old enough to drive myself to gigs.
Vega was often out of town at art shows all over the country and I was in charge of watching his dog, something that wasn't expressed to me before I had moved in and also something that I was slightly uncomfortable with having never grown up around dogs. It was fine save for the one time it got sick and threw up, then I called one of Arturo's neighbors who was convinced that my energy had gotten the dog sick and that I "didn't know how to love anything." That was the other strange part about living in the loft; it seemed as if every fixture from the East Village had keys to the place and would pop in at odd hours with little or no notice. But ultimately I became friends with a lot of these people (including the aforementioned psyche evaluator) and they were certainly people that I never would have met in my normal circle of friends.
The Ramones playing the loft in 1975.
As far as Arturo went, he was one of the kindest and most honest people I had ever lived with and I knew that if I asked him a question, I was going to get an honest answer whether I wanted that or not. Additionally he was one of the healthiest humans that I have ever spent time around and in addition to going to the gym every day despite the fact he was in his mid-60s, he seemed to live exclusively on protein shakes that he would blend up himself every day. (Sadly, I, on the other hand had developed a vicious cycle of eating all of my meals at the 7-Eleven down the street and felt like I had hit the lottery every time I got there early enough to snag a turkey wrap before they sold out. Believe it or not, I was also single at the time.)
Unlike my previous living situations, I knew that my time in the loft was only temporary and after three months had past, I had made arrangements to move in with a friend in Greenpoint. Packing took me about a half hour and once again I hailed a cab on the street with my temporary possessions (my furniture and other items were in storage) and made my move. But I still remember the last time I saw Arturo. A few months after I'd moved, I realized that I couldn't find one of my favorite posters, a limited run of Battlestar Galactica-themed art from the show Portlandia that my sister Vanessa had gotten me for appearing on the show. I emailed Arturo and sure enough, he said it was at the loft and that I could come by at any time to pick it up.
Generally I'm a procrastinator but for some reason I felt the urge to get it right away. The next day I headed over to the loft and we were able to catch up for a while over glasses of water while he blasted one of his favorite bands, The Moody Blues. We talked about what we had been up to lately and he beamed when he showed me a huge mural that he had almost finished that featured a depiction of Jesus surrounded by the phrase "Life Isn't Tragic, Love Is Just Being Ignored." We took a picture together that day and not long afterward I got the news that Arturo had gotten sick and had passed away suddenly. The day he passed away, we were scheduled to do a live podcast at Union Hall which we dedicated to his memory and it remains one of my biggest regrets that we weren't able to do a follow-up podcast with Arturo in order to capture more of his stories for posterity.
But ultimately Vega was always focused on his work and when I was writing this piece I stumbled upon my final email from him from March of 2013, just a few months before he passed, where he wrote, "Hey Jonah, I am afraid this is going to be another marathon to finish what I have to do before I go to Chih, better postpone for when I come back." I think that message, in a way, embodies what Vega was about. His drive to spread his message of love was the thing that fueled him decades after he created what is arguably the most recognizable—and the most bootlegged—logo in not only the punk scene but rock ‘n' roll in general.
I walked by the loft last night to pay tribute as I do from time to time. While there is a tiny sign with the Ramones logo and the words "Arturo Vega 1948 - 2013" placed above the doorway if you're looking hard enough, these days this punk rock Mecca (who many believe was haunted by the ghost of Dee Dee) is now indistinguishable from any other residence in the area—and like most everything else iconic in the East Village, it has been converted to overpriced condos that are the antithesis of everything the loft stood for. But instead of lamenting the way that the neighborhood has changed and CBGB has turned into a John Varvatos store where most of us couldn't afford a pair of socks, I think Arturo would want us to look back fondly on what that loft meant, the time and piece of history that it was a part of, and why his art and the Ramones' music has been able to resonate with so many people and transcend age, gender, or nationality.
Jonah Bayer is on Twitter - @mynameisjonah