By THOMAS "THOMAXE" GOZE
BOBBY STEELE has been a driving force of the NYC punk/underground scene since the 1970s. Steele was the guitarist for the legendary horror punks THE MISFITS from 1978 to 1980. He appeared on the band's classic "Horror Business" and "Night of the Living Dead" EPs, and is credited as the being behind the band's most popular songs. After leaving THE MISFITS in 1980, Steele formed THE UNDEAD, one of the best-selling independent acts in music history. The group's debut live performance at the now-legendary A7 Club in January 1981 is credited for spawning the New York Hardcore music scene, as well as spearheading the now-famous East Village art/music scene. Since 1982, The Undead has sold over 100,000 albums worldwide and has been featured in numerous music books and documentaries, including American Hardcore and the band contributed music to the cult classic film "Welcome To The Dollhouse". In addition to his work in The Undead, Steele has appeared in numerous films and television shows and is an outspoken public advocate for marijuana law reform. More information can be found on his official website.
When and where were you born and what kind of family background did you grow up in?
I was born in Teaneck, NJ in 1956. I guess, at least to me, it was a typical 1950s family. I was born with Spina Bifida – an extremely fatal birth defect – so I doubt it was as normal as it seemed to me. My parents were already into Rock’nRoll by the time I was born.
What is your first recollection of music? What did you listen to as a kid?
I can actually remember sitting in my high-chair at breakfast, listening to DJ's like Harry Harrison & Cousin Brucie every morning. My mother’s teenage sister lived with us – so I got to hear the latest hits.
When and how did you first started learning how to play?
I first tried learning when I was about eight. I collected empty bottles for a few months, and saved my money to buy a $13 guitar. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I actually started to learn to "play" it – while I was laid up recovering from surgery to remove a tumor from my spine.
When I was 16, I started lessons, and got my first REAL guitar
First electric guitar?
Teisco Del Rey. It was quickly replaced with a Les Paul Custom "Fretless Wonder" edition.
What was your first band? How did it feel to be on stage?
My first attempt at a band was THE LIVIN' END. That was me, trying to play guitar and a friend who actually could play drums. We sucked, I’m sure. I was 14 or 15 at the time. I started my first real band in 10th grade. I met this new kid in town, and we started talking. He played guitar, too. So we arranged to get together one afternoon and see what we could do. It was decent, and his little sister had a crush on this new kid in her class – who played drums. So she talked him into meeting us – and that was BURLAP CANDLE. We were decent, but completely out of control. You had a cripple, a Puerto Rican, and an inner-city thug. We’d spend more time breaking the law than practicing, I think. We got banned from most places we played – fast. Our gigs weren’t the typical 1970s laid back affairs. I n a lot of ways, we were punk before there was punk.
You are more famous for playing with the Misfits and then starting the Undead; but which other bands did you play with? What type of bands were they?
Aside from the aforementioned – I played in a New Jersey covers act, called STARS ROCK’nRoll SHOW. I was the youngest member. The rest of the band was made up of veterans… mostly former members of OMNIBUS – a band that I learned years later had had an influence on a young Glenn Danzig, too. In an ironic twist, the picture inside the gatefold of their United Artists release was taken on the corner of the block that I now live on. There’s not much to go on there. We made money.
My first Punk band was PARROTOX. We introduced Punk Rock to New Jersey high schools, and biker bars. We felt CBGBs was too safe – and we wanted excitement. We inspired some of the NJ Hardcore bands, like AOD, & Mourning Noize.
I was in THE WHORELORDS in mid 1978 – and left to join THE MISFITS
Most recently, I played bass in TIMES SQUARE – with my ex-girlfriend, and her husband.
Can you tell me the circumstances which led to you joining the Misfits?
I ran an ad in a local music paper, and Glenn called me. I auditioned, and was accepted on the spot. They said they’d tried 16 guitarists before I came along. I did my first gig ten days after auditioning.
What kind of success did the Misfits have when you joined them?
It was fairly mild I guess. My first gig with them was at Max’s and we were the opening act – until the headliner didn’t show up.
How long did you play with them for? How many albums/songs did you contribute to?
It was just about two years. As far as Albums… that question is irrelevant with THE MISFITS – we never made an album, but we made a good amount of 45s. I played on 35 songs that are scattered over various 45s, and reissue "albums".
What happened then with the Misfits? Did you get kicked out for any reason? Did you just leave them?
It was a power play. Jerry’s never been a team player – and he didn’t like being in the background to Glenn. He always wanted it to be HIS band. Jerry needed someone who’d side with him against Glenn, and it just happened that Doyle played guitar. If he'd played drums – Googy would’ve gotten screwed.
Scene of the Crime: Outside the A7 Club. Ronnie Ramone photo
Are you still friends with any of them?
Have you seen Jerry's all-star version of the band?
Fortunately, NO. He should give it up.
How/when/where did you start the Undead? What was the first line-up?
We started out as THE SKABS. On Sundays that THE MISFITS were doing nothing, I’d get together with Natz and Ritchie Metalian, and we’d get stoned and play in Ritchie’s basement. We did the songs that I wrote, since Glenn didn’t even want to hear them. I’ve got some tapes of that lineup, including some amazing Live stuff.
When I got axed from the MISFITS, it took about five minutes for me to realize that I could move forward with THE SKABS. Ritchie quit to join a heavy metal band, and we put an ad in the Village Voice. That’s how we got Patrick Blanck.
Glenn Danzig was involved in the financing of your first Undead EP, right?
Yeah. He came to a few of our shows, and liked what he saw. He was planning on expanding PLAN 9 into a more legit label. He was working on signing the GO-GOs just before they signed with STIFF, and then went on to fame 7 fortune.
He sat in on one of the sessions, and took the picture for the sleeve.
What kind of success did the Undead reach?
We were considered one of the top NYC bands. In fact, in 1981 and 1982, we were more popular than THE MISFITS, but then Metallica started wearing the T-shirts and things changed.
We were banned from Max's and CBGBs so I needed a place to play. I found a bar in my neighborhood, and we did our first gig there. That was our biggest success, I’d say… launching the East Village Music & Art scene, and turning one of the worst slums in the U.S. into the most valued real estate in the world.
I believe when you recorded your first album no one wanted to release it at first, but then it turned out to be a big success, right?
If you mean ACT YOUR RAGE – yeah. You name any major Indie label at that time, and they all said it sucked and would never sell. I think it’s sold over 40,000 copies at this point. Not too many releases by those labels ever sold more than 2000, and THAT’d be big news.
How many releases did you make with the Undead?
Wow! I’ve lost track. Roughly, I think five LPs, two 12” Mini-LPs, four CDs, and about seven 45s.
What was the idea/concept behind the band and behind the music?
To play Rock’nRoll music, and get signed to a real label within a year – which we did… signing to Stiff Records after they came to see us open for THE MISFITS at THE RITZ. I just wanted it to be a fun band without the constraints that THE MISFTS had trapped themselves into.
Can you tell the story about how you got signed to Stiff Records?
I didn’t realize it, but they were in the audience at the December 17, 1981 Ritz show. I’d just learned that Glenn wasn’t going to release the recordings – and I ranted about it from the stage. They’d been stalking us for a few months already. We’d crashed their party at the new offices, and graffittied our name all over the place – with cans of spray paint they’d left out. We created a lot of mischief at their party, and it got their curiosity.
So, they came to the Ritz, and signed the best band.
You were blacklisted from a few NYC clubs. Can you explain why and what happened?
I got banned from CBGB when I was in THE WHORELORDS. It’s a funny story, because it was to be my first time playing there – and the drummer got caught sneaking a six pack inside one of his cases. Outside alcohol can cost a bar its license. Lisa Kristal cancelled our set and told us to leave, but I was so determined to convince her to cut us a break, that she finally called in the Hell's Angels to get us to leave. I just recently reminded her of the incident.
Max's, I’m told had to close due to their inability to get insurance – which was a result of lawsuits filed, partly because of things I’d done. From the disappearance of the daughter of a Middle Eastern Diplomat – to slashing the arm of the brother of a major TV star of the time, and then just being a total wise guy… they finally started locking their doors when I’d approach.
What happened with the Undead?
We’ve taken breaks from touring, but there’s always something brewing underground. People aren’t aware of the numerous health problems I have – that make touring extremely hazardous for me. I’ve lost money on every tour, because I can’t sleep on floors anymore, and have a lot of pain issues. Recently, I found out I have a new problem, called Post Polio Sequelae – so now I’m trying to figure out a way to keep touring with this new monkey on my back. I should have things worked out by next year. It’s gonna require a lot more cooperation on the behalf of promoters, and one thing I’m aware of is that – as liberal and caring as so many punks proudly claim – when it comes to the Americans With Disabilities Act – they want nothing to do with it. One of the main reasons why I tour so rarely is because the entertainment business – and especially in punk rock – is made up of some of the most bigoted, self-centered assholes on earth. I’m constantly called a "Nazi” by people who are upset that I won’t let them hurt me.
Where did/do you get the inspiration for your songs?
That’s a book in itself. I’d have to take you through each song. I don’t get inspired by just one thing. If I had to nail it to one word – EXPERIENCE is where my songs come from. THE MISFITs were about fantasy, while THE UNDEAD is about reality. There’s far more horror in the real world.
Your song In 84 seems like it could have been written yesterday if you just changed the date...did you think at the time you wrote it that maybe more than 20 years later things would be no different?
That’s why I didn’t release it til 1985. Of course, all the Leftist who consider themselves authorities on all political things couldn’t get it. "It’s past. We’re safe”. I knew the false sense of ease, once 1984 passed would be dangerous. People still don‘t realize the "1984” is a "concept” that could happen at any time.
We’re living in the world that Orwell and Rand warned us about. We’re working on a new version, and a video – that, hopefully, will wake people up.
Gimme Your Autograph..who was it about?
John Lennon and Mark Chapman.
Can you tell the story behind Hollywood Boulevard?
I was living in Hollywood in the second half of 1983. One night, I was outside the Cathay De Grand and a bunch of these jackbooted cops just came down the street, and started smashing everything in sight. They were breaking bottles in the street. I was sitting on a stoop, drinking a Perrier water, and a cop ordered me to get rid of the bottle. I said "it’s only a Perrier”, and he yelled in my face, "You don’t seem to understand – there are people breaking bottles around here”.
I wrote the song as an analogy of how similar this was to Kristalnacht – the "night of broken glass” when the National Socialists raided Jewish neighborhoods and smashed everything in sight.
And Tears on a Pillow?
It’s about Brian Deneke – who was brutally murdered because he was a punk,and the courts set his killer free – after finding him guilty.
If you could pick three musicians (living or dead) to make an album with?
John Lennon, Keith Richards, Chuck Berry
What's your opinion on the music scene these days (especially the rock and punk scene)? Any bands that you actually like? Whats your view on punk rock and what it has become?
It’s awful. The "Spirit" is lost. It’s like, once jocks discovered it, they turned it into something that’s overly competitive in a bad way. It’s not about who has better songs, it’s all vague things like "shredding” with the majority of bands. The songs suck.
Luckily, there are still some new bands that actually get it, like Statues Of Liberty, or The Bullys . I took a lot of shit in St Louis once, because the girlfriend of one of the opening bands overheard me saying how it’s so rare that I like an opening band, but that’s not my fault. Whine all you want – you still suck.
The best opening bands – in the history of UNDEAD tours – were three or four bands in Derry, Ireland. Every one of them was great. The P.A. sucked, and it didn’t matter because the vibe coming off from these kids made it feel like 1977 all over again.
I blame it on a combination of the media highlighting the wrong aspects of the music, and too many rich kids playing Rockstar Wannabe, and having Daddy buy them success.
There’s still hope, though.
In your song Slave To Fashion you sing about how the youth is controlled by the media, etc...It seems pretty clear that things aren't getting better...Fashion was part of the original punk rock scene, but you didn't have to wear a certain type of clothes, or get a particular haircut to be a punk rocker, right?...how do you feel about this?
Back then, 90 percent of so-called ‘punk fashion’ was DIY. We didn’t have HOT TOPICs – we went to thrift stores and Salvation Army stores, bought cheap shit, and made it into something. In a way, Punk is a ‘trash culture’, and the best aspects come from the rejects of society. It was about being yourself, and fucking the status quo. Sadly, today, kids think they’re rebelling because the advertisers tell them they are, but they’re really seling out and trying to be popular.
In the dressing room (what passed for one) at CBGB. Ronnie Ramone photo
Max’s, CBGBs, Continental and the other main rock joints of NYC all closed. How do you feel about the NY underground scene lately?
It’s sad. I sometimes think it got too popular for its own good. When it was a tight circle of people – there was a strong sense of community. If you saw someone else who was dressed like you, you could approach them easily. Today – everyone’s trying to ‘outcool’ one another and it’s a fucking joke. We used to go out to enjoy the music and community.
Is there a show that you played and that you'll always remember?
There’s the aforementioned Ritz show. Then, there’s the time THE MISFITS played Hurrah’s, and we had the crowd worked up so hard that me and Jerry were able to walk out on top of the people.
Tell us about "Still Undead" your latest release...How did it happen? What will people find on it? Where can people buy it?
The name comes from battling a friend of Jerry’s, who tried to claim the Trademark to THE UNDEAD name, for four years. He perjured himself to such a degree that he should actually be in jail. I need to look into pressing criminal charges against him next. It’s a Felony – so he’ll lose his voting rights and make love to some hairy goons for a few years.
It’s a collection of all the recent 45s that our sister label in Germany, NO BALLS, released along with our Live On Arrival 45, and the Munster Records "Rock’n’Roll Whore” 45. It’s also got a bonus track that was taken from our infamous Ritz gig.
It’s available at some Mom& Pop stores, CDBABY, iTUNES, and UndeadPunk.com. We just released a picture disc LP version, too.
What's next for the Undead? What are your plans?
MORE ! We’re recording, but I don’t like to go into what might be – I like to keep it at what IS.
Is there one song in particular that you wrote that you think defines you/your music the best?
Never Say Die! It’s about not giving up, or in when you know you’re right.
What do you love best about Rock'n'Roll?
The freedom, excitement, and adrenaline rush. It’s what keeps me alive – literally. This is a dream I’ve pursued since I was seven-years-old