Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong continue sorting through their archives of punk-era concert footage as it’s digitized for the Downtown Collection at N.Y.U.’s Fales Library.
Looking back at the cover of the L.P. that The Offs released in 1984, we didn’t remember that Jean-Michel Basquiat had designed it. But the image of their lead singer, Don Vinyl, face down, his bicep glistening with the tattoo of a .45 pistol — that we had not forgotten.
We recall Don coming to our apartment the day he got the ink, his arm still red and a little bloody. “Paul Simonon is getting the same one!” he told us, excitedly. It was the summer of 1981 and everyone in the East Village was getting tats, even The Clash. Bob Roberts, The Offs’ saxophonist — and also a tattooist — had done the work for both.
We met The Offs in 1979, on our first trip to the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. They were hugely popular on the West Coast, bringing a mix of punk, funk and reggae with a political bent that sounded fresh. When they came to New York later that year, we became friends.
Their bassist, Denny DeGorio, often crashed on our couch. He remembers how the band was formed: “Don and I were roommates in this flat on Mission, along with Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys and guys from Flipper and The Dils; it was a real punk-rock flop house.”Vinyl had been singing in a band, Grand Mal, with guitarist Billy Hawk. When it fell apart, they formed The Offs and asked Denny to play bass. “It was perfect timing,” DeGorio said. “I was 19 and just jumped on board.”
Then there was the sax. “Bob Roberts had played horn with Frank Zappa’s Reuben and the Jets, and somehow he joined the band,” V. Vale, publisher-editor of Search and Destroy told us. “Nobody used sax in punk rock back then and they were using these reggae rhythms, too. In our San Francisco punk scene, they had their own thing.”
And Roberts wasn’t the only musician in the band with a resume. Before joining The Offs, their drummer Bob Steeler had played for years with Electric Hot Tuna. His fans inevitably showed up at gigs, hopefully calling out, “Hot Tuna!”, only to be jeered at by the crowds. The favor was returned a few years later when Steeler and Denny joined Jorma Kaukonen on a world tour. “F*cking punks!” someone would always snarl. It kind of evened things out.
In 1979, at the behest of their manager, we went on the road with The Offs, ostensibly to document their tour. It was at the height of America’s energy crisis and gasoline was in short supply. Some members of the band grumbled that it was bad luck having girls along, and as the van repeatedly either ran out of gas or waited in endless lines for fuel, it started to look like they might have a point.But in the end, it brought us together. Bob Roberts would while away the hours telling us stories about each of his tattoos, giving us this memorable tip: “Never get the name of anyone inked on your body who isn’t a blood relative.” Sound advice.
And we captured this performance of their controversial first single, “Blacks are Bigots,” at the Ratt in Boston, just across from Fenway Park. Don Vinyl was the first openly gay front man on the punk scene. He was a fearless performer, provocative, theatrical and completely comfortable in his own skin. Commenting on “Bigots” in Search and Destroy in 1979, he said, “On TV, they always have the stereotype of a white person being a bigot, but nobody’s perfect. Heterosexuals, a lot of them hate gays but at the same time, some gay people hate heterosexuals… what difference does it make if you are gay or straight?”
The band relocated to New York for good in 1980 and slowly the personnel began to change, with Denny leaving and then Bob. In 1983, Don overdosed on heroin and that was the end. Billy Hawk kept playing and ultimately, we hear, relocated to Thailand. Bob Steeler became a painter and occasionally gigs with Hot Tuna. Bob Roberts does ink full time, running the world-famous Spotlight Tattoo in LA. Denny entered a monastery in the Coptic Church. “It was the best thing I ever did,” he told us. He left eventually, and is happily living in Austin. You can see him at SXSW next month, playing with Alejandro Escovedo in True Believers.
They were quite a crew. We loved The Offs. We hope you will, too.
This post originally appeared on The Local East Village.