As the lead singer for the punk band Fear, Lee Ving earned a reputation as a sharp, acid-tongued agitator. His commanding, drill-sergeant vocal delivery and surly attitude helped to build a new breed of bad-tempered hardcore. With songs like "Let's Have a War" and "I Love Livin' in the City," Fear put on a legendarily abrasive stage show, disguising complicated music beneath a blanket of punk-rock attitude.
Still, Ving is not at all what you might expect. College-educated and thirsty for theoretical physics, the clearly intelligent Ving runs his own MySpace page and is starting a record company to release his many musical ventures — everything from out-of-print Fear albums to new recordings by his bluegrass band.
We caught up with him in early March to ask about his history and upcoming solo shows. Warm and enthusiastic, with a voice like sweet honey whiskey, Ving is honest and funny, offering up quotable bits like "I have to say, I was really overjoyed when Guns N' Roses recorded a cover of 'I Don't Care About You.' That was...lucrative." And: "I like that John Mayer. He's a good player, and that's the kind of thing I respond to."
Jaime Lees: Aside from Fear, you have a rich musical past. How did you get into playing these solo shows?
Lee Ving: I've been doing it for a while, and I get to do a lot of different kinds of music. I don't try to stick to the Fear format, or try to be Fear all by myself. I do other kinds of music. You know, pop tunes, jazz standards, solo tunes, songs that I liked over the radio — things that the Fear crowd might not readily accept. But they're songs that I like to sing; I sing them well, so I really want to do them. It gives me an outlet to do it. I'd been playing for a while when I started Fear. I didn't learn to play as Fear began, as some other groups did. Some of the first bands I was ever in were blues bands in Philadelphia — we played with Buddy Guy and B.B. King and Junior Wells. I was in this band in Philly called Sweet Stavin Chain, and it was a full-on blues band. Michael Brecker would come and play with us on weekends. Let me tell you, as a blues soloist, there was no one better. So that band really smoked. Now many people mention Michael Brecker and John Coltrane in the same breath. I mean, Michael Brecker had Junior Walker down so good. He played better than Junior Walker. You know who Junior Walker is, right?
Yeah, I love all those old Motown guys. So how did you transition from blues to punk?
OK, so I moved from New York to Los Angeles, and then eventually I discovered this punk-rock thing. And I thought that the players I saw were beginners and that the shows weren't thought out. I knew that I could put a band together that had far superior players, and I knew that I could incite better than the people I was seeing. But what I really liked about it was the audience! The band starts playing, and the audience starts jumping up and down and bashing the living daylights out of each other! With punk you could say whatever you want, play whatever you want and give the audience a hard time if you wanted to. I thought, Wow, this is great. So that's what inspired me to start the Fear thing. And we've been at it ever since.
See, but I think that all of your different musical training came through in Fear.
Absolutely. I was in New York and Philadelphia listening to these jazz musicians play live three to six nights a week for most of my life, and that still comes out of every pore when I write something. There's no way to keep that under wraps, and that education is priceless. I mean, I heard Charles Mingus play live many, many nights. And Stanley Turrentine many, many nights. And Freddie Hubbard. And Archie Shepp and Art Blakey and Beaver Harris and Clifford Jordan and McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, Rahsaan Roland Kirk... I could just keep going all night. So it was a very advanced musical platform that gave birth to this punk-rock band. Which I think is reasonably unusual.
How did Fear relate to the other bands in the punk/hardcore scene? Many of them were straight-edge and writing songs like "TV Party," but you were singing about wanting more beer.
Well, you know, I was aware that there was this straight-edge thing, but it just seemed ridiculous to me. I didn't believe it for a minute. And it's OK to say what you believe in, and it's OK if you do that. It just didn't seem like something that was real. I couldn't believe that none of these people were having any sex or drinking at all or taking any drug. But maybe they weren't.
Also, I think that the idea of being cloistered or monastic in some way may free the mind to concentrate on some things; maybe there's benefit in it. But you know, we just did what we did. And we wanted to say shit that was funny to the audience — and we certainly consumed our weight in beer, no problem. [Clears throat] But if we weren't going to be accepted among bands that didn't seem like they had a sense of humor, then so be it. Black Flag said they didn't like us because we were telling jokes. They didn't think that there was any place for that.
Well, Black Flag was serious business. I love them for it, but most kids just want to laugh, scream at people and be loud.
Yeah, you're a kid! That's what to do. That's what feeling good is all about! So it all just seemed funny to me. The fact that there were causes also seemed funny to me. For people to try to say that their band really stood for some sort of political movement or something? I didn't believe any of that shit for a minute, either. I thought that the band stood for, you know, trying to make some money — if it was getting paid $17 or $10,000. And we wanted to put across entertaining shows musically and verbally, you know, the banter between the band members and the back-and-forth with the crowd.
That's why it was so great! Because you never knew if you were joking, and it made it very confusing and very excellent.
Yeah, that's right! That's exactly where I wanted it! I wanted the boneheads to think that I was completely serious, that I really wanted to "have a war," and I wanted those that were capable to see the satire in those sort of ridiculous statements and song titles. That way, everybody could go home happy!