Friday, March 18, 2011

Abraham Rodriguez: A South Bronx Tale

                    Abraham was the singer & guitarist for URGENT FURY, a band that blew me away when I was a teenager & getting into Punk/HC. Their poignant political lyrics coupled with raw aggression & melodic leanings made then an atypical sound that stood out in the mid-80's NY scene. Since UF's ultimate dissolution in '92, Abraham has become a celebrated author, winning tons of writing accolades. He's also been writing new music, since relocating to Berlin. I got a chance to reconnect with him during one of his semi-annual pilgrimages to NYC. There's talk of a UF reunion to coincide with the reissue of their discography in late 2011.
At CBGB's in 1985.

Ok! The big start, a south bronx tale. Tell me a little bit about your background, where you grew up etc..
    I was born in the south bronx, where I grew up. Pretty tough turf. Back then in the 70s, it was like somebody had bombed the town: burned-out buildings in rows, empty lots, whole blocks decimated. Not the best place to grow up positive...
 Your parents originally from the island?
    Yeah, my mom's from Fajardo and my dad's from San Juan. I was 'first generation' born in NY, 'Nuyorquino', part of that first generation born in the USA. Did I bother to mention I'm Puerto Rican?
Ha! So, how did a Nuyorican kid like you get into Punk Rock?
    Good question, I was a freak kid. That is, I had a name like 'Abraham', so everyone thought I was Jewish.
I know lots of Puerto Rican guys named Israel & Moses!
     My father got me into Rock. When I was a kid he bought me Beatles albums, that changed my life completely. I was obsessed with rock music & soon found other bands I couldn't get enough of: T. Rex, David Bowie (this was 1972 man), Badfinger, The Stones/Kinks... I was looking  for anything LOUD & energetic. My father also got me into books & typewriters very young so I was a book nerd. I used to hide the books from the other kids so they wouldn't see them. If they saw you with a book and ask you why you're reading it, don't say it's because you like it! Say it's for a class.
 Sounds familiar, I had the same issue growing up, such a shame we had to be undercover with stuff like that.
      I know! And dude, I would've killed to know anyone that was into Rock music, everyone around me hated it. Back then rock was 'honky' music. Forget that its roots are as black as John Lee Hooker. Everyone around me was into black stuff: Soul, Funk, stuff that would shortly become Disco.
I take it Disco & early Hip-Hop ruled the streets?
       Yeah. mostly black music in the beginning. Remember the Chi-Lites? the Chakachas? How about Dennis Coffey & his funky instrumentals. Stuff like 'Scorpio' and 'Taurus'? Isaac Hayes!!
Jimmy Castor Bunch!
       Wow! Yeah, I even have a single from at home from Joe Tex! And the Jackson Five were everywhere. 'The love you save', what a killer song.
So, did you hear The Sex Pistols/Clash first? 
       Yeah, Punk crawled over to me slowly. I was a big CREEM reader and was already hearing about this stuff from England. The first time I saw the Ramones was on Don Kirschner's rock concert series, I was like, what is this shit? My Ritchie Blackmore sensibilities clashed with it somehow, but I couldn't get them out of my mind. I was a 12-year old with a crush--I was in love. The Sex Pistols I caught on TV too, some special report they did on England & I was flabbergasted by the energy and power.
They inspired you to take up the guitar? What were your first Punk shows?
        The Ramones influenced me first, followed by the Sex Pistols. Then I discovered those first shops where I could find import singles... then I met The Jam, The Clash, The Adverts, Slaughter & The Dogs, Wire. YEAH! I had a dream of being in a band already for many years and was even writing songs and putting together 'albums' of them, but it was punk that made me go get a guitar. My first show was actually 999. they came over in 1979. I had just turned 18. My father did not allow me to go out to clubs until I was officially an adult! It was a big fight. I saw all 3 of their shows of theirs. I also caught The Damned, the Reds, Sham 69. AND the biggest thrill was catching The Clash when they first came over in early '79 to play The Palladium. I had to run out & get scalped seats..
Wow, did you catch The Clash at their Bond's residency of 5 shows in a row?
         NAH! I did not see them during the Bonds time. I was obsessed with The Clash. To me they were set to change all of rock'n'roll with their fire and passion! Seeing them was my church! I was in the 3rd row, bro!! And Joe Strummer flicked his earnie ball pick right at me! I still have it, but when 'London Calling' came out, I was disgusted and bummed. I saw them again in the fall of '79 and it was a lousy concert. I refused to see them again. The thought that they came along to bring dance music & hip-hop awareness to the world totally infuriated me. I'm from the bronx! I don't need them to do that!!
You never liked 'Rocking the Casbah?'
         NOOOO Rock the casbah NOOOO, ugh- 'train in vain'- ugh. Yet I loved them so much, but I guess like many ultra-fans, you put all your hopes on the artist when the artist...gotta go his own way. I blame Mick Jones for all of it. And I still love Joe Strummer. Ok, I forgive Mick too.
Save that souvenir from Joe, Strummer forever! How did Urgent Fury come about? Did you play in any other bands prior?
         Yeah, I played in a band I formed in 1980 called White Riot. It lasted for about 6 months and there's a tape of me doing songs, some of which would pop up with Fury. There were other lesser bands I played with, including a pop band & a reggae group of big rastafarians. I was the token 'rock' guy. I was in college when I started Fury. After White Riot fizzled, I 'left' the punk scene. I was playing with Rastafarians uptown, when a friend of mine dragged me to my very first Hardcore show. Hardcore?? I thought that was about porno. The impression the 18 or so bands that played that CBGB's matinee left an indelible mark. Most of them sucked, but the energy, the power, and a few pulled it off enough... My friend connected me with a guy named Zev, who played bass & went to city college like me! So I met him, and he suggested bringing in a friend named Harry Viderci (drums) and there's your Fury right there. I gave them demos I had of some songs & when we went into the studio, we just went for it.
Harry Verduci, I was just gonna ask you about him, played in the legendary Sic* Fuc*s! (Original class of '77 CBGB's band)
         Yeah, he played with the Sic* Fuc*s and almost ended up in The Ramones. He's full of stories & he's met virtually everyone. the moment we played, it just clicked, this must have been around 1982.
Were you doing your State Of Fury fanzine by then too?
         Nah, took a while, the first issue of State Of Fury came out in Jan, 1986. It was a few pages of rant where I bitched mostly about the Hardcore scene.
I remember picking up State Of Fury because it had a great caption: US out of the South Bronx!
         YEAH! That's one of my favorites!
So, did Urgent Fury play with a lot of the early NYHC bands like Agnostic Front? What did you think of the whole Skinhead thing back then?
          Well, we never played with AF. We just didn't see eye to eye with many of the dominant bands at the time in NY, the thuggish stupidities that were going on associated with skins, I tended to blame these ignorant trash bands & goons for that. In the beginning we'd play with anyone, but after a show with a band called US Chaos, we decided to be more selective.
I remember seeing you guys in '85/'86 at the Tin Pan Alley club on 47th. street & it was a totally different universe from the CBGB's HC matinees. Did you feel more an affinity for bands like The False Prophets?
           Yeah, there were bands that I saw as more 'punk'. Then there were bands that were more 'hardcore'. We ended getting  shunted into what was referred to as the 'peace-punk' scene, which I hated too! We played a lot with A.P.P.L.E., False Prophets, Stisism and Marginal Man, and....The HC bands I loved were Heart Attack, Virus, Reagan Youth... There were good ones, don't get me wrong! It was great for us to play Tin Pan alley, because it was directly OUTSIDE of the 'scene'. It was a different place and different people and these 3 gigs we eventually did there were all terrific. There was no place Downtown in the 'scene' you could play that would feel like that.
The first demo came in a bag with a pin right? I wish I still had that pin!
            Yeah, we put out a demo cassette. I packed it in a packet with a State Of Fury & a button! I liked the pin, some silhouette of German soldiers jumping off. I'll see if I can find one for you, there were a few out there!
I feel you guys were really undocumented, record-wise, in that period. Were there ever plans for a record back then?
             Nah, we never put out a record in the early days. I don't know, we argued too much about what to do. I wasn't so focused or smart. I wanted to play as much as possible but Harry didn't. Harry thought we could get discovered and get a contract. I wanted records but he didn't, so the cassettes were a compromise.
So, you guys disbanded around '87 & came back in the early 90's with a revamped version, how did that come about?
             We disbanded a few times, first we lost Zev in '87? Something like that, he got married. then we played with a bassist named Mike but that didn't work out. Me & Harry fought too much so I split the band up again. Then Johnny Stiff (do you remember him?) heard we split up and he said that's no good for the world so he found us Adam Hoffman, a young, full-of-energy bassist who revved us up for a couple of years, up to '90 or '91. I insist that UF is the Spinal Tap of the HC scene, except with us, it's bassists that explode!

Besides booking you guys at Abc No Rio in '90, I was also planning on doing a 7" with you guys in '91. a thousand apologies for my PC Punk stance back then & not agreeing to the simple written agreement you guys drew up. I still kick myself!
              Oh wow, you know, it's ME that kicks myself over that & when I think of the lousy split single we did with Youth Gone Mad through one of Harry's deals. We should still do that record though!
Let's do it! So, you broke up again '92, how did that 10" on Broken Records come about?
              Well, after Adam left in '91, we found someone else, but we were on our last legs. Me & Harry were fighting too much 'cause I wanted to put out a record but he didn't want to put any money into it. So I split the band & put out the record on Broken, the 10". pretty much without him. It was to be the Urgent Fury farewell.
What's the agenda for the UF reissue you're working on now & can you talk a bit about your current project, Rope Burns?
              The reissue is going to include all the tracks from the old 10" plus some extra tracks. It'll be available on vinyl/cd & download. Rope Burns! How nice of you to ask. Rope Burns is the music project I started when I got to Berlin. I play with some people, but it's mostly the place I go to write songs, any songs. see, when I was with Harry, it all had to be HARDCORE!. I'm forming a group here & hope to play out. I mostly make demos: me on guitar, bass, drum machine. I must've made 10 demo albums already. I send them out to people, oddly enough, never to record labels.
Personal request: Can you put out the 'Requiem for Miss America' acoustic tape from '88, I love that!
             'Requiem..' Wow! I have the actual 1/4' tape here of that 'album'. I'm gonna walk it over with some other stuff to a studio & see if I can get it digitized. I did the tape in '88 during a hiatus from UF, frustrated that the band was NOT a good vehicle for my musical pursuits. Because I was always making demos, but Harry kept turning down my songs. Not fast enough...

Ok, let's switch gears a bit, how did you get started in your literary career? I started writing when I was little, like about 11 or 12, when my dad bought me my own portable typewriter. I always wrote, but it wasn't until the late 80's that some guy (who knew me because of Fury) published a story of mine in a magazine he put out. This was seen by an editor working on a book, one thing led to another...A woman named Lois Rosenthal approached me & asked if I had any stories for Story magazine. I gave her one she liked & she helped me find an agent
What was the genesis for the short-story collection, 'Boy without a Flag'? Were you surprised by the reaction?
              I put a collection together for my agent, 'Boy without..', and he sold that to Milkweed editions. It caused a bit of a stir & I enjoyed it greatly. I got shit for my writing but I knew I was on the right track somehow. It felt right to write these things and maybe expose things some people didn't like exposed.
 I remember reading about a possible film adaptation of your first novel, Spidertown?
             Yeah, well right after the book came out, people were asking for a novel so I finished something I had been working on: Spidertown. The book was optioned by Columbia Pictures right off the bat. Got me a mention in Variety alongside Robert Rodriguez, we spent a summer together back then because he was eventually slated to write the script (he backed out later, which I think doomed the project). The director was to be Jonathan Demme's cousin, his only recommendation for the assignment: he's the guy that directed Yo! MTV Raps!
Maybe for the best he didn't direct it, bummer, I could totally see it coming out good in the right hands.
             I thought so too. The project dragged out through the 90's. I eventually ended up writing a couple of scripts for them though because the one they showed me was so awful, I mean the hack they found rewrote the whole book! The project eventually fizzled out, the studio wanted a big movie, the production company wanted a small one. The trend for that kind of shit (inner-city kids, drug-trafficking) also faded a bit from the limelight... they paid well for those scripts though.
It'll probably come back, there's always an insatiable need for "Urban Grit". So, South by South Bronx is the last novel you wrote, working on a audio version right? Any other fiction in the works?
             The audio version is taking a long time! I do have lots of other stuff I'm working on, nothing directly finished. Writing takes time and lately time's been no good pal. I'm really into time travel and future stuff right now. Pretty weird but maybe where I want to go next...
Ok, changing topics once again; you're an expatriate living in Germany now. How did you end up there?
              I ended up living in Germany because Spidertown won a young people's award in the house of literature in Vienna. I didn't really wanna go but I had friends in Berlin and they insisted I stop on my way back. So I de-planed in Frankfurt and hopped on a train to Berlin, with something like $120 bucks on me. I was scared shitless, but once I got to Berlin I felt alive & free and just...bouncy. I walked into my friend's kitchen and there's this beautiful woman sitting there. I was late and the first thing she says is, "what took you so long?". The room began spinning...and that's why I ended up in Berlin, though there are plenty of other reasons. The people here are great, you feel a great sense of freedom and openness. It's a wonderful place, still affordable, and I even have health insurance now...And this flag thing: someone asked me on my last tour. Since I 'found' a life in Germany now, am I still the boy without a flag, or do I have a German one now?
Ha, Fly the GDR one now!
                I just told the lady I don't care much for flags. I respect certainly what people see in them, but I don't know if I 'have' a flag. I just know when I look at the german flag, I feel good. That's because Puerto Rico is NOT a colony of Germany, dig?
I hear you, I'm impressed by your command of the German language too.
                Ohh Vielen Dank! A language I was weirdly obsessed with since I was a kid, like I was preparing for it somehow...
Deja Vu over here, I've got a German father-in-law!
               Wow, so when are you guys coming over to Berlin?. There are a lot of Americans popping up over here. Don't know if I like that so much. I don't have many American friends here and I'm not in the ex-pat scene. I didn't come all the way to Berlin to hang out with Yankees! I tend to like the Germans. They seem to have learned from their history. Not like the Americans at all, you see.
There were some great German bands: Upright Citizens, Jingo de Lunch, Spermbirds...Gonna sing in German anytime soon?
               Also Neurotic Arseholes, Die Art, Spiel 77...Oh yeah, I should give singing in German a try. Of course, my plans when I get back from NY is to get Urgent Fury started here in Berlin. I have a drummer in mind and if I can pick up a bassist...then maybe my first German song....

Abraham in the middle with his lovely wife,  Jan 2011 NYC.


  1. Holy F#ck! You know, Abe is one of the most underrated people on the planet. He was one of the first people I met when I first started going to NYC in 1985 and one of the most influential people in my life. I still recall many conversations with him. I was at every Tin Pan Apple show (still have some photos from there, must find them)...

    It's really weird...I don't read fiction but after 17 years I picked up Spidertown again and all the memories of Abe came back to me. The book is unique in it's styling and a good read (but the natural critic in me will say it's a little long!)...will probably get to his other books someday!

    Abe, if you read this...Thanks! You were a true friend and I really wouldn't be the person I am today if I didn't meet you all those years ago. If you are ever in the Atlanta area, please look me up...

    Dave K.

  2. This is the nature of folk music at its best. Great stuff.

  3. What is this I hear from Brian Swirsky about an Urgent Fury comeback?

  4. Yeah, UF is back! They're playing in NYC @the Punk Island (Governor's Island) on Sunday June 19th. & the Charleston on Fri., June 24th in Brooklyn. Possibly other shows too...