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Neon Leon came out of New York in the 70’s and was mentored by The New York Dolls and later The Rolling Stones. He supported a list of better-known bands when they played CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, New York back in the 70’s. He used to hang out with Andy Warhol and played in the band The Stiletto’s, some of whom later formed Blondie. He knew a lot of the people in the music scene around Max’s Kansas City, CBGB’s and the Chelsea Hotel in New York. He has, unlike many bands from that era, managed to stay alive and living well from his music. His affiliation with Sid and Nancy at the Chelsea Hotel got him interviewed extensively in Alan Parkers documentary ‘Who Killed Nancy’. I caught up with him for a little chat about his life and music.

TEDDIE: Tell me about what it was like when you started out.

LEON: I started out in Atlantic City in New Jersey, which is now a casino place. Back then it was still a casino place, but it wasn’t legal. Nothing really changed except the casino’s got bigger. I was a product of that. I started Neon Leon and the Rainbow Express and I was the opening act for The New York Dolls at Summers Point in Wildwood, New Jersey in the early 70’s. None of the other groups wanted to play with them because they thought they were queer. South Jersey was pretty conservative at the time. I was back stage and I said to Johnny Thunders ‘wow man this is so cool. I want to make it. What should I do?’ And Johnny answered ‘The first thing you’ve got to do is get out of this shit hole’. So I asked where I should go and Johnny said ‘New York’. And when I said I didn’t know anybody in New York he said ‘You know us’. And then Sylvain gave me his number and told me to call it and they would find something for me to do. I couldn’t believe it. I saved my money and called them up and no one in my band wanted to go. They were all afraid, except for my girlfriend, Honi O’ Rourke, who wasn’t in the band.

TEDDIE: I know you lived in the New York Dolls loft for a while, which was their rehearsal rooms and then you moved into the famous Chelsea Hotel. It must have felt very strange staying in a hotel that was full of artists and musicians, prostitutes and drug dealers; such a menagerie of people.

LEON: Yeah  I would crash there sometimes. The Chelsea Hotel was my art finishing school. My neighbours, at one time, were Rickie Lee Jones and Tom Waits on the left. They’d be out in the evening getting drunk on marguerites. I’d come home from clubbing and stuff and Tom would be asleep on the floor with the key in the door. And the two of them couldn’t quite make it in. So I’d open the door and drag them in. I would see Bob Dylan walking around in the hall going up to the top floor on the roof. He had a little house up there. We had a birthday party once that Eileen Polk (Photographer and Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane’s (New York Dolls) girlfriend) helped organize at the Chelsea. It ended up being about 500 people in the room next to Sid and Nancy. They weren’t there at the time though. It was a really stimulating artistic, anything goes thing. People were wild about sex because of the sexual liberation movement that happened in America. There was no Aids so people ran around and shagged all over the place, played music and did drugs. That kind of thing won’t happen again. It was very wild and really extreme and I am very happy I survived it. I would ride the elevator up to the 10th floor and walk down. If I heard music that I liked, I’d knock on the door. People would invite you in. Nobody was really paranoid. Everybody got along and respected each other.

TEDDIE: You were quite a central figure in the New York music scene back in the 70’s and early 80’s.

LEON: Yeah, I knew Nancy (Spungen) before she was ‘Nancy’. I knew her from Philadelphia. She was my girlfriend, Honi O Rourke’s best friend. There were these girls that you would call the super groupies of Philadelphia. Nancy and Honi and Tori Hamilton. These girls knew Rod Stewart and the Faces. They knew Aerosmith and they knew The New York Dolls. They knew everybody. The scene in Philadelphia wasn’t punk. It was more like Rolling Stones kind of music. Nancy wasn’t living at the Chelsea at first in New York. She was living on 23rd street. She said once that she was going to go and marry Johnny Thunders or Jerry Nolan and going to England. We thought that was great. She left and we didn’t hear from her. We would always buy Melody Maker and the English rock papers and we saw her in one with Sid. We thought it was cool. She didn’t get Johnny Thunders and her second choice was Jerry Nolan. Everybody thinks she went to England to hook up with Jerry Nolan. No she didn’t. She was in love with Johnny Thunders. She was really, really into him. She would bribe people with guitars and stuff to talk to her. She was lonely, actually. She was very clever and very manipulative, but in the beginning it wasn’t in a bad way. London really fucked her up. She got into the hard drug thing really heavily. When she left for England she looked good, healthy and quite glamorous and if she wanted something she knew how to get it.

Malcolm McLaren was in America and decided to be the tour manager for the New York Dolls. David Johansen and Sylvain were very business savvy. Anyway Malcolm thought he could get them to do things, which was really not in their nature. Malcolm came up with this red patent leather thing. It was too communistic for Americans with red. So Malcolm took the ideas to London and decided he would make his own New York Dolls in London and he called them the Sex Pistols. I almost wound up being in that. In 1976 I was living with Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones) and his wife Rose. I told them that Malcolm had offered me a job in a new band that he’d made and it’s going to be called the Sex Pistols or something. Mick’s wife freaked out and said ‘No, no, no!’  She said she knew him and if I was going to play with his band then I couldn’t be with them. So I figured; better the devil I know than the one I don’t know.

TEDDIE: So what you are saying is that there was some animosity between the Rolling Stones and Malcolm McLaren?

LEON: It was never explained to me what it was, but they weren’t having it. I had to decide what I wanted to do. I was living at an apartment on the Kings Road with a girl called Charlotte, Sometimes called Charlotte the Harlot; this heiress from Switzerland, who was Spiders girlfriend. It was a flat that she got from David Bowie and Eric Clapton and I was in Sussex in Mick Taylors mansion, with horses, sheep and cows. Beautiful, idyllic, rock and roll successful life. Or I could live in a squatters flat in Soho. It wasn’t a difficult choice to turn Malcolm down.

TEDDIE: How did you get to know the Rolling Stones in the first place ? How did you meet them?

LEON: It was another one of these weird fate things. I was playing in Max’s Kansas City (New York) and these gorgeous European women would come in, looking so beautiful, like they had stepped out of a magazine. The reason they were so glamorous was because it was Catherine Deneuve, Anita Pallenberg, Marianne Faithful and Rose Taylor, Mick Taylors wife and they used to come and see us play. They said to me and Spider (drummer Pure Hell) ‘Would you guys like to come to London?’ Eileen Polk had been over and done lots of photos and it was my dream to go so I said ‘Yeah definitely!’ I packed my things and left with 50 bucks in my pocket. I wound up sitting in the Kings Road and I met Charlotte who happened to live upstairs. She knew who I was from Rose and them. Next thing I knew I had a room in her flat. I was in her flat and looking at all these Stones pictures on her wall. These were personal pictures. That evening Rose Taylor came and the next day Ronnie Wood and Mick Taylor came over, which freaked me out. The main reason I went to England in the first place was because I wanted to meet the Rolling Stones, and suddenly there I was in the middle of it. Mick said I could come and stay at his place in the countryside and gave me an amplifier to use and ‘welcome to London’…. Ronnie came over to say hi and shake my hand and stuck out a finger. So I took the finger and he farted and started laughing because he’s a clown. He’s quite funny. Interesting people would come by. I made friends with Gary Holton and Suzie Quatro. They fixed me up with a rehearsal place. We used to hang out at the Speakeasy. It had bordello wallpaper.

Eileen (Polk) flew over, bringing the rest of my guitars and all of her cameras and she photographed everything. This is 1976. I was in London until late 76. I went back to New York for a couple of months and then went back to London. When I came back to New York I was suddenly a hero instead of a zero. By that time everybody knew I’d been living with the Stones in London. It was the big dream for New York bands, to go to Europe and play. It changed my whole career. I went back and forth between London and New York on Laker Airways.

TEDDIE: So after a while you moved back to New York ?

LEON: Honi O’Rourke and I had gone back to New York late 1978. We could headline now at Max’s instead of opening for The Dolls, because of the reputation and the rumours and we’d been to England. They gossiped about the parties that they would throw for us at Tramps. We’d have Beluga caviar fights. Honi and I moved back in to the Chelsea and I would paint. Stanley Bard (Chelsea Hotel owner) would come in and ask me for money and take things off the wall that he liked instead so we could stay for another month.

I remember we saw Nancy on the day she came back. Honi O’Rourke and I were coming through the lobby at the Chelsea and we saw a blonde woman from the back standing there looking a little wobbly in the legs, with money all over the lobby floor, by the front desk. I tapped the woman in the shoulder and said ‘Excuse me…’ but all of a sudden she turns around and she’s this wild person shouting ‘Neon Leon wow !’. It was Nancy with her mascara running down like Alice Cooper and her hair all a disarray and dollar bills and pound notes all around her and I said ‘Hey Nancy, what’s wrong with you? Pick your money up’. We helped her pick her money up. She asked if we wanted to meet Sid as he was upstairs so I said ‘Is that the John that used to play with Siouxsie?’ and she said ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah!’ Both Honi and I thought she looked a wreck. So we went to their room and Sid was sitting there, Mr Vicious, with a little kitten. He was stroking this little kitten like a little boy. I didn’t see anything vicious about Vicious. He became Vicious when he left the room and had to do his act. He looked at me and said ‘I’ve got some baked beans I’m making. Do you want some?’

There is this scene in Alex Cox film, Sid and Nancy, with this guy in it with a red head girlfriend called Wax Max. Nancy is in a room with him and Nancy says to Wax Max ‘Your music sucks’ and this Wax Max guy says ‘I’m a little ahead of my time. My stuff will start happening in the 80’s’. That scene really didn’t happen like that. They offered me and Honi O’Rourke money to be in the film and play ourselves. And we said we were not going to make money off our friends now that they are dead. So they offered us money to use our name, but we turned that down too. We wouldn’t do it, so they came up with a black guy they called Wax Max with a red haired girlfriend. I couldn’t sue them but I was a little peeved at Alex Cox, but I guess that’s show business. At the premier of the film; I think Eileen Polk was with us and a lot of the New York scene and all these people are playing parts in this movie. I walked out after about 15 minutes because it was such a misrepresentation.  I just got it on DVD. A friend of mine sent it to me in June and I saw it through and I said I’m glad I wasn’t in that. So when Alan Parker wanted to talk to me about his documentary, ‘Who Killed Nancy’ I was a little sceptical. I was there. People tried to make me the pawn, the scapegoat, thinking that I did it. Yeah it was the black heroin guy. Firstly I don’t do heroin, but they just assumed it. Everything I said happened at the Chelsea, was confirmed and the police said I wasn’t a suspect any more. But the newspaper tried to drag me through the mud. I had to leave the Chelsea Hotel because there were so many death threats. Sid and Nancy had dinner with me and Honi.

TEDDIE: Was this on the night that Nancy died ?

LEON: Yes they had their last meal together with me and Honi O’Rourke. Sid brought his jacket by and said I could borrow it. Nancy had the portfolio with her and they were a bit depressed. She was looking at old photos of them and saying ‘Look how gorgeous we used to be. Look at Sid in this photo and look at us now.’ I could see two worn out people.

TEDDIE: So after Nancy’s death, you left because people suspected you. Where did you go and what did you do?

LEON: The police asked whether I could afford body guards and when I said no they said it was a shame when you are famous and can’t afford body guards. The police couldn’t afford to help me with protection. When I asked them what we should do they told me that I should leave town and wherever I was going I should tell people I was going to the opposite place. If you are going to California, tell people you are going to England and visa versa. We did that and I went to England and hid out there for a little bit in the countryside. I got tired of that so I went to Jamaica. After a while I went back to New York and I was suddenly getting offers to play because now I was even more famous. This was before Sid died.

TEDDIE: So you were away for a few months and then you came back ?

LEON: Yeah, so then they wanted to know if I wanted to be in a group with Sid and Jerry Nolan. This was Malcolm McLarens idea. And he said the first gig was going to be in Nancy’s home town. And I said ‘Yeah, but if we do that, they will kill us there!’ And his answer was ‘Yeah but, at least you’ll be famous and you’ll be a legend.’  I wasn’t that dumb so I left again and went back to Jamaica to my parent’s home and stopped music for about a year, if not longer. I was too paranoid to go on stage. I mean when people are leaving black prints on your door saying DIE NIGGER and YOU’RE NEXT. PAY. In the Chelsea Hotel Stan Bard said I’d been a great artist, but they just couldn’t have this and I had to leave. It changed everything for me. I was in shock. I was pretty much having a nervous breakdown.

TEDDIE: So what happened after that?

LEON: It took a while but then I started making bands again and the energy was good. I got a good manager who was also friends with the Rolling Stones; James Karnbach. He knew the Rolling Stones via the film maker Dave Marsh and Martin Scorsese, and a guy named Jeff Stein, who did  The Who film; The Kids Are Allright. He did Billy Idol videos White Wedding and Bruce Springsteen Born in the USA. They became my management team.  I wrote a song called Rock and Roll is Alive in New York City. I was rejected by every record company, because they said it wasn’t commercial enough. Mick Jagger told me to make my own label and we got some money from them (The Rolling Stones) I made my own label called Big Deal Records.

TEDDIE: When was this….early 80’s ?

LEON: This is late 79 going in to 80. I met this wonderful model from Sweden and we started hanging out. We had some good success. We had a Millimetre Magazine Award, which is like a commercial Oscar. They had Dr Pepper Concerts in the Park and KROQ rock station used my song that had been rejected for not being commercial enough for their award winning commercial. So then I had loads of money and stuff and a band and it quickly became a case of too much too soon. So now people in my band who didn’t do heroin, decided that they were rock stars, so they were going to do heroin, because Keith Richards does it. And then another one decides that they were going to be an LSD freak. I did a concert in the Park. The newspapers headlined it as ‘Neon Leon and the Bondage Babies are giving a concert in the Central park for free.’ We had about 10 bands and my group broke up that night. And I felt I just had to get out of there. I had become very straight, but my girlfriend was getting kinda loopy. I knew a guy in Holland. So we went to Amsterdam, which isn’t the best place to go if you are trying to get your girlfriend off drugs. In the end we went to see my girlfriend’s parents in Sweden and they let us use their summer house on a lake outside of Stockholm. We were there for a couple of weeks and cleaned our act up.

We went in to Stockholm and in to a place called Bad News. As we entered I saw all these people who looked like rock stars. I didn’t know them because they were Swedish rock stars. An Indian guy came up to me. He had Buddy Holly glasses and a suite and a tie. He was a little portly and said ‘Hey Neon Leon! Welcome to Stockholm’ He introduced himself as Sanji Tandan and told me he was in the music business and asked me what I was doing there. I told him I was writing songs and he wanted to know if I had any finished and I said yeah. He asked me if I had a record deal. When I said no, he offered me one. One week later I had a record deal and a new single, which was called New Wave and started my Scandinavian new career. I was travelling back and forth between Stockholm and New York, so Sanji suggested we do half the album in Sweden and the other half in New York so that he could meet all the people on the scene and hang out. He sent me back and gave me the address to where I was staying, saying he’d be over three days later. I told the taxi driver the address and he pulls up in front of the Waldorf Astoria . When Sanji came over I took him out to meet all the rock musicians from Max’s. He became a very good friend and I got some money from future royalties from him and started my own label called Transatlantic Records.  Every time I went back to New York it would be less attractive to me. Max’s closed down and a few other places. They changed the law on the drinking age from 18 to 21. So all the young people that would come to New York from New Jersey and Connecticut or wherever decided they might as well stay at home because they couldn’t get in to see their favourite bands so the scene just dwindled away to nothing.

TEDDIE: So how did you end up in Germany?

LEON: Typical, I have some German friends that I knew from Denmark that fixed me some gigs. They found some musicians for me and the money was good and I could do what I wanted. I started coming more and more and now I am living between Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

TEDDIE: You are not only a song writer and musician, but you are also an artist and painter. Have you exhibited anything?

LEON: Yes, I’ve had about 6 exhibitions here in Germany. I do my music and lecture and describe my thing about colour. I have a thing about colour. My exhibitions are usually called Fire and Ice. I spend part of the year in Austria and in Switzerland in the mountains in the wintertime. And I do a lot of stuff from nature so that’s the ice thing. And I spend time in Hawaii and that’s the fire part because of the volcanos. I like looking at nature and showing the beauty of it. 

TEDDIE: You are preparing for a European tour with your band and I see Oslo is included this time. It has been 28 years since we last welcomed you to Norway. Good luck with it and thank you for talking to me.

LEON: My pleasure and I look forward to coming back and catching up with old friends.

Interview by Teddie Dahlin
Photos provided by Leon Neon by Aigars Lapsa

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