RG, The Loveless and Me

by J.D. King
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Winter, 1977: I’m living in Providence, RI. I go visit a friend. He’s got a new copy of “Live at CBGB’s.” We listen. By far, the best bands on the 2 LP set are Mink DeVille, Manster and Tuff Darts, the latter with lead singer Robert Gordon.

The following autumn, I’ve moved to NYC. I’ve got a lowly job at a photo developing booth in midtown. On my lunch break, I buy a copy of Robert’s first Private Stock album (featuring one of my guitar heroes, Link Wray). I show it to my co-workers and say, “Guess what year this is from?”

“Uhhh… 1957?”

“WRONG! Nineteen SEVENTY seven!”

Over the years, I picked up more RG recordings. When he was backed by The Jordanaires, or signed to RCA, I’d think, “Perfect! Just like Elvis!” But I never expected to be in a movie with him.

When I moved to NYC in September, 1977, to pursue my loves of punk rock and comix, I wound up in a grimy loft on the desolate tip of Manhattan, several blocks from the WTC. After five, it was a ghostown.

Almost everybody in the building was some sort of artist. My loftmates and I were playing in punk bands, a neighbor across the hall was a young filmmaker, Kathryn Bigelow. In 1980, she and her boyfriend, Monty Montgomery, had a notion about making a biker flick that owed something to “The Wild One,” as well as Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising.” After some title changes, it’d be be known as “The Loveless.”

Even though I wasn’t an actor, they thought I looked the part of a 1950s, hick town, gas-station attendant. (In those days, people told me I looked like Buddy Holly.)

I read for the part and, with some intensive coaching, got it. I had to learn to fake a Southern accent, but in short order was flown to Georgia, booked in a Holiday Inn at an Intersate truck stop, August, 1980, along with my girlfriend, the cast and crew. I was now a Screen Actors Guild member, earning some decent dough.

Most of the cast were unknowns: Mudd Club denizens, thespian hopefuls, some oddballs hired in Georgia. The guy who played my dad was a local rodeo rider. The biggest name was Robert, who played a biker. He was the best of the biker actors. Some of his songs wound up on the soundtrack, too.

The next “most famous” were a bit-player from TV, J. Don Ferguson, and downtown blonde bombshell, Tina L’Hotsky. After that, just unknowns, although one of those then-unkowns was Willem Dafoe, who played the gang’s leader.

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Honestly, Willem wasn’t overly well-liked. He was a square who kept trying act “groovy.” He wore bad shoes. Worse, he was full of himself. And he looked pretty silly in those leather trousers. As you can see in the movie, the seat of his pants are baggy. My girlfriend and I always referred to him as “Droopy Drawers.” (Behind his back, of course.)

I wasn’t present when it happened, but RG decked Dafoe towards the end of the shoot. I guess he’d had his fill of the baloney!

There wasn’t a lot to do down there. We had to rise before dawn, hustle to get ready. Then, being on set was mostly sitting around, waiting. There was a lot of takes and retakes, tedious and boring.

My girlfriend and I went to bed early, but the biker gang stayed up through the wee hours, playing poker, boozing and what not. I guess they were living the part. What sort of cycle psychos turn in early? I never understood how they could manage on no sleep.

The gang had to take motorcycle lessons. They were riding for real, no stuntmen, so they had to be, at least, competent on those Harleys. And these were the days when RG had the flattop that stood STRAIGHT up about four inches. Well, he didn’t want to wear a helmet because it’d squash his hairdo. But the trainer would not give him a lesson unless he wore a helmet. No helmet, no lesson. Period. A Mexican standoff. Eventually, Robert blinked, donned the helmet. But he none too pleased about it.

Robert was cool, a good guy to shoot the breeze with about old rock ‘n’ roll and comic books between takes.

The last time I saw him was maybe a year later. I ran into him in the East Village. He’d bought one of the Harleys used in “The Loveless,” the red one, and was showing it off. We talked for a bit. I don’t think he was wearing a helmet!

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Photos: a few scenes from “The Loveless” featuring J.D. King