SALEN ON: An Unsung Hero of NYC Punk Gets an Old-School Sendoff

A tribute to Jeff Salen takes place this Saturday, March 22nd at Kenny’s Castaways, located at 157 Bleecker Street with the surviving Tuff Darts, alumni from Richard Hell and The Voidoids, and other contemporaries and friends of Salen’s including Sugar Time, Patti Rothberg, She Wolves and Charm School. The show begins at 8pm.

Old rockers, especially those who are associated with old school punk, aren't generally the most sentimental people on the planet. Still, after Jeff Salen, best known as the lead guitarist of Tuff Darts—one of the earliest but ultimately lesser celebrated CBGB bands—died of a heart attack on January 26th, a week shy of his 55th birthday, it was a great testimony to how highly he was regarded that within days, this Saturday's memorial concert was being planned in his honor.

You may not have heard of Jeff Salen, but the founding fathers of NYC punk knew him well—he was one of them. When Jayne County, the wildest card of all from the pack of punk’s original instigators, sent out a MySpace bulletin about Salen’s death, she kept her personal commentary short, but called him an incredible guitarist and person and “one of my dearest Backstreet Boys.” (She wasn’t referring to the neutered boy band of the Nineties but rather the mid-Seventies Backstreet Boys, the raunchy and rollicking band that Jayne fronted back when she was still Wayne County.) Their drummer Marc Bell would later become Marky Ramone.

Prior to The Backstreet Boys, in 1973, Salen was in a band called Butch which included Tom Erdelyi—soon to become Tommy Ramone—and Monte Melnick, who would become the Ramones’ road manager. Salen co-founded the Tuff Darts while The Backstreet Boys were still going, but it was in Butch, according to Erdelyi, that Salen “perfected his fluid style of intense guitar playing.”

“He was a very good guitar player," remembers Marky Ramone. "He was proficient in what he did. And I thought that, at the time. . . he was probably one of the better guitar players in New York City. Without a doubt. And then of course you had Johnny Thunders and Johnny Ramone who were stylists. Jeff was more of a. . . how would you say? Not really a stylist. . . not ‘by the book,’ but I’m trying to find a term that would define him better than that. I guess he was just a traditionalist.”

Marky theorizes that Salen may have been frequently overlooked because, despite having had an unmistakable edginess, Salen’s playing was steeped in rhythm and blues. “He wanted to have a flair, a certain kind of, like, abrasive flair."

Walter Lure, who played guitar and sang in Johnny Thunders in The Heartbreakers and who now fronts The Waldos, knew Salen throughout the years and respected that more jarring aspect of his sound.

“I once heard someone refer to him as a ‘screecher’ referring to his guitar playing,” Lure writes in an e-mail. “While it can be sort of a left-handed compliment in some people's eyes, to me it was always great praise. It meant (to me anyway) that he played at the top of his lungs. . . Loud, brash, noisy, high-end, and screeching out into the darkness (of CBGB's in this case). ‘I want to be heard!!!’ He mellowed a lot as he got older but then so did we all. In any case, I'll always remember him as a ‘screecher’ and I mean it well.”

The song Salen will be best remembered for is the Tuff Darts’ “All For The Love Of Rock ‘N’ Roll” which sums up Salen's musical career nicely. “I don’t care about the money,” he wrote, “I ain’t seen none. I don’t care about the women. All I need is one. The reason I say it, you really outta know: It’s all for the love of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Singer Tommy Frenzy, who joined the Tuff Darts in 1977—years and already several singers into their existence by the time he’d joined—says, “When I first saw Tuff Darts, they were warming up NY Dolls at Max's Kansas city. As a guitarist, I could not help noticing Jeff's playing, his look, his entire presence. He is the reason I auditioned for the band. He was an amazing player, great writer and had more stage presence than anyone I have seen since.”

One of the band’s earlier singers was Robert Gordon, who quit the group early on and went on to become a rockabilly icon. Gordon writes in an e-mail, “Although I hadn’t been in touch with any of the members from ‘Tuff Darts’ in years, I immediately recognized Jimmy’s (the drummer) voice. He called to tell me that Jeff Salen had died. I was shocked.

“Jeff was the driving force behind Tuff Darts. We were considered one of the most powerful and exciting groups during what was to become known as ‘punk’ or ‘new wave.’ Jeff personified the wise-ass guitar player. He had the look, the attitude, and above everything else, the chops to prove it.”

Salen is survived by his wife of 18 years, Diana, and their 12-year-old daughter, Sofia. In recent years, Salen ran a successful and fashionable uptown boutique with Diana, appropriately called Diana & Jefferies. But he also continued recording, releasing his first solo album, Tuff Jeff Salen’s The Endless Road in 2005 and a follow-up, Tuff Jeff Salen & The Silencer’s Love and Trouble in 2007. Also that year, The Tuff Darts released two albums in Japan, one featuring new recordings and the others a collection of old demos.

“I think he’d want to be remembered as a good-hearted, loyal person who was an amazing talent,” his wife Diana says. “Jeff knew how to work his notes. He knew how to make a very distinctive sound. He was very proud of his vibrato and he practiced all the time. I mean, that was his love.”

“When he was playing on stage,” says Tuff Darts bassist John DeSalvo, “he’d have a look on his face that you’d never see any other time. Because that’s what he liked the best. When he was playing and you’d see that look sort of sometimes when he was talked about his family but back in the old days, I think the only thing that really meant anything to him was the music.”

Although many of their contemporaries from the early NYC punk scene surpassed the popularity of Tuff Darts, John Holmstrom—PUNK Magazine’s head honcho—maintains that they were initially talked about more than Blondie or the Ramones, but gives Salen credit for his continued dedication to the band after it was clear that the Tuff Darts weren’t going to be the next big thing.

“I see a lot of Jeff Salens out there in today's rock scene,” Holmstrom says. “It's rock 'n' roll as a passion instead of a career choice. You have to admire the bands who embrace this and play on against all odds. They reject the corporate image of rock 'n' roll, they ignore the age limits that restrict rock musicians from enjoying success after they reach their 30s, and they do what they wanna do until they drop dead. So let's all toast Jeff Salen, one of the first and best of the CBGB bands who refused to let the media ignore them and define them. The Tuff Darts were tough after all. No one could write their obituary. They refused to go away.”

A tribute to Jeff Salen takes place this Saturday, March 22nd with the surviving Tuff Darts, alumni of Richard Hell and The Voidoids, and other contemporaries and friends of Salen’s including Sugar Time, Patti Rothberg, She Wolves and Charm School at Kenny’s Castaways, located at 157 Bleecker Street. The tribute to one of punk’s earliest players begins at 8pm.

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