Chapter 12

 

For the next several nights at Downtown Sound, a succession of A- and B-list players, all friends of Ronnie’s, all of whom showed up as a favor or owed him one, stopped in to record the instrument tracks of the songs on our list.

I stayed out of the way, helping when I could. Mostly, I watched as Ronnie darted back and forth between the control room and the live room, plugging in cables, positioning microphones, and describing certain passages of the songs to the musicians. In spite of how quickly he had to work, and that he had the pressure of doing most of the work himself, he remained composed and never compromised his kindness.

“It’s one of the things he’s known for.” Sibyl said to me quietly on the back couch as the musicians took their places for the first take. “It’s why they like to work with him. He does anything he can to get them to do their best.”

Ronnie Yoshida was Japanese American, originally from Cleveland, Ohio. He had dreamed of becoming a sculptor, and in 1964, when he was nineteen, he move to New York to pursue an art career. His parents were second generation. His father had served during World War II in the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Asian American unit whose harrowing months at the end of the war gave the unit a casualty rate of over 300%. Mr. Yoshida had earned the gratitude of the American government — he received a Purple Heart after taking a bullet in his right shoulder (the injury limited his ability to raise his arm any higher than a Nazi salute) — while back in the States his wife had been subject to internment, which she craftily avoided by moving from San Francisco to Cleveland late in February of 1942. Ronnie’s parents reunited after the war, and less than a year later, Ronnie was born.

Ronnie wanted badly to be a part of the abstract arts movement that had gained momentum in New York during the 1950s. His initial interest in the arts had been music; he had learned to play the guitar when he was younger and was an accomplished musician. But his greatest love was welding, a skill he had learned from his father, for whom welding was an uninspiring occupation. Ronnie never welded anything practical, only objects that, in the eyes of his father, served no purpose whatsoever. But his work demonstrated his great ingenuity and his ability to express himself on a large scale. Even though his father was puzzled by the uselessness of Ronnie’s creations, he was impressed by the size of Ronnie’s ambition and encouraged him to pursue his dream.

When Ronnie arrived in New York, he found even less acceptance of his work in the tony art world. The only thing he had to show of his large creations back in Cleveland was a handful of photographs, which meant little to art dealers and other artists who formed what, for Ronnie, became an impenetrable circle. He took a job with a large construction company with the idea of somehow finding access to welding equipment and scrap metal in order to continue his work and earn the attention he sought.

The Russo De Luca Contracting Corporation, a commercial contracting and construction company, was one of the largest in the city and was consistently awarded contracts for public works projects through the city’s Department of Transportation. These contracts were vast, numerous, and, if the commissioned artwork hanging in the lobby of Russo De Luca’s offices was any indication, very profitable. Ronnie was hired as a general worker; he joined the local construction workers union and soon found himself being trained to operate heavy equipment. It didn’t take him long to understand the powerful nature of the relationship between the principals of his company and certain officials working for the Department of Transportation, and he set out to find a way to leverage his association with the well-connected Russo De Luca Contracting Corporation for his own purposes as an artist.

Ronnie Yoshida’s art was the spinning of chaos into threads of enlightenment. He was a junky for the world’s worries and troubles and found a fix for himself by becoming embroiled in them. While he never turned out anything anyone considered a masterpiece, he managed to create many successful works. But anyone who knows art knows the garden of success is surrounded by a graveyard of failures. When I met Ronnie, he had long since shifted his focus from making art to making a living. He considered what he did in the music industry more of a job than a pursuit, although he approached this job with the same recklessness that had gotten him attention as an artist. As I got to know him, I came to understand that the fire was still in him, even if he was managing to keep the flames low. He could never disembark the controversial for the mundane.

Once he had settled into his construction job for the Russo De Luca Contracting Corporation, Ronnie got the okay from his foreman to use the scrap metal lying around the jobsites to create his sculptures. He often stayed on a jobsite late through the night creating his art, which he would leave out of the way but still visible to his co-workers. Most of Ronnie’s pieces were thrown out when the construction jobs were completed, but by that time each had served its purpose: They were conversation pieces among the workers during their breaks, even if those conversation were light-heartedly derisive, and each piece became part of the job, like a painting in a home, and were sometimes referred to by names given to them by the workers. When a particular job was completed and the various pieces of scrap art had to be scrapped, the crews often disposed of them in a ceremonial manner, with a few workers standing around, some offering a few words as each piece was lifted by crane, dropped into a dump truck with other construction debris, and hauled away. Ronnie’s art endeared him to his co-workers, who gave him the nickname the Scrapper.

But it wasn’t Ronnie’s welding that gained him greater attention. Ronnie became a public figure when he elevated the city’s less-cultured majority to a higher collective consciousness during the garbage strike in 1968. He did it using a Russo De Luca backhoe.

On a cold February night, in protest of what he felt to be the mayor’s inability to end a strike that had grown to pit politics against public health, Ronnie attempted to create a hedge of garbage around the perimeter of Gracie Mansion by hauling to East End Avenue close to a hundred tons of refuse from the embankments that lined the foul-smelling streets of Manhattan. Using a backhoe from a jobsite nearby, he spent the entire night combing the streets of the Upper East Side collecting nine days of waste from the fronts of brownstones, apartment buildings, offices, and restaurants, and transporting it one load at a time to within smelling distance of the mayor’s home. He was arrested at dawn, before the hedge of garbage was completed.

Coincidentally, that day, the mayor, having refueled the stalled negotiations, ended the strike.

Overnight, Ronnie became a sensation. Because of the local news media’s rush to classify him — and because of Ronnie’s savvy rush to fame — he was quickly etched into the operating system of popular culture as an artist for the people of New York.

The art world refused to see a hedge of garbage as art, conceptual or otherwise. Local art critics treated the event with contempt — “a contrived effort of pure gesture”; “making the abstract expressionless” — but recognized, with great regret, the impact his plebian work had on their sophisticated world. They pronounced Ronnie brutish, common, and profoundly unaesthetic.

“I don’t blame them,” Ronnie said to me on a break in the studio. “It was fucking garbage!”

In fact, Ronnie told me he never felt there was anything artistic about bulldozing a hundred tons of trash to the mayor’s front door. He confessed that at the time, he just needed to let off some steam. He disliked the garbage strike as much as anyone else, but his real frustration lied with a beautiful French woman whom he had met over the holidays only weeks before. She had just arrived from Paris and spoke very little English. Ronnie fell madly in love with her, and within days, they were married. Two days after that, she disappeared with all of his cash and several of his dress shirts, leaving a note that said simply, “Thank you, a bientot!”

Ronnie took his anger out on the mayor.

“My sculpture stands as an indictment of what that fuck-head is turning New York into,” he said in a Village Voice interview several days later, playing up his new role as the people’s artist. “He’s turning our city into a city dump, with a budget that’s taken us for all we’re worth and left us with a pile of trash. Urban renewal? It’s fucking urban despair.”

Readers loved him. But while the alternative media lauded him and pushed him into that circle of counter-culture iconoclasts, the mainstream media, particularly television, was leery of featuring someone with so little control over his use of the F-word. And so Ronnie’s fame, while longer than fifteen minutes, remained local and street-bound.

It could be said that for a brief time New York was a different and better place because of Ronnie. Even though his subsequent works continued to be panned by the art elite — and in some instances by the mayor’s office, the Port Authority, Parks and Recreation, and the NYPD — they were extremely popular among the working-class of this disparate city, those who scoffed at the elite and canonized low brow culture by thumbing their noses at the refined art of the day and raising their beer mugs to the likes of Archie Bunker.

 “I’m not afraid of success or failure,” Ronnie told me. “I’m afraid of falling somewhere in the middle.” 

It was a philosophy that sustained the welder-turned-recording-engineer who had been impaled frequently, by music and art critics alike, onto the spikes of his own self-doubt. Fortunately, Ronnie’s never-ending stream of idiotic projects kept him from focusing on his detractors, and his latent image of self as loser, lying in wait somewhere underneath his inventory of ideas, was never allowed to surface. Being around Ronnie for any length of time would lead anyone to believe something was astray, but he wasn’t crazy, as most people suspected. He was never seen praying to fire hydrants or throwing fists into the heavens with rants of incredulity. His antics and the madness of his ideas were the very things that kept him from falling over the edge. He just kept turning out works, large and small, in mockery of the art world, the record companies, and all of government, and he found himself satisfied by his labors if not always by their fruit.

The garbage strike occurred in 1968. When I mentioned to Ronnie that was the year Nehemiah had come to live with us, Ronnie, remembering the entire year as if it was yesterday, quickly recounted a list of other things that happened 1968: the Tet Offensive, the My Lai massacre, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Ronnie leaned back in his chair and relaxed his shoulders.

“And Tommie Smith and John Carlos,” he said with a smile, referring to the top two medalists of in the men’s 200 meters at the Mexico City Olympics who, while the national anthem played during their ceremony, had held their black-gloved fists high in the air in a Black Power salute.

Ronnie scanned the mixing console in front of him. The musicians had gone, and now it was time to listen to what we got on tape and begin mixing the songs for the demo.

“The year ended on a high note,” he said, snapping back upright and as he reached for the play button. “We elected Nixon to lead us out of this mess.”

As music blasted through the main studio monitors, I thought of another item for the list, the one that led to Nehemiah living with us: It was in 1968 that Nehemiah’s parents were killed.

 

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