the energizer bunny of punk

by liza mitchell
photo by daniel goncalves
Ray McKelvey is tinkering with a broken down car in front of his Murray Hill home. Birds are chirping in the background as the unassuming 51-year-old punk rocker wistfully recalls his glory days – what he can remember. He is kind, friendly and humble as he waxes poetic about his reign over Jacksonville’s punk rock scene. Ray made an lasting stamp on the history of renegade Jacksonville bad boy bands but the public reports his legendary exploits pale in comparison to the actual truth.
As the influential leader of Stevie Stiletto and the Switchblades, Ray has some stories to tell. Much of his life on stage is chronicled in the documentary My Life is Great, 30 years of raw material pieced together in a montage of videos, concert footage, interviews and other scraps of a hard life lived. It may not be the stuff of legends but it’s one hell of a legacy Stiletto himself never thought he’d be around to see.
“It’s pretty cool. There was a lot of great stuff to be heard,” Stiletto said in a recent interview. “It’s cool to see what relics people still have. It’s hard for me to remember.”
Stiletto’s backstory has been told before. Like many up and coming musicians, he cut his teeth in various cover bands before sinking them into the sound of the burgeoning punk movement. The lifestyle suited Stiletto as did the anarchistic attitude of those who followed. The original lineup of Stevie Stiletto and the Switchblades came together in 1983 following a sort of changing of the guards from the tired ’70s disco and arena rock to the middle finger of punk bands like the Sex Pistols. What followed was a veritable hopscotch of big name shows, infamous on-stage antics, revolving members and a predisposition for Murphy’s Law. Good or bad, the one common denominator was always Stiletto.
“We had so much bad luck. If it could possible go wrong it would. We spent many a nights on the side of the road with a broken down vehicle and all of our equipment,” he says. “We all slept together in the back of a van. It was beer and bologna. We were selling plasma for gasoline.”
Despite opening for the Dead Kennedys, Iggy Pop, the Ramones, the Descendants, Megadeth, Circle Jerks and the like, the demons that plagued Stevie Stiletto were often too strong to overcome. Just like in the old nursery rhyme, when he was good, Stiletto was very, very good. Stories of his live shows became local folklore, though Stiletto laughs at the notion that most of his antics were too raunchy to include in the documentary, like the night he took to the stage wearing little more than a glittery pair of gold cowboy boots and a smile. “Half of the audience got naked that night,” he recalls with a laugh.
But when he was bad, Stiletto was horrid, an aging punk rocker bent on destroying the one thing in life that mattered the most to him. The cocktail of chemical dependency, financial difficulties, a devastating auto accident and a healthy dose of plain old fashioned bad luck threatened to put an end to Stiletto once and for all. The band soldiered on in the early ’90s, releasing Back In Arms and American Asshole on Attitude Records. The renewed spirit caught fire elsewhere but failed to regenerate the successful steam on their home turf.
Stevie Stiletto embarked on a three-month European tour – a far cry from their days at the Cedar Hills Armory and the old 730 Club. “We were playing these huge concert halls over there. When we came home we had a gig in St. Augustine. Out front it was advertising a two-for-one pasta dinner and down at the bottom real small it said ‘with special musical guests Stevie Stiletto. The pasta dinner was huge. It was like, ‘What?!'” he said.
Stevie Stiletto played their final show in 2007. But today, Stiletto is healthy and he’s not looking back despite years spent living as a dying man, complications of the excess he regrets but a life he wouldn’t change. “I feel great. I exercise and eat properly,” he says.
To celebrate the recent screening of My Life is Great, Stiletto said he camped it up, painting his face with white makeup. “People thought I was sick. They didn’t realize my face was caked with the white makeup,” he says. “I thought it was funny really.”
After 30 years of raggedy vans, hole-in-the-wall venues and convalescing with one foot in the grave, Stevie Ray Stiletto is living comfortably. His living room is littered with the fruits of his labor – thousands of digitally remastered CD’s of all the band’s early material like 13 Hits and Food for Flies, t-shirts and copies of the documentary he will ship out to various distributors by week’s end. Stiletto is also gearing up to release three new projects before the end of the year. Beautiful Music for Ugly People centers on the band’s trademark sound – fast, heavy punk rock. To soften the edges, Stiletto recorded Ugly Music for Beautiful People to showcase his talents as a singer and songwriter with 18 acoustic tracks. “My mom loves that album,” he says.
Stevie Ray Stiletto released Hilarious Tales of Terror earlier this year and a new, as yet untitled project is tentatively scheduled to make a Christmas debut. All of the music is available on the band’s My Space and Facebook pages as well as the online site CD Baby. Stiletto said he also plans to get some on the shelves at CD Connection in Jacksonville Beach. “Four albums in one year – it’s been a really busy year for me. We’re going to get back out on tour and I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully this time we’ll have a decent vehicle.”