John E. Citrone
Former Folio Weekly managing editor
I first met Ray McKelvey in the summer of 2005, when, as managing editor of Folio Weekly, I was assigned a feature on the Jacksonville punk. At the time, Ray was in the throes of battling Hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver, but rumors were circulating that he had cancer or AIDS. Some said he was already dead.
Ray was indeed very ill, but he was on the upswing after a year of treatment and hospital visits. He was actually working on a new album, and I found him energetic and open, excited that he was finally getting a cover story after nearly 30 years in the music business.
I spent quite a bit of time with Ray, hanging out in his Westside home, talking about his life and his music, and his three-decade journey around the world with his bands Stevie Stiletto and the Switchblades and various “Ray Ray” incarnations. (Ask a fan about the Ray Rays.) He regaled me with stories about his early years touring with and opening for punk’s most recognizable names — The Ramones, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Circle Jerks – and the madness he created on stage. In his mind, he was a showman of the highest order, a carnival barker who liked to wear clown masks and blow things up. I took him at his word, as I had never seen him perform live. And until I got ahold of some old Switchblade videos — the ones in which he wears clown masks and blows things up — all I knew was this skinny, ailing ghoul before me looked barely strong enough to hoist himself out of his chair.
We also talked at length about his drug addiction, his alcoholism and the emotional scars he nursed after losing his brother too early in life. He was open about most of it, spoke off the record about some of it. And there were things he kept to himself.
Ray was also quite generous, showering me with Stevie Stiletto CDs and T-shirts. When I told him my idea for the cover – Ray prostrate, eyes closed, with the headline “Stevie Stiletto Is Dead” in huge print followed in much smaller print by “that is if you believe the rumors” – he thought it was hilarious. We went with it. Ray later told me his sister, after reading just the headline, freaked out. Mission accomplished.
Anyone who knows Ray understands one truth about the man: Once you’ve gotten close to him, you will never hear the end of Ray McKelvey. Case in point: After the article ran, it won an alternative press award and put Ray back in the spotlight. He began calling me at odd times, at work, at home, at work again. “Man, great article. My record’s about to come out, and I want you to play on it.” “John, this guy is working on a documentary about me. I want you to be in it.” “Got a show coming up, wanna play drums on a few songs?” For Ray it was always about making more and more music, despite his declining health, and he wanted everyone to be there for it.
We had a running gag, he and I. Like the Paul McCartney death hoax, and playing off the Folio Weekly cover, we joked that the real Ray McKelvey died many years ago, and there was an imposter living his life. We played it up in the documentary film “My Life Is Great: The Stevie Stiletto Story,” during which I feign a tirade regarding Ray’s fake death so he can get people to play on his “tribute” records for free. At the release party for his “My Life Is Great” CD, on which I shared drumming duties with original Switchblade members, I thanked the “fill-in” lead singer for doing such a great job impersonating Ray, who had died so very long ago. Then I sang an a cappella version of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind.” Some people didn’t get it.
We thought it was very funny.
There were strange times, too, as things seemed to get when Ray is in your life. He became unstable in recent years, as his illness worsened. Rumors circulated that he attempted suicide, and that I was somehow connected due to a small editorial blurb I had placed in the paper promoting a side project he was involved in. His girlfriend at the time assured me the incident was misconstrued, then blown out of proportion via the local rumor mill.
We never really talked about that.
I did see him once more following that bit of weirdness. He showed up one weekend at Avondale nightspot Monte’s (officially the West Inn Cantina), where my band was mid-set. I announced his presence, to cheers from his hometown crowd. I may have even been wearing the Stevie Stiletto shirt he gave me. (It wouldn’t surprise me; I wear it a lot.) I sang a lyric from his song “The Invaders,” and we shared a brief hug. Then he ambled off into the night. That was the last time I saw him.
What follows here are more candid memories of Ray McKelvey, shared in a time of sadness by his friends, bandmates and family members. I wish I could say that the joke were still running, that Ray and I are going to have one hell of a laugh after people read this. But I can’t. Because this time, Stevie Stiletto really is dead.
Original Stevie Stiletto and the Switchblades member
Ray, Rob Acocella, Steve Gallagher and I formed Stevie Stiletto and the Switchblades back in 1982.
Back then there were maybe three other punk rock bands in the entire state of Florida. I was 21, and Ray was 26. The only other bands doing anything remotely close to us were The Great Invisibles and The Attitudes, but we were much harder, and we had more rock ’n’ roll spirit than anyone around us at the time.
Ray pretty much showed me what rock ’n’ roll was all about. He educated me on a lot of bands: The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, The New York Dolls and many more.
Ray and I saw it all and went through it all — countless guitarists and drummers, psycho girlfriends, drugs, drinking and more drugs — but through it all he showed me that there is nothing in the world more important than playing rock ’n’ roll with your friends. He and I stuck it out through good times and bad until 10 years later when he walked out of the van in Flagstaff Arizona and went back to his home in Jacksonville and I went back to my home in San Francisco.
Our diet on tour consisted of a pack of chicken bologna, bread and mayonnaise, and a 12 pack of Old Milwaulkee beer. The food would last us two days, but the beer would be gone in an hour.
There was one point when we were on tour when Thommy Berlin was in the band, we were so broke, we were contemplating selling blood to get some food and gas money to get to the next town, and we stopped in Indianapolis. We met the bass player from Toxic Reasons who took us to the grocery store and bought us some food and put us on a bill that night. I remember Ray being so great on stage that night. Whenever we played around other musicians he looked up to, he always took it to the next level and blew everyone away.
Ray was the most rock ’n’ roll person I’ve ever known, and, even though we weren’t really close these past few years, I know if I was back in Jacksonville, we would’ve been in a band together again. He was, and will always be, my brother in rock.
As far as I’m concerned, rock ’n’ roll is now officially dead in Jacksonville, Fla.
Friend and fan
One of my favorite Ray McKelvey moments was an evening at Randy’s on the Westside. Travis Reier and I were enjoying a set of Continental or President Ray Ray, I can’t remember which moniker, when a pitcher of beer shows up magically in Ray’s grasp. “If you can chug it, you can have it,” he announced. Needless to say, said pitcher was in my belly in less than 10 seconds. I could tell Ray appreciated my enthusiasm, and he asked me if I had a request. I bellowed out “Get the Time,” which is a Descendents song. Judging from the band’s reaction, they were expecting to play an original, but what did they want from me? I just chugged a pitcher! They ripped right through it, and Stevie Ray Stiletto made it his own. No matter if I was 19, sneaking in to see the show, or I was 40, running the console for him, he demanded your attention. For 30 minutes to an hour and a half, he owned you. I know there’s a mic in your hand, wherever you are!
My friendship with Ray goes back to the mid 1980s, but my “fondest” memories of Ray were the times at his house on Dellwood painting snakes.
So Ray would pop by my house every now and then to chug a few beers and groove to some tunes, and at some point he brought up these wooden snakes he made as art and what a drag it was painting them all by himself. So I said, “Yeah sure, I’ll help ya paint some snakes, bro.”
As anyone who knew Ray can imagine, the painting of snakes and the drinking of beer quickly turned into deep conversation and rock ’n’ roll. As the night went on and the tapes in the boombox ended, Ray would make his way over to his beautiful beat up piano. Honestly, I think he would forget that I was even there, and he would create some of the most beautiful and original music I ever heard, the instrument notwithstanding. Pieces of songs that wouldn’t be remembered in the morning, but so beautiful that night in the smoky air of Rayland. I would just smile, close my eyes and feel the vibe — and know that I was in the presence of true genius, humble genius, the Ray Ray kind of genius.
Bandmate and friend
I’ve known Ray for about 30 years. Seeing Stevie Stiletto and the Switchblades at the Blighted Area inspired me to play bass. They were so good; they were like our own local Ramones. They blasted two-minute punk rock gems one after another; it was like an assault. Ray was an amazing front man; he held it in control, calling the shots with wry and witty lyrics and a sense of humor and voice perfect for punk rock.
It was unreal to me years later when I actually got to play bass in the band with Ray; I learned a lot about music from him. He pushed everyone to play his best; he demanded perfection, practiced constantly — it was like musical boot camp, and it was totally worth it. I always found Ray to be genuine, generous, sharp-witted and really funny. I’m lucky to be able to have called Ray a close friend, and I’m really gonna miss the guy. “May th’ road rise to meet you …”
Heather “Meow” Bruce
Friend and fan
Ray did it his way.
I had the pleasure of getting even closer to the man known to many as Stevie “Ray” Stiletto especially over the last 10-plus years because of the common circle of close friends that we share and the fact that our lives grew along parallel lines in many deep ways.
Ray was all-original — a real rock ’n’ roll creative soul who did it his way with no rules, with all of his heart and raw passionate energy.
We worked on some photography projects a few years back. Ray took pride in helping me, inspiring me with ideas, encouraging my natural artistic energy. We did fun shots here and there and took serious shots of him with ”Tele” Boy, his Jack Russell dog. Ray truly loved animals, especially dogs. Ray had a big heart, was sentimental, and I love that about him.
Ray always made me smile and laugh. The bottom line: Ray’s musical brilliance and creative genius touched us all in many different inspirational ways and shall continue to.
My thoughts of peace and comforts are with his family during this difficult time.
Former bassist for Royal Trux and ’68 Comeback and former Folio Weekly A&E editor
Ray was one of the most innately humorous people I have ever met. He found humor in everything. He also just exuded that creative sensibility that fuels true art and punk rock in the way that everything was his canvas, including his own body, which was covered in tattoos (and probably a few scars). Growing up in Jacksonville Beach, I was well-schooled in the music and myth of Stevie Stiletto and the Switchblades; I even bought their “White Christmas” 45 at The Music Shop. Local punkers challenged each other in their defiance yet they all spoke of Ray and that band in reverent tones. Ray was also one of my first “reverse” sponsors in the sense that he was helping both illustrate how to hang out in the shadows, whether by confused romanticism or sheer survival.
When I was 17 and 18 years old (1989-’90), I used to go with my pal Darren Destin to go see Ray when he was living at the house on Dellwood Avenue; Ray had recently returned from living in the Bay Area and was determined to have a local band. I’m pretty certain that Ray and Thommy Berlin weren’t on speaking terms at the time, a common resentment between singers and guitarists; throw that same anger between two brainy, art-enthralled dope addicts and you have a hundred year war. Ray’s homecoming band was called Continental Ray Ray and included longtime compadre Frankie Phillips on guitar and bassist Pat Lally. I can’t remember who the drummer was; blame it on time.
Pat was also living with Ray at the time in the two-bedroom house, and a cast of characters would spill through the place, many who were just a step above complete dereliction. Their common bond with Ray seemed to be that they all once attended high school and narcotics. Ray was protective of them all. Bicycle Bill always wore a ball cap, invariably rode a bike and always had the air of someone living life between stints in institutions. “Bill used to be really smart,” Ray would tell me, with an obvious affection in his voice.
Looking back, I can recall with horror at the sheer amount of substances consumed. I guess in a weird way, these 35-year-old punks were just celebrating making it that far in life, in spite of their best efforts at self-negation. Since I was the youngster, there was always an element of “look but don’t touch” regarding illicit chemicals, but you cannot break the will of a strong student. A typical “night at Ray’s” started with some imported beer, but by evening’s end, a cardboard slat of warm Hamm’s would be passed around with weakened, shaky hands.
The last time I saw Ray in that house, he was lying on the floor laughing, as some ’60s garage rock band played on the stereo. When I went to say goodbye, he was in the fetal position behind the couch, holding a blow dryer over a large transdermal patch placed over his skinny stomach, waiting for that heat to accelerate the opiate payload into his bloodstream. “You are out of your mind,” I said. Ray laughed.
And now Ray is dead. Both Darren Destin and Bicycle Bill have been dead for some time. Amazingly, both Thommy Berlin and I got clean and sober, which can still seem remarkable to both survivors, believe me. But no amount of clean time equals avoiding the inevitability of death.
Not all of my memories of Ray are “dope-a-logs” but I also didn’t meet the guy at choir practice. I think the beauty of someone like Ray is that his legacy is probably inked in by a hundred encounters with someone like me. Ray was the local equivalent of something like hearing the 13th Floor Elevators or the Velvet Underground; he changed you. His effect was immediate, corrupting, enlightening and a hit that was hard to walk off. Over time, I have to come to believe in a God that loves dope fiend punk rockers. Ray is laughing now. RIP.
Producer of “My Life if Great: The Stevie Stiletto Story”
When I was in junior high, I rode my bicycle to Edge City to buy the cassette release of Stevie Stiletto and the Switchblades’ “13 Greatest Hits.” A few years later, I got my nose broken slam dancing during their set at the Cedar Hill Armory. I got to be friends with Ray once they opened the 730 Club, as I was one of those pimply kids hanging out there every weekend. In the beginning, Ray and the band embraced a do-it-yourself attitude because they had to – making their own T-shirts, releasing their own music, booking their own shows, turning their practice space into a club. They were the living embodiment of DIY punk, and I have carried that model and ethos with me ever since. I went off to college and started my own career in punk: playing in bands, starting a record label, writing for national punk magazines, and eventually producing academic scholarship on punk. Nobody – NOBODY – had a greater influence on any of that than Ray. About a decade ago I reconnected with Ray and became good friends with him. I also set out on a mission to increase his national exposure. It was the least I could do for a man who has given me (and others like me) so much. I know he loved me and I know he knew how much I loved him. I couldn’t ask for more. I was lucky to know him and proud to call him a friend.
I, as many others, met Ray McKelvey through being a part of Jacksonville’s music scene. Ray was always depicted as a larger than life character who truly fed off of his audience’s enthusiasm for what he did. A Stevie Stiletto performance was a beautiful, intense, symbiotic dance of performer and audience, each giving and taking from the other in a ritualistic celebration of music and life. The stories about Ray’s debauchery were infamous, so it was with a healthy dose of worry that I joined his ranks, albeit briefly, by his request.
I, of course, wasn’t disappointed by the three-ring sideshow of insanity that was part of being in his ensemble, and there were indeed good times and bad. But the thing I found most interesting is that even through the lows of his periods of substance abuse, there was always an underlying heart full of passion, love and beauty that genuinely cared about those around him. After Ray did indeed conquer his demons and gain sobriety, this persona came through in spades. Through the trials and tribulations, I will always remember the beautiful friend that Ray is first and foremost.
Thank you Ray, for the friendship, the passion you brought forth, and the heart that shone in this world and touched those who truly knew you.
Good night, my dear friend. You’ve touched my heart forever.
I met Ray in 1986 when I was a teenager and the band was in the middle of a road trip playing shows throughout the Midwest. Their guitarist at the time (not Thommy Berlin, another guy) decided to quit the band and leave them stranded in Indianapolis. I met the band, chatted over beer and porn, received a copy of “Food For Flies,” stayed up all night learning the entire album, came back the next night to audition, and found a note on the door with directions to a bar they were set up at. I spent the next five years on the road having my childhood completely corrupted and also getting an education in showmanship that money can’t buy. Ray was a hurricane of creativity and destruction (mostly to himself) and left an enormous impact on my life that beer and shaving cream will never wash out, no matter how big the sledgehammer. Without Ray, I would likely still be in Indiana with a beige life and a lot of regrets about things I wish I’d have done. Thank you, Ray, and please save me a seat next to Jesus. I’ll be seeing you both soon! (OK, hopefully not too soon).
Bandmate and friend
Ray’s most important asset was his songwriting. He was a better songwriter than a frontman, or a singer, and he was pretty damned great at those. He was always creative.
Think about that for a second.
Always creative. It didn’t start or stop because the song was finished or the was project done. He would sometimes approach me with a song idea, and satisfied that I had the idea, he was on to something else. The next thing. This was his condition as an artist, but also as a man. He was creative when talking about music, or business, or arrangements — or how much he spent on the guitar he just bought at a pawn shop.
He was sometimes a difficult man to be close to. He could be warm and loving, concerned and aware. He could also be a dick.
Being in a band with Ray was amazing. Frustrating, infuriating, but sometimes … Sometimes you would go beyond this place, beyond the crappy PA, beyond the crappy club, beyond the years of heart breaks and limitations to — somewhere else.
That Jerusalem where “me” doesn’t exist and there is only “us.”
Circa 1982-’83, our band’s drummer quit in order to join Stevie Stiletto and the Switchblades. I’m not sure if it was Mike Butler or Ray McKelvey who lured him away, but it’s always made for a better story to blame Ray. Needless to say, there was some anger. However, even with my hard feelings, I went to see their first show and I was transfixed by Ray’s performance. I liked the band and the songs, but Ray had these conflicting qualities that really drew me in. He was charismatic, offensive, cocky, funny, mean and vulnerable. The show had a cathartic effect on me and my anger was replaced by a feeling that I had just taken part in something that was illicit, illegal, illogical or maybe just ill-advised. Over the years, I’ve seen Stevie Stiletto (under various monikers) more than any other band and liked some line-ups more than the original band. (When Frankie, Lorne and Neal played with Ray, there were times when their performances reached the “ideal form” of rock ’n’ roll.) That being said, it never was quite the same as the first time that I say Ray.
Dawn McKernan DeBrule
My memories are probably different than most people. I can’t say what a huge influence he was on me musically or what an impact he had on the Jacksonville punk scene. To me Stevie “Ray” Stiletto was just Uncle Ray. I remember him before the tattoos, before the wild hair, before he was Stevie Stiletto. I remember dinners at Grandmother’s, swimming in the pool and listening to him talk about being in a band. I was in high school when Stevie Stiletto and the Switchblades released its first album. To me it was just Uncle Ray doing what he did — playing in a band, wanting to make it big. It wasn’t until I heard the other kids in the halls talking about this great new punk rock band that was making it big from our little town of Jacksonville that I realized he actually did it. No more talking about it. He accomplished what he wanted. He will be missed, missed as a legend to some, but also missed as a wonderful son, brother, father and uncle.
Girlfriend, Ray’s Julie B.
My story about Ray is a little different than others. We knew each other all our lives but fell in love unexpectedly some 40 years later. We were soul mates. He was, and still is, the love if my life. He was shy, asking if he could kiss me and walking me home when I lived next door. One of my fondest memories was listening to Frank Sinatra as we fell asleep. He taught me to love someone with all my heart. Deep down under all the tough layers was a little boy that only a lucky few got to know. He even attended a play my kindergarteners put on for Thanksgiving. He wrote songs quickly from a lyric or riff and was an incredible performer. He was a comedian playing silly jokes on his mom and constantly drawing his cartoons and making to-do lists. I saw some of his old demons start to resurface, and I learned about addictions and how overpowering they are. He told me if he died, he would be waiting for me. I know he is. When we exchanged rings, I told him I loved him. He told me he would love me longer. I know he still does. I will love him longer, too.