Heritage Moments: Mean streets, rock ’n’ roll and the underground genius of Spain Rodriguez

Aug 29, 2016

Buffalo in the late ’50s and early ’60s: motorcycle gangs, factory jobs, Deco’s all-night coffee shops, rhythm-and-blues clubs on William Street, record hops, tire-iron rumbles, cruising down Fillmore to the howling sounds of WKBW’s Hound Dog Lorenz. The city was a menacing but vibrant place, churchgoing yet beer-soaked, seething with racial antipathies yet alive with more interaction between white and black than at any time before or since.

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This was the world Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez lived for the first quarter-century of his life, and drew in meticulous detail for his entire career, long after he departed Buffalo to become one of the greatest artists and writers of the underground comics movement. Illustrator, biker hoodlum, radical, janitor, music lover, machine operator, poet, thug, philosopher – Spain was all those things, as well as perhaps the most vivid chronicler of Buffalo life the city has ever produced.

“Keep the flames of Buffalo burning,” Rodriguez said in a March 2012 interview, in preparation for a career retrospective at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. It was 45 years since he lived Western New York, but he had produced a couple of richly detailed autobiographical volumes recounting his youth there. On the cover of the first, My True Story (1994), Spain is in a brawl at the Jamestown Bar on Allen Street, thinking “Someday, this will make a great comic strip!” On the cover of the second, Cruisin’ With the Hound (2012), he is in his friend Fred Tooté’s convertible as they roll down Fillmore and Box, past the corner Deco, their radio blasting the Hound on KB.

Rodriguez, the son of a Spanish auto repairman and an Italian artist, grew up in an East Side neighborhood he described as Italian, Jewish, black, Irish, Polish and Greek. When he was 11 or 12 he participated in the usual Buffalo boyhood activities, like pogeying. But he also discovered comic books, at a time when government authorities condemned them as contributing to juvenile delinquency and the degradation of the morals of American youth. He drew throughout his years at East High School. At 20 he took a job on the factory floor at the Western Electric plant in Tonawanda and joined one of Buffalo’s biggest and most violent motorcycle gangs, the Road Vultures. It was 1960.

For the next seven years Spain rode, worked, fought, partied, ate, drank, club-hopped, chased women and philosophized with his pals, the “North Fillmore Intelligentsia.” Decades later, after he had moved to New York (in 1967) and ultimately to San Francisco, he continued to re-create those episodes with acute clarity and insight in the pages of Zap and other underground magazines.

“Buffalo is a great party town,” he told interviewer Gary Groth in 2011. “Especially at the end of the ’50s and in the early ’60s, Buffalo had a really great blues scene. There were people from different neighborhoods that were into this scene, and they would get to know each other, sometimes even on good terms. A lot of times you’d get into fights with other neighborhoods, but you’d usually end up drinking with these guys that you had fights with last week.”

Rodriguez died in November 2012, during the Burchfield Penney’s retrospective that included not just his Buffalo drawings but his entire body of work, marked by radical antiwar and anti-capitalist politics, profane humor and beautifully drawn portraits and streetscapes. Ishmael Reed, another Buffalonian who made his name as a Bay Area counterculture giant, remembered Rodriguez as “an advocate for a more just society.”

In Trashman, a 2012 short documentary released just before Rodriguez’s death by his wife, Susan Stern, you can hear his Buffalo accent, still strong and proud after so many years. Through an entire lifetime, Spain Rodriguez always kept the old flames burning.

Warning: The following video contains adult language and comic book nudity.

Cast (in order of appearance):

Spain Rodriguez: Mark Goldman

Fred Tooté (“Barkeep! Drinks for my men!”): Long Nguyen

Narrator: Susan Banks

Road Vulture No. 1 (“C’mon! Gimme a piece!”): Ryan Mulvhill

Road Vulture No. 2 (“Put the boots to ’im!”): Anthony Cataffo

Road Vulture No. 3 (“Hey guys, there’s a party in Crystal Beach!”): Ronald Hicks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh (WBFO)

Sound editing: Micheal Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)

Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Casting:

Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)

Mario Cataffo (Casting Hall Productions, Buffalo State Theater Dept., 2014-15 academic year)

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director

Nick Lippa, WBNY general manager, 2015-16 academic year

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)