D.C. punk rocker Vance Bockis gets one last show

September 14, 2012

It was Vance Bockis’s last gig. There were T-shirts and CDs for sale, long-haired guys holding guitars and a crowd that was standing-room-only. His band, the Factory, opened with a song, but the rest of the show was all his.

More than a hundred friends and relatives filled a Fairfax County funeral home Thursday to pay their respects to Bockis, a fixture in the D.C. punk rock music scene who beat a 27-year heroin addiction only to succumb to a blood clot after routine surgery. He died Sept. 1 at his home in Fairfax at age 50.

A charismatic frontman and bass player, Bockis was part of several influential bands — including Pentagram, the Obsessed, 9353 and the Factory — that spanned the heavy metal, new wave and glam rock genres. His music is considered by some to have been out of step with the D.C. punk scene of that era, but he was important to the artists that came to define it.

Described as a mix of Iggy Pop, Ozzy Osbourne and Mick Jagger, Bockis’s swagger and unpredictable stage antics attracted a loyal following that included other musicians.

“He was a combination of a lot of your punk heroes at the time” and made any band he was in “totally exciting to see,” said Fugazi bassist Joe Lally. “He was confrontational. He would talk to the audience. He would dive into the audience. He would attack the walls.”

Bockis had several brushes with fame, only to sabotage himself with drug addiction. “If life were fair,” he said in a recent documentary about him, “I would be dead or I would be in prison.” He had been clean and sober for the past six years, making his loss even more tragic for friends and family.

Vance Peter Bockis grew up in Falls Church. He was an only child. His father, an artist and architect, died of a heart attack while mowing the lawn when Bockis was in grade school, and his mother went into nursing to support the two of them. He was given his first bass when he was 13, and within a few years he was playing with Pentagram, a seminal heavy metal band. He juggled going to J.E.B. Stuart High School and opening for Iggy Pop.

Bockis went on to become the lead singer of the Obsessed, which bridged the D.C. hard-core scene and heavy metal. Lally recalled going to see the Obsessed just to see what Bockis would do. Bockis might ride the shoulders of bandmate Scott Weinr ich, rip signs off walls or do handstands.

In the early ’80s, Bockis also co-founded the art rock trio 9353.

Being in 9353 freed Bockis to be more creative, said bandmate Bruce Miles Hellington. Whereas Bockis’s previous bands leaned toward “straightforward, no funny business rock-and-roll,” 9353 was “maximum funny business,” he said.

“We were able to make people uncomfortable early on,” said Jason Carmer, a 9353 co-founder.

The band was always volatile because of the substance abuse among its members. “9353 was a band that broke up after every performance,” said Mark Andersen, author of “Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital.”

Carmer left Washington in the mid-’80s and went on to become a successful record producer who has worked with such performers as Third Eye Blind, Run-DMC and Merle Haggard. He described Bockis as “one of the most authentic stars I ever met.”

Carmer said that even before he became a bandmate, he considered Bockis something of a legend and would go see him perform at the old 9:30 Club and Louie’s Rock City near Baileys Crossroads.

“It is just strange how really talentless people get huge, and people like Vance, who are very few, don’t make it,” Carmer said.

In “Shift,” the documentary about him, Bockis recalled meeting executives at CBS Records, which was interested in signing another Bockis project, the Factory. The Factory, which opened for the Ramones, was reminiscent of the New York Dolls and the Stooges and had mainstream appeal. (The Washington Post wrote at the time, “Andy Warhol would be proud. Spinal Tap would be jealous.”) But Bockis was so addicted, and so sick, that the executives took one look at him and told his managers to get him some help and come back later, he said.

He never made it back.

Instead, Bockis spent much of the ’90s living in an apartment with bloodstained walls and shooting heroin in abandoned buildings in Southeast Washington. At one point, he weighed only 112 pounds. Friends distanced themselves. Dave Grohl, who went on to fame with Nirvana and Foo Fighters, wrote a song about him called “GLC,” short for “good-looking corpse.”

Bockis eventually emerged from his 27-year addiction to heroin. In recent years, he had reconnected with former Factory bandmates and was about to record a new album and perform with them. After a successful reissue of some of its music, the Factory had been working on new material and was set to perform at the Howard Theatre later this month.

On Thursday, the remaining members of the Factory opened the memorial with an instrumental version of “Amazing Grace.” Each member then took a turn eulogizing Bockis while a montage of photos of him flashed across a screen behind them.

Bockis “came out of his ordeal with humility and hard-earned wisdom,” said bandmate Bruce Katsura.

Saxophone player Willy Massey recalled Bockis’s darkest days. “He stole from me. He lied to me. He told lies about me. I just couldn’t watch him kill himself that way,” he said. After renewing his relationship with a sober Bockis, Massey said, “Vance allowed me to live the dream again. It might have been for only a couple short years, but it was among the best couple years of my life.”

The musicians were followed by two men who had befriended Bockis in recovery and his wife, Linda Leisz. Leisz and Bockis overlapped at J.E.B. Stuart High School, and for years they ran in similar circles but didn’t meet until 2008. Around the room at the service were photos of trips they had taken together. In otherwise standard tourist snapshots, sitting on a park bench in Paris wearing a beret or posing by someone wearing a dolphin costume in Costa Rica, Bockis always looks like a rock star with overdyed, spiky black hair and guy liner.

He went into the hospital Sept. 1 for surgery on a rotator cuff, and Hellington talked to him on the phone afterward. Bockis was his usual cheerful self. “He didn’t know he was dying,” he said.

Leisz ended Thursday’s program by saying she was grateful to have had those four years with Bockis. “I helped him stay on the straight and narrow,” she said. “He helped me lighten up.”

Robbie Limon, a Factory bandmate, then led the audience in a raucous standing ovation for Bockis.

Carmer later commented: “If you define a rock star as someone who besides playing in bands and playing popular songs, as someone who lives their life a certain way, on the edge, no one was more like that. He was the biggest rock star.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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