Billy Bones, the Hillside Strangler, and the short eventful life of the Skulls and the Masque
By Jonny Whiteside
Reading time 20 Minutes
In 1977, Hollywood was the epicenter of punk noir
In 1977, Hollywood was the epicenter of punk noir, a shadowy vortex of hustlers, oblivion seekers, runaways and hookers, all out to surf the boulevard’s ceaseless lava flow of neon slime. The star-spangled sidewalk’s magnetic lure pulled in a multitude of lost souls, boogying through the PCP fumes in platform shoes while trying to outsmart their mad dog nemeses, the Los Angeles Police Department – the military grade agency who’d made their modern bones by executing the Symbionese Liberation Army on live TV a few years earlier.
Already a cataclysm of lurid Frederick’s polyester and smashed-to-smithereens dreams, by the fall of ‘77 the town had a new tone – one set by prolific serial killers the Hillside Stranglers. It was a hazardous as hell, death around every corner atmosphere, a flood of tension and paranoia jolting off the pre-existing thatch of psychic dysfunction.
It was an ideal rock and roll moment and Billy Bones, lead singer of Skulls, was the gleaming cherry perched atop that toxic confection of time, place, destiny and insurrection.
Billy Bones, then as now, is a slender, fair dynamo, a natural born rocker who came up as an itinerant army brat and avid listener to radio stations all over the globe.
Born Steven Fortuna in Rushton, England on March 8,1954 to a local bird who fell for and wed a US Master Sergeant, by his teenage years, Bones’ family was settled at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where the kid began showing his true colors.
“I had a band called Purple Reaction when I was 14,” Bones says. “I was into Steppenwolf and that stuff. We did ‘Pusherman’ and actually had a gig cancelled at school when I got to the second verse ‘I say Goddamn/Goddamn the Pusherman.’ They stopped the show and kicked us out.”
“That was 7th grade. By 9th grade, I was friends with these guys Michael and Nolan Briggs and their dad managed Soul Inspiration, a full funk revue with horns and background singers. I was into Superfly and Wattstax, I had lime green chartreuse mohair pants and a full-length faux leather coat with a big fur collar – I was already dressing like a brother, so I was made the emcee and tour manager and roadie. I’d set everything up, I’d made a little light show and I’d bring everybody in the band up, one by one. I had an introduction for each of ‘em and I’d get everybody up then do a little dance right off the stage. I was on the posters and everything – they called me ‘Little Steven the White Wonder.’”
The band toured throughout the Southeast, playing military bases, union halls and social clubs on bills with Clarence Carter, Ohio Players, and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes. Little Steven the White Wonder was a sensation and the musicians made sure he fit the job description.
“I had an afro, they’d wash my hair with Tide detergent,” Bones said. “It was this crazy Wolfman Jack-looking thing. I remember pieces of newspaper being folded up in accordion type pieces and left in my head for a long time. I don’t know exactly what they did but when they were done I had an afro.”
It was the experience of a lifetime for Bones, but he was just along for the ride. “Whenever I was on a bus, I’d write,” he says. “I always had a pad and pen and I wrote poems, songs. I got real political, Vietnam and injustice, and I found that music was a great forum to reach out to people.”
After graduation he moved to Florida. “That didn’t work out,” Bones said, “I always wanted to come to California, I’d read the rock magazines and see Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Discotheque, it all seemed so cool, so I spent two months on the road hitchhiking. Got here end of ’73, early ’74. I lived in Bellflower because that’s where my last ride dropped me off. This was when everybody cruised up and down all night. Somebody saw me, invited me to a party. I had my guitar and that was the night I met Sten Gun.”
British-born Mick “Sten Gun” Wallace went on to become one of the key forces in Southern California punk. Founder and original front man of the Skulls’ first incarnation circa ‘76, Wallace also served as Bones’ party time co-pilot and musical guru in the Golden State, not that he needed the guidance – Bones was already infected.
“I’d seen Iggy Pop back in Maryland, with the leopard pants, when he was cutting himself. That was at the Latin Casino. It burned to the ground two weeks later, but it could’ve burned down that night, he tore that place up. I saw the Ramones at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach in ‘75. It was something else. I’d always wanted to do music seriously but it seemed so complicated – they just got up and banged out those chords, it was amazing. Saw them at the Whisky too; that’s still one of my favorite all-time shows.”
Bones was a regular at the few independent local rock shows going on in Southern California then, digging glam bands like Sway and Rick Wilder’s Berlin Brats and forming alliances that quickly proved critical as a blossoming punk movement lurched into gear.
The early days of punk in Los Angeles were a struggle
The early days of punk in Los Angeles were a struggle. It was almost impossible to get a club booking without label support or formal management. While London and New York each had an apparatus in place for new, Hollywood not only epitomized the cultural rot which punk was dead set on shattering, it was a tightly controlled environment with virtually no margin for independent artists.
As home of the most pompous overblown hippie dreck merchants, and the roiling crucible of music business greed and excess, L.A. was a scabrous cesspool of major label swine and worse -- a handful of seedy dumpster diving arbiters whose slimy stranglehold on the emerging rockers was nothing less than toxic (see Kim Fowley). As a result, the bands had to do it themselves, hiring out oddball rooms and promoting their own events, a practice begun by Peter Case’s Nerves and quickly taken up by Hollywood spearheads the Weirdos.
After Bones took a sales job at the Supply Sergeant surplus store on Hollywood Boulevard, he and Sten Gun Wallace drifted apart. Temporarily.
“I was working and Sten walked in. He came to get supplies, spray paint, janitorial stuff because they were getting [a musical space] together,” recalls Bones. “I hadn’t seen him for at least a year, but we were the best of buddies. Sten already had the Skulls going, with Tony Beaner and a couple guys who went on to do something with Los Lobos and Sten was the singer. But he wanted to get back on drums and asked me to sing with them.”
This was punk propinquity at its purest. That plus the fact that Wallace and Scotch-Irish stink-stirrer Brendan Mullen were preparing what became the city’s first dedicated punk rathole made the reunion even more delicious.
Originally proposed as a series of rehearsal studios, the momentum of Mullen’s clientele left him no choice but to turn it into a music venue, the infamous subterranean showcase called the Masque. Not long after opening, the Skulls formed there, with Wallace drumming, Bones singing, the formidable Marc Moreland on guitar and bassist Chas T Gray (soon to be replaced by Marc’s brother, Bruce, himself a Weirdos alum).
“The Masque was…an incredible feeling,” Hollywood teen scene queen Pleasant Gehman says. “It was in the basement of the Pussycat Theater and was a weird warren of rooms, makeshift studios, and a couple of places that had once been bathrooms but there was no plumbing, so people would make out there. You walked in through the alley off of Cherokee Avenue and proceeded through a big industrial door, went down a really steep flight of stairs. I’m still really surprised no one ever tumbled down and cracked their head open. It was like a punk rock playland, a bombed-out industrial shelter with a stage that was a foot or two high and a very low ceiling, with all sorts of exposed pipes . . . and I don’t think the word ‘capacity’ ever came into anyone’s mind.”
By October ‘77, the new Bones-fronted version of the Skulls became the Masque’s de facto house band. “We were all really excited to hear them,” Gehman says. “And it was insane, there was a lot of stuff going on. Marc’s clothes were completely off – we dogpiled on the stage and tore them all off. That was normal in those days. Their shows were always insane and the Moreland brothers were just incredible, they had this mystique about them and always did the wildest stuff. They were so powerful and Bones was an incredible front man. He looked like a wraith onstage – tall, skinny, a real power onstage. No could adequately describe how wild their gigs were, you just can’t – it’s tragic there’s no video of them. There’s lots of photos, but nothing on video.”
The Skulls were criminally under-recorded also, issuing only one song during this period on a What? Records EP compilation, alongside tracks by the Controllers and the Eyes. What? founder and Germs manager Chris Ashford worked two doors down from the Supply Sergeant at Peaches Records, scheming on how to release punk discs while the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was blowing out the door.
“I always liked the Skulls a lot," Ashford says. “They were the biggest-sounding band out of the Masque. Like the MC5 was a big sounding band, so were the Skulls. No one else had that sound. They wrote really unique songs and probably didn’t get what they deserved.”
The Skulls signature song was “Victims,” which Bones wrote after the notorious Hillside Strangler killings began. The 10 ghastly torture-murders came at a steady pace, affecting Los Angeles’ psyche to a severe degree. The Masque’s run, from mid-August ‘77 to mid-January ‘78, roughly paralleled the Strangler’s five-month murder spree.
When Jane King, steady girlfriend of Mau Mau’s frontman Rick Wilder disappeared in early November, the tension within the scene became profound. Her badly decomposed remains were discovered near the 5 freeway’s Los Feliz off ramp the day before Thanksgiving, and King’s murder was a stunning direct link to Hollywood punk.
“It was fucking scary because Jane was killed by the fucking Strangler,” Gehman says. “The whole city was in panic, especially punk girls, because we all looked like the victims. People thought we were hookers – who else goes down the strip in a black mini skirt? But the song ‘Victims’ was typical punk – it was supposed to be shock, everything was about shock. And there’d be jokes for anything au courant, but it was nervous humor. I had a switchblade from Tijuana that I carried and I got stopped by the cops one night and they found it, a big long illegal switchblade. They wanted to know what gang I was in and why I had it. I said ‘Hillside Strangler’ and they just said ‘Oh, OK - be careful getting home.’”
For Bones, the situation felt equally intense. “I was working at Supply Sergeant selling guns and knives and mace to all these women while they were dumping bodies in Elysian Park,” he said. “It got really scary and Jane King was a sweet girl, a really sweet girl and we all knew her, it was really close to home. I was pretty sure those guys were sliming around in the Masque and the Whisky, too.”
On stage, Bones routinely introduced “Victims” with a casual announcement along the lines of “the Hillside Strangler was here tonight, they wouldn’t let him in, but he’s out there.” This cheery bit of patter resulted in Bones getting a visit from the Feds.
“At one of our Whisky shows, there were these weird ‘art dealers’ or maybe it was ‘film students’ who were really undercover FBI.” Bones says. “Brendan sussed them out. I’d already done ‘Victims,’ and they questioned me, asked about the song. I didn’t have a lot to say, explained that the song was about mass killers, it mentions Richard Speck and the Boston Strangler too. Fortunately, Brendan intervened and that was the end of it.”
By early-‘78, it was all over. The Fire Marshall-ordered closure of the Masque coincided with LA punk’s slow motion implosion. It went from a glorious liberated expression to grotesque hardcore self-parody and Bones wanted nothing to do with it.
“The Skulls were very short lived,” he says. “We were the Masque darlings, and we were spontaneously combustible. It blew up. Mick ended up going to Vegas to work with a band called Ravage. They had a record deal, so they had some money and he was hanging out by the pool and didn’t want to come back. We had [Germs drummer] Don Bolles do some shows, but we just couldn’t get the drums right, then Stan Ridgway approached Marc about Wall of Voodoo and it just fell apart. Then it started getting violent, all those [Orange County] bands went from pogo to mosh – early punk was cool, well-structured, but this was all same sounding, regurgitated. I wasn’t into that. To me, it got away from itself, got mindless – it lost the point.”
Punk’s temporal nature was its defining characteristic
Punk’s temporal nature was its defining characteristic, a lightning strike that has somehow managed to resonate through the generations. In Los Angeles, this crash was particularly vexing, as the spectrum of bands in the city was downright extraordinary.
Hollywood spawned a wide open ecumenical menagerie of completely flipped out creativity, from the brilliant deliriously trashcan-wardrobed Weirdos (”Destroy all music!”) to the Bags’ feral bite, the big top funk ravings of the brilliant Black Randy, X’s slashing amalgam of Billy Zoom’s volcanic rockabilly take off and John and Exene’s proto-poetry throwdown. All that merely hint at the tribe’s kaleidoscopic range. But Bones wasn’t giving up.
“I had Martini Ranch for a while,” he said. “We were very electronic, had tiny tube amps on tripods, almost nothing on stage. We had Cliff Roman [of the Weirdos] on a big synthesizer and I played a Wasp [synth] from Rod Argent’s company. We played Club Lingerie quite a bit and Geffen Records tried to do a development deal. We were working with Mark Mothersbaugh but it fell apart in the studio and it didn’t happen.”
Bones walked away to concentrate on life with his Lady Bones – Christina Van Wagner, who he first met at the Sunset Strip’s notorious Rainbow Bar & Grill. It was a love-at-first-sight encounter that resulted in marriage within that same six month Masque-Strangler-Skulls period. His wife remains the most cherished prize he managed to smuggle out of the punk jungle – a disgustingly successful case of deep romance that’s thrived more than four decades.
These days, Bones is as exciting, livewire and uncut punk as ever. Despite the deaths of Marc Moreland and Mick Wallace, his occasional Skulls resurrections are uniformly well received and tastefully executed; it’s a hell of show, all those songs are just too good not to bring back to life.
Recording and performing with his subsequent, and equally superb, Billy Bones Band and his current combo, the Sold! & Bones, he’s finishing his second album in as many years. At 65, with an unflagging energy Billy Bones epitomizes the punk spirit – “ever the spastic wild man” as Ashford says.
“I love music, it’s always been part of my life,” Bones says. “I’m always listening to new stuff and what keeps me going is the fact that there’s this open canvas and you have to just do it, keep creating, keep putting stuff on there having fun. It’s fuel in your fire, keep your mind open and plug in to it.”
“I entertain people and they like what I do, that’s why I want to do a show with all three of my bands – open with Billy Bones, then Sold! & Bones and close with the Skulls – and I know that I wouldn’t be tired at the end. I don’t feel 65. I don’t know what that means, I don’t want to be old – I guess I’m going to gradually work myself up to that.”
Jonny Whiteside is a veteran music journalist whose work has appeared in Variety, the Journal of Country Music, Oxford American, Spin, Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly and many other publications. He is author of the award-winning Ramblin’ Rose: The Life & Times of Rose Maddox and Cry: The Johnnie Ray Story.