photo: Danielle St. Laurent
“What’s Wrong With Having Fun?”
A History of All Ages: A conversation with Calvin Johnson
by Jay Babcock
Calvin Johnson is the founder of Olympia-based K Records. He was in Beat Happening, Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic Sound System, and recently toured the USA in tandem with Ian Svenonius. His influence on underground American music in the last 25 years is enormous; read more about him at wikipedia.
I spoke with Calvin by telephone in early 2007, following on an interview I did with former MC5 manager/poet/historian John Sinclair, published in Arthur No. 24, in which we tried to figure out how rock n roll music went from being an all-ages thing to what, all too often, it is today: age-segregated. Calvin had some ideas about that…
Arthur: Where did you see your first shows?
Calvin Johnson: I was going to some stadium shows. When I was 12 I saw Paul McCartney & Wings. That was in the Kingdome, which is like 75,000 people. I was like, This is different than the Casbah Club in Liverpool. This isn’t the same. I kind of view that as more… Having read this biography of the Beatles and their whole world in Liverpool just seemed really exciting. Very little of that excitement existed in the stadium. And I’m like, Hmm. Something went wrong here. Just shortly after that is when I started reading about punk rock and I recognized that as being within the spirit of that local scene that the Beatles came out of.
It was about two or three years later that I went to my first punk rock show which was… A band from Seattle called The Enemy played here in Olympia. Then I started attending shows in Seattle. There was an all-ages club called The Bird that was in an old warehouse, then it moved into an Oddfellows hall. They had shows twice a month at this Oddfellows hall. That was really exciting.
Arthur: How did age segregation in rock ‘n’ roll music performances start, do you think?
My knowledge is second or third-hand on these things, but in reading rock n roll histories or biographies, it seems like some of those people, like Little Richard, was playing in nightclubs and juke joints that were serving alcohol and they were mostly oriented towards adults, meaning people in their 20s and 30s.
So live music was divided in a demographic way: there were these teen-oriented events and then there were adult-oriented events, and rock n roll was viewed at first as teen-oriented music. It seemed to have been normally in these environments that are dance-oriented—the armory, the school cafeteria, gymnasium, the local union hall—might be rented for these teen events.
When people like Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis became rock stars, and they were playing at those kinds of shows where there’s 10 or 15 acts on the bill and they each do their one or two songs that are well-known, kids were still trying to dance in the aisle. [in faux announcer voice] “Can’t stop the kids from dancing! They’re dancing in the aisles! Crazy! Bedlam has broken out!”
You look at films like Charlie Is My Darling—the Rolling Stones on tour in Ireland in ‘65—and you see it’s sort of a transition to this more concert-type situation, where it’s not necessarily a dance, kids are still dancing, and the set-up seems so nascent, they don’t have huge P.A.s or amps, they just have their regular amps and drums, little vocal public address system, and it’s …very quaint.
But it seems as though in the Northwest here, there was a circuit more or less of all-ages teen dances, which were held at various either hall-type situations or clubs that catered to teenagers and…
Arthur: How is that different from a sock-hop?
A sock-hop is more like high school dance where people are just dancing in their stockinged feet. It seems like the demographic is what divided things rather than a legal situation. The demographic was, ‘only kids would want to go to that show.’
Arthur: ‘Who else would want to?’
Yeah. It’s difficult to say, because I’m just piecing this all together, I didn’t live through it, but it appears that it had this vibe that as the audience for rock n roll starts to age into the ‘60s, and people were in their 20s and still interested in rock n roll, the focus changed. I blame the Beatles for that, because they created the atmosphere for where every rock band was suddenly Beethoven, and was creating “Great Works.” So it was more like when you go to the concert symphony orchestra and everyone is paying attention in this way and dancing is almost like an insult. It’s not that the Beatles had that attitude, but I think that the way that their music developed, people started to view music that way, and then these more serious prog rock bands came along and people suddenly forgot all about having fun. What’s wrong with having fun?
Arthur: The audience begins to expect a consistently good sound—the venue has to provide that and other parts of infrastructure, which means significant outlays or investment, which means it needs steady income to provide overhead…?
Well, I think that’s a development that was parallel to the issue of all-ages venues becoming obsolete, this idea of ‘quality’ sound system and ‘quality sound.’ I remember talking to John Golden about how in the ‘60s the way his whole career developed is that artists suddenly realized that mastering had a big part in how the records end up sounding, and they didn’t want to just go through the boilerplate Capitol Records mastering guy, they wanted somebody who was going to pay attention to their music, and they started hiring these outside mastering engineers. I think that’s similar to concerts where bands started to be, ‘I don’t just want to go on tour, I want to go on tour where people can really hear me.’ And they started hiring the Bill Graham-type people who could say, ‘I can give you a concert that’s not only successful but caters to your artistic whims: a good sound system, security people who are cool, things like that.’ I think that’s a parallel development in the history of live music.
Arthur: One can see how at a certain point that would become the default setting for the promoters and the bands to just go to the place that offers them stability, more money, all this other stuff.
Yeah. Two books that deal with the development of that whole infrastructure of live performance. There’s The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce and then there’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Is Here to Pay: The History and Politics of the Music Industry, which talks a lot about the development of the Bill Graham era. Every town had one, Bill Graham was just the most famous one. Boston had Boston Tea Party, and New York and Seattle had John Bauer Concerts, whatever— every town had a kind of “hip” promoter who was created this unofficial network of hip promoters around the country. These promoters seemed to be able to …initially they were presenting in these places like in Seattle, it was the Eagles Hall ballroom. These existent halls that held maybe a thousand people at the most, and that was the audience. They quickly outgrew that and it became stadium rock through the ‘70s. It seems as though by the early to mid ‘70s it had grown to such an extent that you were either playing in stadiums or you were just playing in a bar, covers of bands that play in stadiums. So there was no middle ground where you could just be an artist, making a living in a rock band, doing your own work. It had developed in such a way that there was only huge bands. And that’s where punk rock came along.
Rock ‘N’ Roll Is Here to Pay talks a lot about the business end of rock n roll, has a good analysis of the development of Rolling Stone magazine, talks about all these promoters around the country. It’s probably a bit dated. It’s interesting because it came out right before punk rock. So it still had this real album-oriented rock perspective on music. Still, it’s relevant.
Arthur: How did Beat Happening tour? How did you do it?
Made a lot of phone calls, wrote letters and things. It wasn’t like there was a demand for us. It was just like, We should do this. We’d heard about places. People would be like, hey you should play at this place. So we tried to get ahold of those people and say, We’re this band that you never heard of from this place you never heard of. Sometimes people were like, Great! Sometimes they were like, ‘Yeah…? Don’t bother me kid.’ Typical, I’m sure it’s the same thing today. But I was very interested in playing… I mean, I only play all-ages shows.That comes out of being a kid and standing outside the bar, not being able to get in. The thing that always really annoyed me is when the band—you know, if you’d go to them, ‘Oh I wanted to go to the show but they won’t let me in, I’m not old enough’ and then the band goes, ‘Oh yeah man, that really suuuucks. Well, see you later!’ I was like, You know what? I’m NEVER going to be that asshole.
Arthur: Do you remember specific shows you couldn’t get into, when that happened?
Usually I didn’t even try. I knew that I couldn’t get in. It’s like, Oh they’re playing at the so-and-so? Fuck it. But yeah, it was like maybe go down and maybe get a chance to meet the band even though you can’t see them.
Arthur: How is it different now from when you started touring in the early/mid ‘80s?
There’s a lot more venues that are catering to original music than there were back at that time. All-ages shows are just almost normal. Here in Olympia there’s a dozen places where you can have an all-ages show, and that’s just normal. No one’s going out of their way, it’s just the way it is. There’s some places where it’s still difficult to arrnage those kinds of things. But generally it’s more an accepted norm.
Arthur: Do the bigger cities tend to be more problematic?
That’s a pretty good rule-of-thumb. But I think part of that is just out of laziness. People in big cities are just used to there being shows going on all the time. They never notice that there are no shows that are ‘all ages’ because they just go to shows all the time. If they actually had to do a show that is all-ages, there’s probably a million places to do them, they just haven’t taken the time to open the phone book and look up if there’s an Oddfellows hall or a coffeeshop… They could just say, Hey do you want to have a show here? Sure. It just never occurred to anyone. That’s been my experience in setting up shows, it’s like, Oh there’s nowhere that does al-ages shows. And I’m like, Well is there a coffee shop? Well yeah there’s a coffeeshop. Well maybe they could have a show there. Oh. Well. I’ll ask em. You know? It really just takes…
Arthur: It’s not the hardest thing in the world…
No. There’s probably a million halls in, say, L.A. that it’s just never occurred to anyone to have a show there. Or, they just feel like, ‘Oh what a hassle, I have to get a P.A., fuck it. I’ll just go down to the regular club I always go to. I’ll just book them into this club.’ It’s just a matter of going an extra yard. Doing that doesn’t mean that there’s a financial.. Sometimes it can be MORE financially rewarding to do that because sometimes those venues are cheap or free and so the only costs really are the P.A. and whatever promotional expenses you have, and those are usually very easily covered. It just takes a little imagination sometimes.
Arthur: The ‘Book Your Own Life’ thing goes on, but there’s also this whole stratum of bands that have booking agents. They’re sort of locked into, ‘we put you in a bar’ thing where these bands don’t seem to be aware that there are other ways to do these shows in many of these cities. As a result they tend to play only to adults. This seems like a recent phenomenon.
I’d say the phenomenon, actually, is the larger phenomenon of just the give-and-take between the music business and underground music. It’s an ebb and flow. It sometimes appears to be more one way than the other. But the overall trend is: there is a sea level. Maybe sometimes there’s high tides and maybe sometimes there’s low tides, if you know what I mean. So sometimes it seems as though everyone’s doing it this one way. But it all averages out to being, There’s the weirdos and the freaks, like me, and then there’s the normal bands. And there always has been and there always will be.
Arthur: It seems that the weirdos would be better off in the long run just staying underground, or all-ages, instead of trying to get into the higher-dollar nightclubs. Playing at a bar doesn’t do them any good, really.
Maybe. For me, it’s not about ‘being normal’ or being outside of the music industry or anything like that, it’s really just about accessibility. It’s like, Well what I do may not appeal to everyone, but it does appeal to some people. I just want to make sure that the people it does appeal to are gonna have an opportunity to participate. Playing in bars, there may be some people who’d want to participate who aren’t able to because of the age restriction. So that’s really the issue for me: accessibility. IF the bar was able to make it accessible, then great. There’s some states where that can happen, like Montana, District of Columbia, here in Washington there’s certain time periods when you can have shows in bars where it’s all ages. Oregon is the same way. So, it’s not a Puritan thing of like, I don’t want to be around alcohol. It’s more about the accessibility of the venue. There are two definitions of accessibility: ‘accessibility’ as in being able to get access to this event, and ‘accessibility’ in terms of the aesthetic sense. I don’t feel that my music is necessarily that accessible; it’s not that weird, it just doesn’t appeal to a lot of people. It’s not like I’m doing crazy free-form improvisational music that people go what is this noise, it’s just that what I do doesn’t appeal to a broad audience. So it’s not accessible in that sense. But I want it to be accessible in terms of whoever wants to go, can show up.
I think that in America we have this deep in our subconscious, we have this Puritan background, where people just immediately confuse those things. They immediately want to turn everything in to a moral issue, eg Drugs are a moral issue. Why are drugs a moral issue? I don’t understand. It’s really confusing why drugs are a moral issue and why when you want to play an all-ages show, people immediately place these moral… in their mind, it’s a moral issue. Well, there’s no morality [involved]. I mean, why is alcohol a moral issue? It’s a holdover from the temperance days, like alcohol is illegal or something. So it’s sometime really annoying when talking to people about this and they’re trying to be like, they’re not even aware of it, it’s subconsciously comes out that they’re sort of chastising me for being such a ‘moral prude.’ I’m like, WAIT. I’m not talking about morality. I’m just talking about having a show that people can go to if they want to.
Arthur: Is there a limit to how big all-ages can get?
No, not at all. Look at Fugazi. They made that clear. The first time they played Olympia they played this coffeeshop. We crammed like a hundred people in there. It was great. It was sweaty and it was fun. They ended up playing in the Capitol Theater which holds like 1200 people. In L.A. they were playing 4,000-cap places multiple nights. Large places, larger than can fit in the Oddfellows Hall. Basically they are the perfect antidote to that band that’s like ‘Oh yeah that really sucks that you can’t get in. Oh well. I wish there was something I can do about it! But there’s not. My manager says…’ Fugazi just wiped all that away. They said, We want things done this way, and this is the way we’re gonna do it, and there’s no excuses. It was exciting because it set this example that no one could ever say ‘Oh yeah that sucks but my manager told me we have to’, always being able to blame it on someone else. They set this precedent of taking responsibility for their events. It was exciting. They also happen to be a really great rock n roll band, incidentally.
I know that Ian [Mackaye, Fugazi member] got a lot of glee out of doing things that way, where because the band was in demand, the promoters had to do what they say because they knew that financially it was gonna work out for everybody. So I think he got a lot of glee in being able to say, I want the show this way and then the promoter being, Oh there’s no way that can happen, and then he’s like No, that’s the way it has to be, and then they found a way. They just got creative. I think a lot of times in the music industry, people just want to do things the way they always do it. When you ask for something different, they’re like Oh that’s not the way I always do it so that’s impossible. But when the motivation is there, which usually is money, they find a way. But I think with Fugazi, they also worked with a lot of promoters who weren’t professional promoters, so… They didn’t know it was ‘impossible’; they just did it. That was exciting, too. Some kid would be like, Come to my weird town in the middle of nowhere. Ian would basically work with him on the same basis that he worked with the big promoter in the big city. Like, Well I want this, this and this. And then the kid would be like, Okay, and would just do it that way. They were these hicks and no one told them they couldn’t do it, so they did it anyway. That was pretty exciting.
So yeah when you’re working in the underground, there’s all these levels, I think that can happen in terms of the audience size and playing with that. I’ve played DOZENS of shows to five people or less.
Another thing about doing all-ages shows right now is that I do get to play in a lot of really unusual spaces. I personally find that like a benefit. That’s like one of the fringe benefits of playing all-ages shows for me. Just going around and playing the rock club that everyone plays is like spiritual death, a psychic death.
Arthur: The dark beerhole.
I love the fact that we get to play in the Moose Lodge in Bridgeport or New London, Connecticut, or whatever weird hall is still standing or the basement of the YMCA or wherever because sometimes these buildings are amazing. And I think that it provides, it sets an atmosphere that people… When they go to the same club every week, they’re in a subconscious routine. When they have to find this place they’ve never heard of, or go to this place because that they’ve only been to because their [mom had their flower show?] there, they have a whole different attitude towards the show. It becomes more of a special event. You mentioned At the Drive In. Dub Narcotic Sound System played with them in ’95 in Mynott, North Dakota at this teen center. It was one of the most amazing shows I had that year. Just so many kids. People were really excited, it was just really fun. Playing in weird teen centers…
There’s a place I played in Latvia that was basically some people in this small town, in far Western Latvia, that…; People had moved to town and they took this old… Basically the kids, since Latvia started to become Westernized, the kids started to… There’s no drinking age there, but culturally, kids didn’t really get drunk or whatever til they were old enough to make complete fools of themselves. But what started happening there in the ‘90s was their kids were starting to get drunk when they were 12 or 13, and just get totally out of control. They suddenly realized, “Hey come I don’t have all the cool stuff that kids in Europe have to waste their lives with? I’m worthless now. I’m just gonna drink all the time.” The city was getting freaked out. What’s going to happen to our kids? So these folks from Riga who’d moved to town to do art there started having shows in this old barn, and it was giving kids something to do, and the town GAVE them this space because they were gonna basically have shows and classes. They developed a youth center almost out of default. I don’t know if they moved there to do that, but they ended up doing it. And it seemed really exciting. They got money from that squat in Holland that The Ex are associated with, I forget the name of it. They had gotten a grant from those people to develop that too. So the city was part of the funding and then they got a grant from the squat, which seemed like a really exciting meeting of the minds. Cuz the squat originally was some sort of outlaw taking back of … the fact that the official city and the squat are coming together seems kind of exciting.