“Hi. I’m Dan Deacon. Before moving to Baltimore I went to college and grad school at the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase. For the past four years I have been touring a collection of pieces for voice, electronics and audience. In my spare time I enjoying booking shows at various weird places in Baltimore. I’m looking forward to touring less and finishing up a series of pieces for large ensemble. The future surrounds us. Let us begin.”
Dan Deacon has just begun his North American tour following the release of his second album. Released last week by the essential Carpark record label, Bromst an ebullient, anthemic, densely stacked minimalist rave monster recorded with “real” instruments, including a player piano. Bromst is bonkers in the best way: I hear Eno vocals, Koyaanisqatsi-era Philip Glass, Terry Riley, gamelan, Spike Jones, vintage video games, put-your-hand-in-the-air-and-knock-on-that-door techno, organized surges, simple chord progressions embedded in layers of drums and piano notes. (Stream Bromst songs at dan deacon myspace.)
Bromst is a unique album made by a uniquely multi-gifted artist: a class clown from music composition class, a populist intellectual with a fiercely whimsical streak, a serious composer who can elevate an on-the-edge-of-danger dance party into mass communion through charisma, imaginative group gameplaying and a certain fearlessness. If you haven’t witnessed Deacon live, check out the two youtubes included in the text below; in one, audience members sing from sheet music in a basement party; in the second…well, to write about it would be to reduce it. Goosebumps, baby! I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a performing artist so adept in creating group public joy without pandering—or one whose abilities, interests and ethic are so perfectly attuned to what the times call for.
There’s a lot more to say about what Deacon is up to, and why it’s so vital and inspiring. (A good place to start is this extremely perceptive thinkpiece by Rjyan Kidwell; also check out C & D’s interview in Arthur No. 27 with Deacon and director Jimmy Joe Roche about their “Ultimate Reality” film, available here.) I wanna wait to get my thoughts together on all of this til next week, though, cuz this weekend I am venturing for the first time to psychedelic Baltimore to see Deacon and his new 14-piece ensemble perform Saturday night as part of the 6th Annual Transmodern Festival.
But there’s no reason not to post the following conversation now, conducted by phone at 11am on consecutive days in February from two secret locations in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood (thanks Geoff, thanks Jack). Dan was waking up in Baltimore. The first day, midway through an answer to my second question, he confided, “I’m having a weird allergic reaction. The whole right side of my body is swelled up and I can’t open my eye all the way.” But I thought he was talking perfect sense and he was up for it, so we kept on rolling. The following is a condensation from those two conversations; any mistakes in transcription are mine, and will be corrected…
Arthur: That’s a great, evocative album cover. How did you come up with it?
Dan Deacon: I was camping with my dad this summer and one morning I woke up early, because you tend to wake up early when you’re camping, and the light was coming through the tent and it just looked really nice. I started thinking about tents, as a structure, as a place in which to live, and being a very old, old thing. I thought, I’d love to make a tent, an old fancy European-looking tent that you’d see in a movie like Lord of the Rings, where they have that kind of encampment set-up and some of them are just shitty tents, shantytowns, and then there’s the beautiful one. I realized I knew nothing about making a tent, I know nothing about construction, or sewing, so I designed it on paper first, then started to build it. It became this nightmarish project, but I’m really glad I did it. It’s 10 foot x 10 foot x 10 foot, it’s a hexagon-shaped tent, so it’s ten feet between opposite points of the hexagon, then ten feet straight up. I also wanted something [for the album cover] that could exist in reality, so if I used it in the live show, the audience could have some sort of connectivity to it, which a lot of what the record is about—about interconnectivity and feeling attached to things that otherwise feel abstract or you have no attachment for.
A conversation with dreamer/cartoonist Rick Veitch
by Jay Babcock
Born in 1951 in Bellow Falls, Vermont, Rick Veitch experienced the psychedelic late 1960s as a teenager. After overcoming some profound self-inflicted difficulties as a young adult in the early ‘70s—detailed in the following Q & A—he got serious about becoming a professional cartoonist. He succeeded. In the last three decades, Veitch has navigated the comics industry’s ups and downs while creating a singular, deeply weird and challenging body of work: sometimes raw, rough and outrageous in an old-school underground comix way, but more often clever and fantastically imaginative, with moments of startling cosmic beauty. My personal Rick Veitch highest highlights are his visionary run as Alan Moore’s handpicked writer-artist successor on Swamp Thing in the ‘80s; The One, his deeply anti-superhero comics series, somehow published by a Marvel Comics subdivision, that in a better world would have been the final word on the superhero concept; and Can’t Get No, a daring, dialogue-less graphic novel drawn in landscape format that builds from the story of corporate drone’s post-9/11 roadtrip into something truly poignant and profound. (Not for nothing did Fug/poet/historian Ed Sanders himself salute that work with a rare blurb—as did Neil Gaiman.)
Rick Veitch’s most unlikely and enduring triumph, though, has got to be Roarin’ Rick’s Rare Bit Fiends, a black-and-white comic book series he self-published under his King Hell imprint for 22 issues starting in 1994. Rare Bit featured no continuing characters or stories—its entire subject matter, issue after issue, was Veitch presenting his dreams in comics narrative form. It was a remarkable run that continued to resonate long after it finished, due to its enduring, mysterious subject matter.
A few winters ago, suffering from two decades of persistent, distressing nightmares, I visited Roarin’ Rick in his rural Vermont home. Here is our after-lunch conversation.
Arthur: So Rick, when did you start dreaming?
Rick Veitch: [laughter] From the time I was a little kid I was a big dreamer. There were normal everyday dreams but then were these big dreams that seemed like movies. I think that my fascination with dreaming was kicked off by a series of recurring nightmares. I would wake up in sheer terror from this recurring dream of a little girl trying to pick a flower below a skyscraper that was being built, and something happens, and the whole skyscraper starts collapsing. The girders start landing around the little girl, and the sound is COSMIC. I dreaded that dream. I had it again and again and again. I credit it with making me pay attention to my dreams.
Arthur: Did your parents know what was going on with your recurring nightmares, terror?
Not really. I grew up in an odd situation. We were a big Catholic family, I was the fourth kid. My parents had sort of ran out of gas running herd on my older siblings. So I pretty much did what I wanted, with not a lot of input from my folks.
I paid attention to dreams in general, just because this terrifying experience kept coming back. I think that’s how nightmares work. They want you to pay attention. That’s what they’re saying: Pay attention to what this phenomenon of dreaming is.
My older brother, Tom Veitch, who also writes comics and is well known as a poet, had an early interest in dreams and spirituality too. He was ten years older than me. We grew up very differently. He grew up with a normal family, while our folks were still paying attention. I grew up when no one was paying attention anymore. By the time I started becoming aware, he was out of the house already, living in New York, so it isn’t like I saw him a lot, but when I did, I would learn interesting things about the culture, about art, and about dreaming. I was telling him some of my big dreams. He was interested in them. And from listening to him I began to understand that there was a system to analyze the symbolism of dreams, that dreams WERE symbols.
Was there a turning point when you started to pay serious attention to your dreams?
When I was about 20 years old, I went through a personal crisis. I had just sort of ran my life into the ground as 20-year-olds tend to do. I went into a deep depression. I couldn’t even get out of bed in the morning, that’s how bad it was. And in those days you didn’t go to a psychologist. You just sort of suffered these things. And somebody gave me a copy of The Portable Jung, a big fat paperback that collects a lot of Jung’s writings. I read the whole damn thing, kind of obsessively. I didn’t really understand it, but I went through the whole 700-page thing and began to see correlations in the dreams I was having, which were apocalyptic. That’s what was going on with me at the time. I couldn’t get out of bed. But at night my dreams were just unbelievably strong, really vivid. I began to sense that they were trying to direct me to heal myself. I can’t say I sensed all this consciously, but unconsciously, through the assimilation of all of Jung’s writings and the focus on the dreams themselves, I began to see a way out of my depression. And it worked.
I started this really detailed dream diary, writing down every damned thing I could, which I’ve still got, and bit by bit I began to understand the shadow side of my own personality, what was causing me to fail at growing up. I began to see that I had to ally myself with the deeper parts of myself, I had to trust that. I began to understand the nature of the structure of the psyche, which is one of the great things that Jung brought us. And I began to pull myself out of the hole. That was the beginning of my dreamwork.
What had happened? What hole were you stuck in?
It was a whole bunch of stuff. It was just being a teenaged lunatic. I was never a big druggie but I hung out with druggies. Relationship problems with my girlfriend, unable to hold a job, all kinds of stuff.
Focusing on my dreams, looking at them, trying to understand what they meant, I slowly began to heal myself. Got a job, started to make money, pulled my whole life together. Took responsibility for the things I’d screwed up with the people I had alienated. More importantly, I began to realize the reason I was broken, was that I needed to be an artist. I’d known from the time I was a little kid that I was an artist. But except for my brother Tom, the environment around me, my parents, friends, the education system had all basically said ‘No, you can’t do this.’ That was a constant growing up. So there was a real deep and dangerous conflict in me.
I began to understand that if I really wanted to spend my life making art and being an artist, that I could. But it was up to me to make it happen. That’s when my real life began.
This process of dream journaling and study turned me around. I found a school that taught comics, the Joe Kubert School. Even though I was poor, I canvassed the state of Vermont and got a grant to go to school. Within a few years I’d put together a career drawing comic books for the major comic book companies. It really was a case of me making the right moves based on how dreaming was helping me organize my life.
Keeping the dream diary, how did that start?
First it was a series of indelible dreams, just cataclysmic.
The girl with the falling girders?
Yeah, they were on that level. But I was older now.
So they were uglier…?
I think ‘archetypal’ is the best word. They were pointing out both the nature and structure of the psyche. Many were all based upon a borderline, demonstrating how there’s this psychological border you cross, On this side, it’s your personal stuff you’re dealing with. and on the other side things are more archaic and symbolic. The dreams began to map a landscape in my mind of my psychological state. What was extraordinary about this was that the landscape was based on a REAL landscape in my hometown. Naturally you would think of course your psychological landscape is going to be based on where you grew up; what’s familiar. But it just so happened that part of this landscape in my hometown, I discovered much later, had been a place where Indian shamans from the Abenaki tribe used to gather and take magic mushrooms. Shamans and shamanism began to come up in the dreams spontaneously.
In my forties I began drawing these very early dreams as comics and began researching the shamanic connection. There are these petroglyphs in my home town that were left by Abenaki shaman and they’re right on the map in my dreaming! I began to come to understand that information itself had a certain life-like quality. The information that shamans worked with was ALIVE, and this could all be accessed via our dreaming unconscious. That became a focus of my dreamwork and my art while I was doing my series, Rare Bit Fiends.
Where did you get the idea to keep a dream diary?
I probably got the idea to do it from my brother Tom, because I know he was doing it. And he’s the guy who gave me the copy of Jung as well, at that key point. I think he could see what was going on. He handed me the tools I needed, rather than try to teach me himself. He knew that it’s something you’ve got to assimilate on your own.
How does keeping a dream diary work?
You have a little notebook by the side of your bed and you teach yourself to remember what you’ve dreamt. In the beginning I’d write every detail I could, nine or ten pages, whatever. Now I don’t do it so much. When I wake up in the morning now, even before I open my eyes, I try move the dream imagery from the dreaming part of the brain into the part where there are memory cells. That’s the key trick. You don’t want to open your eyes because once light comes into your eyes, you’ll lose a lot of those dream memories. Once they’re in the memory side, you got it. So then I’ll get up and have breakfast and stuff and then I’ll sit down and make little notes. That night, I’ll re-read the notes, and usually upon re-reading the notes, more from the dream comes up.
The dreams you present in your comics are not prosaic. They have cosmic stuff happening. You must have a very vivid and super-charged dreamlife.
I think that everybody does. It’s just a case of paying attention and learning a few tricks. There are different levels of dreaming. One level is the totally cosmic, that seems to happen in the middle of the night. On the other end is the totally mundane which happens nearer to morning. One trick I learned early on was to drink a couple of glasses of water before I went to bed, so I’d have to get up and piss, maybe about 1, 2 o’clock in the morning. That’s when you’re in the deep sleep and the really cosmic stuff happens. Usually we don’t remember that because we sleep right through it.
The dreams that we tend to remember are the ones we are having as we wake….
Yeah. They’re the ones about having to deal with the postman or the boss and stuff like that. And I had plenty of those. And when doing the dream comics, I tried to mix them in too. But what really attracts me to dreamwork is that it seems to be a way to get a handle on what’s really going on. Dreams are like a dialogue between the Ego and the deepest part of the psyche which Jung calls the Self. What the Self is, is no one really knows. You can only see pieces of it. But, using Jung’s model of the Psyche, the Self is the center, and the Ego just sort of floats on it. The ego, our conscious awareness, is maybe like ten percent of the totality of what we are. So I’ve come to see dreaming as a dialogue between those two parts: the floating conscious Ego and the deep, unconscious mystical Self. Once you realize that that dialogue exists, it actually becomes more real, and the characters can actually take on a life of their own. So sometimes you recognize that you’re talking to the deepest part of yourself because there’s just that certain awareness of the character you’re dreaming of.
The “Self” contains the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious…and beyond. I think it’s a way to understand nature too. Like say, you wanted to get a handle on the quantum, you might be able to do it through dreaming because on the deepest level, we are made up of quantum bits, so why wouldn’t we be able to dream about how we interact in the quantum realm. Or at a deeper, even more mystical level, there is Afterlife. Couldn’t we contact that? Wouldn’t it be through dreams?
So, I approach my dreams with an open mind, in that sense. I’m always like, Hmm that dream I had of that guy who’s dead—was I VISITING that guy, or was he visiting me in my dreams, trying to give me a message? You hold that in your mind, after you have the dream, you just try to suss it out. Is that’s what really happening, or am I fooling myself, or…?
Your journaling technique is necessarily different since you are also a visual artist. You can replicate the visual component of the dream, physically. Your description is a bit richer cuz you can use text to describe it – and art.
Yeah. What happens is, when you create art from your dream, you re-inhabit it in a way that you don’t do when you write it in a journal. When you write it in a journal, you’re using the reasoning, linear side of your mind. When you start drawing, the part of the brain that channels symbolism comes into focus. Your artistic intuition comes into play. Writing the dream, you’ve got the facts of the action, like: ‘Here I was on this day, this thing happens, that thing happens.’ But when you begin drawing them, your intuition starts playing with what they might mean, and it starts juggling the potential: it could be this, it could be that, it could be related to this other thing. As you’re drawing the dream, you’re waiting for that moment when you go, ‘Aha!’ and your intuition tells you it’s right. And so by the time you’ve drawn something as complicated as a comic book page of a dream, you’ve got a real handle on what it is your unconscious is talking about.
In stillness O’Malley and Anderson play on… play on… play on…
– text by Julian Cope for “My Wall” by SUNN0)))
When we started working on this issue, the war was still on. (Oh we know it wasn’t a war, it was an invasion. And yes I know the war isn’t over yet, that it’s only just shifted into a traumatic transition-to-imperial rule period.) We’d just finished the last issue as the USUKFOXMSNBCAOL forces had begun to roll across the desert, embarking on an epic fool’s errand that we‘ll all be paying for the rest of our lives. We decided to do what we could as soon as possible: to publish an issue of Arthur as powerful as we could muster to confront, or at least examine, the United States’ newest, and most dangerous yet, lurches towards imperial power abroad and a weird kind of proto/crypto-fascist rule at home.
“Imperialist,” “empire,” “fascist”: these are strong words, and I assure you, they are not used lightly here. But what other words describe where we are now? America is simply continuing to expand its military presence across the globe—now we are not just in Germany (100,000 troops, 58 years after the end of World War II), or South Korea (40,000 troops, more than four decades after the Korean War’s conclusion), or Japan, or the Philippines, or Puerto Rico, or Afghanistan, now we are in the heart of the Middle East. We are acting as empires do: expanding outward, identifying pockets of resistance, stamping them out and replacing them with puppetish local governments who operate under the watchful eye of centurions who report back to the seat of Empire.
And at home? I walk out my front door and find that an American flag has been placed on my (rented) front walk by a local realtor, advertising his services. I drive to Vons for some groceries and almost every vehicle has an American flag stickered on it. “United we stand, divided we fall” warbles some mawkish Up With People choir on the Vons PA; when I complain to the store’s manager, she looks at me like I’m a madman, or worse, a Muslim. I come home and there’s a letter from a Dreamworks promosexual about the success of country dipshit singer Darryl Worley’s call to arms, “Have You Forgotten,” an execrable song that advocates the slaughter of innocent Iraqis in revenge for the September 11 attacks they had nothing to do with. (Note: This song was #1 on the country charts for six straight weeks.) In the weeks since, with the exception of wise old Senator Robert Byrd and some brave mainstream media commentators (take a bow, Paul Krugman, James Wolcott and Robert Sheer!), there’s been such a wave of unrelenting propaganda and willful disinformation and just plain misdirection by both the government and the media that many of us who know something has gone terribly wrong are finding ourselves disheartened, isolated and depressed. We return to our various recreational and business and creative pursuits in a (totally understandable!) ostrich-like effort to forget what has happened and what is happening and what is gonna happen next.
We are in a trance-state. A trance State.
So, naturally, people started asking, Are you still planning to do that anti-Bush issue of Arthur? We said, Hell fucking yes. You’re in the worst danger when you don’t think you’re even in danger. Better to leave the light on, so you can at least see what is happening. When crazy talk has become accepted common sense, when a powerful elite’s delusion has become the consensus reality, that’s when dissidents have to speak up, or at least speak with each other. An historical example of this, and the primary inspiration for this specific issue of Arthur, is the ferociously satirical work that German collagist/artist John Heartfield did for the AIZ paper in the late ‘20s and ‘30s, warning against Hitler’s ascent from early on. Heartfield was not just right–he didn’t just see something awful coming that way–he did something about it. This is crucial. Heartfield didn’t curse the darkness–he cursed Hitler.
We want to try and do the same. This issue is a collective curse against the folly of empire, against those who advocate it and those who profit from it. It’s a curse against the Bush Administration and its media mandarins and apologists. It’s a curse against the willful ignorance and docility of so many Americans. And it’s (hopefully) a call, an inspiration, to all righteous free-thinking individuals to simply do what you can to shut this shit down. Do what you’re best at! But do it in such a way that at a minimum, it causes no harm.
Think about the consequences of all of your actions.
Re-align your life the best you can.
And remember that you are NOT alone.
Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned doing Arthur, it’s how un-alone we are. Know that this whole enterprise is ad-hoc, put together by both friends and strangers on the basis of trust. It’s entirely financed by our loyal, beneficent advertisers, by some unbelievably generous donors and, well, by Laris’ and my personal credit cards. It’s created by a talented, as-yet-salary-less staff and a loose coalition of brilliant, as-yet-unpaid contributors. It’s distributed—by hand!—by a guerrilla network of wonderfully dedicated, as-yet-uncompensated volunteers, spread across North America. Arthur’s success is, in short, a model of a different way of doing things: of people engage in mutual aid and good faith and goodwill, all in the service of freethinking, at-length-if-necessary, full-on free expression. Isn’t that what being human amongst other humans should be about? It doesn’t have to be about endless exploitation and bottomless greed and an unending quest for power/control and the rule of the jungle. This may sound banal, but seriously: if more of us just tried harder, more of the time, this can be a better world.
And if the world doesn’t get better? Well, at least we did our damnedest.
We’d like to give a warm public welcome and a hearty hurrah to author Daniel Pinchbeck, cartoonist Ben Katchor and publisher/cartoonist Tom Devlin, who are all joining the Arthur team starting with this issue.
Like every single person associated with Arthur, from those listed from top to bottom on the masthead to the right, to those with bylines and credits in the magazine, to the 120-plus folks who distribute 40,000 copies of Arthur across North America every two months, these gentlemen are working for Arthur for close to nothing. They could be doing something else. They’re not. They’re putting their time and energy where their heart is.
This is not something unusual: there have always been people like this. Just look at this issue of Arthur, with its true stories about pirate radio operators, kinetic sculpture racers and revolutionary rock n rollers: like most issues of Arthur, its pages are devoted to people who have placed love over gold, in their art and in their craft and in their work and in their lives.
None of them—none of us—are perfect (except maybe T-Model). And sometimes, we at Arthur sing in a key we simply can’t quite reach, as we try to build something that is a little less compromised, a little less oriented toward greed, a little more loving and open. Basically, we’re trying to do a magazine that reflects and embodies a set of ideals that run absolutely counter to the mainstream culture, which is more diseased, corrupt, demonstrably insane and world-destructive by the day. The funny part, though, the part they (and you know who “they” is) never tell you, is this: once you opt out of that terminal culture, you opt in to something much more fun. It’s not too hard to leave all that bullshit behind—if Laris and I can do it, believe me, anyone can.
That said: Arthur needs all the help we can get. Integrity shouldn’t mean involuntary poverty: everyone needs to eat, even the starving artist. So, thank you to all of you who have already helped Arthur to its early success. And for those of you who want to play a bigger role, who want to put a little more of your money where your heart is, please buy a subscription, or a T-shirt, or support our honorable advertisers. We can make this work—for everyone.
“A good myth or poem…addresses our appetitive anarchies, and offers safe conduct to some life-enhancing energy by giving it a name; and a bad one does the opposite, ‘binding with briars my joys and desires.’ But in the absence of an authoritative myth or poem, the lights simply go out and the soul is closed down: no name, no game. In other words, we have to play; and if we refuse, our robotic bodies are simply wired up by this week’s television commercials.” — Origins of the Sacred: The Ecstasies of Love and War, Dudley Young
Not to get too evangelical—although given his name and interests, perhaps some fervor is only appropriate—but both the prodigious output and the career-shape of the man they call Brother JT offers just the type of myths and poems, in song and words and drawings and deed, that Mr. Young is yapping about here.
Listen to the beautiful smeared mess—homemade and lush and voluptuous—that is Maybe Should We Take Some More?, one of the two albums JT released in 2001: noise-covered melodic pop; flute-and-tambourine folk; pastoral instrumental epics; dubspace recorders self-replicating into Jajouka horns; Hendrix jamming in Bombay with street musicians, remixed by Cabaret Voltaire; and so on. And that’s just one album—there are many more where that came from (see David Katznelson’s excellent sidebar). This is boundary-dissolving, spirit-ennobling music: aural stuff that can help you as you hang out in back in the garden of your mind.
Brother JT was born John Terlesky in 1962 in Easton, Pennsylvania. Starting in the mid-‘80s Terleskey lead The Original Sins, whose mission, he notes on his website, was to “ merge pop and garage/punk, taking inspiration from the Lyres, Buzzcocks, Stooges, and that whole ‘Paisley Underground’ thing from the early ’80’s.” The Sins continued to record albums through the ‘90s, but beginning in the early part of that decade, Terlesky began to releasing solo records under the “Brother JT” moniker. ( “Brother JT” is a nickname given to him by underground journo/advocate (and now-Arthur columnist) Byron Coley after hearing JT’s Descent, which, JT says, was “kind of my version of Coltrane’s Ascension, only it was supposed to be Jesus descending into hell while he was dead and freeing the saints or something. And side 2, ‘Kabbalah,’ was pretty much an acid Gregorian chant with just voices. I think he felt the music sounded like the work of some twisted monk or something…just kind of stuck.”)
On the phone from Easton (where he’s living again after a 12-year-interim in nearby Bethlehem), JT is soft-spoken, funny, precise and open, with a disarmingly humble matter-of-factness; when I ask him how he’s managed to put food on the table through all these years of limited commercial success as a musician, he mentions one of his favorite jobs: “I drove a newspaper delivery truck in the afternoons, throwing bundles out for kids …. A lot of songs came out of that route.” Of course: Brother JT delivers.
I opened our conversation with some remarks about That’s Life, a set of harrowing spoken-word (the Brother had to rap!) pieces JT recorded sometime in the early ‘90s that could be described as Bitter Surrealist. They’re stamped with the same inventive, humorous spirit that marks all of JT’s work, but these rants’ bad-trip, freaked-out disgust seem miles away from the more, shall we say, positive outlook of his recent albums…
Arthur: You sound so angry on that spoken word CD.
Brother JT: I was probably a lot more angry then than I am now. When you’re younger you have this block that makes you think that there’s just no hope at all–basically you keep going but you always just think you’re practically at the verge of something or other. A lot of the early stuff that I did was a purging of sorts. What I didn’t know then was that things might work out okay. [chuckles] Not that they have per se, but they have worked out better than I thought they would.
I wrote them in a fever of… automatic writing, trying to get some sort of a subconscious thing going and connect with what I thought might be my subconsicous. But you really don’t know–there‘s a lot of things going around there all the time. Usually you edit your thoughts. In this case I just tried to let it spill out, and that was the result. Those were done on a mic in my room in Bethlehem, trying to do em without any breaks. If I tried to do a spoken word thing now, it would be a lot more soooooothing, make it a little more positive, and not just drop this on people.
Somewhere, probably around the mid-’90s, I started thinking that whatever creative process I do, I’d better try to think in a little more positive way, because a lot of the songs that I had written with a negative tone had sort of come true! [chuckles] I felt like it sort of comes back on you, or it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, or something. And also, just getting older, you feel like you’ve got all this off your chest. You’ve been doing it for ten years–ten years is enough for expurgating all these demons–you should be out of demons by now. I’m not, but I do feel more of a responsibility to try to make some things of beauty too, and not just all this catharsis.
There’s all these religious references in your work: your band was called the Original Sins, you have these kitschy photos on your covers of religious iconography and roadside graphics and son. Yet it’s obviously not completely a wink, or scornful—there’s a huge spiritual element in your work. And you lived in a town called Bethlehem for 12 years. What exactly is your religious background?
I was raised Ukranian Catholic which is very close to being Eastern Catholic but not quite. It’s still under the Pope. It’s the next best thing to being a Byzantine or whatever. I went to catechism, and had holy communion. I went to church up to my early teens, and then it just fell away. But, as I’m sure a lot of younger people experience, it stays with you–maybe moreso than if you were Protestant or something, where it’s not such a big deal and there’s not so much ceremony involved and not so much attention paid to this kind of mystery thing going on. Which always appealed to me.
Over the years I’ve gone back and forth between thinking that there might be something to this and thinking Well, no, I doubt it. Somewhere along the way I consciously decided, There’s gotta be something more. There’s gotta be a little more to this than just happenstance. I think I forced myself to start thinking along the lines of spirituality, if only to enrich my life. My upbringing definitely played a role in all that. The masses are ingrained in me from when I was a kid: there was a lot of incense, a lot of droning kind of hymns in Ukrainian. It was spooky. Very spooky. And when that gets in you when you’re a kid, you don’t ever really dispose of it. The Christ story is there in you, almost like a universal archetype. So it gets to be where you don’t know whether it’s really something real or if it’s just inculcated in you to that extent, that it has become a reality of belief, or faith.
Your records and writings are rants are pretty open about your interest in hallucinogenic drugs. Did they play a role in this spiritual opening up you’re talking about?
Yeah, but I think just sort of getting through life teaches a lot of things about the possibilities. Just things that happen where you would have to say, There’s gotta be a point to this because why else did these things happen. There seems to be some kind of scheme, one that anyone could see, something where most people would say, There’s a lesson to be learned here.
But yeah, hallucinogenics were kind of an opening back open of a door that I’d shut during my teenage years. I was a very straight teenager, and really only got into hallucinogens in my early 20s. It had a profound effect: something similar to flipping a switch in your brain that had been switched to ‘off’ onto ‘on.’ You know, thinking, ‘Geez, no wonder all this stuff is the way it is.’ A lot of people these days probably don’t even need it. But for me, given the upbringing I had… [chuckles] I came up in the ‘70s, you know? Which, to me, like having layers of brown and orange gauze taped over my head. I remember being completely clueless as a kid and a teenager and THIS was a big revelation. Whereas I think maybe kids these days are just sorta like Eh, so what. Or that they already know, and they don’t need any help in knowing that there is sort of a oneness in things. It’s not so much of a revelation. Maybe just bred into them now. I hope so! I I really do sense that there’s evolution taking place–I don’t know in exactly which direction: outward, or inward, or what. But people do seem a little different than when I started out in my observations.
“You proved to the world what can happen with a little bit of love and understanding and SOUNDS.” – Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock at the peaceful three-day festival’s close
Following up the earlier post on the subject, a few more reflections on Radiohead’s In Rainbows end run around the existing music industry…
There’s a good case to be made that music is humanity’s oldest form of communication, its earliest artform. For the tens of thousands of years that homo sap has wandered the planet, always in groups, sitting round campfires every night, music has been present only when three things were present: performer, listener and peace. Outside of the solitary performer-listener—call him the Lone Whistler—music was necessarily a social, peaceful activity—an occasional but integral part of the sound of being alive in the world. It was something that even seemed trans-human, in that animals made sounds that sounded like music to us (birdsongs, doghowl choirs, etc). The songs could be old, or new, or both, but they only existed in one moment: the here-and-now. They grounded us with each other.
If this sounds too abstract, try this thought experiment. Imagine if machinery suddenly stopped working—the grid goes down, batteries don’t work, oil’s stopped up. We’re back in the Paleolithic. Where and when would you hear music? You’d only hear it in-person. That is the way we humans have successfully lived for 99% of our history on this planet. It turns out you really did have to be there. You wouldn’t encounter music otherwise.
Furthermore, in this scenario, which likely obtained across the 100,000 years of human history, and which is still present in some surviving first people cultures on Earth, music accompanied times of peace. Yes, there is music that accompanies combat or suffering—warsongs, field labor songs—but Music seems to be a quality of human culture that flows most and fullest and most pleasantly in peacefulness—in that existential moment of fundamental non-aggression between performer and listener. We break bread together, we smoke together, we reason together, we goof together, and we make music together.
For all of this time, then, there was more to music than meets the ear. But the communication technology manufacturing revolution of the last 150 years has changed everything. The transmission of sound across time (through recording playback machines) and space (through electric communication—telephone, radio, internet, etc.) is the new norm. It is the way music is experienced by most humans, most of the time. And with it comes a detachment from the here-and-now, a detachment from the act of music’s production itself, and of course some kind of detachment from other humans altogether. Music used to shorten the space between us. Today, most of the time, for most of us, music actually widens the gap.
Music is no longer an emblem of peace, something we pretty much only encounter when in peace with others. We now encounter it everywhere, all the time, as a disembodied fact. This lessens our incentive to be in peace with each other, and in peace with our environment—music is no longer one of the sweet rewards for having found a way to get along with each other. In food terms, we’ve traded organic sweets for industrial sugar. The result is the same: cavities. Society rots as we enjoy a second-hand lifestyle of cheap highs.
The coming end of the global music industry’s physical infrastructure, hastened by Radiohead’s recent selfish action, which will only make it even harder for our best musicians to do their work, needs to be seen in this moral, or at least historical, context. Does music as free, disembodied computer file close the gap between humans—and between humans and their environment—or does it further widen it? Does it bring Music any closer to the temple of peace? Doubtful. The so-called digital revolution is not just killing the music industry—it’s killing Music herself, by reducing and degrading our experiences with her, by removing almost all of the social, physical and analog aspects of music that have been so historically beneficial to human well-being. Her grace lost, her gifts abused and cheapened, Music does survive, here and there. But you’re less likely than ever to encounter her essence. What have we lost? Well, you’ll know when you feel it—and I bet you won’t be alone with your iPod when it happens.
What The Heck Is Arthur Anyway?: A Quick Introduction
by Jay Babcock
Originally posted Oct 25, 2007 on Arthur’s Yahoo blog
What the heck is Arthur anyway?
Arthur is a critically acclaimed, transgenerational global counterculture magazine. We’ve been publishing it once every two months since 2002, giving it away free at record shops, used bookstores, coffeehouses, art galleries, movie theaters, shoe stores, hair salons, nightclubs, divebars, libraries, opium dens, juicerias, yoga studios, punk houses, all-ages venues, meditation spaces, ice cream trucks, colleges, food co-ops and other freak hideouts across North America. (If you haven’t seen Arthur before, you can order a hard copy from arthurmag.com. Of course if you need it NOWNOWNOW, you can download our latest issue as a PDF from our website also — but I gotta say the hard copy is really where it’s at — paper is portable, you don’t have to squint at it, the pages are designed to be viewed in a space bigger than most computer monitors anyway, and best of all, you can read magazines in the great outdoors — without using up any energy).
Arthur‘s mission is… um… Well, the main thing is it’s a labor of love. We cover what we want to cover. We write about what we want to write about. Generally speaking, we’re interested in the eternal underground, the edge of the envelope where freedom is freer, that tricky territory where new, progressive modes of art and behavior are tried out, whatever the period, whatever the mode. Kalakuta, Haight-Ashbury, Fort Thunder, Sao Paolo, Bolinas, the Lower Eastside, WhamCity: every interesting scene, or personage, is eligible. In each issue of Arthur, we gather together the best available talent — writers and photographers, artists and connoisseurs, filmmakers and video game designers, political actionists and festival organizers, ground-level poets and high-altitude observers — and let them share with us what they’ve found that is of particular interest, value, use. The idea is to bring stuff to the public’s attention — for free — that isn’t the dreary pop gunk that’s in our faces 24/7.
We’re not doing anything new, really. Just last week, The New Yorker ran a feature on the great learned historian Jacques Barzun, which included this tidbit: “In 1951, Barzun, [Lionel] Trilling, and W. H. Auden started up the Readers’ Subscription Book Club, writing monthly appreciations of books they thought the public would benefit from reading. The club lasted for eleven years, partly on the strength of the recommended books, which ranged from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition and partly on the strength of the editors’ reputations.”
That’s not to suggest that Arthur‘s team of contributors is of that stature, only that we share the same general program of cultural uplift — a desire to be something of more use than the general consumer guide that masquerades as a magazine in these sad, devolving times. In the last few years, Arthur‘s contributors have included Byron Coley & Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, whose regular “Bull Tongue” review column has been absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary underground culture; authors Trinie Dalton, Douglas Rushkoff, Erik Davis, Brian Evenson and Daniel Pinchbeck; veteran journalists Kristine McKenna, Peter Relic, Gabe Soria, Daniel Chamberlin, Dave Reeves, Sorina Diaconescu, John Payne and Eddie Dean; photographers Melanie Pullen, Eden Batki and Susannah Howe; and countless other writers, cartoonists, photographers, poets and –of course– designers.
Has Arthur made a difference? Not as much as we’d like. A magazine’s cultural impact is always going to be hard to measure in quantitative terms. But, that said, it’s been interesting to watch how artists–and ideas–that got their first airing in a national magazine in Arthur‘s pages have subsequently entered the dim edges of the mainstream’s consciousness. Devendra Banhart? Read the first interview he ever gave anywhere in the pages of December 2002’s Arthur No. 2, or check out the cover feature on him in Arthur No. 10–which also featured the first long-form interview anywhere with Joanna Newsom, who herself would be covered in even greater depth in an award-winning piece by Erik Davis in Arthur No. 25. Ohioan blues rawkers The Black Keys, comics genius and magus Alan Moore, quixotic rock sibling duo Fiery Furnaces, drone-metal band Sunn 0))), avant-psych-pop group Animal Collective, M.I.A., West Coast psychedelic roarers Comets on Fire, the uncategorizable Six Organs of Admittance, the good ol’ Howlin’ Rain, comics genius Grant Morrison and woozy psychedelic soul nomads Brightblack Morning Light all received serious, substantial coverage in Arthur a while ago — not because we’re trendspotters or hypesmiths, but because we simply dug what they were doing while everybody else was busy covering…well, something else.
As for why the magazine is named Arthur…well, that would be telling. Have a guess in the Comments section below.
Nothing Left to Lose: What Happens When Music Becomes Worthless?
by Jay Babcock
Originally posted Oct 1, 2007 on Yahoo’s Arthur blog
In a few days Radiohead’s new album In Rainbow will be available on a pay-what-you-like basis to anyone who wishes to download it from them. Take it as a acknowledgment of what everybody already knows: in the digital world that the transnational entertainment-communications conglomerates have done so much to summon in the last 25 years, without apparent regard for the long-term consequences, recorded music—music that people used to buy—has become free. For established artists like Radiohead—or Prince, who launched his new album via a CD tacked on the front of a British Sunday newspaper, or his lordship Paul McCartney, who debuted his latest album through Starbucks, or (worst of all) the Eagles, who are releasing their new album exclusively through an anti-union discount store chain that shall remain nameless—this is all fun ‘n’ games. Like most artists, they’ve witnessed the music industry’s legendarily shady accounting practices for years, incredible feats in which record companies stayed in business yet somehow, when it came time to pay the creators, never made a dime. So it’s gotta be a big kick for all of these dudes to be able to thumb their shapely noses at those who have been screwing them for years. They ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more, and they’re telling us all about it.
Well, good for all of these guys (except the Eagles, of course). It’s hard to shed a tear for mega-corporations whose record companies are run by beancounters who are bad at math. And most of us weren’t likely to buy a new Radiohead album anyway, so “free” just means some of us will download it, listen to it and delete it. No loss there for anyone, I guess. Meanwhile, Radiohead will receive tons of applause from not just their loyal fanbase, but also the “information wants to be free” internet booster contingent. They’ll be the subject of every music-related conversation for weeks. And will rake it in at the turnstiles, as they always do, when they perform live. Though their music is now worthless, Radiohead’s value as an income-earning entity has increased. Savvy.
But hold on. What happens to those no-to-low-income artists, many of them doing signficant work, who haven’t established themselves in the pre-burn/download era? Going deeper, what happens to the entire infrastructure of artists, enthusiasts, record labels, live venues, stores and media (TV, radio, print, etc) that made Radiohead’s ability to give away their music possible in the first place? What happens to this ecology, unbalanced and out-of-whack as it already was, when its currency has become almost completely worthless?
The most immediate effect is already apparent: there are fewer and fewer mediated (or, curated) places devoted to music. In America, which has an underdeveloped commons, those places are marketplaces: in other words, record stores. And the really good record stores in this country—the ones owned and operated by knowledgeable enthusiasts, staffed by dayjobbing musicians and music freaks, local clearinghouses of art and information, where meaningful discoveries and lasting connections have historically been made—started disappearing a few years ago and extinction seems to be nearing. What’s going to replace these stores? The schools got rid of significant art appreciation and application long ago. Public libraries, our repositories of cultural knowledge, are criminally underfunded and understaffed. Publicly funded performance venues of all sizes exist all over Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, but good luck finding such spaces in the USA.
These spaces are important, because by containing elements of both chance and quality control, and by being in the real, physical, analog world, they increase the quality and complexity of communication between people. You take those away and you guaran-goddamn-tee a society of atomized, alienated consumers, disconnected cubicle people who gaze at computer screens more than each other’s faces: humans, in other words, in love with machines. Which, I guess, is what “Radiohead” means. Goodbye, art, community and communion: hello, paranoid androids.
RON & SCOTT ASHETON on their past, present and future.
by Jay Babcock
Photo by Peter G. Whitfield, art direction by W. T. Nelson
Originally published in Arthur No. 6 (Sept. 2003)
Following the second (and final) split of the Stooges in 1974, Ron and Scott “Rock Action” Asheton’s next joint effort was to form New Order, who released a single eponymous LP that gained little critical or commercial notice. Scott did some work with ex-MC5 Fred “Sonic” Smith’s band, Sonic Rendezvous, while Ron went on to work briefly with the second, post-Mike Kelley/Jim Shaw version of Destroy All Monsters, a sort-of Detroit supergroup, before forming The New Race with Stooges acolytes Deniz Tek and Rob Younger of the Australian power rock group Radio Birdman. The New Race released a single quasi-live album, in 1981, and then was no more. In the ‘90s, between taking roles in his beloved low-budge horror films (his filmography includes Hellmaster [‘92], Legion of the Night [‘95], Mosquito [‘95] and, of course, Frostbiter: Wrath of the Wendigo [‘96]), Ron recorded with a group called the Empty Set, and performed and recorded with singer/Destroy All Monsters alum Niagara in a new group called Dark Carnival.
Ron’s participation in the Wylde Ratttz sessions in ‘98 [see sidebar] eventually led to an invitation by J Mascis & the Fog to play songs live dates with his band, then featuring ex-minuteman Mike Watt on bass. Watt, who had been playing the Stooges songs for years (see “From a minuteman to a Stooge”) was the singer on the Stooges songs the band performed each night for the numbers when the group wasn’t being joined by guest vocalists, which was often. These shows attracted enough heat for Sonic Youth, curators of the 2002 All Tomorrow’s Parties, to ask Asheton, Mascis and Watt to do an all-Stooges set at the UCLA festival, with secret guest vocalists.
At this point, Scott “Rock Action” Asheton was coaxed back into the spotlight. Working on a piece for the LAWeekly to coincide with that ATP show, I caught up with Scotty down in Florida to ask him what he‘d been up to. “I’ve been playing with various musicians and bands, did some touring, did some recording with Capt. Sensible from the Damned and Sonny Vincent,” he said. “But I’ve got a daughter now, and mostly I’m just busy being a dad.”
Although Scotty had kept in contact with Iggy, his dreams of some sort of reunion of the Stooges hadn’t come to pass. “I used to call up his management and kinda bug ‘em about if there’s a chance we could get together, him and myself and my brother and do an album. He used to tell me ‘Well he’s not opposed to the idea but he’s just really busy.’ I think the people would like it, I think it would be cool if me, my brother and Iggy do some things… You know, there’s a lot of good memories and a lot of bad memories. It’s too bad that the band had to fall apart when we did, but it was due to things that were out of our control. Me and James [Williamson, the band’s second guitarist] and Iggy were having some problems, and as a result the band fell apart. I always felt bad for my brother because he kinda got the raw end of the deal. It really wasn’t his fault that things went the way they did.”
Although he was aware that the Stooges’ records had continued to win the band fans three decades after their initial release, Scotty had obviously long lost interest in contemporary rock. As I read off the names of the people he’d soon be performing with, he said, “To tell you the truth, I don’t know anything about ‘em. I was asking other people, and they were saying Well [J Mascis] is from Dinosaur Jr. And I’m going Well, sorry again, then. Never heard of them. But if Ron likes them, they gotta be good.”
They were good—it was a lineup of singers that included Watt, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, Eddie Vedder and Queens of the Stone Age’s Joshua Homme—but, in the end, none of them, of course, was Iggy. (By the same token, as good as his solo work has been, Iggy has never had a band that approached the utterly primordial, shamanic genius that was the Stooges, either.)
After several months of tantalizing rumors, in February 2003 the Ashetons reunited with Iggy Pop to record some new Stooges songs for Iggy’s new solo album. The sessions, produced by Iggy at a studio near his Miami home, yielded four songs and a tentative interest in performing live as the Stooges again. I caught up with Ron—Scotty remained elusive—to find out how this all went down. The following Q & A is culled from two phone conversations with Ron—one took place just prior to the 2002 ATP show, and the other, less than a week before this issue of Arthur went to press in late July. — Jay Babcock
Arthur: So, how did this happen?
RON ASHETON: Well, Iggy called up and he goes, ‘Well hey, what’s happening?’ We did small talk for about 20 minutes and then he goes, ‘Well the reason I called was I was wondering if you’d be innerested in a project. You can say yes, or you can say no, and I don’t care, I understand. And if you say yes, you can call me back in two weeks and tell me to go fuck myself.’ [laughs] But I said right away, Yes, sounds cool to me.
I went down to Florida. My brother, who lives there part of the year, was already there. Jim—most people know him by Iggy but we call him Jim, usually—came to the hotel and he goes, Well I know a fun place to eat. So we went. I was a little nervous, I hadn’t seen him up close, shake-hand close, since 1980. He’s a guy that was one of my best friends, that I haven’t really talked to, or seen, in many years—and I’m there to work, to do music! Whoa. So I go, [mock melodramatic voice] ‘God, please make it good.’ So we talked and had dinner. The next day we went to his house and we visited for about an hour and a half and then we went to the studio. And it was easy. From then on, it’s like there was no time in between… It was great. I think I appreciate it and enjoy it more now. I like the things we talk about. And I’m proud of what he’s done.
You guys weren’t just in a band—you all lived together in the old days. That stuff doesn’t really go away, does it?
We started out with our first band house, our little summer sublet, and then we moved on to a farmhouse and then another farmhouse and then out in L.A. Not to mention all the thousands of shows on the road through the years. So we’ve got a lot of time between us.
How were the new songs written?
I had some things and I got pieces and I started workin’ on stuff. So we talked as the time was approaching to go to Miami, I had a talk with him and he goes, You know, you can bring stuff down, or you can bring pieces, or you can bring down nothing at all. So I decided to bring nothing. [laughs] But the night before I left, I’m going, Well I gotta have an icebreaker. So I came up with that thing for “Skull Ring.” And we jammed on that. That got turned into a tune. And then I said, “Well Jim, why don’t you stay at home and give me about four or five hours before you come to the studio tomorrow, and let me see what I can come up with.” Before I went to bed that night at the hotel, I’m lyin’ in bed and I got a riff stuck in my head. I started out on that the next day and it just came quickly—I wrote “Little Electric Chair” in 15 minutes. I did three things. One of ‘em didn’t make it to the record cuz we didn’t have time. So I wrote ‘em, brought my brother in, taught him the song, recorded it and then I laid a bass track on it. One hour later, I brought him back in. He goes, “Ready already? You just taught me the other one!” And I go, “Yeah well I got this other one.” And we just did that. It just was flowing out of me, cuz I was excited about doing it and I liked that studio. I felt real comfortable there. I knew that it was important, and I knew that we didn’t have a lot of time. But luckily it just worked out. The stuff just flowed right out. Then Iggy came and he goes, Yeah this is cool.
You use the same little riff on the bridge for ‘Loser’ as there is at the beginning of ‘Dead Rock Star’…
Iggy had that basic piece, and I kinda toughened it up, played into that more. I used that descending riff on ‘Dead Rock Star’ just to show him it was good. I gave him a lot of options to choose from. And he wound up going, Well I like both of ‘em. I go, Just do it man. It’s great how they cut it up. He was a little hesitant to play ’Dead Rock Star’ for us. He goes, Well I got this idea for this song but I don’t know… I go, [mock impatience] Just play it for me! And I go, No man it’s cool. I really like that. He didn’t know what he thought about it. Then he started liking it. I go, No it fits it, I really like that, cuz you got different things on our stuff. You got Stooge voice, and…you’ve got your crooning and even on the other Stooges songs, the voices are a little different. And I get a kick out of the album—[mock DJ voice] ‘It’s Iggy playing with Green Day. It’s Iggy with Sum 41.’ On the record [as a whole] he does all kinds of stuff. It’s cool.
On a couple of the songs you do a sort of prelude riff before the ‘proper‘ riff comes in, like you did on ‘1968’ and ‘Loose’ —
Yeah, we talked about this also. He goes, People are gonna expect it to be kinda like the Stooges. Cuz I’d sent him a bunch of stuff I did with the Wylde Ratttz and that was not very Stooge-y. He liked the stuff, but he was also a little worried that I might be too good. [laughs] Which, you know, in all my other songwriting with other bands they’re always going, ‘It’s a great song but you wouldn’t think that was a Stooges song.’ Well you know, I got a little better! And I’m having fun experimenting and it’s boring [to play simple stuff] as I learn more. So [getting more technically proficient] has kinda been a blessing and a curse for me. And Iggy was concerned and I also was concerned, that I needed to think primitive for this. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was, just to go back into that feeling.
What was really amazing for me was playing at Coachella, because I was figuring, I’m a little a bit better player so maybe I’ll rip off a couple slicky riffs or something for leads, but when I started doin’ it [at rehearsal], uh oh I’m kinda stuck all of a sudden. But once I was up there onstage and doing it, it was like I switched back to primitive mode. I just started playing simpler and a lot of those old riffs came back to me. I’m going ,Well goddamn I rehearsed this, but just being up there, it made some kind of magic that brought it all back to that kind of primitive stuff.
Has it been strange, the three of you doing Stooges again and Dave Alexander not being there with you?
No… because I’d been doin’ it a bunch with others. But Dave was there with me in spirit, because…I thought about that a lot, and I talked to my brother about it. He goes, Well Dave’s right here with me now, man. That’s how we all felt, and that’s why my brother gave Mike Watt the Dave Alexander t-shirt to wear, and Watt was so into it he wore it every day at practice too. We thought about Dave. When I took breaks I would say, You know thanks to you, Dave. You were part of this, and…you should be proud. Cuz I’m so proud that you were a part of it. He was a very inneresting bass player. Watt goes ‘Man just listen to him, he was a tripped out bass player, that thing he does on TV Eye that just kinda rubber bands around your thing, that’s brilliant.’ We always miss him—I think about him every day, I always have. There isn’t a day go by that I don’t think about him a bunch. I’ve had many other bands, so I didn’t miss him in that sense. But I wish he coulda been here.
I think listeners and the audience have always thought of Iggy as being fearless and spontaneous, but you’re talking about him being uncertain about songs…
Well, for me, I like that edge for playing. I like to know that everyone knows the song, and there is a format: you got your basic song. But I enjoy what might happen within the tune. With Jim what’s amazing is he is—and we talked about this—he’s really worked hard on his stage show. He’s perfected it. He’s a better showman. He doesn’t beat the hell out of himself like he used to. If something came into his head, bam, he’d do it. But now he paces himself better. I mean, if you coulda seen some of the shows way back when, it was like, man, the guy just went out and played a whole game of football in an hour. He’d always be battered up. He always hurt himself, almost all the time. Mostly at the beginning by accident: hitting the mike stand, take a tumble, do a swan dive off the stage and people got hip to it, here he comes, they thought it was funny, the parting of the crowd sea, and I’d go, Uh oh shit, they all moved! To see him just swan dive into a bunch of folding chairs and a fuckin’ floor.
At the time, did that recklessness seem stupid to you? As in, if he hurts himself, how are we gonna do the show tomorrow?
I knew he would never really hurt himself. I’m surprised he didn’t break any bones. But he got cuts and bruises and stitches. I would have so much fun watching him—even at Coachella I was going, Oh shit, I gotta get my head back in the ball game, I’m watching Iggy. I got this smile on my face and I’m just watching him. [laughs] I never smiled in the Stooges! That’s part of my THING. I’m just supposed to stand there, no smile on my face. Which I always did, it was kind of a natural thing for me back then. That was my schtick, kind of: I was holding down the fort. But it was fun just to have enough muscle memory with the tunes at Coachella where I could kinda step out of myself for a couple seconds and see what’s goin’ on. I had a good time. [laughs] I was going, Man he’s sure knocking himself around. I’m going, Uh oh he’s not gonna really go into the crowd. And there he goes. I go, Goddamn dude. For all the things, the battering he’s taken onstage, and all the abuse he’s done to himself, he’s fared very well.
It was an extraordinary performance. A lot of us were losing it—I don’t think anyone really ever expected to get to see the Stooges again. Could you tell from onstage how astounded the audience was?
You know what, I never thought it would happen either. I’d thought Jim was pretty happy with his solo career. He’s very proud of it, and he should be. He likes being…Iggy Pop. But, this will help him also. And yeah, I could tell, I could see the faces. You know [people are in shock] when mouths are open and eyes are wide and they’re really just trying to drink it all in. It was very cool. At first I was nervous, until we started the first song and then I was fine.
And what a trip to have Steve Mackey there for “Funhouse” and “L.A. Blues”!
Yeah! He goes, ‘It’s my same horn.’ I go, ‘No way, you didn’t throw it in the San Francsico Bay or something by now‘?!? Talk about somebody who hasn’t changed! He’s the same gregarious talkative guy. It was so much fun to see him. I had played with him with J Mascis in San Francisco. That was fun.
How did you got together with all those guys?
The Wylde Ratttz thing. Don Fleming invited Mascis along for the second set of Velvet Goldmine sessions. We were sitting around, Steve Shelley, Thurston Moore, Mike Watt and Mark Arm and Don Fleming the producer goes, Well let’s just jam every Stooges song that we know. And I’m going, Oh god, I don’t want to teach those songs to those guys. But they’re going, Oh no man, we know em all! So we just jammed. I didn’t have to teach them anything. Watt and J Mascis, they know the songs inside and out. Thurston and Watt said that’s how they learned to play guitar: playing along to Stooges songs. They’re really good songs to learn guitar on, because you can tell that you’re making progress. Watt’s such an eccentric perfectionist. [In mock outrage] What! You don’t even know your own song?! And I’d go, Mike I haven’t played in 10 years. It was ‘1970.’ I knew all the other ones. And then one time we were doing ‘Loose’ and then J just didn’t play, and he stood there with this look on his face, and he goes, You forgot the whole beginning. You haven’t been playing that beginning part! And I went, Oh that’s right, I completely forgot about that E chord intro. And so I go, Well you do it! So he played it, and I knew what time to do the riff, I just came in. So those guys remember stuff… It was fun playing with J because I was always telling everyone, [mock pretentious voice] Well yes, you know the Stooges songs, they lend themselves to sorta like free-form jazz. And J goes okay and he would just take it wherever he thought was fun to take it. That was very cool. But Watt was always saying, Gee you know I love J but it’d sure be neat just to play the songs with you sometime too. So it wound up that Mike got his wish.
If anyone in the Stooges story has anything to be bitter about, it would have to be you. I mean, those guys sold your guitar for drugs!
Yeah, that was in New York. I told this roadie, I’ll take the guitars. And this roadie was like, No I’ll grab that guitar, I’ll take it back to the hotel. I knew something was up. I found out later that what happened is it went right to Harlem, right into the hands of a black guy that was gonna get em heroin. And the black guy said I’ll be right back, lemme take the guitar and he went right up the stairs and right out the back door. No heroin—and no guitar. They didn’t even score! [laughs] They got ripped! And I didn’t find out til later. They did the same old bullshit, my brother wouldn’t even fess up. The roadie goes, Oh yeah, I put it down at the gig, man, and turned my back, and it’s gone, I looked everywhere. Even though I didn’t know that’s what had happened, I was going, This is bullshit, this has never happened before. But I did right, I fired him right then and there.
I didn’t go along with the heroin bullshit. It was really hard to see the guys you hung out with, and try to build a dream with, just going down the tubes, man. To wake up everyday and see possessions missing. Wait a minute, where’s the electric piano? 6-7-800-dollar electric piano went to get 40 dollars’ worth of heroin. Bullshit like that.
How did you stay straight amidst all that stuff?
It wasn’t easy. Probably what really helped me, when they really got badly into heroin, for a good period I had my first live-in girlfriend. And pretty much, they didn’t like that. ‘Hey you’re not one of the dudes anymore, man!’ We had an apartment in the Stooge house. It was a big house that the original owners had turned into separate apartments, and we had our own apartment. And those guys, we didn’t even see them. I just hung out with her. Then Bill Cheatham [who played piano and bass with the Stooges at different point], he got into doing some heroin for a while, but he realized it was bullshit. So he really did just cold turkey. He locked himself in his room for a week, and I would take him orange juice or whatever he wanted—chocolate milk!—and he did, he just kicked. So I had him to hang with now too. Even he stayed away because it was so bad.
After Dave Alexander was fired—Iggy had fired him, I knew there was no point in arguing—James came in and played [second] guitar. James and Iggy somehow hit it off, they formed that junkie relationship. Even though things were already really in bad shape, once James came aboard, it was the total swan song. I mean, it was some of the worst times of my life, just to see everything you had done fall apart, only because of drugs. It was fun when we were smoking marijuana and hash, and we had our little acid phase, for me that was about as far as it went, then…BA-BA-BA-BOOM… Our road manager, who had been clean for those couple of years, he got back into it, and he drug those guys in, and that was like… Oh man, it was a terrible ending. ‘Cause it didn’t have to end, but the drugs killed it.
Later, for Raw Power, Iggy asked you and Scott back. Only now you were the bassist and James Williamson was the guitarist. And Iggy and James were writing the songs on their own…
Iggy said he couldn’t find a bass player or a drummer—‘we’ve auditioned a hundred people, we can’t find anybody’—and how would we like to play. I said, Well you know, cool. I had a good time playing bass then because I started out playing bass in my high school rock band, so it was fun at least to go in and do it. I enjoyed it playing it myself, just [in pretentious voice] to show the world that I can play some bass guitar.
But you won’t play these songs now.
I enjoy some of those songs, but I never played ‘em on guitar. I don’t want to learn to play ‘em. What little input I did have, you know, writing little pieces or helping a song develop, they didn’t even give me credit. I came up with just little things here and there—nothing major—but still, my feeling is, I’m not gonna play something that I didn’t write or wasn’t given any credit for. But my problem with those times was that it wasn’t a band. Iggy was signed with MainMan, it was his record deal, his management deal, and basically, in reality, we were just signed as backup people. We didn’t even see him that much a lot of times when we weren’t working. He’d already had established his whole little group of friends and cronies that were into his kind of shit. The three of us—Williamson, my brother, myself—did tend to stay together a bit more.
MainMan finally wound up dumping Iggy, and we got new management and a booking agent, but they had it so we were constantly playing! Every day, just about, on the road. And when we did come back, it was just for a week or two before we’d go back out on the road for months again. It was like some bizarre Twilight Zone: you can never get out of being in the band, your stage clothes are so dirty you don’t really have time to wash them that often, and just living out of a suitcase, it was maddening. It was like Goddamn, this isn’t fun at all, this is like some sort of weird hell—a bad dream I can’t wake up from.
Do you ever talk with James Williamson? What’s he up to now?
He works with Sony, something to do with computers. He travels a lot, he goes to Europe and Japan all the time. He’s visited a couple times, to see me and my brother and our sister. It was cool. We had such great times when the Stooges were doing well and the only drugs anyone took was smoking marijuana, basically. There was LOTS of good times.
What happens with the Stooges after you do those September shows in Europe?
We probably won’t play again cuz Jim is interested in not going out too much now… Going with the material we have now would be fun but Jim’s gotta promote his record, he’s got a whole agenda of stuff he’s gotta do, and he’s excited about doing a Stooges record. I’ve gotta come up with a lot of stuff. One of my quirks, which I’ve done well with, is when I get a deadline is when I really start cranking. But that’s just too nerve-wracking to have to come up with a whole lot… I can come up with like 10 or 12 things, but not 30. You need that much cuz you’re gonna throw half of it away. So, basically for me, after September I’ll just be writing tunes. I’ll have enough time to do it so I don’t get all jammed up. I’m hoping next year we’ll go and do some stuff.
Now, what does all this mean for your horror film career?
My buddy Gary Jones who did The Mosquito picture, eh’s partnered up with Gunnar Hanson, who was Leatherface. They’ve written a screenplay, he’s got his little company together, Gary, and we’re gonna do an independent film called The Last Horror Picture Show. It’ll be starring Gunnar Hansen, Robert Englund, who was Freddy Krueger, and Kane Hodder who was Jason. They’re gonna play evil guys, but not those particular characters. So it’s kind of an inneresting premise, it’s a horror picture WITHIN a horror picture. I’m excited about it, it’s a good story. So we’re trying to raise dough now. The producers of the film asked if the Stooges might do the theme song, and also I will do other bits of music in the film, so besides my small acting part I’ll be doing some music.
What would your character be?
I would once again be what I always play: a goofy, wacky something-or-other. It’s a small principal part, because pretty much the focus of the movie is on the three main bad guys, and then the younger people that all get offed. [laughs] In this one, I’m the loser musician…who [in mock sentimental voice] turns out to be a hero in the end.
The MC5 were unbelievably intense live. They were also very, very loud (but not as loud as Blue Cheer). Wayne Kramer, John Sinclair, Ted Nugent and Leigh Stephens of Blue Cheer offer testimony to Jay Babcock.
Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March 2004)
“Loudness was a big part of the concept,” says MC5 manager/chief theorist John Sinclair. “Our concept, as I remember, was that if you gave yourself up to the music, then the loudness wouldn’t just go through your EARS, it would go through your entire body. And if you were to immerse yourself in the sound, it wouldn’t hurt you: it would just THRILL you…
“But you could never get loud enough with those damn sound systems! It was always tough for us. You didn’t use the amplification on the amps in those days: you just amplified the singer. You didn’t mic the drums, you didn’t mic the guitar cabinets. Club owners, show promoters, teen center directors? They HATED it. The authorities hated it. They couldn’t understand why it had to be so loud. They would pull the power, threaten not to pay.”
Eventually the MC5 gained a following that allowed them to play larger local venues where they could do their thing better. Louder.
“The MC5 was the first band in Detroit to get their hands on the new line of Vox amps from England, these Super-Beetle amplifiers,” remembers Wayne Kramer, one of the MC5’s two guitarists. “They were real 100-watts amplifiers: true power. They had these gigantic speaker cabinets with four twelve-inch speakers and two metal high-frequency horns in them. No one had ever heard anything this loud before. We ratcheted the level up, we raised the bar considerably. This was when the MC5 was leaving the scale of a club band, a teen dance band, a local community center gig band, and going up to the next level, where we were playing the Grande Ballroom. That was the first place we could play them loud enough to get enough to get a good tone and didn’t clear the room. So the next step was the Marshall amplifiers, and they were, I don’t know how you quantify it, but they were twice as loud. You had twice as much speaker all of a sudden, and an even more powerful amplifier, so you’re pushing twice as much air.”
“The technology for amplifiers was progressing faster than for the sound systems,” says Sinclair. “So you go from Super Beetles to Sunns to Marshalls. The guitars would get louder and louder, heh heh heh. The singer would always be struggling to be heard in that mess.”
“There was no such thing as monitors, so we never heard ourselves sing—ever,” says Kramer. “Venues didn’t provide PA’s in those days. And the PA system would lag so far behind the guitar amplification system that it was ridiculous. So, you had to carry your own PA. We built three or four PA systems! We had some money coming in, and we’d meet a friend of a friend who was an electronics genius. And what he’d say is, ‘What you guys need is 12 of these XL-77 amplifiers’ and we’d give the guy a pile of money and he’d come back with this big monstrosity that would catch on fire. Oh well, that wouldn’t work. And then the next guy would come along and say, ‘No what you need is these new Crown amplifiers.’ Okay, let’s try those.
What was the point of all this? Why the need to be so loud?
“I think it was just a thing of, I need MORE: the teenage fascination with power,” says Kramer. “This was a chance to make sure that everybody in the area had to listen to ME. It’s all about ME and MY guitar playing. I even had a guy who came down and hooked up some high-frequency industrial metal horns to go on top of my amp to make it even more brutally loud.”
“Ah, feedback,” says Sinclair. “I loved feedback. Ohhhh man, that was part of the MC5’s stock in trade. Feeeeedback. Yes! Loud! Penetrating! Well, you know, the social milieu then, everything was so numb. So you wanted to feel something. And the loudness was part of it. That would make you FEEL. I think I can characterize part of our outlook that way. Ha ha ha. We were trying to shake people up. The goal was to make them feel something, to make ‘em enter a new world. Ha! And drop some acid if possible. Heheh.”
It was a point of pride for the MC5 that they were louder than every band local band they played with… Bob Seger, the Stooges, and, of course, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes.
“We kicked their asses, hundreds of times,” says Sinclair, gleefully. “We did! We loved it. They would come up pale.”
“As far as street fuck you-ness goes, they definitely had us,” admits Nugent. “There was an energy to the 5 that was nothing short of mesmerizing. It was their uninhibitedness and the fact that they focused on the sheer unadulterated middle finger quality of all their music. Where the Amboy Dukes, we wanted to make rhythm and blues songs. Really emulated the Young Rascals and Stax and Volt and Motown and James Brown and Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett. So we were playing those kind of things. Even though the MC5 came from the same genre, really, cuz they would play It’s A Man’s World by James Brown and they’d play Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and those kind of songs, but they’d already figured out how to just do it unlike the original black artists. They just did it like white idiots. So they were whiter than we were.”
“We’d got even louder because we started using two amplifiers on each instrument, and that was the point where it was too much,” says Kramer. “But that was the point where I knew… Well, let me tell you how I knew. Blue Cheer had come to Detroit to play at the Grande Ballroom. And they used two hundred-watt Marshalls on their guitar, two hundred-watt Marshalls on their bass. It was TOO loud. I was out in the audience, and the place was kinda empty. It was kinda exacerbated by the fact that they weren’t very good. They really just droned on. There was no dynamic to it, it just droned, but it droned at a level that was like a 747 in your face.”
“The MC5 didn’t reach the levels of volume we did,” recalls Leigh Stephens of Blue Cheer. “I really don’t know in decibels how loud we were, [but] we were louder than anyone we ever played with, not that that is necessarily a good thing. We were going for… Just the overwhelming pushing of air. If the speakers blew your hair around, it was loud enough. Hey we were kids, we thought that was cool.”
“Blue Cheer were incredibly loud,” says Sinclair, “louder than we were, but not as…gratifying. They weren’t as interesting musically, I didn’t think. But, loudness was a huge part of their aesthetic. It was pretty much what they had to offer. Ha! Nice people, though.”
“Just because something is loud doesn’t mean that it’s powerful,” says Kramer. “Intensity doesn’t come from volume. Intensity comes from focus, from the application of dynamic. So I knew when I heard Blue Cheer have two 100-hundred watt Marshalls that it was too loud. And we had two guitar players in our band, so we [had to have been] twice as loud as they were. I remember when we played in Boston once, this was at the point where we were into our two 100-watt Marshalls-each and I had people that I knew coming around who really wanted to listen to the band but they had to go stand outdoors! That’s too loud. We went through a phase when we were too loud. Too fuckin’ loud. Cleared the room. Caused people pain.”
Sinclair: “If you stood there and tried to listened to it with your ears, it would hurt. It would be ‘too loud.’ I lost some top end standing there in front of the MC5 there for a couple of years every night. But I still hear pretty good, for an old person.
“I don’t want to hear nothing that loud now, though! Ha ha ha. Not anymore.”