A version of this article ran in MOJO’s December 2001 issue — the one with Michael Jackson on the cover. That version was 6,000 words long. What follows is my original 9200-word draft. Also, you might want to check out “Black Flag: A 12-Step Program in Self-Reliance,” a companion piece that I assembled for a special issue of the LAWeekly. There is a bit of overlap between the two, but not too much. If ever there was a band that deserved multiple histories from different angles, it was this one, I think. Enjoy. —Jay Babcock
THEIR WAR or, Black Flag, 1977-1981. or, Black Flag: The First Five Years or, The Making of Hardcore: the problem child of punk rock
by Jay Babcock
“When I first joined Black Flag, I thought I was ready,” Henry Rollins told Mojo recently. “Greg Ginn taught me otherwise.”
During the four years preceding the then-20-year-old Rollins’ entrance as Black Flag’s fourth singer in midsummer 1981, the proto-hardcore punk rock band had already become a formidable musical and subcultural force. They’d looped across North America on epic-length low-budget tours, released a string of full-frontal, open-throttle, dark-humored EPs on their own label, and had become an underground sensation despite ongoing poverty, record industry disinterest, lead singer churn, news media hysteria regarding the violence surrounding the band’s performances and, most ominously, an ever-escalating amount of real-life conflict with local police departments. In those years, Black Flag had perfected a practice-tour-record-24/7/365-Do-It-Yourself work/life ethic that few people–even a young Henry Rollins–were prepared to adopt as their own.
Almost all of the songs on Black Flag’s Damaged–the band’s landmark debut album released 20 years ago this month–were written by Flag founder-guitarist Greg Ginn and/or bassist Chuck Dukowski before Rollins joined the band. It’s a remarkable, uncompromising album. But some would argue that _Everything Went Black_ and _The First Four Years_ — compilations of the band’s earlier recordings featuring vocalists Keith Morris, Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena — may have been even better.
“In my opinion, the finest Black Flag record is The First Four Years,” Rollins himself wrote in Get In the Van, his 1994 Black Flag memoirs. He still stands by that assessment today: “Greg had great work all through the rest of the Flag stuff but there’s something special about that early stuff. There wasn’t anything like it anywhere else. [Singing those songs] was a challenge because they were all great singers and I didn’t think that I measured up, really. I did the best I could.”
This is the story behind Black Flag’s first four years: how a group of self-described “geeky, nerdy beach rats” from Hermosa Beach, California took the punk rock emanating from New York and the UK and reshaped it into something more intense and single-minded. Aggressive, furious, desperate and darkly satirical music. Music completely divorced from fashion moves and art-school pretenses. Music that almost no one was ready for.
This piece was originally published in Arthur No. 13 (Nov. 2004), with cover artwork by John Coulthart and design by William T. Nelson, pictured above (click image to view at larger size). A correction involving Cosmic Charlie published in a later issue has been embedded in the text here at the most natural point. I’m sorry that I’ve been unable to include the many fantastic photographs from the print article here. However, I have added a still from the film “Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up” by Dick Fontaine, which we did not have access to at the time of print publication into the text, and there are more stills from various films appended. —Jay Babcock
Clip from Arthur No. 13’s Table of Contents page, featuring photo by Robert A. Altman.
OUT, DEMONS, OUT!
On October 21, 1967, the Pentagon came under a most unconventional assault.
An oral history by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Michael Simmons and Jay Babcock
* * *
INTRODUCTION BY MICHAEL SIMMONS By Autumn of 1967, the “police action” in Vietnam had escalated. The United States of America waged War—that hideous manifestation of the human race’s worst instincts—against the small, distant, sovereign land. 485,600 American troops were then stationed in Nam; 9,353 would die in ’67 alone. We were there under false pretenses (the “attack’ at the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened), operating under a paranoid doctrine (the Domino Theory, fretting that Vietnamese Communists fighting a civil war in their own country with popular support would envelop all of Southeast Asia and end up invading Dubuque, Iowa). Seven million tons of bombs would eventually be dropped, as opposed to two million during World War II. Indiscriminate use of gruesome weaponry was deployed, most infamously napalm, a jelly that sticks to—and burns through—human skin. Saturation bombings, free-fire zones, massive defoliation with the carcinogen Agent Orange. “Destroying the village to save it,” as one American military man put it.
For a generation that remembered the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals after WW II, something had to be done. Genocidal fugitive Adolf Eichmann’s “I was just following orders” excuse would not fly. The draft was sending 18-year-olds off to die. A domestic anti-war movement emerged, as had a counterculture of hairy young people who rejected the militarism, greed, sexual repression, and stunted consciousness of their parents and leaders to pursue Joy and Sharing as well as Dope, Rock and Roll, and Fucking in the Streets. Pundits spoke of The Generation Gap. A quaking chasm had split the nation.
San Francisco painter Michael Bowen had a dream of people coming together to celebrate his city’s burgeoning hippie subculture, and so he and his wife Martine initiated the Great Human Be-In on Sunday, January 14, 1967. Sub-billed as A Gathering of the Tribes, 10,000 hippies, radicals and free spirits convened in Golden Gate Park. Beat poets emceed (Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lenore Kandel), rock bands rocked (Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Charlatans), Hell’s Angels returned lost kids to their mommies – and the cops busted no one, despite rampant open marijuana use. For many, the realization that there were other Martians was transcendental. Berkeley anti-war activist Jerry Rubin gave a speech, but his narrow political rap was dubbed “too histrionic” by Ginsberg and many in the crowd. It fortuitously forked Rubin’s direction. “It was the first time I did see a new society,” he said later. “I saw there was no need for a political statement. I didn’t understand that until then, either.”
Events ending with the suffix “In” became the rage. Bob Fass hosted the hippest radio show in the country, “Radio Unnameable” on New York’s WBAI. The all-night gab-and-music fest was Freak Centra, functioning as a pre-internet audio website. Regular guests included Realist editor Paul Krassner (dubbed “Father of the Underground Press”), underground film director Robert Downey Sr. (father and namesake of…), actor/writer Marshall Efron (arguably the funniest man on the planet), and a manic activist-gone-psychedelic named Abbie Hoffman—all rapping madly, verbally riffing and improvising like musicians. One night after participating in a UsCo avant-garde multi-media show of projections, movies, music, etc., at an airplane hangar, Fass stopped by nearby JFK International Airport and noticed a group of three dozen young people—clearly ripped to the tits—communally entranced by a giant mobile centerpiecing a terminal. The vast open spaces of an airport, with jet planes and stars in the sky, were the stage for dreams to come to life. Fass flashed on the infinite possibilities.
He conceived a Fly-In at JFK and announced it on Radio Unnameable. Though Saturday night, February 11, was freezing cold, 3,000 of the underground’s finest came to sing Beatles songs, torch reefers, dance the body electric, and groove with their sisters and brothers. “One of the things that happened,” Fass observed, “was that there was such a colossal amount of human connection that there was something akin to feedback that happened, and people really began to experience not ‘happiness,’ but Ecstasy and Joy. We’re planning another one at your house.”
New York responded to San Francisco’s Be-In with its own. Key to its success was Jim Fouratt, a young actor who’d become one of the most effective hippie organizers on the Lower East Side. Promotion for the event cost $250, which paid for posters and leaflets. On Easter Sunday, March 27, 10,000 full and part-time hippies came together—some in the carnal definition—at Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. It was a glistening, no bad vibes, lysergic day. Fouratt was central to virtually every NYC hip community event, including the infamous Soot-In at Consolidated Edison, where he, Abbie Hoffman, and others dumped bags of nasty black soot at the coal burning, energy company’s offices, in a protest that prefigured and influenced the birth of the environmental movement.
Emmett Grogan was a brilliant and enigmatic prankster/con man at the heart of San Francisco’s do-goodnik anarcho-rogues the Diggers. He suggested to his friend Bob Fass that a Sweep-In would strengthen the momentum the Fly-In had sparked. The idea was to “clean up the Lower East Side” area of NYC where the hippies dwelled. Fass conspired with Krassner and Abbie and listeners on his radio show, and they chose Seventh Street, where Krassner lived. The buzz grew louder and one day an inquiring bureaucrat from the Sanitation Department called Radio Unnameable. The potentates of garbage at City Hall were nervous about these beatniks with brooms taking their gig. While appearing cooperative on the phone and in a later meeting, the city pranked the pranksters on the day of the Sweep-In, April 8. When thousands of mop-wielding longhairs appeared at 11 a.m., they beheld a garbage-free, sparkling fresh, squeaky clean street of slums—courtesy of the Sanitation Department. Fass and Krassner were amused that they’d actually forced the city to do its job. Unfazed, they moved the Sweep-In to Third Street. When a city garbage truck turned the corner, the street peeps leaped on it and cleaned it as well.
No single human—other than Tribal Elder Allen Ginsberg—was as influential on this emerging culture than Ed Sanders. He led the satirical-protest-smut-folk-rock band The Fugs with East Village legend Tuli Kupferberg, ran the Peace Eye Bookstore (and community center) on 10th Street, published Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, made films like Mongolian Clusterfuck, wrote poetry, rabble roused for myriad peacenik causes and cannabis legalization. Sanders—one of the first public figures to live seamlessly within realms of Politics, Art, and Fun—was a first cousin to Che Guevara’s paradigmatic New Man—albeit thoroughly American and anti-authoritarian.
But the Life Actor who embodies the Revolutionary Prankster in 20th-century history books is Abbie Hoffman. And he is where our story begins…
Originally published in Arthur No. 1 (October 2002)…
One Texan Band, Under God Lift to Experience, the greatest art-rock band since Sigur Ros, talk about the Passion with Jay Babcock
Josh Pearson, the 28-year-old singer-guitarist-songwriter for the extraordinary Denton, Texas-based art-rock band Lift to Experience, works in a world positively drenched in Judeo-Christian allusion and metaphor. So of course he’s conducting a mid-tour interview on a cel phone from a Manhattan pub called The Slaughtered Lamb.
“Yeah, it’s perfect,” he says, with a chuckle. “It’s like, ‘Where do we go? Oh, there’s a spot.’”
Lift to Experience are in New York City on their first-ever extended tour of America. It’s a tour that’s been a long time coming, in support of a debut album—the audacious, double-CD concept record The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads—that itself was a long time in gestation. The songs that made it onto the album were originally composed in 1998, after Pearson had moved out to a ranch to work as a farmhand.
“It wasn’t a career move,” he says. “I just needed a place to be alone and not have to talk to anyone, to have enough time where the good ideas could become great ideas. I was alone and isolated and living in this little barn. It wasn’t glamorous, it was just mindless work: shoveling up the shit and taking the horses out to pasture and feeding them hay. It’s real therapeutic working with horses…”
Soon, the songs came. And with them, the concept for the album. No brief summary of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads can do it justice, Texas-style or otherwise. The album’s opening, spoken announcement is: “This is the story of three Texas boys busy minding their own business when the Angel of the Lord appeared unto them saying, ‘When the Winston Churchills start firin’ their Winston rifles into the sky form the Lone Star State, drinkin’ their Lone Star beer and smokin’ their Winston cigarettes, know the time is drawin’ nigh when the son shall be lifted on high.’”
Pearson says Texas-Jerusalem is “a concept album about the end of the world, where Texas is the Promised Land—the final battleground in the war between good and evil.” But it’s about more than that. The double-album’s lyrics are full to bustling with freight trains and incoming storms, strange prophets and fallen feathered angels, blood and fool‘s gold. Its protagonists are an ambitious Texas rock band desperate for a smash hit, ready, metaphorically at least, to deal their souls to the devil at Robert Johnson’s crossroads in exchange for material success. But Satan doesn’t show. Instead it’s the Angel of the Lord, announcing “just as was told/Justice will unfold.”
“Don‘t you boys know nothin’?” the angel asks the band, puzzled by the news of imminent holy conflict on Texas soil. “The USA is the center of JerUSAlem.”
Then, the music volcanoes. The rhythm is muscular, spacious, dynamic; the guitar is meditative, gossamer drone parted by noise mass and riff shapes; and the vocals are uniquely full and rich—triumphant yet resigned—sung in a beautiful voice of steady comfort. The lyrics—the metaphors, the literary and contemporary allusions—are relentless and poetic: the simple word ’star’ means, at once, the Lone Star state, the Jewish Star of David, the Christian Star of Bethlehem and, of course, Rock Star. A lot of work was put into this album, obviously. Taking it all in is a dizzying, overwhelming experience.
“It worked out real well with what I wanted to do with the metaphors,” says Pearson. “Texas being the place of last stands, from the Alamo. And Texas being an individual nation in its own, with freedoms that it celebrates that the other states don’t have—it can secede at any time, the only flag allowed to fly the same height as the American flag, that sort of thing, cuz it was a nation before it merged with the States.
“I started writing songs and they were all pointing to a place and then one night, I realized where it was headed. It made itself known. It’s one of those things where your body is just sorta following intuitively. I wouldn’t say you’re channeling it, but you’re trusting in your intuition that it’s headed in the right direction. Sometimes you never know why you’re headed that way, but it works out. All the pieces fall into place.”
* * *
Incredibly, Lift to Experience does the album one better in a live setting.
The first time I saw them was at 7:15 on a Saturday night in a small bar on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. A stained and horned bullskull sat at stage-center; a Texas flag draped over a bass amp. Behind and above them was the bar’s neon-lit sign that read (of course) “Salvation.” As the sun dipped into the smog horizon outside, Lift to Experience began playing to an audience of no more than 100, most of whom were unfamiliar with the band‘s music.
They began suddenly, with almost notice. And they began with a no-vocal, power trio cover of—I shit you not—“Kashmir.” It was intense, immediate, absolutely massive. There was Josh (The Bear) Browning—a bass throbber of burly frame, serious beardage and eyes-closed close concentration; there was Andy Young, a drummer with the build of the sturdiest steakhouse either side of the Rio Grande, leaning forward off the stool Keith Moon-like, switching between mallets, drumsticks and handclaps, his cymbals in perpetual perpendicularity; and there was Josh T. Pearson, a gangly lanky framed, scraggly-haired guitar-vocalist in biker Nudiewear and bracelets, his beaten cowboy hat ringed by thorns.
They seamed straight from “Kashmir” into an instrumental version of their own majestic “Just As Was Told,” without breaking. It was that rare kind of performance that dapples your skin with goosebumps. All the stuff on the album was there: the long builds and graceful a cappella interludes, the churning muscularity and psychedelic overload. We’re talking presence.
How a brush with death, a haunted guitar and filmmaker Harmony Korine helped Spiritualized’s Jason Spaceman wrestle a new album of narcotic gospel music into being.
Text: Jay Babcock Photography: Stacy Kranitz
Art direction: Yasmin Khan and Michael Worthington
Originally published in Arthur No. 30 (July 2008)
There are some humans who seem specially equipped to not just interact with consciousness-altering drugs, but to thrive from their persistent use. For two decades, English musician Jason Pierce, aka J. Spaceman, seemed to be one of these special specimens. His first band, the succinctly named Spacemen 3, was a triumph of drugs, sound and stubborness—”Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to,” “Fucked up inside,” and “For all the fucked up children of the world,” were bandied-about slogans/mottos; Playing With Fire and The Perfect Prescription were album titles; and a serious, incandescent reconciliation of drone, blues, rock n roll, junkie metaphor and primitive psychedelic sound effects was what they achieved. Formed in 1982 with Pete Kember aka Sonic Boom, with whom, astonishingly, Jason shared a birthdate and birthplace hospital, Spacemen 3 burned both ends brightly (if distantly—they never made it to America, and relatively few people saw them in England) before disintegrating in 1991 after a series of truly despicable actions by Kember.
As Spacemen 3 fell to earth, Pierce launched Spiritualized, releasing a series of studio albums in the ’90s combining an ever-broadening musical palate with an audiophile’s attention to detail and a continuing lyrical preoccupation with the idea of Need—need for companionship, for drugs, for hope, for relief from suffering. 1997’s woozy Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space, a breakup/lament album of epic musical scope incorporating gospel, noise and sublime bliss-outs, caught the public’s attention unlike any other album Pierce has made before or since, but it should be understood that ALL OF THEM ARE GREAT. Pierce has stuck to his themes, to his minimalist-maximalist vision, and each album—from the coldstar beauty of 1995’s Pure Phase to the orchestral grandeur of 2001’s Let It Come Down to the raw, stoic ache of 2003’s Amazing Grace—offers a variation on that single approach, or to use his metaphor, a single mainline. Live, Spiritualized tend toward the overwhelming; I’ve seen people black out, weep openly, mount each other in joy at shows through the years—if that isn’t evidence of being in the presence of transcendence, I don’t know what is.
When word leaked out in July 2005 that Pierce was in hospital nearing death, most of us assumed that the OD catastrophe (to quote an early Spacemen 3 song) had finally happened. The truth was in some ways scarier—Pierce was down to 110 pounds and taking half-second breaths, with his wife undergoing grief counseling in preparation for the seeming imminent departure—because he had contracted double pneumonia, and a doctor had somehow failed to detect it in an earlier visit.
Almost three years later, on the eve of the release of the new Spiritualized album (punningly titled Songs in A & E—“A & E” is British shorthand for the “Accidents & Emergency” department of a hospital), Arthur meets up with Jason in Williamsburg. Wearing white pants, a white Roky Erickson t-shirt and silver sneakers, Pierce is in good spirits, and with the sunglasses and hair, he seems ageless: it could be 1988, 1998 or 2008. It’s all the same, and yet things have changed. It’s not yet dusk, so Jason insists on Coca-Cola rather than something harder. As we head through the bar to the backyard pebble garden, we pass a large medical poster displaying two human lungs. I gasp. Jason laughs. He’s lived to play with fire another day.
Two endangered species, photographed by Stephanie Smith
A MAGICAL SKILL
Chris Goss, a godfather of desert rock, on the return of Masters of Reality
By Jay Babcock
Originally published November 11, 2010 in LAWeekly
Chris Goss, the 52-year-old leader of Masters of Reality, is near tears. A mountain of a baldheaded man, part Aleister Crowley, part Admiral Kurtz, Goss has been involved in some of the most vital rock ‘n’ roll music made in the last two and a half decades. Masters of Reality’s 1988 debut, a masterwork of concise songwriting and classic rock riffage, was produced by Rick Rubin; their second, the lovely Sunrise on the Sufferbus, featured an actual classic rocker, the formidable Cream drummer/crankyman Ginger Baker.
Around that time, Goss discovered a group of teenagers from the California Low Desert called Kyuss, who played a heavy, trippy mix of Black Sabbath and the Misfits. Goss produced Kyuss’ best work, inaugurating a relationship with guitarist Joshua Homme that would continue into the latter’s subsequent Desert Sessions and Queens of the Stone Age projects.
And while there would be other Masters of Reality albums, other production gigs of varying profile and quality — my favorite is Mark Lanegan’s Bubblegum — and an album-and-a-half as Goon Moon, a bizarro-rock collaboration with Marilyn Manson guitarist Twiggy Ramirez (and, on the first EP, underground free-rock drummer Zach Hill), generally speaking, Goss has slipped into legend: one of those musician’s musicians, a guy who knows the occult secrets of the creative process and can get a great drum sound, who somehow, in this devolved age, still feels it.
Which, I think, is why he’s near tears, as we sit on a patio outside his Joshua Tree home. Masters of Reality have a new album out — a beautiful, musically adventurous, warm affair with double-name Pine/Cross Dover — and are about to play a set of West Coast dates. It’s the first time in years that Goss has been able to line everything up: a great album, a happening band, U.S. gigs. But who is there to hear anymore?
“Hard time for art right now,” he says. “Socially, politically, economically — this is awful right now for everyone, this confusion. We’re in the new Dark Ages. It’s very hard and depressing, and you get angry because just so much attention is paid to so much shit. It’s a shit storm. But there’s no reason to stop making music. The market is down? Fuck the market. If you love what you’re doing, you gotta keep doing it.”
Even making record albums, when record stores are going out of business and everything is available for free on the Internet? Isn’t that tactile experience over?
“I love the album format. I’ll never lose that. Never. I don’t want to lose it. I mean, why can’t we keep experiencing it? It’s easy, it’s palatable. I’m so used to buying music in my hand and I can’t get over it. Packaging matters. The visual album-cover connection to the music matters. Remember the gatefolds with the storybooks in them and the pop-up photos and stuff? This kind of thing is a boutique, elitist origami item now, but when I was a kid it was a five-and-dime item. I remember how it felt when I had Jethro Tull’s Passion Play in my hands as a kid, from a poncy Shakespearean Renaissance Faire English hippie guy, knowing that, like, another million kids also were reading this storybook. There was this feeling that so many other people were experiencing what I was experiencing, at the same time. It was like combining that Harry Potter intrigue with the music for the kid of the time. That’s empowering. Those records connected us. …”
The music experience is more than what meets the ear — is it about actual physical contact?
“This is about warmth, and beauty,” Goss says. “Now vocal tuning is everywhere. What a horrid tone. The chipmunk-robot people are here! Great. Lovely. Did you see Shania Twain live at the CMAs this year, maybe last year, with a vocal tuner on her voice when she was singing live? “And! I! Love! YouuuuUUUU!” It puts that thing on the tone at the end, an artificial lengthening of when you land on the note. So the person’s natural phrasing is gone. Why? When Lennon was flat, it was wonderful. When Keith Richards is flat, it’s wonderful. Because it sounds like the guy is sitting right next to you. He hasn’t been chopped to spam before he gets to you.”
People don’t even know what they’re missing.
“I remember going to see Yes in the ’70s, back when people knew the lost art of properly mic-ing an acoustic guitar live. It has to have a low end, so that if you bump the guitar with an elbow, the PA goes boomf. You need that full spectrum of sound — you gotta feel the chest, and the belly, that part of the sound spectrum. Music should come through your chest, your eyes, your belly, that part of the sound spectrum. I think that’s my favorite part.
“There’s some great Israel Regardie Golden Dawn meditation tapes,” he says, describing one of Crowley’s disciples and his mystical society, “where he talks about getting into a state where your body is made out of spiderweb, like mesh. Continue reading →
Peppermint Twist: The White Stripes’ blues in the red zone
by Jay Babcock
Originally published December 28, 2000 in LAWeekly
“I don’t want to talk about that. It’s kind of a personal thing.”
Jack White of the White Stripes is on the phone from Detroit, and he’s not giving up the secret. I’ve got a lot of questions for him about the astonishing things I saw him do at Spaceland last week. Things like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” done straight-up, gritty and desperate. Slide runs on a weird semi-acoustic guitar during an “In My Time of Dying”-esque number that would make Jimmy Page swoon. Sweet, almost Kinks-y pop-tinged songs with titles like “You’re Pretty Good Looking” and “Apple Blossom.” A monumental cover of the country-blues standard “Death Letter” that was full of spit ’n’ bitterness. Vintage Cramps-like menace riffs slowed down to two-player bombastic blues, topped by gasp-worthy field hollers. This was honest, open-hearted music by someone with preternatural skills and an ambitious range — music that not once lapsed into strutting licksmanship or bonehead cave-stomp. Music as much evocation as invocation, a congeries of train whistles and assembly-line clangor, of the scent of buttercups and bacon grease.
It was a performance so good that I witnessed an act that’s usually beneath members of L.A.’s infamous bet-you-can’t-impress-me audiences: After the show, a dude stood at the foot of the deserted stage, thought for a few seconds, then furtively pocketed one of Jack’s spent guitar picks.
At Spaceland that night, something mighty powerful happened. The kind of thing that can get you thinking that deeper, potent forces are at play. I don’t know if this is the devil’s music, but I do know it’s something well beyond what a red guitar pick can reveal.
The White Stripes are Jack White, 25, on guitar, vocals and piano, and Pippi-tailed sister Meg, 26, on drums. They were born and raised in southwest Detroit in a Catholic family in a Catholic neighborhood. They are the youngest of 10 children. Jack is the seventh son.
Their latest album, De Stijl, was recorded on 8-track in the living room of the house Jack owns — he bought it from his parents when they moved out.
“It’s a wooden house, three floors,” says Jack. “I think it was built in 1911 — my whole life I grew up here. I was a drummer for a long time, from 11 on. About 15 or 16 I picked up the guitar — I used to play guitar with my friends after school. We’d record Bob Dylan songs on 4-tracks. When my parents moved out, they left a piano and I taught myself how to play it. I don’t really know what it is I’m doing. I’ve got this thumb-and-pinky technique and I just base things off of that. I know how I want it to sound.”
When did you start listening to blues music?
“Since I was 18. I’ve always loved blues, especially Son House. A few years ago, I didn’t have a lot of money to go out and buy records, so I only had, like, the major things — Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters. But some friends in Detroit started working at record stores where I could get discounts! So now I have a pretty nice collection. Blind Willie McTell I only got listening to last year. I fell in love with him immediately.”
The records a musician hears can change everything. Robert Johnson listened to phonographs by Leroy Carr and Lonnie Johnson. Son House listened to Charley Patton’s records, he once said, “before I ever started to play or think about trying to play.” House also learned from a Clarksdale musician named Lemon, who had in turn listened to [Dallas] Blind Lemon 78s. Dylan checked out records by “Bukka” White — who had learned from Patton’s records. It doesn’t sound like the White Stripes have been spending much time listening to the wheedle-ee beer-commercial boogie stuff that’s passed for mainstream blues in this country for the last 30 years.
“I’m not too big a fan of electric blues. I don’t like Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan and all those guys. I like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, that’s the only electrics that I think are any good. It’s a difficult line to walk, though, being white, and having had the influence of the Yardbirds and Cream and other bands in the ’60s that already did this kind of electric blues in a hard style. At least they knew they wanted to go where the dirt was, and go where that real feeling of soul was.”
White people have been doing blues in the last five years in “alternative” circles, but it always seems to be done with smarmy, ironic cool.
“An easier way for white people to be involved in the blues is to make it like it’s a parody of wild, bluesy antics. All this stuff with raunchiness and swearing and talking about naked girls and all that, I’m really turned off by that kind of stuff. Lyrics are real important to me. I wish music could be more like Cole Porter and different Broadway writers from back in the ’30s and ’40s — more melody and idea instead of just chords and lamenting about girls and cars or drugs. That’s really getting old.”
The album artwork for De Stijl — as well as for the White Stripes’ first album, in fact the band’s whole visual aesthetic — uses the red-white-black color scheme, which is the strongest color combination in alchemy and most of the West’s magical systems, as well as in voodoo.
“I’ve never heard about that one. I’ve heard of red, white and black being the most powerful combination. That peppermint candy, that’s where we got the band name from. I thought we’d call the album De Stijl because [the early 20th-century Dutch De Stijl art movement] broke the art form down to the simplest parts, and they had to abandon it because they couldn’t get it any simpler than it was. It was a question of how simple should the White Stripes be, what’s out of bounds for us, and what are we supposed to be doing with this band?”
The White Stripes do a lot of covers — Son House, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, Dylan, Joe Primrose’s “St. James Infirmary Blues” — and the new Sub Pop single is all choogle-n-yelp Captain Beefheart. Beefheart did the theme song (“Hard-Working Man”) for the Schrader brothers’ 1978 film Blue Collar, starring Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel as beat-down workers at one of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” — a Detroit auto plant. It’s a lost classic.
“I’ve heard the song from that movie, yeah. For the single we did ‘China Pig’ from Trout Mask Replica as an acoustic blues song, and on ‘Ashtray Heart’ and ‘Party of Special Things To Do’ we used different recording techniques, going straight into the board, with fuzz guitar and bass. That was the first time we’ve ever done that. When a song feels like it needs something, I just wanna have it there.
“We want to start working on our new album, I think it’s gonna be called White Blood Cells. We’d like it to be a double album, ’cause there’s enough material. I’m thinking about doing one disc at a real studio and one disc here at home. Just a bunch of country songs and a lot of piano songs that I’ve written.”
All of which are helpful answers. But the main question. It’s something like what people asked Robert Johnson when he came back from his trip to Arkansas, or what Pete Townshend wondered after he first saw Hendrix: How did Jack White get those sounds onstage?
“There’s a technique I have where I can put my pick in the palm of my hand and pluck with my free fingers. And I can pull it out whenever I want to switch it back to the pick to play loud again. It just came naturally, I dunno . . . ”
And what about those two guitars: the snazzy red-and-white electric one, and that acoustic guitar that looked like it was made out of paper?
“The red one is an Airline, a guitar that Montgomery Ward sold in the ’60s. And the other one is, yeah, it’s . . . um . . . Actually, I don’t want to talk about that. It’s kind of a personal thing.”
God is in the details, said architect Mies van der Rohe. And sometimes something else lurks there too.
Last summer Ben Chasny told me about his plans for the next record he would be making under his Six Organs of Admittance monniker. The upcoming album would be a turning point for him: it’d be the first Six Organs recordings done in a studio and his first album for his new label (Chicago indie perennial Drag City), sure, but he also wanted the record to be a creative step forward. “I told them I want to go in there and have some folky stuff, but I also want to attempt something more freaked-out and free,” he said.
School of the Flower, recorded during those August 2004 sessions with drummer Chris Corsano and released last month, is more freaked out and free than previous Six Organs albums. It’s a front-to-end lovely, beguiling work that alternates simple, emotionally reassuring campfire folk songs with expansive, occasionally ominous instrumental tracks: long, quickly fingerpicked acoustic guitar lines repeat and interlink into infinity, electric guitars toll and squall, drums skitter and bubble underneath. The record is like an owl—it sees and knows all, but is willing to communicate to others only some of what it knows. We are lucky—privileged, really–to hear its voice at all.
The following conversation was constructed from a long phone interview in early January and some follow-up elaboratory emails. Chasny and I had been in touch off and on for the previous year or so by email, mostly hipping each other to recent discoveries: books, records, films. To be honest, Chasny was doing most of the hipping, and I was struck by both his strong passion for other artists’ work and ideas, and the degree of erudition in his reading. His impulse may be towards hermithood and withdrawal, to living alone in the woods, but the reality of his life was more complex: he’s a part of a web of consciousness very much of his own making, one that stretches around the globe and involves many of the planet’s most idiosyncratic, hermetic artists. I soon realized that, just as Timothy Leary had instructed, Chasny had gone and found the others—the Japanese psych-folk group Ghost, the bizarre English goth-folk of Current 93’s David Tibet, the utterly indescribable Sun City Girls, and many more I’d never heard of. And then, in the past whirlwind year, he’d actually toured or recorded with many of them, while, at the same time, continuing to be a full-fledged member of Bay Area combo Comets On Fire, whose 2004 album Blue Cathedral was some kind of acid rock knockout masterpiece.
Here’s how it all happened, in Ben Chasny’s own voice.
Arthur: People often wonder if you’re a practicing Buddhist, because of your band’s name.
Ben Chasny: When I did the first record, I wrote “Six Organs of Admittance” on it because I had just read Road to Heaven by Bill Porter. He goes and explores a mountain range in China, encountering for Buddhist and Taoist hermits. One hermit was such a damn hermit that during the conversation with the author, he stopped and asked, Who’s this Chairman Mao you keep referring to? That’s amazing. And in that book I came across the “six organs” phrase—the five senses and the soul make up the six organs of admittance—and it struck me. I thought it’d look really good on the record cover. I put it out, without saying who was on the record or anything. Later, when I decided to put out more records, I figured I’d just take that name.
Talk a little about where you grew up.
I was born in L.A. My dad was sick of the city, so he moved us way up in the middle of nowhere with redwood trees and chickens and bunnies. It was me, my mom and my sister. I grew up in Elk River Valley, a little south of McKinleyville. My dad was always playing shit on the stereo, pretty good popular stuff from the ‘60s. A lot of good folk too, Nick Drake and stuff, and even some weird experimental records like Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. That was how I lived until I was 13 or 14. Then we moved into the city—well, Eureka’s not really a city, it’s just a little dirty town, or a dirty old town, to give it a Pogues description. After school, there was only ever one other kid around, and I had to hike over a hill and go find him to make tree forts. That’s probably why I’m interested in hermits, because I lived that way for a while. Hermits seem to appear in a lot of the literature that I read; when I come across them, it really sticks out in my head. Like Gaston Bachelard says: “The Hermit’s hut is a theme that needs no variation, for at the slightest mention of it, phenomenological reverberations obliterate all mediocre resonance.”
You talk a lot about writers, quoting them on CD sleeves and such. I know you dig the writing of Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.
Yeah. His ideas are not 100% original, but he makes such a beautiful synthesis out of anarchism, surrealism, chaos theory, Sufism and such. He has this essay about how in certain societies, musicians are the scum of the earth. They’re there to serve a purpose, to do music, to give that, sure, but they’re not elevated like stars. And when you think about it, in that situation, only somebody who really believes in the art itself–not about becoming cool or popular or making money–will actually want to make music. So he talks about the importance of art as art, not as buying, not as putting into museums—not that art can’t be sold, but that art in itself is very, very important, just on the basis of giving to somebody else as a gift. It’s not about selling your paintings for $300 at the coffeeshop: it’s for creating this subversive community – that is the way to start looking at this stuff, as subversion.
What did you study in college?
I didn’t go to college. I’m not really that well read or learned—certain books just really grab me, and I become obsessed with certain authors. I have a few people who I like to read who inform my world. And almost everything I listen to or read translates into music in some way, or a reason to not do music. When I play music, that’s just what comes out: it’s the shit of all the books that are the food.
So you’ve been playing acoustic guitar for a long time, since the mid-‘90s. Why not electric guitar? How did you get started down this acid-folk path?
The first three notes of the first Nick Drake record hit pretty heavy, and made me think I should really think about acoustic guitar and put down the electric bass guitar I’d been playing. That opened me up to Leo Kottke, and later, John Fahey. The music just meant more than getting up there and being silly. At the same time I started to get into Fushitusha and Rudolph Grey and KK Null: really noisy electric guitar bands.
Who’s Rudolph Grey?
Rudolph Grey developed action guitar, which is pure extreme playing. It’s not free jazz. I mean, he’s played with free jazz drummers before, and jazz musicians, but I think his music is more accurately described as action guitar. It stems from no-wave and free jazz. HE is the guy who blew my mind. I got this Rudolph Grey record called Mask of Light and I’m thinking I know stuff about music, I’ve heard experimental music, whatever, and I put that on and he just CLEANED the slate. Anything’s possible. It cleared my mind of everything. Then I could listen to folk music, NEW. Any kind of music. Suddenly, Keiji Haino made sense to me. And Leo Kottke as well. Rudolph Grey: no note is more important than any other note. It has a correlation with a lot of kinds of music, but it’s ACTION GUITAR. Now, Keiji Haino is one of my favorite musicans of all time. Pure sound. Pure emotion. Kan Mikami is an absolute hero of mine: he once said that the only true musician is the musician who has been forsaken by God.
Anyways, I didn’t really know how to put together the rock n roll aspect I liked with folk music. So I started listening to acid folk music, which melts the two together: Ghost were a really huge inspiration to me to start playing folk music, and there’s that one Amon Duul record that’s heavily acoustic. Through the Forced Exposure catalog, I found out that PSF [a Japanese record label] had these compilations called Tokyo Flashback, and on the third one, there’s a picture of the guy sitting in what I guessed were the PSF offices, and there’s records stacked to the ceiling, a total mess, with this box in the front that’s labelled “acid folk.” I remember thinking, I don’t know what’s in that box, and I don’t exactly know what it would sound like, but whatever it is, it’s probably really great. I want to make music that you could put in that box.
So I just made what I was looking for. I’m trying to shed it lately, though, trying to go for the folk thing, a more natural song thing. There’s too many traps in trying to do ‘acid folk.’
So it’s more about songwriting at this point?
Kind of. But I’m not even that good of a songwriter. I figure that I’m kind of good at a bunch of stuff. I’m not really that amazing at one thing. I’m kind of good. That’s enough for me. The first step in overcoming one’s mediocrity is to be aware of it. Hopefully at some point I can overcome it. Artists like Tomokawa Kazuki and Kan Mikami play folk music like it is a beautiful knife (and not coincidentally were part of their own political resistance!). I always return to those two when I am in doubt about music. They are fire and a thousand hurricanes and the beautiful mist and the blooming garden. Folk is not some trend for them, but then again, their brand of folk is more volatile than any rock band I can think of. That is something to aspire to: to find the dirt in a melody and a flower in the chaos. I think I am about a million miles away from that. But I hope I can get closer, everyday, to be that strong.
Judging from your facility with the acoustic guitar, I assume you practice a lot…
Not anymore. Ten years ago, when I started getting into acoustic guitar, I was really studying the guitar, learning things about it. I was only working two days a week. That went on for like three years. Then I realized if I studied any more, this is gonna be bullshit. I’m going to make music that’s not interesting to anybody but guitarists. That’s when I realized I better start working on actually communicating—writing songs and all that. At that time I was playing with this violinist who’d been playing since she was four. We’d duet, that’s where I learned a lot of finger picking techniques. (Finger picking is using your right hand to play the strings and usually using your thumb to play the bass strings in different patterns.) But after that, it wasn’t very interesting to me at all. There are other people out there who are really good guitarists and are doing really good things with guitar, pushing it out. But it just doesn’t interest me. I’d rather become good at playing rocks. I’d like to be a fucking virtuoso of stone playing; knowing the right stones that resonate, how big, where to play them, things like that. That’s much more interesting than guitar. I don’t respect the guitar the way guitarists do. You can ask Ethan. [laughs] Even my new acoustic that I just bought now has a big crack in it from me putting my fist into it.
You know, I was talking with Stephen O’Malley [guitarist in SUNNO))) and Khanate] a few months ago about how there was a time when the acoustic guitar was an instrument of resistance. I don’t mean in the naive ‘60s, when to most people resistance meant putting up a picture of a Hindu god, smoking some grass and singing about getting it together. That wasn’t the real musical resistance of the ‘60s (though the folks singing about getting it together really were resistant to a fucked war. I’m talking about a resistance of culture rather than a resistance of political stupidity and death). The resistance was in feedback and a wall of destruction from rock ‘n’ roll, the very simulacrum of resistance today. But sometime in the late ‘90s, for me anyway, the acoustic guitar was a part of the culture of resistance, even against a resistant culture. Tomokawa Kazuki, Kan Mikami, and Ghost were right up there as my heroes. At the time, everyone was making noise records and noise from Masonna, Solmania, Hijokaidan ruled the underground. A lot of them were great, like the aforementioned and Michael Morley and Rudolph Grey and A.N.P. But like any trend, there became more and more derivative versions of it all. And so even though I loved Bob Banister and the Noggin records, I didn’t want to join the pack, and I knew that my version would just be a derivative of a copy of a notion of wanting acceptance. To resist, I picked up the acoustic guitar. And that’s it! That’s the origin of it all. Now, years later, everything is flowing the other way. It makes me want to make that noise guitar record I always wanted to make, and I will.
And that’s what I love about John Fahey. He was a man of resistance, even against himself. I could give a fuck about his finger picking or melody. I love his writing more than his playing. If you can’t understand that his world was one of absolute hurt and resistance you will never understand any part of how beautiful his music was. He would burn it all, in his memory, again and again. That is a personal resistance.
You seem simultaneously attracted to these resistant individuals, who are almost like modern hermits, and also to the idea of a community, which necessarily involves others.
I’d like to have a place to live where I lived all by myself somewhere, but…I’ve realized I need friends. Hanging out, community, is really good. I don’t think I couldn’t live all by myself, I’d get pretty depressed. All we have is our friends, and giving, and making things as our hope. I may be making records for a few people to listen to, but you better know that there are things going on that are much more important. Like dinners and gatherings against all the bullshit of the world. Like a letter for one. If it doesn’t hold a trace of possibility, it is worthless. That is how I judge what is made, whether for the public or private. Because it is all worthless when it comes down to it. There is only inspiration—which is our analogue for the WANT TO LIVE in Eastern thinking—and there is Nothing, which we will all be faced with at some point. So hold on to your friends and laughter and family and hope. Nothing else exists.
You’ve told me before that you considered your records to be dark records but that you always tried to put a hint of light in there. The new record, though, doesn’t seem as dark to me, overall.
The new one isn’t dark in that way, and that’s why—I think—I was able to explore musical ideas on School of the Flower that I wasn’t able to explore before. Because before I was dealing with emotional ideas and emotions, trying to wrestle with this or that. When I did Dark Noontide, I was really inspired by Current 93. I was listening to Thunder Perfect Mind pretty religiously for a while. They’re always pegged as gothic, especially cuz [Current 93’s] David Tibet’s earlier life is influenced by Crowley, which he has totally renounced since then… Thunder Perfect Mind is the record where he started talking about more personal things. When I first heard it, I was really disappointed. His delivery was a little too dramatic for me at the time. I didn’t get into it for a full year. Then I went through a super bad space where I quit my job, because I really couldn’t communicate, I had this really bad bout of depression, and Thunder Perfect Mind was pretty much the only kind of music I could listen to for some reason…I kind of just suddenly got it. It was as if his vocals where a veil to keep the listener away, and once the veil was lifted, his vocals became AMAZING to me. To me, it’s not about magic or the gothic side or anything that a lot of people peg him as, but like, inside of all of that, inside of the darkest time, he’s always looking for some little fraction of light. So when I started listening to it I felt pretty close to that.
About the same time I started getting into Current 93, I made the pinnacle of the crazy, emotional records that I’ve done is Nightly Trembling. It’s called that because that’s what was happening. Originally it came out in an edition of 33, just on lathe cut. (It was recently reissued on Time-Lag Records. We only did 500 of them. Eventually it’ll be available.) The reasoning was… You know how when you have to take a piss really bad while driving a car, your consciousness focuses on one point, and you’re not aware of much else? It’s the same thing when you’re depressed: your consciousness focuses on one point and it becomes a feedback loop, and it’s really hard to get out of that. Which is really similar to what Bruce Kapferer talks about in Feast of the Sorcerer, which is about Sri Lankan Buddhist sorcery and anti-sorcery. When you’re under a sorcery attack, you get this feedback loop that you can’t get out of. So, they have these anti-sorcery rites that allow people to break out in certain ways. The ritual is called a Suniyama and it encompasses theater and music as well as the destruction and exhaustion of wealth, much like a potlatch. I thought that was what I needed to do. So I made this record. It was based on that book, and also on Marcel Mauss’ The Gift, which is about potlatches: you know how certain cultures in the South Pacific islands, instead of warring, they give gifts! That idea—the power of the gift—and Hakim Bey is always talking about that—this project was totally based on all that. I made 33 of these records and I handpainted all of them. I got this beautiful paper from China. Every one had handwritten liner notes. The same liner notes, but on a whole page. Wrote out all the liner notes, painted them, and then just gave every single one of them away to different points that I knew where people were: one in Australia, Germany, London, New Zealand. If I had had friends at the poles I would have sent them there! The idea was to set up this web of consciousness around the world in order to reverse my own consciousness loop. And that’s a kind of reverse—well, Anthony Braxton talks about creating webs of consciousness around the world. For good, not for your own personal bullshit like I was doing. He talks about doing particular concerts at particular places to create a web of consciousness. So I did sort of a reverse Anthony Braxton-style thing. But what happened was, it helped!
There’s a certain person that kind of triggered all of this. I wasn’t talking to them at the time—now we’re best friends—but years later, they told me that they’d figured out that at that exact same time that record was released, they’d actually suffered a pretty bad, pretty weird breakdown: they’d started suffering from all the same things I was suffering from—couldn’t go out of the house, couldn’t talk to anybody, bed-ridden, they had to go into therapy for a while. Maybe that’s coincidence, I don’t know. [laughs] It was pretty weird shit. I’m never gonna do that again. That’s one of the reasons I reissued it was to make those records a lot less powerful – reverse a lot of the power. That project was definitely the pinnacle of the depression.
But I’ve been feeling really good lately. Between that and going into a studio, I was able to do stuff that I’ve always wanted to do on the new album. Like that long song.
Still, some things stay the same for Six Organs, live: you always play solo acoustic guitar…
That’s going to change. The new record has more elecric guitar. Live, I want to loop the acoustic guitar and then pick up the electric guitar.
And you’ve always sat down.
That might change too! Cuz my girlfriend just got me a strap for my acoustic guitar…
Next thing you’ll have a harmonica set-up like Dylan…
The strap and the acoustic guitar is a tricky thing, because you could end up looking like Ani di Franco—or you could end up looking like Neil Young. It’s tricky. I usually prefer to sit so people can’t see me at all.
Live it seems like you’re on a tightrope… I can never tell what you’re going to do next.
I rarely go up with a setlist. I just don’t want it to get boring. I come up with setlists if I know there’s going to be a lot of people out there, and I want a safety net, you know? But I think things are gonna change a little bit. I want it to be interesting for me, too—I’ve always been looking at performance from an improvisor’s point of view. It could fail, but when it’s great, it’s amazing—you really break through something, you really feel something you wouldn’t’ve done if you knew exactly what was happening. Mark Twain, when he had to go out on the lecture circuit, he just hated it. He only did it to make money. He was still great, just because his natural stuff was good, but he wasn’t trying to improvise, to search inside of himself. The time for that was sitting at the table, writing something. I don’t know. I’m not the most emotionally stable person, so I can get really bummed out onstage. Somewhere down South I just broke down and had this attack. That was my most shameful show, ever. Sometimes weird things happen when I play. I stopped playing and I told the audience that what they’d heard was NOTHING, it was NO GOOD. Just preaching nihilism and death. It was just horrible. Sometimes things get ahold of me. This year I’ve realized that there are shadows. Sometimes the shadows are really intense, they can take up a lot of space. Sometimes I’m fighting shadows… Sometimes the room is filled with shadows. I can’t describe it, really. Once when I played in L.A., I don’t mean to be all hocus pocus, but really, I was playing and there was only a few people there and I swear to God there were weird shadow entities, non-friendly shadows there, and I started to get super-freaked out.
Are you able to meditate at all?
I don’t meditate — I drink. [laughs] But, by the time I was playing in San Francisco, on that tour last year with Ghost, I wasn’t agitated at all. Everything was so peaceful and quiet. I wasn’t stomping. Ghost have this internal peace within them. I would talk to Batoh after shows and he would ask me why I was so agitated on stage [laughs], he’d tell me that I should try and calm down. He taught me a lot about being peaceful onstage. Then of course a week after that I played with Sun City Girls and they just destroyed all of that. I’d see them just TAKE it. It was THEIR stage. You’re gonna have a good time, and if not, man, you’re gonna get fucked with. They taught me that it’s war on stage. Which I knew it was. [laughs] Once Ghost left the country, I felt like my parents had gone and I could party it up. But of course Sun City Girls have a kind of self-confidence that I’m lacking.
How’s it going playing with Comets On Fire? That allows you to do something different.
It’s hard to divide my time between Six Organs and Comets. If I had my way I’d just tour with both of them, non-stop. We’re all strong personalities, we don’t write a whole lot of music. We’d rather jam out bar band songs and drink beers.
You were working on a free-noise thing with Noel Harmonson thing the other day.
It’s fun to do that. It’s really important. It’s important to be aware of sound as music, rather than music as a nominal and deterministic exercise or science. For me anyway. All things must be possible, at all times. Otherwise, what magic could music even hold? If I want a bunch of laws and rules, I’ll go stand in line at the Oakland DMV! But…I think we should have some sort of disclaimer here to let the folks know that I don’t think anything I say has really much of an importance to anyone. It’s just bullshit. But at least I recognize that. During the day I like to listen to Sun Ra, drink coffee and read about chaos linguistics. And at night I get drunk, and start raging and getting pissed off. And listen to Tomokawa Kazuki or Townes Van Zandt. For the last couple of years, Townes Van Zandt, he’s just my buddy. He feels like my brother. I don’t have a brother, but… I mean, he got really depressed. You listen to his studio records—they’re super-happy! But he was dealing with a lot of stuff. On a music level I like him because, even today, I’ve listened to this one song for years, and just today I figured out these two lines and how fucking brilliant they were “mother was a golden girl, slit her throat just to get her pearls, cast myself into a world, before a bunch of swine” from “Dollar Bill Blues”—and they’d just passed me by because he speaks this language that isn’t flowery. He’s speaking everyday language but then a couple years later, you go, Holy fuck I get it, I can’t believe he put those two words together. He’s absolutely brilliant—anyone can listen to him and get more and more into him. Anytime I hear any music, I’m thinking about it in terms of, Oh that’s a good idea, that’s a bad idea, how does this relate to anything I do. Townes is the only person where I never, ever do that. He’s the only musician I just listen to.
STRANGE BREW Canadian-Swiss anthropologist JEREMY NARBY on what hallucinogens like LSD and the Amazonian drink ayahuasca have to teach us
Introduction by Erik Davis Q & A by Jay Babcock Illustration by Arik Roper
Originally published in Arthur No. 22/May 2006
INTRODUCTION by Erik Davis
The anthropologist and author Jeremy Narby hit the intellectual freak scene in 1998 when he published The Cosmic Serpent, an audacious, intriguing, and entertaining dose of righteous mind candy that grew out of his decades-long explorations—both personal and scholarly—of the ayahuasca-swilling tribes of the upper Amazon. A Canadian living in Switzerland—at least when he’s not researching in the jungle or working on indigenous rights—Narby is no bug-eyed hippie prophet of “the tea.” He is a grounded, sensible fellow with a dry wit, an unromantic but respectful view of shamanism, and an allergy to vaporous supernatural claims. (In Europe he also sometimes performs with the guys behind the Young Gods, a seminal Swiss industrial band that led the Wax Trax pack back in the day.) While Narby’s head has definitely been broken open, his book does not spend a lot of time on the “spiritual” import of the jungle brew. Instead, Narby focuses on one of the biggest claims made by the Amazonian shamans: that their ritual ingestion of the hallucinogenic brew not only brought them contact with the spirits of animals and healing forces, but actually gave them knowledge—actual data—about the workings of the jungle around them.
After all, some sort of weird data transfer is going on in the jungle (though its hard to say it reaches the increasing numbers of spiritual tourists who are now hustling down to the Amazon and transforming shamanic culture with first world dollars). The existence of ayahuasca itself may be one of the greatest mysteries. Ayahuasca is not one plant, but a relatively complex brew that requires a fair amount of preparation. How did the old ones know that, out of the 80,000 some species of plants in the jungle, only this vine, combined with that shrub, and then boiled down into black gook, can produce the mother of all trips (not to mention some grade-A karmic Drain-O)?
Narby takes the mystery one step further: could the shamans be right? Could the brew, which one informant calls “the television of the jungle,” facilitate the knowledge of the jungle? To approach this question, Narby attempts to “defocalize” his gaze so that he can perceive science and indigenous understandings at more or less the same time. This trippy conceptual exercise leads him to the central mindfuck of the book: that the serpents that commonly slip into the visual field during ayahuasca trips are a figurative expression of the ultimate source of ayahuasca’s visionary communiqués: the coils of DNA. Ayahuasca is not just a head trip – it is a communication with the “global network of DNA-based life.” Narby is no true believer, and he is somewhat startled by his own hypothesis, but that makes it all the more compelling, and the lengthy notes in the back of the book prove he is doing more than riffing.
After co-editing a powerful collection of first-hand reports of Western encounters with shamans, Narby came out with the book Intelligence in Nature. Rejecting the idea that plants and “lower” animals are mute mechanisms, Narby uncovers scientific evidence that impressive feats of cognition are going on outside the precious smartypants club of the higher primates. Narby looks at bees capable of abstract thought, and unicellular slime molds who are able to solve mazes. Perhaps inevitably, the book is not as wild a ride as The Cosmic Serpent, and Narby spends too much time describing his mundane journeys to research labs and too little time wrestling with how “intelligence” relates to choice, or awareness, or intention. Nonetheless, the book is a worthwhile example of Narby’s “defocalized” gaze – an undeniably scientific appreciation whose inspiration lies with the fundamental shamanic belief that other creatures, and even some plants, are, in their own world, “people” like us.
INTERVIEW Cby Jay Babcock over the telephone in late January, 2006
Arthur: You attended the conference on LSD held in Basel this past January to coincide with the 100th birthday of the father of LSD, Dr. Albert Hoffman. What happened there?
Jeremy Narby: What didn’t happen? I think one needs metaphors to get at it, really. When LSD hit in the ‘60s, it was like a drop of mercury that went in all kinds of directions, broke into a lot of different shards. Because LSD affects consciousness and consciousness affects everything, LSD had an impact in art, in music, in thinking, in the personal computer industry, in biology, and so on. In Basel all the different little pieces came back together and arranged themselves in a kind of mosaic that was psychedelic, multi-faceted and beautiful. All the chickens came home to roost after 40 years, looking good. One of my favorite moments was when Christian Ratsch came on the big stage with Guru Guru, which is the original Krautrock band. He was walking around with amber incense and stuff, providing incantations and shamanistic energy during the set, and these sprightly gentlemen, who must be about 55, just rocked the house down. It was fantastic.
Arthur: So, where does it go from here?
Jeremy Narby: One of the aims of the symposium was a kind of explicit political aim at getting psychedelic research back on the scientific map, and I think the point’s well taken. But you know, I’ve been working as an activist to get recognition for the knowledge systems of indigenous peoples and essentially despite a couple of decades of work and a lot of clear data (it seems to me), there’s really a fundamental resistance coming out of rationalism, coming out of Western cultures, coming out of the political systems. So I have the feeling of having led the horse to water but it didn’t want to drink. Sure, we can talk to the horse nicely and try and get it to drink the water some more, but finally I feel like more drastic tactics are needed. Like kicking the horse in the butt, or telling it to go and take a hike, or turning your back on it.
So I applaud these efforts to legalize psychedelic research, but… There are those among us who have wanted to use hallucinogens how indigenous people use them—in a serious way to understand the world. And we’ve been doing it, underground, for the last bunch of decades, and getting results that are richer and more interesting than what the Western rationalists are producing. So, I’d say that I’d rather take hallucinogens and then write stunning books than make speeches about hallucinogens.
Arthur: What was the response of Western rationalists to your hypothesis in The Comsic Serpent—that Amazonian shamans were actually receiving information at the molecular level via the ayahusaca trance?
Jeremy Narby: Scientists said that I hadn’t tested my hypothesis. Well, okay : I was just happy to have it considered testable! [chuckles] So how do we test it? Well, you try to falsify your hypothesis. You come up with a test to try to demonstrate that it’s wrong. That’s the scientific method. So, I thought, let’s send three Western molecular biologists with questions in their labwork down to the Amazon and put them into ayahuasca-induced trances. If they didn’t come up with any information then my hypothesis would start to look falsified. Now, it is a heavy thing to ask people who have never taken mindbending hallucinogens before to submit themselves to the experience in the name of science. These people are making their psyches available to you and then you distort them with these powerful hallucinogenic plants. In terms of ethics, this is even worse than experimenting on animals. It’s experimenting on humans. They were consulting subjects and all, but sheesh, this is serious business. I mean, the first thing that ayahuasca does, before it answers whatever questions you might put to it, is it tells you about yourself. It puts its finger on your weak spots, fast. It encourages you to clean up your act. This makes it a hard path to knowledge for somebody who’s into ‘being objective’ in the lab. As a scientist, you’re not supposed to pay attention to your subjectivity—you’re supposed to jettison it. But when you end up in an ayahuasca experience, it’s your little subjective self that is the hot point. Your subjective self comes to the forefront in your acquisition of knowledge. For a scientist, that’s a rough one.
Arthur: You were able to find volunteers, nonetheless. I gather they were colleagues… ?
It’s been almost 20 months since Arthur went on print hiatus, and I’m still without the necessary $$$ to bring the magazine back in print. At the same time, I’m not putting Arthur/me into bankruptcy, and am actively working to resolve my/Arthur’s outstanding debts. Which includes subscriptions. If you are owed issues of Arthur as a subscriber, please be in touch with me directly via jay at arthurmag dot com. I am settling balances with credit at the Arthur Store, or cash back, as quickly as I can. Thanks for your patience as I work through Arthur’s debts, which remain serious. (If you wish to help, tax-deductible donations may be made via Arthur’s fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas. Click here.)
I interviewed Bobby Seale (official site) in person in Oakland for Vibe Magazine, on a commission by Peter Relic, who was editing the front section of Vibe that year. I think the transcript runs to 12,000 words. The published Q & A was about 700 words. There’s lots of great stuff in here about Black Panther Party history and philosophy, Bobby’s times in prison, barbecue and so on, after we get done with talking about what he’s up to at the moment…—Jay Babcock
Bobby Seale: I’m out here [in Oakland] for David Hilliard. David Hilliard is running for City Council, 3rd district, to mount a real student involvement and people’s involvement-type of campaign for him to win that particular political office. It’s all about the continuing progressive Old Left-radical politics today. We want to get these students involved in this campaign to teach them techniques and methods of the old Black Panther party campaign, Old Left radical politics, progressive politics. To teach students that they gotta take over, that they have to be part and parcel of this kind of stuff, they gotta take seats over all over this country and this is gonna set an example for that. That they’re the ones who have to begin to understand the need to control, run these political institutionalized functions whether they’re city council, county seats, state legislative seats, etc., and make laws, legislation and policy that reflect the real true human liberation of the people, the empowerment of the people, whether you’re black, white, blue, red, green, yellow, polkadot, we don’t care. We’re progressive. In the 1960s we were an ALL power to ALL the people. We didn’t care what you were.
People think we were just a strict so-called xenophobic-type Black power organization. Not true. If people look and know our history…as an African-American group of young people who were part of a young intelligentsia of the 1960s, what we evolved were some of the most profound progressive politics that emerged out of the Black community: to set up coalitions, working face-to-face coalitions with all our white left radical friends, with all the young Hispanics, young Puerto Ricans with the Young Lords organization or the young Mexican-Americans Chicano brothers and sisters with the Brown Berets and the Cesar Chavez farm labor movement. We had a working coalition with that organization. AIM—American Indian Movement—we worked directly with. All the young Asians, young Chinese and Japanese worked with us, like the Red Guard out of Chinatown. Young Chinese students and young Japanese. In fact, of all those ethnic groups, it was always a few of each one of those ethnic groups that actually literally joined our Black Panther Party. I’m just saying that, that’s the kind of progressive, “All power to the People” politics that we put into the ’60s. We crossed racial lines even though we were able to be an African-American community organization that ran our own organization without any intellectual or offbeat, abstract, academic dictates. We REFUSED to allow for that, because our concept and our method was putting theory into practice. Learning as we did.
And we want to show the youth—when I speak today—we want to show the youth that if you participate, I want you to sign up for this campaign because it is not about just a political seat, it’s about another kind of movement, moving into this Y2K period…it’s not necessarily about the continuing, old politics as usual of the Democratic and especially the right-wing conservative Republican politics… There’s the Green Party, there’s the Constitutional Party, etc. so on. For instance David is running his total non-partisan, there’s no political party per se mentioned here in terms of being listed on the ballot. So. We’re saying there are multi-thousands of these seats. You talk about 50,000? or are you talking 500,000? …duly-elected seats in the United States of America, especially on the local level. And this campaign is not the last of this era, it will be another one evolving.
For instance in Winston, North Carolina, used to have a chapter of the Black Panther Party there. The Party was over, what, in the late ’70s and early ’80s? What in effect happened was the former Party members ran for political office. Larry Little, the former Deputy Chairman down there, won a councilmanic seat that represented that poor low-income African-American community there. And since then, for 26 years, it’s always been a former Black Panther connected to that seat. The people will not allow anybody else. If you weren’t in the former Black Panther Party organization in Winston/Salem, North Carolina—they call it , the old other conservative council members call that particular seat “the Panther seat.”
In other words you have to remember those young Black Panther Party people, young students and others, they put together a free ambulance program for the people. They put together a free health clinic with a free pharmacy program which all chapters and branches did. They put together free breakfasts for children programs that served those people in that community. So those people never forgot that. They remembered that. These are tangible programs. This was not rhetoric, this was not talk. So this is what I’m saying.
So we have various examples of former Party members still in political office like Bobby Rush, who was an alderman there in Chicago for 12 years and then became a Congressman. We have Michael McGee in Milwaukee, he is still a councilman up there representing a heavy electoral group of the African-American community.
What a lot of people forget is this is really the politics of the Black Panther party. Even though we had a lot of shootouts and a lot of battles with the police attacked us, when the politicians would send their law enforcement agencies in on us, even though J. Edgar Hoover and all these guys were out to smash us, try to terrorize us out of existence, they killed 29 of my people in this country, particularly in the year 1969. 14 policemen wound up getting killed in those attacks. They attacked our offices, they attacked our homes and we vowed to defend ourselves. Cuz in our sense, all we were doing was defending our Constitutional, democratic, civil, human rights: one, to organize the people, political electoral community power…
People used to say “you’re outside the System.” You can’t be outside of something that’s oppressing you. You have to get right into the middle of it, change its structure, change its direction, change the laws, change the policy to serve the empowerment really and truly of the people. And THAT’s the kind of politically revolutionaries we were in the 1960s.