Interview With an Old Stooge: Kristine McKenna talks with IGGY POP about everything (Arthur, 2003)

Originally published in Arthur No. 6 (Sept. 2003), with photography by Peter G. Whitfield, on the occasion of the Stooges’ reunion as a live force.

If you’ve never read Iggy Pop’s 1982 autobiography, I Need More, do yourself a favor and go out and buy it. It’s a totally inspiring book. Talk about triumph of the will! There he was, Jim Osterberg, a slightly built, asthmatic only child growing up in a shabby mobile home in a sleepy Midwestern town during the ‘50s. The chances of his metamorphosing into a rock avatar who would channel the id of an entire generation were not good. But Jim came in with an extra hit of the life force, and that’s exactly what he did.

Perhaps I should backtrack for a moment and recap the story so far. James Newell Osterberg was born on April 21, 1947, in Muskegon, Michigan. His father, Newell Sr., was an English teacher, and his family lived in a trailer park in Ypsilanti Michigan. When he was 15 he formed his first band, the Iguanas, which is how he wound up with the stage name Iggy. He was playing drums at the time, and after three years of practice and local gigs, the Iguanas recorded a single; the year was 1965, and the song was Mona, backed with I Don’t Know Why. A short time later he joined the Prime Movers Blues Band, an experience that prompted him to head for Chicago to serve some kind of apprenticeship with real blues guys. Eight months later he’d come to the conclusion he was barking up the wrong tree, so he returned to Ann Arbor and formed the Psychedelic Stooges with Ron and Scott Asheton. They played their first gig on Halloween in 1967. 

It was then that Iggy began redefining the parameters of rock’n’ roll with a show unlike anything that had been seen before. Synthesizing elements of shamanic ritual, blues, Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, psychedelia, and  performance art, Iggy invented a frightening and transformational form of musical theater that soared into the stratosphere. A crucial ingredient in his show was his extraordinary body — a perfectly constructed skeleton with an overlay of muscle in a wrapping of taut skin — which he deployed to maximum effect. He was also hilarious. All of Iggy’s work has been inflected with a bracing current of self-deprecating humor that makes him very easy to love. Describing himself in the early days of his career in I Need More, he says ‘got gotta’ understand that I was still like Topcat, the cartoon character. I was very lazy and happiest dozing in a garbage can.’ Who can’t relate to that?

The Stooges were extreme and definitely weren’t for everyone, but incredibly enough, they were signed to Elektra Records just a year after they debuted. The next five years were a tornado of wild gigs, drugs and escalating conflict, and at the end of 1973 Iggy quit the band. His downward spiral gathered momentum, and in 1975 he suffered a breakdown that resulted in several weeks of hospitalization. His longtime fan David Bowie helped him relocate to Berlin, got him back on his feet, and produced his first two solos albums, The Idiot, and Lust for Life.

It was shortly after that, in 1979, that I interviewed Iggy for the first time. We met in his tiny room at the now defunct Tropicana Motel, and to tell the truth, I was afraid of him — his reputation at that point was rather formidable. He surprised me, though. He came across as a somewhat reserved, well-spoken man who’d clearly thought long and hard about the world and his place in it. 

At the end of our meeting, he said ‘if I have any goal it’s to be an unchanging beacon in this world full of health foods and good vibes. I wish not to change.’ Twenty-four years later it seems safe to say he’s achieved that goal, and with his recent reunion with the Stooges he comes full circle. His new album, Skull Ring, includes four new songs written and recorded with his childhood pals from Michigan, along with six new songs by Iggy and his band of the past twelve years, the Trolls. Green Day, Peaches, and Sum 41 also turn up on the album, which was recorded in Miami where Iggy’s lived since 1999. (He moved there from New York following his divorce from his companion of 16 years, Suchi Asano Osterberg.) Miami seems to suit him; he seemed strong, focused and in excellent spirits when we spoke in late July. — Kristine McKenna

What is the source of your strength?

Whatever strength I have is probably the result of the fact that I made some good emotional investments at an early age. I went for a certain kind of music and maintained the naïve belief that I could do something wonderful in music, and that that would help me move towards what is wonderful in life. I looked like I was nuts at the time, and those beliefs caused me a lot of grief for a while, but it paid off for me big time. 

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THE SADDEST FILMMAKER IN THE WORLD: Guy Maddin, interviewed by Kristina McKenna (Arthur, 2004)

The Saddest Filmmaker in the World
Director Guy Maddin is highly resentful, terribly romantic and prone to melancholy. He also makes wondrous, utterly unique films. Kristine McKenna asks him how he does it.

Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (May 2004)

Guy Maddin was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1956. He’s of Icelandic descent, and his father was a prominent hockey coach who lost an eye as an infant when his mother pulled him to her breast and pierced his eye with the pin from an unfastened broach. Maddin’s mother ran Lil’s Beauty Shop, a salon she named after her beloved sister. As a child, Maddin received a piggy-back ride from Bing Crosby. When he was seven years old his teenage brother committed suicide; when he was 14, his father died. These losses can be seen resonating in the films he’s subsequently made.

After earning a degree in economics at the University of Winnipeg, Maddin became increasingly obsessed with film while working a series of crummy jobs that included house painting and bank telling. When he was 29 he played a character named Concerned Citizen Stan on the cable access television show, Survival!, and the following year he completed his first film, the 26-minute short, The Dead Father. A moving portrait of a young man whose dead father haunts him in daydreams and nightmares, the film contains all the seeds that would later blossom into Maddin’s mature style.

Maddin has described digital effects as “grotesque artifacts of the present” and his predominantly black-and-white films operate on one level as an homage to the silent cinema of the ‘20s. Artificially aged through the incorporation of jarring edits that suggest old, broken reels of film clumsily spliced back together, soundtracks riddled with cracks and pops, and the mannered, melodramatic performing style he coaxes from his actors, Maddin’s films seem to call out from a remote, murky past. At the same time, however, they’re clearly the work of a late-20th century man well acquainted with the astonishing trauma of that bedeviled century. Fraught with anxiety and dread that often erupts into black humor, his films invariably circle back to a thematic point you’ll never find in an old silent film: the inevitable loss of that which we hold most dear.

In 1988 Maddin teamed up with his longtime collaborator George Toles on the brilliant Tales From the Gimli Hospital, a wickedly funny study of male rivalry and romantic longing. Two years later he completed his second film, Archangel, after which he contracted an incurable neurological condition called myoclonus which causes him to feel as if he’s constantly being touched. He soldiered on, nonetheless, and in 1992 he completed Careful, the story of an alpine village whose residents must forever speak in hushed tones, lest they trigger an avalanche. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs was released in 1997, and four years later he directed the filmed ballet, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, which will be released on DVD in May by Zeitgeist Video.

Maddin’s sixth film, The Saddest Music in the World, is currently in theaters. Based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, it’s a Depression era melodrama set in Winnipeg, where a beer baroness (played by Isabella Rossellini) hosts a competition to determine which ethnicity produces the saddest music. Out this August will be Cowards Bend the Knee, a film installation Maddin premiered last year in Rotterdam that will be released as a single panel projection. Maddin has also completed 18 short films; they’re difficult to find and they’re all fantastic, so don’t miss them if they come to your town. I had the privilege of speaking to Maddin last month, and these are some of the things he said.

Arthur: What’s your earliest memory?
Guy Maddin: My mother showing me her naked breast and telling me that’s where milk came from. My mother is no naturist, so that’s a strong memory. I also remember being stuck to the floor of the beauty salon where I grew up because everything there was coated in layer upon layer of ancient hairspray. I’d play on the floor and crawl around the nyloned ankles of all the women sitting in a row under the hairdryers, and whenever someone spilled a tray of curlers I’d gather them up and build little castles out of them. I was pretty young to be glued to a beauty salon floor.

Do memories enhance or impede our ability to enjoy the present?
You couldn’t make anything of the present without memories, so they make our enjoyment of the present possible. We’re constantly building up our library of memories, but we’re constantly losing memories, too, because we haven’t revisited them enough and finally they fade away. It’s as if you’re building on a beach that’s constantly eroding, so memories don’t really provide much of a foundation.

To what degree do we unknowingly fictionalize our own past?
Most people have a small set of stories they tell repeatedly that take on the quality of tales told around a campfire by cavemen. Those stories do become more like cave paintings than an accurate recounting of something that happened, and they become more beautiful and useful as a result. I willfully fictionalize my own past as much as possible, but strangely enough, I find the more I attempt to mythologize my own past, the more raw and cathartically confessional I become. In Cowards Bend the Knee, the protagonist is a man named Guy Maddin who’s a triple-murderer, hairdressing, hockey player–none of which I’ve ever been. But in the way that fairy tales can be incredibly true, despite the fact that they involve talking wolves, the character feels like an authentic version of me.

Is it true that in directing The Saddest Music in the World you copied various descriptions of depression and synonyms for sadness onto index cards to create a deck of 52 cards, then had each actor draw a hand of cards every day and use the suggestions on them to shape their performance that day?
Yes. I’m willing to try anything because I’d be revealed as complete impostor if I tried directing my actors conventionally. So I had these beautiful little sentences from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and synonyms from Roget’s Thesaurus, and it was just a way of forcing the actors to channel their lines of dialogue and their gestures through the suggestions on the cards. It worked, too–I think it refreshed their approach every day.

What elements of Ishiguro’s original script remain in your adaptation?
I had a real free hand in adapting his screenplay. In his version there was a contest, as there is in mine, but his took place in London on the eve of Perestroika. I switched the place and time to Winnipeg on the eve of the dissolution of Prohibition. Ishiguro’s main concern, which he made sure I included in every draft of the script, was the heartbreaking irony of Third World countries who are already suffering under immense privation, but are still compelled to exaggerate their privations because the competition for world charity is so stiff. So you get this grotesque sight of a starving populace pretending to be even hungrier than they are so they can be the sexiest charity of the season. Ishiguro wrote his script in the early ‘80s when the Ethiopian drought sparked several all-star pop fundraisers, so his concerns were essentially political. I’ve never been a political filmmaker, though, and I wasn’t interested in making a political satire.

Is it possible to make a film free of politics?
If you succeed in being honest about your characters a political reading will always be possible, but I think you can have a story that’s more timelessly political and explores the way hegemonics invariably work out. Some countries have more power than others and it forces them into inevitable roles. That’s apparent in everything from Euripides to Archie Comics.

Archangel includes a scene where a shower of bunnies rains down on a group of people huddled in a barn. You’ve described the scene as being so delightful that it’s a portent of something bad, which suggests you feel that any high point of joy must inevitably be followed by a fall. Do you think that’s true?
Yeah, I guess it’s that feeling you get right after the first time you masturbate—everything is cute until you’re on the far side of the parabola. Those white, fluffy bunnies seemed to fit so niftily into a phrase like ‘the white fluffiness of forgetfulness.’ I wanted everything to look cozy because forgetfulness can be as comfy as getting tucked in beneath a giant, goose-down duvet. In Henry Green’s novel, Back, there’s a man who loses a leg after being shot by a sniper hiding in a rose bush. There’s not just a thorn in the rosebush, there’s a bullet too—it’s fun to combine things like that.

What’s the difference between nostalgia, melancholy and grief?
Nostalgia and melancholy are relatively benign, but grief is something I’m terrified of. There’ve been times in my life when grief was called for and I just didn’t have it—when my father, my brother, and my Aunt Lil died, for instance. Instead of grieving in one big payment, I think I grieve on the installment plan in my films and in my dreams, where I encounter all sorts of unfinished business. The bill collectors come around almost every night, and I engage in uninhibited grieving in my dreams, then I wake up refreshed.

What do you think happens after death?
I’m afraid it’s nothing. It’s funny, if you believed it was nothing it shouldn’t be frightening at all. But then, no one understands what “nothing” really is.

You’ve said, “I don’t need anything to happen to me anymore. I have plenty of sadness in reserve. I can lie down with a fine, vintage memory and sip it all night long.” This suggests that sadness is a source of comfort for you. Most people go to great lengths to avoid feeling sadness; how do you explain your ability to embrace it?
I avoid pain like a normal person, but I digest sad memories the way other people listen to CDs or watch movies. I don’t do it so much anymore, though, because I’m such a busy adult with this movie-making, and melancholy takes time. You need big, white expanses in your daybook to enjoy it properly, and I’ve been a bit too busy. My girlfriend, who I’ve been with for four years, has sort of trained me not to talk about it so much, too, but it’s always been a major pastime for George Toles and I. Don’t get me wrong—we’re not just sitting around reminiscing about funerals—but when we’re screenwriting we’re openly fabricating our past and transforming it into an exotic blend of melancholy and joy, much in the way people blend whiskey or tobacco. When a sad song strikes someone at a point of the compass that’s so completely personal and unique that they can’t even explain why it’s so deliciously sad, that song has been transformed into a fantastic commodity.

Name a song that always makes you cry.
This is really sick, but some songs actually make me cry tears of pride. It has to be a song that’s not too good, because a really good song is beyond envy. But if it seems so simple and clumsy that I almost could’ve done it myself, I find myself sliding into a temporary reverie that I was, in fact, the author of this work. That’s why I like basement bands, early rock, and any period of the Ramones. There are primitive films that affect me that way, too–Bunuel’s L’Age D’or, for instance, or Jean Vigo’s Zero For Conduct.’

What was the essence of Vigo’s genius?
Some people have taste and aspire to make things, but they don’t have the technical skill or the experience to do it, but Vigo’s voice coincided perfectly with his talent. He was a primitive and he knew exactly what to do with that primitivity. He was probably aware he only had enough command over his actors to get stylized, blocked out performances, but he knew how to use that style of performance. And he gave his gifted cameraman and editor the same careless, open, free-for-all he allowed his actors. Every aspect of his work is so consistently primitive and out of control that it takes on a quality of control. Jonathan Rosenbaum made the observation that when some lost scenes were restored to L’Atalante it didn’t make the movie any better or worse, and you do get the sense that you could remove or reorder the sequence of the scenes and it wouldn’t affect this great movie at all. I’m not great at talking things out with actors, so my approach has always been to use broad narrative strokes, then try to cover up with lots of baroque effects and film grain. So I’m always looking for people who work in analogous ways.

You once commented “sometimes it’s liberating to be self-destructive.” Could you elaborate?
I may’ve been referring to a foolish decision I made a few years ago to have my diaries [From the Atelier Tovar] published. I happened to have them with me on an occasion when I met a publisher, and it came up in conversation that I kept these diaries. He asked if I’d ever considered publishing them and I replied no, then he asked if he could take a look at them. I said “Sure, take them–you can publish them as far as I’m concerned.” I regretted that instantly because I knew as I handed them over that a lot of people would be mad at me—and they were. But it sort of cleared the air, and I found out who my friends were. I’m really not sure what’s in the diaries because I’ve actually never even read them. The sound of my own voice, even written on a page, bothers me, so I don’t like the sight of my own handwriting. I’m kind of phobic—I’m about two steps removed from late Howard Hughes right now.

You’ve also said “you do the darnest, broad stroke, crazy things when you’re in agony.” When was the last time you were in agony, and what crazy things did you do?
There’s nothing like mad love to force you into a surreal experience of your own life, and when I said that I was probably referring to the agony of unrequited love. The first time it happened to me I was about 20 and I didn’t know how to deal with it at all so I made a jackass of myself. One of my favorite scenes in L’ Age d’Or is when its star, Gaston Modot, responds to getting jilted. He wanders around in an apartment, he tears open a pair of pillows and puts a handful of feathers on a windowsill, he picks up a giant plow, then he throws a burning Christmas tree out the window. It’s pretty liberating being that irrational because you get to blast things to smithereens. The second time I got hit I was old enough to have some dignity, which I unfortunately didn’t have. I was once at a party where this girl I loved was ignoring me, so I responded by phoning up a taxi for each person at the party—and there were about 50 people at the party. I remember pointing at people and saying ‘this taxi is for you!’ I finally realized I was making a fool of myself and got into one of the taxis myself.

What’s the most destructive thing about romantic love?
There’s all sorts of damage done, but it doesn’t feel like damage at the time because it feels so good to surrender yourself to the other person. It feels like everything you’ve been waiting your whole life for, and you give up so much of yourself in those early days without any sort of negotiation. But you’ve actually just signed over huge parcels of land that you can never reclaim unless you want to start a war at a later date. And maybe it’s just an excuse to have a war, because they feel pretty good too. It’s no mystery why love can turn to hate because those two emotions are extremely close when the stakes are so high and two countries are sharing a border. I’m in love with romantic love, that’s for sure, but there’s always a price and you have to decide whether it’s worth it. I’ve considered the alternative, which is being without my girlfriend, and that’s not an idea I’m crazy about. It’s not that I’m afraid of being alone—I can be alone standing on my head for 14 years and I’ve done it in the past—but I’d miss her and always be thinking of her.

What’s your definition of a bad decision?
Something that looks ludicrously irrational from the outside. But the thing about wild gestures and ill-conceived battle plans that cause massive collateral damage is that when the smoke clears, the desired result is often still attained somehow. Maybe the desired result was all the collateral damage, or to make a huge, imperialistic claim for your romantic self. There are many lessons to be learned from nature, so we’re well advised to remember those marshland mating rituals, with giant animals making bizarre noises while opening themselves up to their natural enemy.

Jung says we’re all archetypes playing out ancient, eternal fables. Freud says we’re simply animals enslaved by biological drives. Which sounds more accurate to you?
I’ve never been a very good student of either of them, but I have groped out a murky, working theory for myself that embraces aspects of both those positions. I believe there are stories painted on the insides of our stony heads, there for reading and re-reading and palimpsesting ourselves. But I also can’t help but see us as selfish alimentary canals sort of bumping into one another.

How selfish? Are people incapable of truly putting the interests of someone else above our own?
Probably, but that’s too reductive. If you love other people and are even willing to sacrifice your life for them, yet that somehow satisfies some need in you, are you selfish? I suppose you could call that selfish, but you’d be doing a disservice to the extremely complicated and inscrutable transistor-sized wiring of what’s really going on in our heads. But human nature certainly feels selfish enough of the time without it having to be selfish 100% of the time.

Is evil contagious?
It can certainly spread like wildfire, and it probably has a very short incubation period. Unfortunately, its symptoms usually aren’t so apparent to the host organism, even when they’re fully infected.

Your collaborator George Toles has described the impulses that swim up from the unconscious as “deliciously unsavory, unsightly and extreme.” Is the unconscious basically a fetid swamp?
Yes. It’s a bog filled with sperm and eggshells and old teabags and discarded statuary. There are lyrical things down there too, and every now and then, through an act of will and imagination, you can make something beautiful from those raw materials. But mostly it’s a roiling, furious, unforgiving and stinking realm.

You’ve commented, “Most filmmakers don’t have the nerve to be really cruel to their characters, to give them what they deserve and what the audience secretly wants, even of they don’t know it.” Do people enjoy witnessing the suffering of others?
Yes. A lot of it is just glee that it’s not them, and a chance to vicariously wonder what it would be like if it was them. That’s why people slow down around car wrecks. When I was a teenager I had this Lord of the Flies fantasy and I used to wander around the beach naked throwing stones at birds. In time I developed a really strong throwing arm, and one day I actually hit a sea bird in the head. It was surrounded by its flock, and all these birds cried as this bird floated off. There was an off-shore breeze that day, and the birds cried for hours as this bird slowly floated away. I’ve never thrown a stone since.

You’ve said that when you saw Eraserhead you thought “Wow, this is my biography. How did someone read my mind and project it onto the screen?” What aspects of that film resonated with you?
The general state of delirium Henry Spencer films himself in. I’d been a father of an unplanned pregnancy—I assume David Lynch had as well—and I remember feeling plucked from a state of quasi-virginal youth and stuck into this domestic situation with me as the completely impotent paper mache patriarch of a family. The tenor of my life during that period coincided exactly with the tenor of Eraserhead, which evokes those middle-of-the-night trips to the washroom where you don’t quite have your balance and you’re staggering and you have to brace yourself against a wall and you’re scared you’re not even peeing into the toilet. Then all of a sudden one of life’s truths comes swinging out of the darkness at you and says, “You’re 20 and you’re married and you have a child and your father’s dead and you’ll never see him again.” During waking hours when the sun is high all sorts of misty veils pile up and envelop you in a sort of amnesia, and your troubles seem somehow abstract or fictionalized. But in the middle of the night there are moments when there’s an unavoidable, painful truth right at the center of everything, and that’s what Eraserhead felt like to me.

How did you go about surfacing from that very deep lake?
I wasn’t aware that I had to because I kind of embraced it in a way. Parenthood has tremendous rewards and I loved it, just as Henry does. Every now and then he gives a little admiring look down at the baby–although mostly, of course, he just stares into his radiator. When you have a child you love that child more than anything you will ever love, and my daughter is a wonderful person. She’s a designer and someday I’d love for her to design a picture with me.

The actor Ross McMillan has said “In every scene George Toles writes there’s someone doing something to someone else.” How would you describe Toles’ sensibility, and what makes him an appropriate co-writer for you?
George is always doing something to someone else, and he’s never happier than when he’s manipulating a situation to create conflict. He treats every room like a stage in which a short scene must be played out, and he’s perfectly willing to fabricate misinformation or involve wives and lovers to get things going. George treats human beings like piñatas, and once you understand that about him it can be fun to be part of his ongoing theater improv involving real human stakes. I thought we would’ve broken up long ago, but we’ve only had one little bump in the road, and we both mourned each other’s absence so much that we decided to repress what we found annoying in each other. It hurt too much to be alienated from each other

Toles has described your third film, Careful, as “a pro-incest movie” ; do you see it that way?
I don’t think it converted many people to incest, but we did try to work under the banner of making a pro-incest movie. It’s hard to control an ideology, even if you’re a skilled propagandist, which I am not, and I think it ended up being a pro-repression movie that offers a patent lesson in what awaits you if you let yourself slip and do what you want to do. Everyone in the film ends up getting punished for letting slip.

A central theme in your films is male rivalry which you describe as a situation that’s homosexual without the sexuality; what sort of territory does this theme open up for you?
I’m just trying to make sense of male rivalry. I know that when I’ve been intensely competitive with someone they become a point of principle for me, and I actually come to my rival’s defense if someone else attacks them. There’s a certain jailhouse logic operating there, and it’s not much of a stretch to find some kind of sexual analog in it.

You’ve described yourself as highly resentful and competitive; who are you competing with now?
Right now I’m competing against the clock. I had a very elderly uncle, my Uncle Ron, who’s been in most of my movies, and he recently passed away at the age of 95. He tricked the system because everything went right for him—he lived a great life and died painlessly. But somehow, his death finally brought it home to me that you die. I can’t count on living to 95, so while I still have my health I’d like to make one masterpiece. That’s my dream.

What are the qualities a work must have in order to be a masterpiece?
It must have the quality of something that was always there, but was waiting to be expressed, and now it has finally been said. It carries an element of surprise with it because it’s obviously so right that it’s startling its gone unexpressed for so long. It doesn’t have to be big–in fact, my favorite writer, Bruno Schultz, is considered a minor writer because he didn’t leave a huge body of work. His complete body of work is, nonetheless, a masterpiece.

Which of your films is most fully realized in your opinion?
With Archangel I thought I was on my way to saying everything there was to say about how we love, but I was kidding myself and I confused myself and my viewers a lot in its execution. I was pretty happy with [2000 short] The Heart of the World, but it’s not trying to do as much as some of my longer films. I’m really proud of The Saddest Music in the World because there are moments in the montage sequences where the music works the way music is supposed to–as a mnemonic device that drags up all sorts of cargo. And there are things I really like about my hugely autobiographical film, Cowards Bend the Knee, which is a very primitive, low-budget movie.

What historical period is most compelling to you?
Although it’s true that all my films seem to exist in the past, I’ve never been much of a historian because I hate doing research. Every once in a while some historical episode does engage me, though, and at the moment I’m trying to learn everything there is to know about the Borgias. I’m drawn to them because they were bad and charismatic, they had cool, sexy names, and there were no small gestures in that family. There was fratricide and incest and it was all true–not that that should matter at all, because nothing’s really true anyway. I’m always amazed when a film boasts “based on a true story!” Who cares? Whether it happened or not, it’s how a story is told that’s important.

You lost many of your ancestors to an 1876 Pox epidemic in a Canadian town called Gimli, and you now maintain a Winnipeg scrapbook of newspaper clippings that include stories of mad dogs dragging off children, hockey stick bludgeonings, and a father shooting his children during a fight over a snowmobile. This brings to mind Michael Lesy’s book, Wisconsin Death Trip, which in turn is evocative of the Bunuel film, Land Without Bread, the Brecht/Weill opera, ‘Mahagonney,’ and your second film, Archangel, which is set in a region of Russia that experienced a collective amnesia following World War I. All these works deal with places that seem to have fallen under a sort of dreadful bewitching; do you think there are places that are cursed?
Yes, and they’re there for anyone who chooses to see them. There are invisible cities piled up all over the place, and if you occupy those spaces with just the right focal length on your spectacles you’ll see the skyline in all its, horrific, lugubrious, glowering splendor. And all it takes is a population of humans to create one of these places. Artists have been trying to pinpoint our humanness for a long time, and we seem to be inexhaustibly cruel and compassionate by turns, but nobody’s ever figured out why.

One from the Desert Files: NOAH PURIFOY

Originally published in Arthur No. 11 (2004), with photography and art direction by W.T. Nelson…

NOAH’S ART
When artist Noah Purifoy died this past March, he left behind a remarkable desert masterwork.

by Kristine McKenna

Noah Purifoy was born in Snow Hill Alabama in 1917. By the time he died this past March in a fire at his home in Joshua Tree, California, he’d traveled many roads and re-invented himself several times.

For a Southern black man of Purifoy’s generation, being an artist wasn’t a readily available option, but Purifoy was a man of remarkable vision and patience. It wasn’t until he was 48 years old that he really got rolling as an artist, but by the time he died 38 years later he’d created a body of work of formidable power. Purifoy was a populist artist, a Surrealist, and a sculptor, and his masterpiece is a parcel of land in Joshua Tree which he landscaped with dozens of massive assemblages. Fashioned largely from scavenged materials, this dazzling environment was created without the help of assistants or interns; Purifoy was a lone wolf, and it was his joy to wake before sunrise and work in the early morning hours under an open sky, before the heat of the day settled in.

The tenth in a family of 13 children, Purifoy was the child of farmers who lived in Birmingham from 1920 until 1929, when they resettled in Cleveland. At the age of 22 Purifoy earned a teaching credential, but his teaching career was interrupted by World War II, which prompted him to enlist in the army in 1942. He was stationed in the South Pacific for three years, and after returning from the war, he earned a master’s degree in social work. He then landed a job at the Cuyahoga County Department of Social Services in Cleveland, where he worked from 1950 to 1952.

Purifoy passed through Los Angeles during the war and he’d always had a hankering to return, so in 1952 he relocated to Southern California. He spent the next two years doing social work at an L.A. county hospital, but the work didn’t suit him. In 1954 he enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute, where he earned a degree in 1956, and he spent the next eight years working in various capacities as an interior designer.

In 1964 Purifoy’s interest in civil rights led him to collaborate with musician Judson Powell and educator Sue Welch in the creation of the Watts Towers Art Center, a community outreach program in South-Central L.A. The next year he found himself in the eye of the hurricane of America’s racial conflict when the Watts riots erupted outside his door. It was at this point that Purifoy finally found his voice and sense of purpose as an artist; Purifoy scavenged three tons of material from the ashes of the Watts uprising and used them to create “66 Signs of Neon,” a massive group show of works created from the Watts’ debris that traveled to nine university galleries from 1966 through 1969.

The show was deemed an enormously successful marriage of art and social protest, but Purifoy found the politics of the art world distasteful, and in 1970 he turned his back on art altogether. Seventeen years later Purifoy’s longtime friend, artist Debbie Brewer, offered him permanent lodging on the land she owned in Joshua Tree, and it was then that Purifoy again felt the itch to make things.

I visited Purifoy at his place in Joshua Tree in August of 1995, and I remember my morning with him fondly. I arrived at sunup and we spent a few hours roaming the land, while Purifoy mused on the marvelous sculptures that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. By 10:30 it was time to get out of the sun and we retreated to the seriously air-conditioned mobile home where Purifoy lived. He prepared lunch, which is to say, he removed nearly everything from his refrigerator, set it all on a small card table, and offered it to his guest. He was a generous and gracious host. I assembled a sandwich, he poured himself a glass of wine, and we talked for a while. These are a few things he told me.

CHILDHOOD
As a child I wasn’t conscious of racism, but I was aware something was going on. Once, when I was five, my mother was taking me to the store and there was a parade in the street. People had hoods on, and when I asked my mother what was happening she said, “That’s the Ku Klux Klan.”

I had good parents who tried to protect me from the trauma they knew I’d encounter soon enough, and they encouraged me to go to school. So in 1939 I earned a teaching credential—not because I wanted to be a teacher, but because that was the only thing accessible to me then. I majored in history and social studies but never taught either—I ended up teaching shop at a school in Montgomery, Alabama.

FROM SOCIAL WORK INTO ART
In the early ‘50s all my friends were social workers and they were horrible people. They thought they owned the earth because they doled out a few dollars to poor people, so one day I just up and quit. Later that same day I was driving and I happened to pass Chouinard Art Institute, and I dropped in and told them I wanted to enroll. This wasn’t something I’d been thinking about – I went in totally on a whim, but they admitted me because I was colored.

I was the worst student in the whole school. I refused to draw, because I felt that I had something and that if I learned to draw I’d be dead because I’d end up making oil paintings, which wasn’t what I was after. I’ve never been satisfied with little things that hang on the wall and I wanted to find my own way in art. I wasn’t making art then but I was posing as an artist. I wore a beret and spent lots of time drinking wine, eating cheese, listening to music and talking to people, and didn’t take any of it too seriously. I was seriously concerned about civil rights though, and I had a dialogue going with some people who shared my feelings about change that had to come.

THE WATTS UPRISING
I was in the middle of it but I wasn’t afraid. I thought it was great because it was overdue and it turned out to be a goldmine for me. I collected three tons of debris from the riot and began making art out of it. I was searching for my own idea and had been studying the Dada movement and how it had reversed the whole concept of art, and the debris from the riot is what finally launched me on my own course. From 1965 to ’69 I made lots of work, and I sold it as fast as I could make it. I was also reading philosophy then and was knocked out by [Martin] Heidegger and [Edmund] Husserl. I was looking for methods of problem solving because I had lots of problems, and I was able to alter my behavior because of those two philosophers. They were great thinkers who went into areas most people dare not go.

DROPPING OUT
I dropped out of the art world because I was disappointed in art. I perceived art as a tool for change, and when I started the program in Watts I saw art as a potential savior. But the dropout population there increased rather than decreased, and the art I was making started to become formulaic and too easy. I was never interested in earning a lot of money. I wanted art to be a means of answering questions like ‘what is growth?’ ‘What is change?’ Life isn’t worth living unless the individual is pushing to understand more, and art stopped being useful to me in that pursuit.

THE WORK
A lot of the stuff I use to make artwork I buy from a recycling place near here and it’s a horrendous cost—I spend a lot of money on materials. In 1994 a local paper ran a story on me, so I also get lots of calls from people who say ‘I’m cleaning out my garage. Why don’t you bring a truck over and take what you want?’

There’s no ecological message behind my use of recycled materials—I use them because that’s what’s available to me. People occasionally comment on how hard it must it must be living out in the desert by myself, but this is a breeze compared to many things I’ve been through. The most difficult period of my life was when I was a young adult. I was raised in the church and as a teenager I found myself in conflict about sex and religion. I gave up religion—and leaving the church didn’t hurt me at all.

DEATH
Sometimes I wish I had a savior because I don’t know what happens after death, but I do know I don’t believe in heaven. I recently made a series of works called ‘Desert Tombstones,’ and while I was working on them I thought a lot about death. It’s been said that if you don’t accept death as an equal part of existence you’re in for trouble somewhere down the line. I’d never given much thought to any of this because I thought I’d live forever, but I’ve come to realize that’s not the case. That may have something to do with why I push myself so hard now to finally get the work out that’s always been in me.

Noah Purifoy: http://www.noahpurifoy.com/

GIFT IDEAS FROM ARTHUR MAGAZINE No. 2: "A Place to Begin: The Ferus Gallery" by Kristine McKenna

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ferusgallery

“In 1950s California, and especially in Los Angeles, there existed few venues for contemporary art. To a whole generation of California artists, this presented a freedom, since the absence of a context for their work meant that they could coin their own, and in uncommonly interesting ways. The careers of Ed Ruscha, Wallace Berman and Ed Kienholz all begin with this absence: Ruscha turned to books as a means of dissemination, Berman pioneered mail art through his magazine Semina and in March 1957, Ed Kienholz, in collaboration with curator Walter Hopps, co-founded one of California’s greatest historical galleries, Ferus. Within months of opening, Ferus, which is Latin for “wild,” gained notoriety when the Hollywood vice squad raided Berman’s first–and, in his lifetime, last–solo exhibition, following a complaint about “lewd material.” Shows by Kienholz and Jay DeFeo followed, but 1962 was Ferus’ annus mirabilis, with solo shows by Bruce Conner and Joseph Cornell, and the first solo shows of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol on the west coast. The following year, Ferus also hosted Ed Ruscha’s first solo exhibition. After Kienholz and Hopps parted ways—Hopps went on to mount the first American Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Musuem—the reins were handed to Irving Blum, who got Ferus out of the red and ran the gallery until its closure in 1966. A Place to Begin is an illustrated oral history of this heroic enterprise. With 62 new interviews with Ferus artists and more than 300 photographs (most previously unpublished), it retrieves a lost chapter of twentieth-century American art. Edited by [longtime Arthur contributor] Kristine McKenna, noted expert and co-editor of the critically acclaimed Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle.”

A MAN THAT MATTERED: Joe Strummer, remembered (and interviewed) by Kristine McKenna (Arthur, 2003)

A MAN THAT MATTERED
Joe Strummer was a spectacular, inspirational human being

Text: Kristine McKenna
Photography: Ann Summa
Design: W.T. Nelson

Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (cover dated March 2003), shortly after Joe’s untimely death on December 22, 2002.

When the Clash first burst on the scene in 1977 I dismissed them for the same reason I’ve always hated U2. Their music struck me as humorless, self-important political blather that wasn’t remotely sexy or fun. Definitely not for me. Nonetheless, being a dedicated punk I had to check them out when they made their Los Angeles debut at the Santa Monica Civic on February 9th, 1979, and what I saw that night changed my mind—just a little, though. As expected, Mick Jones came off as a typical rock fop who clearly spent far too much time thinking about neckerchiefs and trousers. Joe Strummer, however, was something else. With the exception of Jerry Lee Lewis, I’d never seen anyone that furiously alive on stage. Legs pumping, racing back and forth across the stage, singing with a frantic desperation that was simultaneously fascinating and puzzling, he was an incredibly electric presence.

At the press conference following the show that night, L.A.’s ranking punk scribe, Claude Bessy, jumped up and snarled, “This isn’t a press conference—this is a depressing conference!” (Jeez, tempers always ran so high during that first incarnation of the punk scene—who knows why the hell our panties were in such a twist!) I remember that Strummer looked genuinely hurt by the comment. Mind you, he was a working class Brit so he wasn’t about to start sniffling in his sleeve, but he didn’t cop an attitude either. I was touched by how unguarded and open he was—and I was certainly impressed by the mans vigor. I wasn’t surprised when I subsequently learned that Strummer ran three marathons without having trained at all. His preparation? “Drink ten pints of beer the night before the race and don’t run a single step for at least four weeks before the race.”

That first show at the Santa Monica Civic didn’t transform me into a Clash fan, but Strummer interested me, so when the band showed up in 1981 in Manhattan, where I was living at the time, I decided to see what he was up to. The Clash had booked a nin- show engagement at Bond’s, an old department store on Times Square in Manhattan, and this turned out to be not a good idea. The place wasn’t designed to handle the crowds the band drew, and the engagement turned into a nine-day stand-off between the band and the fire marshals. I attended three nights in a row and can’t recall them ever actually making it to the stage and performing. But then, that was business as usual during the glory days of punk, when gigs were forever being shut down, aborted, abruptly canceled. This was political theater, not just music, and nobody embodied that idea more dramatically than the Clash.

Cut to June 14 of the following year and I finally saw the Clash succeed in a completing a full set at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. By then, I’d finally begun to appreciate the breadth and fearlessly experimental nature of the Clash’s music, and Strummer was at the peak of his powers as a showman at that point. The huge hall was packed, and it was as if Strummer was a maestro conducting this undulating mass of sweaty people, with the mysterious power to raise or lower the pitch at will. Boots, beer bottles and articles of clothing flew through the air, people leapt on stage, leapt back into the arms of their friends, Strummer stood at the microphone stoking the fire, and somehow managed to keep the proceedings just a hair’s breadth short of total chaos for two hours. It was a commanding display from a man who clearly knew his job and knew his audience.

Following the break-up of the Clash in 1985, Strummer charged head-on into a busy schedule of disparate projects. He acted in several independent films and composed six film soundtracks, including one—for Alex Cox’s lousy 1988 film, Walker—that was remarkably beautiful. I wrote an admiring review of the score for Musician Magazine, and a few months after it was published Strummer was passing through L.A. and he invited me to lunch in appreciation for the supportive words. We were to meet at a Thai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, and though I was nervous on the way there, he put me at ease the minute we met. Strummer was such a genuine person that it was impossible to feel uncomfortable around him—I know it sounds corny, but he truly was a man of the people. He was funny and generous in his assessments of people, but he didn’t sugar coat things either–he had no trouble calling an asshole an asshole when it was called for. The thing that ultimately made Strummer such a spectacular human being, however, is so simple that it barely seems worth mentioning: he was interested in people. He wanted to hear your story and know what was going on in your neighborhood, he asked how you felt about things and was an empathetic listener—he paid attention! The other thing I immediately loved about him was that he was an enthusiast and a fan.

Just how big a fan he was became clear to me a few months later when he guest hosted a radio show I had at the time on KCRW. My show was at midnight on Saturday, and KCRW’s office is hard to find, so our plan was to meet behind the Foster’s Freeze at Pico and 14th at 11:00 P.M. He roared into the parking lot exactly on time in a car with four pals, and the lot of them tore into the record library at the station looking for the records on Strummer’s play list. His plan was play all the records that shaped his musical taste as a teenager in the order that he discovered them, and the show he put together was equal parts history lesson and autobiography. Included in the far-flung set were tracks by Sonny Boy Williamson, Lee Dorsey, Captain Beefheart, Bo Diddley, Hank Williams, and loads of fabulous, rare reggae and dub. His loving introduction to the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again” brought tears to my eyes. Several fans crashed the studio when they heard him on the air and realized he was in town, and he welcomed them all. It was a wonderful night. He had fun too, and as he thanked me and said goodnight, he kissed me on the cheek and I blushed.

Strummer spent the next ten years struggling to re-start his career post-Clash and stumbling repeatedly. “The only thing that got me through was sheer bloody-mindedness—I just won’t quit!,” he told me when I interviewed him in October of 2001. We were talking on the occasion of the release of his second album with his five man line-up, the Mescaleros, Global A Go-Go, which was rightfully hailed as the best work Strummer had done in years. He was happy with the record, and when I saw him perform at the Troubadour a few weeks after we spoke, he seemed happy in general.

Above: Joe Strummer leads an impromptu dancing-on-the-tables moment at a restaurant in New York City, sometime in the late ’90s. (Photo courtesy Chris from Hellcat/Epitaph.)


“I’ve enjoyed my life because I’ve had to deal with all kinds of things, from failure to success to failure again,” Strummer told a journalist from Penthouse Magazine in 2000. “I don’t think there’s any point in being famous if you lose that thing of being a human being.”

That’s something that was never a danger for Strummer. During that last interview (printed below), I asked him what the great achievement of punk rock had been, and he replied, “it gave a lot of people something to do.” I loved the complete lack of self-importance in that answer, however, this isn’t to suggest that Strummer ever broke faith with punk. “Punk rock isn’t something you grow out of,” he told Penthouse. “Punk rock is like the Mafia, and once you’re made, you’re made. Punk rock is an attitude, and the essence of the attitude is ‘give us some truth.’

“And, whatever happens next is going to be bland unless you and I nause everything up,” he added. “This is our mission, to nause everything up! Get in there and nause it out, upset the apple cart, destroy the best laid plans—we have to do this! Back on the street, I say. Turn everything off in the pad and get back on the street. As long as people are still here, rock’n’roll can be great again.”

Thank you Joe for bringing us the good news.

* * * * *

The following conversation with Strummer took place in October 2001, on the eve of his final U.S. tour during the winter of 2001-2002.

Arthur: You say the great achievement of punk rock was that ‘it gave a lot of people something to do.’ What was its great failure?

Joe Strummer: That we didn’t mobilize our forces when we had them and focus our energies in a way that could’ve brought about concrete social change—trying to get a repressive law repealed, for instance. We’re stuck in a kind of horrible holding pattern now, and it seems to me that the only way to change it is if we get hipsters to stay in one place long enough to get elected. The problem is that no hipster wants to get elected.

Arthur: I saw the Clash several times during their U.S. tours of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and I remember the sense that something profoundly important was at stake at those shows, that they were about something much larger than pop trends. What was at stake?

Joe Strummer: In the rush of youth you assume too much—and so it should be—but we felt that the whole machine was teetering on the brink of collapse. Some amazing things went down in Britain during the ‘70s—the government decided they could disempower the unions by having a three day week, for instance. Can you imagine that? Monday morning you wake up, and suddenly there’s only a three day week, from Monday to Wednesday. There were garbage strikes, train strikes, power strikes, the lights were going out—everything seemed on the brink, and looking through youthful, excitable eyes it seemed the very future of England was at stake. Obviously, that’s very far from the feeling these days, when everything’s pretty much smugly buttoned down.

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“Twice a day for the last 32 years”: DAVID LYNCH on meditation, by Kristine McKenna (Arthur, 2006)

Originally published in Arthur No. 20 (January 2006)…


The Whole Enchilada

David Lynch was 27 years old and depressed. Then he started meditating…

By Kristine McKenna

In person, David Lynch bears only the vaguest resemblance to the image most people have of him. He is, of course, an artist of extreme complexity, but he’s not a weirdo, and the people who work with him adore him because he’s respectful and appreciative of their contributions to his art.

Lynch has been working under the radar on his latest film, Inland Empire, for quite a while; it commenced principal photography two years ago in Lodz, Poland, and features Polish actors Karolina Gruszka and Krzysztof Majchrzak, along with Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Harry Dean Stanton and Justin Theroux. It will be his first digital film, but it won’t be his last as he loves the freedom digital affords. “Film is over for me,” declares Lynch, who’s thus far handled the financing of Inland Empire, which is being produced by his longtime partner, Mary Sweeney.

I’ve been interviewing Lynch semi-regularly for 25 years now, and each time I see him I’m struck by his ability to retain the best parts of his personality; he remains an enthusiastic, open and very funny man, and he never fails to tell me something useful and inspiring. I spoke with him this past summer, ahead of his fall speaking tour of universities to promote the work of the new David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace…

Arthur: You’ve said in the past that your daily meditation practice is what enables you to maintain such a high level of creativity. What was going on in your life at the point when you were able to commit yourself to meditation?

David Lynch: I was 27 and I was in the middle of the first year of Eraserhead and things were going great. I had this unbelievable place to work—the stables at AFI—I had all the equipment I needed, I had people helping me, I had money to do it, and it was like a dream come true, yet I wasn’t happy. That saying ‘happiness comes from within’ started making sense to me and meditation seemed like a good way to go within. I’d always thought yogis sitting cross-legged in the woods were wasting their time, but I suddenly understood that all the rest is a waste of time. Meditation is the vehicle that takes you to the place where you can experience the unified field and that’s the only experience that lights the full brain. It’s a holistic experience and it’s not a foreign place—it’s a field of pure bliss consciousness and it’s the whole enchilada. People think they’re fully awake when they wake up in the morning but there are degrees of wakefulness, and you begin waking up more and more when you meditate, until finally one day you’re fully awake, which is the state of enlightenment. This is the potential of every human being and if you visit that unified field twice a day, every day begins to feel like a Saturday morning with your favorite breakfast, it’s sunny, and you’ve got the whole weekend ahead with all your projects that you’re looking forward to doing.

There are many types of meditation; why did you pick transcendental meditation?

I lucked into it. My sister was doing it, then one day she mentioned it to me and I don’t know why—maybe it was the sound of her voice and the time that I heard it—but bang! I said I’ve gotta have that. Transcendental Meditation is the way of the householder in that it allows you to stay in the world. Some people like the recluse way and want to go into the cave, and there are mantras that will take you right out of activity and put you into that cave. But transcendental meditation is a way of integrating these two worlds and activity is part of it. It’s like dipping a white cloth into gold dye; you dip it and that’s meditation, then you hang it on the line in sunshine and that’s activity. The sun bleaches it until it’s white again, so you dip it and hang it again, and each time you do that a little more of the gold stays in the cloth. Then one day that gold is locked in. It isn’t going anywhere no matter how violent the activity, and at that point two opposites have been united at a deep level. In the west people think yeah, like I’m really gonna give up my dental practice and go to the cave, but you don’t have to quit dentistry. Meditate before you go to work and you’ll start liking the people that come in and you’ll start getting ideas about dentistry. Maybe you’ll invent something and get into the finer points of a cavity and honing that bad boy. Things get cooler.

If you were running the world, what’s the first thing you’d do?

I’d get people going on consciousness-based education. Stress levels in children are going way up and there are so many bad side effects to stress. Kids are on drugs, they’re overweight—they are not happy campers and being a kid should be a beautiful thing. Kids take to meditation like ducks to water. The so-called knowledge we try to cram down their throats is useless and that’s why there are things like cheating—it’s all a bunch of baloney. It’s a sick, twisted, stupid world now. It’s ridiculous.

What’s America’s problem?

It’s locked in an old, ignorant way of thinking. Things are pretty low right now but lots of people are working to enliven that field of unity in world consciousness. John Lennon described meditation as “melting the iceberg,” and when that heat starts coming up some people love it, but it can be too much for some people and they fly apart. So, it’s gotta come up gently—it has been coming up pretty gently, too, but the bunch running the show here in America are working overtime in a negative way.

How did you interpret 9/11?

You don’t get something for nothing and America’s been up to a lot of nasty business for a long time. But Maharishi [Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement] says instead of fighting darkness you should just turn on the light, so let’s turn on the light and start having fun.

What makes you angry?

There’s an increasing amount of censorship in America and that is not a good sign. It really makes you wonder what’s going on with this country.

Is man on the road to extinguishing himself?

No. Quantum physics has verified the existence of the unified field and Vedic science understands how it emerges—in fact, Vedic science is the science of the unified field. There’s a whole bunch of trouble in this world but the way to get out of it is there; just enliven that field of unity. It sounds like magic but it’s science—it’s the real thing and the resistance to it is based on fear. But it’s not something to be afraid of—it’s us.

Your beliefs are deeply optimistic, yet many people find darkness in your work; how do you explain that?

Films and paintings reflect the world and when the world changes the art will change. We live in a world of duality but beneath it is unity. We live in a world of boundaries but beneath it it’s unbounded. Einstein said you can’t solve a problem at the level of the problem—you gotta get underneath it, and you can’t get more underneath than the unified field. So get in there and water the root then enjoy the fruit. Water that root and the tree comes up to perfection. You don’t have to worry about a single leaf if you get nourishment at that fundamental level.

BEFORE AND AFTER SILENCE: BRIAN ENO interviewed by Kristine McKenna (Arthur, 2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 17 (July 2005), accompanied by INDOOR THUNDER: Landscaping the future with Brian Eno, a tribute to Eno by Alan Moore. Art direction by W. T. Nelson.


BEFORE AND AFTER SILENCE
On the eve of the release of his first album of vocals songs in decades, pioneering musician-artist-thinker BRIAN ENO speaks with Kristine McKenna in a conversation as wide-ranging and profound as his singular career.

I’ve met lots of charming people in my life and Brian Eno may well be the most charming person I’ve ever met. What’s the secret of his devastating charm? It comes down to a few things. He has impeccable manners. He gives you his full, undivided attention when he speaks with you. He’s interested in everything under the sun. He has a wonderful sense of humor. Finally, and most importantly, he has an incredibly light touch. What I mean by that is that he can discuss just about anything and be genuinely involved without getting hot and bothered. Eno so relishes the process of examining things from various angles that he can’t be bothered to take it personally if you don’t agree with him. He’s fun.

Born in Suffolk, England in 1948, Eno was in art school in the early‘70s when he became a founding member of pioneering glam band, Roxy Music. He left the group in 1973 and embarked on a solo career that quickly expanded in several directions at once. Regarded as the inventor of ambient music—atmospheric washes of sound that settle in like weather and eschew the linear structure central to most music—Eno helped pioneer the use of sampling and computers in the recording studio, has contributed to more than 150 albums as producer, composer or performer, and has overseen the making of critically acclaimed records by David Bowie, U2 and Talking Heads. A visiting professor at London’s Royal College of Art since 1995, Eno has created audiovisual art installations at sites around the world since the early ’80s, and in 1983 he was a co-founder, with Anthea Norman-Taylor, of Opal Records. Five years later the co-founders married and settled in London, where they’re raising two teenage daughters. (Eno also has a 30-year-old daughter, Hannah, from a previous marriage).

One thing Eno hasn’t done for quite a while is sing, so the release of Another Day on Earth—his first record of songs in more than two decades—is something of an occasion. This was the ostensible reason we recently hooked up to chat, but as is always the case with Eno, our conversation roamed far and wide. Herewith, a few of the high points.

Arthur: What seemed desperately important to you as a young man that no longer seems quite so pressing?

Brian Eno: I’ve somewhat lost faith in art and the cultural world because I think it has no faith in itself. Culture is the most important thing we do, but it seems to me that we don’t take it seriously, and the visual arts in particular are in very dire straits at the moment. I don’t think any of it makes much difference, although there are some painters working now that I like very much. Lari Pittman, for instance, makes beautiful paintings that absolutely blow me away.

If you could own any artwork, what would you want?

There’s a room at the Museum of Modern Art that has a beautiful Rothko, two de Koonings, and a huge Monet Water Lilies. I’d be happy to have that room.

What aspect of middle-age weren’t you prepared for?

That women would find me more attractive. I’ve never thought that highly of myself so this came as a bit of a surprise. Perhaps it’s just that as you get older women are more inclined to tell you how they feel. When people are young they tend to beat around the bush a lot of the time.

How many times have you been in love?

Maybe half a dozen times.

What do you know about romantic love today that you didn’t know ten years ago?

That women are much more romantic than they care to let on—the old clichés are much truer than people care to admit. I would add, however, that notions of romance seem to become more potent for men as they age, too, and it starts to seem like more of the reason that you’d want to do it. You get into the joy of the process more as you get older and care less about the cum shot.

Why does love die?

It often happens that you love someone because they reflect you particularly well, and you basically like the person because they like you. This is a rather slender basis for building a relationship but it’s a trick people use to intrigue you—they look very interested so you think gosh, what a clever person! They’re really interested in me!

How do you explain the aversion to aging that’s an intrinsic part of western culture? Is it simply a fear of death?

I don’t think it’s fear of death so much as fear of the loss of one’s powers. For instance, I notice it in my eyesight. I hate the fact that I can’t see as well as I used to, I’m aware that I’m not seeing the detail I used to see, and I miss that visual side of my life everyday. It’s interesting that as you get older your vision treats your contemporaries better. You look at people your own age and think O.K., she looks nice, then you put your glasses on and think, good lord, do I look like that?

What’s the greatest privilege of youth?

The fact that nobody wants anything from you, you’re free to do anything and you’ve got every avenue open to you. When you’re young you have this capacity to roam, which just disappears. When you’re older either you’re not successful, and many avenues have consequently closed to you, or you are successful and there’s a huge pressure to do more of what you’ve done before. I know so many musicians who’ve told me that when they were young words just flew out of them—sometimes they didn’t even know where they came from—because when nobody cares, you don’t have all these voices in your head saying “that’s immature, you’ve been there before, we’ve heard so-and-so do that.” Because there are no critical voices in your mind it just throws out stuff. I’ve lost that freedom as far as lyric writing goes.

Your new record has a very wistful quality; were you feeling that way when you made it?

Yes, it is something of a getting older record. The other thing I hope it conveys is the idea that each day will pass as all the others have, and it will be just as amazing and disappointing as all the others have been.

The feeling you just described has to do with the fleeting and ephemeral nature of existence, and yet the work you do with the Long Now Foundation is predicated on notions of permanence and longevity.

Yes, Long Now is about thinking long term and was conceived to pose the question; if you really believed there would be people on earth 10,000 years from now, how would that affect how you live today? Most of us live as if there isn’t going to be a future, and few of us are conscious of how heavily we tread on the earth and what we leave behind. These are hard questions to ask ourselves, of course, because essentially they ask you to unpick your life. We’re born into intensely constructed lives that involve high energy consumption, the eating of expensive food—all the things I do along with everybody else I know.

We all live in varying states of denial of the fact that there are a number of converging crisis bearing down on us right now. One of them is the increasing prevalence of really nasty diseases spread by air travel—I have a theory about air travel, by the way. I think we’ve reached the peak of air travel and that it will go into decline for three reasons. One is that it will become associated with the spread of diseases — people will be unwilling to expose themselves to just to go on holiday. People will either drive somewhere or they’ll stay home. Two, there will be a few more spectacular terrorist incidents, and we all remember the effect that had on air travel last time. Three, sooner or later governments are going to have to tackle the fact that air travel is the hugest producer of pollutants we have. There’s been a big debate going on in England about a wind farm they’re thinking of building in the north of the country, and the argument for it is that it would prevent 250,000 tons of pollutants going into the air per year. That sounds good until you realize that one plane doing a London to Miami route for a year releases half a million tons of pollutants into the atmosphere per year. I’d be quite happy if there was a credible world movement against travel because communities would begin to return and people would start to rediscover where they are now. And needless to say, the romance of travel is diminished dramatically by the fact that no matter where you go there will be a Gap store.

Who makes you feel starstruck?

No stars do—it’s funny but I’ve never been impressed by those kind of celebrities. The closest I’ve come to being star struck is by the biologist Richard Dawkins. I’m so impressed by the work he’s done that when I met him I found myself wondering what I could say that would possibly be of interest to him.

What do you long for?

Discipline and some kind of routine. There always seem to be so many things going on in my life and I’m never quite prepared for any of them. Take a simple thing like collecting cuttings out of the newspaper—you’d think that would be a pretty easy thing to organize. I’m always cutting things out, and there are little stacks of clippings all around my studio, but there’s never any time to create a filing system and actually file them. In my imagined life of discipline and routine there would be 20 minutes each morning to file clippings, then half an hour for a swim, which is something I actually do manage to do most days. I just wish there was more of that structure.

What’s your idea of an important achievement?

Years ago my assistant bought a chair for a thousand pounds at a fishing lake owned by 300 fishermen, and nearly every weekend he goes there and basically meditates with a fishing rod in his hand—that’s what people are really doing when they fish. This strikes me as a great thing to achieve, probably because it speaks to my hankering for simplicity and routine. I also admire people who say ‘fuck this’ to the lot they’ve been dealt in life and demand something more for themselves. I have a nephew who has Lowe’s Syndrome and he’s got very poor eyesight and several other little things wrong with him, but this kid is so full of life, partly because my sister—his mother—told him ‘don’t accept your lot.’ She could’ve taken the attitude, ‘oh he’s disabled, he can’t do much,’ but she just sort of threw him into life. So, to make maximum use of what you’ve got is an important achievement. Take Lou Reed as a guitar player. The early records by the Velvet Underground have some of the most inspiring guitar playing I’ve ever heard, but I don’t think anyone would say Lou Reed is a great guitar player. He just knows how to use the gift he has to maximum effect.

Which song is in your mind when you think of Reed’s playing with the Velvet Underground?

“What Goes On.” I almost included a cover of the Velvet Underground song “I’m Set Free” on this record. I did rather a good version of it, too, and I will release it, but I didn’t want to make a record that was too long because I hate long records and think people don’t listen to them. I remember working on Laurie Anderson’s album Bright Red and there was a song on there that was just gorgeous, but she made it track 13 and I’ve never met anyone who’s heard it. By the time people get to track 13 they’re off somewhere else.

What’s your favorite song today?

I can never give one answer to any question, so I have a few. I spent the day digging a fish pond so I was listening to my Ipod, and I’d programmed a song into it by a Turkish singer named Belkis Akkale who has the most erotic voice I’ve ever heard. It absolutely drives me mad and my hear leaps with joy when she sings. Funnily enough, there’s a song I did with Bowie on the record Outside called “We Prick You,” which is amazing. When I heard it today I thought to myself, how on earth did we get that? I rarely listen to my old records and I must say, I was impressed. I’ve also been listening to an inspiring song by Me’Shell N’dege’Ocello called “Loyalty” that’s on a beautiful album she made called Bitter.

What was the last thing you learned?

I’m reading a fabulous book at the moment called Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by a guy called James Scott. The first section of the book deals with city planning, the science of forestry, the invention of surnames, and weights and measures, and it made me realize that everything in society is built on fundamental infra-structural divisions. They’re so deeply embedded in the way we live that we’re often unaware that they’re at the core of many of the problems we wrestle with. That’s why the attempt to export free market capitalism to what was formerly the communist world hasn’t gone smoothly; there’s an intricate infrastructure of social agreements that must be in place for such things to work.

The first time I interviewed you was 25 years ago, and thinking back to that time it seems the world was a much safer and slower place. Is it simply a trick of the mind that we tend to recall the past as somehow simpler, or is the world actually picking up ever greater speed and complexity?

I don’t think it’s a trick of the mind. A few years ago the U.N. published a graph that charted various indicators of human well-being like security, equality, freedom, employment, access to clean water—all sorts of things. It was interesting to me that there is objective evidence for the incremental changes people feel, and the rather alarming conclusion they drew was that Western civilization peaked in 1976. I think it’s true that up until the early ‘80s people felt they were on an upward curve, at least in our culture. This isn’t true for every culture, but here in the West I think people believed things were getting better and globalization was a good idea. Today, most people seem to feel that the threats outnumber the promises and the dangers outnumber the freedoms.

So what are the long-term implications of this U.N. graph? That man’s on the road to extinguishing himself?

I think there’s a very good chance of that, actually, and having young children I find it absolutely alarming to contemplate what kind of world they’ll be living in when they’re my age. There have been various points in human history when people felt the end really was near, but the difference now is that we’re more powerful than we’ve ever been. Any one of us as individuals is almost as powerful as whole nations were in the past, in terms what we can handle, damage and effect. Of course, we can do good things too, but those things are less easy to achieve single-handedly. Good projects require co-operation, but you can create quite a lot of damage all by yourself.

An unfortunate shift in America’s political landscape is the fact that the will of the people no longer seems to mean much; our government does what it damn well pleases regardless of public response to their decisions.

I think that’s true. In the ‘60s people perhaps naively thought that democracy meant what it’s supposed to mean, but today, with Fox News and professional liars in politics, we’ve come to realize that democracy doesn’t mean anything really. As was evidenced in the recent U.K. elections, things aren’t quite so dire yet in England. Yes, Tony Blair was re-elected, but he won with a much reduced majority and a strong message from the people which was this: don’t fuck about with us. It became increasingly obvious to the British people that Blair had deceived them, and that the story of why we were going to war was untrue, and his re-election was essentially a vote of confidence for the Labor Party which has been a quite successful government in many ways—except for its alignment with Bush. England is basically a center-left country and I don’t think any members of the Labor Party approve of Bushism as a style. Bush is a very charismatic man, though, and I think Blair is a bit of a groupie. Obviously, Bush is an ignorant bully but he’s a confident man, and lots of people really go for that.

What’s the first thing you’d do if you were running the world?

I’m a patron of this thing called the Global Ideas Factory that was founded 15 years ago, and it’s an organization that collects ideas about how to make the world a better place. These ideas range from what to do with dog pooh to how to solve the global energy crisis, and some of these ideas are totally amazing. The first thing I’d do would be to set up an international body to examine the feasibility of some of these ideas. We simply waste the wisdom of our great thinkers—it’s amazing how little we use of human intelligence—and creating an internationally funded global ideas bank committed to actually doing something would be a way of putting a world changing culture in place.

To what degree do we inadvertently fictionalize our own past?

I’ve often thought that children should be taught how to watch television, read papers and listen to the radio, because most of our experience now is lived through media in one way or another. That’s particularly true in America where many people get most of their information about the world from television, which fictionalizes the past to a dramatic degree. That’s part of their raison d’etre, to tell us stories about the past.

Towards what end? How does it serve us to fictionalize the past?

It doesn’t serve us at all. Occasionally, for the sake of family coherence, you might tell a story that you know is a rather rosy version of events, but generally it’s imperative to maintain as accurate a grip on the past as one can manage. Very few people seem to appreciate the effort the Germans have made to not fictionalize their past, and it really pisses me off when that idiot Rumsfeld talks about old Europe as if to imply, “what do they know?” Germany has made a huge effort to face its past and come to terms with the fact that it acted absolutely abominably, and this is something America never has done and never will do. America will never ever say the Viet Nam War was a terrible mistake and what happened to the Vietnamese people was a disgrace, but young Germans talk about World War II with genuine passion and honesty.

There’s been quite an uproar about Downfall, the recent film about Hitler; many people have objected to the film on the grounds that it’s dangerous to humanize Hitler. Do you find any merit in those objections?

No, I think this is an important aspect of not fictionalizing the past. It’s a dangerous fiction to regard Hitler as a one-of-a-kind monster. I read an interesting book last year called Defying Hitler by a German historian named Sebastian Haffner, who was born in 1906 and grew up in Berlin where he watched the growth of the Nazi phenomenon. What becomes terrifyingly obvious in reading his book is how easy it is for a society to slip into barbarism. It starts very gently with all the intellectuals and clever people saying ‘bloody Hitler, what an idiot, he’s not going to last.’ All the things we’ve been saying about Bush, who was regarded as just a joke when he first appeared on the political scene. Things get worse and people start saying ‘shocking, disgraceful, we must get rid of this guy, but I’m busy right now writing a book—when it gets bad we’ll all pull together.’ But by the time it reaches that point it’s too late and there is no easy exit.

This is why I’ve started to get political in the last few years—I think we’re at the beginning of a new kind of technocratic tyranny. The manipulation of public opinion is so easy now; for evidence of that look no further than the fact that in a matter of months it was possible to convince most Americans that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the Twin Towers. It was just incredible. A key strategy in the manipulation of public opinion is to get the public excited about moral issues that don’t really matter like abortion and gay marriage. In England the issue is immigration, which is a minor problem but is something everyone feels they must have an opinion about. Governments love those issues because while everybody’s arguing about them, they’re left alone to pursue the business of world domination.

How did having children change you?

It certainly anchored me much more. I don’t like to be away from my children for too long because I hate the thought that I might miss some little part of their story. It also made me think about the future a lot more, and made me realize I had the capacity to feel absolutely unqualified love. One day a situation came up where there was some danger and I realized that without question I would’ve sacrificed my own life without even thinking about it. This came as a surprise to me because I’ve never considered myself a generous or altruistic person, and I don’t regard myself as brave in any way at all.

Do you believe in destiny?

No, but I believe that if you believe in destiny it will make a difference in what happens to you. Some people think ‘I am chosen and I’m a favored person,’ and that gives them a confidence that has the effect of making them chosen. The reverse happens as well. Some people consider themselves cursed and believe nothing will ever go right for them, and of course, nothing does.

What role does faith play in your life?

Last year I went to see Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak, and I was struck by the fact that on several occasions he made the observation, ‘you have no idea what goodness there is in people.’ This really impressed me, given that this was a guy who’d really seen some of the worst that people are capable of. He was talking about the Truth and Reconciliation Council and the great surprise of that endeavor was the incredible generosity of feeling people had, and their ability to forgive really awful things. So, I agree with Desmond Tutu’s comment, for the simple reason that I have faith in human intelligence.


Kristine McKenna is a Los Angeles-based writer. She recently co-curated Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & his Circle, a historical survey of West Coast Beat culture that opens in September at the Santa Monica Museum, accompanied by a catalogue published by D.A.P. She is presently co-producing a documentary film about the Ferus Gallery.