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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Here’s a scan of the cover of one of the last copies we have of Arthur No. 2, published ten years ago right about now…


It’s a pretty weird issue of the mag — to my eyes, it doesn’t quite hang together editorially, a fault completely my own — but whatever, it might of interest to some folks ten years on. Here’s a list of the contents:

Arthur No. 2 (December 2002)
Color/black and white, 48 pages, newsprint, 11.5 x 14, quarterfold

The West Coast premiere of the Velvet Underground and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, in 1966? Lenny Bruce and Anita O’Day waiting to score? James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, the Black Panther Party and other good-souled political activists doing what needed to be done? CHARLES BRITTIN was there, and these are his never-before-published photographs, as curated for Arthur’s readers by KRISTINE MCKENNA.

He plays guitar and he writes/sings songs like you’ve never heard. He’s also 21 and has got a certain elfish charm. Ladies and germs, DEVENDRA BANHART, as witnessed by scribe GABE SORIA and shutterbug SHAWN MORTENSEN.

Depressed? Hair falling out at age 23? Having sex with your cousin? “I know all about that stuff!” says Arthur’s new advice columnist, 78-year-old bluesperson T-MODEL FORD.

Language as incantation, the art of the cut-up, larval culture, neural re-wiring and what does it feel like to live in a post-authorship world: all in a Sunday afternoon’s teatime with visionary artist-provocateur-human GENESIS P-ORRIDGE and hotshit media theorist DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF. Photos by SHAWN MORTENSEN.

In an exclusive excerpt from his new autobiography, legendary Brazilian musician CAETANO VELOSO takes us to the political, cultural and hallucinogenic frontlines of authoritarian Brazil, 1968. It’s all here: tanks, ayahuasca, street protests, witchcraft cults, and of course, Veloso’s fellow Tropicalistas, the musicians Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Os Mutantes.

Self-described desk-bound journalist SUE CARPENTER finds out firsthand and feet-first how women are transforming the 21st-century circus. With photographs by LAUREN KLAIN.

Plus: Comics by Kevin Huizenga, Jordan Crane, Anders Nilsen and James Kochalka, and a drawing by Sammy Harkham.

Britwit-novelist STEVE AYLETT revisits the legend of pulp fictionist/”rogue maniac” Jeff Lint, author of One Less Bastard and creator of The Caterer

“Bull Tongue” columnists Byron Coley & Thurston Moore sort the pepper from the bugpoop in underground recordings, performance, poetry and text.

Peter “Piper” Relic remembers JAM MASTER JAY.

Some thoughts on the issue for those keeping score at home — hopefully completely accurate, but it’s ten years, and there’s probably been some memory loss, so be gentle with me if I screw something up here.

This was our second issue. The first issue had done alright. We’d printed 70,000 copies. The printer had folded them the wrong way, which while embarrassing, wasn’t catastrophic, since we’d put the logo at the top of the reverse side (don’t ask). Anyways, less than one week before we went to press with this issue, our old printer told us that our agreement with them would not be honored. They told us they wanted to get out of the quarterfold newsprint business. My partner, publisher Laris Kreslins, scrambled and found a new printer in time for us to not miss our deadline for No. 2. We abandoned the double-cover concept we’d used for Arthur No. 1, which was borrowed from the original format of Rolling Stone, and made it to press.

But finding a new printer at the last moment was only the last of many hurdles in getting this issue out. Ad sales were somewhat lower than the first issue, which, although predictable — second issues are often a harder sell than the big premiere issue, where you can count on a bit of goodwill — was somewhat dispiriting. It made us wonder if we were deluding ourselves that this Arthur thing really had a chance of working, given that it was going in the wrong direction so quickly.

On the editorial end, which I was in charge of, we’d had a major problem, beyond being completely budgetless: the Eddie Dean-penned cover feature on the photography of country music enthusiast Leon Kagarise for this issue, which had been prepared months in advance, had to be pulled near the last moment because… Well, just because. That cover feature didn’t end up running ’til Arthur No. 32, the issue that was to go to press in December 2008, but never made it due to the severe economic contraction that fall…which was the final blow to Arthur in its first incarnation. (You can read Arthur No. 32 by downloading it as a two-part PDF. Click here for info.) Something about that piece did not want to see print in Arthur.

With the Eddie Dean feature delayed to who knows when, we had nothing in hand that seemed—to me, at least—like a cover feature for the issue in front of us. In hindsight, I can see that the Douglas Rushkoff-Genesis P-Orridge conversation was cover-worthy…although we didn’t really have the right kind of photos on hand to make that a cover… And I really liked the interview and photos we’d got with this kid Devendra Banhart — it was apparently the first or second interview he’d ever done in his life—but we couldn’t make him the big cover feature, he was just starting out… So…

Enter the great veteran journalist Kristine McKenna, whose work I’d been reading since I was 14 or 15. For a golden period in the ’80s, Kristine was writing regularly for the Los Angeles Times, covering all the interesting musicians, fine artists, cartoonists, performers and art-thinkers who were there to be interviewed at the time. I devoured anything with her byline; she got the best conversations out of the most provocative people (seriously: see the two collections of her interviews published by Fantagraphics—the list of interviewees is just absurd), and her reviews of records and live performances both exposed me to work I wasn’t aware of and showed me why it was of import or at least worthy of interest. I didn’t see her byline much in the ’90s, and although I’d started writing for the LAWeekly and getting around just a bit in LA cultural circles, our paths never crossed. I wasn’t even sure she was still in L.A.

So. It wasn’t until 2000, when I was working on a feature for Mojo on Black Flag’s pre-Henry Rollins era, that I came in contact with Kristine. I am not sure who gave me her phone number, although I think it may have been Brendan Mullen (RIP). I was looking to talk to an L.A.-based music journalist who wasn’t overly involved in the hardcore scene who could offer some perspective on how Black Flag were regarded in their early days from outside. Kristine seemed like she would fit the bill. I called her, we met, she was extremely generous with her time and ideas, and we became fellow freelancer/comrades, with me of course very much in the extreme junior position. We stayed in touch. In late 2002, when I told her I’d lost the cover for Arthur’s second issue, she had an idea.

Why not cover Charles Brittin, she asked?

Charles (who has since died) was a semi-professional L.A. photographer who had spent much of his life photographing extraordinary scenes that he was involved in, the most exciting being L.A’s avant garde scene of the mid-to-late ’50s (principally around Wallace Berman and his circle) and the social activist period of the ’60s. He had tons of unpublished photos that were just incredible: Lenny Bruce in his prime, the Velvet Underground & Nico onstage in Hollywood, the Black Panthers in action, Marlon Brando at a street protest, CORE members picketing next to white supremacists… and then, Anita O’Day, and Rachel Rosenthal… Art director WT Nelson went nuts when he started seeing what Kristine had found, and with good reason.

For me, the clincher was a wide-angle photo that Charles had taken of an endless sea of marchers, many of them G.I.’s, protesting the Vietnam War on April 4, 1969, right here in Los Angeles, on Wilshire Boulevard near Virgil. Please keep in mind that his was late 2002: America was preparing to invade Iraq. Anti-war sentiment barely existed outside of the usual peacelover/refusenik circles. We decided to run this photograph as a double-page spread, as a centerfold — a de facto poster, available to anyone who wanted it, since Arthur was distributed free of charge. Maybe it would play a small part in helping inspire and encourage people to stand up to these war creeps.

It wasn’t much, we knew, but it was what was available to us. So, we went for it. That was our centerfold, and what the heck, Charles Brittin was our cover.

Thank you, Kristine McKenna!

For those interested in learning more about Charles Brittin and his work, check out Charles Brittin: West and South, a hardcover monograph edited by Kristine and others that was published on the occasion of a 2011 retrospective at the Michael Kohn Gallery.

This issue of Arthur Magazine is available from the Arthur Store for $5 while supplies last. Click here for info.

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.

2010 Arthur Magazine Gift-Giving Guide, approximately

Here’s a short list of recent gift-worthy work by folks who have either contributed to Arthur through the years, or been covered in the magazine. Promotional text for each item is in quotes, with order links at the end of each item’s entry, as close to the source as we could find. This list is not meant to be definitive—just some stuff that’s caught our attention recently that we thought Arthur folk might dig…

THE BEAUTIFUL & THE DAMNED: Punk Photographs by Ann Summa
Edited with an introduction by Kristine McKenna
Foreword by Exene Cervenka
Foggy Notion Books/Smart Art Press
Hbk, 9.25 x 12.25 in. / 112 pgs
“When photographer Ann Summa arrived in Los Angeles in 1978, the city’s punk scene was still fresh, diverse, smart, utterly original—and fertile territory for a young photographer. The Beautiful & the Damned is a collection of her portraits of the musicians, artists and fans who made Los Angeles such a crucial part of the history of punk. Taken between 1978 and 1984, the images mostly revolve around L.A.’s first punk generation, and include portraits of the Germs, the Screamers, X, the Cramps and the Gun Club, among many others. From there, the book expands its scope to accommodate the cross-pollination that took place between L.A.’s punk scene and the fine art community, (at the time, the audience for avant-garde artists such as the Kipper Kids, Johanna Went and Laurie Anderson was primarily drawn from the underground music scene), and the two other cities—London and New York—that played a central role in the birthing of punk. Photographed during their first U.S. tours are U.K. groups the Clash, Magazine, the Fall, the Slits, Bow Wow Wow and the Pretenders, among others. Visiting dignitaries from New York include Television, James Chance, Lydia Lunch and Talking Heads. Also included are portraits of artists who served as an inspiration to L.A. punks—Captain Beefheart, Iggy Pop and David Bowie, among others—plus candid shots of unidentified audience members. Includes 95 previously unpublished images.”

From the introduction…
“Everyone knows that punk rock is rude. What’s less known is that during its first incarnation in Los Angeles, during the late 70s, it was ecstatically beautiful. At that point mainstream culture hadn’t yet detected the scent of money on this newly-born music, and punk hadn’t yet been hijacked by adolescent boys bent on transforming themselves into human cannonballs. Punk was an intimate affair then. Nobody was watching or judging that original band of outsiders, because there was no money to be made, and nothing much to be won or lost at all. There was no reason for those people not to cast off the rules that had governed their world up until that point. And so they cast off the old rules, and made themselves a new world that was entirely their own. And, for a brief, glorious period they operated in a zone of complete freedom.
“The taste of freedom can be startling — you can see that in the faces of many of the people who appear in these pictures. They were surprised to find their tribe — surprised to discover they actually had a tribe. Surprised to learn they could be themselves and be embraced for it. Surprised to find they could create beauty, and live without the comforts of the middle-class homes they came from. What made all of this possible was the simple fact of community. Most L.A. punks of the late 70s were poor, many were high a lot of the time, and everyone was a little crazy. Nonetheless, they supported and shared with one another, and they saw the brilliance in each other.”

HOW TO WRECK A NICE BEACH: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop—The Machine Speaks
by Dave Tompkins

Stop Smiling Books
Color, 336 pages
“The history of the vocoder: how the Pentagon’s speech scrambling weapon transformed into the robot voice of pop music. How to Wreck a Nice Beach includes interviews with:
Afrika Bambaataa, Ray Bradbury, Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk, Peter Frampton, Laurie Anderson, T-Pain, Teddy Riley, DJ Quik, ELO, Rammellzee, Arthur Baker, Michael Jonzun, Midnight Star, Lester Troutman of Zapp, Holger Czukay of Can, Donnie Wahlberg, Egyptian Lover, Fab Five Freddy, Forrest J. Ackerman, Man Parrish, Cybotron and Wendy Carlos, composer of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.
$25.00 ($10 off the cover price)

by Dame Darcy

“This multimedia pink 3 ½ in. doll cake is really a little round box containing pink powder puff and magnetism glitter body powder to puff over your skin after bathing. Rose love potion bubble bath, Mini-Chalice, instructions for moon water and a magic wand for stirring your bath. Draw your true love to you now and forever!”

by Steve Aylett

Scar Garden Press
122 pages
“Collects 19 stories including ‘The Man Whose Head Expanded’, the prophetic ‘Download Syndrome’, ‘The Burnished Adventures of Injury Mouse’, the full text of ‘Voyage of the Iguana’, the last ever Beerlight story ‘Specter’s Way’, ‘Horoscope’, and the closest thing Aylett has ever written to a traditional SF story, ‘Bossanova’ (featuring a robot and two spaceships!) There are also animal-attack-while-writing reminiscences in ‘Evernemesi’ and top-of-the-line declarative bitterness in ‘On Reading New Books’. Snails, whales and cortical drills. Aylett’s last collection.”
Buy: Amazon

by Trinie Dalton

Madras Press
“The story of Candy, a candy-addicted witch who resents her inherited lifestyle. After a fire burns down her gingerbread house, she leaves the forest and ventures out in search of the excitement of a more urban environment. Along the way she encounters a self-mutilating puppet, tastes meat for the first time, and falls in love with Death, a skeletal woman with a shoe fetish. Proceeds benefit the Theodore Payne Foundation.”
Trinie Dalton blog:

by Stacy Kranitz

Square 80 pgs Premium Paper, lustre finish
Cultural ethnography by photojournalist Stacy Kranitz.
Hardcover with dustjacket, $100
Stacy Kranitz:

PURE COUNTRY: The Leon Kagarise Archives, 1961-1971
Text by Eddie Dean
Process Media
9.5” x 9.5” • 204 pages • 140 Color images
“Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, many of country music’s biggest stars played their favorite shows on the small backwoods stages of rural America’s outdoor music parks. These intimate, $1-a-carload picnic concerts might have been forgotten if it hadn’t been for the documenting eye of music lover Leon Kagarise, whose candid photographs of the musicians and their fans provide the only surviving window into this long-vanished world. Kagarise captured dozens of classic country and bluegrass artists in their prime, including Johnny Cash and June Carter, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Bill Monroe, Hank Snow, The Stanley Brothers, and many other greats. Pure Country presents this collection of rare color images for the first time, revealing an archive considered by historian Charles Wolfe to be one of the richest discoveries in the history of American music. Foreword by Robert Gordon.”

“We have all your favorite colors, as long as your favorite color is black.”
$24 tshirt, $40 hoodie

Subculture Books
208 pages
“A collection of the important essays that helped define the bioregional movement and established Berg as an icon in the environmental community. Spans three decades of Berg’s life work, combines the candor, humor and vision that helped shape the sustainability revolution.” Don’t let the unfortunate cover throw you off. This has some classic San Francisco Diggers-era Berg pieces from now-unobtainable broadsides and posters in addition to the aforementioned pivotal bioregionalist texts.
Paperback $11.69, Kindle Edition $8.99
Buy: Amazon

Informational video: Arthur blog

NOMAD CODES: Adventures in Modern Esoterica by Erik Davis
Yeti Verse Chorus Press
352 pages
“In these wide-ranging essays, Erik Davis explores the codes—spiritual, cultural, and embodied—that people use to escape the limitation of their lives and to enrich their experience of the world. These include Asian religious traditions and West African trickster gods, Western occult and esoteric lore, postmodern theory and psychedelic science, as well as festival scenes such as Goa trance and Burning Man. Articles on media technology further explore themes Davis took up in his acclaimed book Techgnosis, while his profiles of West Coast poets, musicians, and mystics extend the California terrain he previously mapped in The Visionary State. Whether his subject is collage art or the ‘magickal realism’ of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, transvestite Burmese spirit mediums or Ufology, tripster king Terence McKenna or dub maestro Lee Perry, Davis writes with keen yet skeptical sympathy, intellectual subtlety and wit, and unbridled curiosity, which is why Peter Lamborn Wilson calls him ‘the best of all guides to modern American spirituality.’ Cover artwork by Fred Tomaselli.”

HOWLIN’ RAIN “The Good Life” EP
Ethan Miller from Comets On Fire’s other, earthier acid rock band. Features two originals sandwiching a daring cover of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Burning of the Midnight Lamp.”
Preview/buy: iTunes

TED LUCAS “Ted Lucas”
Beautiful wise hippie folk music from 1974.
cd $12

IASOS “Realms of Light” dvd
Inter-Dimensional Music
“Iasos has created heavenly visuals to accompany the celestial music on his Realms of Light album. There are visuals for all 8 pieces on the music cd. The visuals are synced with the music with delightful precision. Like the music, some of the visuals are stimulating, and some are relaxing. And all are heavenly, uplifting, beautiful, and celestial. It took Iasos 4 years to learn video special-effects, and then another 3.5 years to actually create the 65 minutes of visuals to go with this music. But finally, here it is! Underlying Purpose: Music is capable of inducing Divine Emotions. Visuals are capable of inducing Divine Thought-Forms. When these two work together synchronistically & synergistically,their combined influence can trigger or “ignite” expanded States of Being. THAT is the Intention behind this DVD.”

EARTH ”A Bureaucratic Desire for Extra Capsular Extraction”
Southern Lord
“For the first time the debut recordings of Earth are available in one concise, beautifully documented capsule. All 7 tracks have been carefully remastered by Mell Dettmer to make a more burly, mammoth and crushing audio experience. Includes liner notes from Dylan Carlson with artwork by Simon Fowler and package design via Stephen O’Malley.”
CD $10, 2xLp $18

ROTARY SIGNAL EMITTER 12-inch picture disk LP by Sculpture
Not even sure if these are even still available—they only made 300 of them—but…gee whiz. Coolest low-cost audio/art object since the Buddha Machine? Yes.
Preview/info: Arthur blog

2011 calendar and poster by RON REGE, JR.
Little Otsu
“Experience the mind-blowing combination of colors and drawings that make up this incredible 2011 fold-out calendar & poster by the talented Ron Regé, Jr. On the calendar side, the amazing devolving drawings form a comic-like linear backdrop to the twinkly bars of dimensional months. Turn it over to find a detailed panoramic scene of hot-air balloons and mountains and lands surrounding a giant inverted triangle of “abracadabra” magic. So at the end of the year, you can flip over the calendar and still have a great poster to hang on your wall, giving this calendar a second life.
Measures 8” wide x 9” tall folded and 24” wide by 18” tall when unfolded. Printed in Hayward, CA with vegetable-based inks on 100% post-consumer recycled 80# cover stock.”
$12.00 USD
flat poster (limited ed. of 50) for $16.00 USD

“A full colour calendar comprising all-new artwork in a psychedelic interpretation of Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there. The 1860s collide with the 1960s in lurid efflorescence!”

32 pages, 12 x 16 inches, saddle stitched
“Hundreds of radical cultural and political heroes are celebrated here, along with the animating ideas that continue to guide this project – a reprieve from the 500-year-long sentence to life-at-hard-labor that the European colonization of the “New World” and the ensuing devastations of the rest of the world has represented. The Planetary Work Machine will not rule forever! Celebrate with this calendar on which every day is a holiday!
$9.95 / Pay for two, and we will send a third calendar for free!”

“Plastic Crimewave, creator of the Galactic Zoo Dossier magazine for Drag City, proprietor of the Galactic Zoo Disk reissue label, leader of spacepunkers Plastic Crimewave Sound, and general music historian/head has reached the end of the fifth consecutive year of his Galactic Zoo Mix Tape Club, and will be taking subscriptions again with another year of Mix Tape-age starting in December. You get six 90 min. tapes (one every other month) with exclusive artwork and the sounds of rare and populist psychedelia, glam, acid folk, prog, boogie, power pop, soft rock, shoegaze, protopunk, hard rawk, experimental, bubblegum, etc. for a mere $30.”
Info: Arthur blog
Paypal at, or send a check or cash to 1061 N. Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60622.

BLACKOUT Arthur mixtape
49-minute compilation curated and sequenced by Arthur editor Jay Babcock to stimulate or simulate a sweet blackout, featuring music by Moon Duo, White Hills, White Noise Sound, Lords of Falconry, Endless Boogie , Masters of Reality, Messages and Enumclaw. Mixed by Bobby Tamkin (Xu Xu Fang), with cover artwork by Arik Moonhawk Roper. All proceeds go to Arthur Magazine. Pay-what-thou-wilt digital download starting at $4.20…

A tax-deductible donation of any amount may be made to Arthur by going here:

Happy season,

The Arthur Goofs
Austin * Marfa * Joshua Tree * Portland, Oregon * Greenpoint * wherever you are

One from the Desert Files: NOAH PURIFOY

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

There’s a limited supply: Arthur No. 3 (pub’d Feb 2003) aka THE JOE STRUMMER WAKE ISSUE


We’ve got 50 copies left of Arthur No. 3 (cover date March 2003, pub’d February, 2003). This one’s from the original incarnation (read: best) of Arthur—the pages are gigantic (11×17) and the paper is reasonably high-quality newsprint. Some color, some b/w. We’re selling our remaining stock for $5 each over at the Arthur Store.

Notes on this issue…

Joe Strummer died on December 22, 2002. His death received some notice, of course, but since he’d left us in the period between Thanksgiving and the New Year—when glossy music and culture magazines are basically shut down—real coverage of his passing, and the life that he lived, didn’t happen in the pop culture magazines of record. Big-budget American publications like Rolling Stone, Spin and Blender had already finished their January 2003 issues, so major features couldn’t fit in there without major expense (pulled features, pulped magazines, etc.); and by the time their February 2003 issues rolled around, the news of Joe’s passing would be (to their market-minds) “stale,” and thus to be deserving of only an obligatory page or two. Which is absurd for someone of Joe’s stature, his body of work, and commitment to The Cause.

At Arthur, we decided to pull the cover feature that we had in progress. Working together, with no editorial budget, the budding Arthur gang was able to put together something of substance very quickly, and get it out to the people, for free, in mass quantities (50,000 copies), within weeks of Joe’s passing.

Our wake for Joe Strummer would not have happened without journalist/archivist Kristine McKenna. She had a recent, lengthy (3800 words), and yes, poignant conversation with Joe on tape—a really great conversation, of course (this IS Kristine McKenna, after all) that the LAWeekly had used just a bit from in a feature earlier in the year. Kristine had witnessed The Clash at the top of their game, so she could offer some real historical perspective. And, crucially, Kristine knew that her friend, the L.A. photographer Ann Summa, had a trove of gorgeous photographs of Joe, few of which had ever been published. And Kristine got us permission to reprint a Clash-related page from Slash, the crucial late-’70s underground L.A. magazine. Meanwhile, my old colleague Carter Van Pelt, a reggae enthusiast, offered a new interview about Joe that he conducted with Mikey Dread.

Soon we had reports from all over. People were picking up multiple copies of the magazine and redistributing it. The golden centerfold of Ann Summa photo of Joe (worked on with a great deal of care and attention by Arthur’s brilliant art director, W.T. Nelson) was being torn out of the magazine and posted on record store walls, in dorm rooms, in clubs. There are other strong pieces in this issue—the John Coltrane book excerpt, especially—but it’s Joe’s issue. As it should be.

Here’s how the contents page read:

JOE STRUMMER, 1952-2002

Arthur holds a wake in print for a man who mattered. In addition to stunning photographs by Ann Summa and excerpts of back-in-the-day Clash coverage from Slash magazine, we present reflections on Joe by Kristine McKenna; a lengthy, poignant interview with Joe from 2001 by McKenna; a consideration by Carter Van Pelt of the Clash’s embrace of reggae, featuring insights from Clash collaborator Mikey Dread; and a brief on Joe’s legacy: a forest in the Isle of Skye.

At the height of both his popularity and his artistic powers, JOHN COLTRANE went for something deeper. An exclusive, chapter-length excerpt from A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album by Ashley Kahn.

The intrepid Gabe Soria connects with every single member of THE POLYPHONIC SPREE, the cheeriest 24-person pop symphony on the planet, in addition to chatting at length with Spree leader Tim DeLaughter about the “c” word, the Spree’s next move, and the sadness that remains. Portrait by Paul Pope.

“ASK JOHN LURIE”: He may be in self-described “hermit mode” but this longtime Lounge Lizard is eager to lend a helping hand to his fellow man. And woman too.

In the work of artist SHIRLEY TSE, plastic aspires to more than Pop. Mimi Zeiger reports.

COMICS by Sammy Harkham, Jordan Crane, Johnny Ryan, Sam Henderson, Marc Bell and Ron Rege Jr.

Byron Coley & Thurston Moore review underground music, film and texts.

And more more more

Arthur No. 3 is available from the Arthur Store.

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

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“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)

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 nine-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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