Sunday, December 18, 2011

Robert Hunter, Grateful Dead lyricist; poet

Romance of the Rose

Robert Hunter was in San Francisco when I spoke to him over the phone from New York City in 1985. Hunter's body of work was already scriptural for those to whom the Grateful Dead was not a favorite band among many, but the only band. Let me just point out that this interview was conducted before Hunter collaborated with Dylan on two songs from Down in the Groove (1988) and on many of the songs from Dylan's Together Through Life (2009).

Your lyrics seem to be about things in nature. You don't write much about "modern" things.
Somebody wrote me a letter once, complaining that I'd used "styrofoam" in this thing. They said that (my) imagery tended to be timeless and that "styrofoam" was definitely in time. So, I say "fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." Yeh, I guess I do tend to get away from modern-type things. The way my creative intuition . . . or whatever you call it . . . it doesn't tend to hand me a lot of those images. I don't go searching for them, either. It's not a conscious exclusion. I remember talking with Allen Ginsberg about our mutual approaches to imagery. I said "you gotta pretty good way with words, but, ah, you got a lot of cockroaches running through your poems." And he said "'cockroach' is a beautiful word!" Well, I guess it's just a matter of taste. I would tend not to use the word "cockroach" in a poem, uhm, because I don't find it beautiful.

There are also seems to be an idea running through your work that, you know, this is a man's world.
I tried to balance that. I was conscious or had my attention brought to that fact several years ago. You know, I'm a guy writing for a band of guys. I tried to do things like "Loose Lucy" . . . the tough woman or something like that. It was a bit divisive and it just wasn't right for me. You've gotta do what sits right with you. When I sit down to write, I don't often know exactly what I'm going to write about. I'm just lucky if a good line comes out and if that's the line that came out, then I have to follow that one down and see where it goes. I might sit down thinking, "Well, gee, I don't write enough romantic songs." When I sit down to write one, I turn out a pile of garbage and the next thing, I got my trains, roses, crows, and card games and stuff. I'm very consciously trying not to use that imagery anymore. I'm looking around for other things. I just finished up recording a piece, coming out in September, which has got twenty-one pages of lyrics. I'm narrating it. I play all the instrumental parts on it. I'm experimenting with all different . . . medieval imagery with a bit more philosophic content, which only a long piece can allow you to examine . . . very carefully.

The press likes to call you and the Dead "quintessentially American," but I hear alot of the British Isles in your work.
Well, I'm a Highland bagpipe player and I know the Scottish literature. I know the Child Ballads. My stuff is very very influenced by British folk tradition, no two ways about it.

I read somewhere that Ireland is such a fanciful island because it was untouched by Lucifer after he fell.
Yeh, I was just reading about the Deluge. I just started reading Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers. He's got a beautiful prologue about the Deluge and, uh . . . Well, I don't have anything much to say about it. I just recommend reading that.

When did you start writing with the Dead?
Oh, gosh, I think the first song I ever wrote with Garcia was when we were eighteen or nineteen, respectively (1959-60). That was when we were a folk duet and nothing ever came of the song. It wasn't until five or six years later that we began seriously writing tunes. Once the Grateful Dead was established and there was a need for tunes and the whole singer-songwriter thing started to happen . . .

Do you ever find yourself writing about things that are second-hand? Like taking an idea from a book and not your experience?
I can't really write that way. I'm a heavy reader. I finished Proust last year--congratulate me--and, ah, what comes out of my heavy reading is more of a commitment to literature than anything else. As the years go by, I consider myself more and more to be a serious writer outside of the pop idiom or even the song idiom. I just finished a 70-page dramatic poem called "The Temptation of Faust," which I'm very pleased with . . . which is part lyric and part my verse. The more excellent reading that I do, the more I find that my own writing tends to a higher standard as opposed to getting something in particular. I was just reading something about the troubles in Poland. What I got out of that was, uhm, the Polish intellectual's idea of "as if." Let's proceed as if this is a free country. Let's proceed as if there's an audience for serious thought-out writing. I'm fairly sure there isn't, but I don't dare believe it. In a way, that's what the Dead have done. Pretend that there's an audience for music with some sort of integrity . . . and, somehow, acting as if . . . it seems, lately, to have become a reality.

Do any of your characters ever meet their other self? Like in Conrad's Secret Sharer?
I think "Dire Wolf" is an example of that. The dire wolf is the shadow of the man in the song who is dead at this point. It's a song by a ghost. I could think for a while and probably come up with a few more examples.

Your last solo album was Amagamalin Street . . .
Here's the interesting thing: I do believe the album is a failure. I don't think I interpreted some of the songs right. I think the songs are pretty good. My voice gives me a lot of trouble.

I've heard you sing Terrapin and it sounded good. Rough, as opposed to the lush arrangement on the album.
Oh, I wanted to cut through that. Nobody liked that arrangement. Keith Olsen, the producer (of Terrapin Station, 1977), took the tapes, went off to London, had the London Symphony Orchestra fill up the part he wrote for it, and said "here's your album, folks!" No one was very pleased with that. I wanted to cut through it.

Lyrically, it was excellent. "Lady with a Fan" . . .
That definitely harkens back to the British roots.

Do you have an idea for a tune when you write?
Always. Jerry prefers that I don't come up with my own melodies. I'll give him a lyric, then I'll put some more lyrics to his melody and record it myself. I find the less I influence him (musically), the better.  I do not take any credit for the music.

What do you think of the adulation? The Dead Heads?
It becomes sort of eerie after twenty years. I'm never comfortable with it. I don't mind reading it, but first hand, I feel like sort of a fraud (because) . . . (unintelligible) . . . is not as high as they think it is. I do my best, but, the adulation is a little out of line.

Wasn't St. Stephen the first Christian martyr?
He was shot with arrows . . . at the stake . . . yeh, I think he was the first Christian martyr. That's not who I'm writing about, though. That song came to me. Sometimes, they do, I have to admit it. Sometimes, they just come to me and I get 'em down. Especially back in the old days. Let me just say that it was after the fact that I found out who St. Stephen was. I liked the sound of it: "St. Stephen with a rose . . ."

"Eyes of the World" is a great song.
"Eyes of the World" was quite mystical and, I think, a very right song for the late 60s and early 70s. Looking back on it now, it's kind of dated . . .

I don't think so.
Well, it's a song about compassion, as I understand it. Being able to see things from someone else's point of view. It's always a right message, but, uhm, it can be overdone. It can be made corny. Of course, there are eternal verities. You can't avoid those too much if you want to say anything.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

R. Buckminster Fuller

4 Questions for Buckminster Fuller

Stuart Matranga, editor at RockBill, gave this story it's title, alluding to the four questions asked during the Passover dinner ceremony. Matranga and I always tried to 'sneak' Bucky stuff into the magazine and this short interview, published in May of 1983, a month before Fuller died at 88-years-old, was the result of a typed response to my mailed-in quartet of questions.

R. Buckminster Fuller was one of the greatest men of the last millennium. If anyone rebuilds the Temple at Jerusalem, it'll be from Bucky's designs.

What is the function of music in universe?
Musical notes are physical. Music is metaphysical. Music constitutes both the inductive form and the complex of ball, roller, tapered and thrust bearings by, over and through which life is intertransformingly drawn.

What initiatives can young people take in the service of humankind?
All the intiatives leading to a sustainably ever higher standard of living for all humanity, accomplished exclusively through a design science revolution that attains so much sustenance and service from each pound of material, erg of energy, and second of time invested per each unit of accomplished production.

What music do you listen to?
Number one, all music composed by my grandson, Jaime Snyder. Number two, all other music both popular and philharmonic.

Why have you not been properly credited for the EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World?
I've heard that the Disney people say that I had never thought of or accomplished the designing of a complete geodesic sphere. This is incorrect. My first complete spherical geodesic was the 1951 Cornell University 20-foot geoscope, and the next was the 1953 Princeton University campus 50-foot tensegrity geodesic sphere. It so excited Dr. Albert Einstein when he saw it that The Princetonian ran a picture of it on their cover. Many spheres have followed.

Several years ago, John Denver, the singer, who had been asked to do something by the Walt Disney Company, suggested to the Disney staff of designers and engineers that they ask me to come and talk to them regarding major future designs, including the Orlando project. The Disney staff did so, and I gave them a whole day's lecture on geodesic spheres, Spaceship Earth, etc., and the individual designers showed me what their individual exhibits would consist of in the coming Orlando undertaking. It must have been their business people who thought their company might be advantaged by avoiding identifying me with my work, which does constitute the principal structural and architectural breakthrough into the future, and the reorientation of the thinking of humanity to realize we are indeed riding a spaceship at 66,000 miles an hour around the Sun. 

Anthony Perkins

Anthony Perkins was as great as any film actor, maybe because he never appeared in a bad film. Like Burt Lancaster, Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close, Perkins isn't normally counted as one of the very greatest of actors, not a DeNiro or a Streep, and yet his choice in film roles was impeccable. Even the Psycho sequels, though not superb like the original, like Catch-22 and The Trial, like Friendly Persuasion, and Mahogany, were entertaining enough; the best one could have expected as follow-ups to an era-defining horror classic.

Perkins lamented that the Desire Under the Elms set "looked like Bonanza" and registered some bitterness over not being cast in the film version of Equus.

"Did you see the production?" he asked me sitting on a couch in his suite at the Plaza Hotel on Central Park.

"Well, I saw the movie."

"The mooo-vie," he repeated with disgust, before pretty much bragging about the shorter running time of the award-winning play, as it appeared with him in the starring role, because of his quick delivery. This 1986 interview begins with Anthony Perkins talking about Psycho III, which he also directed.

The crimes committed in all three pictures seem to emanate from the excessive love and protection and . . . from the less negative and destructive urges than those which Norman seems to be afflicted with, don't you think? Norman's not a raving, mindless, indiscriminate killer. Even his attempts to keep everything under cover at the Bates Motel is really because he loved his mother so much.

You say you wanted to keep the supernatural out of it. But, isn't Norman's mother's voice, which recurs many years after her death and inspires Norman to murder, a bit supernatural?

You find that supernatural? That's funny. Why don't I see it that way? That seemed like the most logical thing in the world, as it's subjective only to Norman. No one else would hear that voice. Some of the popular horror films today seem to me to lack storytelling in their acts of desperation and violence. Every ten minutes, someone is killed.

The less blood, the better.

I think so. It certainly is in watching Psycho III.

There's quite a bit.

Mmmm (musing), no more than Hitch used on Martin Balsam's face.

How do you see the relationship between Norman and his mother in the final analysis?

Maybe it (the ending) suggests that you have to do more than commit one apocalyptic act in order to free yourself of the influences which are as profound as Norman's mother's were on him. Each of these movies has got to touch you a bit.

Do you think that Norman is actually free at the end of Psycho III?

No. He got about five minutes of freedom.

How did you get the role in Les Miserables?

Get it? Oh, you never ask that question: "how I got a role." Because I was ideally suited!

But, I wouldn't have seen you in that role.

No. Absolutely. I agree. I wouldn't have seen myself as Javert (the ruthless police inspector). That was a good part for me. I liked doing that. It was just one of those things. It's like when I got offered the job in Equus (Sounds bewildered) "Are you kidding? You must be joking!" I thought, better say 'yes' fast.

Why was there that resistance?

I thought I couldn't do that. That's theater with a capital "T"! You gotta be great to do that. The audience would sit and watch this show. It was hypnotic. There was a revolving stage and bleachers. It ran five years, an unprecedented run for a drama on Broadway. One of the longest running dramas of all time, maybe the! On the first row of these bleachers were seats designated for the actors. All the actors sat on them and when it was time for them to come on, they just stepped right on.

Were you professorial in that role?

Oh, no, no, no. I was more (pause) energetic, I think, than some of the actors that have played the role. I know that the touring company ran twenty minutes longer every night than we ran it on Broadway. So, I should have to imagine that most of that was due to my delivery. I don't like to talk slow or listen to acting. Some declamatory actors can be feeling it and expressing it very well, but there's something about the declamatory style which appears to our modern ears as stale and rehearsed and somewhat stagey.

Do you find The Trial (directed by Orson Welles) a difficult film to watch?

It's stiff. First of all, his (Welles's) conception of (Kafka's) Joseph K. was off-putting. His insistence that K. be this obsequious, apologetic, struggling-to-the-top type; it was horrible!
I said "Orson, you can't mean this. Of all the things that symbolize the plight of the innocent--" and he said, "he's guilty, he's guilty as hell!" I can hear him, he said, "You're playing it too heroically. Remember, he's guilty, he's guilty as hell!"

Guilty of what?

All of it! I think Orson's point was that up until the time he was arrested, he was still living this small, apologetic and utterly unintrospective life and he was guilty of it. Period. He was more interested in how guilty K. was, rather than how helpless he was. I think Joseph K. should've been stronger and represented us, the audience, more.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tom Waits

Can't really take credit for this interview as the heavy lifting was done by Stuart Matranga, writing here as "Kid Millions" in this October 1983 issue of RockBill. But I was in the room and did ask questions. Stu and I turned Tom on to Gurdjieff (as if we knew what we were talking about) and Waits said he'd check him out. "I'll do my homework," he said, "if you do yours," alluding to the jazz and blues players he'd mentioned that afternoon.  Waits referred to his midwest roots ("everything's flat, so you dream everything up") and wondered aloud if the tape recorder would be able to catch his voice which "tends to roll under the couch." The interview, conducted at Island Records offices in New York, begins with Tom talking about the cuts on his newest LP at the time, Swordfishtrombones . . .

"Underground" is the score for a mutant dwarf community. "Shore Leave" is a chief botswain's mate's nightmare with a bottle of 10 High and a black eye. "Dave the Butcher" is becoming one of my favorite selections. It has a demented calliope flavor to it that I find particularly moving. It's like a feeling of a retarded monkey on Benzedrine. "Johnsburg, Illinois" is an abbreviated ballad. "16 Shells from a Thirty Ought Six" is a field holler done with a hammer on an anvil. It's about this guy who captures this black crow and puts it in his guitar and then bangs on the strings and drives the bird mad on the side of his mule as he goes off. Originally, I was going to put 16 shells in the belly of a scarecrow and blame it all on him. It was about a farmer in Kansas and it wouldn't rain, so he got despondent and shot his scarecrow. "In the Neighborhood" is a kind of a Salvation Army thing. "Just Another Sucker on the Vine" I see as an accordion player and a trumpet player on the deck of a ship that's slowly sinking. The alternative title for that was "It's More Than Rain That Falls on Our Parade Tonight." "Frank's Wild Years" . . . he was a real estate agent that I met. It's a salute to the kind of guy I want to grow up to be some day. "Frank hung his wild years on a nail he drove through his wife's forehead." It's a cathartic dream.

There's alot of percussion on Swordfishtrombones.
I've always been afraid of percussion for some reason. I was afraid of things sounding like a train wreck, like Buddy Rich having a seizure. I've made some strides: the bass marimbas, the boobams, metal long longs, African talking drums and so on . . . I listened to some Mongolian stuff when I was getting ready to do this record. It sounded like Tibetan voodoo. It caught my ear and helped me some.

Do you plan to tour? You haven't for two years.
I'm going to try to do a dark follies Kubuki burlesque revue in a small downtown theater in LA. I'll bring it to New York in the fall. Touring has a point of diminishing returns, especially in terms of your family life. Also, some things do not travel well. More than likely, you have to abbreviate your ideas to pare it for traveling.

What was the One from the Heart experience like?
It was an unusual project in that the film was going to be like a play where you get everything together in the same room and then you get it on its feet. I started writing songs in a little room with wood paneling, but a film is so huge it's like a small town digging a ditch. It's like sewing a button on a great big sports coat and you can't contact the guy who's working on the sleeves. The guy who's doing the lining hasn't been hired yet. Or he just quit. It takes from the lives of the people who work on it. It's like throwing a rock and waiting two years for it to go through the window.

Are you married? Where do you live?
Been married twelve years. The last time I gave out my address, I lived to regret it. I live in a Filipino neighborhood in East Los Angeles. It's Korean, Filipino, Cuban, Latin. We live right next door to a church, so Sunday morning, it's real nice. Filipino food is unusual, too. It's right in the middle of what you'd think it would be. It's Latin-flavored Chinese food. There's only one Cuban-Chinese restaurant in LA. I love those kind of hybrid places, especially in music. The tango is really Argentinian, though most people connect it with Spain or France. It's Argentina's whorehouse music.

Where were your parents from? How were you raised?
My father is from Texas, Sulphur Springs. His name was Jesse Frank. My mother is from Grant's Pass, Oregon. I don't think I'm raised yet. I always found that curious. "You're raised." What do you do then? You go back down. There's no place to go.

What do you listen to?
For a while, certain music affects you and appeals to you and you identify with it. It's like you want your head on his body. For a long time, I heard everything with an upright bass and a tenor saxophone on. I was very prejudiced and republican in terms of my opinions. Now, I'm starting to hear more. I'm trying to form a band that is a beast you can ride. It's very hard to stop doing things you're used to doing. You almost have to dismantle yourself and scatter it all around and then put a blindfold on and put it back together so that you avoid old habits. I'd like to have a band that could sound like an automobile accident and also rhumba in an appealing way.

What kind of kid were you?
I was real repressed. I had what I thought was a really adult attitude when I was young. When I was a kid, I wanted to skip growing up and rush all the way to 40. I wanted to go from 10 to 40. When it comes to your musical ideas that are formulated based on the information you receive, it takes a long time for the input to be shoved through your own apparatus and come out as something that is purely of your own device. That whole process is like when a painter can go like this on a page and make a little slop and you go "Jesus." Man, just the way it comes out! After years and years and years, just to make this movement. It takes a long time for things to germinate and come out the way you want them. The bass marimba is an instrument I've grown very fond of lately.

How do you like bagpipes?
It's hard to play with a bagpipe player. I had an opportunity to play with my first bagpipe player on this record. You can't play with them. It's like an exotic bird. I love the sound; it's like strangling a goose. I played the trumpet when I was a kid, but I gave it up. I like it because it was easy to carry. It was like carrying your lunch. A piano, you have to go to it. You never hear anybody say "pass me that piano, buddy." Composing on different instruments will give you different songs. So, I'm trying to get away from the piano as a compositional device and find something else to write on.

How do you write? 
The problem is that all these things pass through you all the time, and when you sit down to write, it's really just like purchasing a butterly net. It's going on all the time, it's just that you're going to draw a frame aound it now. You're going to reach up and grab some and swallow it. There are times when you're more receptive to it than others. There are times when I feel more musical than others. I used to write a lot on the road, in hotels and stuff, that whole transient quality of my life. I'm not really what you'd call anal retentive. I found that the traveling brought me to a certain place as a writer. Now, I'm working on something that requires myself to stay put. I find it difficult to write on the road now. I'd like to go to Rangoon or Hong Kong. Be there, come home and write. Get something on you and come home. I wanted to join the Navy when I was a kid. But, you know the expression, the Navy's not just a job, it's $39 a month. When I turned 18, I got tattoos and thought that was it. I think the Navy is no long a career opportunity for me, but it's nice to know it's there. 

Any immediate plans? 
I may try to write some songs for Southside Johnny. I'd sure love to learn how to tap dance. Martin Mull's wife is a great tap dancer. I think I'm going to do that. I got a small part in Coppola's next movie Rumblefish. I play a guy that runs a pool hall. Have you heard of Tozzio Navarali? He's a famous Italian race car driver, before Granatelli, before Dan Gurney and all those guys. Jonathan Winters was talking about it. He's certified. That must be a good way to be; to live in your head like that. He's a painter, too. When I'm away from home, I find I have the luxury to allow those things to happen. Just the normal business of living can be annoying, but you find a balance. 

Could you be happy alone in a room?  
As long as I had a wet bar, some clam dip, a black and white TV, and the yellow pages, I think I'd be all right.

George Clinton

I flew to Detroit in January 1985 to speak with Funk's prime mover, George Clinton. Founder of Parliament-Funkadelic, the space age rapper, Clinton was in colored braids and running to the bathroom to snort lines on that snowy night in the Motor City.

Could you possibly define funk?
Oh, man. There's a different one at any given moment. To me, it's basically . . . whatever it takes to put you in that frame of mind . . . that no matter how bad the situation is, it ain't bad enough for you to jump off no roof or even feel bad. My philosophy is everything'll be all right by Thursday. I don't care what it is. So, funk to me is an attitude and it's a life-saving attitude. You can be so lackadaisical and so groovy till their ain't no accomplishment to test the vibe that it's puttin' on ya. People used to say, 'oh, that's just funky.' Look down their nose. It's not just funky, it's funky with a capital 'F.' It's transcendental. It's that warm, wet, funky place that they have in the dictionary. Like the womb. Warm, wet, damp and smelly. 'Funky' was a word you couldn't say when I was growing up.

Themes like space exploration and cloning have appeared in your work. How serious are you about these themes?
Oh, it's so serious, now, that it's basic. They gettin' ready to leave this planet so soon . . . that's what all this preparation is about. They really don't care too much about the planet 'cuz, I mean, in the future they plan on leavin' the planet! That is, without a doubt, what big business, the corporations and nations are thinkin' about. They realize that they're usin' up all the resources and they don't really care. That's serious. It's not even fiction anymore.

They're probably gonna build a Holiday Inn in the sky.
They're gonna have Big Macs up there! We gotta new song on the new album called "Space Limousine." We're renovatin' the Mother Ship. Thomas Dolby did a couple of the cuts. He's the space limousine driver. And cloning, that's normal stuff now. Genetic engineering. That's what Dr. Funkenstein (1976) is about. It was about the ability to clone the mummies from the pyramids. What other reason would anybody want to preserve anything for that long unless some intelligence knew, eventually, we would have the intelligence to bring it back to life? We'll probably get some answers from the pharaohs. But they didn't know nothin'about what we was talkin' about on black radio. The record company said 'are you crazy?' They didn't even know what we was talkin' about. But it worked. What was even weirder than that was Funkentelechy. That's one I had to look up in the dictionary myself. Entelechy is what it is. Maximum potential . . .

Oh, the soul.
Yeh, it's the soul. It's all that you can possibly be. Funkentelechy is after that. Just do it. You need a flashlight, though. 

You once said something in RockBill: "there ain't but seven notes."
Yeh, now. There used to be more.

What do you mean?
They outlawed 'em. I think it was the Church. They don't like knowledge but for one or two notes. All music was one at one time. It's all divided up, now, you know, the Catholic Church here, Chinese, voodoo, rhythm and blues, rock . . . everybody's got just a piece of it, you know what I'm sayin'? Some way, it's all gonna have to fuse back together. Before that . . .the more the merrier. Seven notes is just what they'll allow you to do now. Now, though, there's tones to be dealt with. That's what electronics is showin' ya, now. The synthesizers. They hit some primal tones that, before, instruments were not able to do. You can do as much with a tone now as you can do with a note. I'm doin' alot of what's called atonal now. It works good in chants.

How's Bootsy (Collins)? 
Bootsy's songs are always along the vibe of silly-serious. You could say anything and if it felt right, it was cool. Nobody questioned the reality, the validity of whatever he said, you know, because reality changes every day, too. What goes up don't necesssarily have to come back down no more. Before logic, before Plato and Socrates and all them started makin' sense out of stuff and havin' to have proof . . . before that, it was the gods and everybody got along just fine with that. They actually saw 'em and talked to 'em. It seems that logic is comin' to its end. It don't solve a lot o' shit. You can't logically get no answer for, say, something like abortion now. There ain't no logical answer for that, for or against it. It's not nothin' that you want to legislate either way. That means you got to have some other kind of thing to govern us when it comes to that shit. It's another intelligence we got to acquire. A compassion within us . . . accidents like they just had in India . . . they don't know what kind of mutations and bacteria . . . they don't know how devastating that stuff is. You're gonna get something seriously fucked up. Yeh, you're gonna get that kind of intensity, whether it's a Jesus or . .. something like that's got to happen 'cuz otherwise there's nothin' to hold the shit together. That Star Wars stuff they talkin' about in the Defense. That's deep. That's deep.

What do you mean 'there's gonna be free alterations' (from Computer Games, 1983)?
Ah, genetics. It's gonna start out bein' a good thing, gettin' rid of diseases, but this thing of makin' the perfect human: it's gonna keep goin' until they make the right nose, the right eyes, and the right hair. All o' that free alterations without askin' us. Pretty soon, they gonna say 'you're offensive 'cuz you ugly.' 

I never see TV (threw it out the window last fall), so I don't know what you've done.
You never seen 'Atomic Dog'?

Oh, that's a good one. A real good one.

There were complains that MTV is racist.
It's just what I was sayin'. Somebody's trying to get their format together. I mean, I don't look at that shit in no kinda way personal. It's just too petty. I just try to find something that they can use without giving up my integrity. It's just like FM radio. They wanna play nothin' but rock 'n roll. It'll work as long as they can get away with it, but MTV don't get way with it no more  . . they know us in France, Germany, Sweden, Japan and they don't even speak English! I'm supposed to do some stuff with a guy called Fela (Anikulapo-Kuti) as soon as they let him out of house arrest. They had a change of government in Nigeria and last I heard, they had him locked up.

What message would you convey to as many people as possible?
Let's get into bed. As many people as I could say that to, yeh, that's what I'd say. (Laughs) That's not profound enough, eh? No, that's pro-fun! A planet in bed together . . . and watch out of advertising. Advertisers, like for football games, pay hundreds of thousands of dollars per minute 'cuz they know it's workin'. And for people who can't get those things they be advertising, it's workin' to a point that it's really obscene because those people go out robbin', stealin' and murderin' tryin' to get things. They tell you to maintain control, but that's bullshit. That shit that they be doin' to you is scientifically designed to break your control and make you feel inferior. And you cannot make those connections in your defense. Try to tell 'em that you were systematically brainwashed and you sound like you're insane. Paranoid. They use Pavlov's Theory. B.F. Skinner. Operant conditioning. The only thing we can do is be a little radical musically and that keeps us at a distance from it.

Would you send your kids to school if you didn't have to? 
No. No. You don't learn how to learn in school. They just teach you tricks. No, I wouldn't. It's gettin' ready to get deeper now 'cuz they have bullshit gene pools. They gonna make the selections of who is to be what real early now. The title song of the new album goes like this:

"Adam split the scene on the Eve of destruction/not unlike the way we split a pair of genes/but the way we spit our genes/we split our world at the seam/someone call the space limousine. Hitler hit the scene/with dreams of destruction/not knowing what atom splitting means/while he dreamed his mean dream/the means to his dream split the scene/someone call the space limousine."

Nature has a way of balancing things.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Joan Baez

June 14, 1987
Over the Phone
New York*-San Francisco
*40 Clinton Street, NYC
for: RockBill Magazine

oan Chandos Baez continues to fight for non-violence and human rights through her organization, Humanitas, based in Menlo Park, California. Baez, who was raised a Quaker, also works with Amnesty International and has been active in the Sanctuary movement for Salvadoran refugees.
            Ms. Baez is, moreover, a beautiful woman, gifted with what Martin Luther King once called “a voice like an angel.” Critic Robert Shelton first described her singing voice as “an achingly pure soprano.” Baez’s first album in eight years, Recently, coincides with the release of her autobiography, And a Voice to Sing With.

What does Humanitas do? What are your methods for teaching non-violence?

First of all, Humanitas is not solely for teaching non-violence. I would refer you to what used to be the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence, which we started in 1964, and is now the Resource Center for Non-Violence in Santa Cruz. I sort of turned it over after ten years, to a man named Scott Kennedy. For specifically non-violent education and only that, then I would send you there. At Humanitas, we do basically three things. Education in disarmament, non-violence, and human rights. They can be very small projects, educational projects, and we try to do some funding for organizations that are too tiny to have any funds. We started in 1979 and kind of grew out of the response to my open letter to Hanoi. We were just going to do that letter and then disband as a group, be we liked each other and we liked what we could get done. Then, we spent a while defining what we would be. We felt that it was not philosophically a good idea to have an organization designed around a figure. But after three months of debating, we decided we’re gonna do it anyway and, in a sense, it is partially that. I mean, I was on tour when the United States bombed Libya. In response to that, I just called the office in the middle of the night and said, ‘please, can you set up marches from my concerts to the middle of town or to federal buildings or whatever in the next few days?” So, that was done and they were very successful. Or we’ll write a letter and get it signed by Lech Walesa in one case or Mrs. Carter in another. We had a woman freed from Siberian exile just by doing the right thing. My name has often been the key to those things, but I don’t have the organizing capacity. While I do something like spend three years writing a book, the office, tiny as it is, plus volunteers, carries on other projects from children’s non-violent education to the continuing human rights pressure against funding the Contras and so forth.

The letter you wrote to Hanoi, criticizing the Communist government for its treatment of the boat people—did that affect your relationships with long-time friends?

Well, it did. You see, that letter came out just as the boat people were beginning to come out of Vietnam. It became harder and harder for people to stick to the line that everything was OK or that the only reason they were leaving was because we had devastated Vietnam. Everybody’s devastated Vietnam. I certainly wouldn’t have spent those ten years trying to get us out of there if I thought we were doing the right thing. Some of them (critics from the Left) have said “I’m sorry I couldn’t have joined you earlier; I think you were correct,” and others, like Kunstler, I appreciated his bluntness: “I never criticize a socialist country, period.” Well, he and I never had too much in common to begin with.

Have you ever considered yourself a Marxist?

Never. I have worked with Marxists and I have worked with people who are to the right of Kissinger, Kirkpatrick, and Attila the Hun, depending on the project. Of course, each time you do that, you absolutely outrage the other side. There are certain things that, to do efficiently and well, you work with a certain set of people. An example that is terribly funny was when I was visiting Lech Walesa. The people of Solidarity are all great Rambo and Reagan admirers, unless they are as sophisticated as Walesa. The chief of the shipyard union gave me this big Solidarity bronze medal. It was a big celebration and they cleared everybody out of the room, except for the priest and me and he gave this little speech and said, “the only other American who has one of these . . .” and I said “I don’t want to hear this” (laughs), he said “is President Reagan,” for whom he had only the greatest admiration. I just laughed and the priest understood and he laughed, too.

You became a “star” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. How many traditional songs did you know by heart?

Probably a couple hundred. I don’t know how many I remember at the moment, because I really haven’t sung them for a long time. But, you know, that’s all I did. I sat around and mooned about my boyfriend and/or fought with him and/or made love to him and in between that, I dropped out of school. So, I was still living at home and I’d get home from Club 47 (folk music venue in Boston) and I would sit in the kitchen and play for three hours.

Where did you find these songs?

Almost all from people because I’m not book-oriented at all. I’d hear a song in a club and I’d just go and nag them until they taught it to me. Then, when I was sort of a happening thing, some people would offer to write down from me the words to a song. But it’s all nice to look back on, because it’s in the folk tradition (laughing) stemming from the fact that I couldn’t read (music) either! 

You have a new album out called Recently. This is your first in eight years.

This record is the result of eight years of struggle. My feeling is—and this comes out in the book in several places—that strong things come out of struggle. “Brothers in Arms,” at the moment, is my favorite. My suspicion about that song is that it comes, consciously or otherwise, through “God on Our Side” (Dylan), which, of course, comes from “Patriot Game,” which is Irish in the first place. I think maybe all of those roots are what just rattled my base; it’s so strong to me. But the record accomplished more than I hoped it would. I knew it had to be fresh and have total integrity. It has to be me, but it has to make people say, “Oh, gosh, I didn’t think she’d make a record like that.”

Do you really have a gypsy background?

Not officially, but there really isn’t any other way you could possibly describe my mother’s upbringing. She was just shuffled from one bizarre stepmother to the next. She talks about one summer when all they ate was potato skins cooked over a fire. There wasn’t any food around. So, my gypsiness comes from my mom and, I suppose, in some ways my father, but he’s much more conventional.

You once said that Dr. King’s assassination came as a result of his stand on Vietnam. How do you connect the two?

He turned things around to the point where it became respectable nationally and internationally to be for integration and against segregation. That was fine with the White House. America looked better in the eyes of the world, etc. When he opened up his position on the war and made it public, that was not good for the United States government. It was good for the people, but even within his own ranks, there was huge dissension. They said, “don’t do that, Martin; your issue is black and white. Don’t mess around with that other stuff or you’re gonna lose your hotline to the White House,” which it did. Then, I think, he knew that he put his life into serious jeopardy. But I’m not big on conspiracy theories. It’s a mentality that kills people like that. A strange, cowardly mentality and there it is.

Were you friendly with Dr. King?

Oh yeh. From my tour of black colleges in the South . . . they sent me in his room that time to sing to him, to wake him up. Then, you joke a little bit and then after a couple car rides, a couple of meetings, then a private meeting and discussion . . . then his coming to visit me in jail. By then, you call it friendship.

How close were you to Thomas Merton (Catholic priest, noted for his advocacy of non-violence)?

I didn’t work closely with him, but I knew him enough to visit him (at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky). He and I ended up getting drunk. He was a wonderful man, funny and sweet, and had one of the kindest faces in the world. He was also very bright.

Could people really share their wealth and land, do you think?

Well, there are some very interesting projects where people simply have. There are projects in India where non-violent communities have gone and squatted and claimed land in the Gandhian sense. In many cases, rather than coming to more conflict and to blows and so forth, they have made an appeal to the landowner and the landowner, if he is touched or moved or feels that they’re correct, has given them the land. They, then, live on that land and work it, and have enough to live on and then give him some of what they grow.

What message would you convey to as many people as possible?

Slow down. That’s not a bad start and, I might add, shut up. (laughs) That’s from my Quaker upbringing. Silence is so lacking in these speedy and noisy times. You know what the Quakers say? The Quakers use, from the Bible, “Be still and know that I am God.” So, be still.

But then, you’ve always advocated action.  

Well, action, yes, but as Gandhi said, meditation is to a non-violent soldier what drill practice is to a conventional soldier.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Leonard Cohen

Songs and Thoughts of
Leonard Cohen

By Robert O'Brian

January 1987

Leonard Cohen, Montreal-born poet, novelist, and songwriter became something of a cult figure when his novel, Beautiful Losers, appeared in the mid-60s. The content was heady and dynamic, absorbed as it was in sexuality and salvation. In 1968, at the tender age of thirty-four, Cohen released his first album, simply titled Songs of Leonard Cohen. This album is an indisputable classic among purveyors of the acoustic song form. Cohen's "singing" voice, a deep, solemn monotone, nearly devoid of melody, has become his trademark.

When asked about his future plans, Cohen repeats the Middle Eastern saying: "The devil laughs when we speak of tomorrow."

Q: You have a reputation for being a devout, yet sensual man. There are those who believe that spirituality involves the renunciation of sex.

I don't have that view. I don't think it's appropriate for our western culture. Perhaps, at a certain point, it was appropriate to eastern cultures, but even now the Roman Catholic church is experiencing great revision on the celibacy of priests. I don't think it's essential for salvation, for the mercy and grace of God, to shun those activities. In the Jewish tradition, of course, one is encouraged to be fruitful and multiply and both the procreational and recreational aspects of sexual activity are affirmed.

Q: "The Captain" (from Various Positions -- 1984) you sing, "complain, complain that's all you do, ever since we lost. If it's not the crucifixion, then it's the holocaust."

What I mean to say is that there are many things about Christianity that attract me. The figure of Jesus is extremely attractive. It's difficult not to fall in love with that person. The notion of self-sacrifice, the notion that one has to be resurrected in oneself is a powerful idea that exists in most religions. There has to be an idea of rebirth, of being able to be born again. I think humanity needs that because you feel the sense of pain and moral destruction all the time. When we have this notion that there is no mechanism for resurrection, there is no redemption from sin, then we are forced to embrace evil and we get the kind of activity like genocide.

Q: But isn't resurrection written all over the Old Testament?

The idea of redemption, of course, is in the Jewish tradition. But, religion, when it becomes defensive and organized, gives its truth a sense of exclusivity. We find that in many religions: "We've got it and you don't." For many centuries, the Catholics had that papal doctrine, you know -- "Outside the church, there is no salvation." If Jesus was and is truly the Messiah and did die for our sins, as Christians often say, we are all saved. I think it's very inappropriate for one religious organization to exclude the rest of humanity from this aspect of redemption.

Q: What about the other extreme? Someone like Tolstoy who divided his land up among the peasants. You couldn't really do that here.

Well, he (Tolstoy) couldn't do it, either. It leads you to some very absurd, although poignant and touching, situations. For instance, in his rather large house -- I think it was in the living room with a salon -- he set up a little shoemaking shop. His wife and daughter were wearing gowns from Paris, they were completely involved in opera and anything else they could manage at the time, and he was wearing peasant clothing and making sandals. So, it leads you to some very conflicting stances. I mean, we don't love Tolstoy for his solutions, we love him for his appetite for justice.

Photo by Sharon WeiszQ: The best of art, even painting, has qualities that the eyes don't immediately apprehend. Like Chagall -- peeking into heaven.

I think -- I can only speak of my own work -- any great art has many harmonics, many resonances. The division of color art touches so wide a realm of the inner landscape. In my own work, I don't think I've ever suggested that the world isn't good, that a Messianic age should be brought about or that we should all live in peace and harmony. What I'm trying to stress is the inner strength which will enable you to meet the inevitable and impossible moral choices that are going to confront you. What is the inner resource that you have to tap to be able to get through your life? In "The Captain" song, he says, "There is no decent place to stand in a massacre," but nevertheless, that does not absolve us from trying to be decent. I think it's important that we are aware that these choices are difficult, that we are humans and we live in a dualistic world, and we still have to take responsibilities for our decisions. We can't resign from them.

Q: So, a thousand years from now, everything will be pretty much the same.

From what I gather in reading ancient texts, right up to the present, human beings have always been confronted by the same kinds of problems. I think that this world is not a realm that admits to a solution. That isn't what this world is about. It's a different kind of activity that we have here. We have to deal with good and evil continually. With joy and despair, with all the antinomies, all the opposites and contraries. That's what our life is about. We can't abdicate that. I, myself, am not attracted to the easy solution, the dogmatic solution. I think that when you have large numbers of people attracted to the dogmatic solution, you get a very static, solid kind of society that is quite unpleasant to live in. That's why I like our society. Nobody can quite dominate it.

Q: Your songs are so complete and mature. Not even Dylan maintains that continuity.

A couple of years ago, Dylan and I met in a cafe in Paris to compare lyrics. Let me preface what I'm going to say by saying that there's no guarantee of anything, but my songs take a really long time. They come one word at a time. It's real sweat. Dylan and I were exchanging lyrics that day. I admired a lyric from Slow Train Coming. I said, "that's really beautiful," and he said, "yeh and I wrote it in fifteen minutes." He was admiring "Hallelujah" and I told him, "It took me a year to do that!" Some people write lyrics in the back of a taxicab. For me, it's always been one word at a time.

Q: How do you find women friends who can tolerate your roaming ways?

It depends on what the commitment is. If the commitment is fragile, then people cannot surround each other with freedom. If the commitment is profound, then other solutions are set up and that becomes the activity of the marriage or the relationship. In other words, there's nothing fixed. It has to be explored day by day, but the exploration takes place on the foundation of the commitment. It's only when we hold onto this fixed idea of the self, that we get into trouble. But when you relinquish the fixed idea of the self, and lean on the commitment, then at least you have a chance to move around and explore.

Q: "Story of Isaac" and "The Night Comes On" hint at the Middle East.

Well, I'm gonna tell you a little story I just heard. There was this scorpion that was trying to get across the stream. He was too small to get across and he came to a camel and said, "Will you carry me across the stream?" The camel said, "Of course I'm not going to carry you across the stream. You're a scorpion and you're gonna sting me." Well, after many hours of persuasion, the camel was finally convinced to take the scorpion across the stream. Midway across the stream, the scorpion stung the camel. They're both going down. They're both being swept away and the camel says, "Why did you sting me?" and the scorpion says, "Because this is the Middle East."