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(New Material Added) Real Conversations 1 Review

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“How do Rollins, Biafra, Ferlinghetti and Childish remain independent in a corporate world?” That’s the question posed on the back cover or RE/Search’s Real Conversations #1. This question of “independence” from corporate entanglement within the world of media and the arts interests me, and it should interest you too.

A couple of weeks ago on the Bad Subjects editors’ list we had had a similar discussion related to profit-minded self-promotion vs. a more politically-minded ideological promotion (I am certainly reducing each of the arguments). Anyway, the point being — in a world dominated by commodities and their accompanying desires, does one get out a message critical of the largely corporate communications infrastructure necessary to get out a message? I don’t know if Real Conversations’ interviews provide either an answer to my and V. Vale’s question.

In order to find out what it means to strike the right balance, Vale interviews a logical cast of countercultural entrepreneurs and artists: singer/actor/publisher Henry Rollins; former Dead Kennedys frontman, political pundit and Alternative Tentacles Records proprietor, Jello Biafra; City Lights Books publisher and Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti; and the perennially youthful garage punk intellectual Billy Childish. The topic of self-promotion and ideological work is one of the more compelling segments of the Rollins interview. For instance, Rollins admits that his company and web site ( promotes only his material; Rollins is pretty straightforward that it’s a matter of what the market will bear. Is this shameless self-promotion? Or just getting out the message?

Vale illustrates how Rollins uses both. Rollins recognizes that American culture, especially entertainment, is all about being pleasured. The consumer expects it and the artist, if s/he hopes to have a lasting career, must provide it. Rollins does voice-overs for Merrill Lynch, GMC Truck and so on. He uses corporate gigs for self-promotion and has his own “Think Different” Apple Computers ad. Depending on one’s attitudes toward corporate America you could even call him shameless. Rollins does take the money, too; it’s not just self-promotion.

However, the former Black Flag singer clearly understands his place in the “system” and the necessity of articulating an alternate vision free of the imperial reach of corporate globalization. Rollins is clear in his distastes for the banal mediocrity of “American” corporate culture; I’ll let you read the issue for his insights into MTV and such. Rollins, simply, is not naive about political economy. But he’s not adverse to taking advantage of the system either. Indeed, it was almost impossible to avoid Rollins on MTV during the mid-1990s; nor is it unreasonable to expect to see the former Henry Garfield giving spoken word performances in ‘politically incorrect’ countries such as Israel.

What I found most interesting and least developed was an aside by Ferlinghetti that Vale opted to include. The two had just completed an exchange about the recent corporate troubles at the Bay Area’s “progressive” radio station KPFA; Vale sums up the argument: “Well, it’s also taking away the autonomy and independence of the local station, whose character is formed by its neighborhood. KPFA sprang out of Berkeley, and Berkeley is a radical hotbed”; Ferlinghetti replies, “It WAS.” Then Vale springs a question about Ferlinghetti’s travel habits. At that moment, the silence that followed Ferlinghetti’s disavowal of Berkeley’s radicalness was profound.

I regretted not being able to read Ferlinghetti’s analysis of the demise of Berkeley, and presumably, the Bay Area left. I have lived up here for five years and am often amazed at how quickly people admire the liberal nature of this area. So, I may have my own personal investment in this issue. But, with the brave exception of Representative Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) the elected face of the liberal left of Northern California have all rallied, and pretty uncritically, around the domestic and international war against all that is not white and corporate, oops, I mean the War on Terror — catch it tonight on CNN. Ferlinghetti’s pre-September 11th insights on the weakened state of the left would have been useful. Regardless of all that, the interview is pretty good. As is the entire volume… [RE/Search is] an “independently” produced book series that remains interesting after nearly a generation’s worth of remarkably influential editions.”

–Robert Soza (Bad Subjects)

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