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REAL CONVERSATIONS 1: Ferlinghetti (great intv!), Henry Rollins, Biafra, Billy Childish

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2nd Edition

Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Billy Childish 5″ x 7″, 240 pages, 30 illustrations, index, reference lists of recommended books, films, websites, etc…


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Henry Rollins, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jello Biafra and Billy Childish discuss in depth the state of western culture today and what led to its demise, including firsthand accounts of their own experiences as leading figures in social movements. Subjects discussed include: the Internet and social change; the necessity for everybody to paint (!); mind control, marketing, branding and consumerism; Beat history and the importance of inexpensive publishing–City Lights was the FIRST paperback-only bookstore in America; corporate chain stores and Amazon’s impact on independent freedom of expression; Punk Rock history and the rise of Do-It-Yourself (D-I-Y) culture production; fame and its downside; sex, relationships and their travails; “originality” as fetish; travel advice . . . and much more discussion of issues relevant to every creative artist and thinker. Interviews with Henry Rollins, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Billy Childish, Jello Biafra by V. Vale. Henry Rollins is revealed as a librarian and archivist!

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1 review for REAL CONVERSATIONS 1: Ferlinghetti (great intv!), Henry Rollins, Biafra, Billy Childish

  1. admin

    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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Real Conversations 1 Excerpt: Billy Childish

VALE: It doesn’t seem like recording has gotten much “better” since that 1957 monaural one-take 78rpm recording of The Phantom singing “Love Me”–how many records can match that passion?

BILLY CHILDISH: Yeah! I think trying to get feeling into what you’re doing means that you have to shy away from technology. The more technology that’s involved, the more money you spend, and the bigger distance there is between you and your reality. I’m not a career artist; I’m an amateur. I don’t have anything at stake, so I don’t have to go into expensive recording studios worrying about my “career”–‘cuz I don’t want one!

rc1_bc_bowV:If you think of punk as folk music, then it should have a catchy tune you can easily remember and sing along with. Initially, I was attracted to punk because the lyrics were political and dealt with “real” concerns.

BC: Yes, but paradoxically, when they’re sort of crap and don’t really mean anything, I like that as well. Like the nonsense ones. Johnny Moped & the Mopeds was one of my favorite groups. The group were friends with the Damned; they were also from Croydon. Johnny Moped was totally, absolutely, naturally strange. His mother would dress him, and he’d go to gigs where he was supposed to play and wouldn’t be able to get in because nobody would believe he was in the band.

V: If he were doing paintings, you’d call him a “naive artist”–

BC: Yeah, and he wasn’t even trying to be. The Mopeds were absolutely the funniest group to see. They were brilliant, them and the Damned–talk about people who write a load of nonsense! I mean, bands like the Clash were really exciting, but after seeing the Damned or the Mopeds I’d go home with an aching jaw because they’d just make you laugh with childish delight.

V: The Mopeds are a legendary early punk group that never got famous.

BC: But they left behind a really good album and a couple of good singles. You know, I don’t like playing too often. You don’t want to become too serious. You don’t want to be a professional in anything you do because professionals destroy everything.

V: Especially in art.

BC: Right, because professionalism has nothing to do with creativity. I’m not talking about things like showing up on time–that’s just being decent. I mean people who’ve got this notion of controlling a whole scene and excluding amateurs–and of course amateurs are the ones who are truly creative. Take fanzines, for instance. I did a fanzine in ’77 before I was in a group–that’s how I started doing stuff; I didn’t have a clue. The first one was titled “Chatham’s Burning” [pun on “London’s Burning”], then “Bostik Haze,” [pun on “Purple Haze”], then “Fab 69,” and then “The Kray Twins’ Summer Special”–I did that one every summer. My friend Sexton Ming and I started Phyroid Press [1980], which became Hangman Books around 1982. We put out at least 30 little booklets with titles like “The Old Onion of the Mountain,” “The Wild Breed Is Here,” “Bizarre Oxen,” and “The Cheesy Bug Gazette.”

V: Why do you think you did all this? So many people don’t do much of anything, or they just go to jobs.

BC: I can’t understand that. All I could do was paint pictures, so I painted, and then I went into–

V: Right–haven’t you done about 1,000 paintings?

BC: Oh christ, those are just figures people make up, but I’ve easily done more than that. I paint every week–THAT’S my main thing. I’ve painted since I was a kid and never stopped. It was only when I was 17 I started getting into music and writing poetry.

V: And never quit, unlike most people.

BC: Right. And it’s really good our band didn’t became famous, because if someone had “discovered” the Pop Rivets, that could have destroyed our creativity. Kids are stupid–you get a load of money and you can’t keep your head together. Everyone wants to be a millionaire, even if they pretend they don’t, and they’ll end up doing all sorts of undignified things.

V: Not to mention repeating themselves creatively.

BC: Well, supposedly I repeat myself creatively all the time–but I’m not so sure about that. I think some people don’t understand the sophistication in simplicity.

V: Yes; it’s deceptively difficult to come up with a simple song that is “original”–

BC: Actually, the quest for originality stops people moving, so I just don’t bother with originality. You can strive for originality but there will always be someone who did something similar. So you use whatever’s there; besides, you can never repeat anything exactly the same. And even if you try to do something similar, somehow it will strangely turn out to be different. Ray Davies [Kinks] said that “You Really Got Me” was meant to be a copy of “Louie Louie”–yet it couldn’t sound more different! If you’re going through a period where you’re working in a mechanical mode trying to sort out some problem, the next part tends to appear all on its own, just by dint of doggedly working.

V: I’m glad you attacked the concept of originality, because that constipates so many people: “Am I really being original?”

BC: In Japanese the word for “copy” is the same as the word for “learn”–I really like that. Van Gogh couldn’t draw, so he forced himself to copy other people’s drawings for five or six years. All that heritage is there to provide inspiration; it wasn’t copying, it was learning.

Sometimes I help young writers put a book together and then someone says, “Oh, that writing’s just like Billy Childish’s.” I say, “Sure. But if you work at it long enough, it won’t be. Everyone takes a bit from here and a bit from there.”

Someone’s always saying, “You can’t do that–it’s like so-and-so” just to stop people. We had a group called Thee Headcoatees, featuring my old girlfriend and other girls who had never sung before, and we recorded an album. My girlfriend took the album to play for her mother who, before she even heard it, said, “But YOU can’t sing.”

V: That’s so typical!

BC: You know, parents and teachers are the ones who always tell kids they can’t do things; I wasn’t allowed to sing at school because I’m tone-deaf. I think that’s a reason to allow me to sing; children should be encouraged, not stopped. They don’t stop you studying math because you can’t do it. I’m somebody who likes projects; I do these things to entertain myself–as far as I’m concerned, art and music are all children’s games anyway!

Everyone’s got ability to some degree, and if you don’t use whatever you’ve got, you’re never going to develop anything. And why not do something, even if you’re bad at doing it? When punk rock happened, suddenly all these crappy groups started up and miraculously produced all these brilliant singles–they’ve all got one great song in them. People believed the idea, so they made the punk scene exist; they made songs exist. A bunch of people got together, picked up instruments, and all of a sudden they were making great music because they didn’t know how to do it. If the punk thing hadn’t happened, these people might never have done it.

Real Conversations 1 Excerpt: Henry Rollins

HENRY ROLLINS: I’m runnin’ too fast, doin’ too much stuff with too little time as always. Just been in the studio for ten hours working on my band’s record.

VALE: And on a Sunday, too—-

HR: Yeah, it was the only day we could do it. I’ve got a voice-over job at 9 AM tomorrow morning. Then I go back to the studio and do the next shift–bright and early the morning after I go to New York for shows. We’re just trying to get it all done.

V: I have this theory that “underground” or “alternative” has somehow become associated with the kind of violent, pseudo-push-the-envelope content that appears on Hard Copy. And this is siphoning off a lot of once-rebellious curiosity and energy that a few years ago used to go toward, say, finding books like you and I publish—- rc1_hr_bud

HR: Yeah. I think there are a lot more players and a lot more pretenders to the throne now. And that’s where all this “new access to communication” kind of kicks you in the teeth: because even the mediocre can make their thing look really good. I see a lot of independent books and I open them up and they’re really bad. It would make you not want to pay attention to the “underground book world” when you see some of these books–they suck! And why did that book come out? Because anyone can lay out and design a book at home now, take a Zip disk, send it to a printer and get a book back.

I remember the first time I did a book by sending someone a disk–I think it was with your old girlfriend. Before that, me and Laura used to hand-layout galleys. Ohmigod, that was excruciating! It was all “busy work” and you couldn’t make a mistake–it was like prison. Especially if it was a big book: “Oh god, there goes my weekend and four days of next week, my eyesight and my sanity: making it line up on that little blue grid with my hot wax roller.” Man, you’d come to the end of the book and think you’d been through Dante’s Inferno . . . getting to the other side. Whereas now, you kind of blithely modem something to someone in Hong Kong, and then a book comes back in a crate three months later: “Wow!” So there are a lot more people in the pool now.

I just think there are a lot of mediocre books–on the Simon & Schuster level, and on the Manic D level . . . on the big and on the small there’s a lot of “Eh” material. I think a lot of “Eh” people are picking up pens and guitars these days–I really do.

It also happened with indie music, too. We had all kinds of really cool bands. Then all of a sudden there were a ton of bands, and you had to start weeding through them. Then what happens is, you have an indie record store with more records than it’s ever had, but only 30% of them are good. And people lose interest after a while when they have too many choices and get stuck with too many mediocre things they dragged home for a big chunk of their paycheck . . . whereas Marlboro always delivers! Budweiser always delivers . . . and the pot dealer on the bike–he delivers too! (Y’know what I’m sayin’?) And Jack Daniels will always give you the same result.

Just like big music labels like Warner Bros. have always done, I think a lot of indie record labels started going for the cash. Like, SubPop had a little period where they thought they were gonna be able to sell people anything because they had Nirvana for a second . . . A lot of indie labels, when they got hooked up to a major label for their distributor, are all of a sudden having to go to these meetings at long tables and get filled with b.s. that two years ago they would swear drunkenly they never would have stood for. They’re now working happily with people they swore they would never speak to . . . going into buildings they vowed to torch, in angry poetry in years gone by. And you know, I might be one of those. But I was never the one to say, “F— major labels!” Personally, I’ve never been burned by a major label–they pay on time. It’s the indie labels I’ve had to go after, and yank my stuff away from.

I’ve never had a problem with Publishers Group West (PGW; independent book distributor), or a Tower Records account, ever. But in the old days, back in the SST world, with Pickwick, Greenworld, Enigma–all those companies . . . we’d be on the phone: “Please pay us! Please pay us! We’re starving.” “Well, don’t worry–we’ll get back to you.” “But it’s supposedly due in 90 days, and now it’s been 140 days. Please! Do what you say you were gonna do!” I’ve never had that happen with Sony when I worked with them; I did Ozzy Osborne’s video press kit for his last record, and the last Black Sabbath record. They paid me on time, they did everything they said they were going to do. Sony, who could have my legs broken any hour of the day–Pink Dot would do it for them. They can call in an air strike if they want! But they dealt with me fairly, every single time. It doesn’t make me like them any more, but y’know, it’s hard for me to put them down.

V: Well, the Sex Pistols were always on major labels: EMI, Virgin–

HR: And they took the money and got kicked off. They got paid and they were paid to leave. Well, good for them! And also they got a cool song out of it (“EMI”). But when I was on Imago, people went, “F— you–you sold out!” I asked, “Do you like the Clash?” and they go, “Yeah!” “Well, they were on CBS”–which is Epic, Sony, from the get-go. So, whatever. It’s not the label you’re on, it’s where you’re at.

I’ve grown to want to be trustful of labels, because I was aware of the integrity of, like, Dischord, or SST–I worked at SST, kind of; we all did, because we were living on the floor there. These are high-fiber people who wouldn’t sign something just “to sell”–they sign something they think is good. Ian MacKaye at Dischord doesn’t put out anything unless he thinks it’s good–he doesn’t care if it’s gonna sell ten, or ten thousand. If it’s good, it’s going on the label. Luckily he sells a jillion Fugazi records, so he can finance his smaller bands.

But I think that even on the indie level, there are people who go, “Okay. I think this will sell.” And all of a sudden they’re putting out cutesy stuff that just sucks. It’s offensive, cloying, and at its worst it’s mediocre. If it were catastrophic, it might be kinda cool, like the Vanilla Ice “live” album–that’s kinda cool because it’s so bad. But with his last effort, he tried to do a rock album; it is mediocre and it’s a bore . . . because it’s a mediocre guy trying to “fly right” and he doesn’t have it. But when he was at his grossest, he was kind of amazing!

I do see some indie books that I think are really interesting, though. I love that book on Death Metal. It’s a book I would want to put out because it’s a book I went out and bought. And the topic–that whole world of those people–is really fascinating to me. It’s very telling of where this country’s at: that kids are so bummed out they’re going to that extreme to vent it. So there are good books coming out.

I would trust a label like RE/Search because I know you. Even as a consumer, looking at the track record, it’s a label where I would put a bunch of money down and say, “Look, here’s a hundred bucks, just send me stuff as it comes out until a hundred bucks runs out.” Because I know you’re not going to put out anything that you didn’t put a ton of energy into and don’t absolutely love. I wish people had more faith like that, but it’s hard for people to have faith in label integrity when so many labels belch out a lot of stuff where you go, “Nope . . . nope . . . nope . . . nope.”

There are a lot of bootleg labels now, like Sea of Tunes that always puts out Beach Boys bootlegs. They find the most amazing stuff, like entire session outtakes from the master reels–someone has broken into the vaults. And I buy everything with that logo on it, because I know what it’s going to sound like. And if you want Beatles bootlegs, you go to Vigatone. They don’t put out anything that doesn’t sound great–you can hear Paul McCartney’s hair growing, it’s so clear. And even though it’s a bootleg label, the level of integrity and quality is just outstanding. I mean, if they were a legit label, they’d be the critics’ wet dream! Because everything is just top of the line.

So, I’m loyal to labels on account of I want people to be loyal to mine. I know that when we put out a Rollins book, we’re gonna do fine. I mean, it sells 10,000 immediately and it just keeps on going. The whole company’s afloat from my back catalog; print run after print run just goes. It doesn’t fly out the door, but it’s steady enough to keep the lights on, the rent paid, and the employees salaried–and that’s not bad . . . the fact that after all these years, those books still sell.

The merchandise, the T-shirts, still go steadily; every three days there’s a Glad bag full of orders for UPS to drag out to the truck. And I know a lot of people who, when I had my little record label going, just said, “Look, I don’t know who Alan Vega is, but if you put him out, he must be good. So I went and bought the record and–man, that dude’s cool!” I managed to generate some kind of interest for a minute there, where people said, “I’ll take a chance, because I want to be taken somewhere.”

I think the challenge you and I face is to find these people. I refuse to think they’re not there anymore. I just think that in America they’re probably harder to find. There are probably less of them than there were, just because these people have less of an opportunity to let their proverbial “freak flag fly” [quoting Jimi Hendrix]; they’re too busy. The real world encroaches upon our thing more steadily every day, like a rainforest getting eaten away by high-rises. It’s hard to take a book like yours home and read it when you’re 21 and balancing a kid on one arm, you can’t make car payments, and you’ve got this really hellish job.

Americans get a lot of gear thrown at them these days–more than when I was a high school graduate. I got out of high school in ’79 (Wow, I’ve been out of high school for twenty years; that’s a nice, round number!), and man, has it changed. On the level of violence, pollution, consumership, sex–it’s all changed. Sex can now kill you. It used to be: at the worst, your girlfriend would get pregnant. And that was like a catastrophe. Now, it’s like: I could die. And the stakes are higher. If you had a minimum wage job you used to be able to split a crummy apartment with your friend. Now, that’s trickier; now there are three people in that one-bedroom.

Real Conversations 1 Excerpt: Jello Biafra

rc1_jb_lesbJELLO BIAFRA: [having just been panhandled] Even the homeless have corporate logos on them–what does THAT say about what we’re turning into?!

V: That’s because in the past 20 years the corporations have learned the importance of branding, and they give away lots of clothing prominently displaying their brand or logo–

JB: Oh, they make you pay for it. You buy T-shirts with your favorite band’s logo on the front–you’re paying to advertise them! And I traffic in it, too–I admit it–because our record label sells T-shirts.

I was part of the 30th Anniversary of the Summer of Love concert in Golden Gate Park (1997). I walked up to the microphone thinking, “Oh, s … , I’m by far the youngest person on the bill. What am I gonna say? . . . I know . . .” So I said, “I’ll bet you the difference between the original, Ôreal’ Summer of Love and this, is there were not all those corporate logos and banners by the concession stands. I’ll bet that giant blow-up Miller beer can balloon wouldn’t have been there.” And by the end of the Jefferson Airplane set, someone had popped that balloon!

So Miller, after the fact, called up Chet Helms [promoter] and said, “We’re pulling $15,000 in funding from your event because you failed to guarantee that no artists would attack our products from the stage.” Dirk Dirksen [Mabuhay Gardens impresario] called and told me how livid the promoters were over this, adding, “Please don’t go to the press with this, Biafra–it’ll make it worse.” So I played ball and didn’t go to the press, and finally Miller was shamed into coughing up the promised money. Part of the agreement was that the promoters had to patch the balloon so Miller could take it to their next event–an amusing ending to this that shows why these bastards must be fought when they try to . . . not exactly “steal” our culture so much as stamp ownership on it–kind of like the Mark of the Beast!

V: It’s finally time to examine how advertising, marketing and branding have gotten so much better, to the point where it’s almost impossible to have any kind of “counterculture” anymore–

JB: The San Francisco Bay Guardian ran an article about Pepsi trying to buy into the school district here. Soda companies and Frito-Lay will offer millions to a school district that has had its tax money taken away (by the very same people whom the soda companies “funded,” I suppose), then say, “We’ll give you ten million bucks if we’re the exclusive beverage in all of your schools.” And they get to advertise. Like in Colorado Springs: instead of pep banners in the gym, there are Pepsi banners, Pepsi machines the minute you walk in the front door, Pepsi ads on the sides of school buses, posters, etc. And even though they passed a law against it here in California, the companies are trying to do it anyway.

V: It’s the mind-set of the corporate state: Do whatever it takes to make maximum profits as quickly as possible, ignoring people’s welfare and the environment–

JB: Actually, the corporate state has no mind, because there are too many people (and too much money) involved, who fight with each other because they want total control over everybody else–and no one can have it all, not even Bill Gates! When you get to that level, it’s like wealth addiction rather than crack addiction–a far more dangerous drug, in my opinion. That’s why I seized on the Green Party’s idea for MAXIMUM WAGE and trumpeted it everywhere. The Green Party didn’t set a maximum, but here’s mine: six figures, and then cut everybody off! And the benefit would be FREE SCHOOLS, FREE MEDICAL CARE, FREE CHILD CARE– things that are a given as a human right in other “civilized” countries. And FREE TRANSPORTATION . . .

I like the idea of abolishing the stock market entirely. That’s a major element of wealth addiction. Once somebody gets their first million, what more is there to gain? Obviously, there’s a very deep drive to succeed, and success is measured in money, and people figure they have to keep playing the game and play for higher and higher stakes to make more and more money to feed their wealth addiction habit. And if it means screwing over everybody else, so much the better–thus Ross Perot, Donald Trump, Dianne Feinstein’s husband, etc., etc., etc. That’s why the best way to put wealth addicts in rehab is to take their money away. [laughs]

When I went on “Politically Incorrect” and introduced the idea of maximum wage, I was booed by hosts, guests and audience alike. When I called Michael Jordan a wealthy parasite, another guest (the star of the TV version of “Clueless”) whined, “But wait, he was a good basketball player. He deserved all that money” and other pearls of wisdom.

Part of what I did in Seattle during the anti-WTO protests was just to say: Step One is to divorce oneself from corporate feudalism as much as humanly possible–not to mention sabotage it, if you possibly can. Unfortunately, there’s just one way to completely divorce yourself from corporate feudalism–I know of only one person who ever pulled that off, remaining pure and politically correct as the driven snow, and that’s Ted Kaczynski. But he suffered dearly for his art statement, didn’t he? He lived in a little cabin with no windows, so miserable that he sent mail bombs for 20 years to people he didn’t even know, because he couldn’t get laid. There’s got to be a better way!

So what I try to tell people is: Just think about what you’re doing, what you’re buying, and start trying to divorce yourself from crap as much as possible. Don’t go to chain stores, don’t buy corporate products. To some degree we all have to–I happen to like cars, and there’s no nice organic woodsy oil company out there to supply us with politically correct gasoline. So a compromise is being made right there.

V: You don’t drive a new SUV, do you?

JB: Hell, no–those things just radiate evil. They’re yuppie Cadillacs; tanks–that’s the whole mentality behind them. I saved a magazine ad for the Lexus model that shows all these look-alike houses in suburbia with tanks in the driveways, and the smart shopper front-and-center with a Lexus SUV in the driveway instead. And then the Lincoln Navigator ad proclaimed it as an “Urban Assault Vehicle” with “luxury” written above in pink cursive writing with a little pointer. I mean, what kind of self-important, paranoid a–hole thinks they need a Humvee to commute back and forth in L.A.? And those drivers just cut in front of everybody. You heard about the SUV Nazi who cut in front of a woman near the San Jose airport? When she bumped into his back bumper, he got out of the SUV, pulled her dog out of her car and flung it into oncoming traffic and killed it. When you drive one of those SUVs, what you’re saying to the rest of the world is, “I’m an a–hole, and I’m an a–hole because I can afford to be–ha ha ha.”

V: What’s your take on the incredible amounts of money being spent on prisons? Venture capitalists (VCs) are big investors here; it’s a growth industry. And all these prison employees are happy to be getting such high-paying jobs–

JB: Well, what does it say about our “family values” when a prison guard makes twice as much as a schoolteacher? I’m sure you’ve heard the term “prison-industrial complex.” That’s exactly what’s happening. The reason to keep building more and more jails and locking up more and more people is money, pure and simple. Private prisons is the fastest-growing sector of the American economy; Corrections Corporation of America was one of the top five stocks on Wall Street. They’re expanding into Australia and other countries now, too. As far as I know, their closest competitor is Wackenhut, which is long reported to have been owned and operated by the CIA. The Baffler #12 had an excellent article on this.

It’s a way to treat poor kids and black kids the way Germany treated the Jews, and make money off it at the same time. Plus, the prison guards’ union is the most powerful in the state, and they pour huge amounts of money into the political campaigns. They knew enough to fund Gray Davis instead of Dan Lundgren, so they basically pull his strings now. I mean, it costs way less to rehabilitate somebody than to lock them up for drugs, but we’re locking everybody up. It’s all a matter of who’s making the money.

V: Lobbying is just another kind of corporate payola at work–

JB: The word “scam” comes to mind. There aren’t Communists to fight anymore, so now those same military executives make their money waging war on the American people. That’s why there are so many SWAT teams now, and why so much military hardware is given to local police departments by the Pentagon. How many small-town cops really need grenade launchers? And the kind of armored personnel anti-riot vehicles that were invented for South Africa–I’ve read that they’re giving them to our police departments for free because they can’t find any dictator who wants them. Bush wants to replace a lot of our stockpiled weaponry because it’s “too old”!

V: Wonder who profits from that? I just saw a photo in the New York Times, taken in Israel, of an armored bulldozer–I didn’t even know these things existed. They just crash through into a house when somebody’s holding someone hostage.

JB: No, what they do is–like in Indianapolis and L.A.–they declare a house a “crack house” based on somebody’s rumor, bulldoze it, and ask questions later. Kind of like how the Israeli Army treats Palestinians.

V: This is an era where corporations have more power than governments. Isn’t the corporation the ultimate extension of capitalism?

JB: It’s not capitalism anymore, it’s feudalism: techno-feudalism, cyber-feudalism, new feudalism–call it whatever you want.

V: Feudalism? The way that it used to be was: you had the man in the high castle and the serfs all around tilling the fields for him–

JB: –a moat in between, and the guy in the castle had the gestapo in shining armor. Every time we buy Budweiser, go to Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, or McDonald’s, or consume a Time-Warner product–we’re their serfs! Every time. That’s how today’s feudalism works. NAFTA, GATT, the World Economic Forum, that MAI treaty they tried to put in, the WTO, etc.–that’s all sealing in writing the dictatorial enforcement arm of corporate feudalism.

The term “capitalism” applies to small business owners like us, just trying to pay our bills while putting out ideas that the corporations don’t want in circulation. But feudalism is what’s running things now. Feudalism is naming that new San Francisco stadium after the Pac Bell phone company instead of Willie Mays.

V: As well as changing the name of Candlestick Park to 3-Com Park–

JB: The funny thing was, our then-mayor Frank Jordan was so dumb that he sold the name of Candlestick to 3-Com for a little over $400 grand, while in Denver, Coors paid $40 million-plus for the privilege of naming “Coors Field.” Jordan really didn’t make a very good deal.

V: Switching topics a little, the big chains Borders and Barnes & Noble have won–they’ve driven most of the independent bookstores out of business.

JB: But what about Amazon?

V: At least they make our books available, unlike the chains. But for their “Advantage” program (offering to ship books to customers within 24 hours), they demand a 55% wholesale discount, and publisher pays shipping. Then they start ordering, like, six copies at a time.

JB: Wow. Music chains aren’t quite so consolidated. But what happened with the chains is: if you want your stuff displayed or even stocked, you have to bribe them to do it, like pay the individual manager of the store a buck a CD.

V: In order to get Borders to order more than a few copies of my book Swing! The New Retro Renaissance, I had to buy a $1,500 ad in their in-house catalog. They ordered 5,000 copies and then returned about 2,500–all damaged. Books are fragile; the corners are easily bent.

JB: Gawd! And Borders was at one time a supposedly “hip” company. They’ve been very good against censorship over the years, but not so good on employee unions.

V: They’ve changed. The corporations themselves are being squeezed by competition. There never was that much money in the book business anyway. And when you have Barnes & Noble–

JB: Oh–you must mean “Buns & Nubile”! The chains’ impact on the music business is not as severe. The worst area hit, I think, is toy stores. Remember when some of the weirdest people in the world ran toy stores–eccentrics who still had factory-sealed 20- and 30-year-old toys in the back room, forgotten? They’ve all been paved over by Toys “R” Us. There are no more toy stores except Toys “R” Us–unless you buy somebody a toy gun at Wal-Mart, or something like that. The “strange people running toy stores” species is extinct!

Real Conversations 1 Excerpt: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

VALE: What do you think are the most pressing problems of today?

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Today, there are two words that absolutely won’t be discussed–or even mentioned–by government functionaries, politicians, or commentators on “straight” radio or commercial television. One is “overpopulation,” and the other is “socialism.”

Probably the one problem behind all the other crises on earth right now is overpopulation. You could take any daily newspaper and probably 60% of the stories could be traced back to some overpopulation cause. For instance, why do loggers want to cut down rain forests? Because people need more houses. Why do they need more houses? Because there’s a huge increase in population worldwide.

rc1_lf_hat In the Bay Area, why does the traffic commissioner say we need to build another Bay Bridge? Because there’s more cars. Why is there more demand for more cars? Because there’s more population. You can cut right across the newspaper, and in one problem story after another you can come up with temporary solutions, like “Build another Bay Bridge,” but that’ll only be good for ten years. Probably by the time it’s built, it will already be insufficient–

V: Right, and we’ll need a third Bay Bridge, and a fourth. You haven’t talked about “Autogeddon” yet–

LF: Autogeddon was a term invented by a British poet, Heathecote Williams, which is what’s happening as soon as you go out on the freeway. Every morning I listen to the radio and am pretty happy that I don’t have to commute, because it sounds awful out there.

V: In a better world, you wouldn’t own a car, would you? But how else would you get down to Bixby Canyon in Big Sur? And you have to haul your paintings around–

LF: I have a truck. I need it. But I would go for a horse and a carriage if they’d let me keep it in the garage. We may get to that. The automobile is just a passing thing; the horse is here to stay!

From a different point of view, in the ecological battles, every victory is temporary and every defeat is permanent. For instance, when they cut down redwoods, it’s a permanent defeat. It’s shocking that unknown people have cut halfway through the tree that Julia Butterfly was up in for over a year. This huge, ancient redwood–I don’t know how old it is; maybe a thousand years–was cut halfway through. I don’t think anyone knows if it can be saved or not. But this is the kind of thing I’m talking about.

So you have overpopulation, which no politician will dare mention. For instance, two years ago at the Watershed Conference in Berkeley, which has a supposedly very hip audience–a Green audience–I read a long poem called “Overpopulation.” But before I read it, I said that the United States tax code should be revised so that people weren’t rewarded for having babies–right now you get a tax reduction for every child you have. I think the tax code should be revised to say that the first child is free; after that, you pay the government for each child you have–except for low-income families. But even this audience didn’t accept this. Afterwards, people came up and said, “You can’t tell me how many children I can have!” Etc., etc.

Of course, that’s good for the United States, but when you get to Third World countries where the worst overpopulation exists, here you have a really stupid policy of the Bush administration, which is to cancel family counseling that includes birth control information, in other countries. This is really a “cutting its own throat” policy, because–well, of course, they want more people so they’ll have more consumers so they’ll sell more American goods. But that’s a very short-term view.

One of the most effective programs that was tried out used commercial television soap-opera techniques to create a soap opera series to be broadcasted in Third World countries. These had a typical dramatic soap opera plot, but always had it hinge on some kind of birth-control or overpopulation-control message. A pilot program that was tried out was a huge success–in one year the birth rate very decidedly went down in the countries this was tried in.

For instance, in a country such as the Philippines, where my son’s wife comes from, the women would like to have some alternative to having lots of babies and being enslaved for the rest of their life. But they really don’t have any other alternative offered to them. The prevailing social mores from ancient times say that if they can’t have children, then they’re a failure as women. This is the kind of thing that a popular soap opera program can attack and change.

Also, in a Third World country like the Philippines, if the men can’t have children, well, they’re not considered men. Something’s wrong with them; they’re not macho; they’re not really male. So they have to have children or else they’re nowhere. This is a big problem that can be overcome by nothing other than pure education. And even in the poorest huts you’ll quite often find a TV aerial sticking out of the roofs. The people who need to be instructed can be reached very easily; all you have to do is finance the right program. This is much cheaper than a new missile defense system–by far. The powers that be could probably finance a soap opera program of this kind in a Third World country for the cost of a couple of big bombers.

V: Or less, now that we have cheap mini-DV camcorders and Final Cut Pro software. This could be done on a shoestring budget if necessary.

LF: The next forbidden word is “socialism.” That word is anathema; you never see it anywhere these days. It’s strictly taboo, even in Leftist circles. But the actual fact is that, ecologically speaking, the world is in such a dire state that a form of universal socialism is needed. A form of universal social, ecological and economic planning on a worldwide basis–I mean, Paine Weber had a motto for fifteen or twenty years: “Go global.” Well, it’s too bad they don’t mean “Go global with the government.” And I don’t mean American government. It would have to be multi-ethnic.

It sounds like I’m wanting to have a huge super-state government which would be worse than Orwell’s 1984, but that’s not necessarily so, because you could have a form of socialism which is humanitarian socialism, or civil libertarian socialism, which has nothing to do with mind control or thought control, but controls by education such problems as birth control. Universal education on the subject of birth control could be done on a worldwide basis, not just piecemeal.

In Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, he’s looking back to around 1887 when the book was first published. But he’s looking backward from what turns out to be today, and they have developed this ideal society I’m talking about. They’re looking backward at the civilization we still have today and are considering it really barbaric and undeveloped, because we’re so consumed with greed and blind stupidity on matters such as ecology.

We haven’t even mentioned global warming, which is a perfect example of willful blindness–

V: Right–literally. Various species of fish and animals at the Arctic are going blind because of the hole in the ozone layer–

LF: They won’t even believe the scientific evidence. There is global warming and there is a huge hole in the ozone layer that’s growing larger, and this is a total ecological crisis which, just out of greed and stupidity, we are choosing to ignore.

The thing is, you could say, “I thought you were an anarchist.” The trouble is, we can’t afford anarchism today–which sounds like a cop-out. But it’s not–we can’t afford capitalism, either. We can’t afford unrestrained capitalism, just like we can’t afford unrestrained anarchism. In fact, unrestrained capitalism is the ideal of the Free Trade movement and the whole Republican policy in this country. Democracy is increasingly defined as successful capitalism . . . which is not necessarily so. Thinking the unthinkable, you could say that unrestrained capitalism is a form of anarchism! [laughs] Or, you could say that it’s anarchism carried to greedy extremes.

As far as George the Second goes–George W. Bush–it’s like the Old Boy Network, the Texas Know-nothing Yahoos have taken over (I’m speaking as of February, 2001). When Henry Miller came back to the United States after many years of living in Europe, he wrote a book called The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. He was shocked with what he found: a total consumer culture had taken over America (and that was only the beginning compared with today). He said, “Another breed of men have taken over.”

Two days ago I was at Gasser’s Photographic Supply, and Mr. Gasser himself was there. He’s about ninety years old now, and he comes in on Saturday morning to check on his workers to see how things are going. I just happened to meet him, and I asked, “When did you start Gasser’s?” He said, “1950.” I said, “That makes you three years older than we are; we started City Lights Bookstore in 1953.” He said, “Well, you know, it was a different age then, and it was a different mentality”–which is just what Henry Miller was saying. In fact, I quoted that Henry Miller quote, and he said that when he opened up in the fifties, his neighbor was Brooks Camera, in the same block on Kearny Street. He said he had very good relations with Mr. Brooks, and since they’ve both retired, they’ve become friends. He said that when they were competing, they competed not as friends, but as gentlemen competitors. They didn’t have that mentality of “I’ll do anything to run you out of business, short of cutting your throat”–

V: Right, the Microsoft mentality of today, where I think they would cut your throat.

LF: In those days there was a certain overarching civility which seems to have evaporated today.

So we have the new George the Second, who usurped our democracy for his plutocracy. Plutocracy means rule for the rich and by the rich. What’s getting him by is his charm, a certain Southern civility. It’s on an illiterate level, but nevertheless, there’s a certain Southern charm and civility which he has emphasized in dealing with members of the government and Congress. In fact, there’s always been a tradition of “civility” in Congress–presumably, they treat each other with great politeness. But at the same time they’re knifing each other in the back, so it’s a bit of a hypocrisy.

V: On the topic of socialism and making power public, do you recall that Vladimir Lenin defined socialism as the soviets (i.e., workers’ councils, by which workers owned and ran the factories) plus electricity–

LF: Well, it’s obvious that the state of unrenewable resources in the world cries out for a form of planned economy. Capitalism is the most wasteful ecological system in the world! It’s so obvious that these days what is needed is a form of planned economy on a worldwide scale, with public ownership of natural unrenewable resources. It’s so obvious right now with the present electrical and energy crisis in California, that it’s a perfect opportunity for San Francisco to take over the electrical and gas supplies and the whole Hetch-Hetchy water system and everything that’s been privately farmed out and making lots of private money for people. This is a perfect opportunity for this city to finally reclaim all this for the people. I mean, the people are supposed to own these resources.

I think that under the present Board of Supervisors, it’s quite possible to do this. During the recent elections, across the nation the only bright spot in the whole country was the results of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors race. Finally, there’s a board that’s not beholden to large business interests, that can really be on the side of the people, and that has some really independent thinkers on it.

It seems obvious that the utilities have to be socialized, rather than privatized, across the country, everywhere.