MALCOLM MOONEY: DO YOU WANT THE TRUTH OR THE LIE?
illustration by themegoman
If the present era sometimes feels like a random Kurt Vonnegut bricolage rerun of the last third of the twentieth century, you haven’t been paying attention because it’s not all that random. We’re seemingly unstuck in time, but the permanent attachment our culture has for Star Wars, spaghetti westerns and the undead is as unsurprising as news a hologram Jackie Wilson is set to tour America next year. Considered this way, sight of Monster Movie and Delay ‘68 t-shirts on so many Millennial torsos is just rock music’s way of marking the many bizarre and rhomboid turns the world’s taken since itinerant American artist Malcolm Mooney decided to hitchhike to Germany and wound up fronting the most avant of its many progressive rock bands. Since Can was cited in the New York Times obituary for David Bowie as a decisive influence, its time for rock journalists and critics to retire (along with the word “krautrock”) the long-held belief in the worldwide obscurity of an act that lasted almost two decades. The quicksilver Mister Mooney fronted the first Can LPs as well as the first reunion album. His Delay ‘68 song “The Thief” has been been covered live by Radiohead and not entirely to the author’s satisfaction. Since Mooney will be appearing at the Echo on January 24, it is well to get this advanced primer on Can’s original front man. This interview by Ron Garmon.
Hello, Mister Mooney.
Malcolm Mooney: Izzit two o’clock? I saw the 323 number and thought you were Marc Weinstein. He’s the only person I know out there. Hold on one second while I grind this coffee up. [Heavy whirring noise begins] Ah! That kinda sounds musical! [begins to improvise beat and starts scat-singing] Aieee-yaaa! That might work.
Is that thing in tune?
Malcolm Mooney: Probably not. Send me this conversation because I want to see it before it runs. I want to see what was said that I didn’t say. I’ve been quoted in interviews saying things I have no recollection of saying.
Well, we won’t be having any of that. This is an interview and not a hallucination.
Malcolm Mooney: One time, there was a band in Boston called the Hallucinations. I had to stand up and introduce them.
That must’ve been fun. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Hallucinations.’
Malcolm Mooney: Most of the people there were hallucinating so it was all right.
When did you begin your career as a vocalist?
Malcolm Mooney: Church. I began in a choir. This is old news—I sang in a youth choir in the 50s and 60s. I sang with a doo-wop group in Yonkers but don’t consider that professional. I played some saxophone with a band in Boston in the 60s but as far as vocalist goes, I think Can was my professional debut.
You also did some sculpting before deciding to hitchhike around the world.
Malcolm Mooney: That was another thing I didn’t say. I was known as a visual artist and I did some when I returned from Europe. I assisted Ulrich Rückriem for a few pieces …
The story goes you met Irmin Schmidt in Cologne in 1968 and were invited to join his embryonic cohort that really wasn’t a band until you went to the mic and forced the first rhythm out of the other guys.
Malcolm Mooney: You can consider it that but Irwin was a professional pianist and kapellmeister. Jaki [Liebezeit]’s a fantastic drummer and Holger [Czukay] was more electronic than I thought at the time but yes, I suppose I drove them to that madness. Yes.
You supposedly walked up and down a staircase singing ‘upstairs and downstairs’ for an hour or so. Or so Holger has it.
Malcolm Mooney: That was one of our first performances at what was the name of that October festival in Cologne? Kunstmarkt! This is all dated stuff.
Fans love it and it clarifies a garbled record.
Malcolm Mooney: The only thing it clarifies to them that the vocalist was nuts and had no rhyme or reason to what he was doing.
Nonsense! Where did you draw inspiration from your lyrics? Some sound ad-libbed on the spot.
Malcolm Mooney: I would say a lot of them were ad-libbed on the spot.
‘Father Cannot Yell’ for example…
Malcolm Mooney: Do you want the truth or the lie?
Oh, first tell me one, then tell me the other and don’t tell me which is which and leave me to figure it out.
Malcolm Mooney: Well, they’re both the same. The lie is that they’re written and the truth is they’re written. I used to write in collage and never went anywhere with it. I wrote this poem and some of it came from my experience and some came from something I invented.
It seems arguably in the Beat tradition.
Malcolm Mooney: Not so much Allen Ginsburg. I was more of a fan of e.e.cummings. More of Shakespeare, Yeats and Donne. Probably the same—also both Dylans were influences. This is all historical. What have you heard of Can or my work with Tenth Planet?
I’m a longtime fan of Can. I first became aware of them while tripping out on the cover of Ege Bamyasi in a record shop years before I even heard it, which wasn’t until sometime in the early Nineties.
Malcolm Mooney: Have you heard the Rite Time album?
Heard it this morning and was once again floored.
Malcolm Mooney: I like to think that in my progression, if not progressive rock, things do not stay still and I think that the Hysterica album I did with Tenth Planet is more representative of my writing. The Can stuff is—as I said—just an attempt to make sound. I don’t know if I followed Jaki’s lead or Jaki mine. It was like we connected. He was like an engine.
A lot of serious rock fans rank him among the genre’s all-time great drummers.
Malcolm Mooney: He was amazing and knowing him much less playing with him is inspirational and causes things to happen.
So Holger Czukay nominates you as the sparkplug on that first LP and you nominate Jaki the drummer.
Malcolm Mooney: I like what they said but the unit itself… It’s like this: I’d love to take the credit but the five members caused whatever happened to happen. If it had been otherwise, it wouldn’t have been Can. I really don’t like the idea that people think there was a leader. With Can, I think the five made it happen. When I was younger and egotistical, I might’ve said ‘Yeah! Yeah! That was me.’ The new group I’m gonna play with in Los Angeles is the same way. I really enjoy the rhythm and instrumental side of it.
Monster Movie took a short time to record and a long time to edit.
Malcolm Mooney: True, but you’d have to ask Holger about the editing. I wasn’t involved with that part of the process. Another part of the process I wasn’t involved in was the arguing among the four members as my German still isn’t good enough to get by. Thing is, I didn’t know about the release of the album at all. I found out about it when I saw it in a record store in Greenwich Village.
The story goes you named the group.
Malcolm Mooney: I named it Can because I can do it! I’m in Cologne and the band is starting to play every day. I can stand at this mic and I can make up lyrics—I can do this.
I imagined more Warholian reasons …
Malcolm Mooney: There were also other influences about how the name was established. Later on, it was supposed to be about communism, anarchic and nihilism.
Was the woman in ‘Mary, Mary, So Contrary’ based on a specific person?
Malcolm Mooney: It’s based on the nursery rhyme.
Right, but you take certain liberties that sound pretty specific …
Malcolm Mooney: Could be. You’ll have to wait for the book! I don’t know if you know Michael Sheppard who lives in L.A. but he asked me to start writing about Can from my perspective, how the whole thing grew and matured. I started about it three or four years ago. A lot of the information you’re asking I’m kind of holding close to the vest. There will be a collection of stories including the one about Mary. If I tell it, I’ll never write it!
It’s good to throw the press some red meat as a teaser.
Malcolm Mooney: Okay—have you ever heard of a poet named W.S. Graham? Some years ago I was searching out Malcolm Mooney and found he’d written a book called Malcolm Mooney’s Land. It was published I think by Faber & Faber. I want to know who is Malcolm Mooney and how he got the title, so if you please find the book, let me know.
When was it published?
Malcolm Mooney: 1970.
Malcolm Mooney: That’s why I’m interested. Ask me another question.
You had the rare-for-an-American experience of fronting a German rock band in Germany. Maybe David Hasselhoff also knew such honor, I don’t know. How many times did you perform live with the band?
Malcolm Mooney: We did shows in the area of Cologne and Dusseldorf and Munich. My schedule with Can was not anything like what they went through later after the record came out. We did music for a live performance of Prometheus Unchained. It was summer of 69 and I think we were there two and a half months. One newspaper critic said we were sitting in wooden chairs playing electrical instruments when we should’ve been sitting in electric chairs playing wooden instruments.
Malcolm Mooney: The rest of the shows were filled! After the show ended, we played a free concert. Eventually I decided to come back to the States because it got to be more than I could handle.
That was my next question. Why did you leave the band the first time?
Malcolm Mooney: That’s something I don’t like to go into. They used to put out that I had a nervous breakdown and had to go back to the States. I asked the publisher, ‘Did that sell records?’ Still, I want to eliminate that from all discussion and prefer to say that I couldn’t find a bottle of hot sauce I liked in Germany so decided to come back to the Sates.
I understand. One goes to uncomfortable lengths to obtain salt for a boiled egg.
Malcolm Mooney: Another motive was when we were doing the theater piece I was late for rehearsal and I was in the back of the theater and remember listening to them and deciding they could do this without me. That became the point for me. Forget the hot sauce. They sent me plane tickets to come back but I was unable to turn my course and come back.
If you’re going to go all the way there on an impulse, then following another impulse to turn around makes sense.
Malcolm Mooney: I think so. Several years later, we did the reunion record.
Quite a record, that one.
Malcolm Mooney: There was another record, ‘Last Night’s Sleep’ for the Until the End of the World movie. The green onions in the lyric came from a friend in Arizona and I wrote the lyric on the plane and we did the track in about an hour and a half. At one point I watched the engineer push a button and change a note and once again wondered why they need singers and musicians!
You had another hot sauce epiphany and decided they not only didn’t need you, but the business could do without musicians period.
Malcolm Mooney: I won’t continue in this direction. I might offend someone. I like good singers. Take the Coasters, for example—I like lyrics and I don’t like them mumbled. There’s a place for scat-singing which is wonderful. Sometimes Damo [Suzuki] … Well, I better not say that.
Let’s not outrun discretion here.
Malcolm Mooney: Well, he sings stuff that’s just pure sound. I better back off. I just like lyrics I can hear and understand.
Thanks for confirming the ghostly echoes of Jackie Wilson and the Drifters I hear on Rite Time especially.
Malcolm Mooney: I’m sure that’s part of my appropriated voice. People like Smokey Robinson too. And Lou Reed. Certainly, I don’t mind people doing Can songs but I do want them all to be credited. When Radiohead performed the song ‘The Thief’ most people think that’s Radiohead’s song but they didn’t give any credit to the band and they made a mistake in the lyric. I heard it on a live bootleg and called up Can management and told them about it and I heard they gave us credit.
What happened after you left the band?
Malcolm Mooney: I went to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and took a Bachelor’s at Boston University. I did a couple of art shows at that time. I became a substitute teacher and worked for the school board in Manhattan evaluating school programs. I received my Master’s in Visual Arts at Cal State, L.A. And also decided to start singing again in a church choir.
Did you keep up with Can’s other records?
Malcolm Mooney: Yes. I kept up with that and Irmin’s solo stuff, a lot of Jaki’s stuff. I keep busy. What’s your claim to fame?
Look me up in the Internet. Some of it is even true. I like doing these L.A. RECORD interviews because I get immersed in an artist’s work for a few days. Any thoughts on belated cult rock stardom?
Malcolm Mooney: I have one?
I’ve seen ample evidence.
Malcolm Mooney: I don’t know much about that. I do appreciate the people who come out to hear us play. It’s hard to think about cults but I appreciate people who come out to hear me play with a band. I don’t know about cults. A cult pertains to culture, which is a thing that grows in a petri dish—so you can see what happens to it.
THE ECHO AND PART TIME PUNKS PRESENT MALCOLM MOONEY PERFORMING CAN SONGS PLUS DAHGA BLOOM ON SUN., JAN. 24, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 9 PM / $10-$13 / 18+. THEECHO.COM. VISIT MALCOLM MOONEY AT MALCOLMMOONEY.COM.