KIM FOWLEY: STUPIDITY IS AN ART FORM
(from the “Kim Vincent Fowley” / “21st Century Youth” 7″ out in May on Black Thoughts)
Bringing up the second half of L.A. RECORD’s rock-em, sock-em marathon interview with the voluble raconteur and rock ‘n’ roll legend would be a fate worse than Leon Spinks for many. Tall, flamboyant of dress, profane as James Joyce and possessed of a legend that rolls out before him like the fog at Dracula’s feet, Fowley is a man for whom literally everybody in the L.A. scene has a pre-set opinion. I happily cultivate a weakness for the monstrous, and discovered—to my delight—that the producer/composer/arranger/performer’s legend isn’t half so kinked-up as his back catalog. I dare any musically inclined bystander to swallow Fowley’s two Norton comps—One Man’s Garbage and Another Man’s Gold—then chase them down with the 2003 Ace Records retrospective compilation, Impossible But True, and not compare the dose to Randy Newman, George Clinton or even Vivaldi. His gifts for genre mimicry, satire, surrealism and being in the right place at the right time only barely effaced by a Rabelaisian personal rep that forms about 9/10ths of the Tinseltown gossip. He’s lately gone into personalized filmmaking on a Roger Corman/Ed Wood level, with results you’ll hear all about. There seemed nothing strange to me about his digs, certainly. Fowley’s lair is a poster-studded Fairfax District bachelor pad—a place of contemplation and assignation cunningly designed to loosen inhibitions and take its occupants far from the workday. At 70, Fowley is limber enough to fold his legs into carpet yoga for long periods while fielding snotty questions from an odd-looking man who’s just walked in snuffling off the Red Line. We knew each other slightly from the scene and jousting in the public prints, and I whiled away the moments before not listening to a deal-closing confab he was having with a prospective piece of out-of-town ass. Again, it was a scene many men know by heart and we were deep into a colloquy about older vs. younger women when I switched on the recorder and held it aloft so he could see the light. This interview by Ron Garmon.
Kim Fowley: I mean, lookit me. I’m balling two 20-somethings in a row. I’m 70 years old and I don’t think I’ve dated anybody over 30 since I was 17 and a sex worker. Women over 30 have to pay to play. Unless they haven’t had a baby, I’ll give ’em a shot, but the baby ruins everything. The baby brings cottage cheese and custard and Jello after the fact, but let’s not talk of such things. What happens when you give birth to a boring child—ah-ha, karma!—and the husband leaves and you’re stuck with something for eighteen years that you wouldn’t even talk to on the subway? Let’s get on with this.
How did you come to get a bullet in your hide?
Kim Fowley: I was an Army Air Force genius after Korea and before Vietnam and I got shot here and there through the years and some of the bullet fragments stay in for a while. It’s not wise to go after them due to inner body chemistry, so when they start escaping, it’s time to have them removed. It’s happened before. You could get a facial peel—it’s the same thing. I was a hero—an activated National Guardsman who showed up and did his patriotic duty. I was good too, I didn’t die. I can’t wait for the revolution and people whine, ‘We have to start all over on a Red Dawn level!’ I kind of know what to do. I can remember being all excited by the Northridge earthquake. I was like, ‘Yeah! Woo-hoo!’ And during the L.A. riots? Oh, yeah!
I imagine you’d see this town for what it really is at such moments.
Kim Fowley: Or our country. It’s Blade Runner.
I know. How much longer till the revolution?
Kim Fowley: The revolution hasn’t been here for a while.
When did it start going down the tubes?
Kim Fowley: Well, it began for England in the time of Churchill and Anthony Eden and they lost India and the Commonwealth dissolved. For America, it started the day Elvis died.
Well, yeah! What happens after your god bloats and dies in front of your face?
Kim Fowley: Right. That was a bad day.
So this current downturn—
Kim Fowley: I love it.
—might be the end?
Kim Fowley: Oh, no. We’re not that lucky. The downturn is great for people like me and I’ll tell you why—we are people of the 20th century because of the skills we learned and perfected then. There is no outlet for us anymore. Not that there isn’t work—there is work, but it’s packaged in a different bottle. A person with 20th-century skills and expectations isn’t going to get anywhere in the job market. An employer has nothing to go on. The whole 20th century has been outsourced and what we were taught no longer counts, unless you give it a new haircut and a new container I.D. and reappear in an adjacent reality named the 21st century. I’ve been back here in L.A. since April 1. I used to live in the California desert and come here two days, three days a week, and now it’s full-time. I’ve done ten movies, seven books and six albums I’ve contributed to. Never mind the movies—I’ve been paid to do various things by people and I don’t ask anybody for work. I showed up and did all that stuff and work around the clock. It’s 9-ish now—you’ll be done by 1 or 2 and around 3 or 4 my lyricist translation gig starts. People who want English translations of lyrics and not in BBC but in Hollywood English. They play their stuff over the phone and I give them a translation—listen to their meter and they go and phonetically sing it. Then around 6, that goes away. I wake at 11 and have a New York, then a California day then I have a nightlife and then I come back and have a European day. I have Australia-Asian-New Zealand days as well, and so on—wearing various hats ranging from producer, arranger, publisher, songwriter, translator, dealmaker, consultant, filmmaker and then music for other people’s movies. Different time zones, different sets of people. And I have no manager and no booking agent. I have five attorneys and four accountants worldwide chasing the cash flow around. I’ve had a lifetime income since I was 23-and-a-half years old and I’m 70 now. So before JFK was assassinated or the Beatles began to have hits in the U.S.A., I had a lifetime income established working from ’59 to ’63. By ’64, I had it for sure. Every since then it’s been for fun. You’re sitting now in what L.A. RECORD described as ‘a 1950s, downtrodden, shabby apartment’ and I would call that right. I don’t put value in where I live and I don’t drive a car. I’m not interested in materialism at all. I do all this conceptual chess-playing for the sheer joy of upsetting my enemies. They say men are at the height of their powers at age 27, but those guys don’t work as hard as I did this year or do as many gigs. My lifetime job record on my site hasn’t even been updated for 2009 yet.
To find a metaphor for your discography, one would have to go outside music to something like John Carradine’s film career—a long tumult of notable titles and complete obscurities that couldn’t have been done just for money.
Kim Fowley: I use art as a weapon and business as a kind of deadline. ‘Oh, you want it on that basis. Fine, here it is.’ I give it to them, they pay me, I’m gone. I don’t have the great opera, the great book, the great masterpiece to ram up someone’s ass. I give my public what my competitors are forgetting to give my public. I give them what they want even though no one else but me hears that need. You give the people the idea, they grab it and enjoy it even though you might get it wrong. Even if you don’t give them exactly what they want, you are the only one giving them anything close to it. Therefore, the stuff that you put out is always gonna get used.
The singles you did in the 1960s, for example, seem perfectly slotted to the national sense of humor as expressed in Mad magazine and elsewhere.
Kim Fowley: I was against everything the 1960s stood for. I wasn’t into drugs, hippie culture or alternative anything.
You satirized hippies extensively.
Kim Fowley: I got a flock of hippie bitches. When they started growing the hair outta their arms and legs, I kinda started passing on those. The organic ones, those I couldn’t stand, but the confused ones are certainly fun. Just like with goth bitches now and the fetish girls now swear allegiance to Bettie Page and Ed Hardy and all those guys can do no wrong.
Back in my youth, it was scribbling weird poetry and the whole leftover Jim Morrison thing.
Kim Fowley: Jim Morrison was the best white rock performer of anybody who ever tried it. Somebody had to be the best and it was him. Jackie Wilson was possibly the best black performer. But Jim Morrison? My-my, that guy could control an audience—he could do big rooms and small rooms and go on for hours. He was tremendous and a real artist. A lotta these people today scream about art because they don’t have what it takes to become a good hack. You can’t write ‘Wooly Bully,’ so you think you’re an artist.
I’d think any artist would be proud to sign ‘Wooly Bully’!
Kim Fowley: That’s a great record, but you have to dismiss it. I’d rather hear ‘Wooly Bully’ than Curved Air.
Well, that’s stacking the deck! Curved Air was wretched. Listening to such an enormous amount of your music today put me in mind of something Neil Innes told me last year on the death of melody and the three-minute song.
Kim Fowley: The Bonzo Dog Band guy. I recorded with them.
They did a hilarious cover of ‘Alley Oop.’
Kim Fowley: They recorded on my Good Clean Fun album too. You know what Leon Russell said when I played him Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello records? He said, ‘It’s not gonna last because it’s not Jewish and it’s not black.’ So therefore it doesn’t count.
Another brave leap into history’s dark!
Kim Fowley: But he was right. Don’t bring George Gershwin anywhere near this stuff.
I bring up Innes because his incredible gift for melodic pop satire rivals and seems clearly inspired by your own.
Kim Fowley: Oh, I’m a music genius, no question. Did you hear the Rhino set?
Today? No. Just the two Nortons and the Ace.
Kim Fowley: I’m on a package called Where the Action Is. ‘Underground Lady’ is on there. ‘To Die Alone’ by Bush—which is a record I co-wrote and produced back in ’66 for a group from the Inland Empire. Went number one out there. Then October Country performing ‘My Girlfriend is a Witch,’ which I co-published. Those are on that, then this stuff here. I have new recordings I’ve done, including two in particular I’ve donated to Black Thoughts called ‘Kim Vincent Fowley,’ which is about me done in a sort of Buddy Holly & the Crickets approach. The other is ‘21st Century Youth,’ which is my message to the youth of today plus a drummer.
You don’t see the end of melody and all future records being produced by mindless electronic pulsations or whatever?
Kim Fowley: The best unsigned band I’ve heard this year is from Chattanooga, TN, and they’re called Moonlight Bride. They’re an all-male group and they combine all the mid-’60s stuff—they go all the way from Thunderclap Newman to the Move, then they have all this isolation out in the Great Smoky Mountains and reaching out to England and California and New York metaphysically and they’re all under 25. They’re really good. Their lawyer, Ben McLane, came over and said, ‘Listen to this.’ Holy God, they invented themselves! There’s no co-writing or stolen riffs or nothing. They just figured it out themselves. Just when you think it’s over, someone shows up from where they’re not supposed to be.
You were in the L.A. rock ‘n’ roll underground from close to the very beginning in the late 1950s.
Kim Fowley: It started with Co-Existence Bagel Shop in 1957 and Eric Nord was the leader. When they were chased out, they moved to San Francisco and became the basis of City Lights—the Ferlinghetti shop—which was to become the Beat capital of the West Coast. They passed through Big Sur at Nepenthe and kept going. But in ’57, I was out of a polio hospital and fucking old women on a Lord Byron level with a cane and I remember going to Venice and dragging these ancient bitches.
As Byron said of Shelley—you left your wits in Venice.
Kim Fowley: That was before Morrison was invented in ’65 and I was there in ’57. Back then it was Beat poetry, i.e. Rod McKuen-type people with their black turtlenecks and bongos. It was a whole lot of postwar angst. Allen Ginsberg had yet to reach Venice.
Did you ever see Lord Buckley perform?
Kim Fowley: I remember Jim Dixon told me about him, but I missed him. I was chained to the cage of high school.
By the way, I intend to test your theory about ‘Bodacious’ by U.S. Rockets being the perfect song to get ‘dirty bitches to shake their asses.’
Kim Fowley: I went to a Vegas event and a bunch of strippers got up and danced to it.
Speaking of the Norton liner notes, you are correct. Frank Zappa is derivative.
Kim Fowley: Frank was like Jeff Lynne. Jeff Lynne listened to a whole lot of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘‘I Am the Walrus’ and George Martin-era Beatle records and recycled it brilliantly for ELO, and Zappa did his doo-wop, and John Cage and Dada and went through all the avant-garde movements and likely went through everything and put the elements together on his stuff. I sang with credit on ‘Help, I’m a Rock’ and other songs. They recently released a lot of Kim and Frank stuff as outtakes on the estate-sanctioned CD reissue of Freak Out. He said, ‘You’re my Brian Jones and I want you to be in the band.’ I should have taken him up on it for two more albums after that. I would’ve been Zappa-anointed for my own weird stuff. I said to Frank, ‘With all due respect, I’ve had hits.’ I wasn’t interested. I went to England in ’66 instead. Zappa is like Nick Drake or that other Nick, the Australia poet—Nick Cave—and Elvis Costello. They’re easily digestible to the peripheral quasi-intellectuals who always name-check them. They look at Lou Reed, who was pretty original, and call that ‘alternative’ and don’t go any deeper. Those people have interesting moments, but they aren’t astounding. I think Pet Shop Boys and Johnnie Ray are the kings of sad music. If you wanna good cry, forget Hank Williams. Same as with Wilson Pickett, who was better than Otis Redding on stage because he wore red suits and he had the best clothes, man, and he would get up there and get the fat chicks to dance with him, although Otis could’ve been, might’ve been a better singer and writer. I met Zelma Redding and she heard me sing and she said, ‘Otis would understand you.’
How did you get into moviemaking? There’s one titled Satan of Silverlake. There’s an idea!
Kim Fowley: Part of it was shot in Hollywood and part in Holland. I brought some of the props from here over with me and played with some actors and actresses there and there’s a dream sequence and I come back to Hollywood via Atlanta and I end up at Lenora Claire’s party, who is the queen of Hollywood at night these days. The movie ends with Jackie Tripod, a physically challenged miniature goddess in a traveling freak show based out of Austin, and she comes in and karate chops a brick in half then the movie ends. I’ll give you a copy.
I think I’ve seen Jackie Tripod perform before. How much of the L.A. scene do you see any more?
Kim Fowley: I go to Fetish Nation. I go to Bondage Ball and Club Hell, which are all God and then the various offshoots of all that. I like the girls who participate in that culture because they’re really dirty and I like dirty things. In order to get a hard-on I have to fuck with some kind of light on, whether in the pavement or the mud. This dark stuff doesn’t work for me, I like to see who I’m with. I want to see anguish in their faces. So I dress up like one of the characters in my movies. I’m Dollboy in Dollboy on YouTube, I’m Satan of Silverlake in Satan of Silverlake on YouTube, Trailer Parks on Fire, where I play a Jeff Foxworthy version of hillbilly grampaw on YouTube. I’m Sexual Frankenstein on YouTube. I play Rod Steiger in Golden Road to Nowhere. I have my own acting troupe and what I did was I went back to night school to learn digital marketing from Jon Reiss, who’s out of CalArts. Instead of going through the studios, I put scenes from my movies up on MySpace or YouTube and see what kind of response I’d get and finish the movie from the chatter.
Had Roger Corman only had this …
Kim Fowley: I worked at AIP when he was there. I was A&R guy and head of the music division for a few hours a day because the boss couldn’t get out of bed from drinking. That was where I learned about drive-in theaters, that whole process.
That was the place to learn of such things.
Kim Fowley: We’d start with a title and have eight days to film it. And they’d go out, crank out some shit and it always worked. I never saw any of the footage and they never heard any of the music, but stupidity is an art form everyone but me disregards. Simplicity is very good. People yell ‘Kafka!’ and point all that French existential shit at you. The whole Beat thing was based on riffing off Neal Cassady, who couldn’t write at all. He was everybody’s muse and these great writers sucked off his energy and his aura and put it on the printed page and came off as ‘outlaws’ when all they were doing was recycling one guy and how he lived. Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane weren’t criminals but they were different from Ben Hecht and Damon Runyon.
The latter were both newspaper guys who hung around gangsters, instead of quasi-cops and outlaws who hung around criminals.
Kim Fowley: There’s no difference between cops and outlaws.
There’s a major difference between a cop and a journalist, though. The cop will certainly let you know.
Kim Fowley: The difference is not getting caught.
What do you think the Baby Boom’s great legacy will be?
Kim Fowley: Old people complaining.
That’s every generation! What’s so special about the Boom?
Kim Fowley: They like Jan & Dean records.
What is the most fucked-up thing you ever saw at a Hollywood party?
Kim Fowley: I saw Ronald and Nancy Reagan show up to see Sparks play. When he was governor, Rodney Bingenheimer and I were standing at a Saturday matinee at some short-lived club I can’t remember the name—near the Troubadour. The fire marshal was only letting in a few at a time, so we were standing there and up comes the governor and his wife, no bodyguards. I asked what they wanted and they said, ‘We’ve come to see Sparks play!’
This was like what? 1972?
Kim Fowley: It was back when he was governor. I asked him who else he liked and he said, ‘The Beach Boys.’ You remember, when Dennis Wilson died, Reagan went on national television and eulogized him. Reagan and Nancy just showed up there, no photo-op, no nothing.
I’ll be fucked. That must’ve been one of those ‘Now I’ve seen everything’ moments.
Kim Fowley: I saw Don Henley show up with David Stewart from the Eurythmics to see the Bangles or Roger McGuinn to see the Runaways. I was a lyricist on five Byrds albums and suddenly here’s Roger up there studying everything.
What was the most fucked-up thing you ever saw at a London party?
Kim Fowley: It was Chris Curtis, the singing drummer for the Searchers, before the gay thing came out—before Lou, Iggy, Warhol, Max’s Kansas City, that whole androgyny thing that began to click in America from ’72 onwards. There he was in 1966 with male groupies jacking off on him while he’s eating grapes! I think it might have been at a Lionel Bart party.
Someone must’ve sent the kids from Oliver! home for milk and cookies …
Kim Fowley: That was kind of unexpected. Of course, in case Curtis is still alive and will sue, none of it happened. Maybe it was actors pretending to jack off, but those were real grapes.
Why do women like to be punished?
Kim Fowley: To pay for being castrating bitches. Why are they castrating bitches? Because men treat them like shit. See, there’s a civil war going on between men and women. It starts in America when baby boy and baby girl notice a difference in genitalia. Then they’re separated and Dad teaches little boy to play baseball and Mom teaches little girl how to bake cookies and they meet again when they’re 13 or 14. By this time, the boys are still throwing dirt clods at each other and the girls are masturbating to Brad Pitt and don’t want to deal with boys at all, but men and, on top of that, girls secretly have penile fear, a fear of the cock and penetration.The feminine men in all these boy groups throughout history are idolized by girls afraid of an unwanted cock, what one girl described as like fear of having garbage dumped in your driveway. The feminine males can get away with a lot because women don’t want Charles Bronson all the time. Once these femme guys get wise to what they can do, they are worse than any hyper-masculine stud in a leather bar. The whole male-female thing is what I call sexual segregation. I only deal with people as consumers of product and they’re all one mass. Like jelly.
A blob—all mouth and appetite.
Kim Fowley: I found out that all the free surfer pussy we used to get chased out of Huntington Beach trying to score would eventually come to Hollywood looking for white emaciated freaks like us. This still works in the club scene I still attend. The freakiest girls are all from 805, 714, 919. They come here and they want local cock. There’s always some family problem that causes them to overcompensate with slime like me.
So that’s where you ooze into the picture!
Kim Fowley: I would call myself a feminine man. Sort of this vampiresque, wizard, ancient, predatorial necessity—I listen and she tells me her lesbian lover doesn’t please her, my Magic Wand broke, there’s no money in porn now, my husband’s an asshole, my child is normal and now there’s you—meaning me. I say, ‘Well I can be your dad, your girlfriend and you all at the same time.’ And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I have a new theory that plain and unattractive women are the best sexual companions and turn into the best sexual fun you can have in a bedroom—better than a chick turning a trick. They’ll try anything because no one ever tells them they’re sexual beings. I learned this back when I was a sex worker back in the 1950s. I was a sexual surrogate for burn victims, handicapped women, a blind woman who has no eyeballs since birth who wants a penis in her mouth and no one will look her in the eye. I was part of the therapy. I would ask what they wanted to be touched that no one else would. Just like ordering off the menu at a restaurant. The requests were easy to live with because they knew what they wanted and any version of that will make them become addicted to it. The freedom of not being judged.
What do women really want, as Sigmund asked?
Kim Fowley: To be themselves.
Any last words you’d like to say on the Runaways?
Kim Fowley: In the mid-1970s, the culture needed girls with guitars. After the feminine man in lipstick—Bowie, T. Rex, Jobriath—well, you look from Piltdown Man to Cro-Magnon and other evolutions, and if you do that to rock ‘n’ roll, you have to turn the page after the feminine man and see a girl standing there. Eventually, the androgyny gets folded into a real woman or schoolgirls with guitars. Rebels who didn’t want to be lawyer’s wives or cowboys. I anticipated that. Then you had women in the news trying to kill people, like both assassination attempts on President Ford. Women in sports came along. All of a sudden, the Runaways came along—girls with guitars. The Fabulous Five, of course, self-destructed. But those girls, their secret was Kenny Ortega, now known as the director of High School Musical and the new Michael Jackson movie out right now. Well, Kim Fowley hired him to stage the Runaways’ stage act. When he was a dancer in the Tubes, I saw him in Norwalk and told him I wanted him to do it. Black groups like the Stylistics and the Drifters would have synchronized moves like that, but I wanted athleticism and girls with guitars. I paid him and they had the best stage show in the business—blowing Van Halen, Cheap Trick and Rush off stage because they put on a show as five girls. Then Kenny Ortega did Dirty Dancing and he’s better than Busby Berkeley ever was. I was ahead of my time on that. The movie’s coming and Michael Shannon plays me. He’s an Academy Award-nominated actor last year for Revolution Road and he looks similar to me and is almost as tall. I met him at Denny’s at Woodland Hills. Joan Jett brought Michael Shannon to meet me and I brought Christine Blood with me and the AP sent a photographer. [Kristen] Stewart and Shannon got to see how I interacted with Joan and I told them my secret for dealing with the Runaways because they were so young and their attention spans so limited, I couldn’t use long dialogues. What I did was every one of my twenty-eight personalities in short bursts—I was a clown, a coach, a drill instructor, I sold peanuts. I kept switching roles like a pitcher changes up in baseball. I had an actor dad and actress mom and I used all that to keep them entertained and off-balance. I turned to Mike Shannon and said, ‘The real Kim Fowley in real life does off-the-wall stuff that scares people and sometimes I have to do this in people’s offices.’ Mike is a method actor, I think, and not improv, but he does me pretty good. Christine had to tell him that in real life, Kim Fowley’s an asshole. There’s a difference between me interacting as a womanizer and me interacting with women in the business.