DAVID THOMAS: MUSICIANS ARE SCUM
Smog Veil’s long-awaited issue of the Rocket From the Tombs tapes refers to 1970s Cleveland as ‘punk rock ground zero,’ and every single word there was chosen very carefully. This ‘dying industrial city’ birthed some of the most enduring and ahead-of-its-time rock ‘n’ roll of the twentieth century, from originators Rocket From the Tombs to punk mainstays like Dead Boys and the Pagans to overdriven outsiders the Electric Eels. Now several of those ground zero survivors—Mike Hudson of the Pagans, Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys and Rocket, and Bob Pfeifer of Human Switchboard—are touring to support their books on life in Cleveland (and its after-effects). They’ll be doing a spoken-word panel at the Grammy Museum with special guest David Thomas, singer of Rocket and later, Pere Ubu. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
What is the last Raymond Chandler quote that you thought of as your aircraft touched down in Los Angeles?
I’m a big Raymond Chandler fan. He taught me quite a bit but I don’t think of him when I see L.A., I’m afraid.
What’s one of the big things he taught you?
I was just talking about this the other day. He taught me a lot about narrative—that frankly it doesn’t matter. You learn that prose should be a form of poetry. I learned a lot because obviously if you’re a big Raymond Chandler fan you realize that the plot doesn’t make any difference at all. He said the plot was really irrelevant so yeah, that was pretty influential. I’ve read all that stuff. I go back and revisit it probably every year. It’s just a pleasure to read. It’s like song or something. You can read it more than once because the plot doesn’t exist really. You’re constantly in the moment when you’re reading it. That makes it really easy for me to re-read and it makes it so you want to re-read it.
Which novel of his do you return to the most?
Well, I do them all really. I can’t remember which one would be my favorite. Probably The Long Goodbye, really. It’s not so massively preferred over anything else but probably The Long Goodbye.
I found a quote from him—one of Chandler’s maxims. ‘Don’t ever write anything you don’t like yourself and if you do like it, don’t take anyone’s advice about changing it because they just don’t know.’ How do you feel about that?
I think it’s pretty damn good advice. Who am I to challenge anything he said about that sort of stuff. I say—and it gets me in trouble with civilians who really don’t understand anything—but the audience is irrelevant. To understand the function of an audience you have to understand Einsteinian physics and you have to understand that the observer is only there to function as the observer — in other words to give context and space and perspective to what you are doing. I’ve always written for me and the hundred or so other people who were in my circle of people in 1974. I always assumed that what you were to do in music was to write for very few people. It’s ruined my career, I’m sure. I would have done far better, been far more successful, if I didn’t believe the things I believe, but tough!
What is your most destructive belief?
Well, probably that. Probably that the audience is an irrelevancy and that you do what you do for art’s sake. I hate to sound like a cliché. What I knew from a very early age — which is why the middle class has always been the font of civilization and progress in the world — is that anything that I’ve chosen to do in my life I could have done far more successfully in terms of a living or a career than what I chose to do. I’ve talked about this a lot and I don’t want to go on too much because it gets boring but from the very beginning nobody liked us and nobody was ever going to like us. We couldn’t get any gigs in town because the mainstream rock bands doing whatever the hits of the day were had it all locked up and nobody liked us. Nobody ever would. So if you’re in that position then you’re stupid if you don’t just do what you want to do. So that’s always been my/our attitude. It’s a very egocentric and I suppose people would say egotistical or selfish or pretentious way of viewing things but I don’t care. If you’re going to do something you may as well just do it for yourself and if people like it, then fine. If they don’t, I can do something else. That also leads to the second corollary, which is that if I don’t get paid for doing something, I’m not going to do it. I mean, doing music and singing and writing songs hurts. I don’t like it. I hate writing songs. I hate doing the whole business and so if I’m not getting paid for it, I don’t have this urge to express myself. I don’t sit there like Sting or Bono or somebody and think the world needs me to express myself. No. The last thing the world needs is another flake expressing himself. God please preserve me from self-expression. This is the third corollary, which I had posted on a sign at Suma from our very earliest days that somebody eventually stole. It was a little smiley face with devil horns and the motto ‘Self-expression is evil.’ Those are all very destructive beliefs.
What part do you hate most about songwriting?
Because it hurts!
But which part hurts?
Telling the truth. Telling the truth, mining the misery of your own life for other people’s entertainment.
Why do you think that’s so persistently entertaining? Why do people respond to that so much?
I think the upside of it is a need for truth. The misery and screwed upness of my life is basically the same misery and screwed upness of your life. Maybe I can express it better than other people. I don’t know. People find it entertaining. You know, I’m over at Johnny’s house, who’s my best friend. He’s the guy that does my artwork, John Thompson. So we sit here with his teenage daughters and watch TV and I’m going, ‘I hope she dies painfully,’ and the kids get all outraged and I say to them, ‘You know, that’s not a real person. It’s a made up person and they’ve been made up to elicit emotional responses from you in a totally exploitative manner so the fact that I want her to burn up in a hellish fire in which she suffers immense pain before she dies is just as valid as whatever the writer has concocted for this person and it’s not reality. That’s not a real person.’ And it’s like the same thing whenever I see a smiley-faced woman—not to pick on women—or man on a TV ad, vicious, violent images come to mind and I want to slash their face with a razor. Well, I’m not a violent person but I object to somebody…I think, why are they laughing because of a new tampon or they’ve got this new insurance policy? And I get outraged. So, this all…I can’t remember what I’m talking about but that’s what I’m talking about.
You had a quote from a recent interview in which you said you feel now that culture and media have aligned themselves so that nothing is permitted. When I was interviewing all of the other guys, they were talking about how they felt like culture and media in Cleveland wasn’t really permitting the kind of music they wanted to make.
I’m not sure that’s an exact quote. I kind of understand but it’s a very loose paraphrasing. No, I don’t buy this…I mean, nobody’s not allowing you to do anything. I’m terrifically free. I’ve always been perfectly free to do exactly what I want. Now the issue that people don’t like to deal with—and maybe Cheetah and Mike and Bob were not dealing with—is that while you’re free to do anything you want, it doesn’t mean that anybody is going to buy it. Freedom is there. I’ve always said exactly what I’ve wanted to say but I’ve accepted the consequences, which is that people don’t like it and they’re not going to buy it. Well fine! That doesn’t have anything to do with freedom. You are free. So this notion that media and culture are conspiring against you is pure bullshit, if you’ll allow me to swear for a moment. It’s really irritating. I find it maddening and I have no tolerance for that point of view. I am free and I can say what I want to say and I’m willing to pay the consequences.
As somebody who actually worked for local media around Cleveland at the time that all of this was starting, was this something that the media, the town, the culture was hostile toward?
They didn’t care and why should they care? Well, I was in the media sort of and I cared so it’s not like everybody. It’s just the mainstream. Well, the mainstream tends to not like that sort of stuff at first. Also, in comparison to the rest of them, we were pretty amateurish. That was part of our ethos. We didn’t look good and we didn’t have good equipment and we didn’t wear spangly clothes and we didn’t thrust our groin at the audience and things like that. We weren’t as good. I’m not as good as Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga’s far more talented than I am and always will be, but it’s whoever you want to pick. Sting is far more talented than I am. That’s ok. I don’t have any problem with it. It doesn’t keep me up at night. I find comfort in that. They’re successful because they’re better than I am. I’m successful because I’m not as good as they are. What’s the problem?
What does keep you up at night?
Usually some computer problem that I have to deal with. In music, I am not a perfectionist, very laissez-faire. But in computers, you can’t be laissez-faire. And because I am sort of a one-man operation, it means I have to learn things like Final Cut Pro or how to translate EPUB format electronic books into Kindle format electronic books and it’s all piddly detailed crap and that stuff keeps me up. I sit there and come up with solutions in the middle of the night. Or rendering video. Things like that. That stuff drives me nuts.
This is probably another slightly mutilated quote but in the Clinton Heylin book, you talked about how you felt that everything interesting in the ‘70s was 1973, ’74 and ’75 because that was the time the first generation grew up in which rock ‘n’ roll was always present. It wasn’t a generation that had to adapt to it as it was introduced.
Probably what I was talking about was that was the generation where the analog synthesizer really came into its own. That was the first generation where this concrete sound had already been established and synthesizers were coming in and the whole narrative voice of music had changed and that was the generation for whom it had changed. We were the ones who had the tools, who had the training from people like the Velvet Underground and John Cage and Terry Riley and all of that to take this and move somewhere with it.
What was the advantage of having the ability to contact those sorts of things directly?
Well, many of us—I never did—but many of us saw the Velvets at a small jazz bar in Cleveland, La Cave. That was the big changing point in the whole scene. Yeah, we were doing ‘Sweet Jane’ in 1974 but we had learned it not from Mott the Hoople but from somebody’s bootleg cassette recording live from La Cave. And ‘Foggy Notion’ and all of that stuff that you had to know back then. In ‘73/’74, you had to know ‘Foggy Notion’ and ‘Sweet Jane,’ which hadn’t even come out on the official bootlegs yet.
Was that unique to Cleveland? Was that happening in any other city in America?
How would I know? I was in Cleveland, I don’t know. Cleveland at that point was very tuned in because of the record stores and all the musicians, including me, worked in record stores. There was a vicious competition to have everything before anyone else: the latest Tangerine Dream album or the latest Amon Düül or the latest Silver Apples or whatever. If your store didn’t have it or even had it a day after the next store then you were just cut. It’s like Charlie Parker and Lester Young in Kansas City in the early ‘40s, you know, when Charlie Parker first got onstage and Lester Young cut him to pieces. It really was that vicious. So there was this incredible availability of everything in the world that was any good at all. It was in Cleveland record stores and that really was the most significant happening of the time. That, Velvet Underground at La Cave and Ghoulardi were the three main things.
How did Ghoulardi prime your minds for what was going to come?
It was the way he was really out in front in understanding the media. If you watched Ghoulardi, you understood that the media and the people on television or radio or writing in newspapers or whatever were just a bunch of clowns who didn’t know anything and were trying to lie to you. As a twelve-year-old kid learning that viscerally from some guy on television that all the parents in town and the media hated and thought was a boob and bad for youth… Learning that viscerally was far different than studying it in some book at school or some French philosopher or something. We learned that at the core, right from very early on. Also what you learned about the narrative vehicle: the singer is the mediator of the musical experience and the role of the host mediator is to introduce conflict and storylines that run possibly parallel or at odds or contradictory… Now these are all sophisticated narrative forms and again we learned this all viscerally through Ghoulardi. I did an essay on this. If you look at Electric Eels and Mirrors and Rocket from the Tombs—those were basically the three bands that created the Cleveland sound—all of them used that weird host mediator functionality to warp and control the audience’s perception of a particular song and that’s really the thing that defines it. The Cramps, even…
I found out about Ghoulardi via them.
The funny thing about the Cramps, you know, when they came along we were kind of dismissive of them because they were just copying Ghoulardi too crudely. It’s an unfair criticism but we felt at the time, oh, these guys are just doing Ghoulardi, aw c’mon.
What other fragments or experiences like that as a young teen were also coalescing together? Were there any others?
No, that’s it.
Ghoulardi was the only sign of life in the media wasteland of Cleveland?
It’s not a media wasteland. Back in the ‘60s there wasn’t national media. Media was totally regional. You had regional hits on the radio. Somebody’s hit in the Midwest was a totally unknown song on the West Coast and vice versa. I wouldn’t call that a wasteland. I’d call that a very fertile zone where you had isolation and insularity and in isolated pockets different personalities and extremely different points of view would develop. The Midwest sense of hard groove rock as expressed by MC5 or the Stooges whoever you want to talk about was a far different and particular perspective from what was going on on the East Coast or the South or the West or wherever else.
Does that kind of regionalism still persist or has that been replaced by something else?
There’s not regional media anymore. There’s no such thing as a regional hit. No, of course not. That’s all disappeared.
People are connecting with now are these sorts of micro genres as regions. They create all these classifications and cluster among them.
If you have to have a micro classification to something then you’re already on a lost cause. I would suspect without thinking about it too long is that it’s a desperate pretension or fantasy that people adopt to try and achieve this sense of regionalism but you can’t have a small group with a Facebook page. That’s not isolated, that’s the very opposite of isolation.
What was your first durable conception of reality and your place in it?
Well, I’d say when I was old enough to start driving around and going down to the Flats and being able to see behind the curtain of reality.
What do you mean by that? What was behind the veil?
That’s one of those secrets. Philosophers have been dealing with that for thousands of years. You think I’m going to tell you?
I thought maybe I’d get lucky. In five minutes you could solve human existence.
No, you’ve got to sort it out for yourself.
What’s the magic of the Aeronautical Shot Peening Company?
God. It’s hard to explain. Number one is that it really looked weird. It had a pastel angular sort of façade. Literally across the street from the Pirate’s Cove was a ballast dump where the ore boats would dump ballast and we’d go out there and lay in the ballast between sets and next door was the Aeronautical Shot Peening Company and it just made weird sounds. It would make weird explosive synthesizer sort of sounds all through the night. It was like Universal Vibration. It was one of these landmarks and these places where you could see behind the curtain of things and understand things.
What do you mean by Universal Vibration?
There was a wall out by the former Nike Missile Base on the shoreway to the south. If you’re driving along there’s a wall that had a very faded white on black sign that said ‘Universal Vibration’ in very big letters and you could never find it if you looked for it. But if you were driving along and by some impulse you looked to the south then you would see it. And you’d say to your friends, ‘I saw this really weird thing,’ and you’d drive along, saying, ‘Oh, it’s here somewhere,’ but you couldn’t find it. But the next day, if you were driving along and an impulse grabbed you and told you to look south, you would see it. Well, that’s very evocative.
That would change the course of my whole life if I had something like that in the town in which I grew up.
Well, gee, it’s a shame you didn’t grow up here back in the ‘70s. The place is filthy with that sort of stuff. Tons of that shit.
I have one more quote for you to bounce back and see if this person lied when he said that you said this, but it’s a quote from Greil Marcus talking about you.
I’d have to say that Greil lied about me. He’s a good friend. Go ahead.
Talking about why you got involved in music, you said, ‘It’s kind of like people became Communists in the thirties. Even when you find out the theory is wrong, the victory will never come, you don’t give up. It’s changed you. You’re stuck. You have nothing left to do with your life.’
Yeah, I said that. What’s the question?
We just interviewed Daedelus and he was talking about the same thing. He said, ‘Music as we know it is really young. It’s forty or fifty years old. It’s a failed system, like Communism, like Democracy. In some ways, all music is failure.’ What do you think about that? Is that a logical extension of your statement?
I would say the error there is that music itself is not the failure. The Platonic ideal of music is unblemished and untarnished. It is simply that the pursuit of it and the human failure that’s involved in it becomes the problem. That’s my response. Print ‘Idealist.’
Yes, of course.
What is the ideal failure?
What do you mean, ‘ideal failure’?
What is the value of failure?
The value is the pursuit. The value is dedicating your life to something and pursuing it and having that dedication being something that’s worthy. For instance, the pursuit of truth and human understanding which is what art should be. That’s worth pursuing. You’re going to fail and you know that you’re going to fail. The motto on the calendar page at Ubu Projex is ‘The past fills up with failure.’ It’s from some song I did in 1980 or something. So yeah, that’s how I perceive things. But just because the past is filling up with failure as you move through it, that doesn’t mean you don’t continue to pursue getting it right. One of my quotes that people bounce back at me is I’ve said endless times that as soon as I get an album right that’s perfect, I’ll quit because there’s no point to continuing. But until I get it right, I’m going to keep pursuing it.
Your other famous quote is, ‘Other people talk about it. We do it.’ How does that connect to this because obviously failure is a big reason why other people talk about it? Why were you the guys who did it when so few others stepped forward?
It was a unique combination of people. You put people together…we never auditioned anybody. You determine someone is right—and I don’t mean their look, I mean their ideas and points of view—and you put them in the band. It’s like Alan said after ‘Tokyo’ single came out and we were trying to figure out whether we were going to be a band or not. Alan said, ‘I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I don’t know what’s going to happen but…’ Aw, I’m getting his quote wrong, but the idea of it was that it was going to be worth doing because of the people involved and whatever it’s going to be, it’s going to be worth doing. It may be a mess but it will be worth doing because of the people involved.
At the end of Mike Hudson’s book, he writes the only thing that matters is the work that was done. Everything else just disappears. It’s impermanent. If you did something good, people remember and if you did something bad, it didn’t matter in the first place. What do you think of Mike’s conclusion to his Cleveland saga?
I think it’s not quite right. I don’t think the work really matters. It’s the pursuit. That’s like saying the ends justify the means. I don’t believe at any point that the ends justify the means. It’s the means that justify the means. It’s the pursuit that matters. It’s your integrity that matters. I consider everything I’ve done to be an abject failure. In the end, the work is not the be-all and end-all. It’s how we’ve pursued it. Everyone always says, ‘Oh, you’re influenced by Captain Beefheart.’ Well, I was a huge Captain Beefheart fan but my music and I don’t sound anything like Captain Beefheart if you sit there and analyze it. I try to explain to people that Beefheart’s big contribution was the means. His pursuit said that there are lots of ways of achieving something. There is any number of ways of solving the problem. Don’t try to solve it like everybody else does. Try to solve it the way you perceive it should be solved. Pursue the means, not the ends, just to put it in the language we’re talking about. I probably don’t agree with Mike Hudson on very much at all.
When you made this leap from working at the paper to figuring out you were going to make music instead of writing about it, what were the things in your head that you wanted to implement?
Well, I don’t know that I could have expressed it in any particular terms. To express it now, I’d have to think about it but when I was interviewing Jim Dandy and all these people back then, I could see that really this was kind of a waste of time and so much more could be achieved. These are children playing with toys beyond their understanding. These are children playing with nuclear weapons or something and so much more could be done. That was probably it. Like I said, if I’m so smart, I should do this myself. I was endlessly frustrated at the lack of ambition most musicians showed and I thought, well, all right, let me try it. I was not at all suited or interested… You’ve probably heard these quotes before but one of the distinct memories of my teenage years was hearing, I think it was, ‘Sounds of Silence’ and thinking, geez, this is really loud, hard rock. I can’t understand any of the words. I was not a music fan or a rock music fan. I found it all very perplexing and unsatisfying but then one day I heard Beefheart—well, no, it was Zappa, to give him credit—I heard that and I thought, oh, I get it. And I don’t know what it was about Zappa in particular. I know what it was about Beefheart immediately. When I heard ‘Willie the Pimp’ off the Hot Rats album I thought immediately, oh, I get it now. There’s a lot more going on here that can be done.
What did you feel could still be done?
I was a literate person. I read books and when you read books that have great ambition to them you think, ah, ok, here’s something else: music. And the ambition that I’m seeing from these people doesn’t equal Raymond Chandler’s ambition, for instance. So why can’t that ambition be entered into through music? Why do we have to settle for so little? That’s a fairly simple leap.
Why do we have to settle for so little? Do you think it’s timidity?
Hey, you’re the writer! These days, people ask what distinguishes music nowadays and I say, well, fear and cowardice. The modern musician is a coward. I’ve just finished one of my favorite songs I think of all time called ‘Musicians Are Scum,’ which will be on the next Pere Ubu album. So yeah, I don’t know what I’m talking about. Whatever.
THE CLEVELAND CONFIDENTIAL SPOKEN WORD AND BOOK TOUR WITH CHEETAH CHROME, MIKE HUDSON, BOB PFEIFER AND SPECIAL GUEST DAVID THOMAS ON THUR., APR. 14, AT THE GRAMMY MUSEUM AT L.A. LIVE, 800 W. OLYMPIC BLVD., DOWNTOWN. FREE / 7 PM / ALL AGES. GRAMMYMUSEUM.ORG. CHEETAH CHROME’S A DEAD BOY’S TALE IS OUT NOW ON VOYAGEUR PRESS. MIKE HUDSON’S DIARY OF A PUNK AND BOB PFEIFER’S UNIVERSITY OF STRANGERS IS OUT NOW ON POWER CITY PRESS. FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE CLEVELAND CONFIDENTIAL TOUR, VISIT SMOGVEIL.COM.