STEPHEN KALINICH: YOU CAN RISE UP!
There’s something childlike about Stephen Kalinich—the look in his face isn’t necessarily happy or sad, but it’s open, at times approximating something I might almost call “wonder.” He once was one of the lucky few to write with Brian Wilson—first on contract with the Beach Boys, and then after breaking his contract on his own album A World of Peace Must Come, recorded at Wilson’s home studio and then lost beyond lost for decades until Light in the Attic reissued it. After several decades of obscurity, he seems to be relishing his rediscovery and the fame that’s been accompanying it. He loves the “kids” like me, and opening for bands at festivals, and sending out new poems to all his new friends. And he’s no prima donna (or should I say “seconda” donna?), either: it’s rare that when I make an appointment to interview someone that they arrive before I do, but there he is, his arms outstretched for a hug, when I show up at Eat Well in Glendale. We talk for over an hour, all the while gobbling up dietetic diner food and talking about everything from the health issues of aging to the shower at Dennis Wilson’s house. This interview by D.M. Collins.
Maybe it’s an East Coast thing, but I asked Daryl Hall and I’ll ask you—were you in a gang when you were a kid?
It wasn’t violent. I wrote about this in one of my journals. I was 7 or 8 and we had the Cressmont Road Gang, and the Matches St. Gang, and I wanted to be on both gangs. So one time they caught me against the fence in winter, my own gang, and they stoned me with snowballs. I’m still learning not to be friends with both sides—it’s so difficult.
Bill Cosby said he didn’t know the secret to success, but he knew the secret to failure—trying to please everybody.
That may be true, but this was less an element of pleasing and more wanting them to get along with each other.
So much of your work is about peace. You knew even then?
Yes—at 12 or 13 I was writing about world peace and believing I could help bring it about. I’ve had different experiences with that now. We have to fight as aggressively for peace as we do for war. I don’t mean necessarily with guns, but we have to be strong because the forces of evil against us are very organized and very strong. And good has a tendency to be nice and sweet and not as organized. We gotta organize goodness! Without making it cultish or dictatorial. I’ve never seen anyone really do it. The way I think now—sometimes if evil comes into your house, you gotta defend it. And I mean defend it. Not just wish good thoughts. Good thoughts will get you killed. You understand the difference? I’ve grown to realizing peace needs a physicality in this world.
What weapon do you fight with? Words?
My main weapon would be words, thoughts and concepts that have applicability in the world, as opposed to ideals that can’t be realized. It’s modified perfection—striving for something but knowing realistically it’s a tough sell. You can only deal with a dealer—a person who is not willing to make a compromise or a deal, they’ll blow your head off. You have to be alert. Peace must be combined with awareness, intelligence and a strong defense. Aggressively mentally guard the consciousness you let in. The thing I realized instead of being so harsh against some people is they think in more simplistic terms, not that I’m a very advanced person—but they really believe any dream can come true. I don’t wanna kill that, but let’s put it into reality. People are starving in the world. You can still have fun, but be aware of it.
We have such major problems facing us today. I feel like we need to approach them at the same level we approached like World War 2—everyone works together.
That’s what I mean. Organize. But instead of waiting for the war, let’s organize now. Don’t wait. In the Art of War, the greatest person never has to come to blows cuz he such a strong defense. The enemy will never challenge him. Build up a consciousness where people know they can’t fuck with you. Peace people can learn from the Art of War—how to negotiate a strong peace.
In ‘America, I Know You’ you hitchhike through all fifty states, work in a quarry and on a farm—did you really do all that or is it just poetic license?
I’ve done it all! I cut stone in quarries, I milked a cow, I got hay fever baling hay—they thought I was a wimp at the quarry! I got a ticket in Montana and they just gave me a warning—‘The next time you come to Rosebud, Montana, we’re gonna have to give you a ticket. But we’re a friendly little town and we like you, so we aren’t going to give you one now.’ That’s gone!
Why wasn’t your album with Brian Wilson ever released?
Everyone thought I was pulling Brian away from writing with the Beach Boys? ‘Who is this poet kid? It’s not commercial! He’s too simplistic! A world of peace is not realistic!’ To this day people hate my work. One guy said I should be shot for writing ‘A Friend Like You’ for McCartney and Brian Wilson. ‘The lyrics are terrible!’ But if you listen—‘I’m so grateful / you have the courage / you risked it all / you pick me up and every time I fall / you inspire me almost every day of my life’—Brian took me when I was working at a gas station and did an album with me after I’d lost all my money and was totally broke … that’s a friggin’ story! The Beach Boys were in Rolls Royces! That’s a dichotomy. I’m the street, working out of a gas station after I broke my contract. That’s amazing in itself! That’s why after ‘America’ he said, ‘Let’s make a home recording.’ He wrote liner notes I can’t find for the life of me. They would have been incredible.
Where did that song ‘A Friend Like You’ actually come from?
This is my view of it—Brian and I started doing songs, and he gave me a melody one night and I played it in the car and by the time I got home I’d finished the lyric. I did it with tears in my eyes. I’d pull over to write. I thought it’d be bigger than it was but people thought it was too soft. That it was corny, sappy—it was disgusting nobody got it! I want to get a young group to cut it in the modern style. If you know any groups that wanna cut a McCartney / Wilson song, I’d love to get them to! The thing you don’t know … I’m scraping cellars after A World Of Peace couldn’t get sold. I’m at Earl’s Courtesy Gas Station. I’m scraping the pipes—what do you call that they complain about if it gets in your lungs? Asbestos? Scraping pipes and making $80 a week. I’m married and I can hardly pay bills and if I make money at the gas station I buy waffles for my wife. I’m selling poems out of the gas station. I put this thought out in the universe—this is the ‘60s—and I remember I wrote it and had the melody even. ‘Dear Paul McCartney, enclosed are a few songs of mine / Please read them through and if you like them, drop me a line / I write them in the morning when the world is still asleep / I write them in the evening in the cellars that I sweep / Dear Paul McCartney, enclosed are a few songs of mine / Please read them through and if you like them, drop me a line.’ I put that out in the universe and never sent him a letter … so can you imagine later when we write the song and Brian and Melinda present it to him and it becomes a duet with Paul McCartney? I put that thought out forty years before as a guy in a cellar making $1.75 an hour who’d lost his Beach Boys contract. I was living in the Brentwood Motor Hotel. That’s why I’m saying you can rise up! Imagine the humility, after being chauffeured around and then hitting rock bottom again. I did it without alcohol or drugs! So I got chills—this dream I put out forty years later came back.
You had more controversy, too—no one would play your possibly career-making single ‘Leaves of Grass’ because they thought it was about marijuana!
And I don’t do it—that’s the irony! I told them I was inspired by Walt Whitman, but radio stations wouldn’t play it! I wrote another one called, ‘God Came Down The Chimney In A Dream.’ Some guy played guitar and there was a screaming part like James Brown. ‘God came down the chimney in a dream / and all the madmen began to howl and scream / He did not know them He had on baggy pants / and all around Him crawled cockroaches and ants / God walked in a coffeehouse to make a point / and someone looked up and offered Him a joint / He said, ‘No, I really want to prepare’ / and they looked at Him and thought He was square / Another guy said, ‘Hey, I never saw baggy pants before’ / the atmosphere grew quite still as one guy sitting in a corner said / ‘I’m gonna kill that guy who says he’s God’ / And he began to throw things at God / and he pulled out a bazooka and knives / and God got cut in the corner of His eye / and a tear shaped like a heart started to form / and soon it was inside of God / and He pulled the guy who shot Him into His tear-shaped heart / and they in turn pulled others / and it kept growing til everyone in every galaxy and planet was inside / and they knew they could never kill God / God came down the chimney in a dream / and all the madmen began to howl and scream …’ Pretty intense, huh? And ‘Candy Face Lane’ on A World Of Peace—‘Candy Face Lane, below the gate / is filled with only fright and hate …’ It was really truthful at the time. I did that and ‘God’ at the Troubadour one night with a four-string guitar. ‘Leaves of Grass,’ someday they’ll find the real master—there’s a better vocal than the one on the record.
How did Van Dyke Parks feel about you stepping in after SMiLE collapsed?
He wasn’t overly friendly then, but now we’re pretty good friends. I don’t think I was ever quite in that circle. Brian kind of kept me as his man.
No money! Spiritual retainer! Nilsson I met and he was really sweet to me. Have you heard the story with me and Dennis in his Rolls Royce? He was smoking a joint and handed it to me. ‘You smoke it.’ ‘I don’t do it, Dennis.’ I’m 20 years old, hair down to my ass. ‘I don’t need it.’ ‘I’m vice-president of your record company!’ I opened the door and said, ‘You can take that contract and shove it up your ass!’ And he grabbed me—‘I’m just fucking with you, Kalinich!’ I loved Dennis, even though we had altercations—but never creatively.
Usually it’s the other way around. So altercations—did you come to blows?
Almost! ‘Cut that spiritual stuff out! I don’t wanna hear anymore!’ All our battles were in personal life, not creatively.
You and Charles Manson are both on 20/20—did you ever cross paths with him?
I don’t like to talk about it too much, but I met him coming out of the shower. He was staying at Dennis’ house on Sunset. He said, ‘Would you want to work together? Dennis told me about you.’ ‘No, I only work with Dennis and the Beach Boys.’ I was very adamant. My ex-wife Renee met him and said there was something very wrong with that guy. I was a peace-and-love child then. That’s why I tell you my viewpoints changed. She felt the bad and the evil, but I didn’t. In the beginning. But I did get scared enough to break my contract. I met the girls at the house too, one time—Squeaky and them. I flatly rejected him when he asked me. I don’t want to promote anything Charlie did. We ran across other crazy people, too. One time Dennis did acid and said, ‘I’ve become one with the leaves! I watched the water …’ I said, ‘Dennis, I do that all the time. I don’t need drugs.’ He said, ‘Kalinich, this is one of the few times I’ve understood you.’
Why did you sever your contract with the Beach Boys after 20/20?
My gut level is I was fearful after the Manson thing. Part of me said to pick the path of anonymity as opposed to being part of that. It disturbed me deeply when people got killed at that Who concert. I said, ‘I’m into music to bring love and fun and make you confront yourself,’ and when people got hurt it made me question that whole material structure and my search for fame. Do I feel that I need to be that significant? Like—I’M A POET! STEVE KALINICH! That’s why I created Stevie Nobody. One of my girlfriends thought I had a bad self image, but in the last line—‘Stevie Nobody they used to call me / I live in America, apartment C’—the last line is, ‘Everybody is a somebody / Everybody got something to give / Now I write books lecturing mankind / to look within themselves for lessons to find / because everybody is a somebody.’ The point is there are no nobodies. Sometimes people feel superior, gangs against gangs … like my little gang, one neighborhood against the other! I thought it’d be a great visual in a movie—ten-year-old kid, tears on his face, both sides against him, getting stoned by snowballs. And I go home with no side. It was like the end of the gangs.
So what happened in between—after A World of Peace and now?
I was happy being a poet, but I had to get to a point where I could make myself nothing. If I could get to the point where I felt like I was nothing, then I could make myself something. Life is important, but I am not that important. I had to realize that by not wanting to puff myself up, I gained something greater—access to the universal consciousness through myself and others. The less I think ‘Steven’ is doing it and the more I think the silence or stillness or grace does it through me … I want to retain my individual way so I can talk to you, I don’t wanna be absorbed. It’s important we don’t get swallowed. That we challenge the government when it’s unfair or unjust or challenge other people. And that we try and love others in a way I don’t think we’ve begun to grasp. There’s good in a loving family, but if the parents only love you and hate everyone else, it’s not a very good thing.
Your new albums with Jon Tiven are in a very different style from A World Of Peace—
Which was recorded almost 50 years ago!
How have you changed since?
I think Stevie Nobody, that character, allowed me to express all these things—I wouldn’t say exactly a character, but a part of myself called Stevie Nobody. And Jon is Jumpin Jack Hashtag. There’s two albums—the Yo Mama and the Tiven-Kalinich. Yo Mama is me at 25 kicking ass, but also really me at 70 realizing all the subconscious stuff I thought was incorrect and letting it hang out. Like scratching my balls. I wanna come clean and recognize the dark and the light. Until we recognize that, we can never be happy. Jon and I fight materialism and the establishment, but we also wanna have a lot of fun and party.
Art can be a safe place to act out your id.
Even when we express part of our id, we’re being honest about how we fuck up. I was thinking of a song today … ‘I wanna go to bed with you / but I’ll settle for a blowjob / cuz since my prostate surgery / I’m having trouble with my mouth.’ Guys don’t dare talk about problems after your prostate surgery! But I’m going anywhere—I think it’s important. You’re alone, you have a reverse ejaculate—who talks about it? I think young people are open to that. I don’t think the older ones are too much.
L.A. RECORD + GOLDENVOICE PRESENT STEPHEN KALINICH ON FRI., SEPT. 28, AT THE LIGHT IN THE ATTIC RECORDS TEN-YEAR ANNIVERSARY WITH RODRIGUEZ, SHIN JOONG HYUN, MICHAEL CHAPMAN AND DJ SIPREANO AND MORE AT THE EL REY, 5515 WILSHIRE BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 8 PM / SOLD OUT / ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM. STEPHEN KALINICH’S A WORLD OF PEACE MUST COME IS AVAILABLE FROM LIGHT IN THE ATTIC. LIGHTINTHEATTIC.NET.