I am an incorrigible stage manager, or situation manager, if you prefer. The movies, books, and music I love most trigger a certain mood, which is more important to me than plot or character. It’s why my reaction to artists such as Wong Kar Wai, Haruki Murakami, and Miles Davis during his “cool jazz” era (among many others) is so intense. This carries over to my personal life, to a tendency to construct (or reconstruct) a situation modeled on that jumble of moods and influences. Clothing, lighting, soundtrack—no detail is to small. If it’s seen as precious or contrived…frankly, I don’t really care, because I’m creating moments, however manufactured, that instill in me a deep peace of mind and happiness (or melancholy, because lord knows I love melancholy).
Sometimes you get lucky, and you encounter one of these moments in the wild, free of any planning or expectation. Needless to say, such moments, rare that they are, provide an even deeper level of satisfaction than moments that have been meticulously planned. Once in Barcelona, my last night in the city and in Spain, I went to dinner at a narrow cave of a place called La Alcoba Azul. I drank vermouth and gin and tonics—those great, ridiculous, glorious Spanish versions—and ate tapas in good, raucous company and with Lecuona Cuban Boys’ “Tabu” drifting through the place. On Dominica, hiking through the jungles in the Caribe Indian part of the island, I happened upon a man and woman sitting outside their home in a grassy clearing. “We’ve been waiting for you,” the man said as I waved in passing. That led to the better part of a day sitting under a massive mango tree, drinking from a dusty bottle of rum and talking about coconut carving, tree climbing, proper machete technique, surfing, and Caribe history.
Less ambitious: sitting on the B train, with Duke Ellington and Adelaide Hall’s “Creole Love Call” playing right as the train comes out of the tunnel, Manhattan spread out before me. And that was nothing but my (pre-COVID) commute to work. I’ve lived in New York for 23 years, and sometimes it still feels like I’m seeing it for the first time.
Spontaneous perfect moments happen less for me as I get older. However hard I fight against the tendency for the aging to let fear (or, to be more diplomatic, caution) creep into their thinking, it certainly still makes itself known. It wasn’t so long ago that all the planning it took for me to launch some hair-brained adventure was to wake up. Now I often feel crippled by the urge to plan, so much so that half the time, the adventure never gets off the ground. I know most of this planning isn’t essential; somehow I managed to get around Japan, Italy, and Scotland (not to mention most of the US) with a minimum of planning and no internet or sat nav, and nothing went wrong—except in Pisa, where I got a little bored and got a parking ticket (come and get me, carabinieri!).
But now, if I don’t watch myself, I’ll hesitate and over-plan to the point of not doing anything. Even a trip into Manhattan, something I do basically every day, can become subject to overthinking.
It also makes me less likely to approach people. Forever needing to be complicated, I am neither (or am both) an extrovert nor an introvert. I hover somewhere in between, or I vacillate between the two depending on sundry variables. But in my younger days, I was quick to strike up conversation and make new acquaintances. As I’ve gotten older, and even though the positive experiences I’ve had vastly outnumber the negative, I’ve become more likely to fold in upon myself, to drift quietly (some may say creepily) through a scene, not so much like a ghost or an observer, but more like…well, like a slightly edgy, uncomfortable old man. Conversations I should have, could have had—about old music, about an interesting amaro, about an obscure movie or point of history—go unspoken, and I’m less the richer for my letting them pass me by.
It even manifests in my writing, as a certain hesitancy to commit to expression of passion or excitement for fear of wandering into the realm of foolishness.
I may enjoy melancholy, but I do not enjoy depression or regret, and this creeping fear inspires depression and regret more times than not. To counter it requires vigilance and an acceptance that sometimes it’s just going to happen; no need to make it worse by beating myself up over it. I’ve been approaching it in a few different ways, the first of which you are in the middle of right now: writing about it, and returning to the sort of personal (indulgent? I can live with that) rambling that was not uncommon in my early days running and writing for Teleport City. As the internet became a nastier place, I tended to insulate myself from it with a certain journalistic aloofness, never committing to page anything too personal or emotionally vulnerable. But I think now that was the wrong reaction, that rather than improving my mental state it further isolated me from myself. Writing is how I work through most things, and for better or worse, the internet is my primary medium. So that was a big chunk of me put in cold storage, and it was damaging.
Another part of the program is being aware, of recognizing when I’m pulling into myself in a situation when I’d rather not—which is not every situation. Sometimes telling the world to fuck off for a spell so you can be alone feels great, and sometimes one just wants to drink alone in peaceful, silent contemplation. I’m pretty aware of what I want to do and experience, so I am pretty aware of when I’m not doing something because of fear. Which means I can work to overcome it. It’s not a game of totality. If, for example, you have a drinking problem, and you are sober for months but then have a night…well, you were still sober for months. I’m not a fan of “one violation cancels all of your progress.” Sure, some nights I’m going to overthink something to the point of not doing it. And I won’t pretend that won’t disappoint me, but come on. No one gets it right every time, and I am cool with that.
I also think it’s healthy to ramble like this not just for myself, but because I know I’m not the only person who occupies this weird space between introvert and extrovert, between adventurous and timid. And men, in particular, hesitate to talk about it because, like wearing pink shirts or shorts that are actually short, they’ve been conditioned to think it’s weak or feminine or gay, which…I hope you can tell what I think of any of that. I also wear pink shirts and like a 5.5″ inseam on my shorts. So the more men who deal with it openly, who promote the idea that we can have more emotional range than stunted stoic and “guy screaming about a movie on Youtube,” the more other men might start taking their mental well-being more seriously.
The final part brings me back to where I started: perfect moments, and not being afraid to put some work into creating them for myself. I admit many of my dream scenarios are influenced by pop culture. Movies, in particular, though often time it’s about an impression more than exact detail. And it amuses me to recreate moods and moments. It’s like buying yourself a gift, even wrapping it so you can unwrap it. A few years ago, in anticipation of traveling through the canyon lands of Utah, I spent some time putting together a very particular experience for myself. That’s how, one chilly morning, I found myself in a canvas safari tent, wearing a tank top undershirt, olive drab pants, putties, and boots, shaving while looking into one of those little round mirrors on a metal accordion mount, listening to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” via a tinny little radio (OK…Bluetooth enabled…it is the 21st century after all). Then I stepped out onto the tent’s veranda, a tin mug of coffee in my hand, and surveyed the vast, majestic landscape near Zion National Park.
That image has been ingrained in me since I was a child, by adventure movies and books and Boys’ Life magazine and a lot of Teddy Roosevelt. A composite of all of those things, the memory of a memory. It didn’t matter that I’d put it all together for myself like a little stage play. I was, in that moment, sublimely happy and at one with everything.
These days, when a pandemic has had us all spending over a year now with nothing to do but plan for experiences we can’t yet experience, I’ve been working on a few more. One involves Greek islands, old Riviera and Amalfi Coast photos, and some comfortable lounging wear I picked up from Dandy Del Mar. Another has an awful lot to do with Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild and creating the perfect WKW playlist for a certain mood.
It doesn’t work for everyone. It doesn’t always work for me. And this past year, in particular, I’ve had conversations (or DMs, anyway) with friends about the inherent privilege of something as simple (to me) as a road trip, of the things as a pretty mundane looking white guy I don’t have to worry about that are much more…to say “dangerous” doesn’t overstate the case…if you are Black, or if you are Asian, or if you are a woman, or if you’ve suffered financially or physically. That racism, sexism, homophobia, vicious economics, and bigotry can not only rob a person of what should be a pleasure, but can make simply getting form point A to point B an exercise in stress and terror…I don;t even know how to express the depth of rage and revulsion that inspires in me.
So what is for me a predictable function of age and personality is, for many of y’all, a tragically necessary survival mechanism. I’m still working on integrating that reality into my thinking and figuring out what I can contribute. But therein lies the real reason I want to fight the creeping fear. Not so I have good stories, or so I can say I went somewhere interesting, or even so I can sit at home and be content. It’s because I see, over and over and over, first-hand, how often that creeping fear that seeps in as you get older turns into suspicion and hate of others. I see it turn once-smart people into conspiracy theorists. I see it turn once-smart people into racists.
Anyway…perfect moments. Let them come too you, or manufacture them. Be open to them, but don’t beat yourself up if you let one pass you by from time to time. Support others in their own quest for perfect moments. Watching someone else get theirs can be a perfect moment in itself. They don’t need to be grand gestures or sweeping epics. Tempering the scale and reducing the price tag makes it more achievable, and it makes it less likely you’ll bail on yourself.
Tonight, I’m sitting on the couch, drinking a bottle of cheap, delicious Portuguese wine (Escudo Real Vinho Verde, y’all), listening to Xavier Cugat and Lecuona Cuban Boys. I worked all week toward this, and now that it’s happening…one perfect moment.
I figure the world is always better for a story about fucking up Nazis, so here’s one from the vaults.
My grandparents had this utility room in their basement, with a brick red cement floor and walls lined from top to bottom with wooden shelves jammed with a countless array of enticing piles. Years worth of National Geographic magazines. Strange hat boxes full of other hat boxes. A box of comics and magazines containing one of my most cherished forbidden fruits of childhood: some sleazy pulp magazine from the 70s (I reckon) called Gasm. How that got into the mix, I never found out. The cover, I remember with shocking clarity, depicted a sexy, big-breasted female robot standing against your typical 70s sci-fi world that looks like something that would be airbrushed onto the side of a stoner’s custom van.
There were a couple sexy illustrations and classified ads inside, but being a particularly twisted young thing, I was more enthralled by the illustrations that accompanied one of those “true tales of adventure” type articles about a group of men whose boat sank, forcing them to fight for their lives against a seemingly endless frenzy of flesh-hungry sharks. The lead illustration was of a stubble-faced man shrieking in horror, holding aloft into the sky a handless arm. Where the hand should have been, the artist had piled on an eye-popping atrocity show of amputation by shark teeth. Amazingly, the shark had bitten off the man’s hand and left a perfectly smooth cross-section of arm with a bone protruding from the wound while blood spurted toward the clouds in a great geyser. Bobbing behind him were various severed arms and legs sporting the same smooth cross-sectional amputation and spurting more blood. Half a man bobbed next to him with intestines spilling out from under his half-exposed rib cage.
I never read the actual story, but every time we went over there, I stole a peek at the illustration. I believe that eventually I took it upon myself to color the illustration in. It was even better than the encyclopedia that had the entry on human anatomy with transparent pages so you could peel away the layers of man and gawk at his innards and blood vessels.
Gasm was one of the two great treasures back in the utility room. The other was boxes and boxes full of green Army men and their accompanying grey Nazi and beige Japanese opponents. This was no meager collection, understand. There were hundreds upon hundreds of pieces. Soldiers, tanks, troop transports, Howitzers, little plastic coils of barbed wire—everything you needed to mount a realistic campaign over the floor and up the washing machine. I spent hours setting up vast, elaborate battlefields so that I could demolish everything in under ten minutes when “crazy Kowalski” from the infantry hopped into a half-track and tore through the entire scene, single-handedly defeating the German army and rescuing all those useless “guy in crawling pose” Army men that had become stuck in the barbed wire. I didn’t care for those guys, but you know how it is. Kowalski wouldn’t leave a man behind, no matter how useless that grunt’s pose may be.
On the shelf above the buckets of Army men was some war memorabilia of a different nature. It was there that my grandfather kept the German helmet he’d brought back with him after the war, where he’d managed to storm Utah beach on D-Day then storm across the continent as part of Patton’s Third Army. Somewhere along the way, he got separated from the greater portion of the American force and, in a scene that seems straight out of a movie, found himself pursued by German soldiers to a small French farmhouse, where the sympathetic locals hid him in a hay bale that the Germans went through with a pitchfork. He also sustained some shrapnel damage to the lower leg, but I can’t remember exactly when that occurred.
Near the end of the war, when it was obvious to the German regulars that they were going to lose, that the Nazis were crazy, and that this was no longer any cause worth dying for, my grandfather and members of his platoon found themselves facing off against a group of their German counterparts in some small Bavarian town. Or maybe it was still in France. The details elude me so many years after first hearing the story. Whatever the location, it was obvious that the Germans no longer had their heart in the fight, and the Americans were not all that interested in killing beaten men. The town had been in the midst of some manner of celebration before the opposing forces had descended upon their narrow country streets and set up camp on either side of the main square, which was, it turned out, occupied by a couple huge kegs of beer mounted on wagons.
With the war for Europe winding down, this seemed a far more promising prize. Someone took a couple shots at one of the oversized wooden barrels, poking a hole or two in it and allowing the brew within to spurt out in an arc to the ground. Then an American would run toward the keg and fill his helmet with beer while the Germans took potshots at his feet. Upon his return to the safety of his comrades, a couple minutes would pass, and then a German would run from the opposite end of the square and fill his helmet with beer while the American GIs shot at his feet. This went on long enough for everyone to get good and drunk, and frankly, given the amount of beer that was doubtless consumed that night, it’s a wonder no one actually got shot.
He came out of that war with a whole host of stories, a German helmet, and his most prized souvenir, the “Little Nazi,” a Luger he’d taken from a dead German officer. Few and far between are the Christmas get-togethers that don’t involve Grandpa Harley trotting out the Little Nazi for show and tell.
“Jesus Harley,” my grandmother would exclaim, “What are you doing? That thing’s not loaded, is it?”
“Of course it’s loaded,” he would respond. “A gun ain’t no damn good if it isn’t loaded. It’s not going to go off. The safety’s on. Now,” he would say as he flipped a switch or pressed a button somewhere, “now it could go off!”
He regaled us with stories about how, when they were shorted food and ammunition by “that yardbird Harry Truman,” they would have to run across a field and catch bugs in their mouths if they wanted to eat. “Yardbird” was the very worst of the insults Grandpa Harley could level at someone, a tag reserved for those he truly hated: Hitler, Harry Truman, and whoever was coaching the University of Louisville’s basketball team. He would also tell us about how the Turks who fought alongside them would cut off the ears of Nazi officers, dead or alive, and string them onto trophy necklaces. Most of his stories rang true, though even as a little one I had my doubts about the bug eating thing. It did invest in me a healthy disdain for Harry Truman, though. And I never doubted the thing about the ears. For years, Turks both excited and terrified me.
Mixed in with the relics of the war and of life in the 50s and 60s was a particularly gruesome curiosity that held my fascination nearly as firmly as the gory sleaze of Gasm magazine. It was just one of those ugly heads made out of a coconut, some useless and tacky souvenir grandpa and grandma had picked up one year on a vacation down south to Florida. But the thing was ugly. It had feathers glued all over the top of its head, hideous eyes, and most chilling of all, actual human teeth glued haphazardly into the rough-hewn mouth. I wasn’t exactly a well-traveled kid at the time, so I didn’t even know what a coconut looked like still inside its shell and not made into a radio or a car by the Professor on Gilligan’s Island. This would prove to be a mortal weakness.
“You don’t want to go messing around with that,” my grandfather once admonished me in an attempt to keep me from scaling the rickety shelves like some devil-may-care Alpinist in an attempt to get a look at that malformed head. “Do you know what it is?” And then he would smile. An evil smile, though I didn’t realize it at the time. “That’s Hitler’s head. I cut it off during the war and brought it home with me.”
“Really? No it isn’t. Really.”
“And if you go messing with it, it’ll come to life and scream at you.”
I still remember asking that bizarre question. Here I was, confronted by the disembodied head of Adolf Hitler, and the only thing that amazed me about the possibility of it coming to life and screaming at me was that it could do so in German.
“It doesn’t looked like Hitler,” I commented, still a tad bit skeptical about this wild yarn.
“That’s because we dried it out on the boat back to America.”
“Where’s his mustache?”
“I tore that off myself and sent it to Harry S. Truman.”
From that day on, I was terrified of Hitler’s head. Up late one night watching one of those They Saved Hitler’s Brain type movies with friends, I would explain to them how I knew where Hitler’s head actually was. In school, I once got in trouble for telling classmates that my grandfather had Hitler’s head in his basement, and that it would scream at you in German. My teacher—I would guess this to have been around second grade—told me the story was silly, and that my grandfather had just been pulling my leg, but what did she know?
“Who you gonna believe?” my grandpa asked me. “Her or the guy who was actually there?”
And he was right. She hadn’t seen the thing, with its foul, cracked yellow teeth and hair of green and red and blue feathers—just like the real Hitler!
It’s another one from the vault. I did this interview with pro skater Tony Hawk in 2003. Being for Toyfare magazine, the article was ostensibly about his then-new line of action figures, but we managed to veer off into other territory, including a discussion of a terrifying something called the “butt-splitter.”
You can tell Tony Hawk is hurting as he limps into the hotel lobby. He and his skateboarding crew had just acked the Nassau Coliseum for the big Boom Boom Huck Jam the night before, and his fifth show in five nights has left him battered. On top of all that, there had been attendees Susan Sarandon, Christie Brinkley and 60 Minutes to talk to afterwards…What was he gonna do, tell ’em he was tired? If you’re at all familiar with Hawk, you have a certain image in your head of a good guy who hasn’t let fame and fortune go to his head; someone who, at heart, is just a kid who loves to skate.
Well, it’s all true; you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more gracious and down-to-on earth. As a member of the legendary Powell-Peralta Bones Brigade skate team, Hawk made a name for himself skating ramps, but his greatest trick has probably been maintaining-and expanding-his fame over the years. Regarded by many as the ambassador of skateboarding, Tony is the most recognizable name in the sport, as well as one of the most recognizable names in sports, period.
With that level of fame come certain trappings: action figures, for one. But for a while it seemed figures weren’t a trapping Hawk was going to accept without a fight. Now aligned with Brooklyn-based Art Asylum on a line of li’l Hawks, he seems to have resigned himself to fate, and we wanted to know why. So despite the fact that his body went through the wringer the night before, and his family is on the road with him, here he is giving up part of his free time to talk toys with Toyfare over a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich.
KEITH: You were hesitant to do Tony Hawk action figures at first. Why the reservations?
TONY: I feel like there’s always the worry of being considered a sellout. It always seemed like once you got to the level where you have an action figure, that’s it. Okay, yeah, you get the M.C. Hammer, you get the New Kids on the Block action figure…and that’s the end of their career, basically. That’s when they’d say you’ve jumped the shark, when you’re just clambering for anything. That’s what it seemed like to me in the past. At the same time, I’ve come to realize through being successful, especially through video games, that people only really consider you a sellout when your stuff is selling.
It’s like when they say a band has sold out. Actually they’re just selling more albums. They’re not changing their art. The irony is that if you take a band like KISS, for example—I mean if anyone is ever gonna be called a sellout, it’s gotta be KISS—and their fans are die-hard. They never consider them in that light, as sellouts. And they’ll market anything. They’ll go for toothpaste.
KEITH: Of course, you’re no stranger to Tony Hawk merchandise.
TONY: I’ve had signature products since I was 14, but nobody really took notice of it because skating wasn’t really that big. Suddenly it gets really big, and everyone’s scrutinizing what you’re doing and who you’re promoting. It doesn’t compromise what I do. It doesn’t change the way I ride my skateboard or the way that I present myself. Action figures are another extension of that; there’s such a cool factor in action figures now. I saw Art Asylum’s stuff…it’s quality stuff. It’s not just some thing where you pick it up and the head falls off or you can’t move it or what have you. It’s come a long way. When you look at Eminem and Ozzy action figures—that’s not N’Sync!
KEITH: Did your kids exercise any influence over your final decision to go ahead and do the figure line?
TONY: Yeah. I mean, having kids, I understand what kids like. What they’re into and what they consider cool. Obviously with Art Asylum’s background, with their track record—my kids have some of their toys—I knew they were quality and I knew they look good, so…the kids enjoy ’em!
KEITH: So what’s it been like working on a toy line, especially one that looks like you?
TONY: It’s weird, you know. You want to monitor it so closely. “Is that cool?” (Art Asylum Vice President Adam Unger interrupts to hand Tony a pair of action figure shorts, proclaiming proudly, “Here’s your shorts!”) Yeah, stuff like, “Do we really wanna have shorts this color?” Down to the nitty-gritty, like, “I don’t know if the blue shirt should go with the cream shorts.” After a while you step back and go, “Does it really matter?” But, it was fun.
KEITH: Did you have any demands of Art Asylum?
TONY: I just wanted to make sure I was involved really closely, make sure the graphics and the clothes are all represented well. It wasn’t a hard process.
KEITH: Are they going to be sporting gear from Birdhouse and Hawk Clothing?
TONY: Oh yeah, definitely. They definitely have my sponsors involved. Right down to the Nixon watch.
KEITH: Will you be bringing aboard other guys you skate with? How about a Bones Brigade line, based on your old skate team?
TONY: That would be insane! I don’t know. I don’t know what the other guys would say to that. I can picture Tommy [Guerrero] saying, “No way.” Mike [McGill] would be in. Cab [Steve Caballero] would be in. Lance [Mountain] would probably be on the fence. But those are just my assumptions.
ADAM UNGER (spreading out a rainbow of Tony Hawk action on the table): You have to watch out for the brand, and the brand is Tony; it’s a company unto itself. You have to watch what you launch so that it doesn’t hurt everything else. Even the guys at Quicksilver and other companies that we were talking to, to authenticate them, they were like, ‘Well, I don’t know if we want our logo on this Tony Hawk doll.’ Once they saw what we were doing and saw what was going on, everything fell into place.
TONY: I’m just glad that you can’t take the pants off. That was going to be trouble. There’s my only hesitation with action figures—that someone will put them in compromising positions with other action figures.
KEITH: I know skating has been a big part of your life since early on. Did you have the time to get into toys and toy collecting when you were a kid?
TONY: I was into toys when I was a kid, but I didn’t really have a collection per se. I can tell you that I had the Evil Knievel action figure with the wind-up motorcycle and the jump. In fact, someone gave me that recently because they read that I had that as a kid. Any favorite toys now? My favorite toys now are my Nightmare Before Christmas collection. I have the large Jack and Sally poseable figures, complete with coffins and extra heads. I also have a ceramic mayor with a rotating head—happy and worried. I still want to get other Jack versions, an Oogie Boogie man and his cohorts.
KEITH: Are you into video games?
TONY: I used to play a lot, but I just don’t have the time anymore. But sometimes I’ll latch onto a game and I won’t give up on it. Like, I started playing Halo for a while. Halo is consistently challenging. On this trip, we’ve been playing Kelly Slater on the bus. I like Kelly Slater because it allows me to surf the way that I’ve always wanted to, riding big waves smoothly and getting big air.
KEITH: Are you any good at your own video game?
TONY: Yeah, I am. I can beat it without cheating, which not that many people can say.
KEITH: Do you have any favorite cartoons?
TONY: I think The Simpsons never gets old; they seem to always keep it fresh. I don’t collect the toys, but they gave me a few when I did the show. [Note: Hawk appears in The Simpsons’ 300th episode.) My favorite is the talking Grandpa.
KEITH: Most memorable brush with fame?
TONY: I was once on an airplane flight with Mick Foley—Mankind from the WWF—coming back into Long Island airport after the holidays, and all he wanted to talk about was being with his kids at Disneyworld.
KEITH: Worst injury?
TONY: When I was in Boston, I took one really good hit. There’s this thing in skating where if you shoot on your ass sideways, you get what you call a “butt-splitter.” One cheek grabs the wall and the other one doesn’t, and it’s just like…(deep, pained breath). Everyone saw it, too. All the other skaters knew. I was just lying there, and they were saying, “You got an ass-splitter?” and I was like…(painful nod).
KEITH: Do you get a lot of movie offers?
TONY: Just once in a while, just cameo. Like I did a little thing in XXX and The New Guy, but that’s about it. I don’t really want to try and branch out into acting. I feel like that’s a…that’s like a when a sports star says, “Oh, I’m gonna be a rapper now!”
KEITH: You had a great cameo in Jackass: The Movie.
TONY: Yeah, that was fun. That was during the rehearsal for one of our events. They called me and said, “Do you wanna do something for the movie?” And I was like, “Yeah, whatever you want to do. But I’m doing three rehearsals for the next couple weeks up in this hangar where we’ve got this ramp.” So they said, “Oh, we’ll do something with the ramp!” So they brought out the fat suits, and Bam [Margera] came out. Bam actually ended up puking from heat exhaustion because of the suit.
KEITH: Now that you have a new game out, what do you have planned for the near future?
TONY: In the near future I want to do this tour again and make more video games. Those are sort of what I want to focus on. And then also, obviously, helping run the projects that I already started, like Birdhouse (Skateboards) and Hawk Shoes and Hawk Clothing. But I don’t want to branch out too much more because I’m too tapped…and I always want the skating to be the top priority.
KEITH: Do you see this toy line expanding in different directions?
TONY: I thought about that: “Where do you go from here?” Where are the extensions? What do you build the line around? Do you make him, like, “Tony Hawk: Action Man”? He does this, he rides skateboards, he saves people. He’s a hero! The last time I saw it, my son had taken the arms off the figure I gave him, and I said, “Why’d you take the arms off?” He says, “Now you can shoot fire out of one and water out of the other.” So now I’m a superhero.
[Fourteen high school girls clambering around Tony seeking photos signifies the end of our time together. The girls cycle through a seemingly endless collection of cameras. One asks for a handshake, and encouraged by Tony’s willingness to oblige, goes in for the hug as well. It’s easy to see how this sort of life could go to a guy’s head, which makes it all the more remarkable that, in Tony’s case, it hasn’t.]
Original Publication And When There’s Darkness, June 1991
In 1988, when I was 16 years old, I started a zine. Shockingly, it wasn’t very good, but over the years (I managed to stretch it out, in fits and starts, into the mid-1990s) it got better, and occasionally it was even OK. There are worse things to be embarrassed about than how earnest and comically passionate about social issues you were as a teenager. In 1991, I interviewed Fugazi vocalist/guitarist Ian MacKaye, and it remains probably the thing I most enjoyed doing—not just because it was Fugazi, and I think the interview is not bad for something conducted by a teenager, but because of the way in which the interview was conducted. I sat on a curb behind the club at which the band had just played (Tewligans, Louisville, KY—you can download it from Dischord’s live show archive) with MacKaye, and in short order the interview became a group affair, with people who had been at the show drifting in and out to ask their own questions.
I thought then, and think even more so now, the communal, off-the-cuff nature of the interview embodied what drew me to punk rock in general and what made me love, to this day, the punk scene in Louisville in particular. Even in my darkest, most disillusioned moments, I look back at the fact that young people all over the world, with no “training” and often nothing in the way of resources or “business infrastructure,” and just as often with overwhelming social forces working against them, managed to organized political movements, form bands, meet each other, write zines and books, and tour the world—with no internet!
I also took some photos at the show. It was the first time I got photos back and thought, “Wow, I might actually be able to take OK photographs.” I then proceeded to dice them up, paste them into layout, and lose them forever. So I’ve done what I can with the poor quality xeroxes.
So here’s the 1991 interview, with questions both reasonable and awkward. Those present included: me; good friend Christi C.; Sunspring/Metroschifter guitarist/vocalist, K Composite editor, Slamdek Records founder, and future mayoral candidate K. Scott Ritcher; Endpoint drummer Lee Fetzer and guitarist Chad Castetter; Cerebellum/Crain guitarist, Parlour founder, and graphic designer Tim Furnish (he was silent the whole time); someone I didn’t know; and my best friend and zine co-editor throughout high school, Amy G. (also largely silent, though on the original recording she supplied much laughter and groaning at some of the dumber questions). And thanks to another friend, Amy C., who actually kept the issue of the zine in which this interview originally appeared.
KEITH: OK, well, it was kind of hard coming up with questions you haven’t already been asked…
IAN: I’ll bet!
KEITH: But we did our best and this is what we came up with. So here’s the first one–how many interviews do you do on the average tour?
IAN: Good question, and the reason is this: in the beginning, and let’s just keep this to Fugazi, because in the last eleven or twelve years I’ve done hundreds of interviews, but in the beginning we would interviews, like two or three a night. And we’re still happy to speak with any fanzine if we have the time. We’re always willing to sit down and talk to people, but what we’re finding out is that the fanzine people, a lot of them considering us untouchable, like they’re intimidated by us. They might think that we’re not going to talk to them, because when you’re playing a show with, like, a thousand or fifteen hundred people, I think first off a lot of times the clubs you play make the band a little harder to get in touch with, which is a problem.
And secondly, I think a lot of the people assume that when a band plays a show that big that they’re not going to talk to fanzines or whatever. But pretty much, at this point, we’re only interested in doing interviews with fanzines or true music publications. And when I say true music publications, that does NOT include Spin or Rolling Stone, or a lot of magazines like that. Maybe something like Option or Musician I might do something with. Actually, we’ve been asked to be interviewed by a lot of the bigger papers, and we turn them down.
CHRISTI: Do you not want all that type of publicity or not think it’s necessary?
IAN: I think we just feel that the kind of hype that’s generated…I mean, a lot of bands and a lot of people really try to get into these magazines. They really try hard, and it’s like, that’s the way they try to promote themselves. We don’t try to get in those magazines. Sometimes we end up in those magazines. You get thrust into a certain limelight that will, eventually, thrust you down just the same. I think we feel like we get a certain amount of…the word “success” isn’t exactly the word I want to use, but I’ll use it. We’ve reached a certain amount of success working in the underground, working with the people in the underground. And we obviously sell a bunch a record, a lot more than some of the major independent bands or whatever, and we have really successful tours. But the reason we do the band is not for those ends.
The reason we’re in the band is to play music, and we’re trying to be somewhat precious about that, and we try not to screw it up by being mistaken for a band that is shamelessly promoting itself. So anyway, we don’t do enough interviews with small zines…I mean on this tour we’ve been out for about five weeks now, and I’ve done maybe about twenty interviews.
KEITH: How do you think Fugazi is different from any of your previous bands?
IAN: Um, there’s different people in it, and it’s 1991. (Laughter. Amy G. makes a snort sound like a deflating tire)
KEITH: Okay, how do you think you’re different?
IAN: I’d like to make a subtle notation. I know it’s the way you worded the question, but it’s really not my band either. None of my bands are my bands; I’m always only in a band. Just careful, because I do talk a lot, and I do a lot of interviews, and am somewhat of a recognizable person, I guess, and have a reputation. But the fact of the matter is that I’m in these bands, but they’re not my bands. That’s an important thing to keep in mind.
KEITH: What do you think it is about the band that has gained it such a widespread popularity?
IAN: (shrugs) Um, people like it? I don’t know. (Laughter). I don’t know. Again, our purpose, the reason we’re in a band is to play music the way we want to, how we want to, when want to…just play whatever strikes us. From the beginning it’s always been like that. It was never something that was particularly premeditated. We weren’t trying to achieve some certain sort of success with it. I can tell you that if we played for like a year, played to a lot of…well, our first tour we had no record out, and we just played in art galleries and restaurants, anywhere we could…if we had broken up at the end of that year, I would have said, well, that was a success.
CHRISTI: Would you rather play smaller places like this or bigger places?
IAN: It totally depends on the crowd, the situation, the evening, our moods. There’s a certain kind of communication that you can get into in a small room, which is really nice. But also, there is an explosive potential, a really positive energy in a room with a thousand people. Unfortunately, that’s usually translated into people becoming ugly because they feel somewhat shielded by all this other mass of humanity. But when you have a good majority of that crowd just really getting off, there’s nothing that beats it. It’s just really, really great. And I’ve played some small shows, like twelve people that could have really fun, but instead, it’s like early at a party where people are standing around going, “Shit,” and scratching their heads and looking around at each other nervously. And that’s not much fun for me.
Even today was really intimate, which is good because sometimes people are like, “God, I thought these guys were going to really be…” but instead it was really kind of mellow and laid back. I mean, everybody in the world gets to see Fugazi in front of a thousand people, like screaming blah blah blah and blaring loud. So for me it’s kinda cool to play a really quiet, weird, mellow set. And it’s also nice not doing encores, because the encore thing is really perverse and weird. We’re really stuck between the duality. On the one hand, we played what we wanted to play, and we’re done now. On the other hand, knowing that if we don’t go back out, then we’re a bunch of rock star dicks. And it’s really nice to feel like wow, we played. And in a room this small, you almost feel like people can say, “Well, wow. Cool. They played.”
SCOTT: Don’t you think you might also be a bigger superstar if you went back in and said, “Okay, yeah! We’re back!”
IAN: Yeah, I mean today’s a great example of when you don’t have to go back, but at bigger shows if you don’t go back, then everyone thinks you’re a dick because they’re all going “More! More! More!”
LEE: Do you ever just take a rest on stage?
IAN: We’ve done that, yeah. Yeah.
LEE: Like, “We’re gonna play some more, but we need to take a rest.”
IAN: Yeah, we do that, but sometimes we’re really done. I mean, we don’t save songs. We really don’t literally have a set. Well, we don’t have a set ever. We always play off the top of our heads, and every night is different. But we have like forty songs, and there’s a lot of songs we could have played tonight that we didn’t play.
CHRISTI: What about those people who yell “12XU” when you play? How does that make you feel?
LEE: No! I was one of the people tonight who did that, but it was joke! Because the first time you played here there was some guy who kept yelling it.
IAN: When was that? That was… New Albany?
CHRISTI: Yeah, but how does it make you feel when they’re doing it for real?
IAN: It makes me feel shitty, and you wanna know why?
LEE: Oh, I’m sorry!
IAN: Oh no, no, no, It’s cool now. I get the joke, but I didn’t get the joke at the time. The reason it makes me feel shitty is mostly because everybody else in the band was not in Minor Threat. And it just goes on and on. We obviously don’t play Minor Threat songs. We’re not Minor Threat. Those guys were never in Minor Threat. All four of us work really hard for this band, and when you think about it, it’s gotta be a little discouraging to constantly be confronted with the suggestion, even the mere suggestion, that the only reason we’re on this stage is because I was in Minor Threat. It’s not the reason we’re playing or why we’re on stage. This band, Fugazi, has truly paid its dues. We’ve worked our asses off. We did a whole U.S. tour, a three-month European tour with no record out, playing the weirdest, smallest places, not letting Minor Threat be used. Like at that New Albany Show, we said, “No Minor Threat shit” on the flyer.
The whole point of that was to give the band a chance to sort of…grow into a band, to be a band without everyone instantly going, “Minor Threat!” We worked really hard to tap into that, and yet people continuously go on. I mean, people say, like, “What’s the big deal? Why won’t you play that song?” And the reason is, because, goddamn first off, I was the only person that was ever in Minor Threat. The other three people weren’t, so it’s not their song. Furthermore, the other people in Minor Threat aren’t in this band, and so they wouldn’t really be enjoying it if we were to go in and everyone was, “Yeah! Yeah!” But mostly, the most obvious reason is because this is 1991, and the present is far more important than the past, which means this band is far more important than Minor Threat ever was.
LEE: Do you ever have anyone yell for Rites Of Spring songs?
IAN: On occasion, but very rarely. I think that the Rites Of Spring people, and I’m not too proud to admit this, but I think the Rites of Spring people have a certain amount of class that a lot of the Minor Threat people don’t have. Not that all Minor Threat people, people who like Minor Threat don’t have class. But Minor Threat was a much more widely known band, particularly with thanks or no thanks to that fucking movie (Another State of Mind) that was on Night Flight every day of the week for a year.
The thing is, and I don’t know how much it’s true, but it seems to me that the power of television is so frightening. I mean if perchance I was in some stupid movie…I mean, I never thought that movie would be shown anywhere, because those guys were just the biggest joke, the guys doing the movie. And the fact that we ended up on some television show, every night someone goes, “So how’s Mike Ness doing?” I don’t fucking know how Mike Ness is doing! (More healthy laughter) I don’t have a clue. I haven’t talked to him in six years.
CHRISTI: Well, what about when you’re playing and somebody starts yelling like, “Suggestion?”
IAN: Well, it all depends on how you yell it. I mean, sometimes people yell songs and it’s nice. But we already know that we are gonna play whatever strikes us. And that’s just the way we work. On occasion, like tonight, for instance, somebody yelled out “Promises,” and I was thinking, “What should I play?” and then it was like, yeah, well, that will be a nice song to play. Since also we never play “Promises” live, or we haven’t been playing it since, like, last tour or whatever. But generally, it makes you feel like a big video jukebox or whatever. There are songs that some people like a lot, and it means a lot to them, and cool. But at the same time I feel that none of our songs are more important than the others. We’re trying not to let any of the songs become overtly highlighted.
The one song that really haunts us is “Waiting Room.” That song, actually, we ran into a situation where every night people were yelling for “Waiting Room,” and we thought, well, it’s just one of our songs, and for that reason we’re not going to play it. And we went off the stage, in Germany this was, and the people were all, “More more more!” so we went back on, and then “More more!” so we went back and did two more songs, and “More more!” and it finally occurred to us, these people, they’re waiting for “Waiting Room.” And basically, it’s like, if we saved it for last, it would be sort of like Queen saving “We Will Rock You” for last. I saw Golden Earring once, back in 1974, and they did “Radar Love” first and last.
So that’s a song we end up doing almost every night. We didn’t do it tonight, which was kind of cool for us. I mean, it’s a great song and all that, but it’s really nice when you’re comfortable with everybody, and you don’t need to pull out the really obvious song and all that. But sometimes we’ll do it just so that we don’t have to do it and have people think we’re saving it for some encore. It’s more embarrassing then. It’s just weird. It’s a weird situation. We’re really stuck. A lot of people, are like, easy going, nice people who are into us and understand what kind of band we are. But a lot of people are into us like we’re a really huge band and they have all these expectations, and we don’t to like…belittle or insult either group. But that’s a challenge we undertake and have to deal with creatively. And people say, “Well what are you going to do when you get bigger?” and well…goddamn, we’ll keep getting bigger and keep finding ways to deal with it.
WOMAN I DIDN’T KNOW: What’s been the most unusual spontaneous occurrence?
IAN: On this tour or any tour? I can tell you, one of my favorite moments ever was in Scotland. We were doing “Suggestion.” It was the quiet part of “Suggestion,” and all of a sudden, this woman came pushing her way to the front through all these drunk, stupid guys, and she said, she yelled at me, “Tell the women to get up here!” so I said, “Here, you tell them.” And then she got up on stage and said, “Get up here! This is our fucking song.” And then suddenly, women, there were like thirty women up on stage, and they just took the mike and were totally testifying, and it was so beautiful. That was like total spontaneity. It was really wonderful and one of the greatest things I’ve ever had happen to me.
We always feel like…I wish people would come up on stage. If you want to sing, come on up and sing or whatever. Unfortunately, most of the time people get on stage and are just like, “Well fuck you! Bleah bleah.” But that was really really great. We had one night where these guys kept coming up to stage dive, and it was so incredibly monotonous and repetitive that finally we just handed them our equipment, and I introduced them as just, like, the Stage Divers, and they played a song. No one could play anything. They were just beating on the instruments. That was in Chicago. That was pretty cool. We let them play for a minute or so before we chased them offstage. “Get out of here. You suck.”
There’s just some really weird stuff, and it’s too bad that like. one person can’t come to every one of our shows. Being in a band, this band, sometimes is so highly unusual because so many great things happen. I mean, it’s not even weird for me anymore to look over and see, like, Guy [Picciotto] lying on top of some huge guy and kissing him or something, and the guy’s just like freaked out. Weird shit always happen.
CHAD: Someone told me that at one of your shows in St. Louis there were all these guys stage diving and you would kiss each one of them before they jumped off.
IAN: That was two years ago at Bernard’s Pub, yeah. That was pretty funny because those guys actually lined up because they wanted to be kissed.
KEITH: Okay, what else. Probably this question just got answered…what are some of the highlights of being in Fugazi?
IAN: Just being in Fugazi. If you ask that question, that’s what it is.
CHRISTI: What does Fugazi mean?
IAN: I was reading this book called The ‘Nam, and I saw this weird word, “fugazi,” so I looked it up in the glossary, and it said slang for “fucked up situation.” Anyway, it was so innocuous that I just thought, good name. Everyone has weird definitions of it. The love of all things. Out of control.
LEE: I was talking to somebody, and I said I was going to see Fugazi, and they said, “Oh, isn’t that slang for pot?”
IAN: Definitely. Oh yeah.
SCOTT: Why do you think people like to take pictures of musicians?
IAN: I think one of the reasons is that, a lot of the time when somebody is playing music it’s definitely a moment worthy of a photograph. There’s a lot of emotion and movement a lot of times going on on stage that is really fascinating, I think, to look at. It really is, I can tell you, what I do on stage is more completely free than any moment in my life. I mean, I can be a total idiot and not care. But also I think people like to take pictures just to document that they were there. Why do people do anything? It’s kind of funny when people ask you to pose for a photograph. There must be eight trillion pictures of me going like this (smiles dumbly and waves like either the Pope or Queen Elizabeth. There was debate as to which one). And then there’s the one like this, the Vanna White one.
KEITH: Okay, we also had are there any low points to being in the band?
KEITH: How would you feel about sharing them with us? Some of them?
CHRISTI: The highlights of the lows…
KEITH: The low lows… lowerest, most low.
IAN: I think it’s really frustrating. It can be…I mean, we are desperately trying to maintain (background noise). If I am just standing in the audience watching a band, well, I can’t possibly watch the band without someone coming up to me and going, “What time are you guys going on?” or whatever. It just drives me crazy after a while. There’s this real struggle we get into; on one end, we’re trying to maintain this global atmosphere, but at the same time we’re trying to maintain a sense of sanity, that I am allowed to exist as who I am.
CHRISTI: Do you end up missing a lot of bands you would have wanted to see because of it?
IAN: No, no, I usually end up watching from the side. But like right now, I’m just kind of burned. We’ve been on tour five weeks, so you can imagine, we see a lot of bands. Sometimes it’s a drag. You drive four or five hours to get to a show. You do the soundcheck and all of that, and it can get sort of tiring. So I miss some, but I always try to catch at least a song or two, usually more. It’s also just for the sake of my ears or eyes or mind.
LEE: Well, you can always just listen from outside.
IAN: Yeah, like today I was listening to those guys (Plastic Jesus) from out here and enjoying it. It’s sunny; we’ve got a nice breeze blowing. I remember this one club, it was just great. Inside, you know, it was crowded. You couldn’t see the band. But out in the parking lot where I was, it was great. There was this window, this screen window, right next to the stage. It was great because I could see the band and everyone. It wasn’t too loud. It was a totally great scene.
(More background noise, but the question was posed about things that distract from going to shows, seeing bands, etc.)
IAN: I’ll never forget, in Texas we went cliff diving. It was like this thirty foot tall cliff into a quarry. It was really fun. Really terrifying and great. You’re out there swimming around, and it’s just like, I’m never going to… I mean, why would I ever want to go into another gloomy club and blow my ears out and have all this cigarette smoke and shit?
KEITH: And next tour, bungee cords!
IAN: Yeah! There are times when we’ll stop, and go out into these woods or whatever and just stand around and go, “We’re never going to play another show.”
KEITH: Okay, here are some questions about the next record. I heard rumors it was coming out on Chrysalis records!
IAN: (Makes funny, twisted face and laughs) Next question.
KEITH: Okay, just making sure.
IAN: We’ve been called up by almost every major label (farewells are said to Plastic Jesus as they load up and head to Cincinnati). But we’ve been contacted by all these people, but, well, we’re just not interested.
KEITH: I read an interview with Henry Rollins (Sold Out ‘zine) and he said he got calls all the time from people who were like, “Call Ian and ask him if…” So, when’s it going to be out?
IAN: Hopefully by the end of this summer, but you never really know. I mean, like, this new Shudder To Think thing is taking forever, and the new Jawbox was supposed to cone out months ago and was just released, like, this week.
(More background noise, creating sound quality as if Ian was whispering to us from underneath a waterfall across the parking lot, but the woman I didn’t know brought up something about Dischord supporting other labels)
IAN: We’re just a DC label. That’s all we do, is DC stuff. When we started distributing our own records, we also started doing it for a lot of the other, maybe smaller labels in DC. But we’re really trying to keep it really regional because, on the one hand, I know that’s how we’re going to survive, but also because what I’m most interested in is documenting where I’m from. That’s what it was in the beginning. Like everywhere there were these little, regional scenes and everyone was starting all these labels to document that region, and I’m just like totally into it. I’d like to think that when Dischord is long gone, someone is going to have this record collection that is like, all DC bands, like Dischord from A to Z, and it’ll be like, “What a cool fucking idea.”
CHRISTI: How does it make you feel when you go somewhere or hear about like, a Dischord release that someone’s trying to sell for forty bucks or something?
IAN: Well, record collectors are record collectors and they’ll always be like that.
CHRISTI: Does it make you feel like you reached some sort of goal?
IAN: No, no, I’m not into that at all. It seems like now you can put out anything and just do like five copies on pink vinyl with bubble gum GI Joe stickers or whatever, but I’m not into that at all. It should be available for everybody. Like, when we recorded that Sub Pop thing, which…that totally backfired for us…we really made it a point to put it out on our own label for anybody who wanted it. So if you were a collector. you could kill yourself trying to get the Sub Pop one, but if you just wanted the music then it was there, too.
LEE: There are a lot of records that I’ve really wanted to get just for the music that I haven’t been able to because of stuff like that, though.
IAN: Yeah, it stinks. I totally agree. But on the one hand, there are records that I have that I really love. but if I didn’t have, then…I can guarantee you the world would still be turning.
KEITH: Well, that’s all I have, so any final words or closing comments?
IAN: Heh, good luck with your transcription!
Need more? A decade later, I interviewed Jem Cohen, director of the Fugazi documentary, Instrument. Have a read!
Sometime in the year 2000, I went to NYU’s Cantor Film Center for a screening of Instrument, a documentary about the band Fugazi, by indie filmmaker Jem Cohen. Seeing it launched me into a directionless flurry of buying and shooting with Super 8 film cameras, a hobby I should really revive. This interview was conducted via a few email exchanges shortly after the Cantor Center screening, though I’ve lost the exact date since I lost all of my stuff and had to dredge this up on the Wayback Machine. Let’s just say it was a spell back, and two decades later, perhaps some things have changed, so please regard this as an historical document.
Jem Cohen has been working with film since he was a kid and has been known as a force in the world of true independent film since the 1980s. His body of work spans a vast thematic landscape yet is all bound together by a common thread of intimacy and subjectivity. His documentaries aren’t made to serve as objective, omnipotent “voice of god” pieces. They are often personally involved with the subject matter, and Jem’s love of what he is doing shines through in every frame. Few things have wowed and inspired me the way Jem’s work with film has. It’s a feeling akin to the day I first listened to Rites of Spring, or the time I spent living in a weird and wonderful world down in Florida. It was a great honor for Jem to take some time out to chat with us about Instrument—a documentary about the band Fugazi—about DIY film making in general, and about the band Journey.
How’d you get started with filmmaking?
I did animation and some super 8 as a kid, then got work in the summers for a husband and wife team that made firefighter and childbirth industrial training films (no joke), and learned a lot from them. I went to college, majored in studio art with a concentration in photography and film. I did slideshows with music, then left college and worked for that family again as a shipping clerk so I could use their film gear on my off hours. That’s how I made my first 16mm film.
You work with both video and film. Which do you prefer?
I prefer film. Film just has the “juice.” Video usually feels a little cold and clammy to me. I often release in video. I usually can’t afford to finish projects on film, even though I originate on it about 90% of the time. Also, I can only rarely afford to do sync sound. Still, I’d rather have 30 seconds of silent film documentation than a whole tape of video. Sometimes, I do love the compact ease of video and the instant audio. But something usually gets lost in the video translation. I’m sure I’ll have to use video more and more, but not without some big regrets.
How’d you land the REM “Nightswimming” gig?
I did an independent, daytime swimming hole film/video called Drink Deep, involving places in rural Georgia and Pennsylvania. Michael Stipe, who I’ve known for 15 years, took me to some of those places and knew the film, so since I’d done ‘dayswimming,’ I was a good candidate for “Nightswimming.”
Could you tell us a little about what went into the making of Instrument? It seems like it must have been terribly difficult.
First, there were years and years of relatively easy and fun Super 8 documentation. Then, discussion with the band about getting more concentrated and doing a project together, then increasingly complicated 16mm sync sound shoots. Occasionally I went out on tour with all formats – S8, sync-16, and video. After that came gathering archival material from a million sources, sending stuff to the band, editing sections — alone at first and then together with band members. There were meetings and a few tug of war matches and some hilarity, and year after year of piling up material and putting together more chunks and getting thrown out of cheap edit rooms by higher paying clients. Learning the insane ways that, for example, computer (Avid) upgrades can render all of your old footage difficult to access. More meetings and discussions and more years going by and editing nights and holidays and changing edit rooms six or seven times and losing focus and getting it back and more putting it aside to get paid work and finish other films.
Then there was having insanely long versions with no apparent way to organize or end them, and hashing it out some more, and getting some edit sanity help from David Frankel who had a modicum of objectivity — which I had mostly lost. There was maybe almost losing everything in an edit room with Guy [Picciotto] at 7am after cutting the final final final piece all night in an insane flash of weird ugly white light generated by the computer as it crashed for the 50th time. Finally, there was refusing to believe it could possibly be done until I saw someone walk by with a shrink-wrapped video.
How was working with Fugazi, both as a band and as friends of yours? Was it stressful to be putting childhood friends under a microscope, even one that was positive in it’s outlook?
It was a hoot. It was brutally difficult. Then it was a hoot again. It was a lot better than working with big record labels. I never had a microscope, but yes, it was sometimes very stressful. In the long run, it increased my respect for those fellows and their way of working.
This one is from a friend in Chicago. He said you might have an answer — what’s the story behind “Glue Man?”
Way back before the first Fugazi record was done, they were passing thru New York and came to my place in Brooklyn, and they played me a crude tape of a song they’d been working on in the practice room. It had no lyrics as of yet. It was heavy. I also showed them some raw Super 8 footage I’d shot from my window that I found to be very powerful and disturbing, and somehow we sensed a possible connection between the two. Actually, I may have shown them the film first that day – I can’t remember. The band went on home, and I was inspired to write some words relating to my film footage and to that music. Guy took those words, modified them and added some of his own, and the song “Glue Man” was created. I then went on to work on the film some more, and wanting to fuck with the whole notion of music video, asked Ian if he wanted to work with me on a soundtrack built from the studio masters (16 track) of the song. I also went and recorded Guy doing some readings from the lyrics. Ian and I then went into the edit room/audio-for-video joint and made the soundtrack to the movie. Like a music video, the thing was a film with the studio version of a song used as a soundtrack; unlike a music video, the song was all pulled apart and re-assembled, and there was no bullshit lip-sync, etc.
On an unrelated note, my brother Adam shot the cover of the first record. I think it could be the greatest live shot ever. On the inside sleeve, there’s a shot by Glenn Friedman that shows Adam just a fraction of a second after he took the cover shot.
What is your opinion of the Cinema of Transgression and the fact that it has, for so many years, been the face of punk rock filmmaking?
It was never the face of punk rock filmmaking for me. To be honest, I never could sit through much of it. I generally found it to be a weird mix of stupid and pretentious — things that were supposed to be dark and scary but seemed goofy and tiresome, things that were supposed to be down and dirty but then had their own air of elitism and artiness. I just couldn’t take it seriously and didn’t find it very strong or inspiring. I don’t know, maybe I just didn’t see the right examples. The face of punk rock filmmaking for me was Cassavetes and Ulmer and The 400 Blows and James and Sadie Benning and someone’s document of the Bad Brains at CBGB and Dziga Vertov and Chris Munch doing his own feature – The Hours and the Times – directing, shooting, and recording sound. Transgression is Robert Bresson, not some guy on the Lower East Side shooting up for the camera or squirting fake blood from his arm.
How big an influence on Instrument was This Is Spinal Tap?
I loved the movie, never thought of it as an influence.
Why do you think so few people in punk circles try their hand at filmmaking, while everyone wants to be in a band?
Being in a band can be a lot cheaper and more immediate. Some musicians are born to make music and thankfully concentrate all of their energies there. But I don’t know if I agree with your question – now it sometimes feels like ‘everyone’ wants to make movies, particularly with the advent of DV. Hopefully, there will be good cross-over results, but sometimes it will still be a good idea for people to do one thing really well. Some bands make movies both inside of and on top of their music—Godspeed You Black Emperor!, for one.
Punk is a lot different than it used to be. What do you think of what it’s become?
Punk is many, many things. What it is and becomes, and what people call it are often very different things. Cassavetes didn’t like punk rock, but I say he made punk movies. Seeing bands play stadium shows usually isn’t very punk rock to me, but it might feel like it is to some high school kid who missed the late 70’s and doesn’t have a lot of friends with garages. Punk will alway crop up out of the good dirt, and the less attendant hype the better. Let the fashion people leave it behind and get back to the expensive sparkly handbags. Punk rock is Vic Chesnutt laying one down at home at 4am because he can’t sleep and he just made a great loop on his Casio.
A number of people wanted me to ask this one. We tell ourselves that somewhere Jem Cohen has reels and reels of smart, articulate, witty punk kids explaining why they like Fugazi and punk in general. Please tell us this is the case.
No, I have a few moments, and a couple of very articulate kids, but I really didn’t do a whole lot of interviews. I did a few shows, and we took out some of the most effusive comments and some of the most critical ones. We felt that like it or not, that was a fair cross-section—not just of the fans, but of the kids who just happened to be at those shows. People need to remind themselves that that is what we were documenting — a couple of parking lot responses on a couple of days, not the overall, most intelligent thoughts of the band’s fans. It is true that we weren’t all that interested in a long chain of people saying how great the band is. That would’ve made the band pretty uncomfortable in the context of a tape that THEY were releasing. I know it doesn’t seem to bother any of the other bands that put out movies about themselves, but that’s another story, and usually there’s a label heavily involved that has a big pat ’em on the back sales agenda.
What do you think of other punk rock documentaries, like Decline of Western Civilization 1 and 3, Another State of Mind, and I think there was one called The Beat that I never actually saw. I know it had the Cro Mags in it.
Believe it or not, I haven’t seen Decline — ouch — except for the Metal Years one. That was not a good documentary due to the corny editing, never letting anyone finish a sentence, etc. etc., but it is still a good and often hilarious and sometimes very sad document. Another State of Mind – again, not such great filmmaking, but great to have the document. Never heard of The Beat.
What sort of equipment do you use? Favorite camera? Facilities you’d like to recommend? Do you do much work on computers?
Lots of different gear. Favorite camera now is the Bolex, although I wish I had an Aaton as well. I use many Super 8 cameras, never really met one I didn’t like. I do all my editing on computers — Avid, Media 100, and Final Cut Pro.
Have you ever been emotionally moved by a Journey song?
Yes, I’m afraid so. Can’t remember which one. Did they do “Wheel in the Sky?” Thank God I never owned an album. I have never been moved by a Styx song though, except to anger and depression.
Independent filmmaking has become a pretty bizarre thing, with a lot of so-called indy films being backed by major studios. What has the effect of this engulfing of indy film by the mainstream had on actual independent filmmakers?
I think it’s mostly a drag. it certainly doesn’t seem to have encouraged bolder, more difficult, more unusual films.
Having worked somewhat in the mainstream with REM, is quasi-mainstream success something you’d welcome?
We feel that Instrument got great recognition. Someone put together a show in Antarctica. It has popped up all over the planet without us doing any of the usual film biz publicity. Someone is trying to translate it into Farsi to show it in Iran! I showed it both at squats in Italy and the Whitney Biennial, whatever that’s worth. Old folks went with their grandchildren to see it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It showed on the Sundance channel for whatever that’s worth after their ridiculous festival turned it down. If we look at the “numbers” and compare what it sold to what U2 sells, we could find that the numbers don’t compare. In terms of feeling like it is really available to whoever wants to see it, and feeling that we did the movie we wanted to, and feeling that a lot of viewers found it to be a good and difficult and unusual ride, we feel it’s been a terrific success.
What do you think of films in general these days?
Don’t see a lot of movies, except when I can get in for free at the festivals. There’s no such thing as movies in general, although there does seem to be such a thing as shitty ass Hollywood and shitty as pseudo-indie movies ‘in general.’ Kiarostami is out there making great films. Peter Hutton and Jim Herbert and James and Sadie Benning and other true independents continue to do their work. Chris Smith and Sarah Price made a great film with American Movie. It is pretty sad when American Beauty is seen as something rare and renegade, particularly when comparatively few people saw a genuinely telling and intelligent and epic view of our country — Todd Hayne’s Safe — one of my favorite movies ever.
I’ve noticed that you, Ian MacKaye, and Michael Stipe all have the same sort of hairstyle AND the same little toboggan cap. Are you guys part of a secret society?
No, but for $75 bucks, I’ll teach you the secret handshake.
What words of wisdom would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
Unplug your TV. Work hard. Don’t read Premiere, or Variety, or Entertainment Weekly, etc. etc. see Abraham Rivette’s The March. See Buster Keaton, but don’t think you’re going to make a Buster Keaton movie.