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Oct 29, 2011

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Thanks to everyone for your great entries in the #madnesscomp. If you want some suggestions on mad-lit, see the comments on the previous post. The winners of the two signed copies of Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, chosen by a random number generator, are @liza_belle and @semiordinaryjoe. The random number generator chose two people who entered via Twitter, and two who mentioned Sylvia Plath!

Congratulations. I’ll be in touch for your addresses.


Picador, Australia, 9780330451369 (paperback)

In The Psychopath Test Jon Ronson takes us on journey through the mad ‘industry’ of madness. And it’s not all acid-tripping psychopaths. Ronson follows leads to high-security prisons, a mansion filled with predators… and to L Ron Hubbard’s coca cola stain. What results is an inevitably open-ended, sometimes frightening and often hilarious look at a hugely complex subject. Ronson is well-known for his journalism and his books Them: Adventures with Extremists, and The Men Who Stare at Goats. We managed to miss each other when he was in Melbourne, but we caught up over Skype when he was back in England. His first admittance was that he wished he’d had more time in Melbourne and less in Sydney, as it more seemed his ‘sort of place.’ As if I didn’t like him enough already through his work (and Q&A appearance) this started us off on the right foot. He also does have a lovely accent (he’s from Cardiff) and it was a pleasure to speak with him.

AM: Are you working on something at the moment?

JR: I’m trying to write a new book. I’m going through a period of self-hatred. No, that’s not true or fair. I’m going through that period with the new book where I’m trying to figure out how to tell it and what it’s about. It’s sort of exciting. I’m doing a few stories as well. Everything’s good.

I like how that’s how The Psychopath Test begins: you’re following this lead with a mysterious book and you don’t really know yet that you’re going to be writing about madness…

Exactly. I like it as a way of writing, you know, completely organic and allowing it to twist and turn in an un-prescriptive way. I do like that as a method. Ultimately I think it always makes for a better piece of writing. Because if you’re pre-planning everything… surely it’s gonna become very formulaic.

And you might miss other interesting threads that you can follow.

Exactly. You know, the idea that the journalist should feel completely free to change their opinions as it goes along… I’m quite happy to believe one thing and then completely change my mind back again. I think a lot of journalists don’t like that because it makes them feel like they’re not being authoritative. I think a lot of journalists have a real thing about wanting to come across as authoritative. So if they find a piece of information that goes against…

That contradicts…

Yeah, they don’t want to take the contradiction on board. They want to sort of skirt around the contradiction, whereas I love taking contradictions on board.

I like that, and that’s how you become involved with some of these groups – like the scientologists – because you’re taking in all these different points of view. With your style of journalism, or perhaps just your personality, you do manage to get invited into the inner echelons of some of these groups, or receive invitations from people who don’t often talk to journalists. Do you think that method contributes to that, that open-mindedness?

I think it definitely does, and also I very, very rarely have a hidden agenda, and if I do have a hidden agenda I make it completely clear to the reader that that’s what’s going on. Also, I’m particularly good at empathy. For instance tomorrow, for this new book, I’m meeting the woman who invented PETA. And I’ve been reading some of PETA’s writing and the ALF’s writing and I’m completely sucked into their belief system, in quite a naive way. By the time I approach people for my interviews, I can say to them in all honesty I’m finding this stuff I’ve been reading incredibly compelling and moving, and I think people like that passion. Some journalists don’t have that passion, but I think I genuinely do feel that passion and I get sucked into these belief systems. I’m sure I get access to people easier because of that. But it’s real, I’m not tricking anybody.

That comes across strongly for the reader, because it allows for them to go in with a bit of an open mind. It works really well.

I mean, I’m sure if I read anti-PETA stuff and anti-ALF stuff… This is slightly different because the meeting I’ve got tomorrow is not going to be about PETA, I’m going to try to get them to talk about some significant things they did that is actually completely separate, but I’ve always felt that way [excited about different points of view], right back from the beginning about 15 years ago. I would always get really excited about getting to go to a Ku Klux Klan compound or getting to hang out with hardcore conspiracy theorists, you know, rather than think of it as a chore. I actually think of it as an amazing mystery.

Yeah, fascinating.

I remember people saying to me, when I was doing this thing about the Ku Klux Klan, ‘don’t you just hate having to go to the Ku Klux Klan compound? Isn’t that like the worst thing to have to do in the world?’ And I always think, well, of course it’s stressful, but it’s also a kind of rare privilege to go to… shadowy places.

And to learn how people come to be in that sort of environment?

And what the environment is like first hand, and what little quirks can I see? Yeah, it feels like a privilege.

So you were talking to all these people for The Psychopath Test with that kind of openness and then you came across the Bob Hare checklist. I really liked it when you went to the conference on psychopathy. It’s very convincing, and I can imagine, too, being swept up in it. Then you took that checklist out into the world…

It’s funny, I think the reason why the Bob Hare thing worked as a piece of writing is because I went in as a sceptic. I’ve always thought that with nonfiction your ambition should be as high as it is with fiction. For instance in fiction something happens that changes the way the protagonist sees the world, and changes their life. You expect that in a novel, don’t you? You expect the character to go through some kind of huge change – just by the fact that it’s a novel. I’ve always had the same ambition for nonfiction. That’s one reason why the Bob Hare chapter really works. I went in as a sceptic thinking: don’t be ridiculous, you’re not going to be able to spot a psychopath just by their sentence construction and the way that they just seem. By the end of the course I’d completely changed and I’d become this kind of evangelical psychopath-spotter. I loved it and thought: if I can make that transition work in the chapter, then the reader will be thinking the same thing. The reader will go from being a sceptic to being an utter believer, so the reader will experience that massive change. And I think that really worked. But of course, as you learn later on in the book, becoming a psychopath spotter has its pitfalls. It can turn you a little bit power-mad yourself.

That was the other nice thing about the book – I felt that I could make the reader go through the same journey I went through, you know, become a power-crazed psychopath-spotter and then come out the other side learning the error of their ways.

It really worked for that, when I was reading it I started to think about people I’d grown up with or extended family members…

And then by the end of the book were you thinking maybe being a psychopath spotter isn’t all it’s cracked-up to be?

Yeah, exactly. And I think one of the main themes of the book that you end up with is ‘categorisation’, how it can be hugely powerful. Sometimes it’s very good and useful, other times maybe not so good, but how do you actually tell when it is or isn’t?

Yeah, and as you said at the beginning I had no idea that that’s what the book would become about. It does mean each time you write a book you’re taking a huge leap of faith, and so is your publisher. You can’t know that you’re going to end up with something that works if you don’t know what the book’s about when you set off – it’s a bit like the way Mike Leigh makes films, isn’t it? You don’t actually know what it’s going to be about when you set up. But if it works… then that process makes it rich, I think – the sort of organic nature makes it richer.

I guess the most worrying thing that comes up regarding categorisation is when you look at drugs for children, exploring whether we go a bit too far. Drug companies use categories that psychologists have come up with and then they use them in all sorts of ways. Do you see that as being a pretty big problem?

There are certain areas that some people were really hoping I’d get into in the book – polemicists, who felt really strongly about certain issues. People were saying: ‘you have to attack Aspergers as a definition’, ‘you have to attack ADHD’, you know, ‘these diagnoses are getting out of control’. And when I looked at Aspergers and ADHD I just didn’t have the stomach, really, to attack them. I thought: this is way too complicated. For some people, a diagnosis of Aspergers is incredibly useful. So it felt wrong to me to attack those things. But the one place where it seemed like there really was a pretty black-and-white abuse going on was childhood bipolar disorder. In the same way that psychopaths are being diagnosed from a checklist of overt characteristics, kids who have temper tantrums are being labelled bipolar. Because if you’re a three year old in the grip of a temper tantrum it basically seems like an adult with bipolar disorder. So you’re getting kids diagnosed as bipolar and put on anti-psychotic medication because they score highly on a checklist, you know? And all the studies point to bipolar disorder not existing until adolescence.

And the drugs can have severe effects…

Yeah, well they’re anti-psychotic, it’s powerful medication.

You do a good job of bringing up the issues but not drawing a lot of conclusions from them. Just making people aware.

One of the reviews of my book said that I probably consider drawing a firm conclusion to be a sign of madness. And in this instance I kind of do. I think it’s such a complicated, grey, messy area that going to one pole or the other is just factually wrong. So in a way the book is kind of anti-polemic, it’s anti-ideology. Some people are disappointed. The people who don’t like the book, who are luckily few in number, wish I would draw a firmer conclusion; they wish I would go to one extreme or the other. I just couldn’t do that, if there’s truth in both camps it would be wrong to ignore one truth in favour of another.

As we were talking about, you bring yourself into the work. I was interested in the stuff about your overactive amygdala and I sort of related to that…

It was overactive just this morning.

Yeah? (Verbally hugs Jon.)

It’s all over now.

Hope you’re all right.

I’ve only just tidied it up.

Well, I hope the rest of the day is calm. I was thinking though, I mean at least for me, there’s another side to this kind of anxiety that… I get myself into doing a lot of things because it’s this agitation. You know, you have this agitation to do things, to find out things. It’s like there’s two sides to it. So I was wondering if it’s also one of the things that actually drives you to work as much as it also at times holds you back?

Absolutely, and I think that’s probably the case with an awful lot. I wouldn’t give myself a particularly big disorder but, you know, people I know who do have big disorders – it can lead you to do really interesting, creative, worthwhile things. My guess actually is, pretty much every successful person is disordered in one way or another. It’s all some kind of psychological abyss that they’re trying to fill in.

You know I do think that the people who are very happy to just have a completely ordinary working life, where they don’t have to earn that much but it’s fine because their outgoings aren’t that high, and they’ve got a nice routine, and they’ve got a happy family, and they’ve got a nice hobby on Saturday, they go to the football, you know… those are the people who are probably the sanest. Because they don’t need to have this kind of mad scrabbling around. I’m a season ticket holder at the Arsenal and when I do that kind of routine thing I find it incredibly calming. It’s the thing I like the most about my life, the ordinary stuff. And yet, I’d bet you a million pounds that Richard Branson and all the really, really successful people feel compelled to be that way because of some kind of disorder. And it’s very rarely psychopathy. It could be any kind of panic disorder, or anxiety. Yes, I wouldn’t feel this constant need to sort of do things if I wasn’t so anxious.

Almost the madness/creativity thing?

I think that happens all over the place: madness. That question at the beginning of the book as to whether madness is a more powerful engine in society than rationality? I think that’s undoubtedly true.

For good and bad.

Yeah, absolutely, for good and bad.

Thank you so much, Jon. I hope the rest of your day is good, and calm.

Jon told me he was off to buy a new printer and chat to the head of TED that evening about possibly doing a talk at the next conference. I look forward to watching that online in the future.

I just want to acknowledge that both Jon Ronson and I are aware that severe anxiety and panic disorders, as well as other mental illnesses and disorders, can be incredibly crippling and inhibiting.

I have two signed copies of The Psychopath Test to give away! All you have to do is leave a comment here, on the Facebook page wall, or on Twitter (tag #madnesscomp) letting me know what your favourite book or film about madness is, and why. The ‘why’ part should be 25 words or less. Have your entries in by Friday 28 Oct, 5pm.

photo credit: Barney Poole

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. I aimed to read them all in 2011, but that’s beginning to look unlikely. Read more about this project here.

Why did I want to read it?

I had vague ideas about Gulliver’s Travels. I remembered Ted Danson being tied up by some little people in a film version I saw as a kid. I always loved the Michael Jackson film clip for ‘Leave Me Alone’, which plays on that moment with the Lilliputians. And Tom Cho riffs on that part in the last, eroticised story in his book Look Who’s Morphing. But it was Gideon Haigh’s recommendation of Gulliver’s Travels as a brilliant satire that made me seriously consider reading it.

When was it published?

All the way back in 1726, though it’s more accessible than many books I’ve read from later eras, such as the 19th Century. Oh, those romantics. My copy is from lovely Vintage Classics range (super cheap).

What’s it about?

Gulliver can’t sit still. He finds himself in a series of fantastical lands with strange races (or species). He sometimes gets into a lot of trouble. He makes unforgettable friends. He learns how other societies can be run. When he tries to explain England to his new companions, it often comes across as ludicrous.

Tell us more about the author.

Jonathan Swift was born in 1667 in Dublin, and was educated at Trinity College and Oxford. He worked as secretary to Sir William Temple, in England. In 1694 in Dublin he was ordained as a priest. He spent the rest of his life between England and Ireland. He wrote under another name, and the first of his major satirical works was A Tale of a Tub, published in 1704. Through his writing he became close friends with Alexander Pope. They helped to found a literary group in 1714, called the Martinus Scriblerus. He wrote prose, satirical pamphlets, poetry, essays and sermons in his lifetime. He died in 1745, and his estate was left to found a hospital for the mentally ill, St Patrick’s, which still exists.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

Undoubtedly. Not only was Gulliver’s Travels a hit in Swift’s lifetime, the book has been continually relevant to Western society. It has apparently never been out of print. It is also genuinely funny. I’ll give you a few examples of its brilliance. When Gulliver is in Lilliput (the land of the tiny people) he observes that there have been six rebellions raised on the breaking of an egg. His present Majesty’s grandfather once cut his finger on the shell when breaking it by the ancient principle, so an edict was published commanding all subjects to break their eggs on the small end. ‘It is computed, that eleven thousand persons have, at several times, suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end’. The ‘Big-Endians’ found sympathy in Blefuscu, the neighboring nation, and so a ‘bloody war hath been carried on between the two empires for six and thirty moons’.

To me, this seems a parody of wars begun (and continued) over differences in religion. England was in the process of crushing the Jacobites, when Swift was writing. Gulliver is eventually suspected of being a ‘Big-Endian’ in his heart and is accused of treason, after putting out a palace fire by pissing on it.

In Brobdingnag the people are giants and the king makes many observations of England. He has been carefully calculating what Gulliver has told him about taxes. Gulliver writes: ‘But, if what I told him were true, he was still at a loss how a kingdom could run out of its estate like a private person. He asked me, who were our creditors? and, where we found money to pay them?’ You can see why this book still strikes a chord. The king also wonders what business England has out of its own islands ‘unless upon the score of trade or treaty, or to defend the coasts…’. Swift is mocking England’s excessive conquering and colonising. When Gulliver tries to give the king the secret of gunpowder, he is horrified.

There is humour of a more ‘base’ kind in Gulliver’s Travels too. Satire works best if political and observational humour are mixed with slapstick and the rude (as with contemporary texts, like the Simpsons). In the Brobdingnag section, Gulliver remarks at the hideousness of the skin of the giants when seen up close. He describes a nurse’s ‘monstrous breast’, the nipple ‘was about half the bigness of my head… and the dug so verified with spots, pimples, and freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous’. Later on he is astride the nipple of a maid of honour, ‘a pleasant, frolicksome girl of sixteen’.

On the other fantastical worlds, briefly: Laputa seems a place where logic or reason has gone too far (everything is judged by mathematical and musical terms). And there is a very fun passage in Glubbdubdrib where Gulliver is assisted in bringing back the dead. He learns from dead people of note that ‘the royal throne could not be supported without corruption; because, that positive, confident, restive temper, which virtue infused into man, was a perpetual clog to publick business’. Many of these dead owed their greatness and wealth to perjury, oppression, fraud – Gulliver observes – and worse: sodomy, incest, the prostituting of their wives and daughters, betraying their country, poisoning, and perverting justice.

My favourite land was the final one, of the Houyhnhnms. These horse-folk have no terms for power, government, war, law or punishment. The human-like creatures in their world are base, unintelligent and barbaric, called Yahoos. There is a brilliant passage when Gulliver’s host Houyhnhnm asks him what are the usual causes or motives of war, back in England:

‘Sometimes the ambition of princes, who never think they have land or people enough to govern: sometimes the corruption of ministers, who engage their master in a war, in order to stifle or divert the clamour of the subjects against their evil administration. Difference in opinion hath cost many millions of lives: for instance whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh: whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine; whether whistling be a vice or a virtue: whether it be better to kiss a post, or throw it into the fire: what is the best colour for a coat, whether black, white, red, or grey; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean; with many more. Neither are any wars so furious and bloody, or of so long continuance, as those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be things indifferent.’

It goes on, ‘Sometimes one prince quarrelleth with another, for fear the other should quarrel with him’, and so on. It is sad, funny, true. For the first time, staying with the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver really begins to see the ridiculousness of his race of ‘Yahoos’.

One reason this land struck me is because the seductiveness of a simpler, quieter, structured life is so understandable to contemporary readers. I was thinking of the desire for a sea change/tree change that many possess; my own desire (sometimes) to be tucked away in the sparsely populated, naturally beautiful Scottish Highlands. The ‘downfall’ of human nature into greediness and pride that Swift depicts has escalated, in many ways. In other ways, we are so much better off. That doesn’t even really need to be said. His criticisms are still relevant and still amusing. The book still has the ability to make you think about society, politics, war, religion; about human nature, history and the present. Parts of it induce laughter, delight; other parts stir a kind of longing. Well they did for me, at least. I have itchy feet.

One last thing I’ll say is that I felt sorry for Gulliver’s wife, the whole time. He would come back, tell her stories, get her pregnant and then run off again! My annoyance was somewhat appeased, though, by Alexander Pope’s Verses on Gulliver’s Travels included at the back of the book. One poem is called: ‘Mary Gulliver to Capt. Lemuel Gulliver: An Epistle’. In this, Mary Gulliver is reading over his adventures, lamenting them. She has kept herself for him, and is pretty cranky about him getting out his giant ‘appendage’ to put out the palace fire, among other things:

‘How did I tremble, when by thousands bound,
I saw thee stretched on Lilliputian ground;
When scaling armies climbed up every part,
Each step they trod, I felt upon my heart.
But when thy torrent quenched the dreadful blaze,
King, Queen and nation staring with amaze,
Full in my view how all my husband came,
And what extinguished theirs, increased my flame.
Those spectacles, ordained thine eyes to save,
Were once my present; love that armour gave.’

These poems perfectly complement the main narrative. It’s like putting the book down at the end and having a discussion with someone very clever about it, going over all your favourite parts.

What’s next?

I’ve finished Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and I’m reading Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well. Maybe some Chandler or Beckett will follow.

Interviews + Profiles

Oct 11, 2011

5 comments

Part one of this interview can be found here.

How do you feel about TS Eliot’s (in)famous quip, ‘Good poets borrow, great poets steal’?

I was having a hard time figuring out what TS Eliot meant here – what’s the difference between borrowing and stealing in poetry? So I Googled that phrase (the internet is beautiful) and, apparently, this is one of those famous quotes that is a misquote. Apparently what he actually wrote, in an essay on the playwright Philip Massinger, was this:

‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different’.

And this we can all agree on.

Is it hard to draw or believe the lines between a claimed accident, ‘strong influence’ and outright theft between artists? Wayne Coyne and his Flaming Lips had to turn over publishing royalties to Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) for their song ‘Fight Test’. Recently in Australia, Colin Hay of Men at Work was found by the barristers to have nicked the flute riff from the classic Australia nursery rhyme, ‘Kookaburra’ –  under copyright just like ‘Happy Birthday’ is – for their megahit  song, ‘Down Under’, and now must pay. Luna released a song that skirted awfully close to having a chord sequence from Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ linger a bit longer than it probably should have. Anything to say about Bob Dylan and cover art on this matter?

Well, yes, I took the chord progression for ‘Dizzy’ from Van Halen’s ‘Jump’, but that’s not illegal. Anyway, we were not worth suing because the song didn’t make enough money. ‘Down Under’ or ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ or ‘My Sweet Lord’ – now those are worth suing over. Dylan is careful; he takes from dead people who can’t sue him, which is firmly in the tradition of all folk musicians. But you are referring, of course, to the cover of Dylan’s Modern Times album, a great photograph by Ted Croner that we had already used as the cover for a Luna single. We don’t mind.

Now, moving on to acting and movies, you’ve played a bartender on Law & Order and had lead roles in indie films Pumpkin Hell and Piggie. Did you agree to do these simply as a lark? Compared to performing music and the writing of a memoir, how did you find the ‘act’ of acting?

Acting is easy. They write the words for you; all you have to do is memorise them. You stand in the right spot and look where they tell you to look and speak the lines. But you do have to get up super early in the morning.

Scoring, composing or being music supervisor on films (ala Ry Cooder or Danny Elfman) like The Squid and The Whale is also in your repertoire. Is that a practical pursuit?

I enjoy it when the film is good. I guess there are two kinds of jobs, those you do for love and those you do for money, and the best ones are really good films that you get paid to work on.

How did you find working with directors Noah Baumbach and Olivier Assayas?

Both brilliant directors with their own distinctive style, so what’s not to like? It is exciting to work on a good film; it’s a privilege. I think that goes for everyone involved, from the actors to the composers to the caterers.

Your music has also appeared in movies like Sideways and Margot at the Wedding. Are you overly choosy about what song might be used where? Such as selling the usage rights of a song to American Express instead of (trendy clothing stores) The Gap?

I’m not too bothered about having a song in a TV commercial. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but it doesn’t upset me, especially if it’s just an instrumental section of a song. And double especially if they pay us. Frankly, it’s one of the few ways to make money from your recorded music now; everyone is focused on trying to place their songs on TV. The Gap ad I didn’t want to do because I would have had to stand there on camera and sing ‘fall into the Gap’ or some other nonsense. I didn’t want to do that. I don’t think I would have done it convincingly. But Aerosmith was good at it.

Okay, so image has its place. The current Dean (Wareham) & Britta (Philips) persona is one similar in vein to Lee (Hazelwood) & Nancy (Sinatra) and Serge (Gainsbourg) & Brigitte (Bardot). And you’re no stranger to slick magazine covers, ads for fancy watches or suits or appearing in the pages of GQ. Is there a point where cultivating a semi-bourgeois, urbane image becomes untenable?

I confess that in an Esquire photo shoot I was wearing a watch that I definitely could not afford. But it’s just a photo shoot. Performers are supposed to dress up for those. I don’t think it much matters if people think I’m semi-bourgeois; I probably am, and I don’t have to pretend that my Dad was a coal miner. Ultimately, I will be judged on the music, not on a spread in a fashion magazine.

There are always legions of fans and critics waiting to label you as a ‘sell-out’ for such activities. It’s not fair, but true.

I remember talking to a certain underground filmmaker/photographer I know, who came up in New York in the ’70s. We discussed this issue of selling out, who had sold out and who hadn’t. ‘It’s not selling out,’ he said, ‘it’s cashing in.’

One thing nobody will ever tag you as a sell-out for is your association with The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. They chose you and Britta, specifically, to score music for a selection of Warhol’s character studies that he filmed over many years. The result, 13 Most Beautiful … Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, is a film, a record and a live show you’ve taken all over the world including a stint at the Sydney Opera House in 2010. How did all of this come together?

This was a commission from the Andy Warhol Museum. Ben Harrison, the museum’s Curator for Performance, approached me with the idea to score thirteen of Warhol’s Screen Tests – the short silent portrait films he made at the Factory between 1964 and 1966. And I alluded to this before perhaps; it’s always good to work with a brilliant director, even if this one was not alive to give us direction.

Has being the representative composer for Any Warhol been at all nerve-wracking?

It was at first. We kept asking ourselves, what would Warhol have wanted? And we were performing outside our comfort zone. Our comfort zone is playing our own songs to our own fans in rock clubs, whereas now we found ourselves playing the songs in museums and churches and arts festivals – to a very mixed audience, from younger fans of our music to older ladies with blue hair who have a membership at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

We haven’t talked about music all that much yet. Your first band started out as three Harvard University students with a borrowed drum kit from fellow student Conan O’Brien. Did you have any idea what you were doing?

None at all, we couldn’t play our instruments. We were trying to be like the Clash or the Cramps or Joy Division but didn’t know how to do it – I didn’t even own a fuzzbox. Our girlfriends would come by rehearsals and just laugh at us. I would say it took me about six years before I started to play something interesting on the guitar, and by that time had hit on the right combination of people – and this was Galaxie 500.

It’s well-documented that Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground are / were influences on your music. Sterling Morrison can be heard on your second Luna record, Bewitched. And VU hand selected Luna as their support band during their European reunion tour in 1993. What is it like to not only meet and collaborate with such legendary names, but to slowly become the heir to presence?

All I can say is it’s kind of amazing to have met so many of my heroes… to actually play with Sterling Morrison and Tom Verlaine, to meet Lee Hazlewood, Jonathan Richman, the Talking Heads, Alan Vega, the Feelies. It’s hard for me to see myself as the heir to those figures; I am too much in awe of them.

You majored in Social Studies at Harvard. Why? What was your original ‘plan’ before Galaxie500 took off?

I did not have a plan. I still do not have a plan beyond the next six months. But certainly a career as a musician was not a plan either; it’s just that I started doing it and then I found that people liked the music and I was actually earning a living that way, and now I don’t know what else I would do.

You recently did an interview with Stephen Malkmus about how you’re both three decades in to the music racket and remain alive, well and flourishing. You seem to be well into the ‘gravy’ of life now; over the hump of exhaustion that bands create, the nadir of touring frustrations (which your tour documentary Tell Me Do You Miss Me is saturated with) and the anxiety of figuring out how to end a critically acclaimed band that never struck the financial jackpot. How did you manage that?

I don’t know. I hope you are correct that these are the gravy days – following the salad days. There must be some luck involved, and I kept at it I suppose, perhaps out of  stubbornness or stupidity. I’ve been making music long enough that I actually have an audience out there, people who will show up when I come to town.

Care to shed any more light on the impromptu wedding band you performed in with Malkmus and David Berman?

It was at the wedding of writer Robert Bingham, who was a good friend of Berman and Malkmus, and who I knew through my wife at the time. Mr Malkmus suggested we do ‘Sweet Child ‘O’ Mine’ and I had just recorded it with Luna. So that was lucky. But the tragic thing is that Robert Bingham died of a drug overdose a few months later, and I was asked to sing the song at his funeral. I just read his novel, Lightning on the Sun, which he did not live to see published.

Your second band, Luna, was an indie supergroup made up of Galaxie 500, the Feelies and the Chills – that’s an incredible pedigree.

Yeah our bassist Justin Harwood hailed from one of the most revered NZ bands, drummer Stanley Demeski played with my own favorite the Feelies (very underrated but I think an important band in rock history in the New York area), and there I was from Galaxie 500. But it doesn’t mean much; it wasn’t till we added guitarist Sean Eden (from no particular band at all) that we started to make really good music.

I want to close with some final ruminations on your memoir. ‘It felt good to be heading north’ is a stupendous line to end a book on. In your memoir, you speak of Matthew Buzzel, director of the tour doco, Tell Me Do You Miss Me, lingering around to capture the very last moments – ever – of Luna as a band after their last show in New York’s Bowery Ballroom. Looking back now, through all the times you thought your bands were heading ‘south’ (and the times that they were or weren’t in actuality), how did you summon the energy to ‘keep on’ during those bleaker times? And with what did you assuage the occasional fears of artistic collapse?

Why thank you, I was happy with that last line too, and I didn’t particularly have to struggle with it; I just had a very natural moment to end my book – the moment I stepped into a taxi cab after my Luna’s final show and knew that my life was going to be different from this moment on.

As for summoning the energy, maybe it’s easier when you’re in a band, you have deadlines, shows to play, songs to finish, and there’s a structure to it, and people to help finish the songs. If there was a bleak time, maybe it was when Luna was let go by Elektra Records, and by our publisher, and by our accountant, but still we would go out on the road and we were playing to more people than ever, so that was energizing. And then Britta replaced Justin on bass and that changed the energy too.

There is always that fear that one day I’ll sit down to write and just won’t be able to do it. Some people would call that writer’s block. I just saw Geoff Dyer (one of my favorite writers) give a reading in Brooklyn.  He said there is no such thing as writer’s block, or rather that the writer only says he is ‘blocked’ because at that moment he has nothing to say. It’s easier to think that you are suffering from this special writer’s affliction, than to admit that you have nothing to say. So perhaps the thing is to wait until you do have something to say.

Kent MacCarter is a writer and resident in Melbourne, where he lives with his wife, son and two cats. His poetry and a smattering of non-fiction has appeared in anthologies, journals and newspapers internationally in print and online. He is currently involved on the board of SPUNC: The Small Press Network and is also an active member in Melbourne PEN.

By Kent MacCarter

Dean Wareham – musician, author, actor and a co-inventor of the ‘shoegaze’ aesthetic – is coming home to Australia.

Sort of.

This month, he, his partner Britta Phillips, and band will be touring Australia and New Zealand playing entire sets from seminal rock band, Galaxie 500, 19 years after their demise and first-ever shows in Australia with their songs. In 2008, Wareham published a poignant, atypical rock-n-roll memoir. In recent years, he has toured the world as composer to and the face of Andy Warhol’s Superstars. Coerced Lou Reed to play on records and opened for Velvet Underground tours. Along the way, there’s been some acting gigs. Law & Order anybody? Most importantly, his tenacity and persona-polishing sees him sitting pretty in a most well-appointed catbird seat.

Recently, we caught up on all things and more, but I went straight for the inquisitive jugular…

Kent MacCarter: How did a boy from Wellington, NZ – with early teenage years in Sydney – become the heir apparent to Andy Warhol’s Superstars, the Velvet Underground and the epitome of New York ‘cool’?

Dean Wareham: I don’t know if I’m cool or not; that of course is highly subjective, and it’s hard to say why life turns out one way rather than another, but I was fortunate that my parents moved, first to Sydney (in 1970), then to New York City (in 1977). One of my teachers at Sydney Grammar School told my parents they were making a terrible mistake by taking me to New York, but it was a fortuitous time to arrive there. The city was bankrupt of course but culturally there was a lot going on, it’s a great place to go to high school, a great place to see shows by the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Suicide, B-52s, the Specials, Grandmaster Flash, Pere Ubu… I studied art history at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (though I also remember Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New making a big impression on me).

You were born in Wellington, New Zealand, but moved to Sydney for your early teenage years. Is there any Sydney-sider left in you?

I lived in Sydney from age 7 to 14, so in a way it will always feel like a home, though at this point it’s a home I don’t know very well.

How did it feel to come ‘home’ – even in a distant sense – to play at the Sydney Opera House in 2010?

Very strange, for a few reasons. There aren’t any venues more iconic than the Sydney Opera House. I was there in a boat in Sydney Harbour the day it officially opened. But the strangest part of that trip was being picked up at the airport and driven to our hotel, which was located directly across the street from St Andrews Church in downtown Sydney. I attended St Andrews school in 1973 and 1974 (before moving on to Sydney Grammar), so I was surprised to be right back on that street.

I walked around looking for the old school building, but I couldn’t find it; it turns out that building had been torn down and replaced by the Medina Hotel we were staying in. So of course this felt a little surreal, like something that would only happen in a dream… going back to the old school but it’s not there anymore and instead I’m staying in a hotel with my wife and performing at the Opera House.

Considering all the places that you’re ‘from’ and the steady diet of touring over the past 20 years in countries such as Uruguay, Switzerland, Portugal, Japan, a certain worldliness in inevitable. You’re an American citizen who has had the opportunity to ‘see’ America from outside the myopic prism that American news media is… and from within the vantages of many ‘elsewheres’. I often think back to the Bush-Gore Florida recount in 2001. Things could be quite different right now for America – especially attitudes about it – with just a whisper of difference back then.

Maybe you are right. Bush and Cheney took the country down a dark hole, and we are still suffering the consequences. But we have a Democrat in the White House now and we’re still in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Would it have been so different under a President McCain?

People like to talk about the recent elections as if they ushered in some kind of revolution. When Obama won, people danced in the streets and pundits said the Republicans were finished for the foreseeable future – out of touch with Americans and about to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Two years later, Republicans swept the midterm elections. Again, it was called a seismic shift, a ‘Republican revolution.’

The truth is things change pretty slowly.

Your book, Black Postcards, reflects far more lines and lines of poignancy than it does cocaine, strippers’ g-strings and bent television antennae – the typical fodder of rock memoir excess. There’s no wall of guitar to hide behind in writing, let alone memoir. Was that difficult to come to terms with? Having a book out there, forever to be in the public sphere?

Well yes, there were times I asked myself if I really wanted to reveal so much about myself. But hopefully that’s what makes the book interesting, that I chose to include things that are potentially embarrassing or humiliating, instead of just writing about how clever we all were and what fun we had.

Your memoir was written by you and only you. There is no ‘with’ author noted in the way that Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue or Keith Richard’s Life do. How did you find the process of writing for the page on the topic of yourself versus writing for the ear on the topic of… whatever?

I found writing the memoir much more difficult than writing songs. It gave me a new appreciation for what journalists do – for anyone who writes non-fiction. Because it takes some guts to figure out what you think and put it in writing, to express opinions on real life, as opposed to hiding your feelings behind poetry or cryptic lyrics.

Editing oneself into a second and third draft of a MS is agonising. How much did you leave out?

I left out plenty. But I didn’t find it so difficult. You have to have some concern for the overall pacing, and realise that by removing certain stories you improve the flow of the book. I figure if I told five stories about crazy nights, well, that’s enough to get the picture. I don’t have to confess to every single crime.

I find many musicians are intrigued, beguiled even, by the advent of themselves (or friends) becoming published in book form… almost as if it’s a loftier, more hallowed medium to achieve than say, releasing songs on CD, Mp3 or vinyl. Ridiculous? Or not? You’ve done both.

I don’t know that it’s loftier, but it certainly takes quite an effort – and a lonely effort at that – to complete a book. How many people do you meet who tell you they are working on a book, or would if they had time?

Do you have any desire to write another book that isn’t memoir? I seem to recall, in a long-ago interview you did, reading something along the lines of ‘Why does Nick Cave feel the need to write novels? Who wants to read a novel by Nick Cave?’ As a Melbourne icon, Cave certainly sold quite a few copies of his latest, The Death of Bunny Munro, here in Melbourne. Memoirs are one thing, but why do you think established artists in one medium feel the need to dabble in another? Steve Martin has found some success with his novel. Both Davids Berman and McComb (from The Silver Jews and legendary Australian band, The Triffids, respectively) put out a collection of poems to some acclaim.

I’d rather read a novel by Flaubert or Fitzgerald than one by Nick Cave, maybe that’s just me. Having not read Bunny Munro, I certainly cannot pretend to know if it’s good or not. David Berman is a poet first, and only a reluctant singer and musician. Generally, I think actors make pretty boring music. But there are some who are great singers – Marilyn Monroe, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Harris, Zoe Deschanel, William Shatner. And Vincent Gallo, though his album was savaged by the music press, I thought it was really good. He was a musician before he was a successful actor. Anyway, if I write another book it won’t be a novel nor a collection of poetry. I promise.

In a New York Times article, ‘Frontman’, Liz Phair said of your memoir, ‘Freddie Mercury once said, “I want it all and I want it now.” This appetite might aptly be called the rock ’n’ roll disease, and Dean Wareham seems to have caught it… Part confessional, part unsentimental career diary, Wareham’s Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance reads like good courtroom testimony’. Is that a fair assessment from Phair?

Well yeah I think I discuss the perils of rock and roll for your health and home life. On a long tour it’s as if you have stepped into an alternate reality. But though I had my share of fun, my transgressions were mild. Perhaps I had a mild case. And perhaps the book feels like courtroom testimony because I do lay it out there for people to judge.

There are some publishers here in Australia, and likely elsewhere, that want to charge almost as much for an ebook version of a title as its print version. Do you think the ‘worth’ of a digital download – album or novel – is equal to its tangible counterpart?

The distribution costs for an ebook are negligible, so according to the laws of capitalism it should be cheaper, no? Here in the States, it is the mass-market paperback that is getting squeezed – because if the ebook is only $9.99 and the hardcover is $26.99, then people are asking: do I really want to wait a year for the paperback when I can just buy the Kindle edition so cheap?

Would you object to your publisher giving away an ebook version of your book for free with any sale of the print version?

No I would not object, in fact I kind of think that if someone pays full price for a physical copy of your book (or a vinyl album), then why not give them the digital version as a bonus?

In your book, you mentioned selling the rights to a song you recorded with Lætitia Sadier of Stereolab, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, to US car manufacturer Cadillac for $120,000. That must’ve been pretty nice?

Yes, except the entire $120k went to a record company (Warner Music Group) and a publishing company (Gainsbourg’s). I had no say in it and received no compensation. There is actually a big legal battle looming here, between artists and labels, over when (if ever) a copyright expires. According to the copyright law passed back in 1976, after 35 years the rights to recorded music should revert to the artists who created to the music. Don Henley of the Eagles is leading the charge and I hope he succeeds.

In 2008, you were the emcee for one of the American National Book Foundation’s marquee events – ‘5 Under 35’ – featuring Vietnamese-Australian author Nam Le. His first collection found success in North America and Europe before it did in Australia. Your former bands Luna and Galaxie 500 found great success in Spain and the UK respectively early on before in, say, Kansas City or San Diego. Thoughts on why that happens?

The UK is small compared with the United States, so it’s easier to break through initially. They have national radio stations and a strong national music press. So, if John Peel played you on the BBC and then, if NME and Melody Maker liked you, you were set. Whereas here in the States, it is a huge country and the radio is fragmented; getting played on the radio in Boston doesn’t mean anything in Los Angeles. Effectively, the only national radio station in 1989 was MTV. Anyway, it’s common for an American band to find success in England before they do at home. That’s still true today. Many of our Brooklyn bands are better known in London than in New York. As for Luna, our biggest audience was here in the USA – San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis – but we did spend a lot of time touring Spain too.

Did you find being embraced abroad, early on, assisted in getting recognition at home?

The conventional wisdom is that it is good to get press in England, because radio and press in the rest of Europe (and I’m sure Australia) follow their lead. But, honestly, though Galaxie 500 were indeed modestly popular in England, we still had a devoted following in the States. We did well at university radio (which was important back then). It’s not like the band was ignored in our own time and only discovered later.

The online universe has changed everything with arts – music and writing especially. Your career spans and precedes mass-use of the internet. Now, a musician or writer in Brazil can be heard and read instantly in Fiji. That just wasn’t an option until the mid-1990s. Is this a good thing?

It cuts both ways. It’s great being able to research and access absolutely everything on the internet, to find obscure songs or watch the Australian band, Easybeats, on YouTube. But I hate how we’re all chained to our computers. As a musician, you’re now required to update a host of things like Facebook, MySpace, Ping and whatever else they invent each year. It’s exhausting.

The music business found itself in a digital revolution in the 2000s – a mass shake-out and complete realignment of an entire racket. Print publishing remains deep in the quagmire of adapting to its digital future;  what, how, when, whom and on what platforms. Were record labels forced to eat their own hubris with this change?

Bono complains that there has been a huge transfer of wealth; from the record companies who sold millions of compact discs in the 1990s to the tech companies who now enable people to get the music for free and the companies who make mp3 players and computers. I’m sure there was always an element of this – electronics shops, for example, only sold LPs because they wanted to lure people in and sell them stereo systems. The music was a loss leader. And so it is with iTunes – they don’t need to turn a profit selling the music. Rather, they make money selling the devices that store the music.

I have a friend who was head of Business Affairs at one of the big 4 American labels until just last year. He said he felt like he was the skipper on a slowly-sinking ship. He pointed out that if you travel up to the coast of Massachusetts, you might see waterfront estates built on fortunes made in whaling. Today, there are no more fortunes to be made whaling. And maybe no more fortunes to be made in selling compact discs. Anyway, the music biz is probably closer to the size it was back in the ’70s or ’80s. The 1990s was an aberration, a period of unprecedented super-profits for major record companies. It’s a business built on the spending power of affluent western teenagers. The teenagers are still there but they don’t pay for music.

Elektra Records (who put out your first four records) insisted you include a cover of Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Sweet Child O Mine’ on you’re The Days of Our Nights album.

It wasn’t a big deal. We liked the G N’ R cover (which we had recorded as a B-side), and figured if the label was excited about it then it wouldn’t hurt to include the song on the album. It was only slightly comical because after much discussion, the label decided not to release the record at all, dropping the band instead.

It’s my guess that tactic was not exactly in your original plan for the release? As A. E. Knopf editor, Gordon Lish, was, controversially, to Raymond Carver and his collections of short stories in the early 1980s, can the same affect be applied to a major label insisting (and getting its way with) bands’ final records? As in, tailored to the label’s marketing brass aesthetic, not the musicians?

We didn’t have much trouble that way. Our A&R people rarely interfered, and you have to expect to get at least a little bit of input when someone is giving you a pile of money to make a record. The biggest question was usually ‘who will produce your record?’ And they never forced anyone on us.

Creating art by committee, art by democracy – namely members in a band – must be excruciating. I cannot imagine writing a poem with five people involved or the results of a Jeffry Smart painting with four more pairs of hands dabbling in at will to result anything other than something completely compromised.

Yes, all that voting can be difficult. I’m sure it would be difficult to live on a commune too. But making music is a collaborative art form, and that can be wondrous, so that is something you have to accept. I accepted it until it became unacceptable to organise my life that way, at which point I left the band. And I guess I did this twice. But that’s part of the deal, that’s what happens to every band. You work together until you can’t work together any more. Does that sound like Yogi Berra?

Yes it does! But you’re calling your own shots now and own your music. I imagine that keeps the blood pressure at a healthier level?

It’s certainly easier to pick a photo for the back of the album. Or pick an album title. Or a sequence for the songs on your new album.

Part two of this interview, where Wareham talks about acting, scoring films, and Andy Warhol, can be found here.

I reviewed Charlotte Wood’s new novel Animal People for the Age and it looks like it has already found its way online, on the SMH website (not sure if it was in their print version as well). It is definitely one of the best Australian books I’ve read this year, and I do encourage you to check it out. I sought it out as I loved Wood’s previous novel The Children.

Animal People is an engaging read. I say in the review that moments in the novel ‘are compelling because they are recognisable. But the novel’s observations also compel because of a subtle tragicomedy. There are so many moments that feel simultaneously familiar and strange, humorous and sad: a security guard on a Segway, old people seeking seats on the bus, a paramedic dressed as a fairy. There’s even a Kafkaesque sense of persecution: Stephen as one against the world.’

Read the rest, if you like, here.

Commentary

Oct 5, 2011

5 comments

As reported on the main website today, Diana Gribble, co-founder of Private Media (owner of Crikey) and a huge influence in the Australian publishing industry, has passed away.

I only met Di once. She and Sarah Stokely took me to lunch after Crikey had invited me to become one of their bloggers, three years ago. I remember feeling nervous. I was new to Melbourne, fresh on the literary ‘scene’ and was aware of how much I didn’t know. Di was incredibly generous and encouraging. She challenged me on a few points, I remember that. She made me think about the role of my blog (and the internet, in general) in the Australian publishing/critical world. She told us a great story about Helen Garner. I wish I could remember more. I remember thinking she was sophisticated, smart and funny. I feel very sad that I will not get to speak to her again, and to thank her for encouraging me.

Other people today who knew her have written much more detailed and touching tributes:

Sophie Cunningham worked with Di at McPhee Gribble (the legendary publishing company she ran with Hilary McPhee). She has written a tribute at the Meanjin blog.

WH Chong has written a beautiful, moving post on Culture Mulcher.

Text Publishing have shared an article from the Age (Di founded the company), and publisher Michael Heyward will be sharing his thoughts on their blog soon.

Bookseller+Publisher gives us a full account of her career.

She will be missed.