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Can I Get in the Van? – I Hitchhiked to Texas and Almost Joined Black Flag
Illustration by Todd Ryan White
In the summer of 1981, a young and unknown 20-year-old punk from Washington, DC, named Henry Garfield jumped up onstage to sing an encore with Black Flag at a show in New York City. It so happened that the band was looking for a new singer. A couple days later, they tracked down Henry and asked him to come back to New York for a proper audition. They met him at the Odessa diner on Avenue A by Tompkins Square Park and took him to a nearby rehearsal space, where they ran through a set together. Afterward, the band went outside to talk it over. As Henry later recounted in his tour diary, Get in the Van, guitarist Greg Ginn and bassist Chuck Dukowski returned a few minutes later and Dukowski asked, “Well? Are you going to join or not?”
Henry, of course, was in. He immediately quit his job as the manager of a Häagen-Dazs, left behind an abusive family situation, and went on the road with his favorite band. Shortly thereafter, he changed his last name to Rollins and moved to Los Angeles. Within six months, the band recorded Damaged, a record that is widely credited with inventing American hardcore.
Back when I was a Black Flag-obsessed teenager longing to escape my own dead-end hometown in south Florida, the story about Henry’s complete reversal of fortune captured my imagination. In 1989, after Black Flag had already split up, I read an interview with Greg Ginn in which he lamented how hard it was to find dedicated, hardworking musicians. Being an idealistic 16-year-old, I called SST Records and left a message on their answering machine, offering to drop what I was doing and hitchhike to Los Angeles to play bass in his band. Ginn, unfortunately, never called back. Still, Black Flag’s uncompromising DIY ethic continued to inspire me, and eventually, I left home, worked hard, and carved out a fulfilling life for myself as a writer and musician.
I still sometimes think about how exciting it must have been to just walk away from a life you didn’t like, as Henry did, and start over completely. One gloomy, late night last winter I found myself sitting at the Odessa diner, ruminating over a lukewarm cup of coffee. I was sick, rent was due, my new book was going nowhere, and a snowstorm was raging outside. I thought of Henry, sitting so long ago at the same counter.
Later that week, to everyone’s surprise, members of Black Flag announced that they were reforming. In fact, there were two reunions: one led by founder and principal songwriter Greg Ginn—claiming the official moniker of Black Flag—and the other by former bass player Dukowski and Keith Morris, the band’s first singer, which would simply be going by Flag.
While fans debated feverishly which of these lineups was the true Black Flag, I was captivated by one tiny detail from the flood of news stories announcing the dual reunions: Ginn said that he would be playing both guitar and bass on the new, as-yet-untitled album.
It dawned on me: Black Flag did not have a bass player. I could be that bass player! I decided right then and there to find out where Ginn was living, hitchhike across the country, and persuade him to let me try out—just as I had attempted to do at 16. I knew all the old songs, and I figured that thumbing it instead of flying or taking a bus would prove to Ginn that I had dedication.
The Richard Hell Interview
Richard Hell—legendary punk rock iconoclast, intrepid novelist, poet, and now memoirist—is lounging on his couch in the cozy East Village pad he’s called home since 19 fucking 75. Considering how brutally forthcoming Richard is about his drug use in his new autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (“Thirty years later, I still have the scars on my left forearm”), it’s a surprise that he looks significanty younger than his 63 years. His litany of feats since he escaped to New York are a total mind-blow.
In Tramp, Hell vividly recounts his gun-toting cowboy dreams as a young miscreant and his rabble-rousing school-dropout years before hitting New York City and altering its landscape. He helped create the punk template with a fuck you attitude, birthed anarchic style with tattered, thrift-store threads, botched hairstyles that Malcolm McLaren later swiped for the Sex Pistols, started Television with Tom Verlaine, put CBGB and Max’s Kansas City on the punk rock map, wrote era-defining tunes like “Blank Generation” with his band the Voidoids, survived life as a junkie, and penned Burroughs-level dirty sex ‘n’ track-marked novels and poetry.
Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp is epic badassness. He hides little about his life’s trajectory and his disdain for Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, his undying love for Dee Dee Ramone and Bob Quine, the drugs, the music, and the debauchery. Just don’t ask him about being Jewish and what he thought of Marquee Moon. He’d much rather talk about his dick.
VICE: When did you start writing I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp?
Richard Hell: Right after my last novel (Godlike) came out in 2006. It’s been a long haul. But I did a bunch of things—other projects—as I was doing it, too. Still, it was a slog. It’s twice as long as anything I’ve written before. And also more confusing. It gets delicate to write about yourself [laughs].
I assume it’s much easier to write fiction.
Yeah, yeah. It’s easier to write fiction. You’re right. But it was a long process figuring out what to keep and what not to keep. Things are coming back to me that I forgot to mention [laughs]. Still, it hits you when you’re working on a book like that, that it will be easy enough to spend 600 pages describing one day.
But you kept journals over the years. Did those help in putting the book together?
I did, yeah, but I was never really systematic about it. They were really useful. But it’s not as if I could wonder what I was doing some month from looking at my journals. I’d go three months without writing anything in there and then just open it up and just write a page. But they were helpful. They did nail down dates and did also just show me exactly what was going on in my head.
When you started writing Tramp, was the book already bought?
Oh, I never do that. I’ll write the book, then I’ll go look for a publisher.
So, there weren’t any publishers on your ass to write an autobiography?
Are you kidding me? Noooo! In fact, I was turned down by probably about six or seven publishers. There were basically two offers. The book was in sloppier shape then. I did send it out because I was so tired of working on it. I really OD’d on it. I was nauseated and I just wanted to find a publisher—just to get a little charge goin’, ya know? [laughs]. But I got the ideal publisher for it, and it worked out great. No regrets, really.
Did you plan on Tramp being your next project after you were done with Godlike?
No, I had to figure that out. I thought writing Tramp was gonna be easy in comparison because I figured I had the… narrative… so that solves a lot of problems. Then I’d just try to figure out how to write good sentences. It sure turned out to be a lot more complicated. I kept getting turned around and all the fuckin’ internal turmoil figuring how to regard my own self… I mean, that’s really confusing.
Did you feel like by writing the book, you were penning a de facto obituary?
No, it’s nothing like an obituary. An obituary is just a really flattering curriculum vitae. That wasn’t the issue.
When you were writing the book, were you cognizant about other musicians writing memoirs, like Patti Smith (Just Kids) and Keith Richards (Life)…
I can’t see this interview in VICE magazine.
Why? OK, I’ll ask you some more provocative questions [laughs].
Yeah, you’re supposed to ask me about my dick or something.
Yeah, you’re right. Who’d you bang?
Richard Kern’s Films Are Still Shocking as Hell
If you know VICE, you know Richard Kern. He’s been taking picture of young, supple women not wearing clothes for us (and a myriad of others, as well as for his own fine art) for years. Hell, he even has his own show with us. But what some of you whippersnappers may not know is that Richard wasn’t always making his current brand of hot naked girl art. Back in the day, Richard, along with buddies like Lydia Lunch, David Wojnarowicz, Lung Leg, Sonic Youth, and Henry Rollins, made some of the most bloody, sexually devious, and generally fucked up short films ever. Labeled the “Cinema of Transgression,” Richard and like-minded film makers shooked viewers to the core with their art. All of his films from this era were just remastered andreleased on Blu-ray. I recently came to work one morning and found a copy of the collection on my desk. Of course, I had to watch it. I then called up Richard and convinced him to come talk to me.
VICE: I was given a copy of the collection. I put it on the Blu-ray player at work and sat in the dark and watched all of it. There were some things that were hard to get through, to be honest, but it was definitely visceral and striking.
Richard Kern: And old, 40 years old.
What do you see when you watch the films today, now that the time has passed?
Pretty much the same as they were before, it hasn’t changed one bit. It’s like it was just yesterday, that’s the weird thing with time. It seems like yesterday. But I still look at it and wonder what people are seeing when they see it. There’s a couple of films I’ve got a really good idea of how the audience is going to react, but not in general. Like the very first one I made was Goodbye 42nd Street, that’s on there. The first time I showed it, I was really surprised people were into it. I just thought it was such a shitty Super-8 movie, but people responded well and that encouraged me. The first time it was at a screening, it wasn’t allowed to be screened. They immediately said, “You can’t show this.” That was also inspiring, to say “fuck you” to those kind people.
So you were part of Cinema of Transgression. Were you trying specifically to shock people and freak them out or was that an after-effect?
The group of films that immediately preceded it in the underground were all very boring. It seemed like one of the qualifications was to make it boring and slow and long. So our plan was to make it short, and make it non-boring, if possible. And that may not work now, but back then it did, and we just tried to break down any moral thing or taboo you could. One of my personal things was to fuck up relationships and fuck up people’s heads as much as possible. People were completely shocked by some of the stuff. But this was in the 80s, so I don’t know how they will react now.
Do you think it’s as shocking now as it was then?
There was this show in Berlin at the KW Institute of Contemporary Art in Berlin. They did this whole Cinema of Transgression month where they installed the films in this club-like atmosphere, like you would’ve seen back then, in different, weird rooms. People said it was really effective, and it was. I walked through and there was one film that I watched that a friend of mine made that I hadn’t seen since then and I couldn’t sit through the whole thing, it was just too fucking hardcore. So it’s definitely a negative attitude, everything was negative, everything was nihilist. It’s the whole belief, and it probably sounds stupid sitting here in this restaurant, but you have to destroy everything to start over again. That was the whole anarchist approach, which was pretty much the punk attitude. It was “fuck everything.” And I felt the only way you could really destroy and fuck with people was to fuck with their love life and their personal relationships. When you see something, it coarsens you. Every bad thing you see coarsens you. Think about video games, like playing Black-Ops—it fucks with your head. I don’t care what people say.
I was reading some of the reviews and one of the main critiques was that these people were shitty actors. Was that a secondary care for you?
It’s funny you just said that because I never thought about that. It wasn’t the same kind of approach, and if I was making one now, I still wouldn’t think about it. I never thought about that. But yeah, they are shitty actors. It’s all your state of mind when you’re looking at them, everybody in the movies is pretty real.
Yeah, the things they were doing were real.
Believe me, in Fingered, Marty Nation was exactly like that, no exaggeration. The guy who’s lifting weights, he was like that. Everybody was real. Lydia Lunch was like that. Lung Leg was like that. The story was based on Lydia and Marty’s travels when she was 16 and they would hitchhike and get picked up by somebody, and Marty would take his knife out and start stabbing and cutting up the upholstery in the car, looking at the guy. All those guys were really scary. The guy who’s lifting weights in it got killed about two years ago, somebody shot him finally.
Shooting the Shit with Marina Abramovic
Marina Abramović, the 65-year-old grandmother of performance art, says you know you’re still relevant when young people show up at your art shows. Her private dinner parties are another matter altogether. I was somehow—and surprisingly—invited to her VIP private dinner party at a classy Viennese restaurant after her latest opening Thursday night, “With Eyes Closed I See Happiness, 2012” at Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna. Correction: I crashed the dinner party with three of my artist friends, and we were probably the youngest people there.
I only managed to snag a 12-minute interview with the art world superstar. But it was cool. She was hungry and people were wearing big glasses, snorting tobacco, and spilling red wine all over the white tablecloths. Abramović managed to keep her composure, even while star-struck fans were taking photos as she ate sugar powder-covered pancakes.
VICE: I put some crystals in my cleavage because I know you use crystals in your work.
Marina Abramović: I’ve never put crystals in my cleavage, but OK. I have put crystals near my head and asked, “You know what time it is?”
A lot of artists today are struggling. Do you have any advice for us?
Yes, yes, yes. My audience is a young audience. I am so incredibly happy and grateful. You know who did me an enormous favor? Lady Gaga. She brought me a young audience. I still haven’t met her, but we did meet virtually. Lady Gaga came to see my show at MoMA in 2010, and because she tweeted about it, all these kids came to MoMA to see Lady Gaga. And even after Lady Gaga left, they stayed and saw my show. I have something like 80,000 fans on Facebook all under the age of 30. My favorite! I am so happy.
But my advice to young artists is to be less selfish. When you arrive at a certain age, you have to give unconditionally. I think young artists should be much less selfish than they are. First of all, you have to know that making art is not about being famous and having money. The art is about a different matter. Fame and money is just a side effect. This you have to get clear in your head.
The second thing you have to figure out is whether you’re an artist or not. People want to be artists for different reasons, but if you have to create then you might make a good artist. And it requires a whole different set of sacrifices. It’s a lonely life. You have to really dedicate yourself completely. You have to be inferior. You have to be in fever, diseased, like it’s the only thing that exists ever.
Then, if you’re a really good artist, you have to learn how to survive in society—not compromising to the market, not creating art pollution in your studio. And there are so many things you have to learn about the business. It’s amazing, my first show ever was in Italy, and it sold out. But I never got a penny. All artists experience the same shit. So you have to kind of stick together and give each other advice. There are very few artists who are actually generous. Robert Rauschenberg was one of them. He created a hospital for artists. He created a kind of bank account if you’re in trouble as a young artist.
Jim Jarmusch Taught Me Not to Give a Fuck
You probably know Jim Jarmusch as a fiercely independent director, one who’s responsible for untouchable flicks like Down By Law, Dead Man, and Ghost Dog. But maybe you didn’t know that he’s a serious musician too. It makes sense: Jarmusch first blossomed in the 80s downtown NY scene, where it was fairly common to see rappers working with painters working with No Wave skronkers working with Cinema of Transgression transgressors, so a little overlap in the arts was pretty commonplace.
Jarmusch is still making music, staying true to that element of his early days. He recently teamed with up with Dutch lutist Jozef van Wissem for a few albums of heavy drone/folk workouts that all cast a cinematic, foreboding vibe over your sunshine-y ass. Sacred Bones just put out The Mystery of Heaven LP, which will destroy you:
Now the pair is working together on Jarmusch’s new film, Only Lovers Left Alive, a romance centered around two vampires.
I got to attend one of Jim and Jozef’s only performances together last Sunday at MoMA PS1’s Sunday Sessions. Their set was a thick, smoky roast that formed a warm little cocoon inside PS1’s low-lit, futuristic performance dome. Bright glowing embers of guitar feedback were underscored by soft, delicate lute plucking that all swirled around together in a gorgeous, hazy drone. It was the perfect Sunday palette cleanser that made my hungover loser-self want to go home immediately, read a thoughtful book for a few hours, and go to bed at a reasonable time.
Before I could hop on the subway to go act like an adult, I talked to Jim and Jozef about their new album on Sacred Bones, their upcoming Only Lovers Left Alive score, and proper sunglasses etiquette.
Noisey: How’d you guys come into contact?
Jim Jarmusch: We were in ‘Nam together.
Yeah, it was wild.
Were you in the shit?
Yeah. [Laughs] No, we met on the street in New York like six or seven years ago. I got a CD from Jozef and we started talking about maybe doing something together, maybe a film score, and we’ve been doing some stuff ever since. We made a record together and now The Mystery of Heaven is our second one. And we’re finally preparing a score for Only Lovers Left Alive, which took me seven years to get going.
How’d the connection with Sacred Bones happen?
Jozef van Wissem:I was just buying records one day at a record fair in Williamsburg and I came across a Zola Jesus 7-inch that I saw and wanted. The record happened to be at the Sacred Bones record stand. I met Caleb and told him what a great label it was. We got to talking and he asked me what I was doing and I said I was working on new record with Jim. That was it.
Tell me a little bit about how you guys work together. Where does it start with a composition?
I guess we compose together. Sometimes I give Jim a piece that he adds to and sometimes it’s the other way around. In the beginning, it was more like I gave him my little pieces and he would add to that, but now it has grown. Now we just both write together and we both come up with ideas.
We gave little kids “beer” and taught them to smash the state and circle the pit. Then we made them listen to Black Flag’s “TV Party”. Now they want to smash Henry Rollins in the face and “kick him in the willy”.
(Source: Vice Magazine)