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“If two things are two sides of the same coin, they are very closely related although they seem different”
– The Cambridge Dictionary
As one might guess, the name of the world’s most successful (Hotten) band in history – the Beatles – does not completely incidentally sound so similar to that of the influential group of writers that called themselves the Beat Generation. What one might not guess, however, is how manifold and deeply rooted their connections are.
It must be said from the outset that there are multiple stories surrounding the origin of the Beatles’ name. Stuart Sutcliffe, the so-called ‘fifth Beatle’, who was a study friend of John Lennon and only a part of the first beginnings of what would later become the Beatles, suggested they call themselves ‘the Beatals’ in January 1960, as a tribute to the then famous rock ‘n’ roll band Buddy Holly and the Crickets. In the months that followed this name changed to ‘the Silver Beetles’ (May), ‘the Silver Beatles’ (July), and eventually ‘the Beatles’ (August) (Lewisohn 18-22). John Lennon himself in 1961, before their enormous success came about, already rejected every notion of a ‘meaning’ behind the name:
Many people ask what are Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles, how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an ‘A’’. Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him.
(qtd. in Coupe 131) Continue Reading…
This article originally appeared in Beatdom #14 – the MOVIE issue.
Kubilay Uner is the composer for the 2013 movie, Big Sur, based on the Jack Kerouac novel of the same name. He has worked with Michael and Mark Polish – the brothers behind the movie – on various projects, as well as performing live scores in concert halls. I spoke to him about setting Kerouac to music for the big screen.
Has Kerouac been much of an influence on your life?
Growing up in Germany I didn’t really start reading much English-language literature until well into my twenties, after I moved to the States. Kerouac was always somebody I knew about, but it wasn’t until shortly before the film that I read his work.
Had you read Big Sur prior to signing on to this project? If so, what did you think?
When I heard that Michael Polish was beginning work on Big Sur, I decided to read it – less because of the possibility of working on the film, but because I figured it must be an interesting work if Mike decides to create an adaptation. Also, Big Sur (the place) always fascinated me – I consider it to be the most stunning landscape I have ever visited. I absolutely loved the book. The first thing I noticed in it was the rhythm. It soon became clear, at least for me, that the book eludes you until you decide to read it aloud (or aloud in your head – hearing the sounds of the words, rather than merely absorbing their meanings.) So to me “Big Sur” is perhaps more a long poem rather than a novel. It was a deeply moving experience to get inside the head of someone so close to the breaking point that his perception of this amazing landscape turns from awe-inspiring to awe-ful. Kerouac’s awareness of his own state of mind is so astute yet disarming, there is no chance of keeping any “safe distance” from it. It would take a cynic to not be touched by this book.
One reason that Big Sur has been such a loved book of Kerouac’s is that it is possibly his most lyrical. He wrote it by the sea, and so the sound of the sea is reflected in the flow of the prose. In a book so lyrical, how did you go about composing a soundtrack that would adequately reflect Kerouac’s prose?
The musical palette – the instruments mostly – was already set, since I was hired to pick up the music where Bryce and Aaron Dessner left off. From the start, Mike did not want a “historically accurate” score – say, an early 1960s Jazz score – but wanted a score that expresses Kerouac’s journey to an audience of today. The Dessners set a wonderfully moody yet strong tone in the cues they completed before I took over. It was important that Jack not be made “soft” – he needed a voice that allowed his strength, wit and grace to shine through the deteriorating state of his mind and body.
After reading the book my fist step was to listen to recordings of Kerouac reading his own work, since I wanted to represent *his* rhythms in the music. That turned out to be unnecessary, since Jean-Marc Barr (who plays Jack Kerouac in the film and reads the ever-present voiceover) does an amazing job of capturing Kerouac’s sound and cadence.
Additionally, I created some sketches that were never meant to be part of the score, but only served to hone my senses to the sounds of Big Sur: I used recordings I had made of the environmental sounds there during prior visits – waves, wind, trees – and “painted” musical colors onto them – a voice coming out of the surf, a few piano chords projected onto the sound of strong wind gusts, etc. This was never meant for anyone but me, in order to give me a sense of “what could live in this environment.” Among other things, many of the electronic tones in the score were a direct result of these experiments.
In the end it became a very simple matter of reacting directly and immediately to the rhythms and colors of the environment in the picture, and especially to Jean-Marc Barr’s voice as Kerouac in the voiceover. Every film score is largely a matter of “fitting in to what’s already there,” but in this film, with the prominent voiceover, and strong poetic images, this was even more the case – the music score had to seamlessly become but one player in the quintet of actors’ performances, voiceover, visuals, natural sounds and music.
From Albion to Shangri-La consists of collected excerpts from Peter Doherty’s journals, circa 2008 to 2013, with an added selection from his tour diaries, all rounded off with a previously unpublished interview with editor, Nina Antonia – the rock journalist’s rock journalist, no stranger to the darker excesses of some of rock’s more elegantly wasted sons – whose sharp eye and clear ear have been called upon to assist in this literary distillation, as explained in her Introduction.
So, here is a brief download of life-behind-the-scenes with the selective concentration and short attention span of a pipe-fuelled fly-on-the-wall, flicker-finger on the fast forward of a secret video diary – cut-up surveillance footage to try and keep tabs on what the kaleidoscope of chemically accelerated and trance-translated selves have been up to. The dramatis personae included at the beginning tips the wink to the fact that this is the most fictional of literary creations of them all: True Life Confessional, the reportage of simple facts about a far from simple life – it’s all there, folks – only the names have been changed to protect the guilty, the innocent needing no such cover. (As Doherty sings on the latest album’s Fall From Grace : “If I had to tell the truth, I would be lying.”)
The tour diaries themselves are a confusion of times and places (“I think we are in Leeds”), blurred half-memories of shows well played, shows that deteriorate into random violence, and seemingly never-ending encounters with the young who are the loyal subjects of this uncrowned prince of all the rebels-without-a-clue, timely reminders of just what he means to them:
A 17 year old girl on the crush barrier, saw her briefly afterwards. She works in a jam factory. Left school at 14. Lives for music – says that Babyshambles, Libertines, me, lyrics, helped her through depression, boredom, through life. Her father died from a heroin overdose when she was born. Her mum hadn’t let him see the newborn baby. He went home. Banged up. Checked out . . .
It is because Doherty appears to speak to them, and for them, appears to be one of them – if only writ tabloid large, like them, only moreso – that “the kids” (of all ages) keep the faith. They feel that his successes are their successes, his failures are their failures, and that if he can come from little-or-nothing and succeed, and fail, and still survive and show the hope of succeeding again (even if only to fail again, then try again – try again), then maybe they can, too. It may not be Samuel Beckett, but it’s something. And something has got to be better than nothing. (“Nothing Comes To Nothing” the most recent single declares.)
From Albion to Shangri-La can proudly and rightfully take its place among all the other great works that fill that most singular of literary categories, the drug confessions of sensitive poet souls, along with William Burroughs, Jim Carroll, Jean Cocteau, Richard Hell and Alex Trocchi (to name just a few I can see on the shelf with a half-turn in my chair.) Not forgetting, of course, the grandaddy of them all, Thomas De Quincey: his Confessions of An English Opium Eater sets the basic blueprint, after all, and he and Mr. Doherty would find common-ground, agree over much familiar territory – although De Quincey might just wonder at all the references to Galton & Simpson, Edward G. Robinson and Colombo, or blowjobs from très chic French schoolgirl nymphets! All the reasons, justifications and excuses, the pleasures and pains, the inner-directed flight that almost inevitably ends with inertia – but also the jewels among the darkness, the moving heart-warming beautiful flashes of insight that illuminate this human condition we all share. “Spiritual Beings having a Human Experience” – which is really just a more palatable, New Age way of re-stating that age-old Gnostic dilemma: we are beautiful, pure spirits, mired in a fallen world of suffering, pain, and frightened, nagging flesh . . .
Speaking of which, one of the more striking – at times unsettling – aspects of such memoirs is the notion they project of Self-as-Object, the almost scientific detachment from the body shared by the religious ascetic and the hardcore drug-abuser. I’ll spare you the details, delicate reader, of the autopsy-in-progress, but I’m sure you can guess . . .
Indifference to discomfort and squalor. Intravenous self-mortification. Stigmata of the syringe. The body re-sculpted into a psychic launchpad, more fitting vehicle for the exploration of the endless interior. Outside is hostile, and to be defended against or escaped from. So much a cosmonaut of inner space that even their own bodies – never mind their actions, failings, feelings, or possible consequences – become distanced from them, a distance ever harder to bridge. Epiphanies of a Midnight Sun, too much in the moment, yet too much outside of time . . . The unthinkable becomes the everyday, and the everyday becomes unthinkable . . . Like a former prize-fighter or grizzled warrior, proud of their scars – each one read as a badge of honour, the sign of a scrape emerged from (just!) – the subliminal tattoos in which a whole hidden history can be read.
Here’s the rub: if Doherty turned up on time, clean and sober and freshly washed, didn’t misbehave, played well and spoke articulately, there wouldn’t be much of a scoop and one wonders how much interest there would still be? The sensation-hungry media, all surface and scandal, has no real interest in taking time over story or substance, especially where an all-too-predictable (they think) commodity like “Potty Pete” Doherty is concerned. The irony is, of course, he might just turn out to be an intelligent and sensitive poet, with something to say about the human condition worth hearing, over a well-crafted twin-guitar-based catchy song. But at the rate things have been going . . .
Irvine Welsh, himself no stranger to chemically-inspired creativity and attendant controversy, once dismissed fellow countryman, the infamous Beat junkie writer Alex Trocchi, as “The George Best of Scottish literature.” It’s a comparison that might Peter Doherty might appreciate, constellating as it does precocious talent, literary notoriety, junk and even football – but the greater concern at stake here, surely, is that he doesn’t follow the likes of Trocchi (or Best, for that matter) into a self-thwarting internal exile, or worse. Mercifully, however, Doherty has survived long enough to disperse the grinning vultures, those who just could not wait for him to join Brian, Janis, Jimi and Jim, Kurt and even his talented but tragic friend, Amy, in the infamous “27 Club” – without doubt the one Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall-of-Fame nobody in their right mind should aspire to.
(An all-too-grim reminder that this is a game played for keeps is to read the line written into Doherty’s open diary by one of his friends – “I solemnly swear I am not going to die” – and then do a double-take at the signature: Peaches Geldof.)
One can only hope that having survived this long, his obvious love of music, poetry, and love and life itself that have got him this far – with their combined powers to excite, inspire, intoxicate, soothe and sustain beyond anything that can be found in the chemist’s, or at the darker end of the street – will continue to matter enough. As Nina Antonia observes in her Introduction:
When I asked Peter why it was so hard to rest, he replied like a child on Christmas Eve . . . ‘Because there’s too much going on.’ The substance of the giddy tornado of his mind now romps across the pages that follow.
As a veteran of life with Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls, and enigmatic narco-reclusive Peter Perrett of The Only Ones (whose Another Girl, Another Planet surely stands as one of the all-time invocations of the exhilarating confusion of the rush of love and love of the rush) – all of whom she has known intimately, and written about candidly and insightfully – as well as her near-decade of working in the field of substance misuse, Nina Antonia must know better than most that, in the end, there really is nothing much to be said and done.
In the interview with Antonia that closes the book, Doherty reflects:
Talking to kids now they just don’t feel confident taking off to a new city, getting a job behind a bar. Now it’s so much more difficult to get a cash-in-hand job, find a flat, find a squat, the world is so much more sterile.
This is precisely the reason why we need poets, songsmiths and writers like him, as an antidote to the bland conformity and soul-sucking sterility that is on the rise all around us. In May this year, interviewed by Barcelona TV for a launch of his paintings, Flags of the Old Regime, Doherty was asked what his art meant in his life, and he replied, characteristically playfully but also tellingly:
It is my life in the same way that, y’know, a baker smells of flour. It’s my life, I live inside songs and with crayons and y’know – I like the sea, and love – but, y’know . . . I spend my time . . . here [taps forehead] trying to devise a way out of reality, and . . . sooner or later, if you spend enough time inventing a world, you can convince yourself it exists.
Let’s hope that Peter Doherty never gives up on his dream of inventing a world that he can call home, and carries on inspiring others in the process. God Bless the Good Ship Albion in her continuing voyages in search of Arcady and Shangri-La!
(Photos courtesy of Nina Antonia)
Some videos from a recent book signing:
From Albion to Shangri-La is published by Thin Man Press and is now available on Kindle and in paperback from July 1st. Buy it here with a 30% special web discount.
“I want to be considered a jazz poet . . .” i
Don’t miss Mark Murphy’s 1981 recording “Bop for Kerouac.”ii
Jack loved jazz and wanted to be known as a jazz poet. Highly-acclaimed American jazz vocalist Mark Murphy will take you for a luxurious spin with this beautiful recording, a rich tribute to Kerouac and the music he adored. It’s gorgeous jazz—silky smooth and pure as a pure jazz singer or a pure man jazz poet—and Murphy puts Jack’s writings to splendid use with his eloquent vocals. All you need to do is listen, and he’ll do the rest with his vocalese. If you enjoy good music, and classic Kerouac, you will enjoy this sophisticated recording. As Duke Ellington said, “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.”
The record has eight tracks and features Murphy reading from The Subterraneans “ . . . we went to the Red Drum to hear the jazz which that night was Charlie Parker . . . the king and founder of the bop generation . . . ” and On the Road “Dean, ragged in a moth-eaten overcoat he brought specially for the freezing temperatures of the East, walked off alone . . . ,” which are incorporated into tracks three and eight. The track titles might tempt you to indulge: “Be-Bop Lives (Boplicity),” “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” “Parker’s Mood,” “You Better Go Now,” “You’ve Proven Your Point (Bongo Beep),” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Down St. Thomas Way,” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men.”
Read the linear notes that relate great Beat moments, especially publisher Jay Landesman’s recollection of an encounter Jack had with bandleader Artie Shaw at Birdland while listening to Lester Young. Jack wanted to do his clarinet imitation for Shaw, but Shaw wanted to talk about literature. Did the sad young men have fun? Sure they did.
i Kerouac, Jack. Mexico City Blues. (New York: Grove Press, 1994).
ii Mark Murphy with Richie Cole, “Bop for Kerouac,”1981. CD.
(Medium Boogie Woogie)
In a Phnom-Penh beach-y sunn-y vil-lage in As-ia
There’s a Scot who runs the best Em-er-ald Beat bar
He can line fine whisk-ey an-y way that you take it
But what he likes the best is kicks that go far
When he pours it’s a ball
He’s the GO-man of them all
Old Bull-Lee waltz-es a-round when Dave sets up the bar,
Then when he pours he shakes a hand,
The rhyth-m Jack beats puts the gang in a trance
No-bod-y there both-ers to prance
But when he slams with Alvah and Co-dy,
They hol-ler “Moan for man, Dav-id, moan to the bar.”
A yass, a yip, a yass yip flip tip-in’ on Neal’s knees
A wo, EEEE, a wo EEEE wo EEEE wo-in’ out he squeezed
And when he slams with the Bass and a-le,
They hol-ler “Aw, beat me, Co-dy, driving the car.”
Ray Smith is under the bar
i Sung to the tune of “Beat Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar” by Don Raye, Hughie Prince, and Eleanor Sheehy
George T. Simon. The Big Bands Songbook. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975.)
One of our most successful issues of Beatdom was the 7th, released way back in 2010. This was the music-themed issue, and contained some wonderful essays about the influence of music on the Beats, and the influence of the Beats on music. (You can read more in our archives.)
Beatdom #7 has long been out of print, but fear not – it’s back to life on Kindle! That’s right, since Beatdom #10 we have been using Kindle to digitally distribute our magazine, and very slowly we’ve released Beatdom #9 and Beatdom #8 on the same format.
Now Beatdom #7 has joined the list. Take a look:
Jack Kerouac, jazz enthusiast extraordinaire, was inspired by and promoted jazz in his writing. He breathed jazz in prose and poetry. Allen Ginsberg called it “spontaneous bop prosody.” Ann Charters wrote in Kerouac: A Biography he “identified more with musical geniuses like Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan and Thelonious Monk than he did with any established literary scene . . . Bop was to Kerouac a new art form that had broken through to eloquence. His own method of spontaneous composition was meant to do the same thing with words that he heard bop musicians doing with their instruments. When Miles Davis played, Kerouac heard his trumpet sounding long sentences like Marcel Proust.”
In 1952 Kerouac wrote to John Clellon Holmes that he was “blowing such mad poetry and literature that I’ll look back years later with amazement and chagrin that I can’t do it anymore.” Jack didn’t quite make it to the looking back years.
A perhaps outdated popular cultural image is that of the young, strung-out jazz musician, such as Bird, and an early final destructive ending. The other popular image is of the old, strung-out jazz musician, such as the Dexter Gordon character, in the film ‘Round Midnight—but, it ain’t necessarily so. Think of the Clark Terrys and the Dr. Billy Taylors and others who continued educating audiences and playing on stage well into old, quite old, age. Now, jazz is part of the curriculum in scores of universities and colleges.
Here in Sal Paradise’s backyard, down the street from Ginsberg’s Paterson, in “nowhere Zen New Jersey” (twenty miles west of New York City) is the outstanding five-day 2013 Summer Jazz Room Series at William Paterson University. The week showcases world-renowned musicians, with Friday’s concert starring The Heath Brothers Quintet, featuring 86-year-old tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Called “Little Bird” he’s shared the stage with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davies, and composed and arranged in the repertoires of Clark Terry and Dexter Gordon and many others. The quintet features 78-year-old drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, who has played with everyone including Coltrane and Monk, trumpeter Fred Hendrix (“Blowblowblow!”ii), pianist Jeb Patton, and bassist David Wong. One of the highlights of the performance was Monk’s gorgeous “‘Round Midnight.” The almost two-hour nonstop show lead by the sprightly National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master captivated the audience. The auditorium’s first row was filled with young men, jazz students, very young—as in high school (part of the university’s summer jazz workshop)—sitting at the edges of their seats and quick to jump up for a standing ovation. What’s there to say when you hear music at this level? How does one respond? Surely the definitive experience belongs to that most exuberant young man Neal Cassady:
“Dean stood in front . . . oblivious to everything else in the world, with his head bowed, his hands socking in together, his whole body jumping on his heels and the sweat, always the sweat, pouring and splashing down his tormented collar to lie actually in a pool at his feet…”iii
The frantic, wailing, funny jazz scenes in On the Road exhibit Jack’s great colorful gift of celebrating life and his heartfelt love of “skidilibee-la-bee you, —oo, —e bop she-bom.”iv
ii Kerouac, Jack, On the Road, 1957
iii Kerouac, Jack, On the Road, 1957
iv Kerouac, Jack, “The Beginning of Bop” Escapade, 1959
interview by Michael Hendrick
They say that I’m ill-mannered,
that I’m gonna self-destruct,
But if you know what I’m thinkin’
you’ll know that pop country really sucks.
Well, we’re losing all the outlaws
that had to stand their ground
and they’re being replaced by these kids
from a manufactured town
And they don’t have no idea
about sorrow and woe
‘Cause they’re all just too damn busy
kissin’ ass on Music Row.
Published by Hank Williams III, 2005, Bruc Records.
Well, I mean, you know, what I am doing to my voice. No other musician out there is doing what we deliver, as far as three and a half hours a night, four different genres, so it takes a toll on the vocal chords. It’s the never ending battle, fighting for my voice, trying to keep it. That’s the hardest part…the road…but that’s just one of those things.
What are you up to currently? In September, you released four new albums on the same day…you don’t see many artists do that.
We did a West Coast run and we just did an East Coast run. In my career, I have always toured just to tour. This is the first time I am touring around the releasing of the records but…that’s just my work ethic and that’s just what we do. The two year thing is…I wanting to get to a lot of places I never got to play before. Places like Italy, Romania, Spain, Norway, Japan, Australia… I’m wanting to start from scratch and get over there while I can. The last twenty years I’ve really just kept it in the United States and Canada. I’ve been to Japan and Europe just a couple of times but I’ve mostly kept it in the United States.
One thing you notice about a Hank3 show is how devoted the fans are; there is a lot of loyalty show to the artist.
I do talk to a lot of people from China on Facebook…all that shameless self-promotion on MySpace and Facebook…that’s a lot of the groundwork on my end, trying to put the word out over there in a different way. I’ve gotten a lot of work off of it. I meet a lot of creative people, artists giving me stuff or making trades…a lot of guitar techs…you meet a lot of people that if someone else was running it [his Facebook page], you would not have all those great opportunities of getting to connect with folks. You just wouldn’t have the opportunities to connect to all those people who are reaching out to you if you had somebody else scanning all your stuff. So, I’ve always been into trying to be as much ‘hands on’ as possible.
It seems to be working. We have been following you since around 2000, and it seems like more people know your name now than ever.
You got to keep in mind that I have toured this road for twenty years so I would hope that it is getting a little more common out there for at least some people to know who I am. I am sure outlaw country has helped out a good little bit on that since they support me and I would just say all the roadwork, the word of mouth, shaking all those hands, has helped a lot in getting me out there a bit. It has changed a little but there are still a few that don’t have any idea but that’s part of the beauty of it.
Also, I always strive to be grassroots-oriented. I mean that’s the main thing…not to get too big. If I had a number one song tomorrow, I would only be playing a small bar for two days in a row and stuff like that. That’s just a little bit of my mentality on that stuff…
On the subject of country outlaws, Johnny Cash gave you some help on how to write songs?
It was his advice to me…I’m not being selfish to my fans, but…the best song is, like, always just write a song for yourself. You don’t need to be writing a song for no company or sitting down on music row with an office. That’s not real. That’s not heartfelt. That’s fake and I have always lived by that. I do try to write songs and identify with my fans and make them feel connected on songs like “Six Pack of Beer” and “Drinkin’ Ain’t Hard To Do”…with the bad economy and stuff like that.
All in all, I have never tried to make a ‘number one song’ on the radio. I just put out what I do. If you get it, you get it; and if you don’t, you don’t. You definitely see that in my shows. If I wanted to be a rock star, I could just do the country stuff and walk off the stage and have a room full of people…all the girls and sex, drugs, and rock and roll would be available to me…but what do I do? I go the extra mile and I run everybody out the door and I play until the select few are left there standing with us. That has always been my approach, for now, while I got the energy to do that and take it to the next level.
If Lemmy [of Motorhead and Hawkwind] is still kicking ass at his age, the way I look at the future is – as long as I can deliver a good show then I will keep doing what I do but if I’m not able to deliver a good show like I want to, I might have to slow down and not tour as much. All in all, I’ll be touring until I’m fifty. I know that…full throttle until I am fifty. That’s the goal. It’s hard to say, I just don’t know how life is going to treat me…or health…or all that stuff and you just never can tell.
Billy Gibbons [of ZZ Top] is doing great. Hank Junior’s still out there to do his thing…Lemmy, Slayer…there are a lot of older guys who are still able to bring it to the table but I want to go out with my head up. I have seen some of my heroes, like Johnny Paycheck, on that stage barely being able to breathe with oxygen tanks hooked up to him. I have seen Waylon [Jennings] when he was shaking so bad that he couldn’t even hold a guitar pick. Me and David Allan Coe are standing over on the side of the stage. David is basically in tears because it is so hard to see him in that condition. That’s when I told myself, I want to have my head held high if I ever retire. Who knows what will happen?
A lot of it might go back to…I’m not the greatest businessman and who knows how my health will be or…I don’t see any of that Hank Williams money and none of this Hank Williams estate so, heck, I might have to tour just to have an oxygen mask…who knows, but it will be interesting to see what the future might hold for me besides music.
For all the talk of poor health, the interviewer witnessed Hank plough through a four-hour set and have time to meet fans. It is unique for anybody to put out such a show of sustained energy, both vocally and instrumentally. When the interviewer clapped Hank on the shoulder in departing, it was hard not to notice how muscular and hard Hank’s arm is.
The conversation turned to his songwriting process:
Alright, it is always a little different. First of all, writing is hard for me because of my learning disabilities, my ADHD, my dyslexia…writing has always been a challenge. Even reading has been hard for me. Sometimes I do write on the road, very rarely, but I will try to sit down with a pen and write some lyrics every now and then. Usually the pen gets in the way!
When I’m writing a country song, I usually hit ‘record’ and sing off the top of my head on what I feel and then I go back with a pen and try to make it a little more of a story or make a little more sense out of it. That’s always how I’ve just kind of done it. On some songs like “Crazed Country Rebel,” which was written on the road with Superjoint Ritual, I had a lot of downtime and I was just able to sit there and write the whole song out, then go back and put music to it later. Ninety percent of the time, it’s me singing with my acoustic guitar and kind of channeling or singing off the top of my head. I’m just singing what I feel and it just depends…because of my rhythm…I’ll either do something slow or I’ll do something fast or I’ll do something a little strange. That’s how it happens.
The rock and roll writing process is always the guitarist first, then I do the drums, then the vocals are last – because to me, in rock, you really don’t have to tell as much of a story. In country music the lyrics are a lot more important. People identify a lot more with the roots-oriented music.
It’s always been on me because most of my band is scattered. Not all of it…I have my drummer, Sonic Williams, he lives in Nashville…but most of my guys are out of town and since I play everything and I hear the rhythms and hear what it’s supposed to be, I just do it all myself and then give it to the other guys. It’s been like that because I enjoy playing drums. I enjoy playing guitar. I enjoy recording. It’s fun for me and it’s a thrill to hear the finished product and stuff like that. I never, in the country world or the rock world, have done that well trying to write with someone else…just because I am kind of shy and intimidated. In general, I am just kind of nervous around people so I just feel more at ease when writing by myself.
You get a lot of great guests, though, like Tom Waits on “Ghost to a Ghost/Guttertown,” (one of the four released in September 2011 on Hank 3 Records).
I just sent him the songs after they were created. I sent him a few songs to see which one he felt more comfortable with, so he definitely felt more comfortable with “Fadin’ Moon” because of the pushbox accordion. On the song, “Ghost to a Ghost,” he is just singing the last line but I was just going out there a little bit. It is not a country song. It is just a different sounding song but I was just trying to…in “Ghost to a Ghost” [the LP] and “Guttertown,” there are only about five or six country songs, in my opinion. There’s a lot of new stuff that is not really country at all. I am just letting people know I‘m a diverse musician and who knows what else you might be getting in the future…a little bit of everything.
Well, not to my knowledge. I mean, what I always approached was, my grandfather sang about the Light so it seems natural for me to sing about the Dark. That’s my big thing. I’ve had Satanism people try to recruit me and I’ve had all kinds of different people want to recruit me to try and be on their team. I do sing about the devil and stuff like that but I’m just gonna keep doing my thing and I’d rather just be an outsider and a rebel and an independent kind of guy.
So that is really hard to say. My grandfather had the woes – the sinning and the suffering because of some of the topics he might of put out there throughout his music but I’ve definitely taken that to more of an extreme level.
I do have a lot of guilt in me. I do my best to try to even out my karma… That’s why I do my best to try to be good to anybody I meet. I’m always down to earth and nice to them and try to put out the best positive energy that I can but I also know a lot of really dark people who practice that stuff and are really heavy into it but…I just…you know, that’s what they do and to each their own. It’s not my job to judge anybody…it’s whatever anyone feels comfortable with. I do have days where it is a lot harder than other days. So, you know, if I was an atheist, it sure would make things a lot more easier. I’m not necessarily on any team but I do believe in good light and dark energy and I have seen both of them work.
It’s just like the other night, when I played in Flint, MI, and somebody just said, “Well, you finally made it to hell!” So…whatever that means…and I am feeling it in my mind and in my heart. Sometimes I have those overwhelming feelings. Sometimes it goes back to, well, if I’ve made it all the way to hell, maybe I gotta just keep on fighting to get back out of it or who knows, it’s just one of those things you don’t know but I do sing a lot about the darker topics and I have felt a lot more comfortable in that world because it’s just been a natural rebellious thing for me, being raised in the Bible Belt. My mother burned all my music. I was forced to go to church four times a week and that’s back when the Satan Seminars were really big and I’m just always torn on that topic. I just never know where I really stand. I wish I did, so I could be like, “Okay, it’s said and done and this is where I’m at…” but it’s a forever, never ending fight.
“You find out after you die,” is what some say.
I know people who have and some say there is something and some say there is nothing…like my half-sister, Hillary, she basically got killed in a car wreck and got revived and she had a nice experience. Phil Anselmo, from Pantera, he’s been dead and he came back and he is one of those guys out there who says there’s nothing. We all don’t know until our time will come.
The ‘hellbilly’ sound…
Well, to me, I’m not tooting my own horn, but I think I am close to being the pioneer of that sound. I never heard the term until I started bringing it up. I don’t think. To me, hellbilly, back in the day, was playing rock and roll on country instruments. Back when I was doing the full-on hellbilly, roots-wise…the acoustic guitar was running through a distortion pedal, the steel guitar, the fiddle, the upright bass…that was the hillbilly sound. In my songs, I was always talking about…well, I always liked Webb Pierce and I’m working on a farm and I’m singing rock and roll in a country style and this is the hellbilly sound. For me, hellbilly was just like being the independent outlaw. If you look at some of the biker clubs, whether it the Outlaws or the Hells’ Angels, or whatever, it was my way of creating a little bit of an outsider, Reverend Horton Heat on steroids kind of sound. That’s just what it was and it goes back to doing something against the Bible Belt…trying to do something a little different.
You seem to have a love/hate relationship with the Grand Ole Opry.
I have always paid respect there. I never disrespected that stage. I never cussed on that stage. I’ve never smoked in their building or anything like that. They try to embrace certain outlaws and it is what it is. I am one of the last few outlaws doing it and, the Opry means it. If you look back in history, the Grand Ole Opry was always full of kids. It wasn’t full of old people when it was really thriving and I’m just…well, Johnny Cash was doing the same thing back in his day.
Looking back at your earlier appearance at the Opry, you almost seemed ‘clean cut’.
At first, I was doing a little bit of paying respects just to get into the game, just to get a little money to pay for all the back support I owed for my child and then I started standing on my own two feet, knowing my past and fighting for my fans, fighting to be different.
Hank Junior has done the same thing on that stage. Waylon, Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, there’s been a few on there that’s done what I’ve done. It’s just that it might not have been televised.
It’s a definite fact that Hank Williams was playing rock and roll before they knew what rock and roll was.
Your example is…[sings]:
“I came in last night, about half past ten,
that baby of mine, wouldn’t let me in,
move it on over…well…
Dada da da, Dada da da, dada da da da da da da,
We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight,
We’re gonna rock, rock, rock until broad daylight…”
It’s the same fucking thing!…Bill Haley and the Comets was not the first guy to play rock and roll. Hank Williams was – they just didn’t realize it at the time. Back then, he just wasn’t having an electric guitar in his hand. A couple times he did, but he held that acoustic guitar more and he was timeless and he was crossing over and doing everything, but all in all…that is why there is a picture of Hank Williams in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are the true people that know that he was the founder of rock before rock and roll really happened, in a low key way. If you look at the structure, Hank Williams was playing the structure of rock and roll.
Your grandfather did so much in the 29 years he was alive. You put out a lot of energy, too. Are there any nights when you think, “Oh, this is what he felt like?”
There is a lot of differences between me and him. He did so much in so little time that it is still mind-boggling when you look back at the amount of work that was captured but as life goes on…or say it feels like I might be having a heart attack on stage or feeling like it might be my last day on earth, there are certain feelings because Hank told a couple folks that he kind of knew his end was near. I feel like that sometime. I definitely hope it’s not like that but the spirit of the outlaw energy, I feel it in the rooms a good bit and me and him have a lot of similarities but then, again, there are a lot of differences there. He was always an easygoing, kind of funny guy to be around, where I, on the other hand, am really not that much fun to be around. I’m kind of a downer. It’s just hard for me to laugh. I don’t know why, it’s just always been like that. He was real deep and felt at ease in his storytelling and for me, I don’t know why, but there is just a difference. I am kind of uptight. I have this nervous energy.
Maybe once in a while when I am singing I may feel him a little bit. If I have a real nasally voice, I might feel the spirit of him. There is also definitely a lot of differences. He was a very cocky individual at times, he would fight and get drunk and he would mouth off but, in general, he was good and he knew it. He was really sharp. Me, on the other hand, I have never been like that. I might be sharp but it’s not just arrogance. I’ve been real intent on making sure that people know that the ego is not out of control. I never wanted to be like my father, as far as cussing out the audiences or telling Yankees to go fuck themselves or all that stuff.
I’ve had my country heros and my rock heros dick me off and be assholes to me and I never wanted to be that guy to my fans, or my crew.
You mention Kid Rock and call him a ‘Yank’ and say he’s ‘no son of Hank’ in “Not Everybody Likes Us.” What is up with that?
He stuck his nose in the family business. He came in and tried to tell me how to act to my father. When you are going to do that, what do you expect? I’m gonna definitely put someone like that down…and that is coming from a guy says, “Well, you know I’m the next Elvis!” That’s the first thing he ever told me when I met him. So, I’ve never been like that and a lot of my fans are proud that I am not like that. They know that I put on my pants just like anybody else, work hard for what I do…nothing was ever really handed to me. I had to fight for my way in every little thing. I could have took the easy way out but I always stuck to the hard road and people ‘get’ that.
Since this is our nature issue, let’s touch on that…
I don’t hunt that much and if I do hunt, I’m mainly taking my son out, really. If I do hunt, I go through the whole process and clean it and eat it. I am not out there just to kill. I have never really been like that. I am very into animal rights, especially the shame with all the pit bulls and all the stuff that has been happening against them, especially in the South. It’s really hard to see. If you look back, the pit bull was the “Little Rascal’s” main dog…
How about the dog from the RCA Victor signs?
Yeah, that was “Petey” and there was about four or five different ones and that was the American icon, back in the day. People have made pit bulls worse, not the breed itself. It just goes to show how the corrupt people have damaged the reputation of that breed. I have always worked with no-kill shelters and animals rights activists.
This guy was trying to get back at his girlfriend so he hooked up her horse to the back of his truck and drug it for over four miles and left it at her front door…and he got a citation?! Shit like that…I would think he should have gotten six months in jail.
Animals have been so good to me and I care a lot about them. They have helped me through my hard times. It is my way of giving back. I also do “Homes for the Troops,” for the guys over there in the war who lose their legs, their arms…I do benefit shows for them, where they have to build special houses for them with ramps and stuff like that and raise money, even though the government should be paying that for the rest of their lives.
Those are the two main things I will take time out and try to raise money for.
Aren’t you active in the campaign to get you grandfather reinstated into the Grand Ole Opry?
There is a petition out on www.reinstatehank.com and all people can do is sign it. I just got a call from Nashville today that they ran a big story on it in The Tennessean…so things are starting to happen with it, even if we are just talking about it, but it seems like it is getting close.
I always said that the person who put it into perspective the best is Tom Waits because he called out the big corporate people and the average folks and really got them to see where the loophole is and he’s calling them out on the loophole. The 200th Edition of Mojo Magazine, has a story that he wrote and he really did a lot of homework and got in touch with the right people to call them out and let it be known. That’s what I always tell everyone to read because it calls out the big guys, the corporate people. He [Waits] is saying, “Well, why is he listed on your website as a member but in reality, he is not a member of the Grand Ole Opry?”…and just little things like that but it is a very interesting read. Find it if you can. He edited that whole edition.
But the petition has been around for a few years. Wasn’t somebody already trying?
No, I did a lot for that guy [an unnamed individual] out of respect but then he just started drifting a different way and not getting it and I had to pull the plug and shut it all down. If you not going to work with us and you’re going to think this is about you, well, guess what? It’s not about you, this is about Hank Williams…so we shut that down.
Bob Dylan just did the album, “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.” You were great on the tribute album to your grandfather, “Timeless.” Why weren’t you doing a song on this project?
It doesn’t matter if it’s “Hank Junior’s Big 40th” or all that stuff – they never ask or invite me to do things like that. I don’t know what it is. All I can say is that I guess it is just those corporate people in Nashville that just don’t want much to do with someone like me.
I’m not putting Bob Dylan down, but he owns my grand-dad’s stuff but never once has he reached out or anything. I have known players who play with him and he has had plenty of opportunities to say stuff to me regarding my family history since he is so into it but he never has…There is a whole other aspect to whatever that is. I know it has to do with some lawyers and people like that.
It is what it is. An unfinished Hank Williams song, in my opinion, might be unfinished for a reason. So, who knows?
You have dubbed Nashville as “Trashville.” It seems like you fit in better with the country players from West Texas. Why there?
I basically used to hang out a lot with Wayne [The Train] Hancock. He was one of my best friends out there. He showed me a lot…and Dale Watson, too… So, I have spent a lot of time in Texas. I have never lived there and don’t think I ever will live there. I enjoy living in Tennessee and I am proud to be from Tennessee. Ray Price was good to me and I got to hang out with Ray a little bit. Ray Vincent has been good to me. Junior Brown…I have recorded him at my house before. He came in a couple months ago and we all recorded a song of his and two days later it was on the radio. I am not singing on it. I just pulled the session together and recorded it. I played drums on it; I called up Dave Roe, Johnny Cash’s old bass player and got him involved.
As Junior said, “Man, I really like the vibe of your studio and the way you did it is the way it should be done. You used one microphone to capture all the different sounds and I think that’s what Nashville has stopped a lot. He had a hell of a time and it was our first time actually being able to hang out. I gained a lot of respect from him. As far as outside of Texas, Waylon Jennings had always been good to me before he passed on. David Allan Coe is basically like my father. He is the only man out there who has ever said, “If you need advice, or anything, just call me. If you need anything, you call me.” Not many people, even in my own family have been like that. Kris Kristofferson has also been very embracive to me on my career, also, and for a little while George Jones was good. Little Jimmy Dickens was always respectful to me in all those things.
I have been so busy just having to fight for my own way that I haven’t been able to hang out with those people. I don’t ‘do lunch.’ I don’t make the rounds in Tennessee. I’m worried about getting my crew and band on the road and making it happen again. That is where a lot of my time goes.
All in all, David Allan Coe is the only man who stood with my through the years and he has become a very humble man in his older age. He has done it all – he has had the number one songs and been ripped off for every one of his hit songs, and he is the closest thing to a family member that I have, one of the living outlaw legends.
I’ll never sign another artist to my label because I would never want to do another musician wrong. It is hard enough just keeping up with what I do. I would never want to make a musician feel like he did not get the sound he deserved on a song or the press he deserved or any of that stuff. I’m not that much of a business guy.
You would make a good politician, the way you shake hands and work the crowd. Did we read a quote about you thinking of it?
I think that was a mis-quote. I don’t ever see myself in politics. Look at Ted Nugent. When he is not onstage, he is politically active and I have never been into politics, hardly ever. I take the David Lee Roth stance on it…there are some things in music that just don’t belong. We are here to make people forget about their problems, not make them feel worse. You see enough about politics on every news, radio, internet…it is shoved down your face 24/7 and I take the stance that I don’t really sing about it that much.
The only political thing I’ll say is, “Yeah, it’d be nice to see that war end.” When I see how many kids come and go and how many bodies get destroyed and how many minds are being ruined…I would say it is just about time for them to wrap it up. Or, if you look at the position that Hank Junior took not long ago, if you are a gun activist, or you care about your ammo or your shotgun, you will notice that the Rights to Bear Arms are being taken away more and more.
Kids are dying for our freedom while rights are being taken away more and more everyday over there and that is sad to see…but I stay away from politics because I don’t research it. I don’t follow it. My politics is my music. I play music. I hope my gun is my guitar and I’m out there trying to let people forget about their problems. I just have never been that involved in it, not until I have to and right now I am just touring the road and have never been that into politics.
Hank, er, Pop, made that comment (likening Obama to Hitler)…I say the only musician who should say anything about politics is Jello Biafra because when he’s not playing music, he is actively involved. He is doing the speeches. He is doing the research. He is doing all kinds of stuff to raise awareness on many different levels, whereas most punk rock bands are just saying, “Fuck the government, 1,2,3, fuck the police, blahblahbla”…and they are not really doing their homework. That is my stance on it because I don’t follow it. All I will say is that if people should vote, they should vote for the smaller people…the mayor, the governor…that is where the big change is gonna happen, in the smaller communities. Not the Big Kahuna…
The ‘occupy’ movement seems to have missed that logic.
I don’t even think that is the right one. That doesn’t seem like the right movement or the motivation. The only thing the occupy thing has really shown is how the police can get away with beating old people down. That’s about it. That’s about all that happened. They can shoot you with the rubber bullets, they can pepper-spray an 84-year-old man…do all these things…It is just not the right revolution. It just does not seem like the right one. Whenever the day comes when they try to take guns away from Americans, that will be the new Civil War and that is when the revolution will happen.
The scary thing for me is on the gun level…I hear it from the Vietnam vets. I hear it from the kids that are in the war right now and then someone like my father, so it is happening on all fronts.
He [father, Hank Junior] made massive headlines…he was saying basically that Obama was Hitler. See, that all goes back to the guns. The only reason he is saying that is that the Right to Bear Arms is being taken away… or the ban to ban a single barrel shotgun. As my father would say, one of his most prized possessions is an old single barrel shotgun that his great-grandfather used in World War I and he still has it and Obama wants to put a ban on it? As he would say, FUCK THAT!
That goes back to why the kids are fighting for freedom while the rights are being taken away more and more. Ted Nugent can go there and my dad is very dialed into that but since I live very day to day and by the skin of my teeth, in reality I’m not a very rich man so that probably has a lot to do with it. Most of these people that are really hardcore into politics, a lot of them have a good bit of money. I never have had that which is another reason why I am bliss to that world right now.
It might have been joking because Hank Junior said he was gonna run for governor and then Jello Biafra told me that, “You need to run against your father and I’ll be your political advisor and we’ll have a campaign and do that.” So I might have been joking on that. I would never see myself in that kind of a position.
Originally published in Beatdom #11.
On May 15, Patti Smith told us about her new record, Banga, and some of the source for the title track’s inspiration, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. We have been listening to the new music a lot, enjoying it immensely, and looking forward to seeing Patti perform on tour with Neil Young this fall. On the recording, she does a very nice version of Young’s “After The Gold Rush.”
At interview time, we were told by Columbia/Sony Entertainment that Patti could only speak about the new release and we had come prepared to ask her some ‘Beat’ questions. As you can see in the following exchange, the second part of our interview with the poet/writer/entertainer, she was gracious and more than happy to stray from the subject of the new music, which we had not had time to fully digest at the time of the talk. This is the second section of the interview. In the third, Patti tells us what she has been reading lately, what she suggests for others’ reading lists and who she would meet if allowed to travel through time. The complete interview will be printed in Beatdom, Issue Twelve – The Crime Issue.
They told me I could only ask you about your new album.
You don’t have to do that…ask what you want.
Thanks! Well, speaking of the album, you wrote the song “Nine” for Johnny Depp and I read interviews where you tell how he helped you by recording the title track, “Banga.” He was close to Allen Ginsberg, so we wondered if you met him through Ginsberg?
No…I knew Allen since I was quite young. I met Johnny when he came to one of my concerts a few years ago. We talked and then started off on Allen. We both love books and we spent a lot of time talking about [Jack] Kerouac and Dylan Thomas. Johnny has letters of [Antonin] Artaud and Dylan Thomas. We spoke a lot about literature and music and became very good friends.
A lot of our friendship is book-based.
So, about your writing process…
I am always writing…always…and always have two or three projects going simultaneously because my mind is so active…like I’m writing poems and writing little songs and am working on my detective story and some other things. So, writing is part of my daily discipline, whether it’s for my website (www.pattismith.net) or anything else I do…it’s the one consistent discipline I’ve had since I was thirteen years old that I continue to exercise every day.
I write by hand in my notebooks and on the computer. I don’t write so much on the typewriter anymore. I always loved the typewriter, but it’s so complicated to get ribbons and things, so I switched over to transcribing on computer — but I initially write in my notebooks.
Do you have favorite pens?
I have a very nice pen collection. I have been given beautiful pens by my son and daughter…I have a very nice, small white Montblanc and I have very nice old fountain pens and sometime’s it’s just a Bic. There is always some pen in my pocket but I sometimes get sentimental towards certain pens. Sometimes I just use a little Uni-Ball. It depends what’s in my pocket but I have very nice pens at home. I like those little Montblanc Mozarts. I think they are called the “Mozart Series.” They’re small, they’re a ballpoint and they have a really nice weight and you can put them in your pocket. That’s sort of my upscale pen of choice. I write with whatever’s there, though, you know?
Sometimes…if I’m on computer…well, I like to write fast and then go back and edit. I don’t like to edit as I am writing and sometimes I can get in a groove at night. When I’m writing late at night sometimes I sit at my computer and, if I’m like writing more of a rap, like if I’m doing something for my website. I usually do my website right on the computer…a lot of times it’s just sort of like rappin’ and if I’m working on a poem or something like that, I always write by hand.
Listening to “Rock N Roll Nigger,” the structure seems reminiscent of “Howl.” Was that by design?
It’s just what we did. I always acknowledge the people who influence me or inspire me but I’m not really conscious of exactly how. I just know that I’ve learned from them but I don’t consciously do a piece of work to mirror another piece – if it does, it’s just because someone else will usually pick up on it, probably subconsciously.
We read that Allen had a lot of influence on you coming out of retirement some years ago…
Allen was more influential to me when I was younger. He was just so vocal. He was so successful at marshaling people, at gathering large troops of people to speak out against the government, to strike…so that was his major influence on me.
I often talk about Allen. When you do a hundred interviews, it all depends on how they are edited. I’ve talked about Allen many times – about how, of course, he was instrumental. He called me up; called my house and inspired me. He said that I should come and let the people help me with my grieving process and let my Loved One go on his journey. I’ve talked about that on the liner notes of my record…many, many times. I’m always doing something for Allen, reading his poems…paying tribute. There is only so much you can say in one little interview but I am always grateful to Allen.
How about the other Beats?
I was very attached to William [Burroughs]. I knew Gregory, Gregory Corso, very well…and Peter Orlovsky. I met Hubert Huncke.
I was very privileged to know these people and I had different relationships with them all. Gregory was very, very important to me in my learning process of how to deliver poems live…and in my reading list.
But William was the one I was most attached to. I just adored him. I had sort of a crush on him when I was younger and he was very good to me. He really liked my singing and encouraged me to sing. He used to come to CBGB to see us and, of course, his work inspired me. Horses, the opening of Horses, with Johnny’s confrontation in the locker room, was very inspired by William’s The Wild Boys. In The Wild Boys there is also a ‘Johnny.’ My ‘Johnny’ is a continuation of William’s ‘Johnny.’
William really taught me a lot about how to conduct myself as a human being, you know? Not to compromise and to do things my way. What William always said was, “The most precious thing you ever have is your name so don’t taint it. Build your name and everything else will come. Keep your name clean.” I learned a lot from William.
Listen to Patti’s newest album “Banga” on Columbia Records and for more fun, visit her website, www.pattismith.net!