Because the fucking cheerleader thing, it gets boring to me. My friend used to always say, “You gotta always find your tribe, you gotta find your people.” And I knew this guy when I was like 20 in New York before I went to Germany, and I just found that everywhere I went Germans weren’t like, “Oh yeah, she’s my aunt and so I have to go over and blah blah…” We have all these obligatory things that we have to do — we have to see that person. The first place I ever stayed in, the first squatted house I ever lived in, in Berlin, had a dual translation book another English-speaking guy had left there because he went crazy trying to understand Brecht and really wanted to. Yeah, yeah. I wanted to talk about the messy aspects of his character, the rock-’n’-roll aspects of his character, which appealed to me, but I didn’t want it to be this cheerleader thing. Who I think every young man who goes to Europe —
You know, I have to say … obviously I can see why it’s cool … I don’t know why … my whole life people have been like, “Really?” You know it might be one of those things where I’ve got to be like 70 and something will click on. Then, when you’re in the record store or bookstore, you see the name and you feel like you’ve got a claim to it, you know? Yeah, no question, that was the whole thing. ¤
SCOTT TIMBERG: As a teenager growing up in Los Angeles, you read music magazines and the work of heroic wild-man rock critics. None of whom as 10-year-olds we were able to read. There’s tons of stuff. Yeah, absolutely, and I didn’t realize how much it was speaking to me the first time through, you know? I’d always loved a lot of old stupid English poetry — I’ve always liked Tennyson. And one of the things Baldwin made you want to do was go to Europe. Yeah, Brecht wrote a lot of songs, didn’t he? It’s not very rock ’n’ roll at all, but I got a really good bunch of translations of Peter Handke, who ended up writing a screenplay or two for Wim Wenders. Yeah, it was a survivalist thing, but also it was this really kind of fundamental shift, this fundamental difference, because what it forced you to do was see if you actually did like that person. The show is really about his influence on me. Like, all of these weird Silicon Valley guys who went to Harvard or Stanford and were total science nerds, or dropped out. I needed to read this when I was like 12. He was, for me, the harbinger of things to come. By the time I was reading him, I was already thinking about getting away just because it seemed like such a cool idea. Completely, over the top, clearly. Absolutely: we have a line about that in Passing Strange where we say, “Hendrix had to go [to Europe] to get famous, America can’t handle freaky negros.”
You’re totally right, that every kid that age, especially if you’re into weird shit, you feel like an exile. I was going to mention Hendrix — he’s an American black guy coming out of the blues in a lot of ways, but he had to go to London to break. [Laughs.] You kind of felt it in him — in a way, he was more rock ’n’ roll than Lou Reed, because Lou Reed was so fuckin’ literary. To some extent, every kid does, regardless of their race or whatever, but did you feel like an exile in your own hometown? I think you said that Goethe was a big figure for you for a while. Ballard, right? I’m reading many more German writers now. indie rock band The Negro Problem, often dubbed one of the city’s most-likely-to-succeed. I mean, hopefully it’s a great exchange sometimes. If you’re John Lennon or Keith Richards, you’re going, Wow, that sounds wild. I feel like he’s still the ultimate punk rocker because you mention him at a dinner party and someone’s gonna get mad and that’s a beautiful thing. I had a couple of African-American teachers, women, who in third and fifth grade, just for some crazy reason, started telling us about these black expatriate artists. I think we also got this from reading the English press, which didn’t happen for me until punk rock happened. I could remember when you could not find a Burroughs novel to save your life unless you went in, like, a gay bookstore. Which of those guys spoke to you the most directly? Basic survival is what we’re talking about here. Lester Bangs is supposed to be this writer, but you’re reading Bangs and you’re like, “This guy is high!” It was kind of vibrating. But we were looking for each other and kind of seeking each other out. I love his stuff, I’ve never failed to court controversy with some of my friends. But these guys are learning it the hard way, and we’re all along for the ride. Again, these novels and poetry were always kind of linked. Your interest in him came from a different route, I think, that had to do more with your biography. To me there’s a connection between the English art student types who heard the blues and the way Godard and Truffaut appreciated our B-movies. Hendrix didn’t count. I’m reading a lot right now about the history of Jewish comedy. Yeah, for sure, for sure. I mean like being the black kid who liked weird music, who liked “white boy music,” as they used to say … There weren’t any white guys in my neighborhood, and the white guys who were making it were telling us it came from black guys. Most of those British guys were working class, but there were often references to literature. I was blown away by how beautiful it was, but it wasn’t until later, when I was in my late 30s or early 40s, and I did a book report with my daughter about Go Tell It on the Mountain. I loved his essays. Super romantic, yeah. It gets really boring after a while, and I know we need it at a certain point. I remember a Jam record that had, like, a Shelley poem on the back of it. The fact that Lennon and Dylan both had books — that was huge. What I definitely went crazy about when I got there were Brecht’s poems. Oh, yeah. If you’re getting laid a lot, you may not ever get around to leaving. I fully expect it to because it’s been a long time …
I should let you go in a minute, but give us a sense of what you’re reading these days, besides Goethe — playwrights, novelists, poets, whatever. Or did your literary interest come from another direction? One thing that I did pick up in high school was that Baldwin, here and there, wrote very frankly about how people go to Europe, and people leave their town to get laid. They were totally linked. They never got into Dylan records, they never read the shit we’re talking about, they don’t have any of this basic moral wiring and basic understanding of the human experience. We did an interview a couple of years ago around the Baldwin centennial, and this person who interviewed me said, “You’re the only person I’ve talked to about Baldwin out of, like, 40 artists who didn’t discover him in college.”
So it was the romance of the expatriate experience that …
Oh my god, yeah: I thought, That’s what I want to do, I want to get out of here, I want to see what else there is, and they did that. And that’s when I became an arts education freak. And at some point you got interested in a lot of German writers. So all that stuff, to us, was completely mixed up in a way that we didn’t differentiate too much. And six hours in the coffee shop. That sometimes you might try something and it doesn’t work out. I want to move in a minute to European writers, but before we move away from “Jimmy,” give us a sense of these recordings and shows you’ve been putting on. I might as well be out of here because I feel outside of this place already. Because I realized, Oh my god, this shit actually works — this shit actually does change people. I listened to Ultravox for three years before I realized they were influenced by, what’s his name … Crash? As a young man in the 1980s, he took inspiration from black American artists who exiled themselves to Europe, moving to Berlin and Amsterdam, where he ran with artists and musicians. And yeah, of course we thought we were completely weird. I am just so envious of the ability … The Producers — that Mel Brooks was just like, “Let’s make a movie about this.” It’s just so fucked up and wonderful. So, you’ve got a new set of recordings, you’ve done some shows built around it, based on the work of James Baldwin. And again, that’s when I go back to like the whole arts education thing: these stories are like tools for us. With Lester Bangs’s style, you kind of felt the alcohol and the drugs. It’s the same thing, man. He wrote about how black culture was very limiting and the church culture doubly so. Like rockabilly and blues has an intellectual side to it that took a while to get, and those guys heard it. But more probably than trying to read European writers, I started to write. At what point did that influence your novels, poetry, essays, and whatever else? I remember my mom coming in my room kind of like the scene in Do the Right Thing: “Why aren’t there any brothers on the wall?” “Well mom, Jimi Hendrix.” And she goes, “No, I mean really black.” Because Hendrix was just an alien. A release of the recordings and a tour are upcoming. After the turn of the century, he toured with Arthur Lee, the doomed genius of the ’60s band Love. I read Go Tell It on the Mountain when I was in high school, and it didn’t become my manifesto. And which doesn’t seem right for Baldwin at all. And I reread it and I was just stunned. I’m reading that dual language, so I can keep my German in some kind of shape but know what the fuck’s going on. Well, actually more now than then. It’s kind of like the way Picasso has influenced our visual language. I remember reading Faust when I was in Berlin, when I was about 22, and I remember going, Why didn’t anyone tell me this earlier? And that’s what I really feel like, and as corny as it sounds, you really kind of need these stories. Do you want to move someplace else?” and she said, “Nah baby, I want to be in it.” And I said, “Okay, cool.” That’s the wrong place to be at my show, in front of my amplifier, but she dealt with it. We had this really precocious 12-year-old kid who was a neighbor and I played him … um … [sings] “You’ve got a lot of nerve…”
“Positively 4th Street.” Maybe Dylan’s greatest song. These are like the building blocks of these people. The point is there were some people that were rubbed the wrong way and there were some people that were like fuckin’ relieved — like, Thank you. People have said he wouldn’t have been able to develop and emerge in the same way in the States. The United States … any place you go, there’s a ton of shit that inspires me to write, but I gotta tell you the way my schedule is, I hustle to survive in this world in this United States. JANUARY 3, 2019
STEW — BORN Mark Stewart in Los Angeles — has been so many things it’s hard to keep track. I’ve said this before, but I felt like it was spiritual copyright infringement. I read his nonfiction. Oh my god, yeah. This kind of frankness, I guess. It’s like we don’t even think about it anymore. But now I don’t feel we need it anymore. It’s not just, like, to make the teacher feel good. I think the freest people to me in America are the ones that can completely take the piss out of each other. They’re survival tools, they’re communication tools, they’re understanding tools. G. So it seemed exciting to be a European exile. Morrison, that’s probably the worst seat in the house because a lot of bad things are going to happen. Well yeah, this is kind of the argument behind a liberal arts education. Yeah, she sat first row. When you’re like 10, you don’t really get that Chuck Berry is a genius. J. You really don’t get it. And part of what you’re saying is that, if you were curious and trying to find the cool stuff, one would lead to another: you could start with Philip K. That’s why I picked up a Baldwin book when I was ready for it — because she had already told me about it when I was in fifth grade. And I really think sometimes, when I’m talking to a person or trying to communicate with them, I really feel like my stories are talking to their stories and we don’t have any overlap. It’s really some rock-’n’-roll shit. Confrontational almost. You’re doing songs based on your work and his life as well. [Laughs.]
It may have been Sound Affects, which was the first Jam record I got. But these women were brilliant enough to realize all they had to do was plant the seeds and say these guys existed and what was so brilliant about them, just talking about Richard Wright or Baldwin or even Dexter Gordon. I mean a lot of people feel like he’s super intellectual, and yeah he’s got a lot of references, but I just like a lot of the really dark and weird aspects of it. Dick and end with John Lee Hooker, or you could go the other way. This kind of sober idea, again just not letting the sentimentality completely take over, which is not to say they didn’t have their capital-R romantic shit. And this is like 20 years after the fucking Holocaust. So it was weird, you know, I had family members of his and some of them were really pissed off at me, one of them thought it was one of the best things that had been done about him and another didn’t want to talk to me because they thought I had been offensive. Like, big time. He has toured as a solo musician and, with musical and former romantic partner Heidi Rodewald, has revived The Negro Problem in various guises. So what besides Goethe?
I really love Heiner Müller, the playwright. Like, all of them. Yeah, he played guitar. I wish I would have done this 20 years ago. I did read that when I was there. I would say you see that in the literature even before the wars. Like The Sorrows of Young Werther. That was one of those moments you describe where you’re like, “Oh, poetry is cool because it’s punk rock.” Anyway, I think what you’re saying is true for a generation or two: between the art school crowd, Beat, post-Beat, the heyday of rock criticism, all this stuff was coming from the same group, same sensibility. And everybody knew where you could go to find them back then — the geeks who were deep into music were also into really weird books. Well, this is like a really precocious 12-year-old kid — he writes poetry and listens to music and stuff — and I played that tune and he was just like, “Oh, you can do that too, with a song.” And his whole shit was changed, and of course ours was too when we first heard that. Thank god that was there. I love Eliot. I didn’t want to be offensive by any means, but I did want to be irreverent; I didn’t want to do the whole Ken Burns great-moments/great-heroes-in-black-history shit. And I started to see what Baldwin and those guys were talking about, how once you’re over there, time just kind of moves a different way and it allows you … I just remember when my girlfriend would be like, “Okay, so we’re gonna go to the bakery and then we’re gonna go to the outdoor Turkish market,” like your whole day could be based around what you were going to shop for for dinner. He was very frank about a lot of that in his writing, and I loved that a lot. And for me, when I was in the movie theater watching these Godard movies … Those movies were like, “Yeah, I’m going; this is me; I’m getting the fuck out of here.”
So you had read this stuff decades before and it kind of seeped into your soul, but you didn’t realize how much you’d absorbed it. ¤
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. She sat in front of my guitar amp and I said, before we start, I said, “Ms. He’s Austrian, I think. It wasn’t something there that was inspiring you to write, it was more like you just had time. Right, right. They wouldn’t even play it necessarily in the classroom. What about Rilke? Same with those French guys looking at Sam Fuller movies. That book had completely put its stamp on me and I’d had no idea. I read all of that stuff the way you read anything that’s cool. Yeah, yeah, and like the scenes in church where the kid pretends he gets the holy ghost and that same exact thing in Passing Strange. I’m finally understanding the fundamentals of the German way of looking at things; there are just kind of certain people you have to read if you want to understand. Most recently, he’s performed songs inspired by the life and work of James Baldwin, putting on a set called Notes of A Native Song at Harlem Stage and REDCAT. The scene where he’s in the movie theater and he’s watching Bette Davis, he’s kind of realizing he’s gay. If you thought books and reading weren’t cool at that point, then it’s like, “Oh my god, the two coolest guys wrote books.” It was a done deal after that. Yeah! You have to be a little bit detached from it. Chuck Berry was the language; we already kind of talked like that in a way. You kind of get when you’re 12 that Dylan’s amazing, but it takes you a minute to be like, this Chuck Berry shit is un-fucking believable. One thing about Baldwin: he didn’t just write about bad white people, though he did that too. Those were both things that spoke to you, presumably. In the 1990s, he led the L.A. Although I have to say the impetus, we got a commission by Harlem Stage, and I knew I was going to be doing this show for a very Baldwin-centric hometown crowd. We were too close to it, you know what I mean? Germans are like, “If I don’t want to see him, I don’t give a fuck if it’s my uncle.” [Laughs.] “I’m not going!” And I saw that in the literature. It’s like the way for most English speakers, whether you’re a church-goer or a theater-goer or not, the Bible and Shakespeare are the foundation of so many of your assumptions, whether you know it or not. So they had their own way of looking at things. Joy Division has a bunch of [Ballard references] as well. I needed a kids’ version, this is like hugely important to being a human being. Which seems to me like the kind of shit you learn when you’re really young. Oh, most definitely. What was interesting about those two was how much they loved Chuck Berry, ’50s music, blues music — we were too dumb back then to realize that that was where the literature really started for this music. So when you finally picked up Baldwin, what did you respond to? There were direct things in that book that informed not only my life but that informed Passing Strange. People talk about Faust as being the taproot of the German moral vision. The really weird stuff. This is really pretentious: I’m reading Wagner’s lyrics, his libretto of the Ring Cycle, it’s a pretty big book. Toni Morrison came. Right, yeah — he was really very dark and Central European … The absolute lack of sentimentality, I think, was what influenced me the most. I just love that irreverence and that just, like, fuck it. Like, literal scenes. And soon after that, he moved to Brooklyn, where he began a new identity as a playwright, penning the autobiographical musical Passing Strange, which played on Broadway and became a 2009 Spike Lee movie. It’s rough. STEW: The people who were deep into music were also the people who were into [William S.] Burroughs. Did you feel like an exile already? But I’m just saying that was for me, like, fundamental. A lot of these stories are fundamental to survival. Wrote Wings of Desire, right? I really got into Jacques Brel over there, who’s not a novelist, but he feels like one to me. Yeah, those guys heard it! The translations were just so straightforward and simple and, again, unsentimental, just plain biting, witty as fuck, sharp — the kind of poetry that called you out, like you felt it was actually talking to you in that kind of way that I love.