V. Vale: The Man Who Can Do Everything Tells All
By Lydia Sviatoslavsky
V. Vale sat down to talk stupid degrees, being a Henry Rollins fan, cognitive constipation, City Lights, Blue Cheer, how every word needs to earn its keep, the underbelly of hippies, survival of punk, how beatniks helped shaped the crazy journey…and just about everything else you’ve ever wanted to know about the man who has basically done it all.
Interview with V. Vale: 12/13/2019 at 1:40 PM
Lydia Sviatoslavsky: How long have you lived in San Francisco for?
V. Vale: Oh, forever. Well, maybe since ‘65. Or maybe it was ‘66. I went to one year of grad school at state college, which people don’t know. I was trying to continue my stupid English major at UC Berkeley, and I didn’t know that the only thing you can do with that degree is be a member of academia. Actually, back then I don’t think UC Berkeley had a journalism department. If they did, I didn’t know about it. At least that’s another avenue to make a living, but it does kinda require training. I took a journalism class, and they really teach you useful stuff. Like in the first paragraph, the 4 W’s and the H: who, when, where, why, and how. Just so everyone has a context. I have my own rules of editing, which are very simple. (My first) rule is to edit for wit. Second, every word must earn its keep, but if you remove too much, you risk damaging the style. I’ve empirically evolved my own style, trying to desperately capture the fun part of being in a live interview, which is talking back and forth. There are occasions of repetition, and you have to minimize it. My third rule is the hardest of all: No typos. I grew up reading The New Yorker magazine, and I always used to marvel that there was never a typo, but now there are. I blame computers.
LS: So what originally brought you to San Francisco?
VV: Well, my uncle. My uncle was one of the only Asian beatniks in the beatnik scene in the fifties here. To me, the beat generation really did start in San Francisco, not New York City. (Lawrence) Ferlinghetti came here, and my uncle became friends with him in Paris. They had this wonderful thing called the GI bill, so if you fought in World War II in Europe, you could go anywhere in the world, and they’d pay for your education and your room and board. Isn’t that amazing? So Ferlinghetti took a painting class, and my uncle signed up for the same class. That’s how they became friends. They were both American expats, and they were both kinda rebellious. Then Ferlinghetti moved here, and my uncle followed him. My uncle sold Ferlinghetti a lot in Bolinas for only three-thousand dollars, and Ferlinghetti still has that lot. My uncle was a painter, but I only saw one painting he did, and it was on the mantle at his house. My uncle was smart, though. He got into real estate really early, when you could. We’re talking in the fifties. He just started buying and selling real estate. That was smart.
LS: So was he involved with City Lights (Ferlinghetti’s bookstore)?
VV: No. My uncle married a teenager, some eighteen year-old in some small town in Germany. I don’t think he was too much older. Twenty-one, maybe. Immediately they started having kids, and if you have kids, you’ve got to have a reliable income. You can’t be a beatnik. So he was pretty smart, he got these jobs you didn’t have to work at, like the night watchman job at the Broadway tunnel. You’re paid to sleep, but if anything bad happens, I guess a big alarm goes off and you have to do a whole procedure.
LS: So your uncle was living in SF–
VV: Yeah, I lived with him a little bit. He lived at 593 Arkansas on Potrero Hill. I guess it was cheap then. I mean, it wasn’t necessarily a hip neighborhood. It was kind of suburban. That’s one of his properties. Oh that’s right, he had a property at 216 Mangels, wherever that is. That was before Arkansas. See, I grew up in a very small town in Riverside County. What’s that Jim Thompson book? Pop. 1280? It was like that. I knew the names of everyone in the town, but they didn’t know me. They didn’t know I knew their names.
LS: When did you start getting into punk?
VV: See, after I quit Blue Cheer… Or no, I didn’t quit. They fired me (laughs).
LS: Oh, why’s that?
VV: Because they started out as a six-piece white blues band, sort of imitating the Paul Butterfield Blues Band that had toured all over the country. They were amazing. They were an imitation of that, but there were six people in that band, and so we kind of limped along for almost a year trying to write songs. I never wrote any, I didn’t know how. I know how now, but I didn’t know then.
LS: And you were playing the piano, right?
VV: Yeah. I was playing the Farfisa organ, the exact model that Mark Naftalin in the Butterfield Blues played. So I was just imitating him, kind of. But then the first death nail was when Cream came to town, a power trio, and played. They were just kinda mind-blowing. And then Jimi Hendrix came, and that was even more mind-blowing, and the three guys said, “We don’t need these other guys, let’s do a power trio.” So they did, and then they became famous. In my defense, before that happened, the six of us went to Fantasy Records and recorded a whole album, but it never came out. They probably just taped over the tapes. I just remember that they didn’t know how to deal with such loud volumes. When you record, I guess up until then, everything is very quiet. It was the beginning of when you needed those super loud volumes, so you could make your guitar notes sustain a long time instead of dying out right away.
LS: Did you continue to pursue music after you got cut from Blue Cheer?
VV: Well, I just feel so lucky. I went to something called the ‘Joint Show,’ which was the first art show of pot-inspired art. I mean, some of the art had pot in the artworks. It was called the ‘Joint Show,’ y’know, like a pun on joint..
LS: Sure, yeah.
VV: Terrible hippie puns, or puns of the subculture. And then I met this girl, my first girlfriend ever, and went home with her and lived with her for three years. I’m grateful she took me in.
LS: How old were you at that point?
VV: Oh, I don’t know. Young. And then my uncle had introduced me to Shig Murao, who was the manager of City Lights, a Japanese guy. He was partial to other Japanese people, like me. So I moved in with this girl two blocks away, and I needed to make money. So I went to City Lights, and Shig immediately hired me. He said, “Oh, you have an English degree from Berkeley. You’re Japanese? I’ll hire you,” and he made up a job for me. It was only twelve hours a week, but the economy was so good then. You could easily live on that. Unlike now, when the rents are so astronomically insane.
LS: Yeah, well how have you witnessed the punk scene change over the decades?
VV: You know, I wanted to be a beatnik, but I was too young. My uncle brought me up (to SF) in 1960 or something. It was a scene here, in North Beach. I vividly remember he took me here Friday or Saturday night, or both, ‘cause this was where it was at, quote-unquote. The Keane Gallery was a big deal, with Margaret and Walter Keane getting famous with the paintings of the children with the huge eyes. People forgot that that was considered beatnik, kind of beat. I mean, not anymore, but at the time. So I went to the Keane Gallery, and bought that huge print of the children of the world, y’know, like all the races. I think I still have that. (My uncle) took me to a lesbian bar. I had never heard of lesbians! Y’know, I’m just a kid from a small town. He took me to the jazz club… Now I can’t remember the name. I was too young to get into the club. But still, I could stand outside and hear the jazz. So I kinda got into jazz for a while, through peer pressure. But punk.. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it seems like every ten years there’s a brand new counterculture. Y’know, so the beats in ‘55 or ‘57. ‘55 was when Howl was first read, but I don’t think the book came out until ‘56 or ‘57. And then kids like me got a copy, and (I) would pretend I was a beatnik, reading it with my one other friend in the small town who wanted to be a beatnik too. And then, y’know, I came up and went to UC Berkeley. But then I read in the Chronicle about the hippie movement starting, and that seemed attractive, so I checked it out. I was in Berkeley when the Free Speech Movement started. 1964. That was amazing. I mean, you never thought that thousands of students could rebel. Occupy Sproul Hall. I was one of those but I left at five AM, and then I think that everyone got busted at eight AM. I left because there was so much cigarette smoke in the hall. My contact lenses couldn’t tolerate it. That’s my excuse for not being one of the 800 students busted.
LS: Fair enough.
VV: And then the hippie thing happened, but quickly it was killed.
LS: Quick fizzle?
VV: Well, it was killed for an obvious reason. You cannot have a hundred thousand barefoot white kids going to the Haight-Ashbury in June of 1967 expecting a free place to live, and free food and all that. I mean, you cannot do that in ten square blocks… It was hell on earth. Quickly. Total crime. The worst crimes. They probably haven’t been recorded. Fortunately, it was July 15th, 1967, that I met this girl and moved in with her, and it was here (North Beach), away from the Haight. Thank goodness. I never went back to the Haight again.
LS: Were you actually living with that crowd for a time?
VV: Oh yeah! This is how crazy rents were. When I went to UC Berkeley, I had an apartment on the north side. You wouldn’t believe how low the rent was– $20 or $25 a month for my own room in a shared house. This woman with a baby rented out two rooms, but I don’t remember anyone else living there, just me and her. I was hardly ever home. That’s when I was in Blue Cheer, of course. I didn’t move into the Blue Cheer house. It was really crowded. But then, like I said, that whole so-called hippie thing died really super fast and then we were stunned, like “What happened? What was the meaning of all that?” So by then I had just become a bookworm. I’ve always been a bookworm. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who has read as much as me, time-wise, ‘cause I had no friends, or I didn’t want friends, or whatever. And so you start reading a bunch of books, and you figure out that there’s another new counterculture every ten years, and what’s the next one gonna be? Well, obviously, it’s gonna be the opposite of the one before. Hippies with bell bottoms and long hair, smoking pot all the time, taking LSD, and what else… Oh, that horrible ‘free love.’ A terrible phrase I’m totally against, always was. So then I read, I think it was ‘73, about something happening in New York City. Like Patti Smith and Sam Shepard. I didn’t even know until later, but I guess they had a short affair. So I thought, “Oh, we’re gonna have another poetry movement.” (Laughs) You know? I didn’t realize it’d be a music movement until late ‘74. I was working at City Lights. I ordered Patti Smith’s books. I ordered her first poetry book from Gotham Book Mart called Witt, and then, in ‘74, a poetry book came out called Seventh Heaven. And then I read that she put out a 45, Hey Joe/Piss Factory. I own it, but I haven’t looked at it in forty years.
LS: “Piss Factory” is probably my favorite.
VV: Oh, it’s so good. That’s real. It was like we had never heard anything like that before. I mean, that was mind-boggling. And then ‘75 was when I think I read an interview with the Ramones, but they didn’t have a record out. It was in one of the very first issues of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, when they were really crude, and black and white, and newsprint. They looked like how my SEARCH & DESTROY looked. I ripped off Andy Warhol’s Interview, even the column width, everything.
So I was waiting for punk to start here, and it didn’t start until like… Well, the Ramones came in August of ‘76 and played two blocks up the street, and I knew the kids who ran Savoy Tivoli, the tiny nightclub. They were trying to get something going. One of them was a friend of mine. We became friends because we were both interested in being photographers. I had bought my first kinda big camera and was learning how to use a darkroom, and all that stuff. So they let me in for free, and at the same exact time I think the Ramones’ album came out, the first one. I don’t think they had any 45’s. Usually you put out a 45, then you finally get to put out an album. But they blasted on the scene with just an album, as far as I know. I got an advance copy of it somehow, and saw them, and I said, “Oh, this is the future.” And then it seemed like everybody who attended that Ramones show started a band, including me.
LS: So it was pretty evident, at the time, that it was the start of something major?
VV: Yeah, even though there were only thirty to forty people in the room at the Ramones show. It wasn’t a stage, they played on the same level as the audience. You know, no elevation. It was mind-boggling, and it was only a twenty minute set. We had never heard of such a short set. It’s supposed to be an hour or forty-five minutes. Ten songs, twenty minutes, I don’t know, just mind-boggling. Shocking.
And then, finally, some other bands started. Three, to be exact. I must’ve gone to some of the earliest shows at The Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway. And I didn’t want it to be like the hippie scene, ‘cause there was never any documentation of that that I thought was valid, or rich, or detailed, or whatever the word is. So I wanted to document the punk scene from the get-go, in depth. Hence, Search & Destroy. The xerox machine had just been invented, publicly available xerox machines. I was just gonna do that format, but then I said, “No, I’m gonna imitate Warhol’s Interview.” That was so exciting, and I still don’t think anything is gonna top punk, just for the principles involved. For me, punk is kinda.. It’s not exactly anti-consumerist, but it’s a little bit minimalist. Or it’s kind of lip service to anti-consumerist. But then where did everyone get money to buy an expensive leather jacket? I mean, I couldn’t afford it. It cost more than a month’s rent back then!
LS: What do you think of the punk scene in SF these days? Do you think the principles are still alive?
VV: Well, what are the principles? I mean, obviously the principles are do-it-yourself, that DIY phrase, but I swear we didn’t have the DIY phrase during the beginning two years. I always said, well, every art movement that’s ever been since the beginning of time has been do-it-yourself, because artists never have money ever in history. You can’t afford to pay anyone to do anything. You gotta do everything yourself. It seemed like, in San Francisco at least, we had a lot more gay people and women in the forefront of our punk movement. The first two years, that is. It made our scene a little different. I don’t know if there was much homophobia from New York or London’s punk scene. I always read the British weeklies ‘cause they came into City Lights, and I could just read ‘em for free, etcetera. I made myself in charge of magazine returns, which means you could basically take them all home. You just cut out the little mastheads and return them to this distributor in Long Island City, New York. So I sorta got a big free collection of British weeklies..
The principles, though… I mean, you’d be amazed at how quickly people cut their hair. That seemed to be part of punk. And a bunch of people dyed their hair black, y’know, who weren’t born that way. And it did seem like we started wearing dark clothes, because it was really hard to get black clothes then. It was really hard. I mean, you had to dye ‘em. I remember dying a pair of blue jeans to make them black (laughs). It didn’t work too well, but you tried.
LS: Further DIY.
VV: Yeah. If you wanted dark clothes, alotta people would just dye them. But girls didn’t have to do that. I use “girls,” I hope that’s not an offensive term now in today’s gender wars, PC-ness. But it was a different era. Language reflects the times, and no one knew the word ‘designer.’ But y’know, I knew girls and they’d (say), “Look at this Chanel dress I got for a quarter at the thrift store!” It was before they had the pickers, who go to thrift stores at nine in the morning and score and resell it in their little business.
LS: Right, it’s all so heavily curated now.
VV: Yeah, everything’s so heavily curated. You’re right. We didn’t have that word either, ‘curator.’ What’s that? So girls would buy designer dresses and slash ‘em and graffiti ‘em, safety pin ‘em.
LS: And now the designers do that for you!
VV: Oh, that’s right! That fad of jeans with huge holes in them. Iggy Pop and the Ramones were the first. Like, what? Holes in your jeans? And they’re old looking? I mean, that was shocking… See, I think punk is still alive in some DNA-ish way. I mean, you see all these girls walking around with huge holes in the jeans, and a lot of them are tourists because y’know, this is a tourist mecca. But then I think real San Franciscans wear them. And I’ve never seen so many young girls wearing these cute little black leather jackets. Millions of ‘em. My daughter took me shopping several years ago actually, and– What was the store? Zara or H&M. They’re these really cheap stores. There are several branches of them downtown, and my daughter took me there, and I said, “God, you can get this black leather jacket for forty-nine dollars?”
LS: So do you think the punk ethos has survived? Or just the punk aesthetics?
VV: No, I do. Because of everyone who has a kitchen show, or a living room show, or a backyard show, or even a street show. These things even happen in San Francisco still, but you gotta know the people personally, and it’s a very small group. It’s not advertised in the paper. And in Oakland, lots of ‘em. I mean I get invited to ‘em, but I just can’t bear to leave home. That’s the punk ethos to me, putting on shows. Here’s what I say, the punk ethos is to continuously sort of rebel -I put that in quote marks- against the status quo. But what is the status quo? It keeps changing every week now. So a lot of the people that I personally think are kinda punk now, by their deeds, wear bright colors and stuff! Stuff I’d never wear. But they wear ‘em, and they look like clowns or whatever, but you can tell it’s not normal. So, ok, I’ve never seen that before. I applaud that. And of course, right after punk started, some of these kids started growing long hair, growing towards the Nirvana look. So, well, I thought punk was about short hair, but I guess they got tired of it and they grew it out.
See, I was always a fan of naive art. The New York Times changed the word to ‘outsider art,’ and they have periodic columns celebrating artists who made a ton of art outside the gallery, the museum system. Y’know, like maybe they were black or something, and they didn’t know how to join the in-group producing museum art, but they still cranked out a bunch of paintings. I actually still have a bunch of naive art books that I collected, starting in the sixties. I mean, that’s what I wanted to know about. I even bought two books. They had the same title, same author. He has some hyphenated, long name that I can’t memorize, but he did two books called Modern Primitives, and I stole that title way later for my book on tattooing and piercing. But I got it from these two naive art books. I considered punk just a massive, global naive art movement. Y’know, outside of the gallery system. And I said, “Why shouldn’t clothes be considered a work of art? Or a hairstyle a work of art? Or music a work of art?” It was just reinventing all that, but sort of on a slightly naive level. Untrained, maybe.
LS: Were you into the underground comic book artists? Like R. Crumb, or Robert Williams?
VV: Oh yeah, well I could never draw that well. I haven’t been much of a visual artist. I think everyone can do everything. That’s one of my little mottos, but I personally don’t do much drawing. But that was the one thing I liked that happened out of the hippie movement, what R. Crumb was doing. He did some rather devastating critiques of the hippie movement early. And he was right! I won’t go into why, but… If you go back in time, I mean, there was a lot wrong with that hippie movement. It mainly happened after ‘67 though, I’m happy to say. 1966 was pretty much a fool’s paradise in the Haight-Ashbury. I mean, rents were so cheap, and you could start a band.. Everyone was starting a band, just like in the punk days. Everyone started a band including me… One thing both movements have in common, that is super hard to get now, is that everyone had tons of free time. And then you could write your songs, and practice your guitar, or whatever instrument you had, or draw. You need spare time, and no one can afford it now with the rents so high. That’s my perception.
LS: Well, these things *gestures to cell phone on table* eat up so much time. And also, there’s a new element of self-consciousness. Like doing things for the sake of advertising it (via social media).
VV: Oh, terrible self-consciousness all the time. You’re right. I try to keep it at bay. In 2016, someone told me, when I first got the iPhone, they said, “You gotta promote your publishing on this, and you have to post something on Instagram everyday.” Ok, I’ll do it. But then I don’t.
LS: Writers pay me to do that for them. So that’s a new little job that exists, because the older generations, understandably, don’t even wanna touch it.
VV: Well, I’m all in favor of more jobs being created. I think anyone who’s still trying really hard to do an indie band or art are still, in their way, trying to keep this punk spirit alive, which is to critique the status quo as it changes, and to try to be really independent, and sort of outside the gallery/museum system. But, y’know, I have to say that most people start out this way, but then they actually want to be part of that gallery/museum system. Because, somehow, if you can start making money on art, then you don’t have to have a day job as much. And I sympathize with that. Anything you can do to minimize your day jobness. Or try to become a bartender, ‘cause the tips are so good. I mean, you can maybe just work three days a week, or three shifts a week and then have all the other time to do nothing or do art…
LS: And flipping your hours of consciousness is quite a trip in itself.
VV: Oh yeah, that is for sure. That’s what I learned when I moved in with this girl in ‘67. Well, it wasn’t until late ‘68, maybe early ‘69, that the surrealist beatnik poet named Philip Lamantia came down. He had been living all over Europe or New York or Tangier. He had an independent income, which is a wonderful thing. Y’know, Burroughs had an independent income. That gives you a lot of freedom. You can just say, ‘Oh, I think tomorrow I’ll go to Tangier!’
LS: And how did Burroughs secure that?
VV: He always denied the Burroughs Adding Machine corporation, but he did get a modest -by his standard, not mine- income, which gave him freedom. ‘Oh, I’ll go to New York! Oh, I’ll go tomorrow!’ Like not, ‘Where am I gonna get the money?’
LS: He had a pretty expensive habit, too.
VV: Yeah. So Philip came here, and he moved right in above me, my apartment. From him, I learned the beatnik lifestyle. ‘Well we stay up all night talking, and then we sleep all day’ (laughs). So I kinda got into that for a year with him, but that was before they had cheap tape recorders. That’s the one huge regret, that I didn’t buy an expensive tape recorder and tape him, but they hadn’t invented the cassette then. They had these big reel-to-reel tapes. I mean, that’s too much.
LS: So do you remember some of the subjects you’d dig into in those early hours?
VV: Oh hell yes, because he just seemed to know everything. Like, how did you learn so much? And, unlike me, he could remember, and he could even recite passages from books from memory. He knew a lot about the so-called occult. Of course, he knew the whole history of poetry through the Surrealist lens. For example, the Surrealists love the Troubador songs, which are hardly ever recorded. They’re from like 1100. Because the Surrealists had this ‘mad love’ idea. And so they asked that question: What was surrealist before the word was invented? Well, these wonderful love poems that Troubador sang out to their ladies on the balcony, that were written down. And the Surrealists were super into primitive art from all over the world. They were super into naive art. I got into all that through Philip. And occult books, too. They were really into that. And we used to have a great occult bookstore here. Well, there’s been an occult tradition in America at least since the 1910’s, with Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, Krishnamurti. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám was translated, and that became a huge hit. Just like The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. That was a huge hit, like millions sold in America. But that kind of investigation into ‘wisdom of the East,’ or whatever you want to call it, didn’t really start until around 1900-ish in America. All these books started it. They became bestsellers.
LS: I was hoping you could speak to the importance of independent publishing in this age of the surveillance state, along with hyper PC culture.
VV: Oh, independent publishing is so important! It’s so important, I think. I gotta give you this book that my new friend wrote before I forget. It’s gonna deal with a lot of your questions about how the internet has wrecked everything. The internet could’ve been designed differently, y’know. Jaron Lanier told us that they could’ve built micropayments in from the get-go, but now anyone who posts anything written online, it’s just free pretty much. And you put any music online and it just gets pirated. It’s free. But micropayments could’ve been built in. And then, of course, it’s total disinformation out there. I try and avoid the internet. That’s my antidote. But then I’m still stuck in the paper era. Like this morning, I went out and I got three papers. I love the Financial Times, because, y’know, I feel it should be called the “Financial Crimes,” ‘cause, you know, you read that everything’s a crime underneath these stories. And then I got a discounted Thursday New York Times. I never bought (NYT) in my life until today, but the guy at the newsstand said, “Here, have this for free.” And it actually had a really good article in it about the twenty best Bay Area films ever made in the last ten years. I wanna see them all, ‘cause I love to see films shot in the Bay Area. So I’ve always been open to random informational input and chance, because that’s a Surrealist thing. Try to be spontaneous. Try to keep logic at bay. Try to love your dreams. Love your subconscious, your unconscious. Love everything that comes out of your mind, and try to write it down as best you can, or keep records. To me, one of the hugest things wrong with being a woman in this culture is that none of the clothes have pockets. I mean, you’ve gotta have a notebook and pen, always! Always. It’s not fair.
So I don’t want any of those memes from Donald Trump or any politician infecting and colonizing my brain, and therefore, without even knowing it, I start repeating their language or phrases. Language, to me, is so important, and you have to continually keep vetting it and be critical of your own language use. Only use words that sort of reflect you, whatever that means. I don’t know, there are lots of words I try to avoid. They all have to do with religion. Burroughs got me on the track to vetting language in his book called The Job, because he said, “Belief is the enemy of knowledge.” Well, just try to avoid ever using the word ‘believe,’ or ‘I believe this.’
LS: Well it seems like -at least, my generation- has a conflicted relationship with language right now. It seems like we value it less than ever, because we use these simplified, boiled down terms that come out of meme culture and internet-speak, but then we’re also very ready to apply too much weight to certain things thrown out carelessly, followed by this quick urge to ‘cancel’ people because they didn’t mince their words well enough. So it becomes harder to communicate in a sincere way.
VV: That’s why I said just have less than five friends, and pick ‘em super carefully, and make sure you can say anything spontaneously in front of them without being crucified or judged, or whatever the word is. You have to have freedom to express yourself. Look, life is a continuous experiment. You’re always experimenting, I hope, and you’re trying words out, and sometimes, “Ooh, maybe I shouldn’t have said that, but hopefully it didn’t go in print.” And especially now, I’m guilty of this new sin myself, which is not being rigorous in my use of pronouns. In fact, I’m trying not to use any pronouns. Because you know how it’s so hip now, to be non-hetero. (Laughs) I mean, that’s the hippest thing to be, is to be non-hetero.
LS: Sucks to be straight right now.
VV: (Laughs) Yeah, I need to talk to you more, because I thought of some topics, but I don’t have many friends. See, my daughter is my friend, but I never get to talk to her because I’m not gonna impose myself on her. I learn from her, whenever she deigns -or happens- to talk to me, then I listen. Not too long ago, she said, “I’m a Henry Rollins fan!” I said, “How did that happen?” She said, “I heard a podcast, and he said some things that I totally agree with,” and I said, “What were they?” She says, “He said, ‘I have no friends!’”
LS: I love Rollins. Rollins is such a loner. He is a forever loner, and he is the most productive loner.
VV: And the second line, which I hope changed her -my daughter- a little, was, “You can hang out your life away and get nothing done.” And then I think he said, “I try to write a thousand words a day.” I don’t do that! I mean, I didn’t have that as a goal, but now I wish I had.
LS: Yeah, damn. He is so disciplined. I love listening to him talk.
VV: A thousand words. That’s something aspirational. A thousand words a day. I mean, that made me feel like, god, I’m a fuck-off compared to him. I haven’t done fuck-all.
LS: (Laughs) Right.
VV: Yeah, he has a new book out. I try to go to every spoken word show he ever gives. I’ve interviewed him a few times, luckily for me, and put him on paper. I don’t know, I think I put it in the little Rollins book I put out, something about, “I never bring a bottle of water onstage.” I never noticed that he didn’t! But he marathons it for two hours, two and a half hours, talking without a water bottle, ever. And I never saw him have notes. I mean, when Jello Biafra does spoken word, he has a six foot folding table with a whole row of notes lined up. But I guess (Rollins) has a sheet of paper on the floor where no one can see it, with really big type and like six topics, so if he gets brain freeze, he knows something else to talk about. Nice to cover those six topics in the evening, but not necessarily de rigeur. So I thought, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” Big printed computer letters, Helvetica extra bold eye chart letters so you can see ‘em, no matter how bad the stage lighting gets when you’re doing your spoken word thing.
LS: Yeah, he puts on long shows. He hasn’t performed here recently, has he?
VV: He performed in Berkeley and I couldn’t go. That was the last time, within the year. I think he tries to perform every year in the Bay Area. But he said those two things that I loved: “You can hang out your life away and get nothing done,” and then, “I have no friends” (Laughs).
LS: He’s pretty intense in person, I’d imagine?
VV: Well, he’s thoughtful. I don’t think he’s any more intense than you. He’s a listener, he wants to know what you have to say. He’s pretty amazing to me. He’s real, I don’t know. I think, if you get famous, it’s really hard to quote ‘stay real.’ I mean, I’m not famous and I never want to be. I can walk down the street and no one asks me for my autograph. That would be hell. To be one of the Beatles? No thanks! You don’t have freedom. Or you have to have two bodyguards everywhere you go that weigh five-hundred pounds each. No thanks. That’s not freedom.
LS: No. Hell no.
VV: But I love reading. I market my books when I can, but not always. I just dug out a book I read a million years ago, and I saw I had improved it. This is something for you to think of. I was reading J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands. I think I’ve read every word he ever said or read. Said or read, that rhymes, by the way. And someone asked me, “What’s your favorite?” See, I hardly have any friends. And I realized, you know, I don’t think. I’m against thinking. I’m against logic. Whatever shows up on your computer screen instantly is the truth, maybe. And I said, “Oh, Vermilion Sands.” I’m an escapist. I love those books in which he imagines art forms of the future: singing statues, a house that responds to your emotions, stuff like that. I love Vermilion Sands, and I went to read it again, and I realized that I had improved the first story. I added more words in.
LS: Well, in your first Search for Weird zine, you said, “My contribution was making sure that everyone knew who J.G. Ballard was.” Why Ballard?
VV: Oh, he’s so important. And yet, because he didn’t tour here much, no one knows him, hardly. And (he’s important) because you have to know the people who think of the ideas that are the most futuristic, and that have the most oomph to them, that last. He was so smart. He didn’t want to go to rockets and spaceships, space travel – although he did write about them, he wrote about everything- but he finally said, “No, I want to write about inner space, not outer space.” Because there is so much inside all of us now. In my Stay Together Forever zine, I said, “Respect everyone, because everyone has a subconscious as deep as the ocean that contains every word anyone ever said to them, or they said, or any experience that has ever happened to them.” It’s all there, you just can’t access it. But under the right stimuli, you can vividly remember something that happened decades ago. Take my word for it. It’s real as if you’re reliving it. But it has to be the right stimuli, which is pretty rare. And again, I wish I had only one so-called partner all my life. I’m not like Henry Rollins. I need someone else. I’m sorry, I’m just not that strong. And Marian is so complementary to me, so that’s why I can keep going and do what I want to do, sort of have the freedom to do that, and hopefully not too harshly impinge on her destiny, which is doing what she wants to do. Very late in life, she decided, “I wanna be a modular synth person.” She does films and modular synth with these weird soundtracks she invents, that, to me, don’t sound like anything I’ve heard. Well, I haven’t heard everything.
LS: I’m gonna have to check out some of her stuff. I didn’t know.
VV: Oh yeah! I’m trying to get her more shows now. I gotta get better at that. I’ve gotten her a few shows, but they were trial shows. I always say, all marriages are trial marriages, from the start to the end (laughs). And I need a partner, because, see, I’m from a different era. I need someone to help me pay the effing rent. I mean, that way there’s two of us worrying, “We don’t have quite enough money for that. What can we do real fast?” If there’s two of you, rather than just you, take my word for it… I don’t know how you survive, but I need that person in my life. I don’t know how people do it. To me, this is the downside of feminism. I remember when I first learned the word. Can you believe you can be like me and go a huge portion of your life without knowing the word existed? I mean, that’s pathetic.
Very early, when I started to read that feminism existed, and Ms. magazine had just started out, I of course read it religiously. I’ve always seemed to be the champion of the underdog in my life, or the less privileged, or whatever you call it. It’s because I read that statement ages ago. Three words: “Privilege infers blinders.” That’s such a key thing. This is like a principle, really, and having to do with punk, I suppose. This is why punk was so good. I felt a lot of the people that I met in the earliest punk scene in San Francisco were actually kind of privileged, white middle-class youth, y’know. And what punk did to them was sort of take away some of that privilege, so they could see what being unprivileged might look like. I think that was a gift, in a way. In other words, it was sort of what you call -I hate this phrase- ‘voluntary poverty,’ for a while. Y’know, like living in terrible rooms. They weren’t terrible, actually. These little kids living in the little, very minimal hotel rooms, like on Polk street and a block away, on Broadway. I went to their hotel rooms, and they were ok, but they weren’t even middle-class. They were kind of lower middle-class, at best. Just trying to live without working, or minimal working, or with minimal income, and just trying it out. I think that’s not an unvaluable educational experience, to at least try it. But at the same time, everyone I admire, like Burroughs and Philip Lamantia, these literal geniuses that knew so much at a relatively young age, they had trust funds, essentially. Or let’s just say they had incomes. So if they decided, “Tomorrow, I’m going to go to Tangier,” they had the wherewithal to do it, and they could do it.
LS: Yeah, well that kind of speaks to one of the questions I came up with for you, about your general philosophy that you talk about in your Search for Weird zine, about potentialism (“we’re here to develop our potentials”) and projectism (“we’re here to do as many projects as possible”). How do you pursue this philosophy under capitalism?
VV: Oh, you gotta have projects. No projects, no life. I have so many. I don’t think I can do them all before I croak. I have so many cassette tapes of interviews I’ve done with people that never came out, and I’m sure those people are mad or sad or both. Mad, sad, glad. It’s funny how those three words rhyme. But I would like to have some more of those interviews come out… I mean, for example, it’s horrifying, but somewhere I’m pretty sure I have a Kathy Acker tape unlabeled, and I wish I could find the fucker. Because she came over here quite a bit, when I was personally laying out and typesetting in this very room, at this table.
LS: Acker was at this very table?
VV: She sat there *gestures to the seat across from him.* I sat here. Because I did that book that no one knows I did, called Great Expectations. I typeset it, and she took the typesetting pages because something terrible happened. At the same time, I sent out Great Expectations and my first book that everyone knows me by, RE/SEARCH #⅘. I sent them to this printer in Riverside County, where I grew up, who had conned me on the phone. Y’know, ‘Support an independent printer in your hometown’ type of shit. He chose that moment to go bankrupt. Took all my money. Because I had paid complete for the printing in advance, which, at my income level, was very hard to get that much money together. So I said, “I’m never going to a small printer again. They’re all going to be the largest ones in existence so this doesn’t happen again.” And the printer sent me, I don’t know, a hundred copies of Great Expectations. I gave a bunch to her, and I kept a few, but it was a total failure, income-wise.
LS: So how did you meet Kathy Acker?
VV: Oh, she met me! Because the first tabloid issue –Which you bought, by the way. You bought a repro of it. It’s called RE/Search #1, with Sun Ra in it.
LS: Oh yes. With Sun Ra and Throbbing Gristle.
VV: Yes! Well, you bought it. That had just come out for real, and was for sale at City Lights, and she had just come to town. She was teaching one semester, apparently, at the San Francisco Art Institute. I don’t know what her class was. If I had known what I know now, I would’ve audited it. I just didn’t know Kathy Acker then. I hadn’t read her, or anything. Well, I think that’s not true. I think she already had some reputation, sort of, and it turned out almost all of her books had been self-published by her, but under other names.
LS: “The Black Tarantula.”
VV: Yeah. I had that, and some intern borrowed it and never returned it. And all her early books she gave me, of course. But anyway, the point is that RE/Search #1 had just come out, and she took it and put rectangles of her own text on every page, or on a bunch of pages. And she took it, I think, to the same printer that I used and had it printed. Y’know, like a small printing. So when she came in to City Lights during my shift, she says, “Look!” I said, “Oh!” I really wasn’t that smart then. I didn’t really know about appropriation. I don’t think that word was in my vocabulary then. I’m not sure if it was, it might’ve been. But actually I was kinda flattered she did it, this cute girl. But anyway, we became friends.
LS: So Acker originally came to you hoping to publish something through you…
VV: No. Well, I don’t know what her motives were. Maybe she liked RE/Search. That’s it, RE/Search was kind of hip then. The SEARCH & DESTROY was probably kind of hip, too. Maybe she knew that I did SEARCH & DESTROY, and that I had just put out this thing called RE/Search, which was not as punk rock-ish as SEARCH & DESTROY. Because I was then trying to branch out into ‘world beat,’ which was a new word then. Well, take my word for it, right after punk it seemed like everyone, like Brian Eno and David Byrne… It’s like we were all one brain, but in different bodies. And we were all interested at the same time, we don’t know why, in checking out Sun Ra, and people that we had never been exposed to, like Fela Kuti. In other words, thinking beyond punk rock, but not necessarily becoming straight, or whatever that means. I mean, part of punk was an exploration of everything that had been forbidden. At least, that’s my version of punk. Everything that I didn’t know about, everything authoritarian. You wanted to just educate yourself. That’s why, (at least in SF, I can’t speak of any other scenes), we were all readers in that first generation of punk. They’re not even here anymore, most of those people. Take my word for it, there were some of us that were into reading everything forbidden we could find out, and getting those 1915 National Geographic’s for literally a nickel or a penny at garage sales. And literally seeing pictures of naked women savages, as they were called. Which sort of led the way for me doing my Modern Primitives book later. Anyway, nevermind.
LS: So the early punkers were more literate.
VV: Oh, hell yes! We just lived at this great store that’s still there, called “The Magazine.” I used to have a complete set of AtomAge magazine, which was like these weird people in England, making their own homemade fetish clothing out of vinyl. Anyway, it’s probably free online now, all this stuff. But we would collect these weird magazines, like homemade magazines.
LS: Would you cut them up? Use them for collage?
VV: Sometimes. That was kind of the idea, partly. Yeah, maybe. Lots of different weird magazines and catalogs, even. I mean, you weren’t just reading off a booklist. You were looking for what you never heard of, that was weird. People don’t know this about the early punk generation, how book and magazine oriented we were. Especially with stuff we didn’t know existed. And looking for things that are just not handed to you, like all kinds of medical textbooks. Take my word for it, the worst ones have to do with venereal disease. Color close-ups… Ack!
LS: In Search for Weird, you mentioned that you noticed a lot of the punkers had Burroughs stocked on their shelves.
VV: Yes! That was the one thing they had, but they didn’t have J.G. Ballard. So that’s why I was determined. “You don’t know Ballard? You’ve got to read him.”
LS: How did you discover Ballard, originally?
VV: Sheer luck. Y’know I used to work at City Lights, and people would regularly come and talk to me on my shift. I’ve never known that many people, even working there, where I could meet hundreds. I didn’t want to become friends with everyone, because then they ask you for a discount every time, so beware of that. If you work retail in a store, don’t be friendly to everybody. And so I’d only befriend very few people, but one person knew I was a Ballard fanatic. See, in the old days, there were like forty bookstores within driving distance, or whatever. And I had a car, by the way. I had a ‘59 Volkswagen that I got in 1969. I always had an automobile, even though I hardly made any money, and somehow managed to pay the insurance, I guess. I can’t even remember all that, how I survived. But the car enabled me to drive all over and go to used bookstores, where I’d find surrealist bargains. But anyway, I only had a few friends, and they all had to be intense bookhounds like me, y’know. And this one guy said, “Hey, I just went to this bookstore on Maiden Lane, downtown, and they had a book there on the remainder table. It was a hardback, $2.98, with a dust jacket, and it had an introduction by Burroughs in it.” Because this person knew that I wanted anything with Burroughs. Any magazine, any newspaper, underground whatever, anything with Burroughs I wanted. So I immediately went there, and my biggest mistake was that I didn’t buy the whole pile. But actually $2.98 was a lot more money then, in 1973. It was probably like fifteen dollars, or twenty. And so I understand now why I didn’t buy the whole pile. But they’re worth a whole lot more than $2.98. It was the first edition hardback of the Grove Press Atrocity Exhibition that I eventually got to do my version of, my improved version. So I went there and got it, and then I read the Atrocity Exhibition. I said, “Holy s-word, what is this?” I mean it says, “I’m trying to write a series of condensed novels,” like each paragraph is a novel. It’s so intense, that book.
Look, I bet you agree with my philosophy that I’ve hinted at in all my zines, my writing. I mean, it’s true that in the seventh grade I wanted to be invisible. There was so much about being in a human body I did not, I would say, agree with, or something. It was a paradigm to interrogate, and finally I sort of have it, to my satisfaction, figured out. I think a lot of our problems in life are caused by emotions. And you say, “Well what the hell is an emotion?” And then I realized, y’know, we come in two models as humans, genetically, sort of. We come in this weird male model, and this weird female model, but we’re essentially machines. And what does it mean to be human? Well, there’s four things in us, at least. I read this book ages ago, The Ghost in the Machine. And this guy, his name is Paul McLane, he said, ‘Well, in our evolution to become humans from apes, or whatever, the first layer of the brain is the reptile brain. Then, as we evolve, the layer overlaying it is the mammalian brain, and then the third brain is the human brain, the one that can come up withE=MC2. But the reptilian brain, I mean, they aren’t known for hugging and cuddling. Although, they do. See, Komodo lizards do that a little, on their little archipelago, wherever they live. They’re probably wiped out now. And mammals, obviously. If a cat has kittens, they like to snuggle together and keep warm, so that’s mammalian. And humans, well, we can be more conceptual. I guess we invented language. Or did language invent us? But anyway, I just like the idea of enjoying being a machine. Ok, I’m a machine. Yes, if you show me pornographic images, I will probably respond. We won’t go there. But I’m a machine doing it! Y’know, is that really human? And I get hungry, obviously. I have to go to the bathroom, obviously. Everything you take in, you have to output. And if you take in all this media, like you and I do, we have to write! Everything that comes in must go out in some form.
LS: Yeah, that’s an interesting way of contextualizing it.
VV: And I think everyone has to do a zine, and everyone has to write, or they’ll get mentally ill, or all clogged up inside, or something, like a machine would. It’s like not taking a poop. I don’t wanna sound crude in this taping–
LS: No, it’s true! It’s like… cognitive constipation.
VV: Hey! Did you invent that? Wait, I gotta write that down.
LS: I’m an alliteration junkie, like you.
VV: (Laughs) “Cognitive constipation.” I’ve never heard that before, since time began. And then, “alliteration junkie.” I never heard that phrase before, but I love alliteration and rhymes, and any kind of word play, wherever it shows itself. Ok, and I learned it from Burroughs – the third mind theory. Any two people -in this case, you and me sitting in the same room talking- will form a third mind.
LS: I love this concept, yeah.
VV: And if we’re lucky, something new will arise that neither of us has ever encountered. In this case, the phrase “cognitive constipation,” and “alliteration junkie,” and “sucks to be straight right now.” (Laughs) Boy, I couldn’t say it better myself. I mean, I’m almost afraid to talk sometimes, that I’ll say the wrong pronoun or do something worse, whatever the hell is out there.
LS: Yes. Dangerous times.
VV: Dangerous times. Y’know, one thing, as long as you live, always try to have some young person or persons in your life, any way you can manage it. I mean, hopefully you’ll live on the planet and be fifty or sixty or whatever, you won’t croak before then.
LS: Yeah, who knows…
VV: Well, don’t do it. I need you to be alive.
LS: I’ll try to avoid it if I can, yeah.
VV: But you always need new input. Look, we have to navigate our way through this world. Y’know, we make choices. Try to make it an art and science of studying all the ways of saying ‘no’ as fast as possible, because I really think it is your free will. So many people say ‘yes’ to something, and then they say, ‘Oh shit, why did I say yes? I don’t really have time for that now.’ And they regret it and get all in an inner turmoil. See, if we can just be machines, like I said, we can -without emotion- I think we’ll somehow go through life… I don’t wanna say even-keeled. That’s a nautical term. But I don’t really like to have problems in life. I really don’t want to have people getting mad at me. I don’t want to encounter some abrasive situation out there, if I can help it.
LS: Yes, and I’m the same way. There’s danger in this inherent agreeableness. I think it has something to do with a tendency to be passive, because you kind of think of yourself as more of an observer than an actor. Or at least I have, historically, and that’s gotten me into trouble.
VV: Me too. Exactly. I couldn’t agree more with all of that. You know, I grew up in all these foster homes, which was great because it made me an instant anthropologist. Like I couldn’t be attached to being Japanese, genetically. I always said, “What does that mean?” Y’know, I don’t know any of the Japanese culture. The band Devo turned me on to sushi (laughs). Well, they were the first people I ever knew who made money, and got me out of my underground ghetto.. “Yeah, let’s go to Nico, the only underground sushi restaurant on Van Ness, and we’re buying. Buy anything you want!” And, “Wow, this is really good! This is Japanese?” Something as obvious as that I didn’t know, because I wasn’t raised, really, by my parents…
LS: In your free time, do you prefer silence to music?
VV: Oh yeah. One of Burroughs’ statements that I try to live by, he said this decades ago, “It can’t get too quiet for me.”
LS: I love that.
VV: That’s why one of my primary aphorisms is: Silence, Solitude, Skepticism.
*My mother calls, temporarily interrupting the tape recording*
VV: Well, I’m glad you have a mom. And I met your dad, ‘met’ meaning like I saw him next to you two or three years ago at Bay Area Book Fair.
LS: Yeah. My dad introduced me to my first beat book. When I was 16, I read The Dharma Bums (by Jack Kerouac), and was very turned on from there.
VV: Oh, that’s a good one! Gary Snyder is the star of that one. I’ve read most -but not all- of Kerouac, ‘cause they came out with a bunch more books by him. I haven’t kept up with that. I will. I mean, I haven’t even read all the new Burroughs books that have come out. I need to.
LS: It’s hard to keep up.
VV: I’ll say, especially when they keep finding old manuscripts–
LS: And new compilations, too, and you realize later, “Oh, I’ve already read this somewhere else.” They’ve just reprinted it and repackaged it.
VV: Right, exactly. This quote-unquote friend of mine in LA, this girl, called me up and asked, “What’s your favorite Ballard to read?” And I instantly said, without thinking, “Vermilion Sands.”And she says, “Well, I have the complete stories of Ballard,” and I said, “Well, it’s in there.” But then I have the complete stories of Ballard too, and I finally dug it out two days ago, and I said, “Damn, you can’t even tell which of these stories were in Vermilion Sands.” So then I found my copy of Vermilion Sands from a million years ago, and I have to take a picture of the table of contents, and send it to her phone. That’s when I discovered that I had ‘improved’ the first Ballard story by adding words that weren’t there. Like he says, “I looked out the balcony…” and, for some reason, I added “long, low” balcony. And then he sees this woman across the way, dressed in exotic clothing, and I added the word “shimmering.”
LS: Well, do you write your own fiction at all? Or did you ever?
VV: Hell no. No, I can’t do that… yet, at least.
LS: Are you sure? You said, “All reading is preparation for writing,” which I really like…
VV: Well, I think so, but y’know, I got a degree in English literature–
LS: Me too.
VV: Oh, you did? Well, that’s because it was the least repulsive of all the choices.
LS: (Laughs) Exactly.
VV: And actually I thought, “Maybe this will be the most fun.” Because nothing else really looked like fun.
LS: Well, originally I was leaning towards creative writing (as a major)–
VV: Well, you’re lucky they had that major. They didn’t used to.
LS: But you can’t institutionalize creative writing. I dropped out after the first class because it was just a whole lot of ego and prepared prompts… It was just foul. I ducked out.
VV: Wow. Wait, this is a thought. “You can’t institutionalize creative writing,” whatever that means. I mean, creative writing means creative writing!
LS: Right, so how do you teach that?
VV: How do you teach it? Well, I can teach it.
LS: You can teach it. I would trust you to teach it.
VV: Well, it’s so simple. I’d like to think that all your writing is actually based or catalyzed or a touchpoint or an inspiration or a flame point or a matchpoint, or whatever you call it, by something that really happened to you, or happened to someone else you knew, and you were told and it was like you lived it.
LS: Yes, that’s why I’ve been using the term ‘autofiction’ to describe my zine work, which I picked up from somewhere else. I didn’t come up with that myself.
VV: I’ve only encountered that word recently, and as soon as I encountered it, I said, “Y’know, in reality, I think probably all fiction is autofiction, and all so-called biography and autobiography is also kind of autofiction.” Because I know these people aggrandize themselves in every autobiography and biography.
LS: Yes, and our perceptions are so faulty to begin with.
VV: They are! This is one virtue of being with one person for many years. It’s memory. They will remember stuff entirely different, with details you do not remember that are very important, and often even contrary to what you remember, sometimes. Like Ruby Ray saying, “Don’t you remember that time when Bruce Conner came over, cuz you had gotten in an argument over the phone, and picked up this chair and threatened you with it?” And I said, “No!” I still don’t remember.
LS: It’s like we do this convenient editing.
VV: Yeah! But I’m sure it happened if she said so. That’s scary, not to remember that. And, y’know, he was a famous dude, later in life. He wasn’t famous then. He got famous after he died, which is often the fate of many artists, especially if you happen to know them. I’m glad that I don’t know many people who became famous. It’s that self-consciousness thing that you mentioned, which is a plague. Or, I don’t know if plague fits, but I’d rather not be in that world. Y’know, like if I’m with a famous person, we go to an expensive restaurant because they can afford it, not me. And everyone looks and says, ‘Oh, that’s so-and-so from the band so-and-so.’ Like when I went out with Nick Cave once. I mean, I don’t think that’s healthy for you, or you gotta fight it. Or I don’t know, never go out, be a recluse like me. I’m not sure.
LS: So you didn’t see many people fall into that toxic trap and lose them as friends?
VV: Well, maybe because I was too small potatoes to bother with after they got more famous, people I’ve known in the punk days, way back when. I don’t know. I did early interviews with the Ramones, and put them in SEARCH & DESTROY #2, or whatever. I got to hang out with them in LA, at The Tropicana, just go up to their hotel room and turn on the tape recorder.
LS: What are you reading these days?
VV: Well, I went through this whole phase. Sometimes I get obsessed, or something–
LS: Eve Babitz! It was in your newsletter.
VV: Thank you. I read everything I could get by her, like one after the other. I was in Eve Babitz world. I’ve retreated from it, because someone emailed me and asked, “What book should I start with?” I couldn’t answer that! Well, I loved this one book, and I don’t remember the title. It’s where she finally gets a literary agent and goes to New York, and then comes back. This is autofiction, as you call it. Her persona is that she’s a girl who loves surfing, and she’s also a writer. She loves writing, and loves reading, I guess, too. I wish I could tell you the name of the book. That’s the one I want to reread now, whichever one it is. The trouble was I got them all from the library, and I didn’t personally buy them. That’s bad, because when I own them, then I mark them up and heavily post-it tape. Well, I was giving her a trial run, which is maybe not cool, but I did it to save money, I guess. Anyway, I realize that’s my favorite book. Because she has, I guess what you might say, toxic experiences, meeting these New York literary world higher-ups.
LS: Well I like that you mention the persona, because I think that this hyper self-awareness creates these people who really just occupy their persona. You know what I mean? As in, even when they’re alone, they can’t separate themselves from their social self, that persona. Is that a Jungian term? It’s like they get stuck in their persona because their head is still in it, thanks to social media. So they lose their solitary personhood, which is actually the richest personhood, in my opinion… the access to the unconscious, etcetera.
VV: It’s the only personhood! That is what you’d call corrosive influence of social media, and I’m affected by it too, unfortunately. It’s an addiction. I know it is. And I’m trying not to check Instagram so much, and I have to check Facebook, but I don’t know, I don’t have a good system right now… I think I need to get a new diary that’s in my pocket. I’m almost out of pages.
LS: Do you track your dreams at all?
VV: I try, but I don’t remember them. I hate it! I wish I could remember dreams more. I just love ‘em, because they’re always so revelatory. Like what? I paid attention to that? Or that affected me more than I thought it should have–
LS: Well I read Chris Kraus’ book, After Kathy Acker, and I loved reading that bit about her (Kathy Acker) living in her twenties, working at the sex show, and then on her days off, she would just sleep for hours and hours on end and write when she’d wake up briefly. So she kind of entered this state in which she was awake and yet not awake, and work in that sort of in-between state, write from there.
VV: Write and masturbate.
LS: Yeah! Writing from the point of O.
VV: I’m sorry I said that. There are people who would fault me for saying that.
LS: No, that’s one of my favorite things that she’s said, actually.
VV: Because it sounded truthful, and it sounded feminine in a way that was not alien to me, but I said, “Oh, she dared write that.” Like that’s kind of courageous, I think.
LS: Yeah, very much so.
VV: Why not? It’s your life. It’s your privacy. That’s why I love privacy so much. You can do stuff like that. I’ll say one thing about the person that I’m with. She has her own apartment six blocks away, and she goes there a lot. So I do have all the solitude that I want or need, or whatever the word is. I recommend it to everyone. People have become envious, “Oh, you’re married, but you don’t live together?” I said, “Well, just by luck, each of us has had our own apartment for practically forty years.” She’s not going to give up her art studio with her tons of stuff. Anyway, I don’t need to explain it to you… But if you can afford it, it’s the way to go. I mean, I think it would be weird, now that I think about it, to just live with someone in an apartment. Well, you definitely need to have your own sort of sacred room. You don’t even enter it without knocking. I mean, I can’t imagine what that would be like, to live with someone in the same apartment.
LS: I was talking to one of my fellow introverted friends, and he was saying that it’s really important to have someone around who understands the concept of ‘alone, together.’ There doesn’t necessarily have to be constant interaction or conversation.
VV: No, that’s for sure. I hadn’t ever given that any thought.
LS: I think that’s really valuable.
VV: That’s essential! A lot of times I’ll go and read, which I love to do, and Marian’s out here working on her films, which is also the same thing as working on her modular synth soundtracks. For the films, she works on the screen to left *gestures to a trio of computer monitors across the room*. There’s obviously left, center, right, and I only pretty much write on the other two. I don’t write very much. I kind of write fast. I’m like a sprinter. I’m not a long distance runner. All my newsletters are written in twenty or fifteen minutes. And I’ll be honest, there’s a young person, a male, who comes in once a week or so, and he’s my editor. He even adds sentences that I didn’t write. I say, “Wow, you really improved it!” And that’s how those newsletters get written. I feel so lucky to have met this human.
LS: Well, you’re obviously very interested and invested in surrealism, as am I–
VV: Oh, it taught me so much! It’s still teaching me. There’re so many books that have come out that I don’t have. I’m just ashamed of myself. I’ve lost the discipline, or something. I mean, you would love my library. It’s all over the place. You would just love it. It’s all Surrealist–
LS: Yeah, I was hoping to take a picture of it before I leave.
VV: Well, you can take pictures, but there are more libraries, not even here. There’s a library in my storeroom, all my fiction. And then there’s a library up at Marian’s apartment of all my non-Surrealist art books, which includes stuff that is Surrealist, like all my Gaudi architecture and all my naive art books. They’re up there. And then other things, that don’t quite fit the party line. Because they are a little fascist sometimes, those Surrealists. They can be. See, I’m from that school… I hate to repeat myself. Groucho Marx: “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member.” And I also say, “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” Whatever it is, I’m against it. Those are the two things to live by. So, y’know, I got invited to speak at a Surrealist event in June in Chicago. They paid for everything, so me and Marian went. And I did do a presentation, but somehow I made some of the other Surrealists mad.
LS: How so?
VV: Because… I can do that, once in a while. People, beware. But not to you (laughs). Oh, I know. I put down anarchy, because I hate anarchists, even though I attend the anarchist book fair. I’ve been to every anarchist book fair. I don’t like anarchists. I’ve known two of ‘em. They’ve come to my house. They’ve all ripped me off. This one guy took seriously that thing, ‘what’s yours is yours, and what’s mine is mine,’ and, y’know, ‘property is theft,’ and all that. He stole some important stuff from me. I hate to say it, he also screwed my girlfriend at the time. I was being naive and clueless, y’know.
LS: That would turn me off of anarchism, too. In that situation, it’s like… You’re just using that ideology to justify your shitty behavior.
VV: Yeah, your egotistical, self-possessed, egomaniacal behavior, in which you put yourself first without any empathy. I mean, yeah, I know about Aleister Crowley and the “Will” and all this bullshit. Boy, you learn the hard way, lessons in life.
LS: This is true. Well, if I were to craft this into a question: How do you invite the surreal into your everyday life, or your interactions with people?
VV: Anything Surrealist I try to get it, and read it, and expose myself to it. But I’m not good at googling “surrealism” on the internet to see what comes up. That’s what I oughta do, because there’s so much I don’t know about Surrealism. It’s just horrifying.
LS: Well, you mentioned earlier that we are machines, and our minds are very mechanical. So when it comes to writing, y’know, these accessible phrases come to mind, and for the sake of creativity you almost have to work against where your mind wants to go first.
VV: Well, let me give you what I would put in a “How to Write” booklet, zine. Let’s pretend I wanted to write some fiction, which I’ve never done in my life. I think I would just write about something that happened in my past life, and I’d have to make it fiction because I don’t want to get sued. How can I write a piece of fiction now? I don’t know, I guess I could write about all the scandals that happened at the Seventh Adventist high school, that I only heard about, but I don’t know if they’re truthful or not. I could do that just to amuse myself, because I realize to write fiction you have to include some scandal. You can’t just write normal life, ‘cause there’s no plot. I mean, there’s no crisis. Fiction depends upon some challenge overcome, or there’s no story. The only things that I can think of are kind of scandalous… Problems, which are always caused by other people. Remember Sartre saying, “Hell is other people”? I love that statement.
LS: So righteous.
VV: So true! Or something. Ok, let’s see. Here’s what you do. When you have to write, you have to obsess. Go to bed early surrounded by books, notes, whatever. And you fill your mind with this, and as soon as you wake up, you do not make coffee, you do not talk to anyone, you never check your cell phone, you do not check email. You just go to some program that’s open, like Word, I guess, and you just channel like mad. You don’t analyze, you’re not being logical. You just write whatever the hell shows up. You just write as fast as you can, and you’re not critical, and you don’t worry about things like logic questions, like organization. You just channel. You pretend like you’re being dictated to by somebody else, or something like this. You get as much as you can down on paper in an hour or something, and you don’t even edit it until the next day. You need some distancing. And then the next day you can analyze it. I’ve been known to do tricks like that in real interviews, like Angry Women, which I didn’t feel like I had a strong enough beginning. You gotta have a strong beginning and end, or witty, or something. Generally, my philosophy of transcribing interviews is to keep as much as you can in the same order. But once in a rare while, I’ve been known to put a false beginning on, just ‘cause my intuition told me to do it. But it’s all intuition based, everything I do. It’s not really logical.
LS: Yeah, I function that way too. Sometimes it serves me well, sometimes it doesn’t.
VV: Well, then you have to do a zine on when it didn’t.
LS: (Laughs) When it didn’t? Oh, well.. lotta material there.
VV: Well, do that. Because that’s the way to get it out of your internalness onto something subjective, and get some distance, and then maybe you might have a so-called life lesson, or something there…. This is why I say, “Avoid emotions, let’s live like machines as much as possible.” Oh, there is so much to learn about interacting with other humans when you’re forced.
LS: Most definitely. Have you watched any new horror films recently? Have any stood out to you?
VV: Someone told me to see Black Christmas… Y’know, it’s funny how some films which aren’t horror films can actually be horror films.
LS: Yeah, like Requiem for a Dream.
VV: I never saw that!
VV: No, I’d like to. I think I read the book. The book is heavy.
LS: The movie’s heavy, too. It’s a horror film, but it’s real life horror.
VV: Real life horror. Oh, yeah.
LS: Crumb is a horror film.
VV: Oh, it is.
LS: His (Robert Crumb’s) brother (Charles Crumb) killed himself shortly after the film was made… that’s a fuckin’ horror film.
VV: You’re right, and that other brother (Maxon Crumb) I used to see acting homeless on Fifth and Market Street. I used to see him.
LS: You haven’t seen him recently, though?
VV: No, I think he died, or something. This was years ago. I saw a horror film -but it wouldn’t be called that- the other night, ‘cause I know this guy. He’s one of the Coppola clan, but the least known one. Christopher Coppola. For some reason, he has seemed to befriended me, or something weird. He’s the head of the film department at SFAI. It’s a beautiful campus, at 800 Chestnut. They’ve got some fantastic murals there, like one by Diego Rivera. Anyway, I saw Coppola and he asked me to teach a film class with Marian, cuz Marian taught a film class for him a year ago. The new class is called “Punk and Surrealism.” I said, “Ok, I’ll do it.” I’ll say yes to almost anything. I don’t know what I’ll teach yet, but I’m starting to have some ideas. I mean, punk and surrealism is me. I’m trying to be both. Punk surrealism noir, cuz I also love film noir movies and those doom-laden books. I kind of think there’s some dark humor, especially as I think of humans, ‘these are machines acting, they just don’t know it.’ Like I said, you show erotic stimuli, they will desire this woman, or whatever. They’re all hetero and old, from the forties, fifties, thirties, whatever, all the books and films I’ve been exposed to. The current nightmare right now is kind of this gender, language, tiptoeing around each other, walking on eggs around each other, whatever it is. And it’s very hard for me to comprehend because I lived life in a simpler time, when practically everyone was hetero (Editor’s Note: Practically everyone was wearing the public face of ‘hetero’). Now, hardly anyone is, it seems like. Or they’re surprising you, like McKenzie Wark, a guy I did a zine on. He just came out recently as multigender, or something.
VV: You knew about that–
LS: Well, I read his correspondence with Kathy (Acker), and then I read one of his little chapbooks on Situationism.
VV: Yeah, I’ve read those. Well, I’m behind. I didn’t get to read that I’m Very Into You book. I think that’s a funny title. It’s so slangy. And I’m sure it’s from real life. I didn’t realize both of us had a relationship with Kathy Acker. I just wish I had tape-recorded her more. What an idiot. She came over a million times and I never once taped her?? Like, what’s wrong with me? Oh well.
*Vale’s wife, Marian, comes home and begins preparing dinner. I realize it’s time for me to leave.*
LS: Thank you for your time, I really appreciated this.
VV: Oh, it’s fun for me.
LS: Good. Hopefully we can talk more about Kathy and Burroughs on another occasion.
VV: Oh, yeah, whatever.