Why did you want to write a book about the Fleshtones? What was the process like?
I’m a big fan of the band, and I’ve been going to their shows since the early 1980s. I’ve felt for a long time that they’re one of the great underappreciated rock & roll bands in America, and sometime in the late 90s it dawned on me what an interesting story it’d be to tell. This dovetailed with a period where I was growing dissatisfied with writing poems, what I’d been doing, and what I’d gone to graduate school to study, for many years. I was casting around for writing projects and the Fleshtones story came to me. I realized that they’re the only band that debuted at CBGB in the mid-70s — in their case, 1976 — that‘s never had an inactive year. They’re always gigging and writing, and recording a lot, though over the years they’ve struggled finding record labels. And I thought, What a wild story of perseverance and sticking to a vision against great odds, and plugging along doing what you love even when people ignore or tell you to stop. And they’re fun and funny guys, and they’ve been testifying around the world for so long, so I thought that their story would be great. I pitched the idea to them in a bar one night in 1998, and each summer from 2000 to 2004 spent about a month in New York City, researching and interviewing. I wrote and worked on the book at home. I finished it in 2006, and the book came out with Continuum, after many, many, many rejections, over many years. I had to take a page out of The Fleshtones Playbook and persevere.
The book’s about how to live a life well. How to wake up and plug yourself into what you love to do, what sustains you, even if what you do, what you love to do, goes against prevailing trends, or is hard to make a living with, or creates disturbances in other parts of your life, or is something that a lot of people find of little value — in the Fleshtones’ case, for over three decades now. They’ve always been a cult band with a following of rabid loyal fans — that cult may be growing as a result of the book, I hope so, anyway — but there’s always been a majority that’s ignored them, that tells them to hang it up or go away. But they won’t.
How did writing about a cult band lead you to writing about Jerry Lee Lewis and AC/DC, two high-profile icons?
Well, in a sense, Lewis was a marginal figure in 1964 when he made the “Live” At The Star-Club album. In Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found I discuss that amazing album and that vexed stage of his career. One of the things that intrigued me was that after having descended into a commercial and personal void, the Marriage Scandal, etc., he made one of great rock & roll albums of all time. I’ve been intrigued my whole life by marginalized people, misfits, cult figures. People on the fringes who live passionately, sincerely. By 1964 Lewis was virtually a ghost in the mainstream of his own country — with some exceptions only the U.K. and Europe was still receiving him with the same excitement and love that the U.S. had in the late 1950s. I wanted to examine that record and that ferocious performance, and put it in context of his triumphant but messed-up career.
AC/DC’s Highway to Hell is part of the 33 1/3 Series from Continuum. I’ve always loved the album and I wanted to explore why, and why I still love it. I mean, after all, it’s the ultimate adolescent/teen fantasy album and yet it still reaches me, and obviously millions of others my age and older. There’s something about eighth notes that just kill and thrill me! They feel utterly urgent and exciting and eternal, and AC/DC — and the Killer at the Star-Club, for that matter — lives and dies by eighth notes. I wanted to see if I could write a thoughtful book about a mindless album, and I also wanted to do something a little different, so in addition to examining the songs and their cultural context, I reached out to some kids who graduated Catholic school with me when the album came out, and asked them how and why the album still matters to them. It’s a personal book, in a lot of ways.
What’s some of your favorite American rock & roll?
Oh, there’s so much. Bo Diddley, Chuck, the Killer, the Sonics, the Stooges, the Ramones, old school rap, Run-DMC, Beastie Boys. More recently, Green Day and Reverend Horton Heat, in the long haul. The White Stripes and the Black Keys are fantastic. Lately I’ve been digging the Soft Pack, the Kills, Eagles Of Death Metal, Reigning Sound, Glambilly. The Bottle Rockets have always been a little underappreciated, in my opinion. There’s a lot of great rock & roll in this country. And I’m forgetting plenty.
There’s an autobiographical component to your writing.
Yeah, that’s my way in to my subject, usually. I purposefully left out the “I” in Sweat until my editor asked me to get on stage in the epilogue and include some personal material. I begin the Lewis book by describing my introduction to Lewis, which was in the mid 70s through one of the many re-cuts of his phenomenal early Sun songs, on some 50’s nostalgia rip-off compilation album, and how I thought the song and performance were lame and insincere-sounding. Where was the great Killer? I wondered. That got me essaying the sincerity of the music he makes when he’s fully committed, like on his early Memphis recordings, onstage in Hamburg in 1964, and in many of his hardcore country recordings from the late 1960s and early 1970s. I talk about Highway to Hell as both an adult and a teenager who remembers and loves the album for different reasons and in different ways.
Is there a thread between your essays and prose poems and your music books?
In terms of the autobiographical impulse, there is. The essays I write are certainly more personal, and memory- and place-driven. I like to question the limitations of the self as subject matter, kind of the inverse question of writing biography where you explore the attractions and limitations and value of another’s life. I was raised Catholic and have since “fallen away” as the phrase goes, and many of the essays I’ve written in the last decade or so have explored faith and religion, tangentially sometimes, how growing up religious in the institutional sense tattoos you with iconography and spirit and a deep immersion in ritual and in mystery — all good stuff — that you can’t rub off completely, even if you want to. That was one of my perspectives on Lewis and Highway to Hell, listening to vital sinner’s music about fucking and drinking, indirectly through the scrim of Catholic dogma and Catholic school experience. Though I’m no longer practicing, I find that so many of my memories that I would call essential and valuable, and frankly unforgettable, originate in the church and my religious upbringing.
I like what Montaigne said four centuries ago, “If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions.” And Aldous Huxley: “Like the novel, the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.” There’s nothing more true than that for me. In a personal essay I can be conversational and more fluid, less self-conscious than in a poem. When I turned to writing prose, the writing naturally bore some resemblance to my poems in subjects and attitude. But I find in essays that I can range so far, further than I felt I could in poems. An essay to me feels like a plastic bag that you can get inside of and push and push and the shape remains endlessly shifting, unpredictable, growing, moving this way or that. Or it’s like building a house without knowing in advance how many rooms or floors you’re going to end up with. Both metaphors work for me. When I write essays I find I’m less bound by image and music, even though I often start an essay with nothing more than a shard of memory or thought, or an image, and see where it takes me.
Installations, a book of prose poems, also came about as a consequence of stopping writing poems. I’d written a poem about an imaginary art installation, and later when I was looking for projects, Amy suggested that I revisit that piece. I was writing prose by then, so I reshaped the poem, and something opened up and out, and I wrote several more pretty quickly. Then I started gathering them together and I realized that they told a story about a nameless spectator at a museum on a single afternoon where things start happening via his/her experiences with the art that couldn’t really be happening, that were impossible in the quote-unquote real world. I wanted to explore that surreal, landscape-changing power of metaphor and visual art, that kind of sacredness, and to tell the story in prose poems. It’s a form that can blend lyric and story-telling and abstraction.
What are your future projects?
I’ve finished a collection of autobiographical essays called This Must be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began, and I’m blogging. I’d like to edit a book about the New Memory, the ways our modes of personal and cultural remembering are changing, becoming ephemeral. And I’d like to do something that would get me back to New York City to live and work. Maybe a cultural history of the Bowery, or 14th Street. I’d love to do something on Martin Scorsese, if I could get to him. I’m also considering writing an “autobiographical biography” of my appellative doppelganger, Joe Bonomo, the Strongman, B-movie actor, stuntman, and self-help entrepreneur. He was a fascinating guy, very 20th Century.
Are you related to Bonomo?
Sadly, no. No Turk blood in me. His family pronounces the last name BAHN-uh-moh. I pronounce mine buh-NOH-moh. I’m always correcting New Yorkers who grew up with Bonomo Turkish Taffy, which his dad and brother produced for decades. I love being tangentially attached to Bonomo. He was a great character and a really interesting man.
You’re in charge.
OK, great: I’d cap seven-out-of-ten rock & roll songs at 3 minutes; I’d kill the DH and middle-inning relievers in baseball; I’d ban smart phones from classrooms; and I’d encourage occasional silence in general. And I’d place copies of Montaigne’s Essays and The Nick Tosches Reader in every hotel room in America.