It is easier to figure out cold fusion than it is to discuss rock and roll journalism without mentioning Mick Wall. He is to music writing what Keith Richards is to the guitar — he didn’t invent it, but he sure as hell made it his own.

Mick Wall began his career writing for a weekly music paper in the late Seventies and a few years later he jumped into a grass roots heavy metal magazine called Kerrang!. He quickly became its most popular writer and now thirty years later, Kerrang! is the biggest music periodical in circulation in the UK, with its own television and radio stations, branded tours, and massive annual awards ceremony.

Like Kerrang!, Mick Wall has also exploded as a force in the arena of rock journalism. He has penned nearly twenty music biographies, tackling a diverse range of subjects from immortal record producer John Peel to the howling tornado that is Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose. Rose was so unsettled by Wall’s book that he called him out by name in the song, “Get in the Ring,” from the Use Your Illusion II album.

We rev up again quickly. “Girls Got Rhythm” follows on the heels of the title track, and in its insistent four-on-the-floor drive and awesome, hip-shaking riff it feels as if the party’s headed in a different, no less risky direction. And it’s still early.

An unbridled riff of a song, “Girls Got Rhythm” is given ballsy swagger by an unhinged yet committed vocal from the helium-voiced Scott, propelled excitedly by the Youngs’ riffing and Williams’ eighth-notes. Two songs in and you can hear the difference that Lange has made: light virtually glints off of the shiny surface of this performance, so tactile is the mid-range, so compactly-made and energetically focused is the performance. An aspect of earlier records that Lange seems to have vetoed is the recording of the room’s atmosphere, studio details such as amp feedback, fingers on live strings, studio count-ins. In doing so he might’ve lost a bit of the band’s immediacy, but he compensated for it with an air-tight but punchy — and radio-ready — album sound. I can never think of “Girls Got Rhythm” without pairing it with the opening track, and when the album was released the two were usually played back-to-back on DC101 where I lived, and on hundreds of FM stations around the country. A perpetual motion machine, “Girls Got Rhythm” was made equally for boom-boxes at the public pool and for pounding systems in the back of cars transporting happily juiced-up guys downtown for a Friday night out.

Lyrically, Scott was mining his favorite source of inspiration. I thought that I knew who these girls with the backseat rhythm were, the ones who looked through me at school, the ones who after three o’clock would shed their regulation plaid skirt, white blouse, and saddle shoes to paint-on their makeup, feather their Sun-In hair and, defying the laws of physics, stuff a hairbrush down the ass pocket of their skin-tight Calvin Kleins to hang out and smoke at the park in Kemp Mill shopping center or the ice skating rink at Wheaton Regional, flirting with guys who were already shaving. Or: those prohibited girls at E. Brook Lee, the public school located over the hill feet away from St. Andrews, but culturally a continent-sized distance. When Scott sings about the girl moving like sin and then letting him in, the colloquialisms worked well enough for us boys, giddily tense as we were with the twin pulls of head-down piety and up-skirt peeking.. “It’s like liquid love,” Bon squeals, barely suppressing the grin that knows just how outrageous the line is.

The band is fantastically loud and tight by the end of the song, Malcolm the foreman steering the smirking riff as Williams and Rudd provide the solid chassis. Rock & roll rhythm! the guys shout seconds from the song’s end, and it’s that moment that I loved when I first heard the tune; these girls don’t just hang out in the back seat, they’re silhouettes for everything that rock & roll promises.

To young guys, at least. Bon Scott’s lyrics catalogue an epic sweep through the triumvirate of men’s needs: pussy; rock & roll; drink. There’s little room in his oeuvre for fealty, or subtlety, or sensitivity to the nuances of the male-female relationship dynamic, or for extended reflection on the tension between desire and conscience, surrender and smarts. There shouldn’t be. He knows what he wants, we know what he wants, she knows what he wants. The music makes it irresistibly so.

But that doesn’t mean that, Catholic-trained, I didn’t raise an eyebrow at some of Scott’s lyrics, even when as a hopeless teenager the language I spoke was equal parts English and Hormone. When Highway to Hell appeared in the summer of 1979 I had sex on the brain. The previous summer, the Rolling Stones had released Some Girls, and “Miss You” was in heavy-rotation on D.C.-area radio stations. Laying out at Wheaton Pool in the radiant, suburban sunshine, off of school for a few months, heady with the thump of “Miss You”’s filthy beat and the surrounding tableau of girls moist with Coppertone, the enduring, insistent tradition of rock & roll and sex was working its lasting way through me, and I was happily helpless in its grip. (That my 16-year old sister was among those innocently posing against the backdrop only complicated the pleasures.) Buzzing in the air the next few summers was the rumor that Joan Jett had gone to Wheaton High School a few years earlier and she comes to the pool sometimes! (She had indeed gone to Wheaton High. I looked eagerly for her bad reputation to strut onto the pool deck area in those years, but she never materialized.) There was sex in the breezes and the shimmering girl-curves, and though I hardly had much of it figured out or even named, the throb of “Miss You” (and of Exile’s “Kiss You All Over” and Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City” and Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded”) pulsed in my chest as a girl walked by me on her way to the snack stand and I rubbed my eyes and rising through the eyespots and glare was the mythic, long-off promise of sex.

Bon Scott was writing out of a tradition that we might charitably call the Penthouse School of Realism, but he was also writing within the time-tested conventions of Dirty Blues (no doubt with autobiographical inspiration — witness “Whole Lotta Rosie,” “She’s Got Balls,” “The Jack,” “Go Down,” et al). He’s hardly the first or the last musician to mine the blues for lyrical tropes as well as for chord changes, but his knowing humor and knack for memorable turns-of-phrase made him one of the best rock & roll lyricists of his era. “People began singing about sex as soon as they began singing,” writes rock & roll historian Jim Marshall. “Dirty ballads, lewd couplets, poems, limericks, rhymes, drinking songs, all ripe with sex, have always been an important if shunned part of western culture, from the first broadside balladeers to the most current heavy metal acts.” He adds, “Blues in general is a lyrically limited form — broads, booze and sex have a virtual stranglehold on the primitive blues singers’ mind, give or take a cameo appearance by the devil himself…and filthy blues records make up a large portion of the recorded body of work. Since that immortal day when Blind Lemon Jefferson beheld his pecker and decided it had the same leathery quality as a black snake, getting the biggest hit record of his career out of it — “Black Snake Moan” (which he recorded several times) — sex on blues discs sold.”

What Marshall calls “the golden age of the double entendre and the crude metaphor” never ended, of course. From obscure 1950s R&B singers to Seventies hard rock to daring New Wave through last month’s R&B and Hip Hop: popular music has always made room for gutter thought, memorably expressed. A sliver of history’s badly behaved: Barrel House Annie’s “If It Don’t Fit (Don’t Force It);” Lil Johnson’s “Sam—The Hot Dog Man;” Art Fowler and his Ukulele’s “No Wonder She’s A Blushing Bride;” Louise Bogan’s infamous “Shave ‘Em Dry;” Bo Diddley’s “Greatest Lover in the World;” the Sonics’ “Dirty Old Man;” the Vandals’ really racy mid-Sixties ode to a one-night stand “I Saw Her In a Mustang;” Grand Funk Railroad’s paean to groupies, “We’re An American Band,” Naughty by Nature’s catchy, acronymic “O.P.P.” Etcetera, etcetera. Guilty even were the tidy Everly Brothers, whose “Wake Up Little Susie,” duly sanitized for Eisenhower’s America, nails the morning-after fears of a teenage couple waking up where they shouldn’t be. Common to these and other grinding songs are reliance on witty metaphors and an understanding that the listener’s in on the (dirty) joke. When Wynonie Harris sings “Keep on churning until the butter comes” or Bon howls about being “up to my neck in you,” you don’t have to have a second pair of eyes in the back of your head to see in two directions at once.

“There were always ways in which popular singers could be suggestive of sexual desire by subtle emphasis or inference,” blues historian Paul Oliver says. In the fall of 1979, as Highway to Hell was laying the foundation for its assault on the charts, the Knack were selling millions of copies of “My Sharona,” and later “Good Girls Don’t,” teaching suburban kids everywhere burdened with teenage madness and in-between sadness the Top 40 code for oral sex. She really got the rhythm.


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.

 

Why essays?

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.