Tag Archives: David Hadju

Barry Crimmins: Call Him Lucky

1 Mar




Barry Crimmins  (circa  2001) Photo Copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum

(Originally published: May 21, 2001)

 In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I consider Barry Crimmins, social satirist, political parodist & activist, universal commentator, a friend and brother-in-arms in the struggle to promote social justice here and around the world and in the battle against the tyranny of ignorance and economic exploitation.

I first met Barry in 1989 when, knowing his stand on the US war being waged against Nicaragua, I asked him to help out with an ad hoc benefit/organization called “Baseballs for Nicaragua.” He, of course, did and was part of an effort that, on a cold January evening in Boston, Massachusetts, raised $12,000 (to send baseball equipment to a war-ravaged Central American country). I have been fortunate to know him and see him ‘perform’ ever since.

Barry Crimmins was a central figure in the Boston comedy scene for years and was no small contributor to the launch of a number of careers. He has devoted and donated his talents to progressive causes for most of his life and continues his dedication and support for those causes. Recently, Barry has settled in rural New York State with his companion Karen and his dog Lloyd near Elmira, New York, where two people that have greatly influenced him are buried: Mark Twain and Ernie Davis.

For more information on Barry visit his web site or as he suggests, file a freedom of information brief with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C.

Robert Birnbaum: We are sitting here in Troupsberg, New York. You grew up close to here?

Barry Crimmins: About two hours. Two hours northeast of here. The thing about getting around the Finger Lakes is, getting around the Finger Lakes. Nothing is the proverbial “straight shot.” Although, all directions around here are given in increments of straight shots. “It’s a straight shot to your first turn. Then you wanna take…” (laughs) But you gotta get around them, you know. You gotta figure what you are gonna cut up. So here, we would cut up, we’d probably go up 414, head up the west side of Seneca Lake and then, Christ, all the way up Seneca, then cut over, I don’t know, whatever Seneca Falls, Auburn…

RB: People don’t say, “As the crow flies”?

BC: No…Well, they do. There are some people that do. But, you know, they’re sophisticated. They’ve probably been to Canada.

RB: Is there a sense in which you living here now is—I hesitate to say coming full circle—that there is something symmetrical about it?

BC: Yes. I’ve been a lot of other places where a lot of other people are from, and I mouthed off a lot about what I thought should happen in those places. Now that I have practiced doing that enough, I’m going to risk it where I’m from. (Lloyd the dog barks)

RB: What do you mean by saying you are going to “risk it”? Are you going to run for political office?

BC: No! Certainly not. Run from it. I didn’t come to the country because I want to avoid conflict. I think that there’s conflicts to get in, out here, that a lot of people aren’t dealing with. There’s a lot of ignorance. There’s a real pro-gun, Christian Right, bigoted, anti-environmental sentiment in the country and this is where I’m from. This is my ‘hood, and I want some stuff to be straightened out around here. I’m sick of this part of the world—somewhere as beautiful as this—being dominated by two things, prisons and Wal-Mart. That’s basically what’s happening here. And animal-rights abuses. So, uh, there’s just some stuff to do. And it makes me think about it.

I don’t know how I’ll directly take people on here—as much as I need the stimulus—to comment on it. There’s a lot of things to comment on. It’s interesting how much a factor, for example, race is around here, when there’s such little diversity in the area. It becomes a real factor when people matter-of-factly presume you’re a racist and say racist things to you thinking you’re going to snicker with them at it. There’s a lot of stuff like that to think about. Plus I’m from the region and there is something primal about being where you are from. It stirs up stuff. Now that I’m doing more writing, in my old age, I feel this will be more provocative for me. The most provocative place that I can be. Or evocative. It’s deep in me. As annoyed as I can get with a lot of what goes on around here—the ignorance—there is still something where I feel like I belong here. So I’m happy to be here. I’m not up here to hang with a bunch of people that I’ve known for a long time. I’ve got a few old pals that will show up. But basically I’m far enough away from where I’m from that I might as well be in Tunisia to those people. [in dialect] “What’re you doing way down there? Two hours.”

RB: So this is like home, but it’s not really home?

BC: No. This is temporary. We will probably move closer, even closer. So it will be an hour or an hour and a half. But I’ll never be stupid enough to live in the snow belt. It’s clearly marked. All you have to do is live X amount away from Lake Ontario and you lose…Ithaca gets five feet of snow a year less than Syracuse. Yet, Ithaca is a smaller city than Syracuse. I don’t need to tell you anything more about people from upstate New York than that. (both laugh)

RB: There is one thing you can say. They must like snow.

BC: Apparently. Well, you know—[dialect] “I just sit in my house and work on my alcoholism ‘til I can get the door open again”—That’s winter up here.

RB: My first thoughts about your move here from Cleveland was that you were using this as a place to recharge your batteries and make forays into the world at large. But this conversation suggests a greater intimacy with your locale. This is not a retreat, so much.

BC: I wouldn’t say it’s a retreat. But it serves that purpose because I feel like I belong here, so my personal rhythm is more in sync than it would be elsewhere. Therefore I think the batteries take a better charge here. Also, just being on this property, there’s a lot of stuff to take care of and that’s good. I have to do something other than just sit around and be a wise ass. I actually have to go out and mow the lawn and fix the gardens up and take care of things.

It’s interesting because you can go kind of snow blind just staring at a computer all day. You can do your work at the computer for a few hours and then you go out and do something worthwhile. Even if you don’t write anything worth a damn all day at least you get the lawn mowed. So, I like that.

There are things that are more jarring here, for me, than anywhere else. Particularly because I know the people and I know what goes on. Karen and I stopped at a yard sale. And this guy started telling us this story about selling his cows to this guy we know. “Jewed him down, a bit.” He just matter-of-factly said, “I Jewed him down.” And Karen was completely shocked, but I thought it was good for her because she romantically thinks everybody is wonderful, that they’re these rural pastoral figures come out of a Grandma Moses portrait. When in fact they are—vile.(laughs) Although this guy wasn’t completely hateful. That’s the complexity of it. That’s just a term he’s used his whole life. He’s a seventy-year-old man. But just matter-of-factly anti-Semitism rolled off his tongue. He’s completely fluent in it. Karen headed off and I stayed for a minute pretending I was looking at a tractor and then I told him afterwards, “Well, you know she’s Jewish.” (laughs)She’s a quarter Jewish, but that’s plenty Jewish. That’s enough to get you sent to a death camp, at one point. I figure that’s Jewish enough to refer to her as Jewish. And the guy felt badly, as if he had injured somebody. I could tell. So they are not all evil.

RB: Would you have had any compunction about saying she was Jewish, even if she wasn’t, as an investigative technique?

BC: Oh yeah. That guy was gonna get something for that, you know. (Both laugh) Something was coming, I just didn’t know what. Karen fit perfectly in the equation.

RB: What’s the name of the town you grew up in?

BC: Skaneateles. S-k-a-n-e-a-t-e-l-e-s. If you can spell it you are in the second grade. It’s an Indian word that means “beautiful lake surrounded by fascists.”

RB: And you went to school at Syracuse?

BC: No, I ended up at Miami. University of Miami. I took the intensive one-year smuggling program and then I went to colleges all over.

RB: And you when you told people where you were from, was the response usually, “Where?”

BC: Yes, either you say you are from New York and they immediately think you are a sophisticated person. People apologized to me around the country, “Oh, you’re from New York? You’re probably…”“No I’m from the Midwest, I’m from upstate New York.”

RB: I never thought of it that way. You could actually claim the Midwest began outside of Philadelphia. Or just outside of Boston?

BC: Oh yeah. It starts outside of Boston and it stops for a minute in New York and… New Jersey isn’t exactly the Midwest. But, there’s goobers there.

RB: Big deer-hunting area.

BC: That’s for sure. It’s just you hide behind junked cars more often.

RB: A lot of ’67 GM cars and a lot of Range Rovers.


BC: That’s right, they make a good blinds.

RB: Do you think about growing up in a small town in upstate New York in the 60’s in counterpoint to your travels?

BC: That’s the amazing thing, and it’s sort of part of why I’m back. I feel like I…I was thinking this yesterday, and I almost said this to you when we were driving around. I almost said, “Every kid I see, I feel like saying, ‘Get out of here! Just go away from here for a goodly period of time. Go elsewhere! Cuz there just isn’t enough here for you. Someday there will be more than enough here for you. But you have to bring a big chunk of that back with you. If you just stay here it’s not enough.’”

When I think of it, the stuff I’ve done, the people I’ve worked with, what my work is noted for and who I’m aligned with and where I come from, the odds against that—I think you are going to go a long time before you’re going to find another leftist political satirist of any note at all who hails from a town that is basically a permanent staging area for the Republican convention.

And that’s been a funny thing over the years, ‘cuz those people from my home town would see me on television and say, “Christ, we seen Crimmer on the TV.”

And then they’d lean forward and hear what I’d say and they’d get whiplash. “What’re you a Communist?”

There is the funny and true story about when I was at my high school reunion and some guys pulled me aside and asked me—first off I wouldn’t drink Coors with ’em—”Coors is the One.” So is Nixon. You know that old thing I do. Coors gives lie detector tests to its employees about their sex lives. “Do you masturbate?” “Not in the vat.” That’s all you’ve got to know, Adolph. I wouldn’t drink Coors with ’em. Then I wouldn’t eat meat with them. “You were on the football team, what happened to you?”

The same week I had appeared at the reunion of the surviving Attica inmates. Surviving and released inmates of the Attica Uprising in New York, at the Village Gate…we did a thing for them. A few days later I’m at my high school reunion, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who made both of those soirees. Fortunately, I went to the Attica one first, which mellowed me out for what I was about to deal with in Skaneateles. So anyway, I won’t eat meat, I don’t drink Coors with ’em. Finally, a couple of ’em pull me aside and say, “Crimmer, we gotta ask you a question. We heard when you were over to Boston you dun an AIDS benefit. Now this isn’t true, is it?” (Both laugh, heartily.) And I said, “Yeah, I’ve done dozens of AIDS benefits”… “You’re not a queer are you?”… “I’m whatever threatens you. I’m a Communist with AIDS and I bite.” But these guys are asking me if I’m gay. These are guys who couldn’t get laid in a women’s prison if they came with a truckload of cigarettes.

RB: Are they asking in benign amusement? Wonder? This all kind of friendly banter, isn’t it?

BC: No. they’re giving me a chance to clear my name. Absolutely. “You don’t say that about a man, not Crimmer.”

RB: The odds of someone like you coming from a place like this to do what you do…

BC: Everyone there isn’t like that. There are some all right people, too.

RB: And were they asking you questions?

BC: They don’t even know how to frame the questions. I’m in my hometown, there are so many funny stories since I’ve been there. I was there one time in 1988 to bury a friend of mine and I’m bummed out. I’m in a bar at the Sherwood Inn, which is a nice place. We’re watching a Syracuse basketball game on TV. People are just, “Nigger this and nigger that.” I couldn’t even take it on. First of all they’re all rooting for Syracuse, and there’s a bunch of black kids on the team, you know. That’s where my civil-rights roots come from, rooting for guys like Ernie Davis [Syracuse Heisman Trophy winner] when I was a kid. I met Ernie up at Syracuse. That inoculated me against all the racism that was rampant. I, in the pure heart of a child, thought it would be bad luck to think these hateful things about someone and then root for them the next minute because I wanted to be lucky. That’s all. That’s where it came from, it’s almost stupid on a certain level. But on another level it’s a very beautiful thing and really speaks to what a great thing Jackie Robinson did. That worked! That was a really great thing! That’s what saved me. Jackie Robinson saved me. Ernie Davis saved me. So, I went a cross the street—it being January, they were giving a way those little cheap calendars, for free, at the pharmacy—I went and got a box of ‘em and just handed em out to everyone at the bar, “Here it’s 1988. In case, you hadn’t noticed, 1988. It’s 1988. Oh, you better have two. It’s 1988…”

RB: We were talking about the unlikeliness of some with your point of view coming from here. We visited Mark Twain’s grave site in Elmira, what was the prevailing culture a hundred years ago when Twain lived and worked here?

BC: First off, I think he was with the Buffalo News but then he married Olivia Langdon and her family they’re all from Elmira, and they had the Quarry Farm up there where he spent his summers, and he did a lot writing up there and he loved it. He went on effusively talking about it. But that was, of course, right after the Civil War. During the Civil War this was a hot bed of abolitionism. This was a very progressive area. It was very vibrant, economically. People had jobs with living wages and they did well. The Industrial Revolution was doing okay by upstate New York at that point. But as one of the first places that made that “progress” it was one of the first places where that progress receded from because of the scurrilous nature of modern day capitalism—maybe capitalism is always scurrilous?—I suppose it is. Workers up here got organized sooner than most other places, so they got abandoned sooner. Before they [industry/capital] headed south and then further south…

RB: It was also a hotbed of feminism. What was it called then?

BC: Suffragettes, yeah up in Seneca Falls. Syracuse had a lot of abolitionist stuff. There was a riot there, to free a slave who had been captured in Syracuse. The underground railroad passed through my hometown and the house I grew up in was built in the 1830’s and had secret trap doors in it and stuff. I don’t know if it’s been established, but yeah, there were secret passageways in my house…

RB: So tell me, have you thought of this? An area represents certain social/political values…

BC: Right.

RB: …and then it changes. It seems as if those values should…

BC: This place has mirrored the Republican Party. It used to be the progressive party. Actually, Jim Jeffords mentioned it was the party of Lincoln the other day. I don’t think many of those other people think about that often or if they do they stay with it anyway. They stay with the Republicans anyway.

RB: Here’s one take on it. I have been observing for quite some time that most Americans are ahistorical. ‘Lincoln’ is just a name on a paper bill. The ‘Founding Fathers’ just words…

BC: Yeah, of course. And in fact they don’t know the real history. That’s where someone like Howard Zinn comes in so handy.

RB: Americans don’t even know the faux history…or the pop history.

BC: Well, what they know about the Civil War is what they saw in that horrible movie Gone With The Wind. “Oh, we’ll help ya, massa. Fight them Yankees….get them Yankees outta here. We don’ wanna be free” (Laughs) Right. Yeah. Right. That explains Nat Turner.


Barry and Lloyd Photo Copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum

RB: In Walter Wetherell’s book, Morning, he writes, “Television has no history. It’s all immediate.” If you have people who, growing up, have been informed mostly by the TV, I think their ability to look into the past is challenged.

BC: Right. Without corny and manipulative music involving harmonicas …which aren’t really harmonicas now, the sounds are produced by software now. How can you expect people who can’t stay in the present to have the patience to deal with the past at all and to want to know anything about it? At this point—at least from what the media tells us—we can’t sit and watch a baseball game. We want sixteen other things going on. We got crap running across the screen. We want noisy stuff—every time you put up the score—it’s gotta go “Pshhhewww.” It has to have all these other dimensions to it. You couldn’t possibly just sit there and watch the game. Basically, by the time the game is on—god forbid some bad weather comes through the area—the game ends up on a postage stamp in the corner of the screen. And you’re watching sixteen separate things at once. On some level people are absorbing all of and absorbing none of it, and it keeps everybody distracted and sort of jarred. How are you gonna expect these people to sit down and read history, read a book, that’s not doin’ anything?

Whatever anybody could have said about TV ten years ago, those were the pastoral days of television compared to what they are doin’ now. Now they’re trying to make it look like the Internet. (in deep broadcast announcer voice) “Interactive. We care. About you. And we’re gonna talk to you during this and tell you you’re important and spend our time saying that so we don’t say a goddamn thing about anything that actually matters here because we wanna keep you distracted from the corporate scam that’s going on here. Look an eagle. Flying across the sky where Americans look in the land of our people and a wonderful place [Robert starts laughing]. This land of America. By the way, we just have this score…” During the Super Bowl, when I looked, they were showing who was finishing 19th in the Phoenix Open. The ball is in play, in the Super Bowl, and they are showing me who finished 19th in a golf tournament, at that point. They just won’t leave you alone. They won’t let you sit still…[Dogs interrupt, barking]…That’s what I like about the country.

RB: You’ve written for television.

BC: Oh yeah, for a little while. But I just basically wrote what I write. I would chime in a little bit on some of the other things, but mostly I wrote jokes for the monologue for the Dennis Miller Show. The old one, the syndicated one.

RB: Who was the genius at Miller’s show who wanted you?

BC: Kevin Rooney. Who is a genius, who really had a lot to do with establishing Jay Leno and then Miller. Rooney is one of the funniest stand-ups I ever saw. Consistently too smart for the room. But still, so smart, he could overcome it. Just one of the funniest people ever. And he was very helpful. And Miller wanted me, too. They started the show, I wrote some stuff for them from afar, and after the first week they were on the air they said, “Come on out here.” And so I went out and I did it. It was an—interesting—experience. That was when the Carson Show was in its last year. And then the Leno Show was in its first year. It was almost impossible to get decent guests on that show. We’d write a hip monologue and the first guest would be the swimsuit model from Sports Illustrated. That would contradict the pro-feminist jokes we just did.

RB: Why wasn’t that a great guest? By the producer’s standards…

BC: Right, right, right. Ten days into the thing—when I first got there I said that I didn’t want to go to meetings—ten days into it, I wasn’t allowed to go to meetings anymore.

RB: You wrote what you wrote…

BC: Well, I had to tool it a bit for him, but basically…

RB: I took what you meant that you didn’t write for the medium, for ‘television’. You didn’t concern yourself with how people saw it or heard it…

BC: I think about how people see or hear anything that I write in that sense. But no more or less, really. I probably learned a few tricks. With Dennis if you could smuggle a pop-cultural reference or two in you could smuggle in more content. They might not realize that until the calls came in that night. (both laugh)


RB: Is it safe to say that—I won’t ask for specificity—in general, that it’s possible that the deliverers of the jokes are not fully aware of the ramifications of the material?

BC: That could happen, on occasion. Dennis is a smart guy. In many ways. Like a lot of smart people he often gives you cause to wonder WHAT THE HELL HE’S THINKING. I left after a while because I just didn’t want to be out there. And they take it personally. I kept writing for the show until it ended. It was just one of these rules, “Oh you have to be on this lot everyday to do these things.” And I would do the same things I could do at my house at the show. I wasn’t allowed to go to meetings and…

RB: I don’t get that part. You had to be out on the West Coast…to do the promotional tour?

BC: No, just to be tortured. “Sit here, you must come here everyday.” I hated it. I hated having to be somewhere everyday where there’s these people and this vibe, and clearly after a point it was becoming a death march.

RB: You were out on the West Coast…

BC: For a little while…

RB: When you weren’t actively working on the show, what did you do? Besides surfing…

BC: Yeah, right, besides the surfing. I went to book stores and I hung with the few radicals. I have a lot of friends in L.A. between performers and writers and musicians. I tried to forget I was there and basically attempted to manage a crumbling personal life on the East Coast. It crumbled completely and has now been rebuilt in a new location.

RB: Were you tempted to pursue other writing opportunities in broadcast or film while you were there?

BC: I’m really a failure or I’m really hip to something. I’d like to think that I’m somewhat hip to something. And that is I just never expected the corporate powers that be to allow me to stand on their soapbox and tell everyone that their soap is polluting the river. Basically, that’s what I end up doing. I end up in trouble. I’m almost untouchable with those people out there. I can’t work with them for long ‘cuz there’s just such…lying is just so deeply ingrained…being phoney and showing false concern about and whatever, and I have an honest face and I’m easily bored and I just didn’t click. But I still think that if they wanted to do something good they could produce one—gimme one HBO special—and it’ll get good reviews and be a real nice piece of work. There are some people out there that are hip enough to do it. These people know how to insinuate themselves in situations where they can get some stuff done. And there’s a lot of good people who have gotten a lot of good stuff done.

My problem has always been that I am just too head-on. I’m too literal. I’m a non-fiction comic. I’m odd because I’m non-fiction and yet I’m sort of jazzy because I experiment with themes and riff a lot. But still it’s basically non-fiction and it’s head-on and you know where I’m coming from. And I’ll say, “Yeah, I’m a leftist.” And everyone is scared they’d getting the label ‘Hollywood Liberal’. I’m pretty sure Joseph McCarthy did his job. Even though they make a nice movie every ten years about Edward R. Murrow saving the world, he didn’t save that world. You still get red-baited in Hollywood. I get baited and get baited a whole bunch of other ways. I take shots at stuff that other people…well, others will sometimes…but I take ’em maybe at more subjects. I almost did the Tonight Show. The guy liked me but he goes, “We need to know a little more about you…Where you from? Bup bup ba.” And needless to say I didn’t do the Tonight Show. I probably should have. What it came down to back then—was Nicaragua. I wanted to talk Nicaragua and what was going on in Central America…

RB: Please, let me stop you. There is an irony in your reference to red-baiting in Hollywood given the frequent attacks on Hollywood as a spawning ground of leftism…

BC: As it makes another action movie about killing Arab terrorists, yeah…

(Big noisy truck rumbles by…)

BC: (semi-shouts) Nice to be out here in the country…That’s a milk truck though.

RB: Barbara Streisand and Alec Baldwin…

BC: By the way, that sort of element is terrified of me because I dump on their crap, too. I’m no limousine liberal.

RB: That’s “SUV liberal” today…

BC: SUV limo liberal. I suspend my beliefs concerning the death penalty if you are driving one of those things. At least they do something with their money, at times. And they help a bit. There’s definitely a line that’s drawn and they’re selectively morally indignant. If they had thorough moral indignation, I think they might live a little differently than they do. You don’t need as much stuff. That’s part of the thing with Hollywood. Once you are out there, you gotta live there and once you got to live there, you gotta spend a lot of money, and that’s how they get ya. And that’s how they whore ya up. You just gotta keep makin’ that nut. And, you know, the nut is ridiculous. It’s just a ridiculous amount of money…compared to what it costs to live here. So I can live here and be somewhere nice and leave whatever kinda trail I’m gonna leave. Or I could go out there and write—whatever. You name it. “…He writes the interstitial material on a reality show. And makes enough money to live in a little house in Hollywood Hills. Or the Valley, probably.” I know people out there and the amount of money they have to spend to live is just ridiculous. So here comes the game shows.

RB: That reminds me of a cover story of New York Magazine in the mid eighties, “Going Broke on A $120,000 a Year.” What’s the poverty threshold in this country?

BC: Yeah, right, and it’s way higher than that in L.A., obviously. You need two of those incomes to live there, shabbily.

RB: I once asked a writer who lives in Vermont why she didn’t live in Manhattan. She quickly made the connection between money and murder. She said, “She’d have to kill too many people.” She bypassed quite a few propositions on the causal chain to get to that conclusion.

BC: Right. [To the dogs] You boys all need to lie down. We’re over run with dogs, birds and frogs…In L.A., they got ya on a really nice treadmill.

RB: That mirrors the rest of what you are talking about.

BC: That’s the thing with everything. People get so paranoid about the media. Basically you are dealing with a bunch of people that, whatever way, they end up being these corporate drones, who are scared to death that they are going to lose their health insurance. That’s the bottom line. Everyone’s worried about keeping some sort of gig with some sorts of benefits. When people talk about “the press is this and the press is that”—I’ve got a lot of friends that work at daily newspapers around the country. All have, slowly but surely, been bought up by the same three or four concerns. They are all dealing with the same struggle that’s been blueprinted at the home office somewhere. Here’s how you screw over these workers, here’s how you threaten them, here’s how you undermine them. And it works.

I don’t know what’s going on now, but a couple of years ago at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, they weren’t even letting those people leave the building…without a really good excuse. It was like a detention hall. You wonder why your newspaper sucks, your reporters aren’t out on the street anymore because you won’t let them go on the street. They used to have reporters on the street because there used to be competition. It’s funny about these capitalists. They’ve gotten to the point where there’s no competition anymore and that’s exactly what they want. Their professed love for capitalism was a bunch of huey. They’re into competition as much as Stalin was. They wipe out and absorb everything.

RB: Sadly, they don’t see it that way. The CEO or the senior manager’s mandate is not to screw the workers or to oppress. Their mandate is to do little things that they rarely connect to the dire consequences that are visited upon their employees.

BC: Not in the front of his head.

RB: If you told a corporate manager he was imperiling lives, he would respond that he was giving jobs…

BC: There are some that would chuckle. There are a lot that need to delude themselves and are good at it. That delusion works. It’s the same thing everywhere…we’re getting told how great the economy has been, but I don’t know how good the economy is for real working people in this country. Or how good it’s been for years. I think it’s been crappy. Real wages have gone down, benefits have lessened. Workplace safety is deteriorating. They’re working longer, for less money. Oh yeah.

RB: Wow, a hummingbird.

BC: Yeah, they like those purple flowers. (A dog barks persistently in the distance.) That’s what ignorance can breed—mean Golden Retrievers. That’s what’s across the road. It takes really dumb people to make a Golden Retriever mean and they’ve done it. Those are the same people that set up a trampoline at an angle on a hillside, “Hey! This don’t work. Ow!”

RB: You’ve benefited. You are able to do know what you’ve had in mind for a while. Which is to come to a slightly isolated part of the country—in a specific sense of the word ‘isolation’—and be in constant contact with the immense informational pool that you need and desire. The phone lines and cable infrastructure and the software wouldn’t be available to you…

BC: It’s a beautiful thing. These greedheads have sold us so much crap that we didn’t need, that eventually they got around to selling us a few things we can use. And it’s blowing up in their faces. That’s the good part of the Internet.—Al Giordano’s Narco News.com—him going down to Central and South America and covering the drug war for real, what it’s really about, and then putting it on the Internet everyday. And they can’t do a goddamn thing about it. They try but they’re gonna fail. All they’re gonna do is publicize it.


Barry in Color Photo Copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum

RB: Perhaps he was poisoned by a Black Widow planted by some agent of the Mexican newspapers?

BC: He’s okay. No, the Mexican newspapers are actually with him. It’s the Mexican banks that don’t like him. Mexican newspapers are much hipper than American papers…We can record and transmit history—People’s History like Howard Zinn taught us about—in a way that we never could before. At least for now that genie is out of the bottle. And it does do wonderful stuff. I can sit here and be in better contact, get more information sitting here way out in the country than I ever used to be able to get sitting in Boston, ten or fifteen years ago. I’m going to use that. That’s fun. I literally have a nerve center way out here in the middle of nothing. A lot of other people can do that too.

RB: The paradox of our culture and way of life is that all kinds of information has always been available to us.

BC: Up until now it was much more managed, it had to go through a funnel a lot more than it does now. It turns out we didn’t need the citizen band radio, we didn’t need whatever…a lot of the other crap. We didn’t need that, but computer and digital technology is pretty good because we can take this audio and play it on the Internet. And it’s there and if somebody wants it they can go back and look at it. Somebody wants to know what this nut was all about—either Birnbaum or Crimmins—they can go back and find this, at some point. Should I be thankful to the big corporations for this?

RB: What is our responsibility to pay attention, to seek out information, to understand the world. Is it okay to say, “Well, huge forces brainwashed our culture”?

BC: There have always been people that have sought out the real information and corrected the record. We’ll always need to continue to do that. That will be more participation in that on an immediate basis now because of these advances in technology. We shouldn’t run away from them and we shouldn’t use fascist terms like ‘computer illiterate.’ A very interesting thing has happened over the past few years, with Columbine High School and Bill Gates and all these other things. We’ve learned that—we’ve had a myth destroyed for us—that myth is The Nobility of the Dork. It turns out that the dork—given an opportunity—will be just as much as a fascist as anybody else. Or certainly has the propensity, just like anyone else.

Sure, there are wonderful dorks and cruddy dorks. The good dorks are at Apple. You can just use your computer like you use your brain rather than have to ship your brain to Seattle every five minutes for clearance like Bill Gates makes you do. Then they come up with the term ‘computer illiterate.’ You know what that term really means? [in a whiney nasal voice] “Guess you gotta talk to me now. You would never talk to me in high school, but you gotta talk to me now, doncha. Hah, hah. You gotta talk to me now. Oh suddenly you want to talk to me. You’re talking to me now aren’t ya? Why? Yeah, Because I’m computer literate and you’re illiterate aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not illiterate, I just want to use this keyboard and type this crap…” When I use the Mac, I’m on the side of my brain I use to be creative and I can stay there. When I use those other things it’s like trying to repair a carburetor and write a poem at the same time. The two are in conflict with one another.

RB: Windows seem to be the long way around.

BC: It’s just like a fake Apple system on top of DOS. And DOS in Spanish is, “number two” (both laugh). I can get through and play it to a tie but why bother? I feel so bad when someone says to me, “I don’t have a computer, I’m computer illiterate.” Sort of hat-in-hand. Do you say you are car illiterate because you can’t take your manifold apart and fix it?

Years ago, my car, something happens and it’s steaming and I bring it in. And the guy goes, “Well, it’s gonna need a gasket.”

And I’m going, (raises voice) “Oh great, take my whole wallet. A gasket. Go ahead, take it! Gasket! I was gonna ago on vacation this year but I need a gasket. How much is that?”

“Eighty cents.”

“Get one for everybody!”

Am I car illiterate? Are you microwave-oven illiterate because you can’t repair that when it doesn’t work? It’s just ridiculous that you are supposed to be this technician with something that has too many moving parts that can get screwed up and conflict with one another. They can make them better. It’s just too bad Apple blew their marketing and made a lot of terrible decisions. They’re responsible in this thing, too. Their stuff works and makes sense. I can call a file what I call it. I write something, “Bush Sucks,” to me, that’s my little note. Hopefully what I wrote is more clever than that, but to me I know, “Oh that’s the ‘Bush Sucks’ essay.” Actually, I put in one the other day and found out there was already one from 1991, but that’s a different story. I never call anything ‘Doc.’ Except, if I’m sick. It’s too bad. though. It’s sort of like AOL. Inertia. People get that kind of computer, they stick with it. They’re on AOL, they stay there. You know how that goes…

RB: (Both laugh) Is this the part of the program where I foreswear AOL. “Okay, I’m giving it up, soon.”

BC: Good, good. Satan.com. See that yellow thing there. That’s called (fake announcer’s voice) The Sun.

RB: I’ve been reading David Hadju’s book about the Fariñas and Dylan and Baez. Which has a lot to do with creative relationships and relationships between creative people. Here you and I are roughly contemporaries of those people…

BC: Well, you do what you do. If you sit around. I don’t know, I never…

RB: Well, they were really influential people and the most fascinating [to me] character was killed in a motorcycle accident on his wife’s 21st birthday. What could he have been?

BC: I think. What do I think? Hmm. You can’t become overwhelmed with whatever the contemporary results of your art are, the obvious manifestations of your art. I think everyone you mentioned is a wonderful artist and has done great stuff, and as it happens their stuff has clicked and they’ve been able to have a good audience for what they’ve done and that’s wonderful. If you look at the history of all sorts of art and literature you find a lot of people who put things down and recorded things, painted things that they just did because they were obliged to do so. And not even in their entire lifetimes did they realize that they would have this profound effect upon people for generations after they were gone. Art in some ways has to be an act of faith and an act of responsibility and you don’t know when what you do is going to kick in or if it’s going to kick in. Maybe, it isn’t supposed to be all about that. I think all we can do is leave some sort of a trail. That’s where the technological stuff comes in handy, we can leave much better trails with that and maybe it’s for someone else to sort out. Who knows, maybe all your photos that you’ve taken, that’s an unbelievable piece of history, that stuff is there and it’s tangible…who knows what will come of it.

RB: I don’t.

BC: We are conditioned to think we suck because we are not completely celebrated everyday. I just celebrate because I don’t have to go to work at NormoCorp everyday. I’m sitting out here in the early morning with the sun, with the birds singin’, and the dogs lying here, talkin’ with you, about whatever we want to talk about. We already won. We already won. They didn’t get me. I’m not worried about dealing with some nitwit middle manager all day who’s makin’ me feel stressed out and screwin’ up my life. I’m sittin’ here. I have to fly to New Mexico tomorrow to talk about why the drug war is stupid. That’s all I gotta do.

RB: I think when you mount your final show, that the big production number ought to be that Sinatra tune, “My Way.”

BC: I was thinkin’ more of a Gordon McCrae song, (sings) “This is my country, land that I love…”—which I was singin’ the other day when Jeffords aced Bush. Being a good son of Vermont, Senator Jeffords knows when the sap is running and when to run from the sap. Right now my life is in inverse proportion to most people’s in one way. Professionally, something as dark and looming as the Bush administration come along, again. Everybody’s feeling pretty gloomy—everybody, being people that might be of like mind and heart—but for me it’s oddly invigorating. This re-energizes my audience, people want to hear from me now. It provides me with the opportunity to rail against stuff I enjoy railing against. It’s the ultimate mixed blessing. I would much rather remain in the background and not have something this terrible happen. It’s fun. It’s like being a hitter in baseball and you’re hot, you see everything, the rotation on the ball. I see the rotation on everything that these clowns throw at us. I could hit the hell out of the ball, before. I could hit this guy’s father and he was a better pitcher. Maybe the most optimistic thing you can say about it is: It will give us another chance to galvanize progressives and progressive thought and enlarge the progressive community. If we are going to do that, we have to repair a lot of stuff that’s wrong with progressives in the first place. A lot of that is just they’re no fun.

RB: An Oscar Wilde anecdote comes to mind. He was asked why he wasn’t a socialist and responded, “I prefer to keep my evenings free.”

BC: Whether it’s the Dennis Miller Show or politics—meetings, that’s the problem with the left. Meetings are group therapy for a couple of dominant malcontents. Whoever the Type A misfits are. “I have a few things I’d like to share before we get on with discussing that BABIES ARE BEING BOMBED OVER THERE. A few personal issues first.” The first thing I do when I go to one of those meetings is say, “The first thing I want is consensus on consensus. Unless everyone agrees to there being consensus we don’t have consensus. Okay. That’s not what we’re gonna use.” That screws ‘em all up. So please, everybody remember that ploy. Consensus. Why don’t you just call it what it is. Paralysis. We have to make it seem fun and attractive to be progressives. We have to welcome converts. We have not to treat people in a condescending manner when they show up and seem interested. Not, “You don’t know about this. You don’t know about that.” There are so many people that are so cutting and negative and cruel to people who come in. “I just wanted to help. But now that I realize that was scum for not being here three years ago like you, I guess I’ll leave,” And we’re back down to havin’ nobody. There’s a lot of people in the Movement. Or the Stagnant or whatever you want to call it that are happy. They know how to fail. They’re good a failure and so they’re scared of succeeding. They would rather spend their whole life fightin’ over little chunks of turf than lift up their heads and see that the whole world is there to gain.

RB: Isn’t part of the pathology of a progressive that they have to be self-critical, sometimes self-hating and certainly contentious. Consequently social skills seem to suffer…

BC: You can be skeptical without being self-loathing. You have something there because you end up discussing all the time how much people hate themselves. That has be sorted and gotten over to realize they’re okay and were just some nice kid who got betrayed in one way…

To be continued.




All fotos by Robert Birnbaum / Duende Publishing.



Its Not Only Rock and Roll…And I Like It

24 Jan





Music has been an important part of my life from an early age—first Afro Cuban music (Dizzy Gillespie), then Chicago soul (Curtis Mayfield) and then the ecstatic boundary busting psychedelic era which opened my tastes to include everything except European polka music (except for the Schmengy brothers). Nonetheless, I have never been much interested in reading about music or musicians, even the ones that became part of my musical diet. Partly that was due to what I viewed as the less than stellar biographical offerings. That changed with writers such as Nick Tosches, Peter Guralinick *and David Hadju.**




Hadju’s bio Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn  (profiled closest Duke Ellington’s collaborator. Among Strayhorn’s credits is  the non-pareil ballad ,Lush Life,  which he wrote at the age of 19)



and Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick



were both vivid accounts of very original musicians and to some degree (more so with Guralnick) ethnographic studies that made sense of the cultural terrain that spawned their talented subjects.


Back when notes of patchouli and cannabis wafted through the hip universe and tye-die t shirts and bell bottom jeans were the uniform of the day and a regnant slogan was “ Don’t trust anyone over 30” and music was available on 8 track cassettes (the worst format ever), thought s od the future were relegated to speculative fiction . Since then the Walkman, the iPod , Spotify have delivered a future that is a music lovers paradise.


Three recent biographies of  musicians—Stephen Stills, Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed, unpack careers that spanned the years from the roiling 60’s to our fin de siecle era (Reed died in 2013). Had they just been remembered  for the iconic For What its Worth (Stills), Woodstock, (Mitchell)  and Walk on the Wild Side (Reed) they would still belong in the pantheon of great songwriters . But of course these American (and Canadian) originals contributed so much more as these profile…


Stephen Stills Change Partners: The Definitive Biography by David Roberts


Stephen Stills is one of the last remaining music legends from the rock era without a biography. During his six-decade career, he has played with all the greats. His career sky-rocketed when Crosby, Stills & Nash played only their second gig together at Woodstock in 1969. With the addition of Neil Young, the band would go on to play the first rock stadium tour in 1974. From Lorrie Moore’s piece on Stills:

…Stills is one of the last remaining rock-and-roll geniuses from a time when rock music was the soundtrack to an antiwar movement—“For What It’s Worth,” “Woodstock,” “Ohio” (about the 1970 Kent State shootings)—back when the global counterculture was on the left rather than the right. Roberts’s book makes this inexactly clear. Stills has been on the scene from the start, forming Buffalo Springfield when Jimi Hendrix was being booked as the opening act for the Monkees on tour. He has seemingly played with everyone—from Bill Withers to George Harrison. He was the first person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice in one night, for his work in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash. “What a wonderfully strange and beautiful cast of characters life has handed to me,” he said in his acceptance speech.



Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe





From the Publisher

Joni Mitchell may be the most influential female recording artist and composer of the late twentieth century. In Reckless Daughter, the music critic David Yaffe tells the remarkable, heart-wrenching story of how the blond girl with the guitar became a superstar of folk music in the 1960s, a key figure in the Laurel Canyon music scene of the 1970s, and the songwriter who spoke resonantly to, and for, audiences across the country.
A Canadian prairie girl, a free-spirited artist, Mitchell never wanted to be a pop star. She was nothing more than “a painter derailed by circumstances,” she would explain. And yet, she went on to become a talented self-taught musician and a brilliant bandleader, releasing album after album, each distinctly experimental, challenging, and revealing. Her lyrics captivated listeners with their perceptive language and naked emotion, born out of Mitchell’s life, loves, complaints, and prophecies. As an artist whose work deftly balances narrative and musical complexity, she has been admired by such legendary lyricists as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and beloved by such groundbreaking jazz musicians as Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock. Her hits―from “Big Yellow Taxi” to “Both Sides, Now” to “A Case of You”―endure as timeless favorites, and her influence on the generations of singer-songwriters who would follow her, from her devoted fan Prince to Björk, is undeniable.
In this intimate biography, drawing on dozens of unprecedented in-person interviews with Mitchell, her childhood friends, and a cast of famous characters, Yaffe reveals the backstory behind the famous songs―from Mitchell’s youth in Canada, her bout with polio at age nine, and her early marriage and the child she gave up for adoption, through the love affairs that inspired masterpieces, and up to the present―and shows us why Mitchell has so enthralled her listeners, her lovers, and her friends. Reckless Daughter is the story of an artist and an era that have left an indelible mark on American music.

In what Francine Prose calls a “protective biography , she opines


Uncritical admiration can make “Reckless Daughter” seem like a 400-page fan letter, though one certainly prefers Yaffe’s approach to that of biographers who despise their subjects. Championing Mitchell, right or wrong, and trying to stay on her good side is not exactly the same as taking her seriously as a composer and performer. Ultimately, it hardly matters. The person who wrote and sang “Blue,” “Court and Spark” and “Hejira” doesn’t need protection from readers who, decades after those albums appeared, remember Mitchell’s songs. Anthems not only of restlessness and heartbreak but also of intelligence, insight and courage, they are tributes to the power of music to imprint itself indelibly on the consciousness of its listeners.


Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis



From the publisher

As lead singer and songwriter for the Velvet Underground and a renowned solo artist, Lou Reed invented alternative rock. His music, at once a source of transcendent beauty and coruscating noise, violated all definitions of genre while speaking to millions of fans and inspiring generations of musicians.

But while his iconic status may be fixed, the man himself was anything but. Lou Reed’s life was a transformer’s odyssey. Eternally restless and endlessly hungry for new experiences, Reed reinvented his persona, his sound, even his sexuality time and again. A man of contradictions and extremes, he was fiercely independent yet afraid of being alone, artistically fearless yet deeply paranoid, eager for commercial success yet disdainful of his own triumphs. Channeling his jagged energy and literary sensibility into classic songs – like “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Sweet Jane” – and radically experimental albums alike, Reed remained desperately true to his artistic vision, wherever it led him.

Now, just a few years after Reed’s death, Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis, who knew Close Reed and interviewed him extensively, tells the provocative story of his complex and chameleonic life. With unparalleled access to dozens of Reed’s friends, family, and collaborators, DeCurtis tracks Reed’s five-decade career through the accounts of those who knew him and through Reed’s most revealing testimony, his music. We travel deep into his defiantly subterranean world, enter the studio as the Velvet Underground record their groundbreaking work, and revel in Reed’s relationships with such legendary figures as Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and Laurie Anderson. Gritty, intimate, and unflinching, Lou Reed is an illuminating tribute to one of the most incendiary artists of our time.


David Yaffe spotlights what he describers as Reed’s “cantankerous” nature

The songs of Lou Reed are a manual of sorts for how to keep living after you have let yourself and everyone else down, or after the world has done that for you. Reed doesn’t judge anyone for shooting heroin or defying societal norms, or for making sweet, gentle love to someone right before they OD. His songs are not sentimental about death, and they never, ever try to make you like the person who is singing them. He was more lacking in guile than most in rock and roll and he was notoriously cantankerous. When he had a liver transplant a few months before his death, The Onion ran a satirical piece

“It’s really hard to get along with Lou—one minute he’s your best friend and the next he’s outright abusive,” said the vital organ, describing its ongoing collaboration with the former Velvet Underground frontman as “strained at best.” “He just has this way of making you feel completely inadequate. I can tell he doesn’t respect me at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s already thinking about replacing me.” The joke worked because it was so true: anyone who got close to Lou—bandmates, lovers, archivists—invariably had such an experience after a while.

Along with with access to all the world’s music  digitalization has fractured the categories of music and has reduced artistic name recognition to near anonymity. Whether 50 years hence we will celebrate musical giants like Mitchell, Stills and Reed, of course remanis to be seen…



Mavis at 70 plus years is still  performing. Warren Zevon passed a few years ago and his wife put together a very original collection of testiments by people who knew Warren . Mingus was/is a giant who should occupy  the Amerian musical pantheon with Duke Ellington George Gershwin. Charlie “Bird ” Parker ‘s life is the template for tragic lives of the creative originals The books below are excellent examples of the shift from hagiography to ethnography.









Garth Hallberg: Author on Fire

17 Feb


Garth Risk Hallberg’s auspicious debut novel, City on Fire in spite of its heft (or perhaps because of it) was  the  it novel, buzz tome of  the end of 2015. Its sprawling multi-character narrative set in New York City in the singular bicentennial year of 1976 elicited effusive commentary and comparisons  to major literary works from all quarters of the marginal community that attends to literary fiction. After enjoyably immersing myself in Hallberg’s story ( which very much resembled  the au currant activity of video bingeing) I arranged to meet the author for a conversation about his opus and the life he had led that brought him to the writing of it.

So, on a pleasant early Winter afternoon in Cambridge ,we sat and chatted about Hallberg’s life, his childhood in small town North Carolina, his pathway to a life of writing,the power of New York City and the herky-jerky chronology attached to completing his 900 page novel. We also talked about Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments, Rushdie’s fatwa, Lou Reed, casting the movie adaptation of City on Fire and his parenting of his two young children.




City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

City on Fire by   Garth Risk Hallberg



Robert Birnbaum: Okay, I’ve got to ask.

Garth Hallberg: The middle name?

Robert Birnbaum: Yes.

Garth Hallberg: I think the first short story I ever published was without the middle name, and I got an email from my sister. I think this was 2003 and she wrote, “Do you know about the other Garth Hallberg? Garth R.Hallberg.”Everyone has this doppelganger and mine also happens to also have written books and we share a middle initial. My middle name is Risk which is a division of the name Buchanan in Scotland. My grandmother was a Risk, her father was a Risk. My sister and I and my kids, we recycle the dead maiden names in the family and keep them alive as middle names.

Robert Birnbaum: What were you thinking when you published a nearly thousand-page book.

Garth Hallberg: What was I thinking when I wrote a 900-page novel? Very little thought went into publishing a 900-page novel.

Robert Birnbaum: At what length was it submitted?

Garth Hallberg: The same length it is now.

Robert Birnbaum:  What was the length of the first draft?

Garth Hallberg: The first draft—I think I cut it down. It’s hard to know because I wrote it longhand. I think that the first draft was probably—it’s easier to think about in words, the first draft was probably something like 420,000 words and now it’s 330,000 words or thereabouts.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s about 25% less.

Garth Hallberg: I think I cut 90,000 out of 400,000. One of the early things that I remember learning or adjusting to about this project in particular is I just wanted to put everything on the page and then cut back. Someone, I don’t remember who had said to me at some point, a talking shop kind of thing—” Oh it’s always better to put it on the page and throw it away than to finish a project and realize you still need to come up with the 50% of it that’s missing.”

Robert Birnbaum: Some writers also suggest that as just a more fluid way of writing.

Garth Hallberg:  I used to teach elementary school and when we did brainstorming with the kids, we did it in a technical way. We were like, you’ve got to separate out the generating and the evaluating part. That’s artificial when you’re talking about writing because you’re always evaluating and listening on some level,but I liked the idea of saying yes to things before I said no. There’s a lot of stuff in there that I care about and it’s exciting to me as a reader that, if my primary consideration in moving the pencil across the page was”Should I say no to this?, should I say no to this?  should I say no to this?”,[ some things ]never would have eventuated

Robert Birnbaum:  Is it a non-creative decision to consider the length of your narrative, considering the length of your story? Is it important to consider that as writer?

Garth Hallberg: Consideration makes it sound very deliberative. And this may be mystical of me but I tend to think the projects sort of tell you what they want. In many cases for me, they tell me  early on. I can’t say that I’m one of those people who has ever had a short story that got out of hand and turned into a novel or vice versa. It may be partly just how I think. I tend to have some …almost like a mild geometric synesthesia or something where I tend to see—even when I’m reading someone else’s work, I tend to see it as a 3D cityscape or almost like a landscape or something. I don’t know, you just kind of know. I feel like you just know the size of the map. Very much kind of baked into the initial inspiration was that this has the scope of Bleak House, has all of these characters.

Robert Birnbaum: So in  simple terms, it’s long. It’s big. It’s a big story. What did you start with, ten characters? A period in time that you thought you could embellish or explain by X number of characters?

Garth Hallberg: I started with a singularity in which: all of those things. There were eight characters (but eventually a couple of them turned out to be more than one character kind of fused together), and several of the major plot elements, and the milieu and the settings and scenes and specific images that I knew were in there and the time and the music and the imagery and the vibe and a lot of the architecture arrived fused, in the space of about 45 seconds.

Robert Birnbaum: How old were you in 1976?

Garth Hallberg: I was negative two. I was pre-human.

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs) When do you think you became conscious of things around you —when you were seven, eight, nine?

Garth Hallberg: This is interesting to me. My kids are three and five. I have carried through my entire life the assumption… I remember saying to my wife, now he’s two or three, we’re on the record now, essentially. I assume that people — it reminds of a great kids book set here in Boston, Lois Lowry’s All About Sam. It’s for kids but it shares some weird affinities with [James]Joyce. (The neighbor’s name in [the book] is Gertrude Stein}. She writes about the kids coming to consciousness just like Joyce does. It seems in her rendering to be happening when he’s two or three. I just assumed that’s how it was and maybe that is how it is but I recently read something in the newspaper—which you can’t trust but it was like—most people’s memories start closer to five or six. I do remember Live Aid. Live Aid was ’84, ’83, ’82?

Robert Birnbaum: 1985—Bob Geldoff’s charity cause. [1]

Garth Hallberg: I remember the vibe of the first Reagan administration. I have no memory, no specifically Carter -era memories.

Robert Birnbaum: How much did the Bicentennial year resonate  for people?

Garth Hallberg: I think the whole thing of the ’70s ,which it’s really impossible for me to think about the feeling of the ’70s without  attaching them to my understanding of what was going on in the ’60s. The reverberations of that, I think were very, very long. Now you look back and you can see the Reagan era as its own discrete historical thing. What I remember from my parents and people in the neighborhood, most of them were Reagan voters (though some of them were not.)


Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: Where did you grow up?

Garth Hallberg: In a little town in eastern North Carolina called Greenville.

Robert Birnbaum: You don’t have an accent at all.

Garth Hallberg: I’ve somehow scrubbed it. My Dad is from Ohio.

Robert Birnbaum: He has a southern accent?

Garth Hallberg: No, no. He had a kind of placeless —like David Letterman is from Indiana, but that  accent they train broadcasters to have, the middle American thing which sounds like what we register as accentless. My mother is from New Orleans and she has a certain New Orleans accent. My sister has an accent.

Robert Birnbaum: Actually, my recollection of people I know from North Carolina, it’s certainly a mild drawl.

Garth Hallberg: Not where I grew up.

Robert Birnbaum: Where was Greenville, eastern or western Carolina?

Garth Hallberg: Eastern. (imitates a radio commercial in an unmild drawl)”Here at Riverside Chrysler-Plymouth Dodge, we will make buying a new or used car, truck, or van so eee-zy.”

Robert Birnbaum: Did you like living in Greenville?

Garth Hallberg: That’s an interesting question.(long pause)

Robert Birnbaum: You don’t know?

Garth Hallberg: No.  You can have a relationship and it’s a good relationship and it breaks up—some people want to be friends afterwards. I’m not one of those people ,so it may have a lot to do with me. I can say about the town that, especially in the early 80’s, that the emphasis was on traditional rhythms of life and on living by tradition. I don’t necessarily mean antebellum tradition but  like Eisenhower era tradition.

Robert Birnbaum: Family, local organization and community participation?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah, some of that. When I go around now … it’s like I was down in New Orleans and I had forgotten that everything is closed on a Sunday. Places are open for brunch but it’s like the seventh day. That has its appeal. Nothing closes in New York,ever

Robert Birnbaum: A seventh day has its appeal.

Garth Hallberg: I don’t fully understand why and I assume the blame and responsibility for myself but I felt very much like a fish out of water, starting at about five or six,  pretty early. There was something about— I stuck out in certain ways that I couldn’t control.

Robert Birnbaum: Were you physically different? Were you taller, shorter, misshappen?

Garth Hallberg: I was tall.

Robert Birnbaum: Gawky, lanky?

Garth Hallberg: I was gawky, I was expressive, which is not … I think I was expressive, I assume I was expressive.

Robert Birnbaum: Could you read by then?

Garth Hallberg: I could, I read a lot. It’s kind of a chicken and egg problem … I loved it so much that the reading really had to be the egg. I loved it.

Robert Birnbaum: How did you come to start … Five is an early age to read—not to know how but to actively read.

Garth Hallberg: I had lied to my babysitter.  She asked me if I could read yet and I said that I could. She said,”Oh yeah?” Because she had been babysitting enough to know. She was a student of my dad’s and she had graduated and she’d come back for a party in the Fall or something. She hadn’t seen me in a few months. She called my bluff and I ran upstairs and I got the Cat In The Hat which was the book that I was into at that point. My memory is that in attempting to demonstrate to her that I could read because I had essentially committed it to memory, I realized that I could. Then it was sort of off to the races at that point.

Robert Birnbaum: You haven’t said this but I’m surmising that because of your interest in reading somehow seems to translate storytelling or imagination or something and expressiveness. That was what set you apart, that you actually maybe had an active inner life for a five and six-year-old.

Garth Hallberg: I don’t know.  I think five and six-year-olds just tend to have an active inner life. One thing I can say from observing my own kids is that there are certain habits, you know rhythms that kids get into, that  encourage that or stoke it. And there are others that seem to diminish it. My five-year-old tends to be the kid who sort of … I’m trying to remember, I heard him say something amazing this morning. He turns to his mother and says,” Let’s play symphony.” And he has a kazoo. He’s sort of naming the scenario, improv all the time. We don’t have that much else for them to do. I haven’t got them signed up for a lot of other stuff, maybe they’re just bored.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m going to assume no video games?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah, there’s no video games.

Robert Birnbaum: Television?

Garth Hallberg: They might watch 45 minutes of TV while I’m cooking dinner at night. They’re two boys so they’ll destroy the house otherwise.

Robert Birnbaum: Are they physically active?

Garth Hallberg: Oh yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Jocks?

Garth Hallberg: My younger one is potentially a jock but they’re sort of nonspecific. Wrestling, climbing, tumbling.

Robert Birnbaum: One is five and one is?

Garth Hallberg: Three.

Robert Birnbaum: Now you have  kids and  you’re, not directly comparing,  but you’re trying to match their experience with your own?

Garth Hallberg: Remember, I taught too so I’m very reluctant … I get really annoyed when I hear people get too— You know, parents get too caught up in deciding whether their kids are smart or not. If you’ve ever taught, I taught second and third grade. In second grade, especially, you see it, because the hive mind hasn’t started to beat it out of anyone—nNo one is holding back at that point, the scrum hasn’t formed itself yet. You realize they are all incredibly smart, but it will manifest itself in certain ways. They cannot all do math. They won’t all read at the same rate but they are all radiantly bright. You can see the kid’s eyes just are mirrors. I look at my son and his classmates and each of these kids has some brilliance in him or her. It’s not a line, I really got that from teaching. I’d sit there at parent/teacher conferences and I would just want to say, “Relax, listen to what your kid is interested in, that’s a signal.”

Robert Birnbaum: That’s so contrary to the current way we go about evaluating kids. The idea that you actually pay attention to the individual and allow them the room to flourish, in whatever way that they flourish. Finally, there’s seems to be a blow back against all this testing, which is what ends up forcing kids into little containers.

Garth Hallberg: I can tell you I stuck out in school in certain ways. I read a lot. Where I grew up where— I guess you would say now jargonistically— that was  not  coded as a particularly masculine thing to do. But it may in fact have been more my inner hippie that I was born as ,which I’m feeding you now, like: Follow the individual and let him or her flourish! I was just born with that. I don’t know where it comes from and that stuck out, probably.

Robert Birnbaum: What were your activities in high school? Were you in the chess club?

Garth Hallberg: I played varsity soccer.

Robert Birnbaum: Did you like it?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah, I liked it fine. It was a good outlet for aggression. I did not take coaching well and I wasn’t particularly good. I started but I wasn’t …

Robert Birnbaum: You were good enough.

Garth Hallberg: I was like the eleventh best person on the field, maybe sometimes the tenth but it wasn’t about that to me. Happily, because if it was I would have been miserable. And I played violin.

Robert Birnbaum: Were there cliques in your high school?

Garth Hallberg: In seventh grade, in sixth grade— that was the year after elementary school, the public middle school, they had re-zoned everything and the whole county as I remember was getting sucked into the middle school… The second year at this middle school there were  1800 kids, sixth and seventh grades only.

Robert Birnbaum: Pretty big.

Garth Hallberg: It was huge. It felt huge. My elementary school had been 400 kids spread over six grades. Elementary school was great. In fact, you’ll love this, I’ve never seen this anywhere else: in the elementary school, I went to— the academic enrichment program— you didn’t test into it, it was volunteer. There was a specific counselor, Ms. Kitchen and all you had to do is go to Ms. Kitchen and say, “I have this project I want to do, here are these other kids that want to do it.” You got to open it up, you could cap it and say, “We have ten spots.” You just needed to find someone, a grownup who would help you with it. It was the most amazing thing. It was not the ridiculous thing that goes on now, this inappropriate testing seven-year-olds and drawing a line saying you made it or you didn’t. It was this really cool thing. So elementary school was pretty good until the first tendrils of puberty crept in. Middle school was an insane experience. I got in a lot of fights. My mother who had been teaching English at a public high school went and got a job at private school, partly I think so we could go to the private school so I wouldn’t have to fight my way through seventh grade. The irony being that if you could make it to the high school, the high school was actually pretty good, the public high school. My graduating class was 55 kids.

Robert Birnbaum: Really? What was the total enrollment of the high school?

Garth Hallberg: Probably 4 times 55.

Robert Birnbaum: Wow and the ratio of teachers to students?

Garth Hallberg: Like 17 to 1, 18 to 1. That’s an important number.

Robert Birnbaum: I know it is. Those days are gone.

Garth Hallberg: You learn that when you teach, too.

.Robert Birnbaum: When was the turn? Where did you take that turn that you thought you wanted to be a writer.

Garth Hallberg: It was just early on, it was just the realization. My dad was a writer for one thing.

Robert Birnbaum: Fiction?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah. And that was very abstract. He taught at the local college.

Robert Birnbaum: Does that mean you never saw him actually sit at a desk? You never actually saw him do the writing.

Garth Hallberg: Right, or rarely. The thing that you see him doing —remembering the boxy Kaypro word processor that folded up to become a suitcase. It was too heavy to carry—  bore very little resemblance to  the finished books. Now with desktop publishing it would be maybe less abstract.  I knew he was a writer but then at some point I realized, Oh, he sends off a box of pages. Maybe it was abstract because he hadn’t published a book at that point but when he did .it was like, oh there is a box of  pages and then the book comes back. This is where these things are made. And they went to New York. That was important. That was big to me. New York is where the books come from.  The books that I wanted to live inside.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re living in Greenville, North Carolina so as a kid, what were your impressions of New York? You would see it on the nightly news…


New York Post front page ,circa 1977

New York Post front page, circa 1977


Garth Hallberg: That was important for that. You’ve got to remember, on TV, it would have been Ed Koch, it would have been Night Court.*

Robert Birnbaum: It would have been the latter Reagan years.

Garth Hallberg: Early Reagan years.

Robert Birnbaum: You were born in ’78?

Garth Hallberg: I guess this is what I’m saying. I have a really specific kind of … This is also very mystical and probably bullshit.

Robert Birnbaum:[laughs] One or the other.

Garth Hallberg: Or both. But I am a believer in—maybe it’s just sort of useful fiction for my job— like a port for all of the senses together. There’s a flavor of the moment and it probably varies from place to place.

Robert Birnbaum: I think it maybe varies for different people. Some people are more attuned to a grouping of elements that for them represents a particular slice of time. For me, I didn’t like the ’70s and the ’70s to me are represented by Saturday Night Fever and people doing cocaine all the time.

Garth Hallberg: But that’s the same ’70s.

Robert Birnbaum: Yes, I know.

Garth Hallberg: That’s the obverse face of the “same spirit of the age.” I’m talking about— just to pluck a couple of dates from memory—to me, the late Clinton period had this very specific flavor…   So, 1999 and then, by contrast, the mood of 1993 was such that you could not project that the mood of 1999 would ever exist…Well, obviously it’s a professional fiction. It is bullshit, it’s mystical, but this idea that what the novel does is find the place where private experience resonates against public experience has something to do with my sense of different times and different flavors. I just remember the early flavors that I remember feeling were like ’82, ’83.

Robert Birnbaum: Why pick ’76-’77 [as a time to write about]? Do you think that  between the ’60s and the end of the century that was a time that was loaded with the most interesting things for you?

Garth Hallberg: Let’s go back to your question of …

Robert Birnbaum: Stolen Moments. *Do you know this song? [comes on over restaurant speakers]

Garth Hallberg: Is this Oliver Nelson?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

Garth Hallsberg: Good one

Robert Birnbaum: It is a great tune.  I was  just reminded that Mark Murphy wrote  lyrics for it.

Garth Hallberg: I’ve never heard it with lyrics.

Robert Birnbaum: I think I heard it once.  David Hadju *  writes about music and he recently wrote—Mark Murphy just died— and so Hadju  wrote a piece about Mark Murphy and mentioned the lyricization of that song.

Garth Hallberg: That’s another New York thing, right? Impulse Records. Isn’t that Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey?

Robert Birnbaum:And recording engineer Rudy van Gelder.* Was your first move from Greenville to New York?

Garth Hallberg: No, no. The question you asked was why New York?

Robert Birnbaum: Actually, it was why pick that time[’76-’77] ?

Garth Hallberg: I said on TV it would have been Night Court * but for me it was coming out of books. Harriet the Spy, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, Stuart Little.

Robert Birnbaum: Children’s books.

Garth Hallberg: The books I read when I was a child. Exactly. In elementary school just thinking about … There were these places that I wanted to spend time. There was Narnia and there was Middle Earth, but you couldn’t find those on the map.But New York actually existed and it seemed even … For one thing it was the shared property of those writers, which very interesting. It was different stories coexisting in one place and even within those books you got the sense of all of these micro climates. People moving and just this kind of openness to experience and this kind of flexibility of experience. This collision of different experiences, different stories that was sort of the opposite of what I felt like was going on where I live —  I was trapped in a story that was monolithic and that I didn’t want to have any interaction with whatever narrative contained within myself. There was that… and then compounded with the fact that you then turned to the title page (and, of course, Boston has a few good publishers, but) you turned to the title page and  you would see that the book came from New York. There was that Updike phrase about the big river print flowing to Shillington, Pennsylvania and that’s how the city seemed to me. The cinematic side of it, the Night Court side of it or the Muppets Take Manhattan or later on Mean Streets or Manhattan— (the Woody Allen movie )—as a teenager, those [movies]were merely putting images to flesh out a city that already existed for me as  the capital of possibility.

Robert Birnbaum: I was impressed with your specificity about different areas, locales in New York. Which certainly makes New York a character in the narrative. In some ways you’re more specific and descriptive about the locales than you are about some of the characters.

Garth Hallberg: You’re experiencing so many of the characters from the inside, looking out and what are they looking at?  This is, again , the personal and the public thing.

Robert Birnbaum: When you mentioned the cinematic aspect of it. I  started thinking of who I would cast. There is a vividness, vivaciousness, vibrance to the characters. I really want to try to make them concrete by thinking who would play them, who would I cast and even more so who would I ask to direct and who would be the principle photographer? Who would you cast as William?

Garth Hallberg: I don’t think of them that way. I just don’t …

Robert Birnbaum: You don’t see them as specific people?




Garth  Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Garth Risk Hallberg [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Garth Hallberg: I see them from the outside to the degree that I see myself from the outside, which is to say, I’m not sure I could draw a very accurate picture of myself from memory. I was reading a lot of Bellow ,among other things, early on in the writing, a lot of Henry James. Bellow is the secondary… He has this great,what I  call  Bellow’s New York trilogy, Herzog, Mr. Sammler’s Planet , and Seize The Day —all of which are great books of New York at mid-century. The secondary characters have this incredible  physiognomic vividness. But what does Herzog look like? He maybe described him, but I can’t. It would be much harder for me to cast Herzog.

Robert Birnbaum: My visualization of these characters is based not on whatever clues you might have given about their physical being but more about their character. I think the despicable brother is Malcolm McDowell.

Garth Hallberg: Ooh, that would be good. I’m more interested in your casting of the characters.

Robert Birnbaum: I saw Sam Shepard playing  a part.

Garth Hallberg: I love that. That’s great.

Robert Birnbaum: You want me to be the casting director when you sell the book? I couldn’t settle on who William would be played by and I just wasn’t clear on Sam at all. I could see a younger maybe Ryan Gosling or someone like that. I did see the whole story in more concrete ways. I’ve only been able so far to read 793 pages of this book, I didn’t finish it and I’m wondering in your conversations with people, with people like me, do you have any sense of how many actually read the book?


Garth Hallberg: I taught college, I have a pretty accurate BS meter. I think interviewers that may have had a lower rate of having completed the book…

Robert Birnbaum: It’s a lot to ask of a working journalist.

Garth Hallberg: I don’t know. I mean I’ve done journalism. Nobody’s got a gun to your head saying you’ve got to write this story. It wouldn’t occur to me to write a piece about something I haven’t read, but I think sometimes you deal with people… if somebody is writing for a newspaper and they’re not going to tell you that they haven’t read it yet or they haven’t had time or they’ve just gotten the assignment on Friday and the editor wants it the following Friday and they don’t have time to write all the stories. But it’s an understandable …that kind of piece isn’t going purport to be a deep exploration.

Robert Birnbaum: As long as someone doesn’t give you the impression that they’ll write about a book they didn’t read…

Garth Hallberg: I don’t actually care what impression they give to me. I care more about the impression they give to their readers. I’d say the good ones have this weird thing, you know you’re being made complicit in the fiction.

Robert Birnbaum: Now [as you engage in interviews and a charm initiative] you’re complicit in an extra literary activity which  about  marketing the book. Most writers I think feel that because of the commitment that a publishing company has made to them that they owe it to the publishing company to do as much they can to work with them to publicize the book. The problem I think nobody knows really how to do it. It’s like the record business.

Garth Hallberg: I think complicity is a good word to use because it’s  like, you can be complicit through—you’re complicit by having written the freakin’ book. That’s what the judge will find you an accessory before the fact for having written the book. To me— I’m trying to tell myself  that I owe it to the cause of human curiosity to kind of keep my eyes open and watch how all this works and take notes. Not that there’s probably a good novel about publishing a novel. Balzac’s Lost Illusions* pretty much covered that one.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m trying to remember if any contemporaries, have written fiction about the publishing industry—oh there’s Jonathan Galassi’s Muse .

Garth Hallberg: That’s not my book to write but it’s interesting. It’s interesting to stay in hotels. I never stayed in hotels—it’s a whole world. Somewhere it’s interesting to watch people interview you.

Robert Birnbaum Would you like to talk about the importance of writing a book? Is there an argument to be made for the  ?

Garth Hallberg: About the importance of literature.?

Robert Birnbaum:Yes, the importance of what you do. I think we take it for granted and we don’t even think it’s worth making the argument. Either you think it’s important or you don’t.

Garth Hallberg: ‘You’ meaning, you or me?

Robert Birnbaum: I would hope you and me or at least me.

Garth Hallberg: I just didn’t know this larger  cultural ‘we’.

Robert Birnbaum: I question, what am I doing? Am I promoting and ‘marketing’ literary ‘celebrities’? Or recording the footsteps of pathfinders? The issue I often think about is, is the book important or is  it the person who wrote the book? I  think they ‘re both important because part of what we take up as human beings is paying attention to how other people live and how they make their way through life and how they do things. If you admire certain ways of living, being creative, trying to be helpful to other people, then you  gravitate to trying to understand how people like writers  live their lives outside of  their calling .

Garth Hallberg: You’re starting to convince me. But I would have said coming into this that I don’t think … unlike performing artists like actors and musicians, for whom the persona that lives on the surface, on the body, is an essential part achieving the effects that performers want to achieve, in writing, obviously there’s a persona on the page but it’s very remote from this particular body. And moreover the absorption of this happens off in a room somewhere and I’m not there. The writer largely seems to be like an adjunct of the work. But there is something, I think, in what you said , in the sense of—because I’ve thought a lot about the value, what is the value of teaching writing? I’ve done that too, I’ve taught a graduate program.”Is this really any good? I don’t know what I am doing here.”Someone that I worked with said  to me— “You know, just be there. You don’t have to work as hard as you are because the main thing you’re doing is just being in the room with them.” I remember that from the occasions that I’ve had to be in the room in a student capacity with a real writer and just noticing them, observing how they move through the world, and how they  clear space to do the work. I probably did learn something from that. There is also something a little bit generic about that. Does each writer have his or her own way of clearing a place in the world to work?

Robert Birnbaum: We don’t know. I would think that one of the high values of creativity is originality—maybe there aren’t an infinite amount of ways to approach art but there certainly are a large amount of ways .

Garth Hallberg: Maybe this is wishful thinking, butI feel like I tend to detect enough overlap in the ways that the people I admire approach and think about and go about their work and clear space for their work— that observing three is as good as observing a dozen. You only need so many iterations before you go. “Okay, it’s work.” You know that Lou Reed song, Work? *Have you ever heard that?,

Robert Birnbaum: No.

Garth Hallberg: It’s amazing. It’s about when he was a young kid and he’s in Warhol’s factory and Warhol he had some sort of catechism or something. Or a Grand Inquisition. Warhol is asking him all these questions about his work and the refrain is like,”It’s work, it’s just work. You’ve got to do the work.”

Robert Birnbaum: Two recent bios are in conflict about Reed? Was Lou Reed an asshole or was he a decent guy ?

Garth Hallberg: I never met him so I wouldn’t know..

Robert Birnbaum: The biographies  take polar stances on his personality, persona, and how he treated people.

Garth Hallberg: I mean look, you can round up enough people from my life to write a biography about what a bastard I am.

Robert Birnbaum: You really would see such big extremes from people talking about your life?

Garth Hallberg: I think so. If you’re setting aside — if you’re setting aside how close, how likely those people are to actually having the inside story?

Robert Birnbaum: I wouldn’t set that aside though. If I’m looking at these two books on Lou Reed …

Garth Hallberg: Reading between the lines of the review of the Lou Reed, it seems like there are people who are like, “Oh yeah I met him this one time in the 70s and he was an …” I don’t know.

Robert Birnbaum: Ok, let me return to what you were just saying— I understand your point of view because you’re busy doing this kind of thing, writing. I’m not busy doing this thing. A part of what has always been interesting to me is talking to people. I do talk to everyone — the person at the post office, my UPS driver, or someone walking their dog. I find engaging people about  something  immediate  as being a wonderful way to learn things and learn about people. This habit of talking to writers has come about because writers have ideas and varied experiences that they usually can articulate. They have spent time doing things, they think about things. These conversations have never, the hundreds of conversations I’ve had— have never been boring. I’ve always gotten something and my obligation, I think is not to take our conversation and make it gossip. I’m not interested in whatever tawdry details there are about one’s life. I want to know how you got around to writing and I want to know if you think you can continue to do that and what that means and how you look at the world. Do you think Donald Trump is a short fingered vulgarian? Things like that, what your values are. Are you going to make the world better?

Garth Hallberg: Part of clearing the space to do the work is not spending too much time fancying myself as someone with ideas or opinions about things outside of the work. Inside the work that me has to feel comfortable, (or if not comfortable, has to be willing to say) that this idea is worth putting in play in the book. The guy at the post office probably has a more valid and interesting take on Donald Trump than I do. Which is why that wouldn’t end up in one of my books.

Robert Birnbaum: You never know. Again, I want to repeat, it’s not your job to be  self-conscious or to comment, saying, ” I have a lot of ideas and I have a program.”

Garth Hallberg: Some people do. I’ve been reading Norman Mailer’s Advertisements For Myself.

Robert Birnbaum: That was a different time and Mailer was not typical. Read Pete Dexter *on Norman Mailer. Do you know Pete Dexter’s work?

Garth Hallberg: I haven’t read it. I know of it.

Robert Birnbaum: He’s a very funny guy, Pete Dexter. I don’t know if you know his novels.

Garth Hallberg: Springsteen loves Pete Dexter. We were talking about New York, my New York and the one overlay that I would add to that— I talked about reading two or three books but then when I was a teenager and  punk music became big. I think it actually started with the Velvet Underground.



Robert Birnbaum: The Velvet Underground was the ’60s.

Garth Hallberg: Yeah but all those people — Warhol to Max’s Kansas City to the Ramones,  you’re talking about a few hundred people. You get this out of  the Legs McNeil  book.* So, I just was really gone. I wanted to write poetry. I was going to be poet, that’s what I really wanted to do. That’s what real writing was to me and in Lou Reed and in Patti Smith, in particular, that had the soul of the poetry that I really loved. It really burned for them. It felt like light years away from where I was living but I could also hear in the music that they had at some point, in Reed’s case, Long Island, in Smith’s  South Jersey ,lived somewhere where they didn’t belong , either. My New York sort of began in like …”

.Robert Birnbaum: Your familiarity with them came when you were still living in North Carolina?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah. I think I started reading…I probably read Kerouac and then Ginsberg and then started reading Frank O’Hara.*.

Robert Birnbaum: I love some of Frank O’Hara poems [To The Harbormaster and The Lady Day Died].

Garth Hallberg: The writing of poetry stopped for me. The reading of it continues The first city I ever went to was London in ’89 which was summer of the fatwa *and the only time we ever took a trip abroad …

Robert Birnbaum: The fatwa meant something to you?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah. I was also a very precocious reader. I don’t know if it was precocious. I was reading Newsweek and People and shit , when I was eight or nine. I kept up with what was going on and it was like idea of a writer being …

Robert Birnbaum: Persecuted?

Garth Hallberg: And mattering enough. Even in my limited geopolitical cosmology, it was like the Ayatollah was a pretty bad guy and this [fatwa] seemed to really seal the deal for me. The writer was on the side of the forces of light, somehow. But London in ’89 was funky — like where we were staying.

Robert Birnbaum: You were 11 years old or something like that.

Garth Hallberg: Yeah, I would turn 11 that year, that Fall. It was like there’s just a million different people, colliding in a subway systems.

Robert Birnbaum: That would be impressive to a kid from a small town in North Carolina.

Garth Hallberg: Yeah and food from all over and traffic at all hours of the night— just the energy of it and the light and the sense of something happening

Robert Birnbaum: So you had been to London before you spent any time in New York?

Garth Hallberg: I’d been to London and my parents were like, “Let’s get the hell out of London and go to the Lake District.”  I was like. “No, can we please stay in London?”

Robert Birnbaum (laughs)

Garth Hallberg It was dirty, it was smelly, it was loud, it was awesome. And then[later] DC was five hours away [from NC]. My mother had a high school friend who lived in DC and we would drive up in the early ’90s maybe once a year to visit. And DC was like, I could live here. This is somewhere I could be. But I fell in with some kids in DC through a poetry workshop that I had done one summer and made friends, pen pals. Then I started going up to visit him and there was a girl who was from New York ,who lived on Central Park West who I had a thing for. So I’d  go to DC for the weekend. I was 16, I had a car,so I’d drive up and go to New York from there. The last couple of years of high school I would contrive fictitious college visits in the New York area just as an excuse to go. The first time —I went 19 years ago this fall, the first time I stepped out of the subway and it was like,This is it. It was just an instant collapse of the distance between my dreams of the place and the actual place.

Robert Birnbaum: There was nothing about it you found distasteful? It was all good for you? It was all exciting? It wasn’t too noisy? You commented on London being dirty but that wasn’t a bad thing for you.

Garth Hallberg: ‘Dirty’ is descriptive. I just tend to think in these ways that yoke together the obverses. I wouldn’t imagine I could ever find a kind of joyous excess without dirt and mess. That’s why I love that word ‘funky’: because it means both smelly and that you want to dance to it.

Robert Birnbaum: As Laurie Anderson said, there’s no dirt in the cyber world. The real world has that.

Garth Hallberg: That’s the very human thing.  Wanting to scuttle on the floor of the sea.

Robert Birnbaum: Was it possible for you to get overloaded?

Garth Hallberg:  I was probably arriving under loaded. It was like having all of the receptors ,meaning all the stops on your organ being full. That the organ never made that big a  sound before. It wouldn’t have occurred to me then nor would it necessarily occur to me now, as a primary response, to start sorting, like, “Oh, I like this and not that.” It’s sort of like this idea of …

Robert Birnbaum: The imminent moment, time is all in this moment. The past, the present, the future, it’s all right here. You don’t distinguish what happened five minute ago because it’s just right here. Is that kind of the way it seems?

Garth Hallberg: I just think I have a form of brain damage around certain …

Robert Birnbaum: Verbally you  do have to be specific and particular— you do it here.

Garth Hallberg: There are so many forms of verbally specifying. There’s just naming.There’s praising. There’s indicting. There’s a million different ways to be specific with words. I think what’s going on with the characters in the book [long pause]— it’s  like what I imagine is going on with people in general. They’re all flowing out to animate the world that they find themselves in. And it’s that world that takes on qualities of being bleak and stark in one moment and thrilling and inviting in the next. It’s not a property of the world absent the character that this exciting part is really nice but the bleakness we don’t want at all. You can’t shut off… I don’t know, this is getting very abstract. It was just the sense of possibility that excited me and that possibility required that there be things that you wouldn’t … The utopia of possibility required that there be elements that wouldn’t necessarily be there in some other kind of utopia where everything is perfect. I remember having extraordinary conversations with street people in my first trips to New York. I remember a woman named Debra Little who I met one morning in the middle of Harlem. I had gotten off on the wrong subway stop. The subways fork up there and I was trying to get to see some friends of mine who were a year older and at Columbia and ended up 15 blocks east, and this woman basically walked me to where I was going. I think she was schizophrenic. Like, intermingling with her interesting observations in a story about where she came from and her brother and whatever where some cosmic elements, some mythological stuff, but it was like …  to live permanently in a city there’s some kind of calluses that you develop.In a perfect world there’s no homelessness. Homelessness is horrible. It really breaks my heart to see it when I allow myself to see it. And part of the way that everyone in these cities survives without a perpetual broken heart is learning not to see it.

Robert Birnbaum: You were living in New York when you were writing City of Fire?

Garth Hallberg: Yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Full tilt living in New York. Did you feel like as you writing you had to go retrace steps and go to historical sites and go to locations that appear in the story?

Garth Hallberg: No.

Robert Birnbaum: Once you had the book in mind, you stayed in your room and wrote it.

Garth Hallberg: The question makes it sound like awfully programmatic. We moved to New York. I’d had the idea for the book. It terrified me. I felt that it was an enormous act of presumption if you could imagine such a thing. And I was 24 and I was nobody and I didn’t have the chops to do this and nobody was writing or reading things like this anyway and I put it in a drawer for four year and didn’t touch it.  And largely didn’t think about it. In those four years, I rode my bike all around the city and I went to graduate school and I taught classes and I poured coffee and I walked endlessly and I read endlessly and I drank with my friends and whatever. An then four years later, I couldn’t stay away from the book anymore and I came back to it and all this stuff that had seemed very unpurposeful ended up having formed itself into the world of the book.

Robert Birnbaum: You wrote the book over what period of time?

Garth Hallberg: The idea I had in 2003, a month before the blackout of 2003 —which I took as some sort of synchronicity  — then I sat down to write in the fall of 2007, late fall, this time of year, in November.

Robert Birnbaum: You thought it about for three or four years.

Garth Hallberg: I didn’t think about it for three or four years. I put in a drawer.

Robert Birnbaum: In 2003.

Garth Hallberg:I had a vision. I sat down and I wrote a scene. In the space of about an hour, I went from the 45 seconds of having the vision to writing a scene to being like, “What the fuck  is that ?”and then running away from it.

Robert Birnbaum: So now it’s in a drawer.

Garth Hallberg: For four years. And I ‘m in flight from thinking about it.

Robert Birnbaum: In flight? You’re saying you never thought about it?  Or did you occasionally think about it?

Garth Hallberg: I must of have thought about it. Maybe it permanently existed for me — I was like Jonah trying to get lost in the whale. It’s not like Jonah didn’t know that there’s a world outside the whale.

Robert Birnbaum: Then you came back to book and you were energized.

Garth Hallberg: Well, I came back to it.*

Robert Birnbaum: It’s hard to imagine writing this detailed a book, a book of this length,  a book this complex without being programmatic. I don’t think programmatic is necessarily a bad thing. It suggests a plan,  a structure, it’s an organization, it’s an outline.

Garth Hallberg: I just don’t experience  things that way. I came back to it. I told you I had a singularity, right? I came back to it. The universe is born out of a singularity. In the singularity, time and space and matter and energy are not distinct. Everything is all kind of fused. As the universe expands— this is a gloss and the math is all fucked -up, as is the vocabulary but —within .0003 microseconds the universe goes from being a singularity to being 10,000 miles across and all of a sudden you have light and heat and matter. All starting to distinguish themselves. And you go out another .0007 microseconds and it’s 100,000 miles across. I turned away from it thinking it would stay still. I turned away from the singularity. I turned back to it and all of sudden it was a universe, and that universe was populated with shit that I had absorbed from … I had a professor who wrote me a letter, a professor in college at [Washington University] She wrote me a letter about the book— one of the very first people to read the manuscript. And amazing woman. And she says things about the book and then “You’ve got some good Yiddish in there.” For her, that’s maybe the highest compliment. I thought: Well, shit where did that come from?

[Recording ends abruptly…]




1 Live Aid website  is here

2 Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments from The Blues and the Abstract Truth here and

Mark Murphy’s vocal version of Stolen Moments is here

3 My second interview with David Hadju here.

4 The life and work of the  great recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder is found here

5  Information about  the popular television  comedy  from the ’80’s —Night Court  is here

6 Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions is explicated here

7 Pete Dexter on Norman Mailer is found here

9 Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk  by Legs McNeil 

10 Frank O’Hara is remembered in the New Yorker here

11  Christopher Hitchens recalls the fatwa placed on his friend Salman Rushdie here

12 Garth reads from City of Fire here

13 Editor Alex Bowler talks about City of Fire  here


Magical Musical Moments

12 May

Fame Recording studio, Muscle Shoals, Alabama

Fame Recording studio, Muscle Shoals, Alabama

My first record purchase was a 45 rpm single by young hot singing sensation known as Elvis Presley, circa 1956. I didn’t buy another record until 1960 — The Cannonball Adderly Quintet, Live in San Francisco. And I now believe that moment marks the beginning of my intense attachment, the almost seamless integration of music and sound into my perception of the world. Such was my commitment to listening to music that I did not for a long time interest myself (much) in the back stories and inside baseball stuff of the music culture and business. In fact, despite being both an omnivorous reader and having an appreciation of a wide swath go musical genres and also having spent a years of living a dimly mean spirited year as a local record promotion guy in Chicago, up until recently the only books I have read about music are David Hadju’s brilliant bio of Billy Strayhorn ,his book about early Bob Dylan and friends, Dylan’s loopy but compelling Chronicles,Crystal Zevon’s well executed oral biography of Warren and Peter Guralnick’s excellent profile of Sam Cooke, and a sadly under appreciated survey of soul music Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music
by Arthur Kempton, and A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz.

These days I have developed a taste for music history, especially American Regional music. Coincidentally in the last few years the quality of such narratives seems to have upgraded from the hagiographic and fan’s notes to deeper and more telling stories. A few years ago the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown gleaned one of the better stories to come out of the Motown music machine. In addition to give much deserved attention to the previously unheralded studio cats, Motown founder Berry Gordy’s commercial genius was credibly exhibited.

A couple of years back the Oscar winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom chronicled the lives of a few of great voices Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Jo Lawry and a few more, who sang back up both for super star bands and a large cache of hit records.

The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman

The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman

As a kind of bookend to the above mentioned Motown story, Kent Hartman’s The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret,filled in a vital piece of music history, putting the spotlight on a small cadre of West Coast studio musicians aka The Wrecking Crew reputedly known in the record business as “the secret weapons behind the top recording stars— included Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, guitarist Tommy Tedesco,drummer Hal Blaine,keyboardist Larry Knechtel as well and non-pareil bassist, Carol Kaye.

Legendary session bassist Carol Kaye

Legendary session bassist Carol Kaye

The hit records to which these players contributed, not to mention in some cause created — from Derek & the Dominoes Layla, Simon and Garfunkle’s Bridge Over Troubled Water virtually all the Beach Boys Records to Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night are a greatest hits discography of the 60’s and 70’s. Hartman’s diligence is evident from the wealth of first person citations and collection of engaging anecdotes. M<y favorite is the story of how Ray Charles appearing in segregated Birmingham Alabama managed to pass off his Jewish guitar player.

Currently there is a serviceable documentary, The Wrecking Crew in the theaters produced and directed by Denny Tedesco, son of Tommy Tedesco. A bit to hagiographic for my tastes, it does give you some visuals for Hartman’s narrative.

A most transcendental music story is gracefully told in a lovely film ,Muscle Shoals, about that legendary, magical recording venue deep in backwater Muscle Shoals, Alabama and the extraordinary assemblage of solid gold musicians (Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, Jimmy Johnson on guitar, and David Hood) that Fame Studios founder Rick Hall attracted, nurtured, shepherded and goaded. Its equal parts biography, travelogue, anthropological study, business gossip and visual feast.

The short interviews and commentary by Etta James,Bono, Keith Richards, Stevie Winwood, Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Rich Hall, Jerry Wexler, Greg Allman and more are illuminating —almost all sharing a mystical view of what made Muscle Shoals a very special place. Alicia Keyes ends the film with a competent performance/ contemporary recording of Bob Dylan’s beautiful gospel song “Pressing On,” backed by the Swampers, Fame’s original session band— an understandable if miscast attempt to bridge the history to the present.

Post Script

Poster for the film “Get on Up”

I first saw James Brown live at the Regal Theater in Chicago in 1966 and continued listening to him through subsequent decades — by my tastes he never lost his infections groove. Brown put the soul into soul music and the biopic Get on Up with a jumping performance by veteran actor Chadwick Boseman (who gave a fine performance as Jackie Robinson in 42) makes a plausible and riveting
narrative whether you are or not inclined to give credence to the facts of Brown’s complicated life

Singing About Architecture

31 Jul

A Ship Without A Sail by Gary Marmorstein

As much as I love music I can count on one hand the number of books that I have read about music and musicians— David Hadju’s Lush Life, a brilliant biography of Billy Strayhorn, Crystal Zevon’s oral biography of her one time husband Warren Zevon, I’ll Sleep When I am Dead, Charles Mingus’s autobiography Beneath the Underdog and Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke and Arthur Kempton’s rhythm and blues devotional Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music.

Which not to say that I am oblivious of the books being published as I will display by pointing out three recent notable books—each shining a clear light on a different aspect of music.

One half of the famed song writing Rodgers and Hart, lyricist Lorenzo Hart is well accounted for in Gary Marmorstein’s A Ship Without A Sail: The Life of Lorenz Hart (Simon & Schuster). If you aren’t familiar with songs such as “Blue Moon, ” “Where or When, ” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Isn’t It Romantic?,” “My Romance,” “There’s a Small Hotel,” “Falling in Love with Love,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and much more you probably won’t care about the life of brilliant homosexual alcoholic who lived entire short life with his mother.

The Jazz Standards by Ted Gioia

Whatever defines a jazz “standard” jazz historian Ted Gioia (The History of Jazz) has selected 252 songs to The Jazz Standards A Guide to the Repertoire (Oxford University Press) on which to comment, including composer details and a listen guides that references about 2000 recordings.

David Ulin points out that

“to call “The Jazz Standards” a work of history, however, is to miss at least half the point; it is also a work of criticism, and Gioia is not afraid to offer pointed commentary…

…” What is the book, after all, if not an extended improvisation, beginning with its framing of the repertoire? Such a repertoire is fluid, and if in recent years it has undergone a “process of codification,” his approach can’t help but be subjective, defined by his experience and sensibility. To read “The Jazz Standards,” then, is not unlike listening to Gioia play his way through this music, sharing not just what he likes (and dislikes) but also what he knows.”

What the video that accompanies the Sonny Rollins’ version of “We Kissed in The Shadow” above, means or its connection with this great piece of music has me stumped but the Rollins track (From the LP East Broadway Rundown) is so evocative and mesmerizing I had to include it

Just as I was more simpatico with the Beat movement than much of its literature I found Punk Rock’s anarchical ethos and do it yourself values more interesting than most of the music it spawned. In any case,in Punk Rock: An Oral History (PM Press) John Robb, a punk rocker himself, collects about 150 interviews with seminal figures such as John Lydon, Lemmy, Siouxsie Sioux, Mick Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Malcolm McLaren, Henry Rollins, and Glen Matlock.Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren elucidates,

It was not necessarily a plan to play art colleges first and avoid the pub. I hated beer. And that’s all you got in those stinking pubs in Anglo-Saxon land. Art school preached a noble pursuit of failure. It was part of the legacy laid down by William Morris: art for art’s sake. which we attempted to create and indeed succeeded at one level. We made ugliness beautiful.

Punk Rock An Oral History by John Robb

Currently reading The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Knopf)