by Tim “Napalm” Stegall
February 14, 2011
Mick Farren has been one of the planet's prime cultural warriors since the late Sixties. His resume is thick: Frontman for English anarchist band The Deviants, one of the missing links between psychedelia and punk rock, and later solo artist and collaborator with the likes of Lemmy and Wayne Kramer. Doorman at London counterculture venue The UFO Club. Writer for underground newspaper International Times and later New Musical Express. Columnist for Trouser Press and LA CityBeat. Author of 23 science fiction novels and 11 non-fiction books and reams of poetry. Prolific blogger and social/cultural/political critic. On the eve of his relocation to England after 30 years in the US, Farren granted Rock 'n' Roll Dating his final American interview, taking on his rich history, his reasons for leaving, his reasons for coming to America to begin with, America's current political landscape, and his new book on the history of amphetamine, Speed-Speed-Speedfreak. But first, a little something about the diet of the British Invasion....
I guess I'd better hit "record" since we've already been talking for a bit...you were saying...?
Me, Keith Richards, (Peter) Townshend: We were the healthiest generation of kids (in Britain). Because immediately after World War II, they fed us, y'know what I mean? They gave us orange juice and vegetables, because there wasn't any. Sugar was rationed until about 1952. Candy was really hard to come by. You couldn't go after-school and buy candy. You had to have a ration card. They encrypted it. It was weird! We all grew up in a very limited sugar environment. Which stood us all well when we all became junkies later! (laughs) 'Course, my teeth are bad!
Whereas, from perhaps the mid-'50s onwards, American kids were raised on pre-packaged foods, sugar-infested foods, preservative-laden foods, convenience galore. Yeah, it did something to us, I'm pretty sure.
Oh, really? Well, it's the same everywhere, now.
It's really funny. Anthony Bourdain's great travel show that he does, No Reservations, when he did this episode on Cleveland, he went to a used bookstore that was in a former Hostess Twinkie factory. They took him to one of the pipes in the ceiling that pumped out the filling. They told him there was still filling in those pipes! So he had them open them up! He stuck his finger in and tasted it. He said, “It still tastes good!”
That's what makes Japan so interesting. They're the only place left that eats normally. They have a whole different approach to things, really. Dinner takes five hours. But a steak, for instance, they serve it like lox: Tiny little thin slivers. The shit comes slow and in tiny amounts. But it's very hard to eat. You have to take your time, and there's an awful lot of rice going on with it, and there's a lot of beer going on with it, too. So, the five hours is well spent. But (almost whispering) you don't see all the fat people! You see some big, fat motherfucker, he's probably a sumo wrestler! (laughs)
You're leaving the states after basically having lived here since 1980, correct?
That's interesting, because I know from reading your marvelous memoir (Give The Anarchist A Cigarette), you kinda abandoned the shithouse when Margaret Thatcher came into power. We don't have any evidence that the Tea Party is taking over yet, but you're abandoning ship again!
Actually, the reason I'm abandoning ship now is health care. It costs me $1300-1400 per month in meds now! I'm getting murdered by this.
Oh, crap. Can I print this?
Ah! It's nobody's business, really. Except that I'm not Mick Jagger. I'm not running up five flights of stairs now. In fact, the performances? Me and Russell (Hunter, Deviants drummer) and Sandy (AKA Duncan Sanderson, Deviants bassist) will be playing when I get back. “Oh, Pink Fairies are getting back together! The Deviants are getting back together!” No, we're not! No no no! This is going to be kinda like a Tom Waits/Leonard Cohen-kinda show, and I'm gonna be perched on a bar stool! It's gonna be pretty fucking dignified, y'know? There's gonna be no fucking crowd-surfing, y'know what I mean? (laughter) I find Iggy sorta undignified, nowadays. Put your shirt on, man! I don't want to see that fucking body anymore! Talk about the Lizard King! He's still pretty fucking good for his age, but I remember a time when he could tuck his head on the floor backwards! Wayne Kramer (MC5 guitarist) went to high school with Iggy. And Iggy couldn't fit through the door, as they'd say about him in England. He was a basketball whiz and gymnast and really a fucking physical guy. He was really a small jock. I think he did long-distance running, too.
He was really square, in the student council and all that. He really got corrupted by the Asheton brothers.
And Kramer! (laughter) There's a definite corruption from Kramer to Iggy to (Johnny) Thunders to (British rock journalist) Nick Kent, know what I mean?
So, you're basically heading back because England has socialized medicine.
I need some socialism, basically. I came here not only to flee Thatcher, but I felt that if I'd stayed in England, I would have become...do you know who (British musician/cultural critic and writer) George Melly is? Well, he really just kinda became a TV clown. He would come on wearing these silly suits, and it was a bit distasteful. And I could see that was the future. So I left for New York, where at the time, shit was really happening. There was all that loose money coming out of Gordon Gekko types, and it was sort of vaguely trickling it's way down to CBGBs. London had kind of shot its wad, with the Pistols and the Clash. What was coming after was basically coming to New York and playing at Trax, and it was the post-Jam guys in skinny ties, all the Squeezes and them.
And it was about to become the New Romantics and that New Pop stuff.
Yeah, things I just didn't understand, like the Thompson Twins.
Right, the Birthday Party had yet to relocate (to London).
Right. And a lot of other people had already made the jump (to New York City), so I was pretty happy on the Lower East Side. I was running into (Robert) Fripp and (Brian) Eno, and there were enough cats around that you knew. And there were people that knew me – (punk-era NYC R&B singer) Willy DeVille was there. So it was easy to pull up a band. Kramer had just gotten out of jail, so we did The Last Words Of Dutch Schultz (musical adaptation of a William S. Burroughs novel) together. So, it was cooking!
So, it was a better environment, but it was also a level playing field for me. I was being judged on my merits. I don't want to make the contrast, but I did a lot more work in New York by being much less The Hero Of The Revolution than John Sinclair (MC5 manager/White Panther Party founder) did, because it's much too easy to just coast by on your rep. I wrote seven or eight science fiction novels, did the musical and tons of other shit. It was the other reason for moving, because England was getting moribund.
Now by the reverse token, I really don't like what's going on here. They're not that well-dressed, but they're training Brown Shirts. They're there! Hitler went from 23 points to 90 points in two elections. So, all things are possible.
I'm finding it odd that people who were once on our side, going from my age to yours', are becoming pod person versions of themselves. A good example is a member of a certain late '70s band noted for writing and performing highly left-wing punk rock anthems, and one of their members now lists himself as a Republican and posts anti-Obama screeds on Facebook.
Well, have you seen the video of Moe Tucker? (News footage had surfaced on the internet, at the time of this interview, of a Tea Party rally in Georgia. The clip featured an interview with the Velvet Underground’s drummer, expressing outrage at “the way we're being led towards socialism,” etc.) That's a big leap from drumming in the Velvet Underground to arch-Republican! I mean, what the fuck?!
I do get the feeling, however, the general public is seeing people like Christine O'Donnell and saying, “NOOOOOO!” (Although Rand Paul and 29 other Tea Party candidates won their respective mid-term races.)
Yes. But on the other hand, I've a weird feeling, from watching (Sarah) Palin, that the next few months...these fuckers may have a short shelf life. They're like Menudo or Billy Ray Cyrus or something. (laughter) They're one-hit wonders, and their schtick ain't gonna play. It's like Britney Spears. Palin is like Madonna, the original theatrical pop star diva. But it just deteriorates down the line so that O'Donnell is Britney Spears. It's Japanese-style pop stardom, so they're all over by the time they're 17. And this may actually be American Idol politics. But I get the feeling they're gonna cause a lot of trouble before it's all done.
But really, I'm just going back for the health care and now it's time to say, “Fuck the level playing field!” There's a good gig waiting for me, being The Last Bohemian Standing. The boys are ready for it, and we'll do some shit, and hopefully it'll work. The family is already pulling itself together. The neighborhood seems to be back in business. And if (Pink Fairies guitarist and longtime Farren musical collaborator Larry) Wallis can ever get out of the house and play, he'd clean up, too. It's almost like we're the old bluesmen that we used to revere. So we'll go do it one more time.
So, now it's your turn to put on a sharp suit and sit down in a chair and play.
(whispering) Exactly! Solomon Burke has a fucking throne now!
Well, you're talking about picking up on something that I wasn't aware of when I first came across the name "Mick Farren." The young man who first came across you did so in a magazine called Trouser Press. It was because of the “Surface Noise” column that I became aware of who you were, and you would discuss the sorta things we were just talking about, where you're talking about politics in pop cultural terms. You would be sneaking into my head some of the radical theories you were brewing up in the late '60s. The seeds were slowly being planted, and eventually I realized, "Oh, he was in a band!"
Yeah, it's all part of the same thing, really. I've always been a writer. That's what I do. Unfortunately, you don't get laid...well, you do actually! (laughter) It just takes more organization. When you've just turned an incredible sentence, people don't applaud. So the band thing was always instant gratification for the writer. Although pre-Bob Dylan, it wasn't quite as easy to integrate the two. The biggest influence on my life, musically, outside of Elvis Presley was Gene Vincent. And Gene's lyrics were like nursery rhymes. “Be bop a lula/She's my baby!” Oh, yeah! Cool! What the hell? But then along came Bob, and then you had The Byrds and The Animals and Pete Townshend going, “Wouldn't it be good if we could do that with electric guitars! Yeah! Yeah! That's the shit! That's what we want to do!” And of course, Bob then did it himself and insulted Pete Seeger. Then there was no stopping it. (laughs) Except we weren't very good at it! But neither were the Velvets and the Fugs and the Stooges. We were probably closer to the Stooges and the Fugs, but the Fugs were a point of reference in the media at the time.
But there wasn't a lot of jug band in the Deviants, though.
No. Well, actually there was, because we were once. There was a very, very early jug band incarnation. Because we didn't have any money. The Japanese weren't making guitars yet. The Italians were making some really nasty guitars, though.
Yeah, those things made out of Masonite and shaped like a neon sign from Las Vegas? (laughter)
Yes! Yes! Yes! Dave Edmunds collects them! I don't know if he can play them, though! I had a very, very brief career as a bass player, and I had something called a Rossetti. It had clearly been made out of wood that had been soaked and compressed, and all the machinery was in a plastic box nailed to the outside. It played like shit and sounded like shit and totally suited my talents as a bass player. I left the bass playing to Lemmy.
Lemmy doesn't come around asking for money these days, does he? (Motorhead bassist/singer Lemmy has been a longtime Farren pal and collaborator, and Farren has penned lyrics for a number of Motorhead songs, including "Lost Johnny.")
Not anymore, no. I should see HIM and ask for money.
Yes, you should!
Well, I sort of have, inadvertently. I mean, not asking him, but when Metallica did their Motorhead tribute on their double Garage record (Garage, Inc.), they did tracks I'd written words for like “Damage Case.” And that was a very nice piece of change! That was a wonderful piece of change.
You must still see some royalties from that.
Yeah! It comes every half-year. Sometimes they're down. But then you get the download money from Japan, and it shoots back up again. The first couple of checks paid the rent for a year!
You've got a new book, Speed-Speed-Speedfreak: A Fast History Of Amphetamine (Feral House). It was a very fast read, appropriately. Still dense with information, and I learned a lot I never knew before. I get two major things out of this book: Number One, much of the 20th century was shaped by this chemical. And Number Two, we have created a society, unfortunately, that requires artificial energy to keep going.
Yeah. Also, for a very long time, I had a theory/belief/rule of thumb that by their intoxicants, you shall know them. So you've got alcoholic Christian pirates showing up in South America, running headfirst into a cocaine culture which doesn't recognize private property. So it was like, “Damn! I forgot to invent the wheel! Would they accept the yo-yo!” So you've got that shit going on all the time. So you get to the point where you ask, “What's Christianity?” It's a very good analog for booze: First you have some fun, then you pay for it. Whereas, some weird-ass Aztec religion is as complicated as any coke-head scenario. It's a measure of attitudes, too, if you trace the stimulant paths. I'm a great believer in...do you know (Ronald K.) Siegel's book, Intoxication: The Universal Drive For Mind-Altering Substances? It starts off with the great story about how goats invented coffee, about the 8th Century: Yusef the goat herder was wondering why his goats would eat the berries off these coffee bushes and then run around and fuck all night. He decides to try them himself, and he eats some of the berries and gets completely ripped out of his mind! Then he starts to infuse into water, and we have coffee. Now that hangs around the Islamic middle east, which at that point is having its own renaissance about 400 years before Christianity did, inventing the zero and astronomy and some people believe dry cell batteries, and all kinds of good shit. But coffee-fueled. Same thing happens in The Age Of Reason: Newton to the pre-Raphaelites, they've suddenly been introduced to coffee and chocolate in Europe. Boom! Mental activity explodes! Darwin! Newton! Byron! Keats! Shelley! The Romantics! It's all coming out of coffee shops!
These things really do...they're interplay that we don't really talk about. Because the War On Drugs has propagandized that kind of discussion out of existence. So that's really the roots of the way the book was shaped.
It is so typically American that there is such a thing as a War On Drugs. We are a country that, for better or worse, was founded by puritans. And these are people who will hide the porn under the bed or whatever, then go out and pretend to be utterly pious. Yet be completely shocked by their own dark sides.
Yeah. But I'm not even sure that it's the puritans to that degree. Remember, puritan Victorianism was so loaded with opiates that it's quite unimaginable. Everyone was drinking laudanum from the age of six months.
Out west, when the whores got religion, all kinds of terrible things happened. That was really the roots of prohibition: It wasn't really so much the traditional New England puritan, but the sort of de-wilded West was where the roots of Carrie Nation and those people were born. When whores clean up and get married, ain't NOBODY gonna have fun! They got mean! I dunno. I dunno....
The Brits are much more devious. They'll do the same thing, mainly to keep the Americans happy. Fuck it. We went and tried to get the entire population of China addicted to opium, so we could grind them into our boots. Our piratical unscrupulousness has always perpetrated England. There's always been a bohemian/aristocratic/Crowley/Hellfire Club/bright-young-things-doing-the-Charleston. There always has been a sort of overt drug culture there, which was sort of whispered about. It was the same here, but it wasn't whispered about. At the same time, alcohol prohibition really did change the face of America. That's what gave us the War On Drugs: Henry Anslinger looking for work for his prohibition agents. “Oh, well let's demonize marijuana! Let's demonize cocaine! Let's demonize heroin!Let's chase them motherfuckers around and still draw our paychecks!” Then the Hearst/DuPont war on hemp.
In Europe, it's always been a little bit more complicated: “(Thomas) DeQuincy (author of the 1821 drug memoir, Confessions Of An English Opium Eater) turned up today. The next day, a Chinaman arrived with a package.” That's actually true! (laughs) We had this great show at the Roundhouse, where (Dr. Feelgood guitarist) Wilko Johnson was raising money to maintain Keats' cottage in the lake district. He had various people doing readings from Keats' diaries, and this one entry told of DeQuincy showing up: “And then across the hill, a Chinaman showed up, bearing a pound of opium!” And like ('60s underground comic book) The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, they tried to smoke it. It was supposed to last all winter, and they smoked their way through it in two weeks! (laughter)
So, it's always been there, not even limited to humans. There's plenty of mammals, including one that's sat around the corner (Mick's cat) who will get high. He just had some banging new fresh catnip, and he's having a great old time! Japanese catnip is better than American catnip according to him. The need for mind expansion or mind contraction just mind blank-out, and mind-altering intoxication just seems to be a built-in thing. Certainly in mammals. I don't know about lizards or fish or birds or whatever. But in mammals, it does seem to be there. I guess it's an external, indoctrinal whatever, and we've got to face it as such. It's gotten so engrained in the culture, it's given me something to write about.