Editor's notes: I don't think Byron Coley needs much of an introduction to the Termbo readership. Perhaps the last of the great rock writers and for me personally, probably the most influential voice of my life in music. No one has turned me on to more bands (or turned me off) and it was from his reviews and columns that I realized the need to have and hone your own bullshit detector when it came to thinking about records and what they were about. Coley's writing in Forced Exposure and other venues was something I pored over and put trust in, the sort of writer/reader relationship that I don't think exists anymore. And I know I'm in no way even close to his level of skill/knowledge/style as a critic, but he was definitely a major inspiration for my own desire to talk about music. But enough about me...If you haven't been keeping up with Byron's work over the past decade or so, he still writes a column about small size releases for The Wire, has edited five issues of Bull Tongue Quarterly thus far, put out a fantastic spoken word LP in 2013, has a hand in running the Feeding Tube label and store, put out a tape with the Galacto Fidelity Unit on The Loki Label, has appeared in numerous documentaries, has written liner notes for various records, wrote a book about No Wave with Thurston Moore, and has had two books put in print by Montreal based publishing house Oie de Cravan: C'est La Guerre, a collection of his early writing from 1978-83, and most recently Defense Against Squares, a poetry collection which is the focus of this interview. And about the interview, this was done by Julien Besse for our friend Alex "Ratcharge" Simon's new zine Psycho Disco, in which it appears in French and in print in issue #3 which is available now. In a fortunate coincidence I had been writing something for Alex and he mentioned this interview would be appearing as well, so I of course pleaded to use it in Termbo in an English translation, which they were both gracious enough to agree to. So here you have it, what I feel is one of the best interviews we've had here on the site...
TB: Defense Against Squares. Is the title meant to be retrospective, or do we still need defense against squares today?
Byron: I think that people always need to defense themselves against squares, whether itís against other people who are square or our own tendency to become a square. I donít mean to put down people who are squares because they are, but people who arenít squares, to me, are people who are always interested in new culture, in learning something new. The way I end up defining it, squares are people who are happy with whatever is given them. They donít feel the necessity to find something different or something new or outside of the ordinary. So, to me, itís really important to stay interested in things, and to stay interested in things you always have to find new... itís not that you have to throw out the old, but to incorporate the new. I sort of define squares as people who are resistant to new things or unexpected things, or whatever. People who are not squares, then, are people who are more open to ideas, and as we get older and have more responsabilities (laughs), I think a lot of us have a tendency to become more square and more set in our ways. So, for me, itís as much a command to myself as a suggestion for anybody else (laughs)...
TB: Thatís interesting, because in the 70s or 80s it was maybe easier to define from outside appearance.
Byron: The appearance thing has been useful at certain times, but I would say that these days Ė and it was probably always like this to a certain extent, you know, the phrase "You canít tell a book by its cover". People could look like theyíre staying up with things, but all theyíre staying up with is fashion. And I leave fashion outside the realm of things that are worth keeping up with, you know (laughs)... I have nothing against people who do, but thatís extraneous to culture. Itís a kind of manifestation of it, but itís a peacock, a dress up, so youíre a facsimile of someone whoís not a square, but youíre still a square. Itís like kids who will see somebodyís image that they like, whether itís a popular artist or something like that, and so theyíll go out to a mall and buy a lot of stuff to have these particular clothes, whereas the person doing this may have arrived at this through a long process of doing this and doing that, but people are not interested in the context of it at all, they just want the look.
Thereís always been an element of that, as far as I can remember, back to the 60s, but in those days, if people had really long hair, it meant you were what I would call a lifer (laughs). Somebody who had made a commitment to it. But if you didnít, it could be hard to tell.
TB: It seems so simple (laughs)...
Byron: One of my favorite artists is this guy named Chris Burden, who was a performance artist who died a few years ago. He did these pieces, and a lot of them involved having something done to him. One piece that he did was called "I was a secret hippie for the FBI", and he sat down and had his hair cut, and then he laid on a table and they had a star-shaped stud pound into his sternum, than they dressed him in a cheap FBI-type suit. So the idea was like, this transformation from this hippie to this "secret hippie" for the FBI. There was always an element of that, when people started having shorter hair again... I mean, there were periods of time when I had long hair, but most of the time I didnít have Ďem (laughs), and people would look at you really differently, back in the 60s or 70s and assume, especially if you werenít dressed in a certain way, theyíd made a lot of assumptions about what you were and whether you were in the right place or not. People would always look at you and be like, "What are you doing here? You look like a square!" (Laughs). But I knew then that itís something you carry inside yourself, that it doesnít have anything to do with how you look, although itís an easy shorthand. The cops would always try to look like hippies (laughs) to infiltrate the scene.
So, the visuals are difficult and some people really fall for that as the whole package but itís just a really small part of it.
TB: Jumping ahead a bit, since you talked about hippies. I think punk has drawn from literature in a lot of ways. In your opinion, how different was punk compared to beat or hippie in its use of language?
Byron: Theyíre related but theyíre different. Itís an evolving context of things. The thing that really drove the beats in a lot of ways... these were people who were just a little too young to have been in WWII, for instance. So they were kids during that period. A lot of them were able to take advantage of the middle class (lifestyle) that was flourishing in the U.S. at that time. The standards of living went up a little bit after the Second World War and the appreciation of education went up, so a lot of these people were able to go to college, which maybe their parents had not done. So a lot of them were these people who were exposed to all kinds of literature for the first time, and part of the Beat explosion, in a way, was finding out that there was... A lot of these people, not all of them but a lot of them were from a working-class background, but now had this kind of leisure to learn. It was possible to still live cheap in the cities at that time, so all of a sudden, maybe you didnít really have to have a job or a career the way people had thought of it before. It happens at the same time as things changing in terms of how people think of youth. All of a sudden, there was the idea of a teenager. There was these new kind of definitions as to how things were set up, were being done. At the same time, a lot of people who were slightly older, who had fought in the Second World War and who came out with the GI bill, and who were being able to go to college too, so there was an emphasis on literature that had never really happened before in the U.S., there wasnít the same kind of tradition of it (than in Europe), this kind of stuff being taught to working-class kids, and I think that it sort of set a lot of peopleís brains on fire, just finding out about this kind of stuff. Also the fact that there was more money around than there had been before the war and there were grants for going to school, and some other things like that. It really did give people a different sense of what was going on. The musical stuff thatís going on then, whether itís jump ríníb or the kind of jazz people were listening to, there was a new openness in some people, some of the racial barriers were coming down, some drug stuff also... And I think that people felt like it was sort of like "anything goes", although looking back on it, it was obviously very constricted in terms of then compared to now or whenever else. There was money around, leisure time around, all of a sudden the idea that leisure time wasnít bad. The federal highway system had opened up, so all of a sudden people could drive cross-country really easily. A lot of things lent to the idea of this freedom. When you get to people like Kerouac and some of these other people who were writing early on in the Beat generation stuff, the format of the writing was also really open in a way... If you compare Kerouacís first book to the second book, thereís a huge style shift that goes on there. So all of a sudden, itís an open format. So you have these guys like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was a veteran from the Second World War, who pick up on that, and who end up moving to these inexpensive neighbourhoods in different cities, whether itís the Lower East Side of New York, which had been sort of a Hebrew ghetto, yiddish-speaking for a large part, and a very inexpensive place to live, people who worked in sweatshops up in the fashion industry there; somebody moves to the North Beach section of San Francisco which, again, was almost a skid row-type place. These inexpensive parts of town that nobody wanted to live in, but they were still cultural centers. And people started congregating, and people came from other places, they went there to go to university or to do other things, and so theyíd end up in these places from Kansas or Idaho or Vermont or wherever, and be drawn to bigger cities. Because it was easier to move around and there was this new value placed on education, it was like, you grew up on a farm, your dad had been a farmer, your grandfather, your great-grandfather had been farmers, all of a sudden, maybe you didnít have to be a farmer anymore. So youíd go to these places and youíd kinda get your mind blown by stuff that youíd hear, and itís a whole new experience.
Thereís a great piece by Ed Sanders, who was in The Fugs, where he writes about growing up, I think it was in a rural part of Missouri, and going to look at some colleges, and finding Allen Ginsbergís Howl, and just be like... "How could this exist?" You have these really key figures getting published, putting these things out...
TB: Sanders would be a good transitional figure from Beat to punk...
Byron: Yes, exactly, and the thing is that the Beat generation is defined by very specific areas, and itís really a few key figures and the people who were their close associates. But their popularity and their fame and their writing drew lots of other people to these areas or just towards their writing. But theyíre after the Beat Generation. People like Brautigan or Charles Plymell, who was reading last night, guys like D. A. Levy and Wallace Berman... Thereís a whole generation of people, Sanders fall into that too, theyíre after the Beats but theyíre sort of before the hippies. But itís curious transitional period in the early Sixities, the hippie thing really starts coalescing around í65, and it gets called different things... The worst is "the Baby Beats", which used to drive Janine Pommy Vega, who was lumped in with those people, crazy! Itís horrible. Now itís people of the Mimeo Revolution, which was a reproduction style which was commonly used, and a very inexpensive one that was used for litterary magazines and different kinds of things that were done in that period specifically. Thereís an early 60s thing thatís really interesting, because itís part of a few signal events, I think it was '64 or '65, Iím not sure, there was a Berkeley Poets Conference. The big thing was that Charles Olson, the poet from Gloucester, who wrote Call Me Ishmael, was gonna be coming to the West Coast to do this reading. Olson was sort of a recluse and lived in this fishing town above Boston. So this was a huge event, and all those people came out of the woodwork. They also did a grant, that year, for younger poets to come, and one of them was Ed Sanders, one of them was John Sinclair, the guy from Detroit who ended up with the White Panthers and all that stuff, Leonard Candel, who was a San Fransisco poet who famously got busted for obscene poetry for doing a book called The Love Book, and some other people like that. And they all got together and when Iíve talked to a few people who were there, they also said that all these poets from all over just showed up to attend this thing. People in their early 20s. So all these people who maybe had corresponded a bit before, and had done a literary magazine in their town, all these people from all over, Charles Potts from Salt Lake City, all these guys met up for the first time. So they started setting up these frameworks to get their stuff out, "I know this store thatíll sell this stuff here" and "I got a store thatíll sell this stuff there", so they were able to trade stuff through the mail a lot more easily and you know how it is once youíve met somebody, youíve put a face on them.
Byron: So all this correspondence came out of that, and all these trades and very very small presses and small magazines. That eventually coalesced into what became, a year later, the Underground Press Syndicate, which were the five first underground newspapers in the United States : the Berkeley Barb, the Ann Arbor Sun, the East Village Other... Some of those same people were involved in that, so they were all connecting, and people in other towns would hear about stuff. At the same time in the U.S., the two big things were the anti-Vietnam movement, which had been pre-dated by anti-nuclear things that had been happening, more like nuclear submarines and stuff like that, it was pre-nuclear plants but nuclear submarines were a big thing. Ed Sanders got busted, his first book is about getting busted for swimming out to a nuclear submarine that they were protesting and getting put in jail for it. Itís called Poem from Jail. So that stuff drifted over, in the U.S., to the anti-war movement, which had been growing and growing in í63, when Johnson became president after Kennedy was killed. A lot of these people were also involved in the legalize marijuana movement, even back then, LEMAR. D. A. Levi put out the Marijuana Quarterly, and Sanders was involved in that, and Sinclair... All these people were involved in the same kind of things politically. So the politics of that were growing along with the poetry stuff. Some of the history was lost as to how the counter-culture came together in the U.S. A lot of the stuff was actually spearheaded by people who had been involved in poetry. It was really evolving out of that Beat stuff, although those people were not of that generation. They were maybe only 5 or 6 years younger, but itís a different generation. So when that comes along, it was really the underground newspapers that were responsible, in a way, for creating the hippie movement. Because they disseminated the idea of the stuff. Youíd go to the city and youíd buy a couple underground newspapers and take them home, and if you were in London, youíd buy the International Times and get it back to Northhampton or wherever you were. Itíd get these ideas out there a little bit, although it didnít really hit the mainstream until a little bit later. In the U.S., there were these weekly news magazines, Newsweek, Time, Life, Look... When they would start noticing this stuff, that was when all of a sudden, everybody in the suburbs or out on the farms in the Midwest would get to see this stuff. That was where I would first learn about all that kind of stuff. My friends my age, in 1965, we were not getting poetry mimeos from some obscure store in Cleveland...
TB: Not hip !
Byron: Once it hit, youíd be reading this stuff. And that was what would disseminate it even more, where it becomes a cultural phenomenon. And then also, thatís the point where people can start mistaking it for a fashion thing, which is similar to what we were talking about before : You can dress like a hippie, but it doesnít mean that youíre really a hippie, you know? That kind of goes on and it plays itself out over a long period of time. Because, really, for some people the height of the hippie thing was in the early 70s ; just because thatís when it was the most prevalent, there were the most head shops everywhere, and the biggest protests. Although the people who had been involved in the early days of it would say it was over by í66. But for the kids, they didnít even know about it until í67 or í68. They way these things travel are kinda weird. The music is a big part of it. One thing that made the music an even bigger part of the hippie thing is that the underground newspapers were largely supported by record companies advertisement. All the record companies took ads and there was a kind of unofficial position that was first spearheaded by Danny Fields, who was at Elektra, who worked with the Doors and Love and then signed The Stooges and the MC5, who was the company freak, this person who would just deal with bands directly and who was tasked to know the weird stuff that was going on. They were the person on the street who really know what the weird thing was that was coming up. And almost every record company had one. They would funnel as much ad money as they could towards underground newspapers, because the ads were inexpensive. This would occasionally lead to incredibly bad advertising campaigns. Columbia records had one called "The Man canít bust our music"...
TB: Thereís a book by Thomas Frank about that, called The Conquest of Cool...
Byron: Yeah. I mean, itís a very curious era. Itís a co-option of the culture. It exploits it and at the same time supports it, so itís a weird paradox, it functions in a positive and a negative way at the same time. And itís why itís always hard for a commercial culture to have any kind of real aesthetic purity to it.
TB: Would you agree with Joe Carducci that rockíníroll was first and foremost a working class movement ?
Byron: Yes. I mean, initially. Joe is a total crackpot, there is no getting around that. But in its most basic way, yeah. Rockíníroll was almost a functional music, like folk music, an extension of folk music as a functional form, rather than an art music form. What happens is when rockíníroll becomes rock, thereís a transition into a adhorent music form rather than a functional one...
TB: Let me just insert a Richard Meltzer quote here because this is the perfect moment... "About í81 or í82, this situation occured that I call rock surround. Suddenly rock was in supermarkets and it was unavoidable. Thatís my main objection, that itís now mandatory."
Byron: Yeah... The thing is, Meltzer defines rock as having died before that. The way that Iíve always read Meltzer's take on this, is that once rock became self-aware of what it was doing, when it started examining itself, it stopped being interesting, it stopped being a real music, in a way. That what had worked for it was an immediacy and a kind of non-thinking, like a kind of pre-intellectual basis for it that gave it authenticity. And that once it started to develop this kind of intellectual overview of how it worked itself, the kind of meta-criticism of itself, then it ceased to function as a real rock thing. It started breaking down into all these other sub-groups of itself that are not pure, in a way. Although itís hard to figure what some of Meltzer's theoretical stuff is about and Iíve read that stuff a lot. When it starts getting ubiquitous is probably at that period, when youíd be in a supermarket and all of a sudden you would hear a weird arrangement of a Velvet Underground song or something like that. This is so far from what your initial reaction would be to hearing a Velvet Underground song. It turns into a kind of disgust as a kneejerk reaction to it.
TB: I wonder if the same could be said for hip-hop these days, because today we could talk of a "hip-hop surround", where itís basically the mass musical culture and itís used everywhere...
Byron: Itís true, itís definitely true and if you go to a gym and you hear these horrible arrangements of these hip-hop songs for exercise classes... The thing is, though, hip-hop always seemed to be a form that embraced somehow the inevitability of its own commercialization as part of its inception. Except for maybe an incredibly brief moment, it didnít try to operate in opposition to the desire for mainstream itself. It didnít see that as a bad thing, it saw the commercialization as potentially a good thing, always. Whereas, I think, rockíníroll stuff, up to a certain point, embraced the idea of commercialization as just, "fine, you just want to be more popular". There was nothing wrong with wanting to be more popular. Then when it starts examining itself, it goes to this period where there are real questions about wanting to be more popular. Hip-hop was the way the early rockíníroll was, which was, "the more people that hear this, the better". Thereís no problem in using this in different ways. The music that had the biggest problem with the transition began in the punk era. In terms of the music, itís kind of weird because it was almost considered as anti-music by people. You would play stuff that people now would consider incredibly melodic, but people would say, "Oh my god, that is really just noise". Like the way that I assume people did to Little Richard back in 1957. And punk had that same thing, but punk totally embraced the idea that it was racket. At the same time, it knew that it was a commercial product. People like Malcolm McLaren would make such a big deal of what is commercial and whatís not. But a lot of the early punk stuff went through major labels. So it was clearly aware of itself as a commercial product at the same time that it was trying to claim that it wasnít. So it was incredibly conflicted about all that stuff and it would only allow itself to be commercialiszed to whatever degree the band could agree on and beyond that, there would be these huge battles. Using stuff for commercials... itís unbelievable that some people would have wanted that stuff used anyway. Nobody would have dreamed of using this stuff in a commercial way, because it was jarring. And itís weird because you would think the same with hip-hop, but once people got used to the sound of it... I mean, Iím sure Bill OíReilly or these guys on Fox News must have whatever they think hip-hop is... But itís the most ubiquitous musical art form around the world, you know?
Culturally, it goes up and down with how commercial viability is seen. It could be seen as good or it could be seen as bad. Inside a scene, these shifts, by which way they shift really depends on a level of how the people who are getting involved in the music imagine that theyíre being viewed by the greater culture.
TB: Going back to poetry... Is poetry the last remaining language exploration devoid of economic concern ?
Byron: Language is becoming so marginalised. Printed language is becoming marginalised to a degree that I think a lot of written work is beneath economic concern (laughs). The days when you were being able to make a living as a music writer, which I did at certain points in my life... Itís hard to get paid to write about music anymore. And writing fiction, especially experimental fiction (laughs), very very tough racket to make any money. I think that there are a lot of different areas of writing now that are so difficult to make living doing, that people who do them do them because they enjoy it and because they feel compelled to do it for one reason or another. Poetry is certainly among those, but I think there are a lot of other kinds of writing these days that have gone to the point where they are done for the sheer pleasure of doing it, you know?
TB: Which is a good thing, because there is this whole other area of writing, like most online writing, which doesnít allow for any kind of digressive writing or, refering again to Meltzer, reviews that wouldnít talk about music at all but who would be creative and important...
Byron: Some of the things that people predicted would happen with the rise of the Internet and writing havenít really gone that way. What it seems to me is that a lot of the writing that ends up on the Internet, especially on some sort of organized magazine-type format, is less interesting and experimental than the stuff that I would see in magazines. Because people who bother to put together magazines or fanzines have more interest in the physicality of the writing an all that kind of stuff. So itís not like you could say that everything thatís printed now is more conservative and the stuff thatís online is free-for-all. Itís not like that at all. I see a lot of music writing online, because every month I do a column for The Wire where I write about singles and cassettes. They send me a bunch of stuff and usually thereís no press material with it at all. And they have a format requirement where what they want me to do in each review is to say where the artist is from and how many people are performing if itís an ensemble.
TB: I didnít know that this was a requirement, thatís interesting.
Byron: Itís not an absolute requirement, but if I can find it out, they want to know. If thereís at least some context for it, make mention of that.
TB: I had a question about the Size Matters column. I think it could be an example of a creative way to deal with space constraints in media. And itís really disapointing that you donít see that happen more with Twitter, people using it in a more creative manner to write some kind of modern-type of haÔkus or whatever...
Byron: I know !
TB: But you do have some content constraints within the small format.
Byron: Yeah, Ďcause otherwise, I think their idea, and I agree with it, is that basically thereís some grounding to the review regardless of how short it is. You at least know that this is a band from Brisbane with 3 people in it. So whatever follows after that follows some context, itís 3 people, itís not 1 person, itís not 10 people. I guess they figured that it would generally come up in a longer review, but in a short review it could be sort of unhinged, and some of my reviews are so abstract to a degree, that you wouldnít know if it was a one-person electronic thing or a 10-men horn orchestra (laughs). If you do that, then it gives you the freedom to go a little bit abstract, you donít have to be very specific.
But what I was saying though, is because I do that, I have to go online and with some of these bands, it takes forever; they donít have a Bandcamp, Soundcloud... Iím trying to figure out if maybe they have an old Facebook page, whatever. Iím trying to figure out where theyíre from, OK, theyíre from Iowa and this picture makes it look like there are four of Ďem. But thereís nothing listed on the cassette, you know, whatever. But in the course of doing that, then Iíll run into reviews of different things. And on peopleís go-to sites, I donít want to necessarily name names, but the sites you run into where there are a lot of reviews that people seem to take as credible, I run into these godamn reviews... And also, we run a record label and I write one-sheets for all the releases, which are the things that go to the distributor, and that the distributor puts in as a description. And I gotta say, I look at these fucking things, and these people who are doing these reviews are just rewriting the one-sheets! I can put lies in my one-sheets, and theyíll get recirculated all the time. I used to write all Sonic Youthís one-sheets and I would put outright lies in there. And then people would ask the band about them in interviews , and the band would go, "Oh, thatís just a lie". I donít know what these people think, there is no money in this writing anymore. So I donít know why itís drawing people to it who donít seem to have any interest in listening to a fucking record and tell me what it sounds like. Thatís all you gotta do, I mean itís good if you mention a couple names or previous bands people have been in, its good to know, itís not absolutely essential to know but does this record do anything to you? Itís like, nobody trusts their hearing. What it is, really, is nobody wants to be the person to write about how this band Nirvana sucks.
TB: Or to get it wrong, as if there was a way to get it right...
Byron: Yeah! Like, who cares man? Itís your opinion. Thereís not a wrong answer and a right answer. I think I gave the first Nirvana single a very lukewarm review. And I can remember, a label like Sub Pop... Mudhoney, I thought, were really great... Soundgarden, I fucking hated ! To me this was like fucking Led Zeppelin which, who needs it, you know? It was my take on it but people would be like, "I canít believe it... ".
Anyway, people are affraid to say, "This is really good for this reason" or "This is really bad for this reason", because then, the overwhelming sentiment is gonna be on the other side of the fence. Maybe youíll be remembered for giving a bad review to the greatest record of the year, but nobody is going to remember it anyway, so... (Laughs)
TB: Online writing, nobody remembers it after five minutes...
Byron: Yeah! It used to be that a lot of people wrote for weeklies, and I wrote for tons of Ďem. And itís like, man, why do you care? People read Ďem, throw íem in the garbage, recycle Ďem, and itís like it never existed. Now, trying to find writings from some of them, unless they have an online archive, itís like that shit never existed. So youíre free and clear (laughs)... Evidently, online itís gonna last a bit longer but you should have your own opnion.
If there was money in cow-towing and doing this, I would sort of understand it, because thereís always people who are careerist fucks. Itís just the nature of anything. But itís like what, so your dream is to write for Rolling Stone or I donít know what...
TB: Or Vice... I mean, theyíre probably the only people paying for that stuff at this point.
Byron: Yeah, nobodyís paying for that stuff so what is your goal? And why do you think that not having an opinion would sort of get you there? Itís mystifying. Why the fuck are you bothering with this stuff? I mean, is this a class assigment somewhere? Are your parents making you do this? (Laughs) So it looks like you have a job and theyíll keep supporting you or something? I really donít get it. Itís a little disheartening to read some of that stuff. I mean, thereís always been a lot of disheartening music writing. But now it seems like the preponderence of it is... I donít know what itís really adding to the conversation.
TB: You've said before (about the Internet) that "the quality of information that's floating around has become questionable". Do you think that the last U.S. presidential campaign has set a new paradigm in that regard?
Byron: As regards the questionable quality of information of the Internet, that's one thing I can't lay at Trump's feet, although he has certainly done nothing to combat it. I think it has more to do with the fact that there are many fewer editors and fact-checkers through who the material must pass before it gets spread around. While, on one hand, I can appreciate the immediacy of doing without these "gate keepers", they also serve a qualitative purpose vis-a-vis both information and style. Without them, false information breeds like a bad virus, self-replicating until it crowds out actual facts. It's really a pain in the ass and if you don't really know that the true story is, it can be very difficult to figure it out from internet-based "information".
TB: Coming back to your new book, I think that your writing has a lot of slang and quite unusual English words, which makes the Quťbťcois translation work really well, from a French speaker from Franceís perspective, because then you encounter unsual French words too. Do you try to surprise the reader by reviving unused words?
Byron: Iíve always liked old slang. Slang words that are archaic, that have fallen out of use, that I would hear in movies when I was a kid. You like the sound of them, and you like the fact that they sound interesting even if nobody knows what they mean (laughs). Like, lollygagging, you know? Itís just a great sounding word! I worked with a translator, Marie Frankland, really closely in trying to explain what these phrases mean and where theyíre from. Like, some of these words, itís really a 1930s thing, and it comes from this thing that people used to do but that nobody does anymore. The phrase still hangs around, you might hear an old guy at a barbershop say it. There are a lot of words and phrases that just sound really good. The fact that theyíve fallen out of use doesnít really bother me much (laughs).
TB: It shouldnít, I guess.
Byron: As to whether I use them on purpose, I just find that there are instances where they work really well. They define what youíre going for a little bit better and they have an archaic feel to it also. Some of them are sort of gangstery slang, they have different qualities that I find attractive. Iíve always used that kind of stuff and old catchphrases in my reviewing and other writing for pretty much as long as Iíve been doing it. Meltzer did some of that stuff. I took a writing class once, in the 70s, and the teacher said, the thing to do is just to write like you speak, which Iíd not really thought of. So I started to do more of that. Sometimes I really labor over stuff, but I try to make things conversational, like if I were telling somebody about it, how would it sound?
TB: Thatís how these poems feel, like an on-going conversation with an old pal...
Byron: Itís kind of what I shoot for. I like poetry because they're sort of compact in a way. You write an article and it just goes on and on (laughs), itís hard because you donít want to change the tone of it too much as you go, it seems confusing or unnecessary. When you pick a tone, at least when I write an article, you want to stick to that pretty much, you donít want to fiddle around too much. Whereas poems, you can do different things, theyíre sort of shorter bursts of stuff. I never really liked poetry very much until Meltzer started putting poetry books out. But when he put his first poetry book out, 17 Insects Can Die Your Heart, I sort of got it. I started to really collecting poetry then. Thurston Moore and I were really intense poetry collectors for a long time. We spent 10 years putting together weird poetry stuff. And people had told me, "Well, youíre better off waiting till youíre a bit older to write poetry". So I didnít feel any necessity then to really dive into it until I felt like doing it.
TB: Who were your favorite lyricists in early U.S. punk and hardcore ?
Byron: Chris D., Darby Crash... Iíve gotta say Glenn Danzig, those early Misfists singles crack me up. Theyíre fantastic. Keith Morrisí lyrics with Black Flag I think are really outstanding, less with the Circle Jerks. And I really like Penelope Houstonís stuff with The Avengers, the Kinman stuff with The Dils... Of the Dangerhouse bands, not so much The Weirdos... I always had a soft spot for Richard Hell and Johnny Thunders stuff, the Heartbeakers-era stuff, songs like "Chinese Rocks", itís just so ridiculously good. The Ramones lyrics, obviously were incredible, I mean, those songs are really amazing, like on a Chuck Berry level; so basic, just perfect.
TB: They have lines that get stuck in your head for life, basically.
Byron: Yeah, you just never shake Ďem. To me the first Ramones album was classic on the level of the first Stooges album or the first Velvets ablum, you just get to a point where youíve played it enough that you never have to play it again, Ďcause you can play any songs in your head at any time (laughs). Theyíre amazing. For non-American bands, some of the English Blabbermouth bands, like The Fall, Alternative TV.
TB: Were the English bands, in your opinion, more well-read, more sophisticated?
Byron: They seemed to know a little bit more, but maybe it was just a different perspective on stuff, you know? Because with English bands, I prefer the more post-punk sort of bands. I mean, I really like the first Buzzcocks seven-inch with Devoto, The Damned, all of these are good records... but theyíre riff records in a way. The only Sex Pistols song that I think is amazing is "I Wanna Be Me", which is the flip of the "Anarchy..." single. These lines, I got you in my camera / A second of your life / Ruined for life / You want to cover me in your magazine / You want to cover us in margerine (laughs), these are really good lyrics.
TB:Not very sophisticated, I guess.
Byron: I found the British punk bands lyrics not very literary until The Fallís start. Saccharine Trust always had insanely good lyrics.
TB: What about the Minutemen ?
Byron: The Minutemen are not like any other band, the way that they compressed the stuff...I mean, the Ramones compressed stuff, but they did it in a pop way. The Minutemen compressed stuff like these...Situationist posters (laughs).
TB: They were cryptic.
Byron: Yeah, these cryptic slogans. But you get the idea of whatís going along. But every line could be almost different. And every line could be the basis for a song of its own, you know? But theyíre so compressed, I mean theyíd strip adverbs out from stuff, theyíd strip out adjectives from stuff, theyíd be these chains of words. When I was on the West Coast in those years, I thought that was the best scene in terms of sounds and also of words. There are a lot of really smart people who have been in bands and who have written impressive songs. At the same time, there are great songs, if you look at them, youíre like, "These lyrics are shit!" (laughs). But they sound really good!
TB: The delivery is also an important part...
Byron: Yeah, the delivery, they make them sound like theyíre great and when you look at them, youíre like, "Thereís really not much here". Itís the package that makes the whole thing work or not.
TB: Like the Avengersí "We Are the One" chorus, it looks stupid but when she sings it, itís the most amazing thing.
Byron: Yeah. That band was so incredible live, too. Itís also where you are when you listening to some stuff, things like that.
TB: How strong an influence was American New Journalism on your writing ?
Byron: Quite a bit. I suscribed to New York Magazine when there was a lot of stuff written at that time of the New Journalism stuff. And Tom Wolfeís books were a huge influence, especially The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; Hunter Thompson, the Hells Angels era stuff especially. Iíd read articles those guys wrote. Tom Wolfeís 'Radical Chic' was one of the greatest pieces. Those were really interesting pieces and there were a lot of guys who were good writers but although I didnít understand it at the time, it appealed to me that they inserted themselves into the story, that they made an active interaction with the people rather than an impassive narrator who was sitting somewhere, all-knowing, all-seeing. That was something that appealed to me in an instinctual kind of way. But then again, when Meltzer would be doing his writing, whether he was creating a character Richard Meltzer or whether this was something he really did didnít really matter. But I like the fact that you can project onto the stuff. Same thing with Lester Bangs when heíd be in his story, even if it was obnoxious, it gave it a whole different quality.
TB: Itís engaging.
Byron: Yeah ! To me, it was more interesting than just reading another piece about Lou Reed, or whoever else. They could be writing about something really boring, but it would be really funny, Ďcause they were like, "Hereís my day with Ted Nugent..." (laughs) It was considered pretty revolutionary when it was going on. There are some guys who are not really considered New Journalism who took it to an extreme, thereís a writer named Frederic Exley, he wrote A Fan's Notes and Pages from a Cold Island, really insane books just about himself, but theyíre so fucked-up. Itís like Under The Volcano for dummies (laughs). I had a friend who took courses from him, he said he was the worst fucking teacher, which I can believe (laughs).
TB:You've written a book about Chuck Norris. How did that come about? Was it a command or personal interest? What makes (or made) Chuck Norris interesting to you?
Byron: Chuck Norris book...well, I knew a women in New York named Karen Moline who was Lester Bangs' editor. She formed a company called 2M with another woman named Madeline Morel. They worked as "book packagers." This meant they would approach publishers with a concept, then provide writers and photographers to fulfill the concept. At one point they were pitching the idea of a series of "quickie bios" (meaning, usually, unauthorized work) on horror film directors. I signed up to do one on David Cronenberg, to be called Picture Window on Nightmare Alley. The series never came to fruition, but a couple of months later I got a call from them telling me that St. Martin's was looking for a quickie bio of Chuck Norris. I had never seen a Chuck Norris film, but said I'd do it. I think the contract was to deliver a 60,000 words manuscript in two months or something. So I did that. And the next week they asked if I could do a Motley Crue book in ten days. So I did that too.
TB:Have you kept up written correspondence, such as the letters in Cíest la Guerre, throughout the years?
Byron: I do some, but the e-mail era has curtailed what I do.
TB:I would assume, also with the Claude Pťlieu art show, that mail art is something youíve been interested in as well.
Byron: Yeah, yeah. I used to do correspondence a lot, itís how I met people like Gary Panter, people from World Imitation... In the pre-punk era, there were a lot of people, like people from Devo, who were involved in correspondence art stuff, which was part of the weirdo curiculum that was going on then. How weirdos sort of got in touch with each other and find people that way, people would be doing mini-comics and things like that. I did alot of correspondence for a long time. It really started falling off in the early 90s when I had kids and the Internet picked up after that. I used to write letters for two hours every morning. Back in the fanzine days, in the 80s, that was how you kept in touch with people, youíd write to these other record collectors to swap records, fanzine editors, guys who did label stuff... it was the only way to find out about shit. When a new magazine came out, I would go through and everything I didnít know that sounded interesting, I would write to the label or the person. So there was massive amounts of correspondence that was going on. And in my other book, there were some people whom I wrote long letters like that just about junk that was going on. There are a few people that I still write letters to, but not all that much, which is kind of sad. I still try to document as much stuff as I can. I have all my correspondence, every letter I got since 1980, I still have it. I should get it organized. Itís a dream worth pursuing.
This interview was originally done for Psycho Disco #3 and appears in print in their pages. Thanks to Alex and Julien for letting us borrow it.
Interview by Julien Besse, 2017.
To read other TB interviews, go here.
'Defense Against Squares' is available from the publisher HERE.
You can also purchase 'C'est la Guerre', a collection of Byron's early writings from them HERE.
Visit Feeding Tube Records HERE.
The editor also recommends purchasing Byron's LP 'Dating Tips for Touring Bands' HERE.
Check out Bull Tongue Review HERE.
Pictures for this interview were borrowed from the internet. Thank you.
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