GREG SHAW: DIALOGUE WITH THE GARAGE GURU
(Here's a piece of fan scrawl of which I'm particularly proud. It originally ran in BLACK TO COMM #24 with some of the copy inadvertently omitted. At the time, I was very hard on the editor about this, but in fairness, it was 14,000 words over 27 pages that he had to paste up. Mea culpa. It used to be online on the Bomp site, but has since disappeared, so I've trimmed it down to under 10,000 words and will let it reside here for as long as it will.)
As a teenager, I read Greg Shaw’s “Juke Box Jury” column in Creem magazine religiously. I even wrote him a letter when I was 15, praising his writing and taste and asking what kind of drugs he and the other Creem folk used to enhance their creativity. He wrote back, assuring me that no one at Creem indulged in illegal substances, and I shouldn't, either. Probably figured I was an undercover narc.
What I didn't realize was that Greg was arguably the father of what came to be known as "rock journalism," founding Mojo-Navigator when he was only 17. He went on to edit another rock zine, Who Put the Bomp, before going to work compiling reissues for United Artists and later Sire Records, and starting his own label and store, Bomp, releasing archival Stooges material under the rubric “The Iguana Chronicles” as well as garage rock and psychedelia.
Prior to our interview, I'd been in touch with Greg, seeking the whereabouts of certain MIA Stooges members, and asked him if he remembered the dreaded letter of my misguided youth. While allowing that "I remember very little from 1972," Greg said some nice, encouraging things when I told him I was trying to do a little rock ‘n’ roll writing. He’d had a pancreatic transplant the previous year, but sounded healthy and engaged when we spoke a couple of times in late March 2000.
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K: What motivated you to get started in the 'zine world? How'd you learn the mechanics of 'zine production?
G: In sci-fi fandom, the only way to get status is by publishing ("pubbing") 'zines. I started at 13 or 14 and had already put out a couple hundred very crappy 'zines, as well as contributing actively to other people's 'zines, by the time I left home in 1966 at age 17. Without knowing it, I was following the course of people like Lenny Kaye (I have sci-fi 'zines of his as old as 1960) and Paul Williams (the early issues of Crawdaddy! were all self-published on a mimeograph). So before I arrived in San Francisco, I already knew how to write, edit and publish. I wanted to be a part of the scene, this was my only talent (and I really enjoyed the whole process of publishing, besides), so I started a music 'zine to chronicle what was going on in that city at that time. Everything grew out of that.
K: What was the impetus behind the transition from your early sci-fi 'zines to Mojo-Navigator?
G: I wanted to contribute something to the scene, be respected by the people who were making it happen. There was a need for a paper, I had the obvious idea to do it, and it worked out well. I became a focal point of the music scene without even half trying. Of course, don't forget I had two partners in it. I mainly did the printing and distribution and ad sales, and a little writing. Most of the serious writing was done by the actual editor, Dave Harris. I was managing editor.
K: Were you ever in contact with Paul Williams at the time?
G: He came out to San Francisco in 1967 and looked me up. We drove around the city together, had some good conversations, and have kept loosely in touch ever since. I believe he knew my name, as I knew his, from sci-fi fandom. It's a bit hazy to tell the truth. I was also very close to the late Chester Anderson, a friend of his (and author of possibly the first hippie sci-fi novel, The Butterfly Kid) who later took over as editor of Crawdaddy.
K: What were you up to between the end of Mojo-Navigator and the start of Who Put the Bomp?
G: Mojo-Navigator folded in late '67 when we ran out of money. It was professionally printed by then, with a big up-front print bill, so advertising was more and more necessary, and after awhile I just couldn't juggle it any more. It never made much money, especially after we went to national distribution, which means you send a few hundred zines to various hippie distributors who'd take 'em around to head shops, and of course you never get paid. (Barry Kramer was our distributor in Detroit, before he started Creem, and he was one of the few who were legit.) So, I fell back on working at the post office, the only place that would hire long-haired guys in those days. I stayed there a couple years, until Suzy and I got a little leather business going. We made fringed suede vests in the living room of our little cottage, the place Lester visited. It was her business, but I helped, also stringing beads and making macrame.
K: What motivated you to re-enter the rock 'zine wars?
G: Once you get hooked on the stream of free records in the mail, concert invitations, and being recognized and treated like a star on the scene, it's hard to settle for a mundane life. Plus I was full of opinions I wanted to share. It was inevitable I'd start something up again. I was really only out of the scene for two years.
K: How would you say "rock journalism" has evolved over the years?
G: Honestly, it seems to have started at a peak and gone progressively downhill. Not that I would put myself anywhere near that peak, but of the first generation writers (ca. '66-'72), consider you had Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Lillian Roxon, Paul Williams, Jon Landau, Ed Ward, Langdon Winner, Greil Marcus, Richard Meltzer, Bud Scoppa, John Mendelssohn, Nik Cohn, Lenny Kaye, Nick Tosches, Peter Guralnick, Charlie Gillett, Sandy Pearlman, a bunch of folks at Crawdaddy and Fusion whose names slip my mind -- all first rate writers. These people didn't just review records (Hi Bob Christgau! Sorry you didn't make my list!) -- they wrote thoughtful essays going beneath the surface of the music into social commentary, exploration of roots, psychological insights, etc. They were serious writers, with something to say.
K: Yeah, you can't leave Guralnick off any list of greats. I'll admit to having missed out on his Elvis tomes, but his early works on blues were pretty seminal reading for me. Of the others you mentioned, Lillian Roxon was actually one of the ones who changed my life the most, ‘cause the very first thing I ever read about the Who was an excerpt from her Rock Encyclopedia in some Scholastic rag they used to give away at school. After Lester, the god-king for me was Nik Cohn -- the original '69 edition of Rock from the Beginning (AKA Awopbopaloobop) was the shit; I was extremely disappointed by some of the excisions (cf. some slanderous stuff about Simon Napier-Bell) from the '73 revised edition that Da Capo reissued a coupla years back.
G: Nik Cohn ruled! I liked some of his early fiction, but outside the rock ghetto he didn't seem to measure up so well. Lillian was a sweetheart -- I met her when I was still living in Marin, at a luncheon with Danny Fields. I was in awe of these people at the time, and still am a little bit.
Anyway, the next stage seemed to come in the early-mid '70s, when writers were being treated like royalty by the record industry, with all kinds of junkets and freebies, and as a result the rock press consisted largely of regurgitated press releases. Creem was the only meaningful exception. But the new writers it produced, while often good, didn't measure up to the standards of their predecessors, many of whom had either stopped writing, moved on to editorial positions or more profitable work elsewhere.
Then you had the generation that came in with punk, many of whom were barely literate and, like the music they covered, offered mainly attitude. At least they had that. What came after that -- Trouser Press, Option, Maximum R&R, Flipside... hack writing for the most part, but at least motivated by love of music, and still better than what came later. The only good writer I can think of who came out of the '70s was Nick Kent. Forced Exposure was good in the '80s; can't forget Byron Coley. But all I see anymore are slick publications wanting to be Spin (a terrible magazine to begin with), with uninformed, superficial writing, limited to band bios, interviews in which nothing is said, and endless reviews of bands about whom there is really nothing much to say in the first place. Egad, I'm starting to sound like Oswald Spengler!
K: I mostly share your opinion that things started at a peak and went downhill. I think it might have to do with the cultural referents folks who were motivated to write about rock ‘n’ roll brought to the table in the sixties vice today -- largely a function of what was going on in the educational system and the media during their formative years, but that's just my theory.
G: I tend to agree with you. There was more cultural "matrix" around the bare bones of the music, into which one could sink one's intellectual teeth (how's that for a mixed metaphor?). What can you say about most bands these days except "kinda like Oasis but with more reverb," etc. Music is no longer central to anybody's culture except maybe hardcore punkers, and I wonder about them too. Everything is completely derivative. If we had some great bands, we might have some great writing--but then great bands seem to emerge from more fertile cultural soil than we've had for quite some time now.
K: What's your take on Jim DeRogatis' bio of Lester Bangs? I understand it has some of Lester's old associates up in arms.
G: Haven't seen the Bangs book yet. I've pre-ordered it at Amazon but they don't have it yet. I know there are advance copies floating around. DeRogatis came to my house and interviewed me for it, though I'm not as full of good anecdotes as many others must be. I only knew him well during the week or so he stayed with me, and met him a few other times beside that. But I'd be curious to see what the book has to offer. (I'd also like to know what happened to all Lester's unpublished stuff, including a novelette I read in manuscript; I fear his archives are not in the best hands...)
K: How would you assess Lester's contribution?
G: I agree with the consensus that Lester was the best rock writer ever, though others were better writers in a literary sense. (I edited many of Lester's manuscripts -- and sure wish I'd kept them! -- and you wouldn't believe how bad his spelling and syntax could be. I don't mean his creativity with words, I mean just drunken sloppiness.) He put passion and audacity and humor into his work, with an overriding intellectual honesty. He was like a burning comet. He's been compared to Kerouac, but frankly I think he's better. Kerouac lacks the total commitment, the fire. One never feels he's putting himself on the line for anything, but rather just recording what others around him do. Lester was an actor on life's stage, as well as a writer in Kerouac's be-bop tradition. Of course I could be wrong.
K: What was your take on the post-Who Put the Bomp crop of fanzines (cf. Back Door Man, New Haven Rock Press, Teenage Wasteland Gazette, etc.)?
G: This was a great generation. In my earlier rant, I was thinking of the professional press, but in fact these 'zines (and don't forget Rock Marketplace, one of the best) really kept alive the fanzine spirit I always placed above mere "professionalism." Back Door Man was superb. Hey, I'm surprised you even know about some of this stuff. New Haven Rock Press? Didn't know anybody remembered that at all.
K: What attracted you to the Flamin' Groovies' music?
G: Well, I knew and liked them before I left San Francisco, especially when they added Chris Wilson on vocals. I kept up thru their Skydog EPs and being at UA, of course I heard the two singles they did with Dave Edmunds, which just blew away practically everything else happening in music circa 1973. It became a passion to help these guys get their music heard.
K: What made you think you could make a go of it with an independent record label in 1974?
G: I didn't ever think that. It was at first a one-shot effort to get the Groovies' career jump-started. After I saw how much fun, and fairly easy, it was to put out records, I started casting about among my other friends from '60s bands to see what unreleased stuff they might have. I even did an EP with John Mendelssohn! I figured we could sell to Who Put the Bomp's subscriber base and break even on anything with the right kind of appeal. It was only when I saw the new scenes emerging in New York and London that I thought about a record label as a serious venture.
K: You were an early advocate of Brit glam stuff (cf. Slade, Gary Glitter, Sweet) in your "Juke Box Jury" columns. What caught your ear about that music?
G: It was great and still is! Catchy, bubble-gummy songs, hard-edged guitar, trebly crisp production, flashy style--it was everything those horrible post-hippie early '70s hated. It was a tonic for its times, and not only that, it inspired genuine teen-mania in the UK, always a good thing.
K: What's your take on "punk" -- its early promise versus what it actually delivered?
G: It depends on what you mean by "punk" -- to me it was always the first wave ('75-'79) but I bet most kids these days have never heard much of that stuff. So as I said, I liked the early stuff, and some of the later stuff, but after 1980 it was all pretty irrelvant to music, as I saw it. Since it was so badly performed and produced, and filled with nothing but screaming hostility, it belonged in its own little ghetto where no doubt it satisfied the high-testosterone demands of kids 15-17. But it certainly wasn't my world. I realize some of those bands, like Husker Du or the Meat Puppets, grew up and did better stuff, but I wasn't dialed into it, so it mostly passed me by.
K: How do you account for the Stooges' long-term popularity? Over the last few years, they've become an extremely popular influence to namecheck.
G: Well, it must be partly because Iggy's still out there, but probably more that each new generation hears about them as something ya gotta be into (a la Velvet Underground, Sex Pistols) and so checks 'em out. I don't really know how popular they are, if you judge by record sales. I think only the dedicated seekers of coolth really buy the stuff. Ron does spin a good yarn, and he did some great stuff on guitar in early days, but it's been a long time since he did anything that good. I don't think he has a following. It's just that he's the only Stooge who'll talk about the old days. The fact that this band "invented punk" as far back as 1968 will probably keep 'em in the history books forever.
K: What is it about fandom that makes it so alluring as a lifestyle?
G: I'd say the sense of active involvement in something you love, which is constantly being discouraged by corporate interests, or at least shunted into purchasing their merchandise. Being involved is always a more satisfying experience than just watching from the audience.
K: What changes do you foresee in the future of rock music and fandom in the next decade?
G: Who can look that far ahead anymore? But my long range prediction is that rock 'n' roll as we've known it, and its attendant fandom, will retreat into enclaves where preservation becomes the focus. I fear the time will come when there is no audience left for live bands, or for records, except in small cultic scenes connected through the Internet. In short, a hobby, far away from any commercial mainstream. Of course, many hobbies are widespread and profitable for those involved. I remain an optimist.
K: What caused you to shift your focus to the Internet?
G: Well, you've gotta have a website these days if you have a business, and once I got into it I realized how much like a fanzine-publishing it was, yet how much better, and it came to fill the void in my life left when I stopped doing 'zines.
K: How do you think computers and specifically the Internet have changed the nature of fandom?
G: I think it's almost entirely for the better. Fans can network across the world, and even bands or genres with microscopic followings can erect websites and find each other via keywords. E-mail and Internet mailing lists keep fans organized and in touch in the same way fanzine letter columns once did, only instantaneously. This is all good.
My only problem with all this is that I love records -- I never even really accepted CDs -- and when they talk about a future when all music is on your hard drive, and you listen through a jukebox on the desktop, and burn your own CDs (all of which many people are already doing), I have to wonder what this will do to the medium of records. I just think a tangible object has more heart, more essence, than a digital signal on a hard drive. I don't want to read Finnegan’s Wake on my laptop, just as I don't want to get e-mail on my wristwatch or microwave, though they tell us this is what we must expect; in fact I go out of my way to find hardcover editions of my favorite books because I like the tactile experience of hefting the weight, turning the pages, etc. And the same with records. I enjoy the packaging, the graphics, the annotations, the sense of connection with all the other music that's been on record for the past century.
I think technology is useful where it makes things better, but that some things are best just they way they've been. You can still read a book that was published 500 years ago, yet I can't open files I wrote in 1992 because the software is outdated. I don't see the advantage.) Am I getting old?
K: What do you look for in music? What makes music great to you?
G: That's a good question -- meaning a hard one to answer! It goes without saying, I've always been attracted to music that's rooted in the best traditions of the '60s; that's where my template of what great rock ‘n’ roll should be was formed. The thing I liked about punk in the beginning was that it had the same DIY aesthetic, and I saw it as a continuation of the local band movement that dried up around 1969. Of course punk was much more than that, but I never followed it all the way. I completely lost interest when it became hardcore, and I never understood grunge at all, the way it was based in what I was accustomed to thinking of as joke bands: Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, et al. Except for Neil Young.
But real '60s purists don't usually share my tastes at all, because I also dislike "identikit" (good Brit term) bands who just repeat the same cliches of some dead scene. I prefer to see some fresh stamp of personality put on it, and some unexpected combination of influences I've never heard before. Some recent examples being Spiritualized, Ride, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dandy Warhols, Beachwood Sparks, et al. Sixties purists like these bands, but for me they have far more of the original '60s spirit than any revivalists. And I have yet to hear a punk revival band half as good as their influences.
I should also make it explicit that one of the most satisfying kinds of rock to me has always been that which combined raw power with good songcraft and a poppy edge: from the Who through the Undertones and Dead Boys to the Hoodoo Gurus to the Real Kids and even some of the post-grunge bands like Green Day or the Foo Fighters.
K: Steve Gardner of NKVD Records wrote on the Divine Rites List, "Bands like the Hellacopters are going to split people like us right down the middle."
G: Sometimes our favorite musical ghettos are riven by differences of taste, but a real community is tolerant of this sort of thing. What a band like the Hellacopters is more likely to do is draw together elements from the garage community, the sub-Stooges community, the post-grungers, and others, into a temporary fan group that will dissolve when they do, or grow out of recognition. A good enough band soon outgrows the scene they started in and begins to define its following on its own terms. To write about these things as somehow meaningful outside their small circle of participants is not comparable to the angst felt 30 years ago at the decline of "rock" as a unifying force of world youth (whether true or not).
K: Maybe as society grows more inward, fandom becomes more purely personal. There's no consensus anymore, no big overarching "Us." As somebody (Greil Marcus?) wrote in one of those big Rolling Stone coffee table books, "The last thing we all agreed about was the Beatles." Beyond the fact that bands/genres can't survive without some kind of broad-based audience support, do you think community is an important dimension of fandom?
G: There's probably a human need for some kind of community. They say that any group of people tends to divide into smaller groups when it reaches a certain size, and there's a certain number, whether it's 200 or whatever...the tribal size that people are most comfortable with, where they know everybody [and have] a degree of status, and when a community outgrows that, it usually splinters. That's a theory that I'm sort of receptive to. How a whole generation shared this sense of community in the '60s is, in retrospect, quite baffling. I think drugs had much to do with it.
K: I was talking to Scott Richardson from SRC about the psychedelic experience (and, uh, yes, in a certain way, I'm returning now to the letter I wrote you in 1972!) -- specifically, how that experience caused a lot of people to perceive the interconnectedness of things, and kind of made community and belonging greater values than they normally would have been in a mass or pop-culture type of audience.
G: I think it kind of created a mass illusion or delusion that was so commonplace that everybody involved had no problem believing it was real. Except it couldn't withstand any real pressure. I remember those psychedelic days, and very strongly feeling a sense of community, not just in San Francisco, but with young people all around the world. A new Beatles record would come out and I'd think, "Yeah, they're talkin' to US!" A lot of that was just illusory. Like when you take Ecstasy; these rave kids must be having the same sensation. Everybody's your friend, you love everybody, and then it wears off and, "Oh, wait a minute, where's my wallet?" That's the problem with psychedelics -- they can give you a vision, but they can also separate you from reality.
K: You were shaped by your love of books and the experience of reading, and being exposed to information that way. It seems that kids your son's age assimilate and process information differently -- we were kind of linear, whereas they're exposed to computers from when they're four or five.
G: But I think there's going to be a certain number who will appreciate the past in the sense of the Modern Lovers' "I'm In Love with the Old World." There'll always be a certain number of kids who are just appalled by the hype over technology and want to grab onto something more real, but they won't be able to escape having grown up with such vast information overload. They say books' days are numbered. I don't think so, but I think their influence is over, as far as the culture goes. The novelist is not even taken seriously anymore. That's okay; you can't mourn the passing of anything, because it's gonna pass.
K: As far as being the primary way in which the culture is transmitted, you're probably right. But it was very interesting to me earlier this year to see my daughter who's 15 getting into 'zine publishing, and a bunch of her friends are into it, and they're in touch with kids all over the country who are doing this, and they trade each other stuff and she's talking about starting a distributorship with a couple of her friends.
G: Why are they doing it on paper?
K: I'm not sure. I have to ask her, but I think they enjoy (as you do) the tactile sensation of the artifact.
G: Just seeing it, holding it in your hand, "Look, I made this!" There's something to that.
K: I remember watching her pasting up her 'zine one day and wondering, "Where did she learn to do that?" And she learned it from a friend of hers, who learned it from another girl she met on the Internet. How wild is that?
G: I think the permutations are unlimited, and I don't wanna sit in judgment of it; I think it's all to the good. Self-expression is always better than passive consumerism, which is all I see nowadays, outside the Internet. I don't see many non-commercial, personality-based 'zines coming out these days, though I'm sure there are some, compared to so many great ones in the 70s and 80s. But maybe I'm out of touch. I'd have guessed websites and e-groups now fill the role of 'zines, to a large extent.
K: What is it about the 'net that makes it so conducive to this kind of expression?
G: I suppose the fact that's so easy to self-publish and find readers by linking to other sites, etc. Then if what you're doing is cool, it'll rapidly reach everyone who's potentially interested. The big bottleneck in traditional media is distribution. Any way around that should make for better dissemination of music and ideas. The only thing holding it back now is that not everyone is yet connected, and some countries hardly at all.
Even though my generation grew up reading, how many kids never read a book after they got out of high school? Probably 95% of them. So what good did it do to grow up in a literary generation if only 5% of the people actually read? Maybe nowadays, 100% of people are actually reading and writing, even if what they're reading and writing is drivel, they're in the habit of reading and writing, and some of them may go on to become decent writers in mediums that we can't even imagine now! So what? I love language and the use of language, and I think the written word is the place for it. I can't believe anyone with a talent for writing and a love of words, now or in the future, will be much different. But forms have to change.
K: Having said all that, do you think the level of discourse in this country is sinking?
G: I'm not even aware of any discourse in this country, outside of very narrow academic circles. Mass media don't participate in it. Where would you go to find actual discourse? The only place I would look for it would be around the dinner table with a well-selected group of friends, but it's not in the national arena at all, as far as I can see. We have an election going on; what issues are being discussed? All we're seeing discussed is personalities and poll results. It's been that way for a long time. You compare the media in the country to anyplace in Europe...England, for instance...they don't get into personalities; they get into issues and debate these issues. They set up a Parliament and they argue back and forth...this doesn't go on in this country! It's not part of our tradition...well, that's not true; it was part of our tradition 200 years ago, but it's been a long time.
K: What do you think caused that to change? Was it just technology, or some combination of factors?
G: I'm trying to think of the last time we had any, for instance, political discourse. Probably the ‘50s. It might well be that people were more literate and more capable of public speech because they had studied Latin, or whatever. I think all of that stuff was just fading away as television became more effective than print as a medium, that the parameters of television became the parameters of public debate...how good somebody looks, rather than substance of what they say. Because that worked, that became the style. I just wonder why it happened the same way around the rest of the world. I dunno, maybe it's just because I live here, but it really does seem that wherever you look -- Australia, or Germany, or Japan -- people are just a lot more aware of everything, and they're better educated and more able to carry on an argument or a conversation. I don't know what's wrong with this country!
K: I was communicating via e-mail with a fella in Australia, and he was asking all these questions about the Presidential campaign here, and he knew things about the candidates that I wouldn't have known about political candidates in Australia, certainly.
G: Our press doesn't report anything outside America. We're very blinkered.
K: It seems at times that the short attention span, which when we were growing up, was exemplified in the technology of the 45 RPM record -- you had to get your message across in two or three minutes, or it just wasn't going to work -- has become the model for political discourse. We're locked into these sound bites, these snippets taken completely out of context that mean nothing.
G: (But 78s were even shorter...!) I don't know if it's inevitable that that will change around the world. England has such a strong parliamentary tradition of oratory; I can't really see that going away because they love their traditions. We don't have traditions here, so there's nothing to preserve.
K: It's not unique to the parliamentarians there; you go to the Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park and average people are getting up and declaiming. You see that in this country, but they generally get arrested and hauled off to jail.
G: You avoid those people because, y'know, they're schizophrenic. Yeah, I think there is some kind of fundamental difference, because this country never had any real depth, sad to say. But I've never worried about that, because I don't identify with the masses. I'm very much of an elitist; I think that one half of one percent of the world constitutes everything there is in the culture and progress, and the rest of 'em are just consumers; they don't really matter. A terribly elitist attitude, but I think it's backed by the facts. I'm a believer in what used to be called the "natural aristocracy" (actually a meritocracy) and for that matter, I'm something of a Monarchist!
K: Twenty-five years of Bomp is pretty phenomenal!
G: I think you should count the ten years that existed before that, too. I mean, everything I've tried to do has been under that name. I just started out when I was 16; I wanted to be involved in music any way I could. I've tried writing and publishing and making records and importing and exporting and running record stores and sponsoring concerts and booking bands...I've done a thousand things, but it's all to the same point: to try and get the cool music to the people. It's kind of like a mission. I don't really believe in it the way I used to, but it's kind of become second nature to me. I know how to find good music that isn't getting any exposure, and I can give it a little bit of exposure, and that gives me more pleasure and satisfaction than anything else I can think of doing. I've always felt that way since I was 15 or 16; it's never really deviated. It's been a life's work for me, and will no doubt continue until the onset of my senility...
K: So it's a continuum, the whole life.
G: Yeah, it's not like I've had a career or anything. It's like a hobby that you just never give up and you learn how to make a little bit of money from it. But it's more than a hobby, too, 'cause it's a passion, it's a calling.
K: And just the idea that you can do that in your life is pretty powerful.
G: I think anyone can do it. I always advise people, "Don't get a job. Follow your passion!" Make something out of that. I think it's the only way to live…People make fun of you for not being down-to-Earth and concerned about all the mundane things that people fill their lives with. And I think that's another thing that brings these communities together. At Bomp, we've gotten mail like this for 25 years or more. Some kid will be the only kid in his town who likes the Stooges or something, and he sees this beacon off in the distance. "Oh, Bomp! There's more people who share my feelings," and they send me these 50-page letters, pouring out their life to us. We've got a whole file full of them! These people feel isolated, but somehow through fanzines and through other methods, they find a community where they don't feel bizarre and odd; they feel like they belong. I think that's a powerful factor, because the world does discourage all of this kind of stuff. They want you to knuckle down and get married and raise kids and have a job and just forget all that silly stuff. And I think people probably do that to each other because they really feel bad about having given up their own dreams, so they want to take it away from everybody else. Broad generalization, but I think there's something like that going on in "normal society." I'm speculating, 'cause I've never been in "normal society," but I'm guessing that goes on.
K: You said before that you don't feel as strongly about music as you once did. What caused that to change?
G: I think just getting older. I know there's plenty of people who get older and they don't change, but I don't know, I have changed as I've gotten older, gradually; I still get the same thrill when I see a great new band, but I don't have the drive to push so hard at it. I guess since I've done it for so long, and there's other things I want to do with my life now.
It's often discouraging when you've tried so hard to do all you can for some band, and they just never get anywhere, and then you go on to the next band, and they never get anywhere. You do that for 25 years and it's kind of discouraging. Nowadays I warn them, "This is only going to go so far. A few people review your record and have a little bit of influence and then maybe if you're lucky, you'll go on to something bigger." I used to dream of having hits and being part of the game and all that. When I was 30, I believed that so many things were possible; I think that gives you the ambition to really put your all into it. Now I just know that nothing's going to happen, so it's hard to get as worked up as I used to.
K: And yet, having heard this or observed others' experience, young people (and not-so-young people!) continue to devote themselves to making music.
G: I think you have to be kind of single-minded to keep going. I marvel at friends of mine who are into garage music or rockabilly, something like that, and they have this whole lifestyle built around it. I've got this one friend who's into the tiki scene, tiki-lounge music and his whole house, his whole world, his girlfriend, Everything is this tiki motif. After a year or two of anything like that, I'd just get bored! But these people go on with it, decade after decade, and I guess that's admirable, but I haven't got what it takes to do that.
K: It goes beyond the trappings of fashion to something approaching a religion.
G: I guess that gives them the meaning in their life, but I'm looking for a different kind of meaning; a costume and a soundtrack is not gonna do it for me.
K: How do you perceive the relationship between fashion and music?
G: Sadly (because I am not interested in fashion, even slightly) they go hand in glove. I suspect the majority of music fans like a given band because it is fashionable among their friends, and many concertgoers seem inordinately concerned with what they, and others, are wearing. Of course it's always been that way, but I think it detracts from the intensity of the possible musical experience. In other words, I think fashion slaves are somewhat shallow. But that's just my own prejudice. Don't give up your black leather on my account!
K: It's interesting that you say you have no interest in fashion yourself when the nature of what you do puts you in contact with so many people who are obsessed with fashion.
G: Well, it does drive popular music, and it always has. Dance crazes, hairstyles, all of that stuff...that's what drove rock ‘n’ roll. You can't deny that. I don't dance, I don't buy new clothes, I've never changed my hairstyle, so I'm out of that. I have no idea what that's all about. To me, music is actually more of an intellectual and emotional experience than anything else. I like the way it makes me feel, but it also engages my mind. I don't really care for music that makes my feet wanna move; I care more for music that somehow resonates inside my head. Certain kinds of guitar sounds will cut right through my brain and inspire all kinds of memories and thoughts and feelings (I'm thinking particularly of the Jesus and Mary Chain). Sure, a good dance record will make me want to tap my foot, but I would never actually wanna dance.
K: How do you account for the longevity of "punk" as an influence?
G: I think it offers something to a wide audience of disaffected young people; but I also suspect its influence and popularity are being rapidly eroded by hip-hop. And many other punk fans have gone over to the poppier post-punk bands, which I assume Max R&R does not consider "real" punk. It seems to be music that goes with a certain "lifestyle" that may always have its adherents, like others including heavy metal, goth, '60s garage, rockabilly, etc. These probably represent a range of personality types that are most comfortable plugging into a pre-existing, readymade culture where they feel at home, have automatic social acceptance, know exactly what to wear and do and listen to without having to think anything thru for themselves...part of being young. I don't think many past 20 stick with these subcults.
K: It does seem that there was a tremendous amount of change in American music, say from World War II until the mid-sixties, and then we got to a certain point where it kinda stopped, or we keep going over the same ground.
G: I don't know about that. Some of us do. I think in some directions it stops, but it starts up again in other directions. (I don't think techno or rap had any real precursors. I just don't follow those things, but it seems they were something new.) I don't know how much longer it's gonna last until they run out of things to plunder.
K: I woulda thought the same thing maybe ten years ago, and yet it seems we're still recycling stuff.
G: I think it will probably persist for the lifetimes of those Baby Boomers who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, just because it's such a big demographic, but I don't think it'll outlive them.
K: It seems like vinyl is gonna be around for at least another generation, 'cause there's a lot of people in their twenties now who are into it.
G: Oh, yeah. Vinyl just sounds better. We still make vinyl records, and major labels are starting to make them again. I don't think it will go away. There's gonna be a whole generation of kids that run around listening to music on their wristwatches, but it's not gonna be all of them. There's always going to be a number of people who just prefer to do it the right way. Nothing drastic ever really happens. Everything happens by degrees, and I think by degrees, it will slip into being kind of an antiquarian market. A hundred years from now, people will still read books and listen to records. They'll just belong to little clubs. It won't be everybody, but nothing ever really disappears; it just goes out of fashion. And when something goes out of fashion, it can come back into fashion. I think the only thing that's never come into fashion is the kind of music that I put out!
K: You said you never met anyone who didn't like the Sex Pistols; I'm trying to think, and I probably don't either.
G: They really did change the culture...I don't know if as profoundly as the Beatles, but why not? Look at how many millions of people have been influenced by punk. And it seems to have lasted longer.
K: Today you can go into MallAmerica and get that haircut and the clothes, and it's being marketed by corporations, probably manufactured in China by prisoners of conscience and slung out there at American kids who probably never heard of the Sex Pistols. They like the "old stuff" -- Green Day! So 25 years down the road, it still seems pretty vital, and you gotta wonder, why punk and not, say, garage or psychedelia.
G: Well, the garage thing was always a retro movement. Punk was new and fresh and it pissed off everybody's parents, and that's a big deal.
K: It's gettin' harder to play “Shock the Grownups,” although I do draw the line at bands with monosyllabic names playing bad metal-rap.
G: I'm fortunate; I've never heard any of these bands.
K: It seems like the collective A&R people of major American labels decided a couple of years ago that this was what they were going to market, and all of a sudden, you had 20 or 30 of 'em.
G: You would think that these people would eventually realize that whatever they market gets popular; they have the power, and they don't even realize that!
K: Some of the choices that they make, if they do have that kind of self-awareness, are pretty interesting.
G: I'm glad that I'm not in the record industry. It's very embarrassing. I haven't read Billboard in 25 years! I have no idea what goes on. It's a different industry!
K: And with the last couple of expansions and contractions of the major labels, local bands that got sucked into it found out that it's the worst thing that could possibly have happened to them. They have a contract with a major, they can't release a record, they can't get a promotional budget or tour support...
G: This has been going on for a long time. Local bands or new bands have always gotten shitty deals and always gotten screwed over by the majors unless they break it pretty quickly. But there's a lot of pretty well known bands out there looking for deals that can't get signed. The Muffs are back on Sympathy! A band that we thought were established. I wouldn't be surprised if Sonic Youth got dropped. They don't sell records! Somebody at EMI was telling me the last album sold 12,000. And not only that, the indie labels can't really sign too many bands anymore, because the indie distribution is so bad, and getting worse! Things are just tightening up all over. There's a lot more bands out there these days, and very few of them are getting the exposure they need.
K: Why is indie distribution so bad? You'd think with the years of experience people have, they'd have acquired more skill.
G: It's because the stuff doesn't sell. Distributors don't want to carry a lot of inventory unless it's moving. For one thing they have to pay tax on it -- or return it once a year to the label, which drives the labels out of business, to get an $80,000 return at the end of the year. So they just don't want to carry stuff that isn't moving. And the market is declining for a lot of stuff.
I don't know how it's doing in punk; punk has really been reliable, but I know in my field, Iggy and the Stooges has been our best, consistent seller. But the first two or three albums we put out have run eight or ten thousand over the course of however many years they've been out -- six years, eight years -- but now we put out a new Stooges album, it doesn't sell 3,000 right away the way it used to; it sells 1,100. And then it continues to dribble out over time, but I think the market has just been chopped in half.
Society is changing, and the place of records in society is shrinking. As I think I've mentioned several times before, it doesn't surprise me. It's gonna go on shrinking until it's a little club somewhere, like people who collect butterflies, it'll be like that. Fortunately, I don't need to sell a lot of records to survive, so I don't think I'm going to face starvation, but I don't think it's a viable career choice for somebody starting out now who loves music. There's gotta be an easier way to do it. There is...it's to have MP3 websites or whatever. But if you love records like I do, and you want to make them and hang 'em on the wall and look at 'em, this is not a good time.
K: I just don't think MP3s can replace what I call "the romance of the artifact."
G: No, how can you fall in love with a number of sectors on your hard drive the way you can fall in love with a record? You bring it home and you look at it -- "Oh my God, this is so beautiful, and I love this music!" I don't know how it can be the same.
K: A couple of years ago, my hope was that the Internet would enable a lot of bands and labels to find audiences that they weren't able to reach through conventional media and marketing.
G: The usual indie dream of wanting to be a rock star -- getting your start on a small label, getting discovered and going on to a major -- I think that's dead. Largely dead or dying. Major labels don't seem to have much of any interest in new rock bands. They'd like to find another Smashing Pumpkins, but they don't want to sign 20 bands and hope one of them will make it. They'd rather sign one guy who can spin off 20 hip-hop acts, and they can sell all of that by the billions. That's where their money is.
K: It seems that a lot of the rock ‘n’ roll people I meet or am in contact with have made a decision that they're gonna do this as a hobby, that "I'll make this record and try to get enough money to finance a tour on a small scale, or I'll play some dates to try and generate some bucks to make a record," just approaching it on that kind of scale.
G: That's pretty sensible. I've always advised that. "Why are you doing this? Are you doing this because you want to get famous? You should be doing something else. You should be doing it because you love it. Whether or not you get famous, or make any money from it, or anybody ever hears it, you'd still be doing it because you love it and you need to do it. You can stay saner with that, because then if you make a good record, you'll be happy with it. You get the satisfaction. Satisfaction shouldn't depend on somebody offering you a lot of money for it, or hearing it on the radio, although it's great to hear your music on the radio. The game has changed, and it's changing faster all the time. The last couple of years, I've really noticed a big difference. That was never a big dream for me, because I was not a musician. I think there's a place for records, but the place is changing. Make your expectations realistic and do what you can do and...don't expect too much more than that. Sometimes it goes further than that, but you can't really count on that. You never could count on that, but the odds are worse than they ever were.
This is becoming a kind of morbid conversation. We're burying rock ‘n’ roll, shovel by shovel. Maybe we're just old geezers who need a kick in the ass! I tend to worry about that whenever I'm asked to offer an opinion, because I can't separate what I perceive to be the truth from what my personal feelings are. You ask me about the music of the sixties, and my first instinct would be to say, "Oh, it's so much better," but I was 17 -- of course it was better!
K: Everything is better when you're 17!
G: So you have to separate that if you want to try and keep an objective critique of something. Now I'm older and I just don't care as much, so if I feel down about things, maybe that's just my problem. That's why I don't write anymore. Opinions are worthless! Absolutely worthless! I wouldn't dream of sitting down and writing opinions about anything! At least not in the musical area, and in areas that I think I know more about, there are plenty of people who know more! So nobody needs my opinions. I think the only time you really believe in your own opinions is when you're very young. You just get so worked up about it and so dogmatic; you can write manifestos when you're young...not look at it and go, "This is bullshit!" You can't go through your life doing that.
K: The beauty of being young is you have absolute conviction in what you're doing. We lose that but we have to persist somehow, I think. You made the comment that you're an optimist. I think that's important...to keep a degree of optimism, or continue having the will to go on, living in the times that we do.
G: A knowledge of history helps a little bit, because you can look back to all the times when people thought the world was going to hell and you can see that just a few years later, things were great. It's one thing to look around at the world and say it's going to hell -- which could be perfectly true! -- and forget that young people coming along are going to create things that are great, and they're going to be remembered throughout history, and every generation's going to make its mark. So it doesn't pay to get too attached to your own time and place.
K: There are so many levels and degrees of truth and reality. You peel away a layer, you find another layer.
G: I kinda like to appreciate the little nuances of shading and difference between the various "truths" or "realities" that can be discerned. It's more of a reflective way of looking at life than an advocate's way, which is what I totally followed in my writing and my work in music -- I've always been advocating something. It's not as easy to do when you really have become a little more philosophical, unless you do it consciously, to make a point.
K: Something I find encouraging is the way young people I meet tend to have less political consciousness than people of that age when I was that age, but they DO seem to have an underlying concern for social justice and for other people.
G: My seven-year-old is a great idealist, and he's always lecturing people about the environment and things like that. I think the young are born idealistic, and stay that way up to the age of 18 or whatever. It's easy to be idealistic when you can't see the shades of grey in the world, you can't see the other person's point of view. But every new generation brings some idealism along, and then it passes on to the next generation. We always need that input. I don't really know what the value of idealism is, because it tends to make you expect that things are gonna work out in a way they never can, and then you get disappointed when they don't, but you fail to notice the incremental differences that do take place.
K: Or perhaps you learn to appreciate those as a consequence of being disappointed.
G: I was never political at all. When I was growing up in the Bay Area, there was a big divide between the psychedelic hippies and the political hippies, and I was a psychedelic hippie! I never wanted to go out in the streets and march and get beat up by the cops...it didn't seem like fun at all, and I didn't believe that it would make any difference, because I saw the people that were leading the leftist movement, and I saw that they were just as power-crazed as anybody else in politics.
K: Who would seek to have that level of influence who was not motivated by power?
G: Exactly, and power corrupts, and I've kind of instinctively never trusted anybody who wanted to be a leader, because the people who end up leading anywhere are usually gangsters or crooks. Why support these people? But on the other hand, I've always felt that you could change the world by setting an example for the people around you, living your life by the values you hold the highest, and influencing just in a personal way. That's the old evolution-versus-revolution thing, but I've always been on the evolution side of it.
I think it's also a question of personality. That's why you can't discuss politics or religion, because people's views are determined by the kind of basic personality they have. Some people are just very conservative by nature, frightened of the world; other people are generous and big-hearted. Words won't solve anything between people who are psychologically opposed. We have all these different modes of being because there are people who are just different, and you gravitate toward the one where you're most comfortable. I think there's room for everybody.
It's hard to be political when you know your opponent is acting under equally valid personal impulses. That's another argument against it. Also, politicians don't run this country; they're just mouthpieces for the moneyed interests who run the country and they're always going to run the country and they're always going to run the world. There's nothing anybody can do about it. People like Noam Chomsky feel compelled to rail about it, but nothing will change.
K: You just have to carve out your own little niche or sphere of activity.
G: You don't have to play by their rules, for starters. You don't have to need money from the government; you don't need laws if you're honest. I ask no favors from anybody, I try to be self-sufficient. If you opt out of the system, you can live by your own standards and create communities around that, which is largely how the indie record business works; the people in it tend to love music in the same way, and thus to be more cooperative with each other than the standard competitive business model would predict.
K: What are the things you've accomplished that you feel the best about?
G: I hope I've set an example for others of how you can live out your dreams and make things happen. I think that's what I would be most proud of at the end. I mean, I'm proud of all the bands I've worked with, but in time, they'll all be forgotten. I think this scene that has come about over the last couple of decades, of people getting into music and doing things on their own...they take it for granted now, but at the time I came along, nobody had done it before. There was no real way to do it. There was no network, there was no infrastructure, and I helped to lay the foundations so that all of these people could have this kind of culture now. I think that's what pleases me the most. Even if it is all doomed to vanish one of these days.
K: Any regrets?
G: Oh, yeah, I can come up with a whole list of things that I did wrong, bands I should've bet the farm on, etc.. but at the you can't really know; you can only follow your instincts. I think that's the best way to live. If my instincts have been wrong, that's the way it goes. I've lived on my terms and I'm happy with that. You can't win 'em all, but I'm very happy with my life. The only regrets I have are in my personal life, where I might've caused someone pain when I really didn't want to, things like that. Not in my career.
K: It seems that your son, in a lot of ways, is the center of your life now.
G: Yeah. Well, he's given me a lot more than anything else at this point. I'm glad he came along at a time when most of my career was behind me, so I could really devote myself to being a parent. It's a creative act; it's as creative as anything else I've ever done -- actually a lot more so. And way more rewarding.
K: Kind of a hopeful gesture too, I think.
G: Oh, yeah. There's a lot of good things to be said for it. It does force you to care about the future. Surprisingly, because I was always against kids and I never expected that I would come to this point. It's been a joy to me.
Greg Shaw died on October 19, 2004.
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