Wednesday, October 20, 2010

SLIT interview: The Extraordinary...GENE ARMSTRONG!!

Creator of the "Villainous Alien Zurn"!

SLIT:  How did you get your interest in writing? Was there an "aha" moment? Have you always wanted to be a writer?

GA:  My interest in writing developed from a lifelong love of reading. I was always at the library as a child, at least when I wasn’t listening to records and the radio or practicing martial arts. Those were my three passions as a kid. I remember being really excited when I got my first bike because I could then travel by myself to the Woods Memorial Branch library on North First Avenue.
I cannot remember when I first began reading, nor can I remember when I first began writing in earnest – well, there was one really bad science fiction story in junior high school about the heroic space explorer Montrose (name borrowed from the also-ran rock ’n’ roller Ronnie Montrose) and the villainous alien Zurn (which was the brand name on the drain in the school restroom). Suffice to say I realized at a young age that even though I couldn’t write fiction, I could put words together in ways that sounded right. Maybe not beautiful, or brilliant or revelatory, but to this day I find that I can simply write in a manner that is correct – not too many grammatical errors, not too many typos. Not too many red marks.
I started writing journalism when I was on the newspaper staff at Salpointe Catholic High School. Later, I fancied that I would become a poet and make all the girls fall in love with me, so I majored in creative writing at the University of Arizona. Eventually got a degree in it, but not before I returned to journalism, taking a job at the campus paper in 1983 – I have been writing professionally, either on a full- or a part-time basis, ever since.  I have written about music, movies, dance, theater, visual arts and books, as well as general assignment features and a little news. I spent almost 15 years at the Arizona Daily Star before extricating myself from what had become a sorry mess. Now, I write on a freelance-only basis, and for the past seven years have been a contributor to the Tucson Weekly, and sometimes to other small alt-weeklies around the country. I am willing to consider any writing assignment. Call me.

SLIT:  Where'd you get your interest in music?

GA: My parents always played music at home, mostly LPs, the occasional 78 and some reel-to-reel tapes. Then I remember the first day my dad brought home an exciting new piece of technology -- the cassette tape player. I thought it was the coolest thing ever! Eventually on my trips to the library, I would borrow cassettes and LPs to make crude dub copies at home. I didn’t even know what copyright laws were. I first discovered Patti Smith’s Horses by checking it from the Woods library. Now I couldn’t live without it.
My mother liked mariachi music and Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and all the ‘50s rockers. From my father I inherited a deep love of jazz and other cool artists such as Sandy Bull and Bud & Travis; he also liked playing Gregorian chants for some reason. After my parents divorced and each respectively remarried, my stepfather moved in with his record collection. It contained several albums that heavily influenced my tastes to this day, such as the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach, Who’s Next by The Who, the first Crosby, Stills & Nash record and my two favorite albums: John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things and The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed. My first 45 single was “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies, and my first album was one by The Partridge Family.

I also studied violin for much of my childhood, but drifted away from it before becoming proficient. When I was a teen-ager, my best friend, David Slutes, convinced me to take my very expensive violin to the swamp meet and trade it for an el cheapo bass because we were going to form a band. He doesn’t like me to discuss this publicly, but the band was called Billy Bowel and the Movements, and we never learned how to play our instruments; he created flyers and album covers for us, though. Later, David went on to have a real career in music.

By the way, I have to give David a lot of credit because from junior high through college, and often since, we bonded over music – we went to gigs and shows constantly, from the legendary Fleetwood Mac concert in the UA football stadium to seeing the Serfers, Pills and Giant Sandworms at Tumbleweeds. We continue to share an abiding love for Cat Stevens, Blue Oyster Cult, Steely Dan, Tommy Bolin, Roxy Music, David Bowie and the immortal Golden Earring song “Radar Love.”

SLIT:  How would you characterize your style of interviewing and writing?

GA: I have resigned myself to the fact that when I interview someone – whether or not they are involved in music – I am without question clumsy and awkward, but maybe in a little bit of an endearing way. Every day and in almost every way, I feel like a geek. I used to care that the subject of the interview thought I was cool and informed and clever and world-wise. Now, I just don’t. Most of the time, that is. Sometimes, I catch myself during or just after an interview, and I’ll notice that it had a little too much “look at me, I am the big-shot music critic deigning to interview you” in it rather than being purely focused on the subject or person at hand. Most of the time,  I am not afraid to sound stupid in an interview as long as I get some good material from the interviewee. I don’t envy interviewers on radio and TV, when the audience has to hear them asking questions.

My style of writing is usually, I hope, simple, to the point and unself-conscious. I would rather draw attention to the content rather than the style. I don’t want to bowl the reader over with wit and virtuosity. I don’t want you to read my stuff and think, “Wow, what a good writer!” I want you to read my work and think, “That was interesting and it kept my attention, and it didn’t have too many errors in it.”

SLIT: How did you get involved in Tucson's music scene as a journalist?

GA: I just loved listening to music, hanging out with musicians, going to gigs and all that comes with that. Since I was writing movie reviews for the campus paper, I started doing a few music reviews, as well. I think my first record review was Madonna’s first album. One of my first band interviews was The Johnies – one of the bands that almost regrouped at this year’s 25th anniversary bash at Club Congress.

SLIT:  Have you ever written a song? Do you play an instrument? Is writing text like making music?

 GA: I have never successfully learned an instrument. I have never written a song. I don’t think writing text is at all like writing music, but, frankly, I wouldn’t know.

SLIT:  Do you prefer writing on a typewriter, or on a computer? Why?

GA: I am no traditionalist. For the past four  years, I have worked a day job as a computer technician, so I embrace technology. I mean, duh. It makes me feel old to be able to compare computers to typewriters as if it that issue weren’t already settled. I learned to type in high-school typing class, and we had these monster manual typewriters that forced you to pound down heavily on each key, so even today I still sort of pound loudly on the computer keyboard.

SLIT:  Who are your favorite authors? Music writers? Bands? Movies?

GA: My favorite authors are too numerous to list in full. A few of them are Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hammett, Chandler, Heinlein, Tolkien, Hemingway, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Andrew Vacchs, Harry Crews, Roald Dahl, Chuck Palahniuk, Mark Helprin, Philip K. Dick, Harvey Pekar, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. Thanks to my two ex-wives, I also have a healthy appreciation for the works of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. I bow before legendary music critics such as Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau and Dave Marsh, and in terms of contemporary music writers, Jon Pareles, David Fricke and Neil Strauss are among my favorites.

My favorite movie is Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, but also special for me are Down by Law, Rear Window, Small Change, Slacker, A Christmas Story, Seven Samurai, The Big Lebowski, The Lady From Shanghai, Blade Runner, The Conversation, Blow UpThe Sting, The Thin Man and anything by Preston Sturges, Tom Tykwer and David Lynch. I also have a soft spot in my heart for classic movie musicals.
Don’t even get me started about music I love.

SLIT: Is music the best artform?

GA: No, not the best. It is one plank in the platform of the arts – I like all the other artforms, but I pay most attention to music.

SLIT:  Have you considered reviewing or writing about moments of silence?

GA:  Shhh. I am now reviewing some silence. But the result also is silence. Oh, do you mean like John Cage’s composition 4’33’’? I have never heard it performed.

SLIT:  What are some milestones in your career as a writer/journalist?

GA: I haven’t encountered them yet.  I do not enter journalism or writing contests, probably because I hate to lose. And whenever I went through a change, like a promotion or a reassignment, or quitting when a situation became untenable, these moments were always just sort of the next small step in an evolving reality. I simply consider myself a journeyman writer, like a carpenter or a plumber or even a computer technician. I am a reliable, consistent craftsman. For me, it has never been about reaching milestones, but just taking the next step.

SLIT: What inspires you?

GA: Deadlines. Fear of failure. The desire to overcome self-loathing. Hunger. The need to feed and care for my dog and cat. The satisfaction of writing a decent sentence. And caffeine. I am also a master procrasinator in that I hate hate hate writing, until I sit down and do it, at which point I remember how much I love it.

SLIT: What's your opinion of electronic media?

GA:  A woman I talked to the other night said she doesn’t allow TV or the Internet into her home. Well, bully for her! But she’s not being realistic, is she? I don’t think she has her head in the sand; it’s fully up her ass. But, at the same time, I agree that we must be discerning consumers of electronic media, as we must be of any product, or we would become totally inundated by the potential avalanche of information. Fortunately, humans have become adept at picking and choosing and sifting through what we want from media. The members of our generation – and those that have followed us – are remarkable in many ways, not least for the development of extremely sophisticated bullshit filters.
Thanks much for the interview!

1 comment:

  1. great interview, Gene--I loved it. I'm with you on a lot of your faves--Let It Bleed is my favorite Stones album. No love for Chinatown? I am sad. Seriously--fun to read--Marx