Sunday, September 26, 2010

The SLIT Interview: Brian Smith!!

The Awesome, The Award Winning...Brian Smith! (photo: Phoenix New Times)

SLIT:  How did the Pills form? What were your first songs?

Brian: The Pills formed because of the New York Dolls, really. I romanticized that debut album, it drove me to find Robin Johnson, who I met at Tumbleweeds playing in Z-9. I was in the Suspects but done with the idea Johnny Rotten’s lidless glare. I had to start again somewhere. Robin loved Cheap Trick and Aerosmith and I think I turned him onto the Dolls. It blew his 15-year-old mind. Our first were covers of the Heartbreakers (Johnny Thunders), maybe the Dolls (“Pills,” of course), a song we made up called “She Said Goodbye, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t sing a lick back then ... a pitched rasp if I was lucky. But I could leap and strut like some amphetamine-y rabbit.

We did our first gig at a bar whose name escapes me, but it was a cowboy den south of Broadway under some overpasses. We were a quartet still— with Johnson, Fred Cross, and Rex Estelle. Robin wore crimson lipstick and a fake, three-quarter length red leather jacket that likely belonged to his girlfriend. Cross was a rather big teenager — could’ve played varsity football — so he wore something frilly and sweet, trannie casual. Estelle did the Watts thing with a suit jacket. My little brother Stuart (later in GAD) roadied. The whole thing was glorious, bad and beautiful. You couldn’t find a better use of nascent talent then that!  

Mark Smythe showed up that night to watch, and he later approached us, asking to join up. We considered Smythe a rock ’n’ roll star, a vet with a truckload of playing and songwriting skill … he traveled for music, he’d lived in Boston for awhile with his band. He played real clubs. He walked in that night wearing leather with a tart on his arm, cigarette dangling. He looked a little like Pete Way but sounded like John Lennon, until he cut his hair and then he was Lennon all the way. He was 22 and we called him grandpa. He hated that.

What’s weird is my old cycling pal Greg LeMond showed up that same night. I can’t remember how the hell he found out about my band or that gig, and I can’t remember why he was in Tucson. But he was there with his soon-to-be-wife Kathy. He was older than me and his bike racing career was just blowing up … See, I’d quit cycling the year before, was on the Junior National Team and LeMond thought I crazy to stop, tried to talk me into coming back. And then he saw the Pills play and he was absolutely shocked. Completely, mouth-agape-dumbfounded. In fact, I think he loved country music. This was before he won the Tour de France three times, of course.

But live, the Pills were a visceral and physical release for me, drug-like, and I went for it. Our goal was to be a great live rock ’n’ roll band, one of the best anywhere. We really were, on a couple nights. Mostly we were teen-arrogant.  That was another thing Smythe hated. 
SLIT: Would you ever do a Pills reunion?

This reunion stuff is awkward because I’m a completely different person now. Who isn’t? It’s like being a tourist in someone else’s record collection, or memory. Having said that,  I've all my hair, weigh about a buck-fifty. Yeah, I’d play. It’d be a challenge, tho.

SLIT: What are some of the milestones in your life as an musician/performer/writer/artist?

Brian: Getting to be close friends with songwriter Doug Hopkins (RIP), ex-Gin Blossoms. I think about the guy everyday, still. He was a giant, the real deal, smartest man I’ve ever met. Would’ve owned the world had he made it to the other side.

Want to hear more of my vanity? 

 Winning the Arizona Press Club’s Don Schellie award for feature column writing.  It was 2000 and I’d been “writing” for, maybe, three years, and Phoenix New Times had (shockingly) given me a column in which I wrote about some of the oddballs and unlikely situations I’d stumble across in Phoenix. The award showed I stomped all the state’s daily newspaper columnists. It’s a milestone because it bestowed in me some inner-belief and sense of possibility, hinting that I might be able to do something other than rock ’n’ roll, something that could save my life. Pretty sweet for an alcoholic high school drop-out grounded by self-loathing and depression.

In fact, there were a few New Times editors who believed in me, namely Jeremy Voas, who’s an incredible writer, editor and journalist, and Kate Nolan, who’d previously edited Playboy for 15 years. I learned a lot there. New Times lifted me out of the gutter.  Suddenly I had health insurance and a living wage, which was completely alien to me — and I was far too terrified (thought the liver could be done) to schedule a doctor. The next year they nominated me for a Pulitzer.

The only other “real” job I had was making yo-yos in a Tucson factory owned by Howe Gelb’s dad!

Meeting Muhammad Ali. Gentlemen AfterDark were booked to support, believe it or not, Billy Preston, at the Santa Monica Civic, in one of the most cockeyed bills ever concocted.  It was as strange and dreamlike as it was absurd, and we wound up not even going on. Whatever.

I remember Sly Stone moving through backstage as if floating, in a lime-colored fedora, long sapphire feather sticking up off the side of his pimp hat, surrounded by these almost cartoonish but comely chicks in hooker heels. I was too scared to approach him.

Soon Ali stepped through the dressing-room area backed with an entourage, holding his young daughter’s hand. I felt like some shivering pale scarecrow when he loomed in front of me and stopped. Someone whispered something to him about us playing with Preston and he looked at me, sort of up and down, and then he reached his out hand — his fingers heavy with large diamonds — and I shook it. I said, “I’m Brian.” He nodded and his grip was scary powerful, of course. Then he turned and introduced me to his daughter. He said, “this is Boy George.” I shook her hand too. So great.

I’m sure I resembled Johnny Thunders that night. What I remember most was thinking how Ali was the living, breathing personification of a gentle giant. His suit was perfect but his skin wasn’t, his dark eyes frightened. He wasn’t all there.  (We were all living-squatting with our girlfriends/wives/roadies in downtown LA; a single rehearsal room fashioned inside the old Pabst brewery, where metal bands rehearsed in rooms down the hall, all fucking day long. We had no money, no cars, I bummed quarters from metalheads for 40s of Colt 45. It was absolute misery and I truly wanted to die.) 

GAD had countless low and high milestones. Working with Alice Cooper and Dick Wagner as producers, though the resulting record was bad.

Another was that pick in People Magazine’s 10th Anniversary issue that said we were “Stars of the Future.” It was this full-page photo of us alongside some others, including Tom Cruise and Glenn Close, both of whom got shorter play. We thought we were in!

Another time, music mogul/producer Jimmy Ienner told me and Robin, face to face in his posh Beverly Hills hotel room — as we downed all his shrimp and Heinekens — that we were going to rule the world. He’d make sure. He’d already been listening and following us for six months or so. Never knew what happened with that. Entropy, probably.

In those days you needed a major record deal to get as many people to hear you as possible. For us it was constant barrage of set-backs, dogged disappointments and poverty. I could on forever about this stuff.

More: In 1987, GAD lived back in LA. We had a great manager in this guy Wayne Sharp. We got a demo deal with A&M Records, and we were banking everything on it. Things were looking up again. One day we were recording at A&M studios with producer Rob Jacobs when label-head Jimmy Iovine strolled in. He stood and listened to our song “Holiday” on playback, we’d just finished it. He listened intently at a pretty good volume, and when the song ended, he said, “That’s a hit. … Let’s talk when this is finished. … Don’t let anyone else hear it. …” Right.

—My post-GAD band Beat Angels. We had a demo deal with Columbia Records before the band was all together. It was feeling right. We did well, not in terms of popularity, certainly, but in terms of cred in certain circles (and in Finland!). It was heart-breaking when it ended (at first) but now I’m fine in the notion that we were often a potent rock ’n’ roll band, did two albums that some really like a lot. We did a lot of worthy things, earned pockets of fans in different parts of the world, etc. …

I spun these unredemptive lyrics, filled with personal sadness, about suburbia and strippers, about drunks and derelicts — often vaguely about some I knew in Phoenix —and juxtaposed it against fat power-pop; sing-song hooks and big guitars. We all dug the idea of Marc Bolan, and we all adored pop. I was reading Flannery O’Conner, Harry Crews and Jim Thompson but listening to Cheap Trick, Raspberries and Badfinger. I thought it worked swimmingly. Besides, nobody did that. But many who I’d hoped would understand didn’t. Others did: one magazine (Album Network I think?) called us the best rock ’n’ roll band on earth at that moment.

There was tragedy; our original drummer (and the last one for GAD), Jon Norwood, died after our first album. It was absolutely horrible in every imaginable way.

We had to boot bassist Kevin Pate (who also played in GAD) for getting too strung out, which was funny considering I wasn’t so upright, nor truthful, with the booze and meth and coke. Pate re-joined later, clean, like a guy who’d returned from battle. He made it to the other side, and had this grizzled insight and calm to prove it.

I established life-long friendships with those Beat Angels guys, as I did with GAD, it’s unavoidable if you spend time living in and out someone else’s pockets.

Here’s a nothing-much anecdote that had huge significance for me: One night we had a show in L.A., and Arthur “Killer” Kane from the Dolls came down. Of all people, Killer Kane. I noticed him from stage, sort of — thought I was seeing things. But there he was, standing in the audience, his big forehead reflecting the colored lights, the tallest, most beautiful fucker there.

We later found him outside the venue, met and talked. We were great, he said. It turned out he’d heard about Beat Angels and had walked up some West Hollywood hill from his place to see us. He was the sweetest, most gentle guy. … Heading back to the club we glanced over to see Kane standing there on that Sunset Boulevard sidewalk where we left him, in all that street-scene noise, this mythologized figure from long ago, from the New York Dolls, who not long before had fallen out of his Hollywood apartment window. He smiled weakly and waved one of those fake waves you see on wooden roadside Indians where the arm is up, hand’s stiff, and only the forearm moves, sideways, to and away from his head. It felt like he walked across my grave, or me his. He died several years later, just after the Dolls had reformed.  

—Standing with 12,000 others watching Alice Cooper headline some outdoor shed, sometime in the mid to late ’90s — can’t remember exactly, which is weird. The show kicked off on a truncated version of “Hello Hurray,” and Alice strutted on stage in that precise élan — in top hat, leather trousers — and sang a verse, “Let the show begin, I’ve been ready …” etc. Without a second’s break, the band launched into a power-chord riff and instantly beer spurted up through my nose, the goose-bumps rushed and the arm hairs saluted. It was “Sideshow,” a song I’d mostly written that Alice had liked enough to record on his final Sony album, The Last Temptation. “No More Mr. Nice Guy” followed. Incredible.  I was moved to tears. No shit. In some small way life had come full circle.

 It’s hard to imagine how huge this was. Cooper frightened me to death as little kid but I dug it, and I remember chirping “Hello Hurray” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” skipping off to third grade at Gale Elementary School.

An aside: Gentleman Afterdark drummer Winston Watson once told me he did a stint of arena shows in Cooper’s band and “had” to play that song every damn night. Ah ha-ha.

The Slingbacks. My ex-wife Shireen moved to London after we parted and got a deal with Virgin Records in the mid-’90s, with her trio the Slingbacks. She’s an unbelievably great songwriter — has a real eye for unusual beauty — and made an equally winning Mitch Easter-produced major-label album that got lost because the Spice Girls blew up and sucked all Virgin’s attention. So sad. The album, All Pop, No Star — whose U.S. release was cancelled — featured a few songs that we wrote together as a duo in Tucson. Sure, the record stiffed but to me it’s huge, was its own reward; I think it’s that good, and that has zero to do with anything I contributed. You might find a few don’t-do-justice Slingbacks vids on YouTube. The CD’s nearly impossible to find.

SLIT:  How’d you get started with writing and journalism? Which writers do you like?

Brian:  Hmmm. I once said to an ASU journalism class in Tempe (as a quest speaker) that I do not recommend anyone taking my route into journalism ...

Look, I bailed from high school as a sophomore. The Sahuaro High School English class consisted of some old guy who didn’t want to be there shoving the only writer he ever cared about — Whitman — down our throats. Fuck that. So I gave up and played rock ’n’ roll instead, lived hand-to-mouth. Had a festering alcohol problem before the Pills split up. But, I read. Read lots eventually, mostly fiction. Mostly great writers. Went back and read the classics. My idea was this: You want an education? Get a stupid library card. I’d read Catcher in the Rye as a prepubescent, and CREEM and Lester Bangs, and then I discovered Rimbaud and suddenly writing meant something. In Rimbaud I found a teenager speaking my language, in whatever translation. And he was pretty punk rock. But man, those early GAD days were burdened with lots of pretentiousness on my part … those poor guys. …

In truth, my launch into my paid “literary career” was actually through reviewing movies. Porn movies. (I’m must be the first guy to describe a blowjob as “Wagnerian”! I’d reference, say, Lou Ford or Paul Verlaine in 300-word butt vid review.) First I wrote in pseudonym for a local Phoenix porn magazine hilariously run by some heavy metal guys who needed a writer, and that led to a couple national magazines — I made some money, barely enough for beer, speed and rent, and I got sent boxes of porn each week. The timing was good because whatever money I had from Beat Angels (well, never really made a dime) or songwriting, was gone. Timing was bad because porn and booze and speed are a lethal and destructive trio.

The porn writing led to a staff writing job at the ill-fated, New York-based Popsmear Magazine, which blended porn reviews with book and CD reviews. I was writing features. Borders banned it. The magazine had the right idea — acerbic wit with fearlessness, like CREEM .

Onetime — and this is no milestone — I was in L.A. in fall ’97 on a porn shoot, co-authoring a planned cover story for Details magazine on Gen-X porn centered around this idiot kid Matt Zane, a porn director. Mainstream press had yet to go into to porn and write about it. It was there, on that Zane porn shoot, after watching a woman get sodomized almost against her will, that I decided porn was not the progressive, sex-positive and pro-female industry that some women, such as Nina Hartley, told me it was, and what I wanted to make it out to be. No, I met losers and narcissists and lots of emotionally damaged women, lots of tragedy, soullessness and sadness. I never did the Details piece. What I learned and discovered probably would of made a better story, but that’s not what they wanted. I was sickened.

By then I was writing and reporting feature stories, and New Times in Phoenix began to give me freelance work. I did my first 5,000 word cover story in ’98, which actually earned a journalism award. I was learning on the gig, from editors, and teaching myself through trial and error, learning feature storytelling tricks. They gave me that weekly column, and then another ... at one point I was writing a weekly music column too,  to write about whatever I wanted, as long as it involved people and some reporting. Then they hired me on as staff writer. So it was me with my Keith Richards hair and floppy fringe alongside a Harvard grad here, a Columbia grad there …. Hey, my new career.

SLIT: What are your favorite books or movies?

Brian: My pet authors are those who experienced It and could in some way define it — I tend to ignore those whose book flap tells of creative writing degrees from this or that prestigious school. What can they show me? For years I’ve loved Hubert Selby Jr., Nick Canty, A.L. Kennedy (I’m floored by her short story collection What Becomes —recommend highly), Harry Crews, Denis Johnson, William Gay, David Goodis … there are many others … Bernard Malamud, Tim Sandlin…. I’ll be buried me with Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. I could go on but I sound like pretentious twit.
Movies? I don’t know, there are lots …. Midnight Cowboy, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Requiem for a Dream, Personal Velocity, Little Children … anything P.T. Anderson does, anything with Philip Seymour Hoffman or Myrna Loy. I love a good cop yarn.  

SLIT: Do you like the Beat writers? Is Kerouac a great writer? Is "Howl" a great poem?

Brian: Well, I stole the band name Beat Angels from that whole deal (and a Rickie Lee Jones ditty), but it was meant to be sort of ironic, self-deprecating. Howl was great, though I’ve not read it in decades (Funny, I just co-edited a piece by John Sinclair – he’s a new columnist at Metro Times. His specialty? Pot. He’s the only guy alive who can use Ginsberg’s name without name-dropping.) I read On the Road at a fairly tender age and it got me right in the gut… not the speed jags and the sprawling open-road metaphors, more the sadness, particularly the migrant worker girl and the descriptions of Tucson and its mesquite forest. (I think Robin read it around the same time and he was pretty moved to; we were in our teens and one of the things we had in common was how we saw things in similar ways. We were often moved by the same exteriors — songs, lyrics, books, movies whatever).

Anyway, all that was before Kerouac became a dorm-room staple and, later, a high school standard by which to judge and choose hipsters based on Facebook entries — you know, how much of your cushy suburban life is defined by the “underground” beats of the ’50s? I’ve seen high school kids wearing Kerouac tees with $150 kicks! Now, if the beats weren’t so packaged out of context and Starbucks-approved, it’d have meaning.  I still love Kerouac’s Tristesse.  

SLIT:  What inspires you today?

Brian: That I quit drinking, and that’s the foundation of everything that works. I have no desire to be famous any more, so that’s a relief, even an inspiration. I’ve learned to find some grace in small wonders, and found a beautiful, smart woman in my wife Norene who is also a writer. Shit, I’m grateful to be employed.

Finishing a short story’s is good, but way too rare. Need to get them done. 

I live in a beautiful, tree-lined Detroit neighborhood where we’re the only white folks for blocks and blocks and blocks. I like that — always hated living amongst “adjusted” white people. But it’s isolating at times — and I can’t just walk to the corner for a New York Times or a cup of coffee. You have to drive somewhere for that. If I still drank, there are magnificent old-man bars everywhere, the hallmark of town built on blue-collar blood.

But the black culture here, especially in my neighborhood, is very Southern; the grandsons and granddaughters of factory workers — the Southern migration — who are a generations better off as professors or school principles or city workers. Marvin Gaye lived a mile away when he recorded What’s Going On. Stevie Wonder lived all through the ’60s with his parents in a house two blocks from my door. Detroit’s like that. You can buy the house Smokey grew up in for $7,000, but you’d live in the ghetto.

Driving requires the ability to dodge pot-hole axel-busters, streetlights rarely work, and the city government is a mess, nearly ruined by a mayor who fancied himself a rap star. What’s inspiring are the old Detroit black ladies who wear church hats … they’re my gods, one on each shoulder. They’ve all this coarse, earned wisdom, and wit, have lived through truly hateful times – race riots, poverty, relocation, segregation, racism, failing unions, murder — and they take no shit from anyone. Love ’em.

Detroit’s fairly shattered right now, and the three million living in the suburbs could give a shit about anything south of 8 Mile — too multi-cultural! — which is Detroit. But there’s a sense of pride and community here because of that. Obama is loved, of course, because he basically saved the auto industry. You don’t hear much about that. And soul music has abducted my heart … that inspires too

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