Mick Farren: Front Line Shaman

Mick Farren has been many things in his time; author, activist, agent provocateur, anarchist… and that’s just getting warmed up with the ‘A’s. During the 1960s and 70s, Mick was a countercultural Zelig – on permanent barricade duty in opposition to an ever-tightening clampdown; manning the door at UFO, providing the driving force for International Times, fronting proto-punks the (Social) Deviants, and organising free festivals such as the legendary 1970 Phun City bash. A fixture on the NMEs masthead during the 70s and 80s, Farren has also established a formidable reputation as a commentator and critic of modern culture through books such as Conspiracies, Lies and Hidden Agendas, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Elvis and Who’s Watching You. His 2001 memoir, Give The Anarchist A Cigarette remains one of the most evocative recountments of life at the sharp end of life, rock’n’roll and journalism. He also writes some mean fiction via Sci-Fi novels such as The Last Stand of the DNA Cowboys (part of a strange and fascinating trilogy) and his Victor Renquist Quartet.

Despite being comfortably into his third score of years, Mick’s hardly slowing down – the back end of 2009 saw the publication of Zones of Chaos; a collection of his poetry, prose, essays, lyrics, journalism and fiction. This is soon to be joined on the shelves by Speed-Speed-Speedfreak, a fast history of amphetamines shaped like a black bomber. Additionally, Farren is responsible for the most fun you’ll ever have reading a blog – His Doc 40 pages [doc40.blogspot.com] are a constant source of prescient observation, biting wit and vintage weirdness.

I caught up with Mick at home in LA to talk about his most recent works, his blog, and to poke about at the thin crust of reality.

Dick: I’d like to kick off with Zones – How did the anthology come together? What mechanism did you use to select which specific works would be included?

Mick: There were no set criteria for compiling Zones of Chaos and very little method. I just picked stuff that I liked and arranged it in an order that seemed to make sense, call it instinct, maybe, much like an old school DJ doing a radio show. The Renquist story was specially written for the book.

Dick:  Judging from your comments in the introduction, it seems you’re no nearer being able to write in peace and quiet than you were during the period covered in Give The Anarchist A Cigarette.

Mick: I don’t welcome a constant circus, but I live with it. Maybe I just write well under fire.

Dick:  Also in your intro, you observe that, ‘the feeling still comes over me that I have been living on borrowed time for at least the last 20 years.’ – What do you think generates this within you? Would you say that the insecure nature of having to living on one’s wits as a writer and musician contributes to this?

Mick: I think it goes deeper than that. We were talking earlier about avoiding employment, which has always been kind of a living death – when I had a job, nothing ever happened to you except the job. If you didn’t have a job, you could wander down the street and go into the pub and then someone would come up to you and say, ‘do you want to make a fiver?’ And you’d go, ‘sure, what needs doing?’ – The world unfolds itself in a different way, as I think it did for Van Gogh and Arthur Rimbauld and anybody all the way back into time. But then again, you always think ‘one day at a time’ and ‘one of these days, something terrible’s going to happen.’ But I haven’t died before I got old and it’s all a bit overwhelming, still being alive!

Dick: Is it a kind of subconscious pessimism?

Mick: It’s partly that, it’s also partly like storming the beaches – If you don’t expect to get out alive, then you’re not disappointed. And then suddenly you find yourself on top of the sand dunes going, ‘Fuck… I’m still here. OK, let’s get on with it.’ It’s a combination of all of those things, plus my generation were so fucking youth-obsessed, a lot of that’s gotta be recanted.

Dick: Ahead of your opening poem, A Long Walk With The Demon, you allude to the nature of the writer’s motivation. What would you say were now the prime motivating factors driving you to write?

Mick: In the beginning, I write. It’s what I do. All else, style, subject, content follows from that.

Dick: Jailhouse Rock was thoroughly enjoyable. Was this published in an extended form in the LA Reader or the Panic In The Year Zero column? I’m guessing this was based on actual events. What was the background?

Mick: It’s not a dramatic or even very interesting story. I mouthed off at an LA cop and got thrown in the can. I was a kinda “what I did during the ‘quake” story, pretty much as published in the Reader.

Dick: Similarly, what is the backstory to Hippie Death Cult?

Mick: It’s total fiction, obviously based on the Manson Family, but illustrating just how easy it could be to slip over the edge of the civilized world into the unthinkable. To paraphrase Bob – to live outside the law you must be careful.

Dick: In your introduction to The Voodoo Chile Experience you state, ‘I would obviously have preferred to write an actual video game’. If you had the opportunity to do this, what kind of a game would you like to create?

Mick: I’m a total fraud. I haven’t played a video game since Missile Command. Voodoo Chile was – if anything – based on the more surreal Max Fleisher cartoons and stuff like that.

Dick: At the outset of Head 58 And The Mantis Syndrome you observe that, ‘all art is mix, match and infinite interchange.’ For me, this is right on the money. Do you set out to manufacture a conflation of influences ideas within your work, or is it simply the result of your making connections across various spheres of culture as you go along?

Mick: It’s all made up as I go along. Sometimes things just jump out of the TV, like an image in a commercial even, and I think “oh man, wouldn’t it be so cool to incorporate that in…” I now carry a tiny digital recorder so I don’t forget these flashes when stoned.

Dick: I thought that The Lonesome Death of Gene Vincent was moving and beautiful. Image and attitude wise, he inspired so much of what I dig.

Mick: The poem is really a companion piece to Ian Dury’s ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’. (I spent a little time with Ian and he was an amazing guy.) Gene and Jerry Lee Lewis were the white punks of the 1950s (what Elvis might have been if he hadn’t been so fucking perfect.) As an insight into the process, I later wrote a short book (monograph) on Gene and what he represented. Gene Vincent – There’s One In Every Town. I think it can be found on Amazon.

Dick: Your introduction to Zapruder’s Film evinces a faith in JFK. Would you say that Kennedy was the last/only politician that you had any kind of faith in? Do you think that it’s naive to have faith in anyone who’s basically setting out to obtain power?

Mick: Jack Kennedy was the last politician in which I had any faith. He managed to keep us out of a nuclear war. And then the bastards shot him, in full view of the world. After that they killed the “lone gunman” just to reinforce the point … You’ve got to remember that in 1962, it [nuclear war] nearly happened. It was my first year at art school, and we didn’t think that we were going to come out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. If it wasn’t for Nikita Khrushchev and Jack Kennedy behaving like adults, we all would have fried.

Dick: The opening to Rhinestones and Quaaludes describes your reactions to the way in which New York has changed. I’ve never been to New York, and now feel that I’d need a time machine rather than an airline ticket to visit the place that inhabits my imagination – I’d want the bums on the Bowery and the Times Square of Taxi Driver. How do you feel about the way in which the city has been sanitized and the way in which this process is continuing elsewhere?

Mick: I know what you mean. The first time I went to Mexico, I realized I wanted to be in Mexico, but in 1890. Everything changes and evolves. Nothing stays the same. Even if you try to preserve something, it just changes into some kinda of theme park.

Dick: This introduction also alludes to alternative futures, such as that explored in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Have you ever considered writing a novel along those lines? What timeline would you most like to play with?

Mick: I enjoyed The Man In The High Castle, and I even liked some of those “what-if-the- Confederates-had-won books when I was a kid. I had a crack at a steam-punk alt-world thing with Kindling, but I wasn’t very happy with it.

Dick: Your Vince Eugene appears to presage some of the work Howard Chaykin did in American Flagg by a good decade. I’m thinking specifically of his whole ‘Church of Elvis’ storyline. I know that you’re aware of Chaykin – did you follow American Flagg?

Mick: I thought Chaykin was fucking brilliant … I tried to get Del Rey to commission Chaykin to do a cover for me, but the art dept got snotty about an author demanding a cover artist and fucked it all up.

Dick: You worked with Dave Gibbons on Vince Eugene, and he went on to great acclaim for his work on The Watchmen. Did you enjoy that series? What did you think of the movie adaptation? Do you enjoy Alan Moore’s work? Have you read his novel Voice of the Fire?

Mick: I think I already said I dig Moore. I haven’t read his novel. I don’t know if anyone has noted how 2000AD acted as a corporate stepping stone for formerly underground artists like Gibbons and Boland much in the way that the NME did for writers like me, Murray and Kent.

Dick: Much of your time during the period covered in Give The Anarchist A Cigarette was devoted to challenging the status quo via the counterculture. Subsequent to the rave era during the 1980s it seems that there is little evidence of any kind of youth rebellion and precious little that can be identified as an effective and active counterculture. In specific regard to rock’n’roll, there seems to be no bands that have an agenda of actively fighting oppression or provoking protest, instead we are left with bands such as Kasabian, who employ rebellious tropes but actually have no agenda other than shifting units. Do you think this is the case, or are there pockets of genuine dissent that give you cause for optimism? What do you think has caused this state of affairs?

Mick: I think rock’n’roll (as we know it) has worn out its usefulness as an expression of youth revolt. Something new is going to have to replace it. The reason is money and that the global media corporations have learned the game and can anticipate and co-opt anything that a bunch of youngsters can put together. The money is quantum. Metallica recorded one song that I wrote with Lemmy and the nice piece of change that I got as the writer on half a song indicates that Metallica’s total income is fucking quantum. They are a corporation.

Dick: In GTAAC, you observe that, ‘there’s nothing like IT now.’ Do you think that the way in which the internet operates actually serves to discourage any collective anti-establishment thinking? Specifically, whereas IT was a physical entity that could be passed around, argued over and shared, it is more likely that any online dissent is likely to be consumed by one individual, sitting at a screen, in isolation.

Mick: I feel strongly that one way to create something akin to IT and the 20th century psychedelic left is in a vigorous symbiosis between print and the electron. With the internet providing the possibility of instant response while print can be slower but of greater density and permanence. (And maybe – I hate to say it – also being the merchandise base of any business plan, and the revolution sure as shit needs a business plan until we abolish money. Zones Of Chaos is decidedly part of this.) I don’t believe the internet is as isolating as you think. A small but definite old school community has formed around my blog Doc40. There are many more around other webplaces and the game is linking them. (Cyber-anarcho-syndicalism of communications?) Facebook and the like (also flashmobs et cetera) prove the potential for community interaction on the net is infinite. Right now, it’s a totally closed corporate loop that discourages content, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Dick: Does the ‘permanent sense of anger’ that you mention in GTAAC still endure? Are you someone who finds themselves shouting at the television?

Mick: I sigh more than scream, ‘cos screaming’s a lot of hard work. I never forget the Bob Dylan line, ‘How much do you have to pay not to go through these things twice?’ Nobody is learning anything. The trip goes on and on and on – we told them in the 60s, we told them in the 70s, we told them in the fucking 80s and the 90s. And now it’s 2010, and according to Dan Dare, we should have had world peace and be run by the United Nations in 1970, but that never materialised.

Dick: Yeah, I’m still waiting for my jet pack.

Mick: I know, and according to Stanley Kubrick, we should be on Jupiter, but we’re not – What the fuck?!

Dick: Did your experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis drive the faith that you had in JFK?

Mick: Absolutely. He could have kept up the bullshit and it would have all just come unglued. Somebody said, ‘what’s he doing’ and someone else said, ‘he’s inventing a language to talk about this stuff.’ The rhetoric could easily have extended to pressing the button. It was as if the Elvis of presidents had come along, he was talking normally and he was funny. He showed responsibility for things and then we came through this nuclear missile crisis unscathed. And they shot him. Then they shot the guy who shot him. If Jack Ruby hadn’t shot Lee Oswald, then we might have just possibly bought it – but it was all too fucking perfect.

Dick: The wave of optimism that greeted Kennedy’s election as president, has parallels in the reaction that Obama has had – What do you make of him?

Mick: I dunno, everybody’s slagging him off at the moment – I’ve been holding back on it because he’s obviously a prick because he has to be – he seems to me almost like the Duke of Wellington [having] to pull things together at the last minute. All through the campaign, I was thinking ‘he’s not going to win’ because he was making this mistake and that mistake, but somehow it all seemed to fall into place and work. On one layer I’m a democrat, I’ve supported Obama and will continue to, but beneath that I’m a progressive and I’m not too happy with him. Below that; fuck ‘em all – I’m an anarchist.

Dick: Do you not think that there’s a danger with Obama that he’ll turn into a rerun of Carter?

Mick: Carter had some really bad breaks with the hostage crisis and stuff … Obama is clearly incredibly intelligent and a strategic pragmatist, but I don’t know what he’s doing exactly – I can’t figure it out.

Dick: Your piece on Kennedy reminded me a little of the assassination segment from Atrocity Exhibition – was Ballard much of an influence?

Mick: Hard to say really, because he was sort of there, he was one of those guys that was a bit older than me … the influences on me were Mickey Spillane, Oscar Wilde, Ballard didn’t really influence my work at all except that he was so fucking crazy … he wasn’t Chuck Berry to me.

Dick: Yeah, I can see that Ballard was more likely to be Chuck Berry to my generation, in the same way that Hunter Thompson was.

Mick: Hunter was more of an influence because he broke so many fucking rules.

Dick: In some ways, there are parallels to be drawn between Thompson’s Gonzo journalism and the way that you, particularly in Give The Anarchist A Cigarette, often found yourself writing about situations that you were central to, and sometimes situations that were partly your own doing.

Mick: You know, if you were working in the early 70s in the media, you were a writer or  photographer, you basically felt guilty that you weren’t in Vietnam. Actually a much bigger influence than Hunter was Michael Herr

About the author

About the author

. He also wrote the Martin Sheen voiceover in Apocalypse Now, Dispatches is very much like that. So if you were at some fucking rock festival watching Captain Beefheart in the rain, you wrote it like you were in Saigon waiting for a mission, the photographers worked the same way. So it really was the same kind of groove. What we learned from Hunter is that he treated the drug taking as just as interesting as the bands on the stage. All that’s tapped out now and we’re back to being sensible.

Dick: Sure, the NME these days is a particularly wan thing – when was the last time you looked at an issue?

Mick: Oh, [long pause] five years … I thought it had gone, actually … It’s a pretty fucking wan music world at the moment.

Dick: Did you look at writers such as Mickey Spillane in terms of what you could learn from them?

Mick: Yeah … I did an awful lot of reading back then, there was no TV to watch, apart from anything else. So when I started writing, I’d just consume anything really – Arthur C. Clarke, you name it – anything. What happened was I kind of started to pause, I began to see what was good writing and what was bad, what I liked and what I didn’t, what hung together and what was marketed tripe,  and that really wasn’t terribly well written. I became more selective and so I stored away the bits that I liked and some of them became quite um, I mentioned Oscar Wilde – I was really big on Wilde for a while, I really liked Shakespeare – It just kind of rolls on, whereas Robert E Howard was a lot of fun, but he was totally illiterate – if it wasn’t for the Frazetta covers, the whole thing wouldn’t have worked. I still read omnivorously, but I became more selective.

Dick: What were the first novels that you remember reading as a youngster?

Mick: Does Biggles count!?

Dick: Sure, I mean after the very early stuff, I grew up on a diet of Sven Hassel and James Herbert.

Mick: That makes sense, I’d have probably been into that if they’d been around. I was more into things like Neville Shute and CS Forester, Rex Stout and Raymond Chandler – I read an awful lot of detective stories. I got into Jim Thompson very early.

Dick: Going back to the idea of the feeble state of rock’n’roll at the moment, I wanted to ask what you thought about the way in which the very idea of rebellion now seems to bisect with rock purely as a marketing device.

Mick: I think so, basically because the corporate music industry is collapsing now, but you can’t use the same tricks over and over again and just reproducing what The Clash, or the Ramones did, it just runs through and suddenly you’re looking at the calendar going, ‘what?’ This is an enormous corporate entity and there’s nothing getting changed, there’s Springsteen as, I guess, a well meaning liberal – What the hell. It’s like throwing a rock in a pond; you see an immediate splash and the first ripples are very dense, but as you get towards the edge that gets shallower and much more widespread. I think really that rock’n’roll has run its course and that music has run its course as the major agent for change, the major medium for rebellion.

Dick: Do you think it has anything to do with how the class system has changed over the past 30 years?

Mick: Really, the doers, movers and shakers of every kind of youth revolt have actually all been half educated lower-middle class, like me or Joe Strummer. The art school boys – we were the troublemakers. Somehow in recent generations they seem to have been somehow co-opted and de-fanged at 16 or something.

Dick: In respect of Speed-Speed-Speedfreak, I’m interested to know what made you decide to write a history of speed rather than an opiate, or a hallucinogenic. Did you find the direct impact that various forms of crank have had on popular culture relatively easy to identify and dissect?

Mick: “Drugs books are doing well’, an indie publisher told me, and there didn’t seem to be a good book on speed. Most of the research was pretty much at my fingertips and, have done enough of the stuff in my misspent youth, so I was in pretty unique position to be able to separate the reality from the propaganda. Speed was/is also the perfect example of how the combo of corruption and stupidity that is the War On Drugs has been mismanaged for so many decades.

Dick: The Deviants were noted for their heroic amphetamine consumption and speed has been consistently identified as punk’s drug du jour – do you believe that speed compels musicians into the kind of confrontational and edgy areas exemplified by the Deviants and the subsequent punk scene? If so, why do you think this dynamic is extant?

Mick: Absolutely. Speed supplies an instant aggressive energy and a false but seductive sense of godlike omnipotence. What more does a rocker need?

Dick: You posted that marvellous ‘How Mother and Baby Picked Up’ Blatz ad in your blog – what was in that gear!?! Did you unearth many other offbeat ways in which forms of uppers were marketed to the mainstream?

Mick: Blatz is beer! Which makes the ad even more bizarre. Give the baby a brewski. In the 1930s and again in the 1950s Benzedrine and then Dexedrine were both marketed as a universal cure for just about anything.

Dick: You have a chapter titled ‘Speed For The Super Soldier’, which contains a section called ‘Captain America and the Red Skull’ – I’m figuring this explores the way in which the military experimented with various forms of crank – is that so?

Mick: I don’t really have much to add to what’s in the book. The chemically created super-soldier has been a long-nurtured military fantasy all across the world. And, as I recount, speed came very close to fitting the bill. (Once again, a case of instant aggressive energy and a false but seductive sense of godlike omnipotence).

Dick: What else do you have planned for the near future?

Mick: I have recently delivered a big anthology provisionally titled Elvis Died For Somebody’s Sins But Not Mine to Headpress in London. It’s all my “greatest hits” – journalism, short fiction, and poetry from 1967 to now, written in London, NY, and LA, (and some on fucking Mars). I’m also wondering if I have the courage and stamina to go all the way with this fifth Renquist novel, but in a different, post-Burroughs style. In my spare time, I’ve been playing around with an almost Victorian-style epic poem about a sado-masochistic romance and am looking for an illustrator. I’m also in the process of moving back to the UK and performing a bit before I die. Life is not dull.

Mick’s Blog: http://www.doc40.blogspot.com/

© Dick Porter 2010


Originally posted 2011-04-08 10:46:29. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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