Pushin' Too Hard: An Interview With Frank Kogan

By Scott Woods

zydeco frank

"You experience him as a scary figure, and at the same time as a really attractive figure."
--Frank Kogan on Mick Jagger
--Scott Woods on Frank Kogan

Frank Kogan is the editor of Why Music Sucks, which he started ten years ago by asking (among other things), why does or doesn't music suck?, but now asks (among other things), why does or doesn't high school suck? I'm describing Why Music Sucks as a 'zine--a very interesting 'zine, which it is--but really, Why Music Sucks is (to steal a Frank-ism) a world. A world full of terror, joy, sorrow, music, self-critique, social analysis, hallway intellectualizing, classroom brawling, post-teen exuberance and trauma--the whole (or as much of the whole as you could expect from a 'rock publication') shebang.

2007 Post-Script:

  • Download an 11-minute audio collage from this interview (mp3 format), mixed in with classic girl group songs.
  • Order Frank's 2006 opus, Real Punks Don't Wear Black
  • For more recent thoughts by Frank Kogan online, visit his Live Journal and Myspace pages.
  • This interview originally appeared in Popped in April 1997. E-mail Frank for information about how to obtain back issues of Why Music Sucks.

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    stones II stooges: frank's punk

    Scott:  What was some of your favourite pop music during high school, or junior high?

    Frank:   Well, in junior high there's kind of a split in me 'cause you've got, umm, what I'm hearing on the radio, and that's basically garage rock, and--I mean there's a lot that's not garage rock...

    Scott:  I was gonna say, did that really dominate radio at the time?

    Frank:   Yeah, there's actually a lot that wasn't garage rock on the radio, it didn't really dominate radio, but it was all over the radio. And that, at least for the time, was really hard-sounding stuff--the Troggs, the Electric Prunes, groups like that, and they had their kind of poppy elements, but there was just something in the beat and in the guitars that was just really, really hard. It was basically based on the Stones, and this kind of anger that was condensed into a little hardball. So that was one thing that I was kind of liking, and maybe it was even kind of a subterranean part of my liking. Then there was something much more obvious which was the Beatles. The Beatles weren't necessarily so far from that either, even though their image was more kind of like the opposite of the Stones: the Beatles were polite while the Stones were dark, but I managed to find the dark parts of the Beatles too. Even my favourite Beatles' song, I think, was "You Can't Do That," which basically could have been a Stones' song.

    But also, I was sort of a lover of folk music, and then sometimes a pretty tune would come along and catch me. So the garage rock was still a bit subterranean. Well, when I discovered Simon & Garfunkel that became IT, all songs about being sensitive and lonely, you know, being basically too sensitive to live--they were sort of like the new J.D. Salinger or something [laughs]. And I just thought that was absolutely profound. And then, a big event in my life was in ninth grade when my parents got an FM radio, because then I discovered the progressive rock stations. Around 1969 they were actually pretty interesting 'cause they didn't have playlists. There were a lot of tedious jams and all that, but there was just a lot of interesting stuff. The Airplane definitely were like one of my favourite groups, they had a lot of propulsion to their sound.

    And then, my discovery of Dylan really came after all these other things... I do remember there was this really bad French class I was in, where I basically wasn't learning anything, didn't know the French, but I had a teacher and she was trying to have us read a story by Camus and trying to explain what Camus's ideas were, and she was sort of saying, "Well, what happens is you have everything you believed in and you lost it, and then there's nothing for you to turn to but your fellow human beings." And, you know, okay, I was 16 or 15 and that actually really hit me: I know that, that's "Like a Rolling Stone"! And all of a sudden--Boom! I was getting anything by Dylan I could find, though all his good stuff was old by then. He was this great, great mind, and he was just taking this propellor and trashing everything, but doing it with this lunatic sense of humour that says, okay, we can trash everything but we can do anything also, we can create anything. So it was this weird combination of his obviously being depressed but it didn't stop him from making these kind of lunatic images and really funny jokes. So it was almost like, everything around is bullshit, but maybe that means we're free, kind of thing? It was kind of like Dylan was my Johnny Rotten.

    And then I came back to the Rolling Stones. At the time I was a senior in high school and somehow I just figured out that, well yeah, but the Stones play better!... There was something about the Stones where it was really this hard sound and Jagger at that time was just a frightening figure. If I tried to explain it to some kid now, that Mick Jagger was probably the most hated human being in the world, and there were lots of Stones' fans but if you weren't a Stones' fan, he was, you know... [long pause]

    Scott:  The antichrist?

    Frank:   [laughs] Yeah, I was trying to not say the antichrist or the devil! I mean, basically he scared me. Up to about '69, and after '69 he turned this part of himself off, he probably didn't believe in it anymore, thought it was bullshit. But there was something where he could combine both, you know, sexual swagger and extreme aggression, both at the same time. And yet, I'm 17 or 18 at the time [when I'm a senior, 1971-1972], and I'm thinking, yes, but he's also the author of his songs, and as the author of his songs, he's doing something different. And it's sort of interesting, because you experience him as a scary figure, and at the same time as a really attractive figure. And here he's writing these songs about--basically all these power struggles, and writing love songs that turn out to be hate songs and hate songs that turn out to be love songs, revolutionary songs that end up being songs about being unable to find something to commit yourself to, or being unable to find yourself, and I just realized, yes, there's a mind here, and it was really exciting to figure out that this scary guy, who, in junior high I'd be attracted to him though he kind of represented all the terror that was going on, was actually some sort of intellectual, maybe like my father [laughs]. And maybe there's a sense that once you figure that out about him you lose something because it doesn't scare you as much.

    There's this really good book, Stanley Booth's book on the Rolling Stones [True Adventures of the Rolling Stones], and the way he describes it, in the early days--like around 1962, '63, '64, when they were still playing clubs, before they graduated to halls--Brian Jones would smash his hand on to some guy's face in the audience, and I remember reading Booth's interviews with other musicians at the time or people who would go to see them, and they'd say the Stones came on there, and they looked like they didn't give a fuck what you thought of them. And like, I'm sure that wasn't true! [laughs] You know, one of the reasons Jagger's interesting is because he does give a fuck what other people think about him. But nonetheless, that was their stance, "We're coming as we are." They'd be sitting at the bar, and they wouldn't be dressed up for the show, they'd look like the poor delinquents that they were pretending to be. And they'd just sort of swagger up on to the stage, pick up their guitars, "Okay, now we're going." And yeah, people can have attitudes, but this attitude is what made them big. It wasn't just that they were a guy like Sly Stone with an attitude problem [laughs], it was definitely something where the musical elements start to divide against themselves, and to me it's like they're the precursor to the Stooges, where Iggy's finally saying, " I'm not gonna sit up here and wait for you to applaud and react to me, I'm gonna jump down into the audience and force you to react." And there's a sense in which performers are dependent upon their audiences for power and the audience can withhold that, and Iggy was sort of--I don't know if he was challenging it, that's not the right word--but he was sort of playing with that. And kind of very self-destructively. The one time I saw the Stooges he wasn't trying to come on like a powerful rock star, he wasn't coming on like, "I'm gonna come in and dominate you." It was really disconcerting 'cause that's kind of what I was expecting to go with their music.

    Scott:  Right, just seeing the pictures of them and stuff.

    Frank:   Yeah, the pictures, and even having read about him lying on the glass and jumping in the audience or something like that. But... he was only wearing boxers, and he comes on and he's flopping around and stumbling around, and in a sense he's playing the geek. And that wasn't a ritualized thing at the time--'geek' wasn't really in the popular language then, though Dylan had used the word in a song. But people imMEDiately started yelling at him, saying, "Come back here Iggy and I'll kill you!" I mean, there was a guy right behind me, yelling this in my ear--"Come back here Iggy and I'll kill you! Come back here Iggy and I'll kill you!"

    Scott:  Really?

    Frank:   And you know, Iggy, if he'd heard it, probably would have gone back there too. He was stage-diving but the stage-diving thing at the time is he would dive and people would run to get out of his way so he'd smash onto the floor. It might be hard to explain to someone. I had a friend at the time and I described it to him, and he said, "Iggy? You think that's entertainment?" [laughs] And it was kind of like, yeah, it really is the coolest thing going now, I can't explain it. But at the same time I was kind of disappointed that he wasn't quite the dominating rock star that I'd been expecting and I was a little disappointed in that show for that reason, but it kind of stuck with me. Blue Oyster Cult, on the other hand [on the same bill], put on a really good show, I thought--yes, oh yeah, they rocked, they were good. But I don't remember a damn thing about it.

    [Punk] doesn't make sense to me as a people... it's basically, "I am the world's forgotten boy, the one who searches and destroys." That's not a group slogan, sorry. I mean, there's a sense in which it applies to many many human beings in the world, you know, there's a forgottenness, there are pieces of us which are forgotten because we don't get a chance to show them, and maybe we shouldn't even, or something like that. And that sort of search and destroy part of us is one of these forgotten things, so we have this forgotten boy within us, so a lot of people can identify with that song, but it's not a group thing. Or the Sex Pistols' "I wanna destroy passersby." That's not a group slogan, I'm sorry--if it's a group slogan, you've got it wrong. It doesn't mean I wanna destroy other passersby other than the people in my social group or something like that. It's much more like, this is the part of me that, like, you know, stabs my girlfriend to death, or this is the part of me that shunned that girl in sixth grade, because I was too chicken not to, or the part of me that ran that race against my friend and when my friend lost I beat him up--you know, all sorts of different things.

    To me, the punk I invented for myself back in 1970, more or less, was in the sense of, okay, we're gonna do it honestly. I don't think the idea was to be destructive, but there was something about it where you owned the destructiveness, it's your destructiveness, it wasn't created by social causes. Marx doesn't have an explanation for why I just slapped my girlfriend. Of course, at the time I didn't have a girlfriend to slap or not slap, but I actually put things into those terms at the time anyway.

    Scott:  Right...

    Frank:  You know. As a matter of fact I've never slapped a girlfriend.

    Scott:  For the record.

    Frank:  For the record. But maybe if it had been on record, maybe I would have slapped someone. [laughs] But anyhow, the punk in me is also an intellectual; there's definitely a mind to punk. My punk, anyway. That is in the sense that, you know, the line in the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" when he says, "Now I'm ready to close my eyes, now I'm ready to close my mind." What he's really doing is he's bragging that he'll never ever in his life close his mind, that it won't shut off even when he wants it to, he can't make his inner eye shut off, he's always gonna look, watch, criticize.

    Scott:  That's what you want to do with your writing?

    Frank:  Yeah, I guess so. And it's funny because I'm thinking of Minor Threat when they said, "Don't smoke/I don't drink/I don't fuck/At least I can fucking think"--I didn't think when I heard that, and I don't think Ian Mackaye meant it like this either, I don't think he meant it as this is how you should behave, I think he was just talking about what he was like. His words were sort of the opposite of Iggy's, but I think it's the same thing: I can't close my eye. And that's what the song "Out of Step" is about. I really think that was part of the thing in Johnny Rotten when he sang, "Except for myself, my beautiful selfish." The brain doesn't stop, the vision doesn't stop, the eyeball doesn't stop. And to me it's not a group singalong.

    Scott:   Were you writing about music while you were performing it? Not at the exact same time, obviously...

    Frank:  No, before I started working at the Strand [a New York bookstore], I was working at this ice cream store, Carvel's, and for a time one of the guys that worked there [Ged Dunn] had been the former publisher of Punk magazine who'd quit--his dream was to go into real estate... [Ged] was sort of trying to do the business side of Punk magazine, and I think he sort of gave up on them because he thought they were too artsy fartsy, whereas his idea was to make money on it. Anyway, he was there, and at one point he said to me, "You're a rock critic," and I said, "Well I've never written anything about music," and he said, "Yeah, but you talk about it all the time." But ... being a writer was kind of my doom, but I hadn't accepted it yet. It was the sort of thing where people would say, "Frank, you should start writing this stuff down," and I would say, "I'm not going to write about music until I've performed on stage in front of people." And that happened, so then it was, "Well I'm not gonna start writing about music until I've put out a release of some sort," and that happened. But basically, I didn't really take the jump until much later, until about eight years afterwards.

    Scott:   Do you know what was your first published piece of rock criticism?

    Frank:   The REAL first thing--what I consider to be the first thing--was this thing I called "The Autobiography of Bob Dylan" [1985], which I sent to Aaron [Cometbus], who I think was still a teenager then. I was living in New York still, and he put out this fanzine called Cometbus. I think it was a neat idea, I really like that piece, actually. The idea of that piece, what I can remember, was one thing that struck me when I was listening to Dylan and a lot of the rock from the '60s was that the lyrics that seemed true to me were the ones where the person was either being negative, not just towards the person he was writing about, but really destructive towards himself. And my wondering was this--I didn't say it in the piece, but obviously it was true--was [pause] I didn't like love songs, and the reason I didn't like love songs is 'cause they sounded bullshit. Basically, when Dylan was positive I thought he was full of shit, pretty much the same with Lou Reed. There were some exceptions, the main one being the New York Dolls, who figured out a way of being positive. It wasn't that I thought that hate was a truer emotion than love, but it seemed to me that expressions of hate in music seemed true, whereas expressions of love in music didn't seem true--at least didn't seem true if they were by men in the '60s; the Shangri-Las doing love songs made perfect sense somehow. So what I was questioning myself with was, why are hate songs better than love songs? Or why does hate sound true; why does hate live and love die? The whimsical title, "The Autobiography of Bob Dylan," was, there's something happening, there's something in the language, or in the culture, or in our lives, that, you know, hate is a true expression in music, and love is not a true expression in music, and to understand WHY we have to understand our lives, so that the autobiography of Bob Dylan wouldn't be about Bob Dylan, it wouldn't be Dylan writing his story, it would be us writing our story. Not just us, not a bunch of individuals, but whatever that dynamic was that we were all living in and that we were all creating, that created this interesting situation, where hate lived and love died.

    why music sucks

     Scott:   How did Why Music Sucks come about?

    Frank:   As a joke [in 1986], I pretended I was going to put out a magazine called Dinosaur, and it was going to be based on one of those year-end critics' polls, like the Village Voice poll or the Rolling Stone poll, except that it would have fun questions, so the questions wouldn't be things like, "What's your favourite band of the year?" or, "What's the best album cover?" but it would be questions like, "Why are dinosaurs so popular?" It might include some musical questions, but it wouldn't be strictly limited to musical questions; one of the questions was "_______ was better when he was in 'Hogan's Heroes'," and you were supposed to fill in the blank, and this was kind of just for fun...I threw in a music question 'cause in a way I really did wanna know what music people were listening to so I would know what records to go out and buy. So one of the questions was, "Pick your ten favourite records"...

    Scott:   Of the last ten years.

    Frank:   I think I did it seven years, in order to avoid the punk onslaught of '77 and '78, which otherwise everyone would vote for. But I wanted to go back far enough so I could write down the first Spoonie Gee record [laughs], so that's why I picked seven years. So I just Xeroxed the sheet and sent if off to people in my address book.

    So anyway, I invented this magazine and called it Readers' Poll because that's what it was, but this would be a readers' poll that someone would actually want to read. And in a sense, when you read a magazine--when I read a magazine--even whether it's interesting or not, I will always read a poll and I will always read letters. And so, well, I'll have a magazine that's completely based on poll results and letters... but in there I had my essay on why I was really disgruntled with music in the '80s, and basically the music in the '80s I was disgruntled with was the post-punk alternative rock stuff. So I wrote an essay expressing my disgruntlement and welcomed people to comment on the essay, but also to give their own views on music in the '80s: if they didn't like it, why they didn't like it, if they did like it, why they did like it, and what music they were liking and what music they hoped to hear in the future. And I got such a big response that I couldn't fit that in Readers' Poll, so I decided there's enough here for a special issue just on this one question, so I put that out, assuming that what was going to happen was maybe the back of Readers' Poll would always have some pages on the subject. The question, why does music suck?--I thought it was sort of a funny title, so it became Why Music Sucks. The response to the first issue, people writing in, angry at what someone else said or agreeing with what someone else said or going off on their own theory of the world and history and the 20th century or something like that, was big enough so that that had to have its own magazine too. And basically from there I was putting out a couple of parallel magazines, and Why Music Sucks became the more important one and Readers' Poll sort of fizzled out.

    Scott:   Outside of your immediate contacts and the small network you had built up, did you think in terms of having a particular audience for Why Music Sucks? Did you, back then, want it to be big?

    Frank:  Well remember, it kind of started by accident, so there almost wasn't any intention, but I would say there was one point where, after I did the first issue, I was assuming that the audience and the writers would be the same people, you know I wasn't assuming that this is a magazine that a lot of other people are gonna read that's gonna be available somewhere, I wasn't gonna try to become a magazine publisher.

    There was one thought I had in mind which was--even before I put together the first issue--I was thinking, I really would like for there to be a place...where people would kind of discuss and argue--I'm not even sure how to put it, but I would almost say issues in rock criticism, because rather than just sitting around and reviewing this record or that record, I could ask certain questions like, "Why are hate songs better than love songs?" or something like that. There were just a lot of things, a bunch of thoughts, that had been in my mind since college, it sort of bugged me that people would just sort of assume that, you know, they'd listen to "Under My Thumb" and they'd assume that--they'd project onto it--"oh, here's Mick Jagger taking position on the treatment of women and we have to take a position to oppose this," whereas this had nothing to do with the world that gave birth to "Under My Thumb" and the way people listened to it. So I wanted to kind of say things like that, and there wasn't really a magazine in the world that did that, where they kind of discussed issues like that.

    On to Part 2 of Frank Kogan