Pushin' Too Hard: Frank Kogan, Part 4

By Scott Woods

Scott:  I'd like to get your thoughts on a couple writers. Let's start with Greil Marcus.

Frank:  Oh, okay--wow! We'll never finish!

Scott:  I know. I mean, try and keep it within kind of reasonable length.

Frank:  Yeah--Greil Marcus within reasonable length! Umm, definitely a complicated relationship in my mind. I mean, we've talked on the phone a couple of times, that's about it, and not long conversations. In some ways he's really good, in some ways he's really preposterous, and probably you couldn't have one without the other. I think the "Presliad" essay in Mystery Train is, you know, an immortal piece of writing, in the sense of, I really got Elvis when I read that essay. And I think he's right. And it's kind of interesting--this is a tangent--but I used my ideas of Elvis when I was talking about Public Enemy. Elvis was on, I think it might have been "Ed Sullivan," one of those shows that he was on in the early days, and he made this joke, he says, "Here's our latest escape--I mean, release." And that's it exactly! And what I kind of said in a Pazz & Jop thing about Public Enemy was, I quoted this thing and I said, the trouble is is that you become addicted to the thrill of the escape and you become an escape artist, and that's what rock and roll becomes, and the thing is, if you're an escape artist you need a jail, so you keep needing to put yourself back in jail.

mystery train

And this is, to me, like the Public Enemy album--It Takes a Nation of Millions of course has them on the cover, and there they are in jail. I was kind of doing a paraphrase of Chuck Eddy, 'cause I said, "You know that Public Enemy are punk rockers because they're addicted to their own oppression," and then sort of gave all the reasons why--because they get off on their oppression, it's their oppression that strikes their... their... great blast for freedom. The point is that eventually you end up carrying your jail with you, in a sense, because you need it, because it becomes the basis of your art work, and once that happens you've gotta be better than Houdini if you're ever going to escape.

So, you know... anyway, I mean, umm, I really am talking about Greil Marcus here [laughs] in the sense that I think in essence, I don't know if he ever used the jail metaphor, but that was definitely what he was talking about: Elvis's release, his leap into freedom after the life he was supposedly supposed to have. And at the same time, there's a lot in Greil's writing that has that Public Enemy problem, that he's addicted to the idea of the leap into freedom. And a lot about the book Lipstick Traces, to me, is it was him rewriting the Elvis essay but I wasn't believing it. I loved the idea of the book, the fact that he would write hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages all on tangents that were set off by the same song. About several months after getting that book, that's when I did my Disco Tex essay [laughs]--in a sense I pulled the same trip. So I have a very kind of complicated reaction to Greil Marcus, therefore, because there's a sense in which I just don't believe him a lot of the time.

I think Chuck Eddy really nailed him when Greil was sort of saying this thing about it's the purpose of rock music to disrupt things, not to just be passive and part of the system kind of thing; I'm probably saying it much worse than Greil would have--sorry Greil. [laughs] But in that same essay ["Notes on the life & death and incandescent banality of rock 'n' roll," Esquire, August, 1992] Greil had described this thing where he had been really, really sickened by something he'd seen in a Poison video, where Poison had thrown a glass at the wall, which I think Greil misinterpreted as a gesture of contempt towards the fans. Then Greil was touting Nirvana as the band that was bringing disruptive energy, and Chuck just completely got it on the nose by saying, "Well, come on, Nirvana doesn't disrupt Greil Marcus." He was saying, "When Poison disrupts Greil Marcus, Greil Marcus gets unhappy."

I understood, when he wrote Mystery Train, I knew what he meant about the difference between Elvis Presley's version of "Mystery Train" and the earlier versions by, I don't know if it was the Carter Family, and the Junior Parker version, and maybe there was even a Bob Wills version or something; whereas, I love "Anarchy in the U.K." but I really don't have a clue what Greil Marcus thinks the difference is between "Anarchy in the U.K." and--you know, between the Sex Pistols and the Stooges, and why the Sex Pistols are a break for freedom, and what the big change was between all the other stuff that Marcus grew up on, which is Stones and Dylan, and how the Sex Pistols were the big change; it just seemed like he needed to repeat that riff, he needed the change for his book. I mean, I don't think he really did need it for his book. And he kind of makes a big deal of the fact that when he went to the Sex Pistols' concert, he was, in a sense, overtaken by the music and he went around wanting to smash kids and stuff like that. And in a sense, yeah, powerful music can make you do that, but for me, what's the achievement there? I can do that any day of the week, if I want to feel like smashing people all I have to do is get on the 14 Mission bus or go to the Cala grocery store, you know [laughs]--I mean, I'm not a rage-aholic... but I don't get that part. At the same time, honestly, probably I identify a lot more with Greil Marcus than I do with Richard Meltzer.

Scott:  Oh really?

Frank:  Yeah, I think Meltzer is the more important critic, the better writer, but deep down, when I was saying [earlier in the interview] why I didn't think Meltzer would like me, I was saying I was a sentimental fool--that's both me and Marcus. I think our romanticism is absolutely identical, in the sense that we both love this kind of stuff of this break for freedom when suddenly all the possibilities of life open up, and at the same time we're so sappy about it, I mean you can take our sap and put it in all the refineries in New Jersey to fill up Greil Marcus's and Frank Kogan's sentimental attachment to music or something like that. That said, I think I've got a tougher line when it comes to that.


Scott:  Camille Paglia.

Frank:  A great writer. I actually haven't read most of her recent stuff; I've read parts of Sexual Personae, you know, basically I was reading the stuff that I'd done the reading on myself. But I mean, this is amazing to me, all the stuff that's been written about her--she's an amazing writer. She is absolutely--if I were to say, here's a writer who could successfully do what I was describing, gee, I wish someone could put their nose to the sound and describe it, she could do it! It's amazing, like... God, I wish our lights weren't off here! [Frank's referring to a power outage earlier in the interview] I could grab her book off the shelf and read you some of the stuff she wrote about Emily Dickinson. She was talking about Emily Dickinson's use of the word 'wanton', and she went back into the derivation of 'wanton,' and she said, "You can hear her taking the bones of an arm and wantoning them," meaning just kind of toss them up in the air. Such a hard image. It's funny, people's image of Emily Dickinson--I mean, Emily Dickinson is like the Lou Reed of poetry. She's doing "Venus in Furs" and "The Black Angel's Death Song."

But beyond that, I actually... the person I most in the world wish we could get into Radio On and Why Music Sucks is Camille Paglia. I have to say, you know, the writing is great, in a way she's very one-tracked and very peculiar and very idiosyncratic--basically everything's S&M for her [laughs]--maybe that's an exaggeration--but I don't mind that. But I actually think her broader ideas are fairly conventional. [Inaudible sentence here about Paglia still fighting the intellectual battles of the 18th century, still thinking you have to go back and defeat Rousseau.] To me there's really a lot of conventionality about her stuff about male sexuality and female sexuality, however well written it is. My trouble with her writing about feminists is she seems to always attack stupid feminists, and there is a point where, you know, you can judge people by the enemies they choose. If you're a crime fighter you want to fight bad people, but if you're an intellectual, you want to get good enemies. Don't go after easy targets.

Mary Gaitskill's a big fan of Camille Paglia, too, but she said something--or maybe I said it and she sort of elaborated on it--but it was something like, Paglia's got a lot of good ideas but she isn't really interested in other people's ideas. This is sort of why I want to bring her into the discussion because we're not a bunch of people who're part of this academic feminist thing that's sort of bugging her--for not bad reasons. But the thing is, we know what's happening in music and I think she needs to know. When she says there's no great female guitar player--well, I don't think there's been a great male guitar player since Mick Jones either!

Scott:  Yeah, yeah--I don't think she knows punk.

Frank:  I don't think she knows punk, I don't think she knows disco.

Scott:  She kind of knows disco, maybe...

Frank:  But it's almost like, how would she know? I actually do have a candidate for the great female guitar player but I'm actually embarrassed, I don't remember her name--it's Kelly someone, I believe her first name's Kelly [Kelly Johnson], and you know, my lights are off so I can't look it up. She was a guitarist for Girlschool, I think she left around 1984, '85, and... the reason I wouldn't quite put her as a great guitar player is 'cause she's not an original guitar player. But the fact is, she could play with any hard rock guitar player in the world as far as being able to rock hard. It isn't just that she's a great guitar player, which is one thing, but I think she refutes something about Camille Paglia's thing--I mean basically she can rock through the wall. [pause] Well, the albums to get [laughs] since I'm mentioning this are Hit and Run and Screaming Blue Murder. They're a very erratic group as far as their song material but they're always interesting.

Scott:  I've always thought of Camille Paglia as doing something in academia or whatever similar to what you and Chuck do in music criticism. Do you see that parallel?

Frank:  Yeah, but there's one mixed feeling about her that makes me want to tear her down a little bit. At one point Mary [Gaitskill] was saying some critical things about my writing, and she in essence said: you should read Camille Paglia and see how it's done right. So when I started reading Camille I was really struggling with it, really looking for flaws. [laughs] And basically, yeah, as far as descriptive writing, boy--yeah, she can wipe the floor with me. But I'd like her to get some of my ideas. I think my ideas power my writing. I think that'd be cool; but she also scares the shit out of me; probably in the way that a lot of people feel about Courtney Love, probably I feel about Camille Paglia. You know, I don't know if she's in control of herself, she could be an Axl Rose, she could go for the jugular; that's part of her image, too. In a way I'm talking about her like she's a rock star too. Try and get a copy of this interview to her!

Scott:  I was thinking it'd be great to interview her about pop music. It's kind of frustrating, she only gets interviewed about feminism, and it's just, it's really dull at this point, attacking Naomi Wolf all the time.

Frank:  Yeah, I mean I've seen her on TV a few times and sort of channel surfed beyond it because it was that subject. What I'm saying is, c'mon, go after good targets.


school's back: phase II of why music sucks

Scott:  It seemed like a lot of the responses you got in the first phase of Why Music Sucks were of the, "Why are you trying to analyse all this stuff" sort of thing, the classic, "Shut up and play your guitar" argument. And you obviously disputed that in a big way.

Frank:  Basically ["Shut up and play your guitar"] is just stupid bigotry. But at the same time there are reasons for that bigotry. In a sense, "shut up and play your guitar" is another thing where, you know, let's pull everything down to only one component, we can only do one thing. If I have one message to give to the world more than any other it's that you can walk and chew gum at the same time. And their argument is basically, well, if you're thinking about this and analysing it, then by definition you're not doing it. That argument is actually a reaction to the way schools kind of teach the opposite. Schools are kind of saying if you are doing it, if you're living your life, speaking the way you speak, acting the way you act, if you're a part of what's going on, then you're not an intellectual. The "shut up and play your guitar"--the trouble with that is it buys the argument, it just turns the argument on its head and says, well, if you're being an intellectual therefore you're not living your life. In a sense it's two sides of the same coin... I was kind of shocked at how strong the reaction was of, "Don't analyse it, just do it." But different people were saying it for different reasons, and there were some people who were just sort of irritated by my constant attacks on alternative rock, and people who liked some of my music.

Scott:  Some people who actually wanted you to play.

Frank:  Yeah, yeah. It was Mark Edwards who said that to me ["Why doesn't Frank Kogan shut up and play his guitar?"], and he's a very good drummer and we played together. But I think I've got a better guitar, and that's my pen and typewriter. And--I'm just sort of amazed with people who say that I'm dry as a writer. I mean, I think I'm very emotional and--there's emotion, there's jokes, I go all over town.

Scott:  One of the questions you ask in the new Why Music Sucks is to have people draw a social map of their high school.

Frank:  Yeah, basically I've thought of school as a really good metaphor for what's wrong in the world--or what's right in the world, whatever; it's just a good metaphor. Since I'm really basically interested in terror and social division--how that affects people's lives and stuff like that--high school, junior high, was a place where there's something very in your face about it, so you can kind of analyse it, it's there in front of you, whereas it isn't usually in more grown up life. Or at least if it is people don't make a big deal of it. So that's why I kind of wanted to ask that question. But it was also a good question, because if you ask people to do social analysis they end up being really vague and irrelevant, but the reason is because they usually don't connect it to any actual lives or events on the planet Earth. Whereas if you can sort of ask people about lives and events on planet Earth, maybe you'll get social analysis.

In a sense I haven't really pushed the social analysis that much; a lot of the responses end up being personal, and much more than social analysis, in the sense that, "this is what I was doing when I was in school, and this is how I reacted to the social groups around me," rather than someone trying to draw a bigger picture or something like that. But it produced some--I was just delighted with the response, with the writing I got. In a way the bitterness that had sort of been in me about and towards rock criticism became irrelevant. Basically when Phil Dellio sent me his essay, which was this amazingly moving thing kind of about what he felt was his failure in high school as a... well, whatever. It kind of really cut to the bone, as they say.

And it was just that I started to feel that, yeah, I didn't need the bitterness 'cause here was something really straightforward that mattered... I read magazines like Harper's, New Yorker--though I don't read them very much--Spin, Details, what have you, and it's more like, why can't these people print good writing? To me it's really easy to put out a magazine: what you do is you ask people to write, they write, and you print what they write. And it's amazing because this is not how newspapers run, how magazines run. And obviously, I think it's a good magazine because I ask the right questions, you know I ask questions that matter to me and that matter to people and, yeah, I could say I ask the right people to write about them, but some people were self-chosen, they showed up, and it seems to me that you don't need to be a great genius to write well.

Scott:  Well [the high school question] is the sort of question that everyone would be interested in. Anyone who's a writer, certainly, would have interest in exploring that--well, I'd hope, anyway.

Frank:  Yeah, and I kind of hope that the magazine will work its way toward social analysis, but there's some other things going on--like the 'Blindfold Test.' And in an odd way, that's kind of an experiment of mine, because--it's funny that I'm thinking about this, but music's actually really hard to write about. And one thing I've noticed is that most people write better when they're not writing about music, even if they're music critics. And boy, is this really being hit home to me. And there are a lot of reasons. I think people could write better than they do about music, and the main thing is that what writers don't seem to understand is that, "Sounds like the Stones" is not an evocative phrase. It's an evocative phrase to some extent, but it's really limited in how much it tells the reader. And even if the reader loves the Stones, knows the Rolling Stones back and forth, it's still like--sounds like the Stones in what way? And why does that matter?

But basically what's happening in the blindfold test is I'm sending a tape to a bunch of people, usually I'll pick six people each issue, and I'll send them a tape, but I won't tell them what's on the tape, and I'll ask them pretty much to put down their first impressions as they're listening to it, though obviously you're allowed to go back and listen [laughs] 'cause there's no way to stop anybody... So instead of having this boring description, everything being explained to the reader, you could have a bunch of people just having reactions, not everything being explained, but if you got enough of them--you know, you get six people into a room--somewhere there would be enough information so that a reader could actually get something about the song, even if there's no description at all, even if everyone is sort of saying, oh, this reminds me of this jerk I knew 12 years ago or something like that, that someone would actually get the music through this babble of voices, but wouldn't have to be bored in the process of reading it. And at the same time, they don't have to read all this tedious why-where-and-when, which you're supposed to write if you're a rock critic. So I kind of sidestep the whole need for this kind of forced but boring intelligibility, which you're asked to write if you're a rock critic. It's funny, because it never works in rock criticism either. I still think most rock reviews, they manage to be boring but they're still incomprehensible.

Scott:  Is it the terms of high school or the language that most interests you, or is it because it's a desperate time of your life--what's the root of that obsession?

Frank:  I would say for my purposes now it's the terms. I also do think, though, in a sense like therapists take you back to a lot of stuff in early childhood, it seems to me that high school is when people develop their social life, and that's where the social groups form. In grammar school, at least for me, there were people who hung out together, but it seemed to me that groups didn't coalesce the way that they did in high school, with names and with all the myths surrounding what the freaks were or the greasers were or something like that. But high school--it isn't necessarily a more desperate time, though usually it is because people want things to happen fast because you want to grow up fast--but somehow the vocabulary that develops there is really interesting, and you really do have to deal with a wider range of people, at least in some tiny way, than you usually have to later in life.

Scott:  Describe the hallway of your dreams as an adult.

Frank:  The hallway of my dreams is [pause] what it is, is you've abolished the division between the classroom and the hallway. In a way it might actually be the classroom of my dreams--that might be more of a relevant question. You know, I actually think classrooms are good things, even though they set in motion a lot of bad stuff in the world. Maybe it's a place where you can have the flirting and the fighting that you would have in the hallway, you can take it into the classroom, but there's enough of, somehow, a kind of cushion so that people don't get too badly hurt. But basically it's a place where you can have a good conversation, where people can challenge each other and not be destroyed by each other's challenge, but you're allowed to speak in the voice you came in with. In the introduction to Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain was sort of describing the various different accents he used in the book: this accent was the one the black person spoke, this white person spoke one, that white person spoke in a whole bunch of different things. Then he kind of at the end he said, "The reason I'm telling you this is I didn't want you to think that all these characters were trying to speak the same but not succeeding." And you know, to me it's like, the bad classroom, and the bad magazine usually--I mean, there's some good magazines where it happens--but the bad magazine usually is where everybody speaks the same, where everyone's forced to speak the same. And the good classroom or magazine is where you speak in all the different voices.

kogan ponders the hallway of his dreams

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