“What prophecy actually is is not that you actually know that the bomb will fall in 1942. It’s that you know and feel something that somebody knows and feels in a hundred years. And maybe articulate it in a hint—a concrete way that they can pick up on in a hundred years.”
— Allen Ginsberg, The Paris Review interview by Tom Clark
Thurston Moore, the iconic frontman and founder of Sonic Youth, has been a fixture at the little Buddhist university in the Rocky Mountains for a good number of years now. He has continued the tradition of the school within the school, founded by legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Lower East Side provocateur Anne Waldman in 1974, by teaching classes on the influence of literary experimentalist William S. Burroughs and the founder of the school itself, Ginsberg. I was a student of Allen’s from 1991-1994 at the Kerouac School, formally called The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics — a moniker that supposes the “disembodied” part comes from the artist within, like Emily Dickenson writing power in her solitude, but causing an active participation of the reader and listener. Ginsberg would say, “Poetry is prophecy.” There was an aspect to that, in 1994 when I co-taught a workshop on performance at Naropa called by my cohort teacher Angel Heironimus, Existentialism, Maddness, Poetry and Performance. I was asked to bring in recordings of artists that fed into that subsystem of the poet-maudit, accursed poet, and I decided on the No Wave artist and Spoken Word pioneer Lydia Lunch.
It’s been 21 years since that class, and Naropa has evolved, from an institute to a fully accredited University. A university with all of the trappings and pitfalls of the university system of the US. Where an enlightened socratic grove arts education becomes difficult to develop, when in 41 years the school itself has been mimicked by the likes of Princeton or Stanford. Classes at Naropa remain small, incredibly not very ethnically diverse, well neither is Boulder where it is housed. Not much of an urbanitas, no large buildings in the small city at the foothills of the Rockies. This formerly progressive haven has developed a sort of regulated liberalism that wouldn’t likely tolerate even one of it’s most infamous inhabitants truths, Naropa Founder Chogyam Trungpa and his “Crazy Wisdom” lineage of Tibetan Buddhism had it’s own controversies in the late 70s. During a time when Jim Jones and others were active cult leaders, and not long after Charlie Manson was incarcerated for a revolution of consciousness and twisted idealism of his own. But these days at Naropa are long, long past. The school itself is more likely to acquire the Boulder School of Massage Therapy than cause another “Poetry War.”
In that, it was amazing as a returning alumni that has had a few decades under his own belt, to see Thurston and Lydia truly carrying the torch of the “wild mind” poetics that the founders initiated and were truly convinced would be the path of the Kerouac School. To be honest, their histories are parallel. Lydia came to New York City in 1974 from Upstate, because primarily of the punk aesthetic and immediately knew she would be an artist, likely a writer, never a musician — an artist was the only thing that was worth being in a Manhattan scene that both was radicalized since the 60s but also developing the classist system that partially created it’s closing the toll bridge gates to all the affordable artist housing today. The New York of the 70s was at once somewhere that you COULD be an artist and develop a unique voice, a vision, and one that if not punk, not hippie, post-everything. This is the same New York that a young Thurston Moore ventured into, if you listen to the audio of this podcast, you will here Thurston aside, “I never really thought I would play guitar. I still don’t know how to play.” It wasn’t the point. Like Lou Reed before them, and even Patti Smith (although Lydia has said Patti hasn’t done anything worth doing for decades, in her best energetic critique of an artist to artist — she might be right), the work they were doing was a prose narrative of the interstices of something both literary as Ginsberg or Waldman, and as much a cultural force majure as anything the Beats did. As a returning Alumni, as a poet and multi-disciplinary artist myself, and editor… I got it. It was amazing they were at the Kerouac School. It’s what it was built for, they weren’t rock gods, they never wanted to be. They were a generation of populist poets that were interested in the history that gave them permission to continue, and why not here. Hubert Selby Jr., one of Lydia’s idols taught while I was there. Thurston mentioned Ted Berrigan, I was split a scholarship in his name 20 years ago (and Berrigan had been dead 20 years previous). Even Anne Waldman had done music videos, and now in her 70s still is a vibrant energetic performer, Buddhist (Trungpa was her guru) and maintains creative direction of the Kerouac School.
So, are Thurston Moore and Lydia Lunch poets? Do they belong in an academic setting? Do they belong with the likes of a place that housed Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Burroughs, Selby, Ondaatje , Berrigan, Acker, Baraka… They may or may not know it, but to this alumni, and to this magazine:
They are exactly where they belong. We are proud to bring you the first Black & Grey podcast episode with Lydia Lunch and Thurston Moore at The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, blissfully in it’s 41st year! Onward!!
Bil Brown, EIC Black & Grey magazine
A condensed version of this conversation between Lydia Lunch and Thurston Moore, held at the Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics on July 15th, 2015 in Boulder, Colorado, can be found in Autre’s current LOVE Issue. Recording by Max Davies and Ambrose Bye. Moderation by Bil Brown.
LYDIA LUNCH: I did my first spoken word show with Thurston Moore. Do you remember?
THURSTON MOORE: I remember, yes. It was in New York City. You decided you would do something without the necessitation of these annoying guitars, amps, and drums. Let’s just get rid of that craphole, huh? You had some ideas of this dialogue you had written. And you roped me into it.
LUNCH: I remember inviting Thurston to take a walk with me. We didn’t know each other, but we lived a block away from each other. We would spot each other on the subway. This was the early 80s?
MOORE: I saw you in the late 70s. I lived on 13th Street.
LUNCH: I was on 12th.
MOORE: I would see you on the corner of 12th and A.
LUNCH: Cowboy boots, spiked skirts.
MOORE: Ring in nose. I would see you sometimes in the subway, on the L train.
LUNCH: I remember thinking, “Who is this tall boy? Why is he so shy?”
MOORE: I knew who you were because you had a reputation. You were in a band called Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was something kind of crazy.
LUNCH: But we didn’t meet each other. We would just spot each other.
MOORE: You knew all these people. I was a loner.
LUNCH: But then I left, and I came back to New York. That’s when we met. I don’t know what came first, the spoken word or “In Limbo.” By the way, somebody is asking me to answer questions about that period, and I don’t have any fucking answers. I don’t remember. But, I came back to do spoken word. I don’t remember how we met, or how we got introduced, but I invited Thurston to go on a walk with me. I started telling him this terrible story – it wasn’t a true story, most of my stories are true – and his reaction was so, “Oh my God. You’re kidding me. I can’t believe it. Really?” I was kinda like, “Yeah.” I don’t know if this involves the “urinating in the doorway” story or not. Was that the same incident?
MOORE: That was the same time period, yes.
LUNCH: So I said, “We’re doing this tomorrow night. We’re doing this performance. You’re just going to be the straight man.” I don’t even think we used mics. I think we did like a Chinese whisper circle. We were just walking around talking, and people could only hear snatches. That was my first spoken word show. And that was my first show with him. My second one was called “Daddy Dearest.” Actually, some people from my class saw us do “North Six.” Years later, well, Thurston, we did the first spoken word show together. Get on the bill! He was like, “Can I have a collaborator?” I’m like, “No. You, your guitar, and your poetry.” We did a few shows. Those were great.
MOORE: I don’t think even at that time the word “spoken word” was being used.
MOORE: It was whatever was being used. Some kind of performance. I recall that. We were introduced through Richard Edson, one of the earliest drummers of Sonic Youth.
LUNCH: He lived across the street from me. He lived one block away from you.
MOORE: Yeah. And when you came back into New York after spending time in London, or wherever you were…
LUNCH: I went to LA for two years, and then I went to London for two years to work with The Birthday Party. I moved back to New York to around ’84 with Thirlwell.
MOORE: I met you through Richard Edson because he was involved with doing the soundtrack music to a film that Seth B and Beth B were doing. It was called “Vortex.” It was their first major film. It was a bigger film, and Lydia was the lead.
LUNCH: Angel Palmers, a detective.
MOORE: Yeah, you played Angel Palmers, detective.
LUNCH: Who takes a bubble bath.
MOORE: There was a very interesting bubble bath scene. Anyway, Richard Edson said to me, “Hey, I’m doing music for this film. I want you to play bass. Lydia Lunch is in it. We’re going to get together and circulate some ideas.” I was very intrigued. He took me over to where Lydia was staying, on Rivington Street at John Duffy’s apartment.
LUNCH: Thirlwell wasn’t there then.
MOORE: Thirlwell hadn’t come into the scene.
LUNCH: I came back to New York, I don’t know how. I was staying at somebody’s apartment.
MOORE: You were staying at this apartment, and that’s how we met. We were sort of hanging out. That’s about it. One thing lead to the other…
LUNCH: [Laughs.] Remind me, how did I approach the “In Limbo” session? That’s what the guy who is writing the book about you wants to know, and I can’t remember.
MOORE: We had done this music for Vortex. It never really came to anything. The soundtrack for “Vortex” – I’m not even on that. It sort of happened very quickly. Richard did what he did. You and I remained in touch. You reached out to me to see if I would be interested in playing for some songs that you were working on. I said sure.
LUNCH: I think I wanted to make the slowest record ever made. Really depressing.
MOORE: It was the slowest record in the world. And this was at the time when I was really engaged in listening to the fastest music being made.
LUNCH: [Laughs.] As contrarian.
MOORE: I’m listening to Minor Threat and Black Flag.
LUNCH: And I wanted to do sludge rock. I want to do the most tortuously, painfully slow. I was very depressed. Part of me was very depressed. I just wanted to write a record that was morose. Actually, we do “Still Burning” from that live still.
MOORE: They were great songs.
LUNCH: They were very poetic.
MOORE: I felt like they were really musical.
LUNCH: You played bass. Jim Sclavunos played sax.
MOORE: We would meet at Bradley Field’s basement studio.
LUNCH: He was the drummer of Teenage Jesus.
MOORE: He had this basement rehearsal space on Grand Street. He let us use this space. Sonic Youth was rehearsing there. I think Lydia was kicking upstairs.
LUNCH: Yeah, that was my loft.
MOORE: It was literally two blocks from where I was living on Eldridge Street. I would go there, and Lydia would hone to me what she wanted. I would play on the bass. Richard Edson was going to play.
LUNCH: You told me something about a slow dance. I’m not sure.
MOORE: The first rehearsal was pretty much, you know…
LUNCH: A seduction.
MOORE: Yeah. Lydia said, “Can we dance?” I said, “I don’t dance. I don’t even know you.”
LUNCH: [Laughs.] “Shall we dance?” I didn’t mean disco or go go. Well, I thought we had to get to know each other. I had to see if you could dance slow enough. It was a slow dance.
MOORE: She was trying to slow me down.
LUNCH: That was true. Did I?
MOORE: I knew she was just trying to slow me down, but it’s just like…
LUNCH: A volcano was trying to slow a tornado down.
MOORE: It just made my heart beat faster, honestly. Anyway, we started doing these songs. Edson was playing drums. You called in Sclavunos to play the saxophone. And Pat Place played the guitar. Then, we started rehearsing at Michael Gira’s place on Sixth Street.
LUNCH: I have no recollection of that.
MOORE: The real rehearsals started happening because there wasn’t enough room at Bradley’s.
LUNCH: Then, we recorded at Donny Christenson’s. Did we?
MOORE: We might have.
LUNCH: Where else would we have done it?
MOORE: We did. I think I remember going to Donny Christenson’s.
LUNCH: We did record. The record exists. It’s called “In Limbo.”
MOORE: That was the first time I remember meeting Donny Christenson.
LUNCH: Who was in the Contortions and the Raybeats.
MOORE: For me, it was great. Donny, Pat, Jim, and Lydia were playing in bands that I would go see and I was really intrigued by. They were very informative for Sonic Youth. My scene, at that time, was my band and then Mike Gira’s band Swans. There were a couple of other outlining bands. A lot of that, the bands that existed a couple years before us – such as Contortions – they had all broken up. Everybody was going to different places. Lydia left, and then she was back.
LUNCH: To start doing spoken word. To start collaborating with other people.
MOORE: She started employing me into what she was doing. Subsequently, these other musicians from that time period came in. I got to meet Sclavunos, who started playing drums for Sonic Youth. He played on the “Confusion is Sex” album.
LUNCH: And he played in Teenage Jesus, 8 Eyed Spy, Shotgun Wedding Live. Then, he went on with Sonic Youth. Then he went on with Nick Cave.
MOORE: It was super exciting. Jim O’Rourke came over. Nick Cave came over. The birthday parties for shows in New York – we were all there hanging out and having dinner at Susan Martin’s house. There was this whole crew of new music that was happening. This was ’81, ’82. We all connected. Lydia was sort of the one who threw everybody together. When I think about it, that’s kind of how it happened.
LUNCH: I think the instinctual genius – I don’t know how I even conceived of it at that point – was that I took Teenage Jesus to the UK in 1978. I was one of the first people to decide, with no money at all, that this had to go to Europe. To play there, and to find other people there. A lot of bands didn’t get to Europe at that point. I just jumped myself there and jumped myself to Berlin. I moved to London, and then the collection of people came together naturally that way, through this connective tissue of this corralling thing that I naturally do. I was always more mobile than everybody because that’s my addiction. My addiction is moving. I don’t collect people, but I kind of cattle prod people into coming together.
MOORE: To your credit, the people who resonated with you were these people who were doing interesting things.
LUNCH: I would have a lot of dinner parties at my house. I would cook for everybody.
MOORE: There’s a little bit of the dinner party thing that really brought everything into place. I don’t know if that happens anymore.
LUNCH: It happens in Spain, but they’re a food culture. I would always throw Sunday parties. Who else was throwing dinner parties? I had the space. That was an important thing. We were all poor. We needed to eat. We would just do that. And just to have a place where you can hang out that’s comfortable… Often, it was on Sundays. It was the Sunday brunch get-together, when everybody needed reparation.
MOORE: Lydia found this great place in this really wild area of Brooklyn.
LUNCH: I was living up in Spanish Harlem. By the way, on the bus one day, when Thurston was going up to visit me (not many people liked to visit me in Spanish Harlem, which was why I liked it), that’s where we wrote “Death Valley 69.” On a bus on the way up to Spanish Harlem. But then a very rainy day, a torrential because I needed more space, I saw this ad in the Village Voice for a loft. I ran down there and convinced the landlord to give it to me. It was a 2,000 square foot loft in Dumbo. Nobody lived there then. Hence, Thirlwell is still there.
MOORE: It was incredible. It was a huge space.
LUNCH: Instinctually, I just had to go for that ad. I just had to go and convince them that I was the one who should have it. I already convinced somebody in Tribeca to give me a building that was abandoned for six months when I was eighteen. That was next to Donny and Jodie’s, where we recorded. I’m very good with landlords that way, until I go on a rent strike. They love me.
BILL BROWN: It’s an interesting thing. Up until the last three years, downtown LA was completely a fucking wasteland. There were a lot of artists who went into the warehouse district on the other side of the river. They would get these huge warehouse spaces. They all shared the rent. They become these creative epicenters. Talking about “Death Valley 69,” didn’t Richard Kern do that video?
MOORE: It was.
LUNCH: Which I’m not even really in.
BROWN: It’s amazing, the artistic community that was surrounding you guys at the time. Who exactly coined the phrase, “spoken word?”
LUNCH: It’s what I’ve always called it. I always called it “spoken word” because I was not a performance artist. I was not doing poetry. I don’t know who invented it. I like it because it’s unglamorized. I don’t know if anybody invented spoken word. That’s what I always called it when I was curating.
BROWN: There was something interesting that you [Moore] said, “We’re not punk. We’re not hippies.” That specific thing hit me. An old friend of mine that was around your community at the time had always said, “We were the generation that screamed the loudest because we were the most ignored.” He said, “We weren’t punks. We weren’t hippies. We were in-between. We weren’t Gen X or millennials.”
LUNCH: I screamed the loudest because I was the most fucking hateful. That’s the bottom line. I wanted to be ignored. It was not a rallying call for attention. The less the better. “Less Is More” was one of my first songs. “Popularity Is Boring” is another one. Those are the first lyrics I came up with.
MOORE: Everybody likes to be in bands because they like to be in gangs. There’s a certain aesthetic of the gang – there’s a pleasure in that. It’s you and us against the world. It’s nice to have a sobriquet that you appreciate – no-wave, new-wave, punk, hippie. At the same time, you don’t want to be strapped into something, so you liberate yourself from everything. You’re free to be who you are.
LUNCH: I was saying to my class the other day, I’m a conceptualist. First, I have the concept of music. I never think about who I’d like to work with. That’s not how I work. The concept of the music comes first, and whomever suits the concept comes next. I’ve never sat down and said, “I want to work with that person.” If you asked me, I would say, “I want to work with nobody or everybody.” It’s who suits the musical concepts. For me, when I collaborate – and I think this is why I’m so successful, and I continue to work with so many different kinds of people – it’s the sacred zone. All bullshit is left out of there. Maybe I’ve just been lucky with the people I’ve chosen. Except for maybe one or two people, in the history of everyone I’ve ever worked with, it’s been a totally blissful experience. The only reason it might not have been, in the end of two of those instances, is that they’re both completely insecure men who have macho problems. Anybody who isn’t macho, which is most of the people I work with (Thurston, Thirlwell), they never have problems with me. The two macho assholes were the only ones who ever had problems with me. When I go into a collaborative relationship, this is the sacred ground. I want everyone to feel as good as possible. I’m there because I fucking adore what you do. I think you’re a genius. I’m not calling you into the circle unless you’re the perfect person for this sacred marriage, to take it somewhere else. I really am the cattle prodder and the cheerleader. My job is to make people feel as good as they can doing what they do. That’s what I do. I don’t need feedback. I don’t need the reciprocation. That’s why I love spoken word. I’m not waiting for the applause. I can’t stand when people applaud after a fucking song.
BROWN: The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics was founded on poetics. As the general public that knows who you are, they won’t think of you as literally. Thurston is doing literary press. Lydia was writing poetry in the 90s and publishing as well. Lydia has spoken word. The word “poet” was completely removed from that for a long time.
LUNCH: It’s the first thing that brought us together, the spoken word. Which is interesting.
MOORE: To me, I felt like I had more direct engagement with writing. Early on, I was enamored with forms of poetry. I was enamored with studying poetry for my own studies. I would read and read. When I went to New York, I was aware that there was a poetry scene, but I didn’t think I was going to get involved with it. I didn’t think of myself as a poet. I thought I was going to be a writer. Playing music, I felt like I didn’t have any established skills as a musician. I knew how to do some stuff. I still don’t know how to play real guitar. In a way, it didn’t really matter. The music I liked allowed me to be free with the guitar. I knew I was into composition the same way that I’m into the composition of like minds on the page. That’s how I looked at music – as a composition. Same thing with being free, writing free verse. It’s the same thing as playing free improvisation. I equated them. They were just different variables of discipline. One was words on paper, and one was playing an instrument and making sound. It was composing sound the way you would compose language.
LUNCH: I never thought of myself as a musician. I always thought of myself as a journalist, as a historian. I went to New York to write. The music was merely the machine to back up the words, even when half the music was instrumental. Even when all the music was instrumental, the titles were what were most important. To me, it’s just a vehicle. The music exists to offset the words. I do all kinds of music. I still consider myself a writer, a journalist, a historian. That’s what I do. The naked word is the most important to me. I love doing music, but that wasn’t the priority. I was what allowed me to facilitate getting the word out. The format for it didn’t really exist at that point.
BROWN: Thomas Sayers Ellis was talking about Go-Go today. Why was he talking about Go-Go in the context of a poetics panel? There were only a few words spoken in one of those pieces he played at the panel, but it seemed like the music was the word.
LUNCH: Exactly. That’s what divided it from hip hop, which was manufactured nana, studio nonsense. So here we are.
MOORE: Coming to Jack Kerouac’s School of Disembodied Poetics, to me, the challenge was to come here and teach poetry, as opposed to coming here as a rock and roll musician. I don’t want students to think I’m going to bring out my guitar and write songs. That’s the last thing I want to do. I have no interest in doing that. It’s a very personal thing for me, to write music. I feel like I can share it. I do teach, sometimes, in different music schools. I talk about the experience of playing music and what I do personally. We can work together from that. I’m more interested in writing where I can talk about what that is as an art form. I want to talk about the history of poetry, especially post-World War contemporary poetry, which is where my focus is. I’m not going to go in there and talk about Victorian English poetry. I’m not that learned in it. I’m not going to do Lionel Trilling at Columbia University or something like that. I have an awareness of how poetry exists as a community – that lineage of writing, people sharing ideas about how words appear on a page. There’s the visual, the idea of the confessional, the idea of the experimental. Those things work together, and they also work apart. They can keep their own ground. They can play with each other and inform each other. That was really interesting to me. I was really interested in Acconci, who really agonized over how to take these words off the page and put them in these other spheres. He becomes a visual, conceptual artist, but he’s a poet doing it. Someone like Ted Berrigan, coming out of Frank O’Hara, writing this conversational poem, but keeping a certain economy to it, and still having it be an expression of his mind in the moment. Or you look at language poetry, where it’s all about this data that’s on a page and what that means, the idea of stripping emotion from the work. How far can you take that? Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci were really into that. They were doing 0 to 9 in the magazines in the 60s. They wanted to strip all the drama, confession, and emotion from the poem. They go towards this crystallized heart to see what is there – just putting a number on a page. Aram Saroyan puts one letter on the page. What is that? Is that bullshit? He was given a grant to make poetry, and he put one word on a page. He wrote, “Lighght.” When you look at it, it’s surrealist. It’s loaded. There are all kinds of movement in that. There are all kinds of ideas. It’s playful. It’s wonderful. It’s a great poem. And it was completely contentious. It polarized the entire poetry community, that this is what he delivered.
BROWN: Both of you mentioned Dada today.
MOORE: Lady Dada? [Laughs.]
BROWN: Lydia did too. I have a weird theory that there is a particular strain that has continued all the way through the 20th and into the 21st century. We’re carrying that along. We’re saying that if we don’t keep this going, as it ebbs and flows…
LUNCH: It’s the Pranksterism that keeps us alive. From Dada, and forward from that. Going into the Merry Pranksters. We need rebellion with pleasure, because otherwise, we’re sunk. There is a sense of Pranksterism in a lot of who we are naturally attracted to.
BROWN: He’s more attracted to concrete and experimental poetry…
MOORE: To me, it’s sort of a pantheon of this lineage of writing that goes on in the culture. I’m curious about it. I’m interested in it. It excites me. It’s very artful. You can come from any angle to it. To me, Dada is important because it’s a reclamation of being an artist. Everything has to be honored by the academy and the system in society. In a way, that’s okay. That creates a place of learning. That history is great, but anybody who can suss that, who can glean that information and reclaim it, incinerate it, reform it – those are the people who are doing the work that breaks into the new ground. That was interesting to me. I read about the advent of people coming out of William Carlos Williams. These 20 year olds out of Columbia University, particularly Allen Ginsberg, that passion and desire.
BROWN: That time was searching out the Bob Dylan, searching out the rock stars of the time.
MOORE: But his glory was in poverty. He made a lot of money, and he decided not to keep that money. He knew that if he kept that money, money would be taxed, and that money would go to a military complex. He decided to create a foundation called Committee of Poetry where all the money would go through, nonprofit. In the 60s, he was so primary in founding all the underground press that was existent.
BROWN: He would have people coming to him, and he would write them a check.
MOORE: Small presses, starving poets and artists. He was just like, take it. All I need is milk and my shitty little refrigerator.
LUNCH: I say give me a car ad. I have people I’d like to pay all the time. I’m not against it. I want the enemy’s money. I want the fucking enemy’s money. The only people who ever give me money are usually my friends. I give my friends money. That’s why they’re in my fucking bands. However, that is the recycling of the family funds. I want the fucking enemy’s money. My biggest regret in life is that I didn’t invest in fucking Wackenhut when I was talking about prisons under Bill Clinton for two years. I could have retired and had my own poetic institute, instead of them supporting me. My biggest disappointment. I didn’t invest in the military industrial complex. There’s still time, motherfucker. Give me the money, and I will. I want the money. They ain’t going to shut me up. Do I look like I’ve been droned? Well I have, but that’s how I usually look. That’s enough for me, now. Choke it off like a chicken.