You know, I’m not sure if I know Mike from social media or before social media, I’m assuming because we’re the same age and have played in the same circles we know of each other from the underground we existed in – The zine explosion, metal of the death kind, hardcore punk and so on… Mike is a writer… the kind of writer I’d consider an artist. One of the reasons, above Mike being opinionated and outspoken was that I caught him encouraging writers to write, to not worry about an agent, to use the tools of the net to produce the book you’ve always dreamed… This is a quality I consider underground, encouraging others to join in and play… that doesn’t mean the underground doesn’t have a level of competition, we do. What it means is we want competition to push us to greatness, so we do not stagnate… Yes, again, I consider underground art to be true art… and Mike is one of those rare writers I consider an artist.
What is underground art?
“Underground” is quite the loaded term.
Being who I am and my interests lying where they do, I’m automatically moved to equate underground with being “legitimate” or, more specifically, “better art.”
But that’s all about what I bring to the arena.
From a cold perspective, I’d say underground art is that which flies below the big machines of cultural radar, and beyond the reach of political and/or financial accessibility for interloper exploitation.
Zines were underground art. Movies made and traded on VHS tapes were underground art. Bedroom-run record labels and printing presses created and distributed underground art. Galleries outside the reach of print media displayed underground art.
The most important aspect of all those above sentiments is the past tense.
Those days are gone.
The Internet unearthed the underground. We’re all publishers and music moguls and studio executives now.
And therefore, at the same time, nobody is.
One of my first reactions to blogging was to invoke the oft-quoted Marx chestnut regarding that “there is only freedom of the press for those who own one.”
Implied in that is the notion that the press, and the world itself by extension, would be better if everybody owned one.
Everybody’s owned one for the past fifteen years or so.
What’s gotten better?
How much has gotten worse?
Are there rules or a set of ethics to the underground?
Rules and ethical codes crop up on their own, no matter how anarchistic any movement or occurrence or anything may set out to be.
It just seems to be a human response to something coming together that’s larger than the sum of its parts.
Ultimately, though, it’s an individual decision, although culture creates itself. We do get to pick and choose what parts of it we want to participate in, though.
For example, I couldn’t stand the serial killer worship shit that so overwhelmed my corner of the underground back in the 90s
This was how I reviewed the zine Murder Can Be Fun in my own zine, Happyland:
“Murder Can Be Fun? Actually, murder is almost always sad. Unless its perpetrated against publishers of dick-lick zines like this one. Then it’s fun-NY. Big difference.”
More than that, I really loathed the nonsense about “exposing” some rival artists through pranks or by sharing personal information about them or threatening to get them fired or beat up or whatever.
To me, that was all part of a “snitch” mentality that has evolved to dominate modern Internet discourse—be it sites that highlight “racist” tweets or Gawker printing the names and addresses of New York City gun owners.
I thought all that was wrong, so I didn’t do that shit. But I didn’t try to stop anybody else from doing it, though, either.
What is selling out?
True “selling out” is betraying yourself for a paycheck. Not the country, not the “movement”, not the “underground”—yourself.
Can underground go above ground and still be underground?
This brings rock music immediately to mind.
To me, the Beatles and the Stones are the two best rock bands. Bar none. Black Sabbath is the best metal band. The Sex Pistols are the best punk band (with the Stooges/MC5 as the best proto punk/metal).
Each defines the very notion of art existing and thriving and inspiring in the ultimate “above ground” context.
And yet, I experience that music—the very most popular in the history of rock—in much the same way I experience obscure, esoteric music.
I’ve felt profoundly connected to underground music since I was nine years old and there was a different NYC/New Jersey punk band on The Uncle Floyd Show every afternoon. And this was 1977-78, so these were actual underground artists creating an underground art form as they went along.
And that brings up another idea: In addition to the music, did the wild, subversive comedy of Uncle Floyd—which was sort of a self-aware take on kiddie shows with a true D.I.Y aesthetic—make the show itself underground art?
I have to say yes.
At the height of its popularity, in 1980, the Uncle Floyd cast played a series of sold out shows at the Bottom Line in New York City.
David Bowie showed up in the front row. He told them afterward that he loved coming to New York because he’d watch Uncle Floyd with Iggy Pop, and the two of them would nearly keel over from laughing.
On top of that, Bowie said it was John Lennon who turned them on to Uncle Floyd in the first place.
So there you have a true collision of the underground and the above-ground.
And I think that is not only possible, but that there is profound value in it.*
Have you ever sold out?
As a contrarian punk rocker in my youth, I longed to “sell out,” just so I could brag about “selling out.” And also, of course, for the money.
The first time I got paid to write for the alt-weekly paper, The New York Press, I ran around wherever I could tooting my own horn for “selling out.”
Again, I was always trying to annoy my punk-rock brethren.
But that piece was an angry manifesto about the demise of grindhouse movie theaters and peep shows on 42nd Street. Something I genuinely cared about. The NY Press enabled me to take my case to a bigger audience.
And they also gave me seventy-five bucks.
So was that really “selling out”? No.
When I really did sell out it was about seven years later, in 1999. I had recently gotten clean from drugs and alcohol, and in a broken-brained fit to “straighten up and fly right,” I frantically attempted to scrub my resume clean of pornography, which was just about my entire work experience up to that point.
This wrongheaded quest led to some shitty jobs that killed me to do, but I still needed some dough to live.
The big sell-out occurred when I took an editorial position at a magazine called Black Book, an “Art and Fashion Nightlife Quarterly” published out of Soho.
Black Book embodied everything I despised about New York City, and it trafficked in ideas and enterprises I found immoral and horrifically damaging to humanity—the fashion industry, high-ticket art scams, literary snobbery, “alternative” major label music, Hollywood financed “indie” cinema, supermodel culture.
To my shame, I lasted six weeks. To my credit, those six weeks ended when I quit, unable to stomach any longer the “sell out” into which I thrust myself.
The fact that my fucking paycheck showed up unsigned and/or bounced every week made the decision easier but, had I been working for an enterprise I believed in, I would have endured those indignities and soldiered onward.*
Is it possible to steal an idea?
Yes. It’s possible to come across a very specific manifestation of an idea put into your consciousness very specifically by one factor, and then take it and give no credit to your source.
I’d call that stealing.
Look at The Hunger Games. We’re asked to believe that the woman who wrote those books created them with no knowledge and/or experience of the movie Battle Royale, despite the fact that their essential plots are nearly identical.
I’d call that lying about stealing.
Your biggest artistic regret?
I didn’t write enough in the ’90s.
Granted, personal issues regarding psychological and emotional capability (compounded by the aforementioned addictions) complicated and slowed down my process but—fuck, man—I had a momentum going with Happyland that I wish I’d pushed further.
And as the pre-Internet 90s were the last bastion of true “underground” art, I feel like I could have made a bigger and/or better stamp of my own on it as the whole shithouse was burning down.
After my late-90s crack up, it took me a few years to get my head in workable form, forcing a bit of a dry spell.
I regret not forcing myself to work through that more effectively.
Your biggest artistic inspiration?
I’m not really a musician and I’ve never performed any kind of formal comedy, but that’s where my writing comes from: musicians and comedians.
My topics and tonality are drawn from Howard Stern circa 1982-1999, George Carlin, Jean Shepherd, early Sam Kinison, Borscht Belt comics, and angry funnymen of today like Jim Norton and Doug Stanhope.
The “sound” and feel of my writing comes from trying to imitate records I like. I spent years trying to recreate the blasts of silence followed by volcanic outbursts in “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols and “Bat Out of Hell” by Meat Loaf. And also the entire Butthole Surfers and Melvins catalogues.
I draw very little from other writers.
What is dangerous art?
The stuff that doesn’t get made.
The stuff that will kill the artist if he keeps it in, and that might get him killed if he lets it out.
Using forbidden words—WORDS, for fuck’s sake—such as “nigger” and/or “faggot” in any kind of public discourse today is so dangerous that doing it in an artistic context would not offer you any protection.
Braver artists than I are encouraged to court such brickbats.
Bonus question… nature or nurture?
I think you come out a certain way. So: nature.
Life can fuck you up and raise you up—and it will do both, all the time—but you can only work with what you’ve got within you.
Call me Nature Boy.