L.A. based singer/songwriter, David Baerwald has nightmares. His girlfriend thinks he should read children’s books. That might just provide him with an alternative world view to the one he encountered on the way to record Triage, his second solo album. Always attracted to subculture, his first album Boomtown, a collection with David Ricketts, defined the underside of Los Angeles—he found perhaps the largest in the world when he began taking advantage of the Freedom of Information Act and ended up hanging out with conspiracy theorists. The result, a series of musically diverse narratives from the point of view of characters who live on this side of paranoia, tales filled with foreboding, of innocence lost and the corruption of power. What lifts the recording (and probably Baerwald himself) from an evocation of total despair is his novelist’s eye for detail and a sophisticated sense of humor. We spoke on the day of the verdicts of the second Rodney King/LAPD trial. “It sounds pretty quiet out there,” he said, just awake. For someone who has imagined the worst, he sounded surprisingly hopeful.
Lynn Geller You grew up in Los Angeles?
David Baerwald Los Angeles. Japan. Yeah.
LG Really, how did living in Japan influence you?
DB It gave me a really romantic picture of America. Raised my expectations.
LG Only to come crashing down. Was that by seeing American pop culture?
DB It seemed like paradise.
LG When was this?
DB In the ’60s. We moved back here when I was 12, in ’72.
LG The Beverly Hills 90210 years. Is that what it was like?
DB Probably more like Less Than Zero.
LG: So you think Less Than Zero was an accurate portrayal.
DB Oh yeah. I actually thought it was pretty remarkable.
LG The movie didn’t really do it. It was kind of a compromise.
DB Well, it’s hard to shoot nothing, that’s the problem.
LG So, when did you start doing music? I know you did Boomtown in ’86, but did you do anything before that?
DB Bar bands and shit. I started playing in punk bands in ’76, ’77. The Spastics. It was more like a gang than a band. We were pretty thugish, definitely low rank. Flipside Magazine put out this history of California punk, and we were listed as the worst band.
LG Well, that’s kind of an honor. But at the time you probably didn’t know you were the worst band.
DB No, we were pretty aware of it. That was part of the fun.
LG Right. To celebrate amateurism, punk. So then what happened?
DB We had this girl singer, and this guy wanted to put up money for us to record. The night before we were supposed to go in she had this nervous attack. We were sitting around trying to decide what to do, and everyone looked at me.
LG They knew you could sing.
DB No, nobody knew I could sing.
LG Did you know?
DB No, I had no idea.
LG Did you ever consider doing anything else besides music?
DB Yeah, I considered being an investigative reporter.
LG You did a lot of investigative reporting on this record.
DB I did a lot of research.
LG How did you get into that?
DB I read this book, called, The Rise and Decline of the CIA, incredibly dull, CIA approved text, but it gives history and I tore the bibliography out and started buying all the books.
LG What made you interested in the CIA?
DB It was probably my pop. It’s kind of a long, spooky family history.
LG What do you mean?
DB My grandfather was a German who went to Japan to work for I.G. Farben in the ‘20s. It’s pretty horrifying. I.G. Farben was in charge of some slave camps and manufacturing poison gas. Obviously, they weren’t doing that in Japan. But he started working for the OSS when WWII broke out. He sent my father and his sister to the U.S., and my father started working for the government section. He became a political science professor. When we were overseas, there were a lot of spooky people around and I’d hear stuff. One of my “uncles” thought the only thing wrong with the carpet bombing of Cambodia was that we didn’t do enough of it. And another uncle wanted to destroy the East German economy by printing up billions of phony Deutchmarks. Then he came up with the idea of impregnating the currencies with some kind of flu virus.
LG This is your family.
DB They’re not really my uncles, but we called them uncle. Really old family friends . . . one became one of Reagan’s Under Secretaries of Defense.
LG What strikes me about the CIA is that sense of entitlement, the feeling that it’s their responsibility to oversee the entire world and that only they know best. Where does that attitude come from?
DB World War II. There was this genuinely creepy guy trying to take over the world. And they were the good guys. In investing so much, you can’t afford to see the way you’ve been manipulated. There was this amazing conversation after World War II among a lot of the people who I dedicated this album to: John Foster Dulles, Paul Nitze and Curtis Le May. These guys all got together after World War II with Harry Truman in Berlin and basically planned the Cold War. They cooked up all these phony intelligence reports and gave them to Harry Truman. And, ah, Harry Truman said, “What should I do about it?” And they gave him the National Security Act in 1947, which tripled, some people say quintupled, the arms budget after World War II into peacetime.
DB It’s where we got the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Council. It was also the end of our educational system, our health system. It basically bankrupted the whole fucking world.
LG All the money went into the military?
DB Right. We got a permanent war economy.
LG How much do you think people’s political views are the product of their era?
DB A lot obviously.
LG I’ve noticed that many people in their mid-to-late 20s completely buy into what’s going on in a way that I find totally shocking and depressing.
DB The width of dialogues has narrowed. Eighteen corporations are in control of all the newspapers and television. There’s really no challenge, not to mention knowledge in the mainstream. You have to go outside of it, and that takes effort and time, and knowing where to look and believing in your own opinions.
LG People who were alive when Kennedy got assassinated understand the loss of innocence.
DB That was it. That’s my first memory of anything. The funeral with little John seeing him stand there saluting the flag while the coffin went by had a major impact on me.
LG Yeah, and then followed by Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I walk around with that stuff now, with the feeling that at any minute, chaos can happen. It’s interesting what makes some people anti-authority and others docile. Which do you consider yourself?
DB Docile. Well, I’ve always had a real problem with authorities, but they win. I mean, I’m not going out and picking fights with people or anything, but in a way, I am.
LG You are picking some fights on your record. Have you heard from the government?
DB I haven’t heard a goddamn thing actually.
LG What are you doing for the record? Touring?
DB I decided to do something really fun and outrageous and grueling and painful, which is to buy a van or an ambulance and hit every shit hole coffee house and student center from Portland, Maine, to San Diego, for like eight months.
LG Well, that’s a commitment.
DB I need a guitar player. Hopefully, he’ll drive too.
LG You could take turns sleeping in the back of the ambulance. And is the record company going to let you do that?
DB I think so, yeah. I mean, they don’t really know what to do with me. Nobody knows what to do with me. I’m in this unique position. People will say to me, “You’re obviously talented and great but how do you market suicide?”
LG Not suicide, but provocation and depression. That’s hard.
DB We also made this short film with eight different directors.
LG Yeah, I saw it. It was so haunting and bleak, but good.
DB I think we’re going to change the beginning, though. There’s this incredible few minutes from a Congressional Appropriations meeting. They’re all sitting around talking about biological warfare. This guy’s asking for money, which they gave him, by stating, “We can come up with a new biological weapon which will destroy the human immune system.”
LG Oh, my God!
DB So, I’m going to have a minute and a half crawl down that with a voiceover, “We need biological warfare, there’s too many people in the world.” It’s really just chilling.
LG Have you been strongly affected by AIDS?
DB Yeah, it’s had a major impact.
LG On you?
DB On sex. Can you imagine being 16 years old these days? I went to some KROC youth concert out here five months ago and it was depressing, because there were all these kids in a state of despair. They’re so bummed out.
LG Many people believe the government invented AIDS. If that’s true, why can’t they invent a way to deal with it?
DB I don’t know that they want to.
LG Why, because it’s killing off the right segments of the population?
DB Yeah, and it’s also making a shitload of money for people. If you listen to some of these AZT guys talk about it, this might be the first virus that’s actually been patented. The patent is held by this guy, Robert Gallo, and the French government. They get a piece of all the tests and potential cures.
LG That’s so sick. But actually, it really scares me to go too far with any conspiracy theory, even if it sounds true. You know my dad’s a doctor, so I know the term “triage,” which you used as the title for your album. I have an argument with the way you describe it.
DB The completely negativistic aspect of it?
LG Well it’s not just about people who are worth saving, and people who are “hopeless,” so you leave them to die. There are also people who will get better on their own, who can wait for treatment.
DB I was thinking of it less as a medical term, than as one that I keep running across in these archives. Which has much more to do with deciding, for instance, not to put federal aid into Detroit.
LG So the government is saying that a whole population of people are a liability. They’re a loss, let them kill each other with guns, or AIDS.
DB Exactly. One underreported story of the ‘80s was when the World Health Organization admitted to the London Times that they’d given the AIDS virus accidentally to around one hundred million Africans. The London Times ran one article about it, and then nothing.
LG Vaccinations were responsible?
DB In this letter, they dismiss the possibility that it was arm to arm transmission. It was actually in the vaccine. I can read it to you: “The vaccination technique employed only a small volume, around 0.0025 mm. With the present development of AIDS, this would be insufficient volume to explain arm to arm transmission by contamination. It suggests that HIV was in someway contained in the vaccine.” (pause)
LG Is that the kind of information that inspired your record?
LG Let’s talk about your lyrics.
DB I was trying to get away from traditional song writing on this record. A lot was improvised in the studio, knowing the environment we wanted to create for each song within the context of the whole record.
LG They’re like little performance pieces.
DB I wanted almost radio theater.
LG The characters are from your imagination, observation?
DB Like in A Secret Silken World? People I know.
LG Sanctimonious guys sitting at some charity event with their wives who’ve had a lot of plastic surgery. Secretly going to hookers for a little S and M, is that what we’re talking about here?
DB It’s a composite of three guys, one like that. The others are more blatantly creepy, just really corrupt.
LG As a writer, it’s a big responsibility to take the point of view of a villain.
DB That’s what I like about this genre. You switch back and forth. That’s what I always liked about Randy Newman.
LG Most people are too repressed to take on those characters.
DB The point I was trying to make in Secret Silken World is that it’s seductive.
LG The whole subject of S and M, or any kind of perversion like that is anti-feeling.
DB Which is seductive in and of itself.
LG Sometimes. Can you be successful, and not corrupt?
DB Usually. Unfortunately, I don’t know.
LG I don’t know either. I’m actually afraid of it.
DB Me too. On the other hand, you do have to make a certain amount of money to survive. There are different ways of going about it. That’s one of the reasons that I’m so excited about this trip. I’ve been going from recording studio to office building to film set, and my perceptions have started to get skewed. It’s a tiny segment of the world.
LG It’s a very privileged position to be in, and also a little dull. You should take a video or super 8 with you on the trip.
DB We’re talking about doing a documentary.
LG I think the people out there, in the real world, are so much more radical. I went to Baltimore to do some reporting on unemployment, and hanging out with some of these steel workers. They’re radical. What made you decide to go?
DB I’m starting to feel corrupt. I did a few of these shows, really stripped down, just me singing and playing acoustic guitar in Europe. And I did one about a week ago here in a little coffee shop for a friend of mine. It’s honest, there’s no bullshit, no show biz. I’ve always hated concerts because there’s always youth rally aspect to them.
LG Albert Spear stadium tour. “Do the wave.”
DB When you’re traveling with a band, however well you get along, it still is a little army.
LG It’s very alienating. You feel alienated from people, and you probably alienate them.
DB You never know where you are.
LG I definitely think you should make the documentary. What makes you feel happy?
DB Dogs. They are sweet, loyal, honest. Decency makes me happy. When I see people being decent to each other.
LG I think in order to survive in this world you have to start concentrating on details. So dogs make you happy, what else?
DB Sometimes my girlfriend, friends, a good scotch, books, Raymond Chandler. I’ve been reading about arms transfer policies.
LG I have always been obsessed with information flow, and how to disseminate information. Your record makes a case for taking all of it in and then getting back to basics—to a moment or an emotion. You make a case for love being it.
DB In the most Christ-like sense. Not just the love from one person to another, but the illuminated love where you can forgive.
LG Meant a Thing to Me. That’s a mysterious song from the other point of view. I do think that forgiveness is the ticket. It’s really hard to do.
DB Especially when you’re talking about genocide or biological warfare.
LG Were you brought up with religion?
DB Just your basic Episcopalian.
LG Christianity in its purest form, that whole concept of forgiveness and St. Francis of Assisi…
DB That stuff is beautiful.
LG They’ve taken it way beyond the original concept.
DB Christians now have to forgive the church.
LG In order to be truly Christian they have to forgive the church for ruining their childhoods.
DB And their religion.
—Lynn Geller is a writer and music supervisor for film and video.