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Literature : Interview

How to Win a Pulitzer

by Neil Michael Hagerty

Greg Oden-obsessive and avante-rock legende Neil Michael Hagerty chats up Jay Ruttenberg, editor of The Lowbrow Reader Reader.

Hi! I’m Jay Ruttenberg, editor of the comedy zine The Lowbrow Reader and its brand new book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader, to be published with great fanfare by Drag City Books on May 22. [Neil Michael Hagerty: Seems good so far, it’s good to promote yourself positively when no one else will. Maybe add a few more exclamation points. The “get” here is that we want the reader’s sympathy.] Recently, I took part in the below dialogue with one of the anthology’s most prolific contributors, Neil Michael Hagerty, who was recently interviewed by BOMB about his musical work in the Howling Hex, Royal Trux, and Pussy Galore. The editors of BOMB asked Drag City’s publicist to ask me to ask Neil to write an introduction; Neil asked me to do it, instead. That certainly seems journalistically inappropriate—and yet here I stand, an impartial observer. [NMH: Smart move to shift the blame here. It doesn’t hurt that your writing style is as brittle as Greg Oden’s knee.]

So allow me to state unequivocally that The Lowbrow Reader Reader is a Pulitzer-worthy canon of comedic essays, sharp illustrations, and rip-roaring interviews with the famous and the demented. If you read it and fail to laugh out loud, you are probably a racist. There is a long list of ridiculously talented writers and illustrators whose work is featured within the book’s pages, from David Berman to Shelley Berman. And those are just the people whose names are “David” and “Shelley.” Besides myself, however, the byline that recurs most frequently belongs to Hagerty, who contributed to “Lowbrow Reader #1”, in 2001, up through the most recent issue. [NMH: Again, good, staying positive; maybe move my name closer to the words “Pulitzer Prize”—let’s use a little neuro-linguistic programming like psychologists. Let’s try to normalize the association of “Pulitzer” with “Lowbrow.” We don’t want to push it too far, of course. That’s what happened with Greg Oden, the team psychologists pushed too hard on him, and he got paranoid that they were telling his secrets to the owners.]

I met Neil in 1995, when Royal Trux had the distinct honor of being interviewed by me for my college newspaper. “Are you the kid from the college paper?” Hagerty asked by way of introduction, palpably unnerved by my authoritative presence and journalistic repute. [NMH: Nice, I like the confident self-effacement. You know, I think this was part of the problem with Greg Oden from square one. Here’s this supremely gifted athlete from whom no one would expect anything but an “authoritative presence,” but ultimately he lacked your ability to show weakness in public.] At the conclusion of the interview, I was escorted out of the club for lacking a 21st birthday, and I did not get to see the night’s concert. I still regret this turn of events, as I have long operated under the belief that Hagerty is among the best guitar players in America. Of course, I do not know what I am talking about. Nonetheless, I think I can confidently state that it has been an absolute joy and privilege for Neil to get the opportunity to work with me over the years. [NMH: Yes, very good. Might want to use my full name every time but other than that this all flows. Voicing regret and self-doubt is a great technique to use to humanize yourself for the reader. I wish I could write like that, I just have so few things to regret, unfortunately. Like: I’m still damn sure, all things considered, I would still take Greg Oden over Durant if this were 2007 again. Sure, it’s debatable but I stand by it.]

Neil Michael Hagerty Does the release of this compendium mean that the magazine is over now?

Jay Ruttenberg Leave it to you to go straight to the heart of my existential dilemma. A smart person would surely use this moment to shutter the magazine. But I don’t want to. That said, I am thinking that it might be interesting for The Lowbrow Reader to assume different forms. I always liked how MAD Magazine, back in the day, published those crappy-looking books alongside their issues. I’m thinking it could be cool to do something similar, but more in our “style,” such as it is. Slim, single-themed “Lowbrow Reader Presents” books, sometimes with just one author and illustrator. Also, for a while now I’ve been toying with the notion of starting a 7" label—splits between musicians and comedians with long-winded, illustrated liner-notes. The thing is, even if we were able to do that stuff, I still might want to publish the issues, however sporadically. Working on the book was much more difficult than I thought it would be—but also way more interesting and satisfying. The one thing that inevitably gets missed, however, is the cheapness and lightness of the issues. One of my favorite things about doing The Lowbrow is carrying an issue around town to give to someone I bump into on the street, or mail to a famous person who I do not know. Both groups of people probably throw it away, but still I persist. Obviously, you can’t do that with a book. Whatever happens, I don’t want it to just be a website, that’s for sure. What do you think?

NMH Well, mostly I think I like the way that comic books were printed once, on the thin newsprint. Newspapers don’t even feel that way anymore. But more to the point, iPhone, Droid etc. apps are also extremely light and portable.

I do think the 7" inch idea is great. Even at this late date so little progress has been made in the communion of comedians and musicians. We need a master editor.

Overall, I still do not understand which is more important to focus on: content or delivery system? Lowbrow has crossed the palpability threshold with this book, you must agree. It is a fine volume. You’ll probably have to make some decision about what to do next.

Did I tell you how I would bring on tour The Lowbrow copies you’d send to me, and we’d leave one in every Starbucks we’d go to along the way, in Joplin or Omaha, say, as a way of spreading the thing around. I think that Arthur magazine did something like that.

Anyways, there are a few threads for you to pursue, if you want. I have more straight up questions too; topics, even, I daresay.

JR I always loved the fact that you pepper Lowbrows around unsuspecting middle American Starbucks. Somehow, it seems very much in the spirit of the thing. On rare occasion I will get web orders from such communities and think, "I wonder if . . . " On a similar tip, whenever I travel to a foreign city, I bring some issues, seek out a record/comic shop, and try to get them to stock a few copies. It is a moronic use of my time: while in Athens, I skipped at least one very important monument . . . . but I did find a very nice bookstore to sell some Lowbrow Readers! I was recently in Paris and gave some to a comic store owner; I do not speak a word of French, and he did not speak English, but somehow we worked something out. He probably thought I was a lunatic.

Regarding the comedians/musicians crossover . . . the last couple of times I have seen your Howling Hex play New York, standup comedians opened, which worked really, really well. I feel like there’s a little bit more crossover among entertainment forms now than there was in the ‘90s or the previous decade, but maybe less than there would have been earlier? Joan Rivers talks about her early days doing standup in New York, alongside Bill Cosby and Bob Dylan. I think the Village Vanguard used to book Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce as well as jazz. You just don’t get such flow anymore—things seem too codified. I have always loved the album “Lou and the Q,” the collaboration between NRBQ and Captain Lou Albano. Especially now that recording/distribution is so cheap, why are there not more products such as this? Why is “novelty record” such a dirty term?

I guess the question of content vs. delivery system isn’t going away anytime soon. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite—an annoying figure, I realize—I think that older delivery systems are being unfairly disparaged. To be a journalist now and criticize “the Internet” is like saying, “Hello, I’m an old fart, please fire me.” But I think articles are formulated differently for print than they are for the Web. There’s a finality that gets lost in the transition to something that can be changed at will. I won’t get into the subject of newspapers, other than to say that if and when the New York Times ceases printing on paper, it will be a very dark day. (For the record, I am not 89-years-old. I swear.) Were The Lowbrow Reader to transition to the electronic world, democracy in America would (probably) not be put at risk. But I think it would be less interesting to read and work on.

Here are two questions for you to ponder:

—A lot of artists dabble in different mediums. But for years, you have always been invested in different aspects of music as well as writing and also visual arts. In a project like the Victory Chimp audiobook, everything is combined in a very fluid way. I’m not going to ask whether these impulses “come from different places,” as I suspect that’s impossible to answer. But what about the physical process? All I do is write, so I’m always just in front of the computer. How does one go about juggling such disparate artistic urges, if only on a day-to-day working level?

—You wrote for the very first Lowbrow Reader back in 2001. When I asked you to contribute, I had interviewed you a handful of times. (You probably don’t remember the first, actually; it was during the “Thank You” press push, for my college newspaper.) But I had absolutely nothing to show you in terms of The Lowbrow Reader. What made you decide to contribute to something that didn’t exist yet? It could have been even more embarrassing than it is.


Jay Ruttenberg (presumably the floppy-haired gentleman in the Cons). Photo courtesy of Jay Ruttenberg.

NMH So I did tell you that story, I’m getting bad at that, repeating anecdotes. I think anecdotes are a defense mechanism for me—but I hate false anecdotes so I’ll tell any old story repeatedly. And like your Athens story, maybe this is a comedic trait, better a self-deprecating story than no story at all.

Y’know, I thought that I remembered the second interview you did with Royal Trux; for some reason I thought it was in LA. Whichever one it was I thought we got off on a little tangent about The Marx Brothers or Firesign Theater and I remembered that when you mentioned the Lowbrow idea.

In terms of working on content, it’s nice now that on a single laptop I can jump around to high quality audio, word processor, wireless, and that makes the process so different from 20 years ago. But that old separation, the discrete working spaces for control room, office, studio is still a valuable thing for me. For Victory Chimp I was able to take all the time I needed on the computer but then I also maintained a regular schedule of going into the same wood room and recording in a more rigid setup. And occasionally I would book a quick session at an outside studio to do an entire track in a limited time. But since I knew that Drag City would be putting it out, jumping around like that was just a way of shaping the end result. I suppose that if the delivery system wasn’t in place already I might do things differently.

JR Happy Opening Day (if only in Queens),

You know, I often find myself under attack in my household for retelling anecdotes. I hear a name and begin a well-worn “go-to” story. Even after my audience explains that she has heard the yarn several times over, I carry the tale to the finish line. But at some point, I realize I’ve told a story so much that I’m not putting my heart into it, and it gets retired. I think about this when I think of stand-up comedians. Does it not seem false, on some level, to tell the same joke night after night or even year after year? I suspect the art is making it seem fresh, as if the comedian is learning the punch line along with his audience. My two favorite youngish comedians are probably John Mulaney and Hannibal Buress. I’ve seen both a million times. Mulaney will tell the same joke in a similar manner many times over, but the material is so strong that it never seems forced; I find myself anticipating the punch line, like it was the hook of a song. Buress, on the other hand, is more free-form; never seems to do the same set twice, but always turns up ridiculously creative material. And both are great. By the same token, what about a musician playing the same song every night? Why must a comic change his act or risk alienating his audience, whereas a singer is expected to deliver a song the same way for decades? Maybe, as with Mulaney and Buress, it comes down to a musician’s persona. I’m a big Flaming Lips fan. Wayne Coyne speaks about the importance of playing their ‘90s hit, "She Don’t Use Jelly," even though the band has changed so much since they recorded it. But the last few times I’ve seen them perform, that song has been the sole false note: he’s playing it to convince himself of his own populism. By contrast, there’s Radiohead, a band I’ve always found pretty tedious. They’re the opposite—they never play “Creep.” But the one time I saw them, a few years ago at the Garden, they snuck that song into their set. The crowd went nuts. It was the only thing I enjoyed about the show.

Here’s a question for you: The Lowbrow Reader Reader is being published by Drag City, about which I am ridiculously happy. By this point, the label has expanded well beyond records: there have been a number of books, some films, even a brain pulse music machine. Frankly, I’m surprised more record labels don’t follow their lead. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Victory Chimp was the first book they published. At the time, with no real precedent for the label reaching that far beyond music, it must have been a pretty big deal—even a turning point? Or had the realization of a “cultural company” been in the blueprint?

NMH Radiohead, those poor guys, I’ll never think of them without thinking of George W. Bush. I knew a guy who worked with Steve Martin right when he was moving to the stadium phase, and he was just up there running though all his catch phrases etc.—predictable and dull,right?—but from behind the scenes it sounded really interesting. The central idea was just that they were going into stadiums to win, the other details were already established.

I think my book was one of the first if not the first. Drag City have really expanded their content over the years. All I know is I started right away trying to do a lot of different things with them from the start so maybe that was an early element of how it grew later. For me, since you mentioned populism, it was a thing about not trusting the music system, where a lot of stuff was allegedly populist back then in the late ’80s. I hoped to just try to get out and not be trapped in that one thing you have to march to forever. We did direct-to-video movies, comic books, etc.—but of course what stuck, and what worked was that we were a bunch of junkies. So you can’t win, I guess. I assume Drag City were wise to take a slower pace than we would have liked, slowly diversifying.

But if you hadn’t gone with Drag City for the book, who else might have put it out?

And once you answer that, again since you mentioned it in terms of playing songs the fans like, maybe you would expand on your own concept of populism, not excluding the parts where it is joined at brain with white supremacy or anti-evolutionism. So many otherwise intelligent people seem to think it’s the neatest thing ever, but historically it seems like a bummer. It seems like Lowbrow is about that, that perfectly unassailable crowd-sourced genius of pop culture.

JR As far as Drag City/Another Publisher goes, there are a handful of great, small presses that I love, some of which I have even worked with in a non-Lowbrow capacity. But the attitude of this book seemed overwhelmingly in sync with—and perhaps informed by—Drag City. The fact that they were actually interested in publishing it? Case closed! I suspect that I have too much reverence for Drag City to be healthily involved with it. And that would probably be the case even if all they had on the roster was, say, King Kong and Crisis of Conformity (for my money, the only band reunion worth caring about). It’s like Costanza working for the Yankees.

This question of populism is a tough one. Now, I regret having mentioned it. I think that when we were first kicking off the Lowbrow Reader, in 2000, I was intrigued by this notion of—it seemed to be a big part of what we were doing, praising Adam Sandler and Howard Stern and CARtoons magazine. Looking back, I was wrong. It is possible to love Billy Madison without stooping to populist thought. I’m not sure if this shift in attitude is from having grown older or from witnessing the ascendency of George W. Bush. Falling for such populism strikes me as some kind of lie, and says a lot about a performer’s respect for his audience. For instance, with every passing year, Sandler seems to lose faith in a crowd’s wisdom, whereas Stern—stripped to a satellite cult—speaks with increasing intelligence and grace. In any case, taking a populist approach has become really trendy in cultural criticism circles. It’s a drag. Why people move to New York City, struggle to find low-paying jobs in media, and then spend their days praising, like, heavy metal, I will never understand. This all must be tough on comedians, whose worth gets measured by an audience’s laughter. Louis CK has talked about making sure he gets the “right” kind of laugh, which is just the snottiest, most awesome concept.

One thing I will say in its defense (if we can momentarily ignore “Mission Accomplished”) is that Americans tend to be really good consumers when it comes to pop culture. At least for a segment of the country, it fills some void left by religion, royalty, or even a traditional family structure. When I’m in another country, I will see a poster advertising a movie that already flopped in the States, months before. I feel like a visitor from the future. “Our wise people have collectively rejected Reese Witherspoon—it is so cute of you British to still care for her efforts.”

Two possibly related things about which I am curious:

—Most musicians barely run one website—you have three. One, thehowlinghex.com, is a political Tumblr with a wealth of well-sourced, pro-Obama wisdom. I have directed people there who probably would not know the Howling Hex from Frank Sinatra—so they would only know it as a political blog, which I suspect is your intent. What is the genesis of the site? And what is your “media diet,” as the D.C. wonks say, in fueling it?

—We could probably do a second Lowbrow Reader book filled with nothing but unrealized articles that were sketched out or planned for various issues, but for some reason abandoned. Many of these, admittedly, were supposed to be written by me. One would have been by a very famous comedian who I will not name. (Okay, fine: It was Lenny Bruce.) But years ago, there was one intriguing-sounding article that was to be by you, about Robert Christgau. I think I was so excited to read this that I started hounding you about it like a total jerk—so let me here belatedly apologize. But if you remember (and care to share), what would the gist of the article have been?

NMH I can’t accept that we collectively rejected Reese Witherspoon. I feel that was merely a subset along the continuous deformation of our intense relationship with her. In fact, if there were to be a final move towards royalty in this country Ms. Witherspoon would be a first-ballot Princess. I’d write-in Christgau (as “Xgau”) because I know he’d refuse.

And there’s another notation I need to add to my outline for the article about him. I went on a binge last week on his website, brushing up on the ’90s. Avoided the “R,” “H,” & “P” sections just in case. I made a lot of notes, but I still find the subject impossible, plus I am pretty busy. It’s hard because I was trying to write about his writing but since he is a music writer and not a sportswriter, for example, it is too reflexive for me. Every idea had an identical subject and direct object. I kept falling out of the Postmodernist Parody Style, which is what I guess what I wrote for Lowbrow was supposed to be. Now I don’t know, all I can say is I like something, either in three words or a thousand words depending on the demand.

Irony kinda hit overload in the aughts for me, and the effort to be clearly unironic made me dizzy. For Lowbrow I think I just tried to write about people or works that I respected in order to write something funny. Do you have a bitter attitude towards your subjects or are you distanced from them or do you love them? Why didn’t you start a poetry magazine? Maybe since humor can never be taken seriously there’s a certain nice kind of freedom in writing about it in a way we want to.

As far as the websites thing, didn’t want to clutter up the dotcom or dotnet ones with “political” writing so I deleted everything from the tumblr and am just posting the odd bits about the 2012 election. That way I don’t need to pussyfoot around as a leftoid poseur; I can just tumble images, charts, etc. over there. For a while now, I only follow stuff on twitter and then search out more about the things that “blow up” over there. Once newspapers finally die I might start reading them again. And, by the way, happy opening day to you. I might be able to see the Mets at last because I live in a National League town now.

JR I think my antipathy toward Reese Witherspoon arises because someone once told me, while she was inebriated, that the actress is a Republican. This appears to be false, and yet it stuck in my head. I feel like an ass for even letting this stuff get to me, but it always does. As a Yankees fan, do I hate A-Rod because of his performance, his reputation, or because, in 2007, he gave $6,900 to the campaign of Rudy Giuliani? Either way, he is far less adorable than Ms. Witherspoon. And as always in life, there is a great “Curb Your Enthusiasm” about this.

And I agree that there is a sense of freedom in writing about humor. Although in the past few years, as comedy has become trendier as a topic (apparently, laughter is very 2010s), many who write about it are beginning to develop some of the unfortunate habits of rock critics: the obsequiousness toward contemporary heroes, the automatic dismissal of performers who fall outside certain stylistic cliques, even hip little phrases that would mean nothing to people above a certain age. Once you get into a box like that, it’s hard to reflect the proper range of emotions about one’s subject: a bitter attitude, a certain distance, an amount of love. One of my favorite articles from The Lowbrow Reader book is your piece about Wings (the TV show, not the band). It’s a really unique essay, in that it addresses the type of ostensibly middling work that is rarely written about with such care. (I think it’s safe to say that this is the best piece of writing about Wings.) Also, the essay views the show through a personal prism, which is something I think we often try to bring to The Lowbrow. How our relationship to a work of comedy is inevitably shaped by our personal experiences, and vice versa. I think that working on something like The Lowbrow Reader, which seems so lowly and crass, allows us to indulge what might seem pretentious in, say, a poetry journal. Because at the end of the day, regardless of any rhetorical flourishes or intellectual ambitions, it is a magazine with a guy taking a dump on its cover.

NMH I went back and read the intro to The Lowbrow Reader Reader. Got to say it was a nice touch writing that from Italy. Also, very nice what you said about me. You probably mentioned some other people in there but as my eyes were glazed over with self-regard I didn’t notice. And your dad comes off like a great guy, liked how he termed your work on Lowbrow an “ego thing”—although, in truth, it is really no small feat to break even with a magazine. Maybe he has a totally Chicago perspective.

I want to know about the changes you’ve had in your work life, leaving Time Out—and did you leave Manhattan? You mentioned Queens. The introduction to the collection talks about your struggle to get a grip on the city and you did, now I’d like to know how you’ve managed to move on from that.

One of the reasons I want to know these details, besides the fact that the readers would like to know, is that you’re a New Yorker now, like a third phase New Yorker, really (and by the way, I give A-Rod and Sandler and them a pass on their Giuliani love. From out here it still seems pretty reasonable, in retrospect. Maybe it plays differently there)—anyways, now that you’re further ensconced will you be heading out around the USA for a book tour to promote The Lowbrow Reader Reader?

In closing I’d like to say I’ve enjoyed our little email chat and I hope we can start the real interview soon.

JR Am I a New Yorker now? I guess, right? In Italy, the land of my in-laws, people will ask me where I’m from. “New York,” I say. Simple enough. Everybody knows where it is.

“Where are you from originally?” they respond.

“Chicago.”

“Al Capone!” they say. “But where is your family from before that?”

“New York.”

They shake their heads. “Where are they from originally?”

“Ohhhhhh . . . Um, the Prussian Empire, I think?”

Of course, the Europeans have it all wrong. So do those snots born in New York, always sniffing out signs of “authenticity.” You see the city clearest when you first arrive. For my money, the ultimate New Yorker is King Kong. He breezed in from who knows where, took the city by storm, and climbed the Empire State Building with a white woman.

I still live in Manhattan and hope to stay until demographic and economic forces sweep me away by force, probably any day now. On paper, it’s the stupidest place in the world to live, yet the thought of leaving makes me queasy. But yeah—my work life has changed. I was employed by Time Out from 2000 until last year. A kindly private equity group came in on a Friday, and I was politely asked to leave the building on Monday. Romney’d! At times, I miss the work I did there, especially the adventure inherent in meeting and interviewing people—particularly younger artists who hadn’t been interviewed before (or at least not in the right way). Nevertheless, without commenting on the state of that particular magazine, which I’m sure will continue to champion thought-provoking journalism for years to come, I was extremely happy to move on. For one thing, I never wanted to be a “rock critic,” which always struck me as a dead-end for someone not named Christgau or Marcus. These days, I mostly write from home and the New York Public Library. The reading room there is stunning, but the bathrooms are full of homeless men and the criminally insane. So it’s a step up from Time Out. I’ve freelanced here and there, but mainly have been working on books: The Lowbrow Reader Reader, of course, and also a burgeoning comedy thing that grew out of a piece from last issue. I hope for it to be the next big Lowbrow project. We’ll see?

But as for a book tour? We are doing a Lowbrow Reader Variety Hour here at Housing Works (music! comedy! reading!) and also one in Chicago. So I think the next logical step is to take the Americas by storm. Right?

 

For more on Ruttenberg and the Lowbrow Reader, check out their website.

 

Neil Michael Hagerty’s Howling Hex have a new album Wilson Semiconductors out now. He blogs here and here.

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