Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
“Everything goes, whatever. You know that word ‘whatever’—whenever that started coming in, about twenty years ago? It’s like whatever-core—that’s where we’re at now.”
As the editor and publisher of RE/Search, and a self-described amateur anthropologist, V. Vale has commanded volumes of interviews and articles about countercultural figures and the subcultures they spawned. In the thirty-some years since the first issue appeared in 1980—a slim journal that drew Julio Cortázar together with Non, Sun Ra, and The Slits—few things about RE/Search have changed. Still too catholic in its taste for discriminating punk palates and still not academic enough to be Semiotext(e), RE/Search continues to articulate a no-man’s-land between the “underground” and the institutions that undergrounds allegedly subvert. Despite inhabiting this space, these publications assume a distinct place with their irregular sizes and boldface logo emblazoned onto their exaggerated covers.
Much like the curious tone of his books, Vale is notably less cynical toward his countercultural peers than readers of, say, Vice or The Baffler might expect. His is an attitude that reflects a willingness to publish a book of interviews with tattooist Ed Hardy alongside a zine by McKenzie Wark and a book by Penny Rimbaud—with little trace of irony. His sincerity is not simply a pose but a mark of his deep involvement with the people he writes about.
That he’s sincere, however, makes him no less inscrutable. For one thing, Vale has a habit of deliberating over the delicate specificity of certain terms in unwieldy generalities—a style of expression that yields the most unpredictable of ideas. Although deciphering our conversation proved to be a difficult task, it may be the most straightforward path to an understanding of RE/Search and its place today.
Karlynne Ejercito The last time I saw you in person, you were tabling at the LA Times book fair. How was it?
V. Vale It was my least favorite format for a fair—working in a bunch of white tents, and not in a courtyard like when it was at the UCLA campus quad. That was the first LA Times Book Festival I worked, and it just seemed too weird.
KE You were also crammed in with Beyond Baroque and—
VV —two other small presses. Let’s put it this way: I question whether I would ever work that fair again. It doesn’t make sense: these tents. It makes more sense if you get a large high school gymnasium with a grid, so you can see every single table pretty easily. But most people walked by without even looking in my direction. I don’t consider that a very successful formula.
KE From my end, it appealed to me insofar as it didn’t feel like an industry-exclusive affair.
VV Oooooh. That word “industry.”
KE Is that a dirty word?
VV No, but it’s such a strange word. I haven’t heard it for a long time.
KE Says the publisher of the Industrial Culture Handbook.
VV Now that you mention it, I haven’t thought about that title for a while. In terms of etymological origins, “industry” meant to work hard—“He’s a person of industry”—then it came to be applied to maybe a warehouse or factory structure, and then to an entire business, like the iron forge industry. To apply the word “industry” to books is valid. I remember when I first saw the place where I printed my first publication, Search & Destroy—those machines that printed and bound it in newsprint. They called it a “tabloid” format, in my case it was eleven by seventeen inches. It was almost like going back to the nineteenth century—you go into this dark, large warehouse-type building with its big machinery requiring a huge, high room.
KE And this was in San Francisco?
VV Yeah, not far from here. So, I guess it’s valid to say “the book industry, the magazine industry.”
KE I suppose I asked if it was a dirty word to the extent that “market” or “industry” considerations typically don’t factor into certain people’s estimations of the things they allegedly like, or fetishize—like books. It goes without saying that there’s more to books than merely their economic function, but it’s obviously bullshit to think that those are mutually exclusive things.
VV It’s obvious today, no matter what you would like to do with your life, that there’s never been so much self-expression since the world was born, and all thanks to these allegedly free meme-medias, otherwise called social media.
KE That brings me to a question about your two recent books—one with Penny Rimbaud, the other with Ed Hardy. Both appear to address a tension between expression and branding as iterations of identity. Could you talk more about these two releases?
VV I think one of the strangest aspects of social media—and we could talk about how it’s been such a sea change in the world, this invention of the computer first, everyone having a desktop, then a laptop, which is more portable, then you have it fusing with the Internet, going to Kathmandu to type your story or travel journal or whatever, then finding an internet hook-up and sending that story instantly, for free, without paying for a courier or a telegraph, or whatever. And now it’s been merged with the smart phone. I’ve heard of people typing articles, like long news reports, on an iPhone.
KE These aren’t articles, but recently I’ve gone to poetry readings where poets read directly from their phones, and in a way that seems intended to make production seem more casual and fluid than it is, at least for me. On my bad days, I tend to interpret it as an attempt to offset the responsibility or burden of having to come up with something more serious—even if it isthe most expedient way of summoning up your writing. But maybe that’s a different topic.
VV It’s not! I get a lot of amusement out of being the opposite of a Heideggerian writer.
KE In what sense?
VV In the sense that I’m a huge fan of aphorisms and always have been. I do my best to sum up ideas. I aim for three words, but then it can be four or five or six—whatever. I shrug and bow and write them down. A while ago I came up with this phrase: First technology, thenculture.
VV You can look back at the whole history of everything that ever happened. For example, there was an essay on the invention of steel wire. Without it, there wouldn’t have been the invention of what we know as the Steinway Grand Piano, or even the harpsichord, and then the electric guitar. No Eric Clapton, or whoever, playing them. You could argue that if steel wire had never been invented—and the industries that sprung up to manufacture it—we wouldn’t be talking now.
For me personally, I have been in a war with outdated language. It was a mission that William Burroughs inspired in me. This was in a book called The Job, and a lot of it came out in magazine articles I read almost a year or so before the book was released. It’s a war against “either/or” thinking, or against what used to be called “glittering generalities.”
KE Can you be more specific?
VV I remember for one interview I had written down a bunch of questions for Burroughs. Then this young man at the time—this was a big mistake—he jumped in, and he wanted to do the interview for me and—this was a big favor—transcribe it. I said, “Okay, but I already have a list of questions, so be sure you ask these ones.” But his last was: Do you have any advice? That question was so general. Burroughs immediately said, “No! I don’t have any so-called ‘advice.’” (laughter)
That was a small wake-up call. Everything in life is kind of empirical. The way I used to work was that I’d have these platonic ideals, then find out they didn’t really work in life!
The trouble with all social theory, to me, is this—something I learned from JG Ballard, though here oversimplified and de-poeticized: Everyone is a psychopath. And then people say, “Wait a minute—I’m not one!” But I’m positive what Ballard meant is that you don’t really know yourself. It’s an incredible lifelong struggle to get to know who you are, what you’re capable of, and every single potential you’re born with and don’t even know you have.
KE Speaking of platonic ideals, earlier you were talking about your aphorism: “First technology, then culture.” Considering RE/Search and its history, you could just as well read it in the opposite direction: First culture, then technology.
VV I don’t think so, but I’m glad you countered it. People don’t think of it as technology, but whoever—the Egyptians or Chinese?—invented the first way of writing things down, well, this was technology—papyrus or something, and inks, symbols on paper, or what we think of as paper.
KE To clarify, I was thinking less in an overarching, genealogical sense and more in a sequential, topical sense. For example, in the way you transition from something like The Industrial Culture Handbook to something like monochrom’s Arse Elektronika books that began with an inquiry into the impact of sex on technology.
VV First culture, then technology?
KE More specifically, I had in mind something like the continuum between counterculture and cyberculture.
VV Oh, that too. That’s kind of different. I was thinking on a super basic level. I think the weakness in all cultural production these days is insufficient attention to history.
KE Maybe that’s true to an extent. Historically, you could understand the relationship between the counterculture and a so-called cyberculture as one that’s inextricably rooted here, in the Bay Area, or San Francisco.
VV San Francisco… geez. First we have to define our terms. I’m not sure what “cyberculture” is. I know what cyberpunk fiction is, in that it was a label applied to a bunch of people tapping a certain zeitgeist at the time, trying to see a little bit further than everyone else into the future, and imagining all these technological possibilities that would aid and abet “cultural production.“ To me, cyberculture is just a technology that keeps changing.
KE That’s fair.
VV You’re just giving the same basic thoughts that come to life in terms of human drives: the drive to survive, which is obviously heavily bound up in—I hate to say this—what Freud calls Eros, or the sex instinct. I wish I could be completely outside of that drive. As an anthropologist—or an amateur anthropologist, like I fancy myself to be—you try to be almost not even human. You’re observing and recording what humans do, or seem to do, based on your limited exposure. Let’s face it: this Eros sex instinct—boy, does it inform a lot of cultural production. The whole fashion industry, for example, is obviously driven by Eros.
KE So, do you think Ed Hardy is driven by Eros? And if so, how?
VV “Ed Hardy” is actually this huge brand—this huge constellation of imagery with industrial applications onto kids’ sneakers, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and everything under the sun. But Ed Hardy himself is a rebel, and most artists are. To me, there’s no creativity in the absence of rebellion. I tried to bring out this little overarching theme in the book.
What Ed did was basically synthesize the entire history of printmaking, studying people like Hans Baldung Grün, Albrecht Dürer, and others. He shows that you can be amazingly detailed without being academically pretentious, and he makes these drawings that are still puzzling and beautiful—whatever that word means. So, he applies these high-culture appropriations to the medium of human skin.
I don’t know how long Ed’s been doing it—fifty years? But every time some technological improvement was made, he was there using it. Oh, they just invented this new ink? Oh, you can do white tattoos now?
Of course, all brands in fashion have a rise and fall. I doubt it’ll be around for two hundred years, though theinherent concept will be around forever—taking what we call art and just simply applying it to textiles, or anything that’s tradable, consumable. The Bay Area was more—people used to say—“liberal,” but to me it’s easier to be creative the more invisible your body becomes.
KE Do you think this assertion, that “it’s easier to be creative the more invisible your body becomes,” applies to your rather self-effacing tendency toward giving interviews or—
VV Oh, that’s a completely different take! (laughter) For me, the most natural and easiest form of intellectual discussion started with Socrates. This is much more fun than trying to write. It’s difficult to stick to one topic, such as “counterculture becoming cyberculture.”
KE That topic, admittedly, was loosely in reference to From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner. Essentially, the book was an attempt to understand the rhetoric of decentralization and egalitarianism surrounding the Internet—as opposed to its technocratic, military industrial origins—through Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Network.
To that end, I’m curious about the immediate historical, cultural context in which RE/Searchfinds itself. Despite having arrived at the books somewhat out of context, it’s nearly impossible for me to sever their associations to a so-called “Bay Area culture.”
VV I’m still stuck in pre-cyberculture, meaning books written on paper. There’s a technological reason why, in terms of preserving the long-term health of the eye. The eyeballs in your head are very delicate mechanisms that deliver thoughts, ideas, and information. Long ago I’d thought these screens were not healthy for your eyeballs to be exposed to. I’d read studies about this that are hard to find now. It’s like reading about mad cow disease—because the beef lobbies in America totally did their best to suppress any news of that. It’s underreported or reported as something else.
To me, the “science of capitalism” is not anything to be trusted. The history of technology has shown much repression and squelching of ideas by status-quo-preserving, in-place, existing capitalist industries—whatever you want to call them. They see that their livelihood is being swept from under them, and they take steps to ensure this doesn’t happen, or at least retard the process.
VV You say “Bay Area culture” as an outsider living in Manhattan, or wherever you live. Brooklyn and Manhattan have become the same thing to me, though I bet you live in Brooklyn.
KE Unfortunately. But the Bay Area has always represented this completely alien place for me, having grown up in LA and lived in Portland.
VV Oh, Portland. A lot of people say that it’s like what the Bay Area used to be, but it’s not true. The magic that was San Francisco—I’m not sure it’s there anymore—was made possible by architectural and population density, very cheap public transport, and real estate where you could start up clubs.
KE That, and a larger concentration of universities and institutions in and around San Francisco, for better or worse. Maybe that’s more a problem of scale rather than, say, culture.
VV A city is a technology. Your house is a machine for living. The easier it is to make synergistic connections between disparate fields of study or inquiry, academic disciplines or R&D labs, however you want to put it—I mean, that’s what a counterculture is. A counterculture is an R&D lab trying to aim for some more equitable society of the future—at least that’s my warped interpretation, in which—guess what?—there’ll be more freedom, more consciousness, and more justice for more people. Those three things. That’s still my goal in publishing.
But also, I thought it was just a goal of life: more freedom, more consciousness, more justice for more people. And you apply this to the invention of the iPhone. In my perfect world, as soon as the damn thing was invented, there’d be enough resources on the planet for everyone to get one free, instantly.There’d be 7.3 billion, or whatever the earth’s population is, iPhones in use. Now. Give everyone on the whole planet free Internet access.
KE I’m not totally sure if that’s a good idea, but—
VV There’s always a constant striving to realize the old platonic ideal of the human pyramid. Basically, the richest, the most beautiful, the most-resource-consuming, traveling people with the most access—you can be some CEO-type who’s always on the road giving speeches, making deals 250 days a year, with homes all over the planet, vacation places, and super yachts. They’re working for more of this and more wealth, too—for them.
KE Are there any sort of younger—I want to say “writers,” but I don’t think that that’s a sufficient term—
VV A writer is a thinker. There’s a million writers out there, but extremely, extremely few thinkers. I do like to listen to people talk and observe their “process.” I like to be surprisedwhen people talk; I suppose everybody does. You’re asking me who gives the most surprises in their interviews or their so-called books or writing or essays, or however that stuff is disseminated?
KE Okay. Is there any one “thinker” you’ve been wanting to interview but haven’t got the chance to?
VV I wish this person would change his name so I could memorize it. I printed out his free essay on the Internet. I feel like a thief, because I’d like to send a little money or something, but of course I’m too lazy—and I don’t even know how. But a thinker wrote this. William Deresiewicz?
KE The guy that wrote Excellent Sheep?
VV Oh, I never even googled him. What did he write?
KE Well I haven’t read it either, but, from what I gather, it was a book about the students he encountered at elite colleges and how they had become these dutiful automatons or something. It’s a premise I’m sympathetic to for reasons that have nothing to do with the prestige of certain schools, but the reviews of it were pretty merciless.
VV I didn’t even google him. I’m reluctant to go on the Internet for any reason at all because I know my weakness: five hours later I’ll wake up and go, “Wait a minute—what did I come here for?” I’m talking about an essay printed in a paper magazine, “The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur,” in The Atlantic. There’s so much in this essay to think about that you can’t just read it once. So, I put it on a power spot or inspiration node or—guess what: when you sit on your wonderful porcelain throne, you have reading matter available. I have books of aphorisms that are mostly pre-1960s.
KE I suppose it’s apparent with a lot of your books. So many of them have these graphically to-the-point covers and titles, like Angry Women.
VV A lot of women do like that book a lot—or they have, historically. But this Deresiewicz essay I printed out and put in my bathroom. I haven’t checked out anything else by him; this essay is there and I keep reading it. I like randomness and chance, and I just pick this four-page essay up and try to deliberately read a different part.
Somebody described talking to me live as a “conversational drift,” which amused me.
KE It’s accurate. Perhaps we could talk about the concrete logistics of the operation to fix the conversation? What’s intrigues me is how “Independent” is used to describe RE/Search to an end that is for once, accurate. But moreover, “Independent” in a way that’s increasingly difficult to sustain outside a crowdfunding model.
VV Well, that’s for sure. I haven’t the faintest idea how to deploy Kickstarter, having never done it. It just seems like a helluva lot of work. You can’t really work on publishing and thinking and putting out something original if you’re totally subsumed with crowdfunding—I mean, that’s a full-time job. I knew that there were other publishers that got tons of ads, but, to me, you couldn’t really work on your content. Or, you better get someone else to do it full-time. To me, crowd-sourcing is just another way of getting ads.
KE Sure but there’s advertising, and then there’s the system of crowdfunding that incentivizes people to give money in exchange for a tote bag or something.
VV Right, all these tiers of sponsorship. I don’t have any personal experience with that—or desire, either, to move in that direction. But that’s just me. I’m such a recluse, really quite solitudinous. And that seems like hyping oneself.
KE Have you always been like that?
VV Yes, always. It’s the way I was raised. People are hypersocial now, but it’s all tied to abstract text messaging back and forth.
KE So, then what do you do outside of the publication?
VV What do I do? I don’t! This is my 24/7 life: trying to just figure it out—and you can’t figure it out rationally. Your intuition tells you what’s going on. You wake up thinking: Ohmigod! It isbecoming a visual culture. Ohmigod! There’s no large-pattern thinking, no huge cosmic overviews anymore. Everyone is just so niche, focused on immediacy… But who’s giving us big picture thinking?
I like big-picture thinking, but that does take what they used to call “distancing.” I’m really worried about the new life of constant distractibility—constant metabolical pleasure-injections given to you by photos on Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr.
KE What about that worries you ?
VV I just don’t see anyone doing anything that I could read thirty years from now and still get something from. If it’s happening, please tell me who so I can devour and read and even more so—memorize. Now everything is just so super-ultra-hyper-transient. I mean, aren’t youworried about stuff like this: that your life is just whizzing, speeding by, and what have you done that could still be read thirty years from now?
KE Your habit of drift seems actually compatible with this kind of hyperactive media. In my experience, the hyperactivity of being on the Internet is conducive to this kind of drift that somebody might have accused you of earlier.
VV (laughter) “Conversational drift.” They didn’t use the word “hyper.” I guess they were describing two other moderators vainly trying to keep me to one topic. That same person seized on a few inferences based on the live public conversation, like: “Punk and paranoia were very closely tied together in the early days.” And I said, “Well, that’s easy because you were constantly being yelled at from cars and looked at funny if you went to a restaurant. Walking down the street, people would turn their heads and look at you. This does make you paranoid.” Wouldn’t you agree?
KE Maybe. But I usually never pay attention—
VV But now we’re in the age of everything-core, and normcore, and homocore, and gendercore, and all this stuff. It’s very seldom now you get stared at, or get yelled at from a car—at least in San Francisco. It’s like: Everything goes, whatever. You know that word “whatever”—whenever that started coming in, about twenty years ago? It’s likewhatever-core—that’s where we’re at now.
KE Going back a bit, you kept flitting between aphorisms and things as guideposts. It’s a useful strategy for establishing certain ideas, but in literature there’s a difference between using aphorisms—or clichés—as a crutch and writing, say, aphoristically.
VV People accuse me of being a Yoda, and I don’t even know what a “Yoda” means—Star Trek, Star Wars?—some philosopher with big ears that gives forth with aphorisms? I felt complimented, but at the same time I really didn’t know what they were talking about.
KE With aphorisms, there’s usually the risk of oversimplifying. Having these conversations or interviews is a neat way of circumventing the perils of “pure aphorism.” Beyond that, there’s a somewhat fine line between, like, aphorisms, and say, sloganeering.
VV Oh, but sloganeering—that’s what rules those corporations; corporations deploy that in every single ad. I thought Nike ripped off punk rock when they said, “Just Do It.” They know how to rip off emerging countercultures. What you and I are doing now, whether you realize it or not, is actually engaging in that luxury known as play.
“Slogans,” I suppose, refer to corporate appropriation of language in such a way that you want to buy into their so-called lifestyle or marketing. I don’t like the word “lifestyle” because it always involves products, and therefore product placement and marketing. I always try to evade all that—always.
But you can’t. I have a huge poster in the back of my place that was once part of a marketing campaign—it’s a Gap Ad, with a gi-normous photo of William Burroughs. Someone got it after it was expired and gave it to me. I wish I had a huge photo of JG Ballard, but instead I have only tiny pictures.
KE You can’t just blow them up at a Kinko’s?
VV Oh, I could, but I’m a word guy—I’m not really a visual language guy. Like, what we’re doing now is that we’re both sort of channeling words. And, to me, this is fun—and that’s enough.
KE How do you feel about that RE/Search design Target used?
VV Oh yeah—they just stole the “RE”—the exact font, everything. I consulted a lawyer, but there was nothing I could do because they didn’t take the “search” part. They’re entire lifestyle-product manufacturers and distributors, not book publishers. I feel like they should have sent me some “Shop at Target” free coupons, but they never did. Some smartass hipster designer—recent-hire—probably did that and got it past his bosses and vetted by their legal staff, and there you go. It’s pretty funny. But of course, in a nutshell that’s what corporations do: rip off undergrounds and market it.
KE It was the perfect affirmation of that scenario, as if anyone were in denial of that.
VV I don’t think people function in denial—well, they do, but, even in the age of incredible access to all knowledge, people are still incredibly ignorant, right as we speak. There’s big holes like Swiss cheese in their consciousness regarding history and culture—just huge holes. It’s such a weird time.
KE With respect to Angry Women, I’ve been wondering about the extent to which our moment parallels the time around which it was released. In particular, I’m thinking about the historical value of identity politics, and what happened after identity politics—beyond, say, it’s contributions to Clinton-era neo-liberalism. I don’t feel like we’ve moved much beyond that.
VV I don’t need to tell you this. Now we’re totally grappling with trying to be totally beyond gender. It’s not gender politics—it’s beyond.
I think we’re trying real hard to be post-racial. The big critique of all those feminism books—excluding Angry Women—is that they didn’t consider race, and the assumption was being able-bodied. Now the “cutting edge” is beyond gender, beyond race, beyond able-bodiedness.
I mean it’s so great for me that finally there’s some POCs—I mean, that’s a pretty new term to me; only in the last year or two have I started using “POC”—all caps.
KE When I first went up to your booth, you pointed at me and said something about “Asian work ethic.” It was disorienting, partly because I never consider my work ethic, or lack thereof, to be a function of race—but most importantly because race had been a topic I compartmentalized from questions about punk and the counterculture. In retrospect, it had a lot to do with being afraid of the conclusions I could potentially arrive at with people I admired in some form.
VV Well, that’s why you become an anthropologist or historian or philosopher; it’s ‘cuz you truly are, viscerally, removed and not attached. You know that aphorism about how “Privilege confers blinders.” If you’re in something, it’s very hard to be objective about it, no matter how hard you try.
I appear to be very sociable and friendly and all that stuff, and smiling, and I truly am when I’m with the people. But I grew up so solitary that—I don’t know—I love being solitary.
It’s natural; that’s your first nature, to be solitary. Then it’s your second nature to be so happy to be with other people ‘cuz it’s so rare. And it’s very important to try to be as “real” as you can be when everything is so goddamn virtual now, and so ruled by these information memes and viral memes and whatever-else memes you call them. We are just so inundated with verbal, visual, and verbal-visual memes and soundbytes—or whatever words you want to come up with next year—that you need to retreat. You can’t process something until you remove yourself from it.
VV My mantra—recently invented, acquired, channeled—is: Silence. Solitude. Skepticism. But it’s really a cluster-thought: all three simultaneously—not sequentially. I like words that start with the “S” sound because that’s associated with the snake. Traditionally, the snake has been associated, symbolically, with alchemy—and before alchemy, in the beginning of time, with so-called “wisdom.”
And that’s what’s so lacking, I think, among people. And there are so many problems with people I know who have smartphones—another “S” word. They’re always having pretty harsh consequences from: “Oh, I sent you those pictures.” “No you didn’t; you absolutely didn’t.” “Oh yes, I sent them weeks ago.” “Well, I didn’t get them.” “But I emailed you asking you if you got them.” “Well, I didn’t get those e-mails.” This is happening on smartphones, which are supposed to be perfect.
KE I don’t know if they’re “supposed to be perfect,” but sometimes when I’m being absentminded, I’ll contrive some deficiency in the smartphone. “Uh, I thought I sent it over.” Sure, it’s duplicitous and irresponsible, but for trivial things, attributing lack to a device intended as a solution is a convenient way of denying responsibility that I suppose I take no moral issues with.
VV But I’m against that. I think responsibility is one of the cornerstones of living: “Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.” But now there just seems to be so much—I don’t know—error, like communication error, happening. I thought you wouldn’t have these emotionally damaging interactions after the invention of the smartphone.
KE Yeah. (laughter) Definitely. Speaking of emotionally damaging: Earlier I talked about feeling a certain level of shame about having exposed some rather private interests over the course of this interview. One of those interests was race—
VV Oh, race—that topic. Maybe you and I are both “bananas”: yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
KE I know for a fact I’m a banana, albeit a horribly self-loathing one. I tried not to read the stuff that I was into as being necessarily “white”—especially with subculture or counterculture. Class, sure, but—
VV When I think of the word “counterculture” it’s all white. There’s very little Asians or Latinos or African-Americans, POCs, or whatever the correct word is now. I have a disclaimer: I was only actively involved in punk when I did Search & Destroy—that was only 1977 and ‘78. Two brief years.
KE Wait, so how old were you?
VV Oh, I never answer anything to do with age, but it’s on Wikipedia; I was “outed.” I was a member of the father-of-heavy-metal band called Blue Cheer, so I couldn’t have been super-young when in punk. I was in that band August ’66 until July ’67. You’ll have to do some math.
KE Can you go over what happened with Search & Destroy again?
VV It took two years to build up 200 hardcore people truly into punk, so that they just got into it 100% and quit working full-time—most of them—and started bands, or publishing, or taking photos, or making posters, or making clothes, or whatever they did. Overnight they all pretty much vanished. So you ask, “Is this the same punk scene as it was last month, when 95% of the people are gone?” Our Bay Area scene was older, gay-er, women-er, and more educated—what could I say? It’s not the same as the New York scene, not the same as the LA scene, not the same as the London scene…
Our scene was different, with fabulous songs most people still don’t even know—a huge amount of creativity that is under-documented and will probably remain that way.
KE Is there anything specific you’d want available?
VV I wish there had been a record company who understood it and put out every damn song of every decent band in those first two years.
I personally made some bad-to-great recordings of everybody; I have all these incredible recordings, but I can’t release them and make a dime, and I’m not gonna just give ’em away, either. I mean, everyone’s putting up all my books for free online, and I have to constantly send take-down notices—and this is a parasite thing that the Internet has brought, where there is no longer any business model for any “creative” to survive because it all gets stolen and put on the Internet immediately. If there’s no business model, how the hell are people like me supposed to pay the rent—when everybody expects everything for free on the Internet.
KE That, or everyone is expected to have a supplementary job they do explicitly for money outside of their—
VV —their creativity. It’s a totally baffling. A weird time we’re in now, post-Internet, in which there is no business model for any artist, filmmaker, music maker, publisher, or writer.
You can struggle and put out little indie vinyl and cassette limited editions, high-priced releases that are signed and numbered with an autographed silkscreen inside. It seems like you can Kickstart every new project—but that doesn’t have a huge amount of appeal to me. A lot of successful people have pulled it off. I’m not speaking out of envy, I’m just speaking out of what I don’t want to do. (laughter) Because I’m trying to live in the future now, and I have been for a long time—especially in publishing. Here’s a phrase: Try to Live in the Future Now… But HOW?!?
In order to become anything these days—it’s totally inseparable now from branding and self-promotion. All this stuff I consider a little bit despicable—or I used to. Now I realize: Oh! When my book Modern Primitives came out, and I got all these invites I turned down to be on New York major media TV shows—the equivalent of Oprah of the day—I was so stupid not to say, “Yes! Send me a plane ticket. I’ll go!”
I was too chicken ‘cuz I knew they would tear me apart for the Modern Primitives book, and I wasn’t ready.
KE So, your reclusiveness is like a kind of defense tactic?
VV I was just reacting to what I felt. I certainly wasn’t as verbal as I am today. I knew they were going to crucify me for certain photos and texts in Modern Primitives. I should have had some very smart people pretend to be these talk-show hosts. I should have rehearsed quick soundbytes and funny answers, which is all they ever want.
KE Speaking of soundbyte answers, I feel like I have a lot for now.
VV Right. There are no answers; there are only more questions! Or let’s paraphrase Gertrude Stein who said in the ’20s or ’30s: There ain’t no answers, there never were no answers, and there ain’t gonna be no answers.
She’s so witty. Black humor is everything. Black humor is our goal; it’s our reason for living. Black humor, which is always questioning, anti-authoritarian, and always more or less against the status quo—which changes constantly.
And the status quo now is to be on an iPhone and be on it constantly. ‘Cuz it’s a new race that’s stalking the earth now. All the iPhone/smartphone owners are a new race of humans called cyberhumans or—
VV Cyborgs—thank you! Yes, cyborgs. Welcome to the cyborg future.
Karlynne Ejercito is an archivist and editor based in New York City.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.