V. Vale, Archon of Hip, Goes Back to Basics with Real Conversations no. 1

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Piercing the Vale

Ballard and Burroughs, Charles Willeford's noir, the Industrial Culture Handbook, Bob Flanagan's Supermasochist and other classic s&m texts, the sideshow books of Dan Mannix, Incredibly Strange Films and Incredibly Strange Music.

If some of the more recent Re/Search titles have not always shown the same infallible instinct for the cool (books on the swing revival and zine culture were uncharacteristically behind the curve, and a Guide to Bodily Fluids was just gross), his latest one, Real Conversations no. 1 (240 pages, $12.95), is a good move back to basics. It's a pocket-size set of straightforward Q&As with Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, Billy Childish and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A facile conversationalist, Vale easily prods Rollins out of his usual meathead shtick to reveal a man who's smarter and wiser than I'd ever apprehended. Childish, the British punk-painter-publisher, is a fascinating guy. Even Biafra and Ferlinghetti, despite the proclivity both display for kneejerk cant, follow Vale's lead into more interesting territory.

Modern Primitives (1989) is the book that launched a million tattoos and piercings. Its influence on youth culture, or at least fashion, in the 90s was incalculable. How do you see the impact it had?

Here's what Modern Primitives did. For those in the know, who actually pay attention to cultural trends and who were actually there in the late 80s when that book came out, they will know that single book caused a sea change in the world. Nobody was getting body piercings, very few were getting tattoos, and if they were they were little dinky things. That book provided an archetype and a rationale against our puritanical American morality, to enable people all over the world to reclaim all the so-called primitive heritage of tattooing and body modification people have been doing since time began...

When I did Modern Primitives, it was an exercise in setting forth an archetype just to see if people would adopt it?in fact, I was afraid the book wouldn't sell at all. You just don't know. But the problem with the Modern Primitives book was, yes, you were restoring the human body to people as their own art form and their own eroticizing, self-enhancing personal medium of expression. But in the original tribal cultures that this came out of, the tattoos were a by-product, rather than the raison d'etre. They were really a by-product of a society which was much more in tune with?had a different time sense than our linear time sense...

You're now working on a kind of long-range sequel, Modern Pagans. Tell me about the people in Modern Pagans.

They are trying to bring a sacredness into their lives. When they say "sacred" it no longer means that the all-seeing angry Yahweh is up there in the sky punishing you for masturbating in secret. It's a sense that everything in the Earth ought to be viewed as incarnating divinity, and therefore you won't drop a cigarette butt in the forest or whatever.

You were telling me there are military pagans in it?

We're including an interview with a military pagan, the person who founded the Military Pagan Network. It's a litmus test or a marker or a metaphor?if paganism can be recognized in the military, that's a step forward. Because paganism was not even considered a religion in those Ecumenical World Council meetings until very recently. It's starting to happen.

So you can be pagan in the military, but you still can't be gay?

Yeah, you got it! Paganism has had more tangible inroads in the military than gayness.

That's so weird. The enormous impact that Modern Primitives had in terms of fashion and hipster fads in the 90s?is there a downside to that?

Oh, definitely. You see, we're in a capitalist society. The foundation of capitalism is competition, not working together with people. It's a war society. I mean, you see these corporate executives putting on their friendliest faces as they meet and try to cut each other's throats, literally, with their deals. Whereas the pagan viewpoint is more like we're in this together?you know, an injury to one is an injury to all?it's not power over, it's power with, shared power.

So the best-case [reaction to Modern Primitives] is when someone is inspired and they want a tattoo, and they think, wait a minute, how do I get the most meaningful one, one which 15 years from now I'll still like? Then they start doing research and delve into it, they start having to figure out things in their own personal histories, because a lot of tattoos function as markers.

What's the worst case?

Well, the worst is what has happened. [Getting a tattoo or piercing] becomes a way to one-up everyone else, because you have more piercings than someone, more tattoos. It's not about any more deep personal goals. It's just about one-upping other people.

It just became a fashion statement.

And the standard was "I'm more cutting edge than thou"?cutting edge in a literal sense.

Do you personally have tattoos or piercings?

No piercings, no tattoos. I really am an amateur anthropologist in all my projects.

How old were you when you started Re/Search?

Oh, well, I always just say my early 30s.

So what are you now?

Oh God?well, that was 20 years ago.

How many books has Re/Search put out?

Only two dozen.

Really? It seems like more, it's had such a large impact?at least in hipster and intellectual circles.

I think the books have had a pretty large impact. Some of them were niche books, like Incredibly Strange Music. You realize, when you're me, how much cultural preservation is so arbitrary. It's based on status-quo esthetics. We're an art preservation project. And we're also trying to reshape esthetics to actually allow for more diversity, and more color in our lives, and more participation. We're definitely anti-virtual experiencing.

Has Re/Search developed the way you expected? Did you have a plan for it?

Yeah, I did. My plan was this: Punk rock was a pretty complex cultural revolution. I figured it's our canvas, we can make it as complex as we want it. We're providing archetypes and ideas that spark social change, in the sense of empowering more people to be creative. That was our goal. It was also a war against what has really become the "virtual life," an information-overload, heavily mediated life in which most humans simply consume the lives of others that they see on tv and movies. And they don't make their own music anymore! This culture used to have millions of people sitting at home making their own music. There used to be millions of people whittling wood and making little wood sculptures. This used to be way more of a do-it-yourself culture in America. Now it's just become a culture of consumption, in which not even any labor is done here, it's all exported overseas, because corporations can get people overseas to work for these slave wages. And now that the economy is hit, what is everyone going to do for money? If all the production is overseas, how are people going to earn enough money to buy all the corporate products? It's a complex question. Of course, you know our next project is going to be directly attacking all the corporate and advertising and mind control assumptions which have allowed this new culture to flourish in which nobody participates.

What's that project?

Well, it was gonna be called The Control Society, but we're not so sure about that. It's very obvious that the advertising agencies, which are funded by corporations, have managed to develop magic into a high art in society. Because what magic does is it provides vision that changes lives and archetypes?and it's worked! There's a great deal of magic that's working in advertising. That's why all these people without question go to the Gap and buy these clothes. You meet anyone on the street and they've got a great haircut. And everyone is capable of talking in soundbites like those people on talk television. That part has come true.

Unfortunately, all these people have been cut off from their roots, because they don't read anymore, and I think reading is the single process that enables us to really truly become individuals, reading and writing.

If nobody's reading, why make books?

Because I still believe in them. And they're so portable. I guess I am gonna have to be satisfied with a quality-over-quantity audience.

For Real Conversations, how many copies did you print?

Just 5000. I mean 5000 in a population of what, six billion?

Why did you go with the condensed size?

Everyone has gotta work full-time now. Nobody can be like me, working 12 hours a week at City Lights. The rents are too high now. That means everyone has to commute. They need things to read while they commute. It's just really too much to expect people to haul a big Re/Search book around. I also wanted to get books out faster.

How recent are these interviews?

They're both recent and old. Billy Childish, I did an interview with him in '97, and then another one with him in '99, and a recent one on the phone. But Jello Biafra and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were literally done weeks before the book came out.

I thought Henry sounded more intelligent and more wise?I mean he's still full of shit sometimes?but wiser and more intelligent than I think I've ever heard him sound.

Well, you know I have a theory that all conversations are different because they are the product of what Brion Gysin called the "Third Mind." There's something bigger than us that arises when you and I are in conversation. No two conversations are alike. But conversation can also be limited by the person you're having it with.

Let's talk about the business for a second. I always figured that Modern Primitives, which must be in its 10 millionth printing by now, must be floating the rest of the operation.

That's the thing?one book that sells well will make up for the mistakes you made. One thing I've learned is that it's almost impossible to predict whether a book is gonna be a bestseller.

Off the top of your head, how many copies of Modern Primitives do you think you've sold?

It's not as many as you'd think. It's in the neighborhood of only 80,000. But it's had an infinitely larger per-copy readership than most corporate books. I do think that if that had been distributed by [for example] St. Martin's, it would've been half a million.

For everyone I know in small publishing, the nightmare is distribution, simply getting the books out.

It's gotten way worse, because the corporate chains have moved into every part of America and gotten rid of all these quirky, dusty independent stores run by these weird people who were librarian types. With the chains, all the ordering comes out of one office. There's no allowing for local diversity, or any diversity. Everything is run by MBAs, and every square footage of shelf is calculated to its profit yield. Time is calculated the same way?so in the same amount of time that they can order my two dozen books, they can order 200 from a corporate distributor or publisher.

So it's actually inefficient for them to be dealing with you.

That's one factor. Secondly, there are these new policies which are just disastrous. The way the corporate chains have set it up the last few years, you've seen these disastrous discounting polices being accepted as business as usual.

Tell me about discounting.

First of all, the corporate stores have a fetish with looking shiny and brand new?everything has got to look squeaky clean, like a Starbucks. It's unreal to maintain this kind of newness.

So anyway, the corporates have just demanded and gotten enormous discounts, 60 percent or more. You can't make a living on that. I can't.

So, you sell a book to them and get something like 40 cents out of the dollar on that?

Yes. And even worse, they get something like 120 or 150 days to pay. So what they do is, they have their store full of shiny new books. Let's say it's 120 days. On the 119th day the bill is due, they return all your [unsold, handled] books?and try not to even pay you for the ones they did sell. But on the 121st day, they again buy the quantity that they just returned.

So what they want is fresh stock?


And they never even paid you for the first batch.

You've got it.

And you have to pay the shipping on the returns. So now you've got a whole bunch of handled books that you can sell for 50 cents a copy at a yard sale.

When's Modern Pagans coming out?

It's gotta be by Christmas.

Is it gonna be a big, traditional-looking Re/Search book?

It's gonna be a big one, crammed with information, like Modern Primitives. Small type. Just jammed.

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