Or, Memoirs of a Shy Nornographer
And poor old Homer blind, blind as a bat
Ear, ear for the sea-surge, murmur of old-men’s voices:
“Let her go back to the ships,
Back among Grecian faces, lest evil come on our own
Evil and further evil, and a curse cursed upon our children
Moves, yes, she moves like a goddess… “
—Ezra Pound, from The Cantos
Gesamtkunstwerk. It’s a wee little word with many possible meanings. One of them, I hope, explains why I spent a recent Saturday morning at one of the numerous “yummy brunch” spots in Park Slope, Brooklyn, sharing a sidewalk table with two sweaty writers who, as fate would have it, fucking despise brunch. Brian Berger, historian and interlocutor, declares “Brunch is the enemy of all cuisines.” Jim Knipfel, novelist and occasional crooner, refuses to acknowledge the shame of it all, insisting “I’m here to drink.” If you see Kenny Wisdom smiling, it’s because I brought Brian and Jim here for precisely this reason: to watch these giants of Brooklyn letters get a bit uncomfortable and see what happens. To make things even woolier, I invited WWIB readers to call in with questions of their own. This they did. Fasolt and Fafner never had it so good.
Indeed, few people have. None of the great sagas of world literature— not Beowulf, not Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine, not even the Nibelung— acknowledge the fiction of Jim Knipfel, yet readers these humid summer days (and summer nights), have three Knipfel novels to choose from, with more to follow. Who says the future is doomed? Jim’s latest fiction is Unplugging Philco, a dark comic dystopia not really comparable to Jonathan Lethem’s post-apocalyptic Brooklyn novel Girl In Landscape (a science-fiction western melodrama) but it wouldn’t be awful if some people got the two confused. Meanwhile those of us who swear by sweet lucidity are delighted to take Knipfel as he is: both an irreducibly weird, quick-witted genre-masher in the tradition of Flann O’Brien, Ishmael Reed and Alasdair Gray, and a nihilist storyteller who remains true to the traditional Gold Medal narrative strategies we can all take home to mother— especially if she’s a loud, boozy, dirty girl! — Kenny Wisdom
ACT I—Hark, I Hear The Norns Calling!
Brian Berger: Before we start, I’m a bit torn between wanting an exclusive and wishing Unplugging Philco the widest possible success. Have any of the popular Park Slope parenting blogs been in touch? I don’t know how you feel about it I consider each of your books one of my babies.
Jim Knipfel: Well, I don’t frequent parenting, um, “blogs,” so I can’t tell you what, if anything, those dull-eyed screwheads are saying. I doubt there’s much—Philco doesn’t seem like the kind of book those people would choose to read. My local Barnes & Noble will attest to that. Besides, I think those folks all had their saw a while back. A column about the sorts of treachery the childless face on a daily basis around here was picked up by some site or another. Hoo-boy.
I’ve received my share of threats and been called my share of names over the years, but those fuckers were brutal. Such ugly, nasty spirits hiding under those smiling facades. As for the “children” question, of course. I mean, not YOUR children, but mine.
Like Werner Herzog once told me, speaking of his films, “Some are retarded or might have a gimpy leg, but you still love them all the same.” But at least I don’t push my books around in monstrous German-engineered strollers, running blindos into the street. Maybe I should.
Brian: Jim Knipfel, prolific Park Slope novelist—who would have thunk it? From a Brooklyn perspective, it’s especially gratifying because you live so near Henry Miller’s home when he wrote Crazy Cock and Moloch.
Jim: What, is that supposed to be some kind of a crack? Is that your crooked game? Because if it is, we can call it now. You know damn well Crazy Cock and Moloch were miserable novels. Even Miller knew that, which is why they stayed buried in his desk until 10 years after he died. Are you gonna bring up Tough Guys Don’t Dance next? Or The Willow Tree? Jesus.
Now, if you agree to be a bit more civil, I’ll tell you this: It wasn’t until I’d been here about a year that I learned Miller’s first house was right down the street. Moved there in, what, 1918 with his first wife. No plaque or anything on it of course, but the house is still there.
What I prefer to latch onto isn’t those two awful novels, but the fact that the events in that house inspired Capricorn and much of The Rosy Crucifixion. Amazingly enough, in spite of all the other changes around here since then, physically anyway, very little has changed. You can walk down the sidewalk early in the morning, and it still looks like 1918, so long as you ignore the cars and the people which— is something I try to do anyway, don’cha know.
Brian: Speaking of personal safety, what precautions have you been taking against the pig virus? All the animals come out at night—whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies— sick, venal. Someday a real pandemic will come and wash all this scum off the streets.
Jim: I’ve been waiting for that rain far too long now—especially one that’ll get rid of the skunk pussies. I have some doubts that this is it. But it’s astonishing isn’t it? The timing couldn’t have been any better, Unplugging Philco-wise, should anybody care to notice the similarities. Of course it’s something we see every 18 months or so under a different moniker. Another disease to fret over.
And no matter how many times we’ve seen it, it always works like a charm. I think my favorite bit of pig virus hysteria came pretty late in the game, when the second Montauk Monster washed up on a beach on Long Island. Fox News reported in all seriousness that there was some concern that the creature might be an H1N1 carrier.
Perhaps it’s sheer coincidence that later that afternoon Bloomberg announced that there was a major new outbreak in Queens. Gotta keep those people scared, you know. Oh, it’s all such a blatant sham. Another control mechanism. Really funny thing is, an old friend of mine—fellow named Grinch whom I’ve written about on several occasions—did end up with swine flu.
First thing he did when he started feeling bad was go to a club full of hipsters and cough on people. I wouldn’t have expected any less from him; there’s a decided genius to his sociopathology. After it cleared up a few days later, he summed up the question of prevention very simply: “Next time I fuck a pig, I’m wearing TWO condoms.”
Brian: Jokes aside for a moment, if I had to pinpoint the genesis of Unplugging Philco it’d be the West Nile Virus scare of 1999, when then Mayor Giuliani declared war on mosquitoes because a few octo- and nonagenarians got sick. Bless ‘em all, live forever but if not, we have to die of something.
Jim: The “Golden Orb SuperVirus” in the book was inspired by all of them, really: West Nile, bird flu, SARS, the SuperBug. Pick a year at random, and you’ll find a new potential pandemic. In an early draft of Philco, the Colonel gives a long monologue about the simple mechanics of using the threat of a disease as a means of keeping the masses in check. It was a little long-winded, so it was cut. Better and funnier just to keep it as a quiet subplot in the background.
In the case of West Nile, though, that got way out of hand, what with helicopters dumping poison on the population. And a poison called Anvil, for godsakes! Still amazes me to this day that they’d be that obvious.
Brian: At the time I hoped the West Nile scare might inspire a broad based anti-Giuliani-ism—including the good folks who protested the use of airborne insecticides—and save us from an ever growing Police State NYC. Maybe it was possible but, alas, I was wrong: after 9/11, things got worse. Enter Wally Philco.
Jim: During the whole West Nile thing I did a lot of research and published a lot of stories. Talked to the guy who was working on the vaccine and found that he’d spend most of his career with the Army’s bioweapons program. That’s the kind of thing that’ll make you say, hmmmm…But it didn’t amount to much, because nobody cared. There was no revolt during the West Nile nonsense for the same reason there was no revolt in the crackdown after 9/11—people believe what they’re told. You tell them on a daily basis to be scared, they’ll be scared.
You tell them that everything that’s being done is being done to keep them safe, and they’ll accept it. And they cling to it with a vengeance. Anyone who raises his hand and says “Hey, hold on a second…” is the enemy. It’s an old idea—just go back and read the passages from Goldstein’s book in 1984. It’s all laid out quite clearly.
I realize that Orwell is considered a kneejerk reference in matters like these, but jesus, it’s such a great book. If more people actually read it, they’d see that it’s not a kneejerk reference at all, but a very apt one. Apt, I say!
Man, I could use a drink.
Brian: Let me get the waitress; you like Rheingold, right? My ex-wife Woglinde got me hooked on the stuff.
Jim: I’d prefer Gotterdämmerung, but I don’t think there’s a beer called Gotterdämmerung. Rheingold it is…You’re switching from those mimosas to Rheingold? Well, I guess it’s the way to go—Bier nach Wein, as they say.
Brian: There’s been speculation that, because Philco is a post-apocalyptic novel, you must be a fan of Philip K. Dick. One writer for this very journal even named the book, Ubik. Rumor is that might only be partially true.
Jim: Philco is only post-apocalyptic if you accept that the world we live in now is post-apocalyptic, which I happen to believe it is. The world ended awhile ago—1986, if I’m not mistaken—it’s just that no one bothered to notice. As for Philip K. Dick, I must admit that while I admire his ideas a great deal, I haven’t actually read that many of his books, including Ubik.
Read a few: Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, A Scanner Darkly, a bunch of the short stories, and just picked up an old copy of Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, even though I won’t be able to read it. But that’s about it. I think my problem is—and I’ll likely be called a philistine for this—is that while I admire the ideas he’s playing with, I’ve never been a big fan of his prose. Not saying he wasn’t a genius, just saying his writing’s a little clunky.
Not that I’m any Dostoevsky myself, mind you. I’m just saying, is all. I keep trying to like him more, but ain’t done it yet. And besides, maybe if you’re getting the ideas across, being a masterful stylist would just get in the way. Or something.
Brian: Sun Ra titled an album It’s After The End Of The World and although Philco doesn’t take things quite that far, events do follow the “Horribleness,” as you call it, which occurs in Tupelo, Mississippi… Tupelo! I’ve been listening to Elvis non-stop since January—
[sings] There’s a long line of mourners driving down our little street
Brian: [continues, oblivious] Their fancy cars are such a sight to see, oh yeah
Brian: They’re all your rich friends who knew you in the city
Jim: [louder] When—
Brian: And now they’ve finally brought you Brought you home to me
Got-damn, Son! That’s why the call him The King; Elvis recorded the greatest version of “Long Black Limousine” ever and I’ve heard damn near every one. Nick Cave’s fantasia on “Tupelo” is pretty hot too but it took Elvis’ genius to get there.
Jim: I would never deny that, so long as you promise to never sing at me again. Now, when I started the book, I knew I didn’t want the Horribleness to take place in New York. If it had happened in New York, it would’ve been way too easy for people to read it as nothing but a 9/11 satire, and I was hoping it would be something more than that. I also didn’t want to set it in a major city like Chicago or Los Angeles because I knew I’d run into the same thing. So I was trying to choose an unlikely target for a terrorist attack (or whatever it was), and Tupelo came to mind. Who would ever want to attack Tupelo?
You’re right, though listening to some Nick Cave around that time likely had something to do with the final decision. In the end, there are a couple none-too-subtle Nick Cave references in there, along with the usual Whit Bissell references.
Brian: And Elisha Cook Jr?
Jim: And Elisha Cook Jr. Can’t get away from him.
Brian: Here in Brooklyn you’re known for having a certain sartorial style, a pearl-gray homburg (not a fedora) above all. It might come as a surprise to some folks that once upon a time in Pennsylvania, you wore bolo ties. I assume this was a Bill Haley homage?
Jim: What an odd non-sequitur. Yes, I had a bolo. Wore it along with the hat (which in those years was black). That was Philly, and I guess my fashion sense back then could best be described as “inappropriate.” A friend in Tulsa sent me this bolo with the coiled silver snake clasp because she thought it was incredibly tacky. She was right, and so I wore it. Never actually used it in the way it was intended; mostly I just let it dangle there like a spindly medallion, for some reason.
It didn’t last too long— about as long as the “sap gloves” period. Yes, well. Maybe it’s best my memories of those years remain as spotty as they are. What does this have to do with anything?
Brian: My favorite writer Gilbert Sorrentino has a little-known philosophical gag novel called Gold Fools (2001), which is well— let’s call it Brooklyn boy’s imagined version OuLiPian Western satire, with every sentence a question. May I read a passage aloud, mi amigo? It’s on page 179 for those who are following at home.
Jim: I’d really rather you didn’t.
Brian: Did Hank, at last, and only half in jest, threaten them with his iron, his Windsor knot, and his stuffed belt? Stuffed?
Jim: Didn’t you hear me?
Brian: …And then, did the greying clod, with the vague and rather tepid support of Billee Dobb, quickly and surely praise Bud for raising the danged alarm, since you never can tell? What did the codger mean by this? What was it that you never can tell? Certain classic tales? The truth about the transvestite barber and his crippled yet attractive manicurist? What went on in the basement of the Norwegian Lutheran Church on troop-meeting nights?
Jim: Please don’t read aloud to me anymore. It makes me uncomfortable. Christ, first the singing, now this.
Brian: You can handle it, Tex— think of Dean Martin! Think of Stumpy!!
Point being, Brooklyn keeps poking its head into Gilbert Sorrentino’s West, while a Western character, sort of, Faro Jack, barges into Jim Knipfel’s Brooklyn. How’d that happen?
Jim: Faro Jack comes from two different sources. First, there’s an old cowboy song called “San Antonio,”
Brian: [sings] Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl…
Jim: That’s El Paso. Different song.
Brian: [sings] Rain drippin’ off the brim of my hat it sure looks cold today…
Here I am walking down 66 wish she hadn’t done me this way
Sleeping under a table in a roadside park, a man could wake up dead
But it sure seems warmer than it did sleeping in our king size bed
Brian and Jim: [together] Is anybody going to San Antone, or Phoenix Arizona?!
Jim: Great song but no, the song I’m talking about contains a reference to “plunging with Faro Jack.” Well, that line confounded me for years until a fellow Tex Johnson and His Six-Shooters enthusiast on Long Island finally did some research. That’s how I learned about Faro, an early version of poker played in countless saloons in countless Westerns.
“Faro Jack” was a character name I always wanted to use. As for the character himself, well, a few years back I was on my way home from the grocery store early one dreary Saturday morning when I was stopped by this big guy pushing a shopping cart down the street. He had a heavy red beard, a white cowboy hat, and was wearing a yellow slicker. We started chatting. Turned out he was Polish, had just arrived in the states a few months earlier and promptly found himself homeless. He was a composer, and we’d been chatting for about two minutes before we were talking about Penderecki, with whom he’d studied.
Weird thing is, while his English was very good, it was sprinkled with strange, inappropriate cowboy lingo. Kept calling me “pardner” and talking about the “high lonesome.” He was a very bright guy, and I assumed this was just his way of trying to fit in as best he could. Interesting and confusing man. Never saw him again after that. But that’s where Faro came from.
Brian: Are you a Marty Robbins fan at all? A gal I knew in Austin who used to work for the great philosophy professor Louis Mackey at the University of Texas kept a copy of Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs on a mantle in her apartment—that was a powerful mojo.
Jim: I’ve had Gunfighter Ballads around since I was very young. A lot of other Marty Robbins, too. But you know what? He was no cowboy—he was a crooner. He wasn’t a rockabilly man, either, though he tried to be one for awhile. Took him a long damn time to realize he was a crooner, and even after he did, well, he wasn’t gonna make me forget about Elvis or Ed Ames, that’s for sure. Fine guitarist, though. And our friend John Strausbaugh does a fine rendition of “Cool Water.” Speaking of which, to this day—including when you started singing it—I can’t hear “El Paso” without expecting the second line to be “Lived a young boy named a-Johnny B. Goode.”
Brian: A name that comes up a lot when people talk about Cowboy Jim Knipfel is oddly that of Kurt Vonnegut, whose house in Iowa City I lived just a couple blocks away from but whom I’ve barely read. Likewise J.G. Ballard, although I don’t think he ever lived in Iowa.
Jim: Why do you relate the two?
Brian: I don’t know, Brother Bones, why do I relate the two?
Jim: I have no clue. Did Ballard live around the corner? Maybe it was all that time in Iowa. Never been to Iowa myself. Not that I’m aware of, anyway. I was in Ohio once, though. Columbus. Spent the night there. But that’s all beside the point, most likely. Thing about Vonnegut and Ballard—and Stanislaw Lem, and Mr. Pynchon, and Philip K. Dick, for that matter—is that they’ve all been mistaken for science fiction authors at one time or another.
Write about science or weirdness of some kind in a fictional setting and boom—marketing people decide that you’re writing science fiction. You ever see the covers of some of Vonnegut’s early novels? It’s all space ships and planets and voluptuous alien women. The first edition of The Sirens of Titan is mind-boggling; the copy on the back cover has nothing at all to do with the book itself. Someone in marketing just read the title and ran with it. More than a few people mistook my first novel, The Buzzing for science fiction when there wasn’t anything science fictiony about it apart from a character obsessed with science fiction movies.
It’s a shame, really. I think Vonnegut would’ve been granted the respect he deserved much earlier in his career if people had simply recognized that his novels existed outside of any set genre, or that they existed in a genre all their own. Same with Ballard—there are no spaceships or ray guns in his major novels like Crash, Concrete Island or Empire of the Sun, but there you go. Pick up a collection of short stories and it’s all rockets and moon palaces on the cover.
Brian: Hey, I think it’s time to take our first question from the audience. Elizabeth Bacon of Bedford-Stuyesant, you’re on the air.
Elizabeth: Wow, thanks for taking my call, I never thought I’d get through! Jim, as an aspiring fabulist myself, I wonder how much of Unplugging Philco was plotted before you finished it? Do you start with an idea, sell it and then figure out what happens next or … ?
Brian: Hello, Elizabeth? Are you there? Sounds like we lost her; fucking cell phones.
Jim: Don’t get me started on cell phones. Or any other hand-held device…Anyway,…Well, Elizabeth, if you’re still listening, the answer to that incredibly boring question is “or… ?” Perhaps it’s best I leave it at that. Please never call here again.
Brian: Wot?! No wonder you’re a goddamn ‘cult author’! At least Jim Jones knew how to work a crowd.
Jim: People lie, friend… Ah, hell there, Liz, I’m just pulling your meaty leg. So far every book’s been different. I wrote The Buzzing pretty much off the top of my head. Noogie’s Time to Shine was loosely based on actual events, so it was pretty well mapped out for me. In the case of Unplugging Philco, well, it evolved slowly over a period of about ten years. The basic idea remained constant—the story of a man who decides he wants to make himself somehow invisible to surveillance technology—but various characters and subplots cropped up unexpectedly while I was writing.
I think it was the basic idea that sold the book in 2007 (though I also had an outline and the first 3 chapters to show them). Interestingly enough (to me anyway) it was that same basic idea that prevented the book from being sold in 2003. It seems at the time publishers weren’t much interested in satires about the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
Brian: Speaking of satire, there’s a coffee shop in Athens, Georgia I go to which has a motley assortment of used books on the wall. Total fluke I sat down next to the Grove Press printing of Richard Brautigan’s A Confederate General In Big Sur with the Larry Rivers painting on the cover one day and I read it straight through, which I’d not done before. It was mostly great.
There’s Kenneth Patchen in there, some Henry Miller of course, some deadpan Civil War history satire. I knew Brautigan dedicated Trout Fishing In America to San Francisco poet Jack Spicer and dedicated a poem (“Death Is A Beautiful Car Only”) to Brooklyn hero Emmett Grogan but I’d not paid very close attention before.
Jim: My ex-wife was heavily into Brautigan, and by the time she moved out we’d amassed the complete works after years and years of scouring used bookstores in several different cities. His self-consciously weird hippie-dippiness drove me a little nuts, and I was happy to learn that he’d shot himself in Thom McGuane’s bathroom. Served him right, I thought. I don’t have much left around here anymore: one poetry collection (Loading Mercury With a Pitchfork), the short story collection, and a couple basic novels.
Looking back on them now, it’s clear that beneath the silliness of In Watermelon Sugar and the others there’s actually a very deep sadness lurking about. His work’s much darker than I’d thought, and I can appreciate that. Like Vonnegut, he’d created his own singular genre; there’s nothing else like a Brautigan novel.
Brian: Are you up for some bass fishing in Bay Ridge later?
Jim: You grab the line, I’ll grab the pole. That almost sounds dirty, doesn’t it?
ACT II—In Which Many Norns Show Many Minds
Brian: NYC and Brooklyn politics are such a fiasco it’s amazing some people still act smug about how ‘liberal’ the city is—hah! At the same time, if there”s one good thing side-effect of so-called Atlantic Yards is it forced some people to realize just how corrupt and insipid the corporate media is. Not that it connected Prospect Heights and Park Slope residents with their equally disaffected (but much less influential) brethren in the Bronx but maybe this is a strong first step towards a liberating nihilism? Fuck the Democrats, fuck the Republicans: Rufus T. Firefly for Mayor!
Jim: I’m thinking more in terms of Quincy Adams Wagstaff, who sings “I’m Against It.” He’s got my vote. But as far as your question goes, it all depends on how you choose to look at nihilism. Bloomberg tosses the constitution out the window in order to become Mayor for Life, and the people, the press, and the city council barely raised a finger to stop him. Now, as annoyed and shocked as some people pretended to be at the time, everyone seems to have forgotten about that, and he’s going to win a third term.
Is it because people understand how deeply corrupt local politics are (and have always been), that they’re utterly impotent and helpless in the face of it? Or is it because they’re so stupid and blind that they think it’s a good idea because the TV tells them it is? My guess it’s the latter. Attacks or no attacks, Giuliani would’ve won a third term had he chosen to pull the same stunt.
It boils down to a specifically American brand of nihilism that’s completely apolitical in nature—a kind of nihilism that says “we just want to watch the TV and drink cheap beer and not have to think about anything. Just tell us what to do.” It’s not a conscious, philosophical rejection of everything, but a quiet, unthinking acquiescence that amounts to the same thing.
Whether it’s Coney or Atlantic Yards or Times Square, it’s the same sort of deal. Lots of money gets tossed around as the spirit of the city is gutted and as a lot of people lose their jobs and homes. In the end no one really cares. What matters to them more than anything are traffic patterns. So long as traffic past their house doesn’t get heavier, well then what’s the problem? Go ahead and tear the Empire State Building down to put up a new Nike store. The ironic thing—and this of course is a big subtext of Philco—is that if these same people are called upon to rat out their neighbors for whatever reason, they’ll do so in a heartbeat. They not only believe the lie—they love the lie. We’re so doomed. Have I made that point already?
Brian: Margaret Dumont (b. 1882) was from Brooklyn, while W.C. Fields (b. 1880) was from the Philly area. I’d say Fields is one of the lesser known influences on your work but I’m afraid you might start throwing juggling balls at me.
Jim: That surly ol’ baby-hating souse (or Sousé) has been a big influence on me since I was very young. Second only to Ernie Kovacs, I’d say. Most of my main characters have at least a little Fields fueling them. It’s sad that he’s not known on the same level as, say, the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers these days. Nothing against the Stooges or the Marx Brothers, but I think there was just something profoundly American about Fields spirit and attitude. Plus, yes, he could juggle.
Brian: Oh, now that’s interesting: it seems people don’t rank the Three Stooges so highly; they’re too lowbrow, even for Lithuanian Jews from Brooklyn. What are you favorite Three Stooges films?
Jim: I was just speaking in terms of popularity and recognition, as opposed to “respect.” And in that case they certainly are better known than Fields. But favorite films? I like Gents Without Cents—is that where the Niagara Falls routine appears? It plays a little more stiffly on film than it did on stage, but still. I also like Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb, and the one where they play doctors. I can’t go into a hospital these days without expecting to hear “Calling Dr. Moe! Calling Dr. Curly!” over the p.a.
Brian: You know The Stooges were all hanging around the Vitaphone Studios on Avenue M in Midwood in their early career, which was where Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle also worked, both before and after his, ah, legal difficulties. When did you first learn about Fatty, from Kenneth Anger perhaps?
Jim: Oh, I knew about Fatty Arbuckle long before I read Hollywood Babylon. I may not have been intimately aware of all the details, but enough to make me say “well, imagine that.” Now I’m trying to remember— I know I was young, 8 or 9, and one of my friends told me about it. My friends back then were actually aware of things like Fatty Arbuckle and other cultural tidbits from earlier eras. It’s something you don’t see much anymore. I’m glad to have known those people when I did. Most of them later went completely mad.
Brian: I know with your last novel, Noogie’s Time To Shine, you talked to various members of law enforcement, including the FBI, as part of your research. Did your Noogie work feed into Philco? Did you learn anything new from those on the badge side of life?
Jim: Laid out on a balance sheet, I’ve known far more criminals than I have cops. And while I’ve certainly had my troubles over the years with certain law enforcement types, when you get down to it, yeah, they’re human. Some are stupid thugs and bullies who became cops to have a taste of power and the right to push people around. Others are solid, bright, guys who’ve treated me decently and given me the occasional break.
Of course there were those two in Minneapolis who beat the shit out of me because they thought I was stoned when in fact my kidneys were in the process of shutting down. That’ll leave a bad taste in your mouth.
I’m not going to make any broad generalizations about people who wear a badge on account of it, though Still, on principle I guess I’m more comfortable in the company of criminals than I am around cops. I always go back to that line from an old Feederz song, “You know you’re well-adjusted when you don’t seem to mind the cops are always around.”
Brian: I hear the Feds are interesting to deal with; very helpful in their way but…
Jim: Dealing with the FBI, though, was a trip. And it’s not until you brought it up that I realized how much of an unconscious influence it had on Philco. Trying to set up an interview with the agents who worked a relatively minor case revealed that more than anything the FBI was as much about Kafkaesque bureaucracy and public reactions as it was about, you know, solving crimes. Took me three months to set up the interview, and when I finally got approval, I was never told when the interview would take place.
They’d just call me sometime. Could be the next day, could be two years down the line. But when they called, I’d better be there and I’d better be prepared, because that was my one and only chance. And when I finally did get the agents on the phone, there was another man on the phone as well who never identified himself, but he “corrected” the things the agents were telling me, and in a few cases stopped them altogether from answering questions. And this was about a closed case.
Moreover, it was also made clear to me that simply by filing a FOIA request to get the files on this same closed case was reason enough for the FBI to open a file on me. And then they never gave me the damn files I was asking for. So there you go. Their press agent was a nice fellow, though. Loved the Brooklyn Dodgers and Schaefer beer.
Brian: As a long time reader and later writer of crime stories, have your perspectives on them changed over the years?
Jim: What’s changed is not so much my perception of cops, but my perception of criminals. Again, I’ve known a pretty wide range, from petty thieves to guys who got the needle—talked to one guy 20 minutes before they put him down—and I still follow crime stories very closely. When I was young and first getting hooked on crime fiction, I had a very romantic view of what criminals were like. These were Nietzschean characters, right? With the guts to step over that line the rest of us won’t approach.
In the movies and contemporary crime novels they’re more often than not portrayed as evil supergeniuses, like Professor Moriarity or Hannibal Lecter. But I’m sorry, not to sound like John Walsh here, but real experience has taught me that most criminals are incredibly stupid people who bumble into what they’re doing. Usually badly. Forget about Nietzsche—these guys just aren’t bright enough to know any better. Plain bone stupid, most of them.
Jim: And he should know better than anyone. He and I talked about this several times back when we were both at the paper. I haven’t had a chance to pick up his crime blotter book yet, but I need to one of these days. Local blotters are always where you find the best, most insane crimes. One or two hundred word stories that are infinitely more entertaining than the splashy front page crimes. It’s a daily parade of bumbling antics and wacky hijinx.
We haven’t spoken in a few years, C.J. and I, but I’d like to catch up with him sometime. He’s great. I guess I still have a certain respect for bumbling criminals in spite of it. Noogie was a criminal, after all, and so is Wally Philco. They aren’t geniuses by any stretch, but they still make the conscious decision to step across the line.
Brian: Dog Day Afternoon or Straight Time: you can only choose one? M. Emmett Walsh versus Charles Durning? I have to rep Brooklyn to the fullest but it’s not an easy choice, especially with Young Theresa Russell in Cali.
Jim: Normally I’d choose Dog Day without hesitation, if only for John Cazale. But then you throw M. Emmet Walsh at me, and it gets a lot tougher. Plus Straight Time comes from Eddie Bunker (who also co-stars), and I like Eddie Bunker a bunch. Well, dammit.
Brian: Dog Day has “Amoreena” too.
Jim: Well, dammit.
Brian: Before moving to New York, you were in show business yourself, or at least a version of it, the adult book store. There was a place in Austin I got the application for—lots of people did, because they paid really well for retail—but the hitch was they were open 24 hours, so you had to work overnights to start. The other thing about this place was that the clerks were very solicitous like “Hey, what’s going on tonight? Let me know if ya’ll need any help!” I knew a couple women from record stores who worked there. They must have made some funny correlations between taste in music and smut over the years: country blues and solo masturbation? Right on!
Jim: The place I was at was odd for a couple reasons: first, it was in Madison—P.C. capitol of the Midwest—which immediately made it a target for the angry young college feminists and the guys who were trying to pick up the angry young college feminists. But complicating that whole dynamic was the fact that the store was mostly aimed at a gay clientele. So…if they attacked a gay porn shop did that make them homophobes, or…? I thought it was pretty funny to watch them struggle over that one. In the end they mostly left us alone.
More problematic were the drunken frat boys who stumbled in by accident, not realizing until it was too late that it was a gay porn shop, and that they would now be seen leaving a gay porn shop. They would get so mad. That was pretty funny, too. I was one of only two straight employees there, and I gotta say, it was a learning experience. I saw things there I couldn’t have imagined otherwise. Funny place. To this day the smell of Pine Sol will trigger flashbacks.
But yeah, you had to be nice to the customers. In a place like Madison, they were taking a risk stepping inside, so you didn’t want to make them uncomfortable no matter how creepy they were. Personally I never really saw what the big deal with porn is. You accept it for what it is, you don’t demonize it, and like with anything else it gets pretty boring pretty fast. But being a straight guy—especially a 20 year-old straight guy—working a gay porn shop? Hoo-boy.
I can’t imagine what it would be like for a 20 year-old woman to work in a straight porn shop. It was clear from the beginning in my case there was going to be some tension there. I was there about 7 months or so until I left for grad school—and throughout it all I had much more trouble with the manager than I did with any of the customers. And he knew I was straight. He was just a greasy, bloated lech. Funny you should mention music, though, because it was during that same stretch that my friend Grinch and I were in The Pain Amplifiers, and right after I left that we began opening for The Mentors, the most homophobic, misogynistic band of All Time.
Brian: You’ve seen William Friedkin’s Cruisin right? It’s fucked up in some ways but I don’t think homophobia per se is one of ‘em.
Jim: I remember the hubbub and the protests when it came out—not unlike the hubbub over Basic Instinct. In both cases I left the theater wondering what the hell the big deal was. If you’ve seen the inside of a real leather bar, well… As a sidenote, it’s always bugged me that movies never get porn shops right. In the movies, they’re always very dark and shadowy and filthy, with surly, skeevy-looking characters behind the counter. I’ve never been in a porn shop like that. Real porn shops are more brightly lit than McDonalds. They’re usually cleaner, too, and the employees tend to be friendly, clean-cut, and non-judgmental types.
Brian: In Slackjaw you mention how the American Foundation Blind suggested you could open a newsstand; with your prior experience, was there any hope you could open up a blind man’s porn stand?
Jim: Given that the city did away with the blind-operated newsstands a few years after they got rid of the porn shops, I’m pretty well screwed. Actually I’m not sure I’d want to go back to a porn shop—straight or gay—at this point, and for a simple reason. Not being able to see, I’d need to, umm, touch more things in order to identify them.
Makes me think of a shop in Minneapolis. It was on Hennepin Ave. eight across the street from the Orpheus theater. Big sign out front announced they specialized in “Used Erotica.” Kinda makes me shudder. I mean, I didn’t give a damn what people did with the shit they bought—I just didn’t want them bringing it back afterwards.
Brian: That’s our cue to take another call. Carol Ciccio from Gravesend, you’re on the air with novelist Jim Knipfel.
Carol: Hey James, I’m so glad I got through! I sat next to you on an F-train once but I was too shy to say anything. For a dude who worked with dirty books, I notice you don’t write about sex much. I offer that simply as an observation— perhaps unexpected given your admiration of Henry Miller.
On the other hand, all of the sucking and fucking distracts people from Henry’s genius and—to a lesser extent—Bukowski’s social criticism and humor. Is this a fair observation and would you consider accepting a for a dirty book or story in the future? I’d love to get my parents something special for their 50th wedding anniversary.
Jim: I’ve already turned down several offers to write dirty stories—the most recent being just a few weeks ago. I don’t avoid writing about sex out of any prudishness. Lord no—I have no problem at all with that. No, the reason I turn down the offers is very simple: 1. There are too many people writing about sex as it is. 2. Most of them are much better than I could ever hope to be. It’s true. I’ve tried, and I’m just awful. Plus these days I find the idea incredibly boring. What you say about Miller and Bukowski is certainly true, too.
Think about it—Miller was close to 70 when the so-called “dirty” books were finally published over here. Even though he was long past all that—he was much more interested in writing about the zodiac and what have you at that point—suddenly he was in the spotlight as America’s most famous dirty old man. He was not real happy with that, but he still played along as he could.
Brian: That reminds me, in my small but cherished collection of ’50s and early ’60s crime and scandal magazines, amid the ads for “Learn A Trade: Meatcutting,” Lili St. Cyr photos and whatnot is one that reads “The boy who grew up in a house full of manless women ‘The Strange Relationship’ between Nietzsche and his sister Elisabeth— Suppressed for Fifty Years—revealed at last in the philosopher’s own confession—MY SISTER AND I.”
The publisher—it’s weird I remember this— was Continental Books, 110 Lafayette St in Manhattan; Special price to our readers ONLY $2.95, Order Before Stock Is Exhausted.”
Jim: Jesus, your mind is really in the gutter, isn’t it? Porn, porn, porn. Did you ask Jonathan Lethem about porn?
Brian: You mean the teenage Brooklyn boys-will-be-boys handjob scene in Fortress of Solitude? You might actually like that—it’s not so far off from the bisexuality of Last Exit.
Jim: Yes, well… I don’t know what you’re implying with that, but be that as it may, I’m guessing that particular magazine came out in 1951—though that publisher would imply that it’s a second or third pressing. The book, in a nutshell, is a notorious forgery—a fake Nietzsche memoir in which he details the incestuous relationship he had with his younger sister, Elisabeth. Although the book is credited with having a “translator,” no German manuscript has ever turned up. A few people still maintain that it’s the genuine article, but those tend to be people who know nothing at all about Nietzsche.
My guess is that in the years following the war, scholars were beginning to look past the Nazi business, reconsidering Nietzsche’s writings as something of value independent of the unfortunate Nazi connection. This upset some folks who didn’t want Nietzsche to be taken seriously, so My Sister and I was written and published in an effort to discredit him posthumously. How can you give serious consideration to the work of a man who admits he fucked his own sister, right? In a way it’s almost akin to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that way—but, y’know, dirtier. And funnier, for that matter.
Brian: Thanks for clearing that up. What’s a good introduction to the real Nietzsche then for beginners? There’s the issue of translation for non-German readers to deal with also.
Jim: For modern readers who’ve never given him a try before, I’d recommend Beyond Good and Evil, as translated by Ian Johnston—it’s available online for free if you’re so inclined. The work really presents the core of several aspects of his philosophy—the concept of the bermensch, the basics of master/slave morality, the Will to Power. Plus he tells some jokes. And the translation is great. Very lively, very close in spirit to the original. Avoid that Walter Kaufman—he’s a namby pamby snooze.
“Namby pamby snooze,” by the way, is tern Nietzsche used frequently.
Brian: Speaking of German romantics, I believe we’re both great admirers of Richard Wagner, with whom Nietzsche had a peculiar relationship with, to say the least. From Flying Dutchman through Parsifal, I love ‘em like my name is Charles Baudelaire or Charles Franck, although right now I wouldn’t mind a nice chuck steak instead of this slop. Anyway, Park Slope playground rumor has it you’re not so hot on Tannhauser or Lohengrin. Can this be true and how’d you get with Wagner anyway, was it through Nietzsche or were you exposed to classical as a kid?
Jim: Well, first of—
Brian: Before you answer, let me tell our readers that I can make as strong a case, or stronger, for Walt Whitman as a conscious, persistent racist than anybody will against Richard Wagner as an anti-Semite. Admirers of fuzzy-wuzzy Uncle Walt don’t want to hear such things but it’s true— they simply don’t know history. It’s real easy to talk about equality in 1855 Brooklyn—not that there were any black elected officials, mind you— but do it in 1865, or later, when blacks are free and enfranchised, and then come back to me. Uncle Walt did not.
I say this not to wholly defend Wagner nor likewise condemn Whitman but let’s face facts: Werner Klemperer, the son of the great Jewish conductor Otto Klemperer, played Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes. America can be a funny place, as Bob Crane would be the first to tell us were he still alive.
Jim: Are you done? Okay. Yeah, I’m no Wagner apologist—he was not a pleasant man. But I still love his music even if I don’t agree with some of his opinions. People are funny—and by “funny” I mean “morons.” They pick and choose carefully among those artists and thinkers whose unpopular opinions will utterly discredit the work they produced (Wagner, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Celine, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller), and those whose unpopular opinions they will go to great lengths to deny or ignore (Whitman, T.S. Eliot, Arthur Godfrey). Man, that was all phrased very clumsily—but I think you know what I’m trying to say.
Can’t say for sure when I first latched onto Wagner. It was early. There wasn’t really any classical music played in the house when I was growing up—mostly Sinatra and polka music. But back in the mid-70s all the kids in school were listening to, Christ, The Osmonds and the Jackson 5, which I found pretty unbearable.
Brian: Fuck the Jackson 5, still. Give me Bobby “Blue” Bland or Funkadelic.
Jim: Punk rock hadn’t yet reached Wisconsin, so listening to classical music seemed a very punk rock thing to do—it was a rejection of what the culture was trying to force down my throat. I quickly got hooked—and being a kid I was attracted to the louder, more bombastic works. I began with Tchaikovsky, and Wagner soon followed. Then in high school I was lucky enough to know a Wagner scholar who recommended some wonderful recordings. I also latched on to Nietzsche around the same time, so they fed into one another. Being of German heritage, maybe it was a given.
Not sure where you heard I wasn’t a fan of Tannhauser. I love Tannhauser.
Brian: As do I, Wolfram, as do I.
Jim: But Lohengrin, yeah, hoo-boy. That’s a snooze. Not to quote Nietzsche again. So far as I’m concerned, nothing can touch Meistersinger and Parsifal. The third act of Parsifal still tears me up.
Brian: What about Tristan und Isolde?
Jim: It’s a great, masterful piece of music that I’ve never really liked. It has its moments, certainly. When I was in grad school there was a big debate over exactly how many orgasms occur in Tristan. I think we finally agreed that there were seven.
Brian: Combining music, humor and history in way mostly Tristan doesn’t, I was listening to The Residents Third Reich Rock N Roll recently and wow. I know you’re a long-time Residents fan so a few thoughts: 1) At that point, their debt to early Frank Zappa is still HUGE, which isn’t a criticism, it just reminds you how brilliant Mothers of Invention-era Zappa was. 2) As with Frank, I might argue The Residents were better off—at least for a while—with less technology at their disposal than more, i.e. I don’t know that their concepts always triumphed over the cheesey synths. Like maybe there was too much concept, not enough band? Their 21st century records are mostly great, however.
Jim: Well, damn—are you asking for a complete and detailed history of The Residents’ musical development? I could do it you know—though it would take several hundred pages. And what does this have to do with porn, anyway? I don’t see the porn angle here. I guess I’ll use my imagination. Ah! I get it! Zappa’s “Porn Wars,” where he sampled bits from the PMRC hearings. Got Tipper Gore reading Mentors lyrics. Frank Zappa was another one of those people I wish I liked more than I do. I like the idea of Zappa—he was a brilliant, funny man—I just find it very difficult to listen to his music.
Brian: It’s wild he did the music for Worlds Greatest Sinner too.
Jim: There were a lot of interesting people connected with that film. Not just the Great Timothy Carey—
Brian: From Brooklyn.
Jim: Timothy Carey from Brooklyn and Zappa, with the late, occasionally great Ray Dennis Steckler behind the camera. I guess it all fits—all three of them were a little insane. Especially Timothy Carey, god bless him. Back to Zappa, though. Sure he was a big early influence on The Residents (Snakefinger even recorded a great cover of Zappa’s “King Kong”). Beefheart, whom I like much more than Zappa, was an even bigger influence. So was Harry Partch, and Harry Nillsson, and Nino Rota, and the Mysterious N. Senada, and Sly and the Family Stone, and The Monkees. People tend to overlook the Sly and the Family Stone influence.
Brian: Speak on this. I thought the Residents didn’t move to San Francisco until after Sly was on his tragic decline but maybe I’m off by a couple years. Certainly he could have blown their minds in Louisiana too.
Jim: You could’ve been in Taiwan or Ghana and Sly would’ve blown your mind. Regarding the spare electronic period you’re asking about, though, I’ve heard a number of people make similar comments. Myself, I see it as simply another phase in a 40 year career during which they’ve always been busy, and always doing something new. Not sure what you mean by “too much concept,” since “concept” was part of nearly everything they’ve done—even before they began recording.
The band itself was a concept, and the albums have built on that. Third Reich was a concept album, as was Not Available and Eskimo, Mark of the Mole and the other “noisy” albums you refer to, as well as everything that followed. The two big factors that led to the MIDI periods were the passing of longtime guitarist and collaborator Snakefinger and the fact that at the time MIDI was a brand new technology, and they were experimenting.
Say what you will about the sound, but there are a number of recordings from that period that are among my favorites—especially God in Three Persons, an hour-long tone poem about a mysterious cowboy who becomes fixated on a pair of androgynous Siamese twins with magical powers. Fantastic album. A lot of the albums from that period might also be considered just the seeds of much larger projects, like Freak Show, their Elvis album The King and Eye, and Wormwood, all of which led to things like CD-ROMs and live shows. It was with the live show for Wormwood in 1998 that they once again returned to the noisier rock band format, with guitars and live drums.
As you pointed out, their work since then has been pretty astonishing. Do I like some albums better than others? Of course—again we’re talking about four decades worth of material here—but even in the case of those works that aren’t my favorites, I try to place them within some historical perspective.
Take a look at what else was going on in the culture at the time, and its clear The Residents were always doing what they wanted, and it was always a hell of a lot more interesting than anything you’d be hearing on the radio at the time. That they’re still producing new material that’s as interesting as it is—last year’s album The Bunny Boy is among their finest—is unheard of in the music industry.
Brian: Another unlikely musical ‘survivor’ with Zappa connections is Tom Waits, who not only had the same manager as Frank but opened a tour for him in 1974: pretty wild contrast, as is the difference between Waits the balladeer and Tom the avant- blues dude. I know some people dislike Waits because he’s too theatrical or whatever but, you know, what the fuck is ‘natural’?
People think you got the hat from Bogart but I say it’s Tom Waits or maybe the character Earl in John Huston’s film version of Fat City, who was played by non-actor Curtis Cokes, a real-life former World Welterwight Champion. Isn’t that true?
Jim: So…is the question “was Cokes a real welterweight?” or “did I start wearing a hat because Tom Waits sometimes wears hats?” The answer to the first is yes, the second, hell no. Nothing against Mr. Waits or his choice of headwear, but I wasn’t hip enough to be listening to him when I was 16—I was still listening to Die Walkure and the Ramones. And you can’t blame my stupid hat on Johnny Ramone.
Brian: Fine, deny deny deny.
Jim: Just shut up, okay? Just shut the hell up!
ACT III—Hook ‘Em Norns!
Brian: One fact you can’t slip away from is your known affection for both Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. I love Dean both as a musician and actor and—if I wish he’d paid a bit more attention to making ALBUMS well… that wasn’t Dean. Frank famously resurrected his career by making albums his metier yet I can pick up a book—with a nothing but a goddamn HAT on the cover—by Pete Hammill called Why Sinatra Matters? and it says not one word, pro- or con, about Frank’s 1968 masterpiece, Watertown.
It reminds me how Hammill curiously omitted Gilbert Sorrentino from A Drinking Life, although that’s more understandable as jealousy or rivalry with his far superior Brooklyn writer.
Jim: Yeah, well, I’m not going to go badmouthing another writer in print, except maybe to suggest that Mr. Hammill ignored Watertown for exactly the same reason.
Brian: My friend Paul Kopasz, who wrote the Drugs essay in New York Calling, has recorded an excellent version of Cycles (the song, not the whole album). The shame of late ’60s and ’70s Sinatra isn’t that he did such things but that he didn’t do more.
Jim: Funny, just a few weeks back a youngster I know had just heard Cycles for the first time and asked me and a mutual friend if we could recommend any other similar Sinatra from the same era. There was more than you’d think. Sinatra from the late ’60s to the early ’70s is fantastic. After Watertown, there’s the likes of A Man Alone and September of My Years but those Rod McKuen songs always make me cringe a little.
I have a personal affection for For Only the Lonely album, because the cover features a painting of Sinatra as a sad clown. Plus I think that’s where the song “Angel Eyes” first pops up. I like the album he recorded with Jobim, too, but in terms of bleak hopelessness and existential dread, there’s no topping Watertown—which probably helps explain why hardcore Sinatra fans try to ignore it as much as possible. That and the fact that it was arranged by the guy from The Four Seasons.
Brian: Bob Gaudio, right. Jake Holmes— whose “Dazed and Confused” Zeppelin ripped off— wrote the lyrics. Supposedly Jake Holmes never sued Zeppelin; maybe he didn’t give a shit? Maybe he thought it was hopeless.
Jim: Actually, if you were looking for bleak hopelessness and existential dread, all you needed to do was catch Sinatra live during the last ten years of his life, hoo-boy. Saw him at Radio City in the early ’90s, and it was pretty terrifying.
Brian: Time for another question from the audience; Ariadne Aufnaxos of Stillwater, Minnesota—right across the river from Wisconsin, right on!— you’re on the air.
Ariadne: Jimbo! Not to make you feel uncomfortable or anything but I noticed only Slackjaw has been an audio book. I recently had an argument with a friend of mine about this and she said “What Knipfel needs is a Basil Rathbone-type to record his shit and I said no. Fuck the Basil Rathbone type; Jim should get Basil Rathbone! You have at least two sure sales if this happens.”
Jim: This is why I no longer do public events. Where the hell do you find these people?
Brian: They’re your people too, man.
Jim: That’s what bothers me. Tell you what, there, Rochester—you dig up Basil and I’ll make the rest happen, deal? He recorded Slackjaw, so I’m sure he’d be just as tickled to do the others. Especially Unplugging Philco.
Brian: If I may follow up on Ariadne: what are some of your favorite audiobooks? I think you noted in passing somewhere that some Stephen King is better than we’d expect—which reminds me that Black Mountain poet, publisher and photographer Jonathan Williams was an avid reader of certain popular detective novels and thrillers, including Stephen King. I know Jonathan was heavily into H.P. Lovecraft as a young man so maybe it’s not so crazy.
Jim: What’s with you and all the name dropping? It’s like getting drunk with fuckin’ Dick Cavett or something.
Brian: Or David Carradine.
Jim: Yeah, but David Carradine was funny and Weird. Right up to the very, very end. You ever see “Sonny Boy”? If not, you need to see “Sonny Boy.” And as it happens I have a hilarious recording of a drunken David Carradine reading On the Road—apparently for the first time. He keeps running into words he can’t pronounce, and losing his place. He apparently had some sort of “one take and one take only” clause in his contract. Lucky for us—it would’ve just been sad, otherwise.
But let’s see, good audiobooks? They’re pretty hard to come by, but I do love Mason & Dixon and Against the Day—without question my two favorites—and was pleased to learn Mr. Pynchon’s new novel’s coming out on audio, too. I also have the Great Stacy Keach reading Hemingway’s short stories. Turned me all around on the Hemingway question. I always found Hemingway a little stilted and silly, but the reading finally made him believable without being in the least actorly. That’s the key, I’ve found.
When I listen to an audiobook I’m not looking for a one-man radio play. I just want someone to read the damn book aloud without trying to get all fancy about it. A mistake a lot of these audio publisher’s make is going after actors—especially soap opera actors. Put these people in front of a microphone and they go into character. Keach was an exception. So, oddly enough, was Elliot Gould, who for obvious reasons has recorded a bunch of Chandler. He’s dead wrong for original Chandler, but he’s a good straight reader.
As far as the bad ones, though? Ouch. Well, speaking of actors, I was just listening to a recording of Milton’s Paradise Lost. For some reason, instead of just, y’know, reading the poem, the reader felt it necessary to liven things up by providing different voices for the different characters. Every demon has a different voice. It’s very odd and distracting.
Concerning Stephen King, yeah, like with Hemingway audio helped turn me around on him. He’s not nearly as bad as the smarty-pantses like to claim. Though he should refrain from reading his own work aloud. I tend to believe that most authors should. It’s just bad news—they’re worse than the damn soap actors. Except Burroughs. He’s the only one, in fact, who should be allowed to read Burroughs.
Brian: Are there any good audio versions of Sherlock Holmes?
Jim: I’m sure thee are, but I’ve never heard them. I have lord knows how many episodes of Basil and Nigel Bruce doing the radio series from the ’40s, and it’s pretty dreadful.
So what’s next on the docket? The 1973 World Series? Favorite fashion designers? I should probably keep my mouth shut. There’s precedent. I have an interview with Mailer here filmed around the time his Oswald book came out. For the full two hours, all he talked about was how much he hated car commercials.
Brian: Only our readers know— let’s take another call!
ACT IV—The Boy With The Norn
Brian: Nancy from East New York, you’re talking to Jim Knipfel, who’s looking a little noir-ish right this moment. What’s up?
Nancy: Hey fellas, great show. I live near the childhood home at New Lots and Logan of the great Brooklyn-born director, Allen Baron. Jim, I assume you’re a big Blast of Silence fan but I wonder if you’ve seen the episodes of Kolchak, The Night Stalker that Allen directed? Hard to believe he did all those episodes of The Love Boat and Charlie’s Angels too but we all have to eat.
Jim: Thank god you decided against the baseball question. I hate baseball. Allen Baron, though, him I like. I’m amazed at the number of people—serious film nuts—who are still unfamiliar with Blast of Silence. Then again I guess I only learned about it four or five years ago. I started talking to a neighbor who was a video bootlegger. He raved about it every time I talked to him. Blast of Silence this, Blast of Silence that. All he talked about. Finally he made me a copy and I was blown away. So to speak. One of the few cases where a great title actually holds up against the film. Nasty, brutal little movie without hope and without redemption. Never have I heard the word “hate” used so frequently in a voiceover—it’s a drinking game waiting to happen. So now I’m the one who’s raving about it to strangers.
Fortunately, Criterion put out that schmantzy edition, so you don’t need a bootlegger neighbor to see it. I was watching Kolchak back in ’73-’74, long before I was aware of Allen Baron, and long before I started caring about things like directors. So it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that I found out he’d directed a few. Was it you who told me? Someone called me at 2:30 in the morning, screaming incoherently into the answering machine about “Baron directing Kolchak!!” I wish people would stop doing that. I was glad for the news, but jesus.
Brian: When I was a kid I got Kojak and Kolchak confused, which if you consider Telly Savalas supernatural, isn’t all that crazy.
Jim: Well, he did play Satan in Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil. And a Cossack chasing an alien monkey demon around a train in Horror Express, so no, it’s not that big a leap at all. Plus there was that lollipop business.
Brian: An otherwise critically astute friend of mine considers Blast of Silence an epigone of ’40s and ’50s hardboiled crime movies but I disagree— it’s more like the nihilistic apotheosis of the period and better in that vein than something like Taxi Driver. I love both Johnny Cool—starring South Brooklyn native Henry Silva— and Point Blank but they don’t have that same ragged edge between character and streetscape like Blast.
Jim: I think you’re right. Of course both Johnny Cool and Point Blank had much bigger budgets, and looked it. Baron was working with no budget and mostly no-name actors, and he was shooting guerrilla style on the streets, stealing shots as he could. You’re gonna get something much more raw and immediate when you’re working like that. Also when you’re shooting around New York in 1960, you’re gonna get a different feel than you did in the ’40s or ’50s.
The city was pretty bleak at that point, and nihilism—there’s that word again—was a much more proactive philosophy than it is nowadays. Which of course brings us to Taxi Driver fifteen years later. I think it takes more than just a few cues from Blast of Silence—Scorsese recreates entire sequences shot-for-shot. The gun cleaning scene, for instance, is taken directly from Blast of Silence. I don’t think he’d deny that if you asked him, though I’ve never seen it mentioned anyplace. I think it also puts a bit of the lie to all the stories Paul Shrader tells about how the script came about.
Brian: Speaking of scripts, can I ask about your friendship with Hubert Selby Jr who, because the film was better, might now be better known for Requiem For A Dream than Last Exit To Brooklyn. I seem to recall Selby saying his own favorite of his works was his second novel, the extremely dark The Room. Also, I have to believe both Cubby and Gil read Henry Miller—especially Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring—but damned if I’ve seen it written about. Maybe it was too obvious, or maybe nobody asked.
Jim: It’s probably because nobody asked, given how sadly forgotten Miller has become. People who do remember him tend to think of him as nothing but a pornographer—someone for horny literate college students to discover for a few years before moving on to more “mature” things. Somebody needs to make a slick, fancy film version of Capricorn, maybe. That would help. That Rip Torn version of Cancer was great and true to the spirit of the book, but it’s hard to find these days. There are really only about, what, three Miller films out there? And two of them are based on Quiet Days in Clichy, which is funny, given that it was a blatantly pornographic work. But that’s beside the point.
I think his influence on Selby is obvious, but Selby took Capricorn and The Rosy Crucifixion and pushed them into some much darker, scarier corners. Speaking of which, though I’d been reading Selby since I was in high school, I didn’t meet him until I was in Philly, and he was doing the press rounds for the Last Exit film. We ended up talking for a few hours. After that, we stayed in touch until shortly before he died. Last time I talked to him he was in pretty bad shape. Not just with the oxygen tank, but he was having a lot of trouble remembering things, too. It was really sad. By the way, were you the one who wrote the angry letter to the New York Press because we never ran a Selby obit?
Brian: Not me. I was surprised someone at NPR was smart enough to call Gil about it but I’m glad they did.
Jim: That’s a surprise. I was also surprised to see the letter in the Press—especially given that I did write an obit that ran in the paper a few days after the news broke. I don’t know why that was never mentioned in the editor’s response. Nice obit, too. For all the stories I’d heard—and he’s told about his uncontrollable rage— he was always a sweetheart around me. Unbelievably kindhearted man.
But I guess I never drove with him—I’m told that’s when the demons really came out. But yeah, first time we spoke he told me The Room was his favorite. He said it’s not only the most terrifying thing he’d ever written—it was the most terrifying thing he’d ever read, too. To the end he said he had a hard time re-reading that one. I think I’d have to agree with that. That book had to come from somewhere, and I think it’s proof enough that there really was something pitch-black and disturbing hiding inside Cubby. If you haven’t, by the way, you should see Fear X, the creepy little indie film. Cubby wrote the screenplay, and I really like it. I’m afraid I’ve never read any Sorrentino, though I’m certainly familiar with him. I wish I could read him now but…well, you know.
Brian: What do you think of historical fiction? I know, for example, some people—Pynchon fans, mind you— who just threw up their arms at Mason & Dixon and Against the Day but I love them both; ATD even more so in the last six months than when it came out because I’ve done so much of my own research on the 1890s-1910s.
On the other hand, I’ve not heard of any worthwhile Brooklyn historical fiction, which is based on such shoddy ‘research,’ I can’t rate the stories, not that I’m inclined to that type of straight narrative anyway. I damn well know the difference history and fiction but hey— don’t use the received past just to make your cliches appear new.
Jim: Yeah, there are a bunch of authors who have done that—they write a cheap, sleazy serial killer novel, say, but set it in the Five Points section or the World’s Fair, and suddenly it becomes “serious literature.” At heart, though, it’s nothing but a sleazy serial killer yarn wearing a cheap wig. You can always tell by the characters and the dialogue—those are always the dead giveaways. Always far too contemporary for the period in question. Nobody seems to notice that, though, and the books win awards and sell lots of copies, and I guess that’s all that matters.
Mr. Pynchon of course is an exception for several reasons. First because he knows his history, and second because the historical period in question plays a vital role—it’s not just set decoration. Plus he’s not exactly writing gimmicky genre fiction; even if some characters or references are contemporary—there’s a Residents reference in Against the Day—that’s all part of a well-established style all his own.
Mason & Dixon and Against the Day are far and away my favorites, in part because I came to each with an interest in the historical periods in question, as well as the specific scientific and revolutionary issues that work into the plots. I have both on audio, and have listened to both several times, beginning to end. I don’t understand these people who throw up their hands because a book is “too long.” What the fuck’s that about? Why are they even reading in the first place? They’d probably do better sticking to reality shows and cooking magazines. I mean, both those novels are the most accessible things he’s ever written.
They’re far from impenetrable, but people don’t even try—they check the page count and begin whining like lost children. When books are that good and that important, it shouldn’t matter. Sillyasses, these people.
Brian: What about Warlock by Oakley Hall, which has a terrific Pynchon blurb on it? I know comparatively little about Western literature compared to film but Warlock I liked.
Jim: Is there an edition with a Pynchon blurb? I must have an older one; mine just has bits from a Philly Inquirer review. Well, no surprise—he’s written about Warlock in the past. I guess it was a book he latched onto in college. Personally I’m no fan at all of Westerns—your Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey. But Warlock is in a class all its own. It’s epic and strange, almost surreal. A very Pynchonian Western in its way. To draw parallels, comparing it to your typical dimestore Western is like comparing Once Upon a Time in the West to one of those Hoot Gibson cheapies from the ’40s.
Brian: Hoot! Hoot!
Jim: Even if you don’t care for Westerns, you can read this on its own merits. It pushes the usual conventions and cliches to such extremes that they become really funny and dark. It was also made into a pretty great film with Henry Fonda. I have a bunch of interconnected Warlock stories that are interesting to nobody but me, so I won’t bore you with them. Okay, here’s just one quick embarrassing one.
Several years back at the Press I wrote a little preview for a band called “Oakley Hall.” I knew nothing about the band, so I wrote a preview about how this band took their name from the author of Warlock, so they must be literate and cool. Well, I was partly right. Several week’s later I learned that the band Oakley Hall was in fact just one guy, and that he was indeed Oakley Hall’s grandson, who’d been named after his grandfather. Yes, well. That’ll teach me to do a little research first.
Brian: The last time we spoke there was speculation you might work on a couple non-fiction books, specifically biographical surveys of Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Henry Miller. I thought it interesting that William Vollman—whom I’ve otherwise not read—wrote the afterword for the most recent printing of Journey To The End of Night, so there’s still some effort being made to bring Celine to the kids.
Jim: Wait a second—William Vollman did a Celine afterword? News to me. And here I sit like a sucker. You wonder why I’m getting a little tense? You keep dropping crap like this on me. I mean, Vonnegut wrote an afterword for Celine’s Rigadoon back in the ’90s. That was cool and unexpected, and I was very happy to see it. I guess I just don’t…well, I should keep my damn yap shut. Maybe I need to write me one of those historical novels so I can win some awards and get taken all serious-like. I’ve written pieces on both Celine and Miller aimed at new readers. Those both appeared in Context magazine, and I think they might be available online. Context is put out by Dalkey Archive, the same folks who publish most of the Celine translations available now, so you’d THINK—
Brian: Dalkey has most of the pre-Coffee House Sorrentino in print, and most Harry Mathews too; Journey is still with New Directions tho’. They got that folkie vagabond Devendra Banhart to do a Kenneth Patchen intro I’ve not seen; weird but at least they’re trying.
Jim: …well, never mind. What was your question again? I wrote an intro for the centennial edition of Helen Keller’s autobiography a few years back. Did you know she was a Nazi Satanist? It’s true! Of course the fact that I pointed this out in the introduction may help explain why I’m no longer asked to do such things. There was some talk of a short Celine bio, but someone along the line decided I was unqualified because I didn’t speak French. That’s okay. There are plenty of decent Celine bios out there as it is. Not as funny as mine might’ve been, but still plenty. Not too many good Miller bios, though, gotta say.
Brian: Yah, the Miller bios are awful; whatever value they have is due to Henry, not any great personal or historical empathy on the part of the biographer. Are there any other artists you’d like to write about if the circumstances were right? I’d like to commission a Jim Knipfel introduction to the memoirs of Vidoqc, if only because we could be sure at least one of your books would get that mystery sticker on its spine in the library.
Jim: I wouldn’t worry too much about my books getting a “Mystery” sticker. Or any other kind of sticker, for that matter. The Buzzing was marketed as science fiction, which didn’t make anybody happy—least of all the science fiction nuts. A few people tried to treat Noogie as a mystery, and they hated it because the ending wasn’t very tidy. It didn’t matter that it was based on an actual case and that most real criminal investigations don’t have tidy endings.
The genre fans aren’t the most patient or tolerant lot. I think I’m pretty much doomed to having each one of my books shelved in a different section for some cockamamie reason: science fiction, mystery self-help, social studies, cookbooks, child care, wherever. I have no idea where Unplugging Philco is ending up. Maybe they’ll just look at the title and put it in the “home repair” section.
Brian: What about a film history book? Balcony Nights With Jim Knipfel, Gentleman Critic. Both you and your former co-worker Armond White should do ‘em. People portray Armond as nuts but whenever I swerve into something he’s already covered like the films of David Lean or Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep or whatever, he’s an incisive, often funny writer.
Jim: I like Armond a bunch. We always chatted when he stopped by the paper. Incredibly smart man. And a smart man who can piss people off that easily? That’s a doubly rare blessing. Didn’t always agree with his take on things, but so what? Keeps things interesting that way. I still have nothing but the highest respect for him. Haven’t talked to him in awhile, but I guess I haven’t talked to much of anyone in awhile. As for film books, well, there’s been some talk for awhile now about a series of small books, each devoted to a single film, but it’s all up the air at this point. A lot of very good writers—most of them non-film people—are interested. So we’ll see.
Brian: Not that you are or aspire to be a Svengali figure but from certain angles your resemblance to John Barrymore is quite eerie, tho’ if I had to choose, I’d go for a Marian Marsh nude scene eight times out of ten.
Jim: Excuse me? Yeah…umm…that’s what, your fifth free mimosa? It’s starting to show. Well, let’s see what I can do with this. While I should thank you for the compliment, I’m gonna ask you to take your hand off my knee first. And besides, I always thought I looked more like Lionel Barrymore. Hey—wanna hear my Lionel Barrymore impression? (Ahem), “Ladies an’ gennelmen of the jury… you can’t send that poor boy jail!”
Brian: I heard you’re next.
Jim: What, too loud?
Brian: No, no—but you gotta see Svengali, the 1931 version first: “All of Park Slope desired her, but Svengali owned her!” Meanwhile, I read on one of the popular Park Slope parenting blogs your next book is a collection of fairy tales? German Romanticism lives, although I know there are numerous other fairy tale traditions.
Jim: Oh, there are plenty of traditions: every nation in the world has one. But most of them stole freely from the Germans. As usual. But nobody topped them, though the Russians occasionally came close, fairy tale-wise. I’m not working from any specific tradition, myself— unless you want to think of them as Contemporary American Gothic. Or something. They aren’t satire, they aren’t parody—though I hope people find them funny, in a grim and hopeless sort of way. I think they’re funny, but I’ve made that mistake before. I’m holding onto the traditions and structures of the form, but the settings and language are mostly contemporary. Man, that sounds dry, doesn’t it?
Basically they’re just nasty, sick little stories that fall into the category of “fairy tales,” because they don’t much fit anyplace else. Plus there are poop jokes. About, oh, ten years back or so, a photographer asked me and a few other people to write some short stories to accompany the photographs in a book he had planned. In the end, the “accompanying story” idea was scrapped, so there I was with this orphan. I liked the story a bunch and had a good time writing it, but had no place to put it. No place that came to mind, anyway.
So instead of setting it aside or trying to shop it around—which would’ve been the easy and logical thing to do—I decided to write a whole bookful of stories in a similar vein. It’s called These Children That Come at You With Knives, and you can blame the bad grammar on Charles Manson. I like to think of it as something cruel, sociopathic parents would read to their children at bedtime.
Brian: Do you like Poe and/or Lovecraft? I have much greater appreciation of Edgar now than when I was younger, although I’m still feeling my way around but Lovecraft. I know he’s been very influential on all sortsa people I like a lot.
Jim: I’ve always liked Poe, and like him more as I get older. Amazing sense of mood and language. A remarkable stylist. A few years back I narrated a short animated film version of “Annabel Lee” made by George Higham. George was a sculptor and wanted to make a stop motion film, so he built these incredibly ornate sets and dolls, and spent a couple years animating them one frame at a time. Turned out very well, I think.
Just as an aside, have you ever noticed how many film versions of Poe stories insert Poe as a side character? It’s very odd and very common. I even have Kinski playing Poe in something—though as usual he was only onscreen for about five minutes. Didn’t even bother with a mustache. When I was in high school I was a real Lovecraft nut.
I guess that’s pretty common; there’s something very heavy metal about Lovecraft; very Iron Maiden. Hey! There you go: “H.P. Lovecraft; the Iron Maiden of American Letters.”
Brian: Dude, we’ll talk about your painted denim jacket with Eddie on the back later but did you correlate “The Horror At Red Hook” with Last Exit To Brooklyn once you read both?
Jim: Nope. Not until you brought it up now, anyway. I hadn’t even thought of “The Horror at Red Hook” since I was sixteen. See, after high school I decided he was silly and set him aside. But not too long ago—I’m not sure why, maybe because my bootlegging neighbor was getting interested in him for some reason—I went back and decided that he wasn’t so bad after all. His stories aren’t as psychologically rich as Poe’s, and his language is sometimes clunky in comparison, but still, there was something there.
People always make a big deal about Lovecraft’s mythology and all those other-dimensional monsters and evil rubbery gods and what-not, but I think he’s much more interesting and effective when his stories operate on a more human level. I like the Herbert West stories a lot, and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” It’s still been about 30 years now since Ive read the Red Hook story, but I’d like to one of these days.
Brian: Park Slope benign: we both know it exists and, without giving away the spots that give you succor, what are some of your favorite neighborhood businesses? I know there’s one sandwich shop in particular we both dig.
Jim: Do you mean M&S, formerly A&S, the butcher shop on Fifth and Third? It’s one of the few places—no, make that the ONLY place I don’t mind revealing. I want to see them continue to do well. They’ve been around forever, were forced out of their last location by typical asshole landlord shenanigans, and opened up in the new location a few months ago.
With the Record and Tape Center down near 9th closing, this is pretty much the last local independent shop that’s been around longer than three years. The guys who run it are great, and they never make fun of me, no matter how drunk I am. If you’re looking for meat, or sandwiches with lots of meat, or any other meat-related products, it’s the last real butcher shop left in the neighborhood. Plus, while I’m no fan of artichokes, I gotta say they make great marinated artichokes. Not gonna tell you about anyplace else, though. It’d just screw them up. At least from my perspective.
Brian: Before this interview commits ritual Polkacide, can we talk about accordions? I forget which bit it’s from but Lenny Bruce has a deadpan aside claiming jazz drummer and bandleader Ben Pollack was Lawrence Welk’s father—people don’t often make Polish jokes in Brooklyn any more, at least not in the Borscht Belt reject community papers I see people using to pick up dog shit with. Little do any of ‘em know there are substantial Polish colonies throughout western and southern Brooklyn, not just Greenpoint.
The recent explosion of Mexican immigrants has happily brought us another polka-mad population. The only problem is that, because you’re infrequently translated into Spanish, a lot of these folks might not know Jim Knipfel— the Pee Wee King of Park Slope Literature— has played the accordion some himself.
Jim: So…the question is about Lawrence Welk? Or polack jokes? Both are relevant: I’m related to Lawrence Welk myself, and when I was growing up, all you heard in Green Bay were Polish jokes. There were no Mexicans or blacks or Jews or Asians in town to target, but there were plenty of Poles. Being German, well, I got off scot-free.
As for Lenny Bruce, you seem to have a real knack for bringing up people I WANT to like, but haven’t yet managed to. As with the others I have the greatest respect for Lenny Bruce and what he accomplished. I just haven’t managed to, y’know, really LIKE him yet—though the fact that he made Polack jokes helps.
Brian: Do you know “The Palladium”? That’s a bit that totally transcends its time but Lenny definitely has a lot of cultural baggage attached and if it’s not YOUR baggage… Carrying it isn’t the most obvious pleasure. “Father Flotsky’s Triumph” is another one you’d like: “Here’s my mezuzzah, Juan.”
Jim: I…um…where’s that waitress?
Brian: Gotcha. Now what about favorite accordion albums?
Jim: Yes, well. You were right earlier, by the way—I’ve owned three accordions in my lifetime, and made a few serious attempts to learn how to play, but…well, the accordion’s a tough instrument. Damned tough instrument to play, let alone play with any modicum of skill. Plus it’s heavy. In other words, I admire good accordionists a good deal. As for albums, well, let’s see. I need to break it down into sub-categories within the accordion, um, playing spectrum. As far as traditional polka bands go, I like Whoopee John and his Orchestra and Jimmy Sturr. And of course the Schmenge Brothers.
Then there’s Myron Floren giving the accordion treatment to classic American standards, but I’m prejudiced there because he played with Lawrence Welk, which means he’s kind of like family. Among Mexican accordionists, there’s no topping Flaco Jimenez.
If you’re talking about contemporary avant-garde accordionists, the only name that matter is Guy Klucevsek. In fact he may be the only name in contention in that particular sub-genre. I don’t know if he still lives in Brooklyn, but he lived here for a good many years. He used to play Philly a lot and I never missed a show. Amazing performer.
As for just plain weirdies who happen to be shockingly talented, accordion-wise, there’s Mika Vakyrynen. You know about him already. Played Bach’s Goldberg Variations and lord knows what else on the accordion, and did so beautifully. You can’t believe what you’re hearing. Remember that brief period in the late ’80s when there was a flurry of punk rock polka bands? Maybe that was just a Midwestern thing. When it faded after a week or so, Polkacide—which you’ve already referenced—was the only band anyone remembers. And rightly so.
Finally there’s Guido Deiro, the ONLY accordionist among all the accordion recordings I have here who actually plays “Lady of Spain.”
Brian: That’s why Mae West married him.
Jim: Can’t I go now? I have to go to the bathroom.
Brian: Yeah, so take a piss already! I’ll pull up another call while you’re gone.
Jim: Who said anything about pissing?
Brian: [A few minutes later Jim returns.] Are you ready? Lorraine Otsego of Red Hook, you’re talking to the newly relaxed Jim Knipfel.
Lorraine: Jim, long-time listener, first-time caller. A few things: First, you know Guido Deiro was married to Mae West, right?
Jim: Of course.
Lorraine: Cool. Now listen, there’s a screenplay I’ve been working on and there’s a part you’d be perfect for: I assume you’d do a nude scene if the role called for it, right? Second, I know how lousy things are in show business these days but if we can’t get a Jim Knipfel feature made, is there hope we could at least see a novelization of the screenplay for one of your works? I’ll hang up now and listen.
Jim: Don’t you have a fucking assistant or something screening these things? Jesus. Okay Missy—
Jim: Listen Lorraine, here’s the deal. Here’s what you do. Show the screenplay to your mom, okay? I’m sure she’ll love it and tell you how talented you are. Be happy with that, because if I find that thing in my mailbox, or if it comes within 500 yards of me in any form, I will set it on fire, piss the fire out, smear the resulting ash-paste across a piece of moldy bread, cram it into a box with a dead crow and send it back to you postage due, okay? I might consider that novelization gig, though.
Brian: Speaking of dead crows, have you been out to Coney this year?
Jim: Why, is it on fire again? Don’t see much of any other reason to go down there anymore.
Brian: I know. The amusement area is such a fucking fiasco, I’ve nearly given up; why couldn’t Rudy drop Anvil on Thor Equities? It’s not all Joe Sitt’s fault, of course: the rot had set in decades before and trying to clean things up only made it worse. Do you remember the flea market stalls on Surf Avenue? At least Darren Aronofsky got ‘em into Requiem For A Dream.
Jim: Of course I remember the flea markets; they were fantastic. Given enough time, you could find most anything you were looking for, and cheap. Now what’s taken they’re place? A bunch of empty, abandoned flea markets, Yeah, that’ll make the neighborhood much nicer.
Brian: People don’t understand or want to admit that PRURIENCE is Brooklyn’s heritage, always was, and that it’s a fraud to pretend otherwise. I loved the old Times Square peep shows but compared to the old Coney Island it was pretty contained.
Jim: Sodom by the Sea, right. My only hope—and I still cling to the same hope for Times Square—is that if the economy goes into a complete meltdown, or, in the case of Coney at least, people just stop going to these slick, imaginary facades, things will start to fall into place again. Or fall out of place.
You know as well as I do that Coney—like Park Slope, like Times Square—has gone through a series of different periods and personalities. When I first moved to Park Slope, there were still dealers and hookers working Sixth Ave., and Fifth Ave. became dangerous after 10 every night. I want to consider this latest nonsense at Coney just another historical phase. One of the bad ones, but one that will go away eventually. Unfortunately it may take 30 years, and we’ll all probably be dead by then.
Brian: Ich schreite kaum, doch wähn’ ich mich schon weit.
Jim: Du siehst, mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit.
Kenny Wisdom adds: Un-fucking-believable. From Act I of Parsifal, roughly translated—
Parisfal: I scarcely move, yet I imagine myself already far.
Gurnemanz: You see, my son, here time becomes space.