MICK FARREN: The 1997 Your Flesh Profile
Mar 6, 2009, 19:32
If rock 'n' roll and literature are usually considered mutually exclusive arenas, nobody bothered to tell Mick Farren. For the past thirty years his creative muse has swerved between the two on an increasingly contorted trajectory.
“It's always been sort of the dilemma of my life,” Farren told me in a recent interview at his apartment in a modest, residential section of Hollywood. “People don't exactly come up to me and say â€˜You can't do this,' but there's always this attitude of â€˜What do you really wanna do when you grow up?' or â€˜You can't really play music and write about music and write fiction.' Oh no? Just fuckin' watch me! It just means you have to work hard.”
Farren has been working particularly hard over the last few years, releasing two CDs with the LA-based Alive label (The Deathray Tapes and Eating Jello With A Heated Fork ), providing lyrics for Wayne Kramer's Epitaph albums, writing articles for publications as various as the LA Reader, Mojo and Ugly Things, working on movie and TV scripts, teaching a science fiction class at UCLA, and somehow finding time to complete his newest novel The Time Of Feasting , a deliciously macabre tale about a colony of vampires in modern-day New York City.
For Farren, music and literature are actually parallel rails on the same track. Point of embarkation: Ladbroke Grove, London, 1967.
Spawned by the social ferment of that decade, Farren's voice was first heard as an atonal howl over the raucous din of the Deviants. A methedrine and reefer-fueled mix of caustic satire and primitive psychedelia, the Deviants (originally the Social Deviants) were an Anglo art school equivalent of the Fugs and early Mothers of Invention. The band lasted for about three years and three albums before burn out.
Farren's literary aspirations however were somewhat lost in the clamor of the era.
“The odd thing was that in the fabulous '60s, paraphrasing Woody Guthrie, there weren't too many hiring blacks for writers,” explains Farren. “You could write polemics in the underground papers but that was about it. The last book was really Richard Farina's (Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, 1966). Ed Sanders really didn't get something on a major publisher until he did the Manson Family. There was very little fiction. We just lived with Stranger In A Strange Land and Dune. That was one of the sad things.”
He pauses to light another cigarette and runs a hand through his characteristic black curls.
“I was as much at fault as anybody. Instead of wanting to be Allen Ginsberg, you immediately thought it's a much better idea to be Dylan. So we all went out and bought guitars and stuff. So it all changed, and, in fact, the imaginative written word—prose, poetry, novels—apart from the science fiction writers like Harlan (Ellison) plugging away and a bit of Ballard—small presses faltered.”
While still in the Deviants, Farren had been involved in various capacities with the underground newspaper IT (International Times), writing occasional pieces and helping out with its organization. Upon splitting with the Deviants he took over as editor, which at the time was beleaguered with legal and financial problems.
“IT was in a complete shambles cos they'd been busted for the first time,” explains Farren. “They were making quite a lot of money from the lonely hearts contact ads, and, politically, IT was probably the first magazine in England to run gay ones. Then of course the cops schlepped up this fifteen year-old hooker who was advertising and they got busted over some obscure pandering law. So the guys who'd been running it while I was in the band were really fucked up and things were not going well.”
Between the loss of the lucrative cash-up-front personal ads and legal expenses, IT was financially strapped, so Farren and his artist colleague Edward Barker decided to put out a comic book anthology in order to raise some fast money. Unfortunately this idea backfired rather badly, and Farren and Barker found themselves on trial at the Old Bailey for obscenity. Nasty Tales compiled work by some obscure British underground comic book artists alongside better known Americans including Shelton, Rick Griffin and Robert Crumb.
“It was a Robert Crumb cartoon that they homed in on,” says Farren. “â€˜The Great International Fucking And Orgy Riot,' which was a huge pile of naked bodies. At the trial we schlepped up everyone from Germaine Greer to Professor Crick, who discovered DNA—he was a noted humanist and always good for a good word in an obscenity trial.”
After a two week trial (“Which is long for England; they don't mess around there...”) the two were acquitted on all counts. The trial only netted minimal publicity for Farren and IT, overshadowed as it was by the previous year's Oz magazine obscenity case.
In the aftermath of the trial, however, Farren and Barker scored a book deal through a publisher they'd met, described by Farren as “sort of the house hippie at Hutchinson's.” Watch Out Kids (Open Gate Books, 1972) was the result, a handbook of youth rebellion tracing the rise of youth culture from Elvis and James Dean through to the MC5, the White Panthers and the Angry Brigade.
Described by Farren as “basically a yippie tract,” Watch Out Kids was packaged much like a children's annual, the text enlivened by some hip graphics. Much of the book consisted of Farren's writings from IT, and amongst the socio-political diatribes, were stories of his early rock 'n' roll and drug experiences, his participation in anti-Vietnam demonstrations, and the early rock festivals, including the famous Isle of Wight Festival of 1970 which Mick and his newly-formed British chapter of the White Panthers had quite successfully disrupted in protest of what they considered exploitive ticket and concession stand prices.
Farren had staged his own festival, Phun City, earlier the same year with the MC5, amongst others, making a memorable appearance. His first work of fiction, The Texts Of Festival (Hart Davis, McGibbon, 1973) came directly out of that experience.
“There was about a dozen acres of woodland at one end of the site, so the hippies went in there and went about setting up, kind of, Narnia. They decided they were gonna live there for the rest of time, and I thought, great, I'm going back to London, cos I could see plague breaking out if they actually managed to establish a colony there.”
Following in the post-apocalyptic tradition of works like Panic In Year Zero and Only Lovers Left Alive, and weaving in Farren's own underground rock 'n' roll mythology, Texts tells of a hippie-type city colony under siege by an army of speed-snorting Hell's Angels horsemen and their crazed leader, Iggy. The population bases its religious traditions on the few surviving black vinyl texts of the ancient prophets: Dhillon, Djeggar and Morrizen. Amongst the futuristic war games, the story is littered with snatches of Stones and Doors lyrics, with the Deviants' own “Let's Loot The Supermarket” even making a welcome appearance.
“A little gauche” admits Farren, but it's all good fun, and is well worth picking up.
Farren found writing his first full-length fiction work relatively easy, having already honed his skills with some freelance magazine pieces.
“In between leaving the underground press—or the underground press basically leaving—there was a hiatal period when I wrote an awful lot of gray matter for the pages in between the tits and ass in magazines with names like Galaxy,” he explains. “Every now and then you'd get off some political rant, but I actually was trying to get my chops together writing fiction. So there was three-thousand words of quasi-science fiction, except there had to be sex in it and words like â€˜moist' and â€˜throbbing' had to appear quite regularly.”
His next book was The Tale Of Willy's Rats (Mayflower, 1975), the story of a fictional rock 'n' roll band. “It came in a very unpleasant cover with a woman who looked like Marsha Hunt [black singer/actress who had Jagger's illegitimate child, circa 1969] on it,” says Farren. “It got passed by rather quickly and it's incredibly rare now.” Having not read it, I can't pass judgment, but Farren seems to recall that “It had a certain charm,” and, naturally, it gave him the chance to draw upon some of his experiences with the Deviants.
The book was the first of several Farren did for Mayflower, a deal he got through Michael Dempsey, who was also representing Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard at the time. Mayflower was a division of the Granada Entertainment complex who produced The Complete Classic Avengers Series TV series, and consequently moved a lot of Avengers books also.
His first major work for Mayflower was the DNA Cowboys trilogy—The Quest Of The DNA Cowboys (1976), Synaptic Manhunt (1976), The Neural Atrocity (1977)—which really helped establish Farren's rep as a true original among the sci-fi authors of the day. It also marked the first appearance of several themes he would return to in his writing over the years, notably the concept of reality, methods of escape from it, and ways of creating new, artificial realities.
“The DNA Cowboys lived in a time when all things were possible and reality actually had to be manufactured,” says Farren, explaining the concept of the series. “You could get what you wanted from Stuff Central by dialing it, and anybody could fulfill their fantasies. There were these various environments and in between these environments was this stuff called The Nothings, which was misty, kind of shimmering flickering stuff, which was a good analog for clinical depression.”
The expected '60s rock 'n' roll reference points can also be found. “There was the Minstrel Boy,” says Farren, “who took this drug which you dropped in your eye called Omnidrene. He knew where the various environments were located, and he was a really badly written Bob Dylan analog.”
“It was very drug-inspired,” admits Farren. “It was trying to do a cartoon Burroughs, I suppose, only more linear and approachable.”
A decade later he brought back the Minstrel Boy and company for 1989's Last Stand of the DNA Cowboys.
Meanwhile, back in 1975-76, Farren had become involved with rock journalism again. At the New Musical Express, editor Nick Logan was assembling a team of hip, talented writers, many of whom were refugees from the last days of the underground press, including Charles Shaar Murray (who as a teen had participated in Oz magazine's notorious “schoolkids” issue, which had precipitated their previously mentioned obscenity trial) and Nick Kent (who had written for IT's rival, Friendz).
Farren initially came on board on one condition: he didn't have to write about rock music. “I'd done it. I was sick of it,” he explains. “And the stock in trade then of what they called â€˜the comics'—Sounds, Melody Maker and NME—was unfortunately Yes, ELP and the Electric Light Orchestra.”
Luckily, change was in the air—or at least in the pubs, where a new movement was about to break out. “To our good fortune, as a magazine and as writers, all of a sudden there's this band called Dr. Feelgood over there, and then Stiff started up and then all hell broke loose and there was plenty to write about.”
“The moment it really all came together,” remembers Farren, “was when Kent got beat up at the 100 Club. Sid [Vicious] saw him and whacked him with that chain he wore around his neck.”
As an English teenager at the time, I read the NME religiously, poring over the unfolding saga of the new punk scene every Thursday lunch time at school. The best stories always seemed to involve a great deal of interaction between these strange, exciting new bands and the writers covering them, and the now legendary Kent-Vicious incident epitomized this.
“There was a lot of interaction,” agrees Farren. “You see, the well-concealed secret, which pissed off all the labels and publicists who weren't signing was that...” Here he bends forward in a conspiratorial whisper, “There was only a hundred people. Just like the hippies starting up: â€˜There's only a hundred of us. Move around quick and maybe nobody will be able to tell.' It was all happening at this old gay bar, the Roxy, and initially there were hardly enough people to fill it.”
Within a matter of months, punk rock had moved from a small clique of in-crowd musicians and writers into an entire national movement, and the NME had been in on the ground floor.
“It was fun at the time because there was so much shit happening,” remembers Mick. “It was kind of nice at the NME, because although it was owned by IBC, in the office there was a good vibe about it—until [Tony] Parsons and [Julie] Burchill showed up and soured everything.” [Parsons and Burchill were regarded as the Young Twin Terrors; they were punk rock writers of the day known for their venomous stance, most notably for a book they co-authored about the Sex Pistols: The Boy Looked At Johnny.]
With his newly renewed rock crit cachet, Farren was able to get some cushy book deals, dashing off text for quickies like Elvis In His Own Words (the first of many Presley-related works bearing his name) and Rock 'N' Roll Circus, a collection of rock tour photos. Through record label junkets, he was also able to travel, making several visits Stateside, most particularly to New York City.
“Some label would give you a ticket to go to a Mahogany Rush gig at the Academy of Music cos they were coming to England in about a month, and you'd sit through that godawful thing and then rush over to CBGB's to see Richard Hell or Patti or something.”
Hearing reverberations of the Deviants' old anarcho punk thump in much of what was happening, Farren also got back into making music again, releasing notable punk rock 7-inchers on Stiff and Ork in '77 and a full-length album, Vampires Stole My Lunch Money, on Logo the following year, by which time he'd more or less hung up his rock journalist hat again.
Meanwhile Farren had not neglected his fiction writing. The Feelies was published in 1978, and returned once more to the prickly problems of reality—real and artificial.
“Glenn Branca says that The Feelies and some book by Orson Scott-Card are the actual origins of cyber-punk, which to some degree it was,” says Farren, “except there wasn't really very much about computers because they hadn't really dawned on our horizon, but in every other respect it was a sort of nihilist punk blank generation novel.”
The book's premise involved machines which, for a price, could give the user a full virtual reality experience. Unfortunately, only the very rich could afford to partake, many rejecting their own reality for the alternative provided by the feelies.
“The only secret,” explains the author, “was they fed them on intravenous Slimfast and they died after about four months. But the Corporation running it had an underlying philosophy that was some kind of eugenic Nazi idea that those who were capable of handling reality would, and those who couldn't, wouldn't; they would retreat into fantasy and die very swiftly. So they kept the dying factor kind of quiet.”
The Feelies was republished in America in 1990 in a considerably revised form which updated some details which Farren felt had already become anachronistic (“The Jules Verne Syndrome,” he calls it).
Cyber-punk precursor or not, The Feelies didn't fare particularly well at the time, and with Mayflower/Granada dumping their entire publishing division, these were lean times for many science fiction writers.
“After The Feelies, I very much felt like a lone voice crying in the wilderness,” remembers Farren. “I had a living to earn and so I went to New English Library cos I knew a guy there who liked me. And basically he said, â€˜Come back into the science fiction fold and you will be rewarded with large amounts of money.'”
With this in mind his next work was a swashbuckling, futuristic, affair, The Song Of Phaid The Gambler (New English Library, 1981). “In many respects Phaid The Gambler is basically The DNA Cowboys dumbed down a bit, and sort of Star Wars-ized,” he says by way by explanation. That aside, it's an enjoyable read, full of dark wit and with an interesting cast of characters and creatures.
By the time Phaid was completed, Farren had married and relocated to New York City, where his fiction output increased during the mid and late '80s with a series of books for Ace and Del Ray.
Of this period, Farren says, “Protectorate and Vickers and Their Master's War particularly—which, sadly, is the best selling novel of the whole lot so far—were really almost a commercial retrenchment. Then cyberpunk came along and The Long Orbit (UK title: Exit Funtopia) shows the most effects of that, though I'm always a bit squeamish about sticking bits of metal into my characters—and certainly not me—the whole implant idea.”
Though he's credited with being something of a harbinger of the genre, these days Farren is quick to dismiss the whole “cyberpunk” concept, as advanced by William Gibson in his 1984 book Neuromancer.
“That's all bullshit. The whole Gibson concept isn't a bit like he told us it was gonna be. It's the Nine Inch Nails website or the Ortaku in Japan. They're these guys who live in apartments the size of refrigerators and live on Slimfast—total mortification of the flesh. Incredibly specialized lunacy about Shonen Knife; they know every girl's shoe size; real trainspotters; crazy shit. They're the closest thing to Gibson's imagining. One of them went out a few years ago and slaughtered three or four sub-teenage girls, which sort of put them on the map. Otherwise they're very quiet. They're a bit like The Feelies. I mean, they really are withdrawing from reality.”
While in New York his other projects included The Last Words Of Dutch Schultz, a collaboration with old White Panther brother-in-arms Wayne Kramer which was performed as an off-Broadway musical for over a year, and his “anti-folk” band Tijuana Bible with Henry Beck and John Collins. Tijuana Bible later released an album, Gringo Madness, on Big Beat.
His science fiction output continued with The Armageddon Crazy. “That was real good fun because it was really about the fundamentalists taking over. It was a very Reagan-era book. From when you had James Watt saying, â€˜Don't bother about the trees because Jesus is coming back in about twenty minutes.'”
The Last Stand Of The DNA Cowboys and the revised edition of The Feelies in 1989 were followed in 1990 by Mars—The Red Planet, a bit of a sore subject for Farren, it turns out.
“I'd just driven across the desert, going to Las Vegas, the scenic route up through 29 Palms and across where the Marines play war games, and I thought, I wanna write a book about Mars.”
Unfortunately, Farren decided to populate his red planet with a Soviet space colony.
“I thought, this will all be jolly good fun, and then I think actually before the book came out, the Wall came down and... Whoops! I thought the Soviet Union would take forty years to fall apart, not like five months!”
By this time he had relocated to Los Angeles and was nearing the end of a particularly prolific run with no less than five books being published in 1989 and 1990.
“The Del Ray situation got really peculiar, because I was writing books faster than they could publish them, and what I wanted to do was get ahead and then relax and do something that was gonna be Necrom and was gonna be much longer. Then they started pumping these books out like every three months. They were selling reasonably well but the titles were overlapping and people were missing them. The gross sales for the year were great, but they were divided between three or four titles. They were just shipping books like they were going out of fashion. The second half of Necrom never got written, and it was a great disappointment, really.”
Scaled down or not, Necrom, which was published in 1991, is anything but disappointing. A work of almost dizzying complexity, it's an interdimensional suspense thriller which had grown out of a film script Mick had been working on. The movie never got made, but many of the ideas were channeled into what is one of his most impressive novels.
Joe Gibson, the book's protagonist, is a burned-out rock star, a sort of Keith Richards figure who'd made his mark in a band called the Holy Ghosts. Suddenly, after a visit from a mysterious emissary, he finds himself at the center of a massive metaphysical intrigue. Gibson is kidnapped, rescued and pursued through a series of parallel universes, each representing one of the infinite possibilities of reality. “I just like to play in environments and then I get bored with them and move on,” explains Farren.
At one point Gibson is the patsy for an otherworld Lee Harvey Oswald, but that's only part of the story. He finds he is key to the plans of any number of sinister dimensional travelers, none of whom can be trusted. The paranoia runs deep, especially when you add in the imminent awakening of Necrom—a colossal Lovecraftian monster who'll wreak apocalyptic havoc across all the dimensions. The hapless Gibson—whose droll wit and pithy asides are very reminiscent of his creator—is at the epicenter of something way beyond his mortal rock star imaginings.
Eventually returned to what he first believes is his own New York City reality, Joe notices at first some fractional differences—the one-way traffic in the city is moving in the opposite direction for a start—then discovers his own history seems to have been completely erased. Worst of all, the Holy Ghosts never existed, and a band called the Rolling Stones seems to have occupied their niche. Not surprisingly, he freaks. Carted off to a mental institution, he finds his story is none too believable to the doctors examining him. It's all a question of reality again: What reality? Whose reality? Read the book.
“The focus was really to try and create this masterpiece,” says Mick, “a Naked Lunch, so to speak—MY Naked Lunch. But there was the rapid discovery that, without actually risking death by various kinds of narcosis and overdose, writing Naked Lunch is a very hard trick to turn.”
“But does any artist ever write their Naked Lunch?” I ask him. “After all, Burroughs probably doesn't even consider Naked Lunch to be HIS Naked Lunch.”
“Well, that's the problem,” shrugs Farren, “You only find that out after you're dead. So, fuck it, I'll write a vampire novel in the meantime.”
The writer salvaged some of the ideas from the unwritten second half of Necrom for The Time Of Feasting, mixing science and the supernatural to explain the ancient origins of vampire civilization, relating it to both space aliens and mankind's own forgotten beginnings.
The world of the nosferatu—they prefer that term to “vampire,” apparently—was a new direction for the writer, who'd quickly bored of cyber concepts and was beginning to think about his own mortality.
“I was never terribly interested in computers per se,” he admits, “and I just didn't find cyberspace very exciting. Also, I'm fifty-two now, and the thought of death occurs sometimes—now and again. So that's why I decided to sit down and write a vampire novel. Because I'd always wanted to, plus the idea of having a lot of black clothes and not having to die was very appealing. Actually it's the most fun I've had in quite a while writing a book. I really enjoyed it.”
Farren's Wampyri have adapted well to modern day living: they feed on blood purloined from hospitals; carouse with politicians, celebrities, businessmen and crime bosses; and trade on the stock market to keep their colony prosperous. In New York City, their eccentricities and nocturnal habits aren't seen as unusual, and they move through the elite strata of society with little fear of detection.
But the time of feasting is drawing near, when once again they must hunt and drink the blood of living prey. Before long, New York is faced with a rash of bizarre serial killings, and only an alcoholic ex-priest suspects the truth behind the carnage. The colony's survival is at stake (ahem, forgive the pun) as Renquist, the centuries-old Master, finds his authority challenged by the young upstart, Carfax, and outside forces close in.
It's hardboiled crime, gothic horror, social satire and science fiction. Part Dracula, part The Godfather, part The Exorcist. With its colorful cast of characters, generous portions of sex and bloodshed, and tightly-paced storyline—only during the nosferatu anthropology lessons is the suspense allowed to slacken—The Time Of Feasting practically begs for a movie adaptation. Could it happen? I don't think Mick's holding his breath.
Though Feasting has been Farren's first fictional work in six years, that time has seen a resurgence in his recorded output. The most recent release is Eating Jello With A Heated Fork, a potent amalgam of spoken word musical pieces and avant-punk rock rants; equal measures Burroughs and Beefheart, and very much infused with the reckless spirit of the Deviants of old. Billed as Deviants IXVI, Farren's band includes Jack Lancaster (on sax and “cybersax”), Andy Colquhoun and Wayne Kramer (guitars), Paul Ill (bass) and Brent Avery (drums).
For Farren, the lines between literature and rock 'n' roll continue to intersect and distort.
“Essentially, literature—writing—is really a code for speech,” he says, explaining his current approach, “so in some respects it's an interpretation of sound in a graphic form. Logically prose or poetry ought to be read, and if you're gonna read it you might as well have an audience. I like audiences. I like being applauded. I like all that instant feedback—to see if shit's working, if nothing else. So, since there is a good tradition of doing readings, and since I have all this rock 'n' roll experience, why not stick music behind it?”
Farren's vocal presentation has also evolved along with the material.
“For a very long time I attempted to actually tonally phrase, i.e. sing, the shit, but I really don't sing very well,” he confesses, laughing. “I mean, I've gotten better over the years, but the standard of good singing has slightly diminished—much to my pleasure. I remember when Roger Daltrey was the worst singer in the neighborhood, but when it got down to Johnny Moped, it really didn't matter any more, so what the fuck. Spoken word crops up all through my history, but when Tijuana Bible started I actually did drop down to full spoken word performance and I felt a lot more comfortable with the things I could do with my voice without even attempting to pitch the note. Pitch is not my great forte, so being able to abandon it was really a great release and that freed me up to do all kinds of things with phrasing, 'cos I'm really into phrasing. It's all method acting really. Then any demarcation between music and writing started to really blur out, and that's where we are now.”
Rock 'n' roll, Farren admits, is a lot easier than literature. “The nice thing about rock 'n' roll is that you can pillage much more effectively, because you only have to have a little sketch.”
His short musical/prose sketches usually work remarkably well, and, unlike most spoken word-based stuff, stand up to repeated listenings. For persuasive evidence, check out particularly “Three Headed Lobster Boy” and “Arts Of Darkness” on Eating Jello, and the epic barstool tale “Dog Poet” on the recent Japanese anthology Fragments Of Broken Probes.
So what of the quest for his Naked Lunch—his ultimate artistic statement?
“No, forget it. It can't be,” he shrugs, putting down the joint momentarily and reaching for his asthma inhaler. “But it's good to have at least some kind of mythic goal; some windmill to pursue. It's just selecting the weapons to take it out.”
Luckily, with thirty years of writing and performing behind him, Farren has an extensive armory to choose from.
This article originally appeared in Your Flesh #37