Original article (Spanish version) published on Revista Madhouse on April 27 2017
Before deciding to leave behind his career as a rock musician, Gary Lachman held a privileged place as a witness to the New York rock scene that began to take shape in the mid-1970s when, as Blondie’s bass player (under the stage name of Gary Valentine) they recorded their first album, an epic record that was part of a genre that still lacked a proper name (New Wave, Rock of New York) and that reminisced of the pop sound of the previous two decades.
As a member of one of the essential bands that followed the same path, Lachman didn’t hesitate when contributing song titles such as “X Offender” or “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear”, which would later become part of some of Blondie’s most classic hits. Not satisfied with the band’s internal affairs, Lachman left Debbie Harry and Co. 2 years later. After trying several projects projects, he also left his country of origin and moved to England to finally achieve his original dream, that of becoming a writer specialized in the occult and esoterism, an interest that had already caught him in his rock’n’roll days, which took him to write over 20 books. MADHOUSE spoke with Lachman about all of that – from the golden years of the early stages of New York Punk, his days with Blondie, and his unusual career – in this exclusive interview, the first ever for a South American magazine, which took place in a cold noon last November at Lachman’s home in West Hampstead, in northwest London.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Blondie’s first album. What are your thoughts and memories of its recording?
I think we actually were probably in the studio around this time, if not earlier, in late ’76. I can’t remember it exactly. I think that the album came out just at the very end of ’76 but, all right, ’77 is when we’ve seen them, when we distributed it, and all that. It didn’t have any kind of impact outside of all the cult people following the band, you know, the New York rocker, New Wave, or whatever you wanna call it. Punk. We weren’t punk, we didn’t call it punk but whatever it was, it took a while. What can I say? It was a fantastic thing.
You were all very much in the ‘60s, the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las and all that.
Yeah. That’s one of the things that happened when Clem and I started playing, because Chris and Debbie (Stein and Harry) had been around for a while, in different sources of forms. They had different kinds of bands, you know, the Stilettos, the Banzai Babies, Angel and the Snake, not really getting anywhere with it. And then Clem Burke, who I knew from High School, you know, we were in the same High School, and who I’d known since we were teenagers, he started playing with them, and then I started hanging out in New York. Because before the New York scene, or Punk, if you wanna call it that, there was what we call Glitter, or Glam Rock. It was all Bowie, Roxy Music, Lou Reed…that kind of thing. So there was a scene in New York about that. The New York Dolls, they were the local night band.
It was mostly about bands only from New York.
When I first became aware in ’73, the talent of this Glitter scene was bands like the New York Dolls. The place where they played, the Mercer Arts Center, literally collapsed, so the bands dispersed. You know “where to go?”, “where to play?”, and there was a place on the East Side called Club 82, which traditionally was a transvestite bar. It still was, but they let some of the bands play a few nights a week. And in fact that was the first place I saw Chris and Debbie. They were called the Stilettos at the time.
So the Stilettos they were playing there and you went down to Club 82 just to see them…
Well, maybe to see them, because I was hanging there on that scene. And in a place like Club 82, people like Bowie and Lou Reed, they were going there, it was in the magazines, so we used to go there and hang out to see if we could see them. This is before I was playing. I told all these stories in my book “New York Rocker”
I guess that’s because you saw all those pictures in magazines like Rock Scene.
Yeah, mainly Rock Scene, all that stuff, so maybe you said “let’s go over there!” and hang out. So basically what’s happened is that Blondie’s bass player, Fred Smith, he quit to join Television. Tom Verlaine had kicked Richard Hell, and Hell started his own band with Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls, the Heartbreakers. So Blondie needed a bass player and I was hanging out already. I looked the part. I mean, I wore dark glasses all the time, sort of living on the edge of all that kind of thing. I could just about sort of play it, and that’s what you needed. You didn’t need to be a fantastic musician. It was all about attitude. I auditioned for them and it worked out, so I started playing with them. That was in early 1975, March or April. From then on, you know, Jimmy Destri joined, and then we started writing all the songs. When I first started playing Chris and Debbie were doing a lot of cover songs. They had some originals but it was mostly about covering tunes. And there was still this kind of campy, you know, gay glitter kind of thing. Myself, Jimmy and Clem, we were younger. I grew up during the ‘60s, so the music that was on the radio was always great pop music. You know, the Beatles, the Stones, Motown, the Byrds, and so and so on. Lots of good songs in music, so we started writing songs.
I always believed that it must have been one of the best times in rock’n’roll history to be in. I mean, New York in the early ‘70s, although it was a tough city, lots of great things were happening.
It was very though, and everything was happening in one area too, being it the Lower East Side, or the East Village. So you had CBGB’s on the Bowery. We had the Blondie loft, a loft space.
And so did Arturo Vega.
Yes, he had one as well, around the corner…
Sorry to interrumpt!
Oh no, it’s fine. You know, before we got our loft, we used to rehearse in Arturo Vega’s loft as well, so we were there, and the Ramones were there. But CBGB’s was just around the corner from there, so that was a certain area of town where everybody was. That’s where the club was, or where you rehearsed, or just walking around, so you’d see all these people on the street. It was a real kind of a scene in the sense that it all took place in this part of the town. So we started writing these songs and they all had that kind of 60’s sort of feel to them. That look with the skinny ties and the suits, and all that.
How was the relationship with other bands? I know you were very close to the Ramones or the Dolls.
You know, in the beginning, everybody would go see everybody else play. So when we first played in CBGB’s, there were 3 or 4 members of the bands in the audience, and a handful of just people. We all did shows together, the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Heartbreakers. And there was another kind of crowd, the Patti Smith, Television one. They had their own thing.
Well, they had more seriousness, or whatever you wanna call it, that it wasn’t the same as the others. The other bands were more, you know, rocking. We used to go to each other’s lofts and parties, and we’d see each other in the coffee shops in the area, when we went up for breakfast, or whatever. There were also other bands that weren’t known outside of the scene, that were very good, like the Miamis, who had been around for a very long time, which did satirical or topical songs, like, things that were going on at the time. There was a lot of music going on.
But when you got together with those bands, in the coffee shop or wherever, you all had the idea of recording an album, or you just did it for fun?
You know, I guess everybody did. I certainly did, that we were gonna make a record and I was gonna write a hit song, I had that confidence. I meam, you do it because you love it but, yes, there was a sense that it started happening, and, was it Patti Smith who got the deal first?
Yes, she got one and then the Ramones, Television and the Talking Heads, and we did too, so suddenly the record business people who were always downtown started hanging out at this creepy nasty area of town.
What did you do at the time in order to make a living, as eventually you couldn’t live off the music yet?
Anything we could. Initially there was hardly any money at all. You were lucky if you got 10 dollars or something at the end of the night. Before I started playing I worked as a messenger, running around delivering things.
You were all pretty young and I thought some of you were still living with your parents at the time.
Well, Jimmy lived back home, and I had left home when I was 18, so I was already living in New York. I mean, I couldn’t be home and play at the same time, so at first they took me in. I was living with them in a little flat they had in Little Italy. From there we move down to this loft place, which was in the Bowery, which was a short walk, a block away from the CBGB. So the CBGB, the Ramones loft, the Blondie loft, it was all very near. Williams Burroughs lived over there too.
Everything was so close.
Everything was close and you’d see everybody in the neighborhood, basically. Clem came here, came to London, at the end of ’75, and when he came back, he brought back a lot of music, and we were listening to that, so then we decided writing a lot of new songs, and we practiced a lot, we played a lot. We didn’t do shows at the time.
Well we al depended on people travelling abroad to get the albums…
Yeah, and one of the albums he got was Dr. Feelgood’s, which was this kind of punk pub rock, with Wilko Jphnson and all that and, you know, they were really good.
I always believed the 70s in America, mostly New York, equals the ‘60s in England.
Well I guess what happened in New York in the ‘70s was like “a last kind of flower”, because it was about getting back to the roots of rock’n’roll too. I mean, that’s when you started to get rock’n’roll nostalgia, so there were bands like Sha-Na-na, or when Chuck Berry came back, they were doing all this ‘50s doo-wop kind of stuff, and that was only 15 years later, so what was happening in New York was very much related to that because basically it was going back to the simplest kind of fundamental rock music. Three or four chords, short and fast. Short tunes. So you didn’t have the idea you needed to be a great musician. By the end of the ‘60s or early ‘70s you had Emerson Lake and Palmer or Yes, you know, this huge Wagnerian thing, kind of opera sort of music, which was very far away from rock’n’roll.
Well, then you probably saved us from all that.
I mean, I found it unlistenable! I don’t listen to much pop or rock anymore, but if I do, it’s all ‘60s or ‘70s stuff. Sometimes I watch videos on YouTube and it’s like “oh show me what a great guitarist you are!” One of the things that’s been lost is this notion of a song, kind of 3-minute song- Everything has to be this long…
I understand that you played piano when you were very young. What bout your early days in music, pre-Blondie? Were you just the kind of guy who stayed home and played records all the time?
I listened to music, but I wasn’t a musician really. I knew lots of musicians in my hometown. I knew Clem because he played in bands, and I used to go see his band playing at dances when I was still in my teens in New Jersey, where we grew up. I got to know musicians. But when it came to play in New York, I was actually better equipped in the sense that I only knew a few things, I didn’t have a whole history of learning how to play the guitar. I had played in jam bands, what you call garage bands, you know, just jamming and playing away, not really being a musician. But I listened to music a lot. All the British invasion bands, Motown, the San Francisco sound, and all that. By the early ‘70s, that’s when I became more conscious of something I was really into, you know, David Bowie, New York Dolls, Mott the Hoople…
Oh I just saw Ian Hunter in Shepherd’s Bush about 10 days ago! You know he’s never been to South America, and he won’t probably do ever.
Oh, that’s fantastic. I guess I saw him in ’74. I saw Mott the Hoople when Queen opened up for them, so Queen was the support act! (laughs) But yeah, I was into that, Lou Reed and all that kind of thing. That was strange, because most of the people where I was from, in New Jersey, they were into the Grateful Dead, Santana, the Allman Brothers… Clem used to be in a band that played Allman Brothers and that kind of stuff, but once I became aware of Bowie and this weird world of putting on makeup, and dressing up, and this strange sexual ambiguity, it was different. It was too weird for everybody else, so I became a kind of outsider to the usual scene by being interested in that.
Were you also into Alice Cooper at the time?
Yeah but, you know, not somebody I was really into, you know, just like Kiss. It was too much. I remember when the New York Dolls played in Valentine’s Day, in 1974. The place used to be called the Academy of Music on 14th street, big place to play. And when I got there, I didn’t know what to expect. Everybody was using makeup and completely stoned. What was great about the Dolls was that they didn’t have to play a fantastic kind of music, they just did really good rock, simple music. And what happened in New York was a reaction to all that. And about Television, when they played they were just wearing whatever clothes they got at the charity shop. They didn’t have a look. Until Richard Hell started ripping his T-shirt, you know. It went from everything being flamboyant and very colourful to being drab and very simple. That’s what was exciting, it was like “you can do this”. I didn’t have to study guitar for years. I just had to pick it up and play with a lot of attitude.
And you could still do great songs. It was about guys getting together and playing the kind of music they liked.
Yeah. I mean, when I first played with Blondie, Clem was certainly the best musician. Chris could play guitar but he always had an eccentric approach to it. And Debbie could sing, of course. We weren’t professional, but that’s what made it real because, you know, when Mick Jagger sang “Angie” saying “with no money in our coats”… When was the last time that Mick didn’t have any money? We really didn’t have any money!
And I guess you got a lot of support from the magazines, which helped a lot.
Of course, mostly from magazines like Rock Scene, and also the Soho Weekly News. It took a while for The Village Voice to do it.
Do you remember the real very first time you got to meet Chris and Debbie personally?
Well, first time I saw them was in Club 82, but the first time I met them, I was going to one of the shows when Clem started playing with them, and they played in a bar in Wall Street, the financial district in New York. I can’t remember the name of the place now. But it wasn’t any fancy, there was no stage in there. You just sat up in the floor.
I’d still go to places like that nowadays.
Oh yeah, it was fine. Debbie singing, Chris on guitar, they had Fred Smith, and Clem was drumming. I remember just hanging out with them, so that’s when I first met them. I was Clem’s friend, so I used to hang out with him when I went to New York.
You were a sort of friend with privileges.
Well, I guess a groupie, initially, and then what happened is that Fred Smith quit to join Television, and Clem said to me “why don’t you come down for an audition?” I could play a bit of bass. Where I was living at the time on East End Street, it was basically what you call “a store front” It was a store, but someone had blacked out the windows. It was a kind of crash pad, and I was living there with this other guy who was a strange individual. And in this place there was a piano, and old piano, practically every other key was broken, but I manage to bang out a few chords…
So you were playing piano at the time.
Not really to play piano, I could only play a few chords. In fact what I first wanted to do was write poetry, and be a poet. I spent a lot of time writing some poetry, and that got transformed in sort of writing the songs. So Clem took me uptown to Blondie’s rehearsal place near Port Authority, one of these office buildings. A lot of those places had become rehearsals places so, they had one and I went there. We just started playing, and we played the Stones’ song “Live with Me” from, is it ‘Beggars Banquet’?
No, that’s the ‘Let It Bleed’ album.
Oh yes. It was just a song Chris knew and we kind of played it, forever… And he liked me. And then Clem said “play any of your songs” There was a piano, so I went and played something, and they said “ok fine!” But then not long after I had to be home, because my parents didn’t want me to be playing in a rock band. So I had to choose and said “bye”. I didn’t have anywhere to live. I slept around different people’s places for a while, but eventually Debbie and Chris said “you can come and live with us” It was this tiny little flat but, you know, but still bigger than this room! They lived in Little Italy. That’s early 1975, in Spring. And not long after that, we got this loft place on Bowery.
And you started playing in Blondie!
And I started playing! I first played the CBGB in July 1975, which was called the “Unsigned Rock Band Weekend”, or something. It wasn’t called Punk Rock or anything. Or maybe it was “Underground Unsigned Rock Band Festival” And this is where you got Blondie, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, the Ramones…
What’s the story behind choosing “Gary Valentine” as your stage name?
It’s because at the time I sort of wanted a new identity. That was the whole idea, reinventing yourself. And the people around at the time, you had Johnny Thunders, Richard Hell, Alan Suicide…It was all kind of dark and violent, and I wanted to be more upbeat, more optimistic. My favorite writer at the time was Henry Miller, and his middle name was Valentine. Henry Valentine Miller. I identified with him quite a bit at thetime. Because he was writing about living in New York and starving and working as a messenger. And I was doing the same thing, so I just sort of took his name.
Was it only you who decided to come up with that name? Or was it the other members of Blondie that suggested it as well?
It was me. As I said before, I wanted to reinvent myself. I was the last person anyone could have thought one would become a musician, even less write and song and record it. I was somebody just hanging out with other musicians, so it was very unlikely. I just wanted to do something. Anything. Poet, artist, writer, something along those lines, and once you wrote the songs and then the people were saying “yeah!”, I knew I could do it. And that transforms you, you know.
It wasn’t called “punk” at the time.
No, we didn’t call it “punk”. Suddenly one day we saw all these posters around saying “Punk is coming!” I remember people were thinking “this must be a band from New Jersey” ‘Cause nobody in New York called themselves “punk” at the time.
It had to be labeled somehow.
But what was there was the ‘Punk’ magazine.
The Legs McNeil magazine?
Yes, Legs and John Holmstrom. But they emphasized one aspect, it was more about the Ramones, Richard Hell and all that. But there was a good magazine called New York Rocker. That’s what I got the title of my book from. Alan Betrock, who actually early on was a Blondie producer. He took us into this studio to do the first recordings. “Platinum Blonde” and some other songs we were doing, that EP with the 1975 demos. I don’t think any of those songs survived. Well, one did, the one we called “The Disco Song”, that later became “Heart of Glass”. You know, a big hit.
Oh tell me about it! Where you a fan of the other bands in he scene at the time, or you had a favourite one among them?
I used to go to see all of them all the time. The Heartbreakers, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Suicide, and then these other bands like The Marbles and The Miamis, that nobody knows about, but they were around at the time too. I used to see all of them but, in the long run, I was thinking that the first Television album, “Marquee Moon” was probably the best thing. It’s a great piece of music.
Which by the way was so different to what everybody else was doing.
True, it was very different. But I loved all of the them at the time, I used to go to every show. You know the Ramones had like, eight songs. And the Heartbreakers had six or seven. But it was all right! I guess Richard Hell, in terms of attitude, was really the spirit behind a lot of what was happening.
So in the beginning the punk scene was a bit arty after all. It even included poetry. So when do you think all that changed?
I guess when the UK punk idea came in. Before that, it was a really interesting blend of poetry, rock, art and film. We used to go to people’s loft spaces in Soho and there would be some weird film…It wasn’t called anything. “New York Rock” or “Underground Rock”. As soon as it got this simple label, “punk”, then everybody out in New Jersey, or in Connecticut or Long Island, it was very easy for them to put a safety pin in and go to New York and say “hey we’re punk!” To fit into that kind of scene because, originally, the New York thing was very much like an old Fellini movie. Everybody was dressed in black with their glasses on, smoking, and nobody was reacting to anything. You had to do a lot to make somebody really react.
Would you blame Malcolm McLaren for that?
Well he was the New York Dolls manager, and there was a famous show where Television opened up for the Dolls, when Richard Hell was still in the band, and McLaren saw him rip his shirt. I think he even invited Hell to come back to the UK, but Hell decided to stay and do his own thing. You know, McLaren tried to turn the New York Dolls into a Communist rock band. I mean, come on! (laughs)
Too bad it didn’t work! Think about it…
I guess they looked pretty cool in the red lettering but it was very different. I have to say I never really got into any of the UK kind of stuff.
Before he passed, Malcolm McLaren was interviewed in Buenos Aires, and he said that punk’s most important legacy was the “do it yourself” thing. Would you agree with him, or else what would you say it’s the best thing that came from punk? I mean, if there’s one after all. Maybe you agree with McLaren’s opinion…
No, I’d hate to do that! (laughs) I guess certainly what happened was post punk, which marked the difference between the “hip” people and the rest of the people. Everyone wears black today all the time, and it used to be something very exceptional, even in the ‘70s. I think that was in the sense of a separation between the stars and regular people. That “do it yourself” attitude was nice, and I guess today, with the whole digital world, you can do it yourself in a much bigger way. Back then, you had to make all the recordings, copy everything, the flyers…
All those fanzines…
Yeah, that was really “do it yourself” And now everybody has this hi-tech stuff and they can do their albums. We were very lucky if we had a cassette recorder.
Back to Blondie, do you think your contribution to the band, which was quite important at the time, was fairly or properly acknowledged? Or maybe, if it didn’t, that was the very reason why you left the band?
I actually left mostly because I wanted to have my own band at a certain point. It’s understandable now that they weren’t happy with this idea because I was writing lots of songs. And because I played guitar. I mean, the first record, “X Offender”, I played guitar there, I’m not playing bass. But I wanted to do some more of that. There were a couple of different things. I also felt that it was becoming Debbie and a back-up band, and that wasn’t what we were. We all worked together, worked really hard. It was a whole, it wasn’t just a singer and a band.
But that happens with so many bands…
It’s the same old story, isn’t it? I mean, at the time I was 20 years old, and later on I realized how it was. Sometimes you get brushed out of the story, other times you’re not. It all depends on who’s writing that kind of thing, But at this stage, 40 years on, you know, it’s fine. I’m fairly established. A couple of songs that I wrote were very important in the early days.
I believe that “X Offender” is one of your most important contributions to the band, and I guess it involves a personal story. What was your inspiration? Is it true you were actually and X offender?
I didn’t write the song with that in mind. The music and the melody and all that came to me, and I wrote that. The chorus, I wrote the lyrics of that. But the actual lyrics to the verses, that was Debbie’s. Debbie came up with this idea of a cop who falls in love with a hooker. It’s loosely based on uh…At the time I was going through a difficult period because basically I had got arrested for statutory rape. Just after I turned 18, you know, to have relations with a younger girl…I tell the story in “New York Rocker”. It’s a sad story. At the time, when I was early on playing, I still had to go back to this kind of probation, and actually I was sort of “breaking” probation because I was not supposed to live out of state. I was living in New York, and not in New Jersey, all this kind of stuff. So it was sort of loosely based on my own kind of personal problem, you know. Originally the title was “Sex Offender”, and we had to change it to “X Offender”, because the producer Richard Gottehrer said that “Sex Offender” was never gonna get on the air.
What about “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear”? Is it true that there was some kind of supernatural story involved in the song, concerning Lisa Persky, your girlfriend at the time? And by the way, it must be the only song in music history that features the words “kismet” and “theosophies”. Why?
I think that’s true! (laughs hardly) Well, it’s connected to what I’m doing now as a writer. When I was living with Chris and Debbie in the loft, in 1975, I started getting interested in the occult. They had a kind of kitschy kind of fun interest in the days of the voodoo dolls stuff, all that kind of thing, so I started reading about it.
The I-Ching and all that.
Yeah, all that kind of stuff.
I wonder what made you curious about that. We know people like David Bowie or Jimmy Page did. But why a pop or a punk band from New York would do that?
I never really was interested in that per se. But what happened was that, I was always an avid reader. I was reading a lot all the time. Poetry, Nietszche, Sartre and the existentialists, and all this kind of stuff. At that time in New York, in 1975, there was still a lot of stuff left over from the previous scene, the previous generation, all that ‘60s scene. So in bookshops you saw Timothy Leary, Castañeda, or the I-Ching, books on Zen, all that kind of stuff. There was a book by a British writer, his name is Colin Wilson. In fact the latest book I did is a biography of him. He wrote a book that was called “The Occult”. It was something more than just a collection of ghost stories, or stuff like that. It was more philosophical, more historical and scientific. Very inspirational. And I just became really interested in it because it was very well written, and the way he was approaching it made it seem much more understandable. At the same time I’d also started reading about Aleister Crowley. There was somebody in the loft where we lived who was into Crowley a lot. He was this wild artist painter, he used to do these big kind of paintings. He’d sort of give in impromptu terror readings. And I just became interested in it. It was all new to me. So I started reading about all that stuff, and then I was also reading about parapsychology, psychics, ESP…My girlfriend at the time, Lisa, she became interested in it too. You know, I was 19 at the time. And then when Blondie first went on tour, we just started realizing that we were having the same kinds of dreams, and everybody would talk to each other. You know, this connection. There’s lots of evidence that this happens to people that are emotionally related, and so that was sort of the basis for that song, a song about how I was always in touch in some way with her. And yeah, kismet, theosophy, I think it’s the only Top Ten hit about telepathy, I don’t think there’s any other. Pretty much all during the time I was in Blondie I was reading about this and then when I left in August of 1977, I went to California, ‘cause my girlfriend Lisa was an actress, and she went to Hollywood to pursue film and TV, and I went to join her. And while I was there I also read all this kind of stuff. There were all different sorts of things that I became aware. One of the wonderful things about this book by Colin Wilson is that he talks about all these writers, people like Madame Blavatsky, or Gurdjieff, or Yeats, you know, all these other people who talked about this kind of things. So I followed those things too.
So you were an avid reader, but what took you to become a writer?
I always wanted to write. As I said, I started out writing poetry.
Did you have that in mind by the time you moved to London? You didn’t write any books before you left the US.
What happened was, you know, I had my own band for a while, called The Know. I got the name because I was interested in this esoteric school cult called the Gnosticism. C. G. Jung and other people have written about it, it was a sort of early Christian group, so I got the name from that sort of idea. I had The Know for a couple of years and we played a lot, in L.A., in New York, we did a couple of recordings, but we didn’t get a major deal on all that, so I disbanded it, and then I played with Iggy Pop for a while. And then, in 1982, that’s when I stopped, and after that I went back to university. I started writing in the early ‘90s when I was still living in California, and I was writing some articles, book reviews, and things like that. So it took a long time.
Did you do that in order to make a living?
I was working at this famous bookshop called The Bodhi Tree in Los Angeles, a metaphysical spiritual bookshop. It was very famous and successful in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It doesn’t exist anymore, it closed down, but I worked there for quite a few years. I went back to university, I was back and forth to university, where I first got a degree in Philosophy. I thought I was going to teach Philosophy, it was my career decision through the ‘80s. But then I didn’t follow that up. I stayed in California. I ended up starting a Ph.D. program in English literature at the University of Southern California, but I disliked the academic atmosphere at the time.
Which was completely different to what you were coming from.
I was just trying to know what to do with myself, that’s what happened. I wanted to write, but in between, stopping playing music in ’82 to coming here in ’86, it was a 14-year period where I was trying to find what to do musically. I also worked as a science writer, because I’d written some book reviews and articles about popular science. At the time I’d dropped out of this Ph.D. program, as I said, because I hated the environment. I didn’t know what to do of myself and my wife said “you have to find a job, why don’t you apply for this science writer job?” She saw the advertisement in the paper. And I thought “ok I’ll do that, I’ll never get the job, but I’ll make her happy” I had no background in science, only academic background in Philosophy. But in any case they got back and said “when do you want to start?” So I got the job. I should never have gotten it, but I got it. So I was working as a writer. I wasn’t writing about anything I really wanted to write, but I was writing for the university. That was definitely not what I wanted to do! I really went though a kind of crisis at the time. My marriage fell apart… I went through this thing, you know, “my God!” It was a classic midlife crisis. I was approaching 40.
Yes, I’ve been there…
Basically everything fell apart. And that’s what led me coming here. My life fell apart in Los Angeles. I had been in the Czech Republic in late ’95. The magazine I worked for, called Gnosis Magazine, they sponsored a conference there about the Rosicrucians. Don’t ask me about the Rosicrucians! (laughs) At that conference I met lots of people from here, and they said to me “if you wanna change the scenery, if you want to get away from L.A., you can hang out with us” Initially I wasn’t planning to move here. I was gonna hang out for a while and see what happened, because I didn’t know what to do of myself. The bookstore basically asked me to leave, but they paid me the rest of the money I would have had, they gave me a chunk of money. I had a little bit of freedom.
That was enough for the airplane…
Yeah, enough for that and enough to get by for a while. I mean, you’re 40 years old, you try to do now what you always wanted to do, which was to write, to live as a writer. And once I made that decision, it just started happening in many ways. I got a lot of work. I wrote for a lot of magazines. I wrote for Mojo, The Guardian, The Independent and all that, and then I was commissioned to do the first book, “Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius” in 1999. It came out in 2001, I think.
Out of all the people you wrote about, which would be your favourite one? Let me take a guess. Ouspensky? I guess that was much appealing to you.
Yes, P. D. Ouspensky. He was one of the people I read about early on, when I first became interested in this. He’s the most honest follower of Gurdjieff. He was this very enigmatic Greek-Armenian esoteric teacher. Ouspensky was also a very important thinker, and a sort of philosopher in his own right. And he wrote this book, “A New Model of the Universe”, that came out in the 1930’s. He just explored lots of different ideas. About time, about all the dimensions, about the pyramids. It was kind of full of lots of different stuff, and at the time it was so exciting. So I did a book on him.
What about you most recent book about “Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson”?
That’s an important book for me because his work got me interested in all this in the first place, and I developed a friendship with him. He’s most known for his first book, “The Outsider” that came out in 1956 here in England.
Does he live here in London?
Well, he died a few years ago, in 2013. And that’s the reason why I wrote a book about him. It’s a biography but also a study of all his ideas. He wrote many books, about a hundred. He was very much involved in existentialism and in consciousness and this kind of, what you call “peak experiences”, moments of creativity, moments of affirmation where you can feel this incredible sense of power. He studies that in different ways in his work. When you do a book about somebody, the more you get into the process of writing, it becomes very real in some way. I remember when I was doing my book on Madame Blavatsky (“Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality”), this very eccentric Russian woman in the 19th century…
All these interesting characters.
Very interesting! They’re all very interesting characters because they have very interesting lives, they travelled a lot. They were “on the outside”, someone can say they were the rock’n’rollers of their time.
There’s definitely a link there.
She spent many years in Tibet. This was during a time when Tibet wasn’t open to foreigners, and certainly not to women. And when I was writing about this, I’d go outside, and I’d feel this weird kind of dissidence, as it felt as I’d just spent several hours in the Himalayas. She’s somebody I didn’t know much about, or I hadn’t read as much about before, so writing that book was a learning experience to me. And I came to like her quite a bit. She’s a remarkable character. To do all those incredible things that she did as a woman in the late 19th century, now that was really something.
Are all your books currently available in bookstores here in London?
Not so much in the main chains, but in specialized bookshops. There’s a famous book shop in the West End that’s been there forever, people like Aleister Crowley used to go and buy books there in the early 20th century.
So, by the way, you did a book on him called “Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World” Why do you think Crowley is much liked and followed by rock musicians and fans? Do you think he represents a kind of first step to the world of the occult?
I guess probably for most people he’s the one who introduced them to it, specially the ones in the rock world. But Crowley wasn’t one of these very eccentric unconventional characters, and he was rediscovered in the 1960’s. He’s like a proto hippie, in the sense that, you know, he experimented with lots of drugs, free love, polymorphous perversity… Sex was the main thing for him, and all that. He was very unconventional, he rebelled against his time. There’s a book by Richard Cavendish called “The Black Arts” that came out I guess in 1966…
I have a book by him in Spanish at home, but I cannot remember the name now.
Probably “The Black Arts”, a book that became very popular. People like Mick Jagger, etc., they were reading this book. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote my book about Crowley. In the ‘60s there was a connection between the occult and pop culture. My first book “Turn Off Your Mind” is about that. But what happened with the ‘70s is that it kind of dropped away, it became specialized. But Crowley stayed as a kind of icon for the rock world. Black Sabbath knew that.
Not to mention Jimmy Page…
Yeah, but if you look at the cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s”, Crowley is there, Jung is there, Aldous Huxley…So Crowley became popular in the ‘60s an then was rediscovered. He died in 1947, and a biography about him came out in the early ‘50s, but he didn’t become this huge icon until the Beatles put him on the “Sgt. Pepper’s” cover. And people like Kenneth Anger became aware of him. There was a well-known underground newspaper here at the time called The International Times, and they did a big article about Crowley, as I said, like a proto hippie. Rediscovering him and also looking back, and everybody saw that. This was in 1966 or something. Then in the ‘70s people like Jimmy page or David Bowie were into it, but even today people are rediscovering him all the time. You see his face nowadays almost as much as you see Marilyn’s, or Che Guevara’s.
Which, by the way, makes me realize they never did a movie about him.
Not a good one, no.
Oh, was there a bad one then?
Well there’s one that was called “Chemical Wedding” or something, which was out a few years ago. It didn’t get wide distribution, as it wasn’t very good. But there’s characters based on him in some films, horror films and all that. But it would be an interesting thing to do.
Are you more comfortable with being a biographer or would you rather write about their works, like you did with Jung, Swedenborg or Steiner?
The thing with biographies is that, there’s a beginning and there’s an end. You’d be writing about when they’re born, and when they die. I like a kind of story. But what I like about these people are their ideas, or as much part of their life as anything else, so I can explore their ideas through their life. But I’ve also done books about histories. “Turn Off Their Minds” is about the whole 1960’s. Another one I did called “The Secret Teachers of the Western World” is about basically the history of the West seen through an esoteric interpretation philosophy.
So you’ve always been a curious kind of person. Which is fine, if you’re not curious, what can you do about it?
Yes! I’m interested in most of the things I like to think and reflect about. I’m also interested in seeing patterns between things, you know.
How do you work when you write a biography? Do you go to the very places things happened? Like Crowley in Italy?
Sometimes. It depends. First I read as much as I possibly can about them. Their own work, biographies of them, interviews with them, that kind of thing. This most recent book about Colin Wilson, I know his family, so I’ve spoken with them. Mostly is about gathering information. I go to the British Library a lot, and I do interviews with people.
Has it ever influenced you? You researched a lot about esotericism. Have you ever gone through paranormal experiences, or out of this world? Maybe it’s a silly question…
I wouldn’t say anything fantastic. As I said, when we talked about that song “Presence, Dear”, I had experiences of that kind. I’ve written about precognitive dreams, but it was nothing very dramatic. I think most of us have little experiences of these kinds of things, like telepathy. But we don’t pay attention to them very much. But because I’m interested in all that stuff, as I write about consciousness, I may be much more aware of paying attention to these things when they happen. In general, my philosophy in life is that, I’ll put it this way, in a negative way, I don’t believe in the standard scientific materialist explanations. I’m very much interested in trying to put together a picture of what other stuff means. Esoteric ideas, spiritual or supernatural experiences. What I found interesting about all the people I write about is that I like to find similarities between them. What happens with a lot of these different groups is that people that are into Steiner, or into Jung, or into Gurdjieff, they don’t talk to each other. If you know enough about them, there are different ideas. They’re talking about the same, but they use different languages.
Are you working on a new book? Have you already chose who will be the next character you’ll write about?
Yes, there’s a book I’m working on that will be due at the end of the year. The title is “The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination” Basically it’s exploring this other mode of knowing. We know the scientific analytical way to understand things, you know, we break things down and then tear them to pieces. This is more about intuition, it’s more about how imagination is not only something that creates unreal things, it’s actually something that allows us to understand something in its kind of inner aspect. I’m looking at different people, different poets, different kind of philosophers and writers who talk about this sort of thing. It’s a theme that’s in most of my books. There’s a historian of the occult called James Webb, and he called it “rejected knowledge”
Was he the inspiration for your new book?
Well, he’s someone I read about quite some time ago. Something starts out and you get interested in it, and gradually you became more and more focused on it, and then you start to see how different things feed into this idea. In many ways I wind up writing about the same kind of thing, but from a different perspective, it all turns out to be about the same.
This will be your book number…
This is the 20th. I try to make a living out of writing, so I have to come up with other ideas.
My last questions are gonna be again about music, so let’s go back to it.
Do you still play or go to shows?
No, I don’t. I have to say “no”. I haven’t listened to any kind of pop music or anything like that for a very long time, I mean, I did have a band again…
Not The Know, right? Because you never got a recording contract, although they got to be quite popular in the USA at the time.
Yes, L.A. and New York, we went back and forth a lot. What happened was, when I moved here in the beginning of ’96, out of the blue Chris Stein got in touch with me. And he asked me to come back to New York and play again. That was the last thing I thought, you know, whatever happened. I figured it out, “well, I’m 40, I’ll never have this chance again, so why not?” So I went to New York and started playing with Blondie again. We did some shows in ’97 We did some big festivals in the States, and we even recorded a song of mine.
Yeah, right. It’s a song I used to do with my band The Know, and we recorded it. Long story short, it all turned out not to work. I may be the only person to get kicked out of the same band twice.
With 20 years in between. But what happened is that when I went back to play with them, I started writing songs again.
Frank Infante wasn’t there anyway…
No, he wasn’t there. They hadn’t played together for a long time, so they tried to put the band back together. You know, Chris, Debbie, Clem, the guy who played bass (I forgot his name). and Jimmy. I was playing second guitar. But, you know, “no, thanks”. But then I had written all these songs, all new songs, so when I came back here from this Blondie fiasco with lots of new songs, my girlfriend at the time played violin, and so I decided to, you know, “what are we gonna do with all these songs? They were supposed to be on Blondie’s album, and I’m not gonna be there” So we just decided to put a band together for a while. We played around London and we did quite a few gigs. So that’s the last thing we did, we stopped doing it in 2000. That was the last time I played.
You didn’t record?
Yes we did, that stuff is online, I think. But it wasn’t released.
Back to Blondie, after you were kicked out of the band, you played with Iggy in 1981. It was an all-star band that included Clem Burke, Carlos Alomar, Rob Duprey and Mike Page. Last year we did an article on the magazine about the night the band opened for the Stones that year.
That’s the show where the people threw all kinds of stuff to the band onstage. What do you remember about that night?
Yes, we opened for the Stones in Detroit, at the Silverdome, and Santana was also on the bill. You know, it’s a huge arena, 80,000 people or something like that, and we played before Santana. We only had this tiny little spot onstage, you couldn’t use the whole set. Nobody was there to see Iggy Pop, they were there to see the Stones. So during our show, out of this darkness (it was like looking at the Grand Canyon), you saw all this stuff coming at you! You know, shoes and everything, they threw everything they could possibly get their hands on. And at the end of the show, Bill Graham, the promoter, after somebody collected everything, he went out with Iggy, ‘cause Iggy was so pissed off… He said, you know “five sneakers, ten big lighters…” It was like he was saving anything that was thrown at us!
So how come Santana didn’t get more stuff than you? They should have been the ones!
Hahahaha! (laughs) I think that was also because it was Detroit, and he was the homeboy.
While in London you were part of a music project along Lora Logic from X-Ray Spex, and then you formed Fire Escape with violin player Ruth Jones.
I forgot I got into that! Yes, we recorded something, and she put it out on some CD, I don’t know where it is anymore.
Last question now, and I hope you enjoyed the interview. It’s a long story!
Oh yes, absolutamente! (in perfect Spanish)
Ok, having lived in New York and L.A., I imagined you knew some Spanish.
Hola qué tal? Cómo están ustedes? (laughs)
Were you surprised after being contacted by a magazine from Argentina. And what do you know about our country?
Yes, I’ve been flattered, thank you. Other than having read of Borges quite a bit…
Oh you read him?
Oh, I did, and I like his short stories very much but, to tell you the truth, I don’t know much at all. I have to say I’m wealthily ignorant, I’ll have to learn more about that.
Have you ever been in South America at all?
No, never visited South America. It’s a funny thing, because all that time I lived in Los Angeles, and I regret it now, I didn’t even go to Mexico. All I thought about was Europe. I’d always had this feeling for Europe. But a couple of my books were published in Brazil, and there are also a couple of books in Spanish, they were published by Atalanta Press and they may be available in Argentina.