Barry Crimmins: Call Him Lucky
Barry Crimmins (circa 2001) Photo Copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum
(Originally published: May 21, 2001)
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I consider Barry Crimmins, social satirist, political parodist & activist, universal commentator, a friend and brother-in-arms in the struggle to promote social justice here and around the world and in the battle against the tyranny of ignorance and economic exploitation.
I first met Barry in 1989 when, knowing his stand on the US war being waged against Nicaragua, I asked him to help out with an ad hoc benefit/organization called “Baseballs for Nicaragua.” He, of course, did and was part of an effort that, on a cold January evening in Boston, Massachusetts, raised $12,000 (to send baseball equipment to a war-ravaged Central American country). I have been fortunate to know him and see him ‘perform’ ever since.
Barry Crimmins was a central figure in the Boston comedy scene for years and was no small contributor to the launch of a number of careers. He has devoted and donated his talents to progressive causes for most of his life and continues his dedication and support for those causes. Recently, Barry has settled in rural New York State with his companion Karen and his dog Lloyd near Elmira, New York, where two people that have greatly influenced him are buried: Mark Twain and Ernie Davis.
For more information on Barry visit his web site or as he suggests, file a freedom of information brief with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C.
Robert Birnbaum: We are sitting here in Troupsberg, New York. You grew up close to here?
Barry Crimmins: About two hours. Two hours northeast of here. The thing about getting around the Finger Lakes is, getting around the Finger Lakes. Nothing is the proverbial “straight shot.” Although, all directions around here are given in increments of straight shots. “It’s a straight shot to your first turn. Then you wanna take…” (laughs) But you gotta get around them, you know. You gotta figure what you are gonna cut up. So here, we would cut up, we’d probably go up 414, head up the west side of Seneca Lake and then, Christ, all the way up Seneca, then cut over, I don’t know, whatever Seneca Falls, Auburn…
RB: People don’t say, “As the crow flies”?
BC: No…Well, they do. There are some people that do. But, you know, they’re sophisticated. They’ve probably been to Canada.
RB: Is there a sense in which you living here now is—I hesitate to say coming full circle—that there is something symmetrical about it?
BC: Yes. I’ve been a lot of other places where a lot of other people are from, and I mouthed off a lot about what I thought should happen in those places. Now that I have practiced doing that enough, I’m going to risk it where I’m from. (Lloyd the dog barks)
RB: What do you mean by saying you are going to "risk it"? Are you going to run for political office?
BC: No! Certainly not. Run from it. I didn’t come to the country because I want to avoid conflict. I think that there’s conflicts to get in, out here, that a lot of people aren’t dealing with. There’s a lot of ignorance. There’s a real pro-gun, Christian Right, bigoted, anti-environmental sentiment in the country and this is where I’m from. This is my ‘hood, and I want some stuff to be straightened out around here. I’m sick of this part of the world—somewhere as beautiful as this—being dominated by two things, prisons and Wal-Mart. That’s basically what’s happening here. And animal-rights abuses. So, uh, there’s just some stuff to do. And it makes me think about it.
I don’t know how I’ll directly take people on here—as much as I need the stimulus—to comment on it. There’s a lot of things to comment on. It’s interesting how much a factor, for example, race is around here, when there’s such little diversity in the area. It becomes a real factor when people matter-of-factly presume you’re a racist and say racist things to you thinking you’re going to snicker with them at it. There’s a lot of stuff like that to think about. Plus I’m from the region and there is something primal about being where you are from. It stirs up stuff. Now that I’m doing more writing, in my old age, I feel this will be more provocative for me. The most provocative place that I can be. Or evocative. It’s deep in me. As annoyed as I can get with a lot of what goes on around here—the ignorance—there is still something where I feel like I belong here. So I’m happy to be here. I’m not up here to hang with a bunch of people that I’ve known for a long time. I’ve got a few old pals that will show up. But basically I’m far enough away from where I’m from that I might as well be in Tunisia to those people. [in dialect] "What’re you doing way down there? Two hours."
RB: So this is like home, but it’s not really home?
BC: No. This is temporary. We will probably move closer, even closer. So it will be an hour or an hour and a half. But I’ll never be stupid enough to live in the snow belt. It’s clearly marked. All you have to do is live X amount away from Lake Ontario and you lose…Ithaca gets five feet of snow a year less than Syracuse. Yet, Ithaca is a smaller city than Syracuse. I don’t need to tell you anything more about people from upstate New York than that. (both laugh)
RB: There is one thing you can say. They must like snow.
BC: Apparently. Well, you know—[dialect] “I just sit in my house and work on my alcoholism ‘til I can get the door open again”—That’s winter up here.
RB: My first thoughts about your move here from Cleveland was that you were using this as a place to recharge your batteries and make forays into the world at large. But this conversation suggests a greater intimacy with your locale. This is not a retreat, so much.
BC: I wouldn’t say it’s a retreat. But it serves that purpose because I feel like I belong here, so my personal rhythm is more in sync than it would be elsewhere. Therefore I think the batteries take a better charge here. Also, just being on this property, there’s a lot of stuff to take care of and that’s good. I have to do something other than just sit around and be a wise ass. I actually have to go out and mow the lawn and fix the gardens up and take care of things.
It’s interesting because you can go kind of snow blind just staring at a computer all day. You can do your work at the computer for a few hours and then you go out and do something worthwhile. Even if you don’t write anything worth a damn all day at least you get the lawn mowed. So, I like that.
There are things that are more jarring here, for me, than anywhere else. Particularly because I know the people and I know what goes on. Karen and I stopped at a yard sale. And this guy started telling us this story about selling his cows to this guy we know. “Jewed him down, a bit.” He just matter-of-factly said, “I Jewed him down.” And Karen was completely shocked, but I thought it was good for her because she romantically thinks everybody is wonderful, that they’re these rural pastoral figures come out of a Grandma Moses portrait. When in fact they are—vile.(laughs) Although this guy wasn’t completely hateful. That’s the complexity of it. That’s just a term he’s used his whole life. He’s a seventy-year-old man. But just matter-of-factly anti-Semitism rolled off his tongue. He’s completely fluent in it. Karen headed off and I stayed for a minute pretending I was looking at a tractor and then I told him afterwards, “Well, you know she’s Jewish.” (laughs)She’s a quarter Jewish, but that’s plenty Jewish. That’s enough to get you sent to a death camp, at one point. I figure that’s Jewish enough to refer to her as Jewish. And the guy felt badly, as if he had injured somebody. I could tell. So they are not all evil.
RB: Would you have had any compunction about saying she was Jewish, even if she wasn’t, as an investigative technique?
BC: Oh yeah. That guy was gonna get something for that, you know. (Both laugh) Something was coming, I just didn’t know what. Karen fit perfectly in the equation.
RB: What’s the name of the town you grew up in?
BC: Skaneateles. S-k-a-n-e-a-t-e-l-e-s. If you can spell it you are in the second grade. It’s an Indian word that means “beautiful lake surrounded by fascists.”
RB: And you went to school at Syracuse?
BC: No, I ended up at Miami. University of Miami. I took the intensive one-year smuggling program and then I went to colleges all over.
RB: And you when you told people where you were from, was the response usually, “Where?”
BC: Yes, either you say you are from New York and they immediately think you are a sophisticated person. People apologized to me around the country, “Oh, you’re from New York? You’re probably…”“No I’m from the Midwest, I’m from upstate New York.”
RB: I never thought of it that way. You could actually claim the Midwest began outside of Philadelphia. Or just outside of Boston?
BC: Oh yeah. It starts outside of Boston and it stops for a minute in New York and… New Jersey isn’t exactly the Midwest. But, there’s goobers there.
RB: Big deer-hunting area.
BC: That’s for sure. It’s just you hide behind junked cars more often.
RB: A lot of ’67 GM cars and a lot of Range Rovers.
BC: That’s right, they make a good blinds.
RB: Do you think about growing up in a small town in upstate New York in the 60’s in counterpoint to your travels?
BC: That’s the amazing thing, and it’s sort of part of why I’m back. I feel like I…I was thinking this yesterday, and I almost said this to you when we were driving around. I almost said, “Every kid I see, I feel like saying, ‘Get out of here! Just go away from here for a goodly period of time. Go elsewhere! Cuz there just isn’t enough here for you. Someday there will be more than enough here for you. But you have to bring a big chunk of that back with you. If you just stay here it’s not enough.’"
When I think of it, the stuff I’ve done, the people I’ve worked with, what my work is noted for and who I’m aligned with and where I come from, the odds against that—I think you are going to go a long time before you’re going to find another leftist political satirist of any note at all who hails from a town that is basically a permanent staging area for the Republican convention.
And that’s been a funny thing over the years, ‘cuz those people from my home town would see me on television and say, “Christ, we seen Crimmer on the TV.”
And then they’d lean forward and hear what I’d say and they’d get whiplash. “What’re you a Communist?”
There is the funny and true story about when I was at my high school reunion and some guys pulled me aside and asked me—first off I wouldn’t drink Coors with ’em—”Coors is the One.” So is Nixon. You know that old thing I do. Coors gives lie detector tests to its employees about their sex lives. “Do you masturbate?” “Not in the vat.” That’s all you’ve got to know, Adolph. I wouldn’t drink Coors with ’em. Then I wouldn’t eat meat with them. “You were on the football team, what happened to you?”
The same week I had appeared at the reunion of the surviving Attica inmates. Surviving and released inmates of the Attica Uprising in New York, at the Village Gate…we did a thing for them. A few days later I’m at my high school reunion, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who made both of those soirees. Fortunately, I went to the Attica one first, which mellowed me out for what I was about to deal with in Skaneateles. So anyway, I won’t eat meat, I don’t drink Coors with ’em. Finally, a couple of ’em pull me aside and say, “Crimmer, we gotta ask you a question. We heard when you were over to Boston you dun an AIDS benefit. Now this isn’t true, is it?” (Both laugh, heartily.) And I said, “Yeah, I’ve done dozens of AIDS benefits”… “You’re not a queer are you?”… “I’m whatever threatens you. I’m a Communist with AIDS and I bite.” But these guys are asking me if I’m gay. These are guys who couldn’t get laid in a women’s prison if they came with a truckload of cigarettes.
RB: Are they asking in benign amusement? Wonder? This all kind of friendly banter, isn’t it?
BC: No. they’re giving me a chance to clear my name. Absolutely. “You don’t say that about a man, not Crimmer.”
RB: The odds of someone like you coming from a place like this to do what you do…
BC: Everyone there isn’t like that. There are some all right people, too.
RB: And were they asking you questions?
BC: They don’t even know how to frame the questions. I’m in my hometown, there are so many funny stories since I’ve been there. I was there one time in 1988 to bury a friend of mine and I’m bummed out. I’m in a bar at the Sherwood Inn, which is a nice place. We’re watching a Syracuse basketball game on TV. People are just, “Nigger this and nigger that.” I couldn’t even take it on. First of all they’re all rooting for Syracuse, and there’s a bunch of black kids on the team, you know. That’s where my civil-rights roots come from, rooting for guys like Ernie Davis [Syracuse Heisman Trophy winner] when I was a kid. I met Ernie up at Syracuse. That inoculated me against all the racism that was rampant. I, in the pure heart of a child, thought it would be bad luck to think these hateful things about someone and then root for them the next minute because I wanted to be lucky. That’s all. That’s where it came from, it’s almost stupid on a certain level. But on another level it’s a very beautiful thing and really speaks to what a great thing Jackie Robinson did. That worked! That was a really great thing! That’s what saved me. Jackie Robinson saved me. Ernie Davis saved me. So, I went a cross the street—it being January, they were giving a way those little cheap calendars, for free, at the pharmacy—I went and got a box of ‘em and just handed em out to everyone at the bar, “Here it’s 1988. In case, you hadn’t noticed, 1988. It’s 1988. Oh, you better have two. It’s 1988…”
RB: We were talking about the unlikeliness of some with your point of view coming from here. We visited Mark Twain’s grave site in Elmira, what was the prevailing culture a hundred years ago when Twain lived and worked here?
BC: First off, I think he was with the Buffalo News but then he married Olivia Langdon and her family they’re all from Elmira, and they had the Quarry Farm up there where he spent his summers, and he did a lot writing up there and he loved it. He went on effusively talking about it. But that was, of course, right after the Civil War. During the Civil War this was a hot bed of abolitionism. This was a very progressive area. It was very vibrant, economically. People had jobs with living wages and they did well. The Industrial Revolution was doing okay by upstate New York at that point. But as one of the first places that made that “progress” it was one of the first places where that progress receded from because of the scurrilous nature of modern day capitalism—maybe capitalism is always scurrilous?—I suppose it is. Workers up here got organized sooner than most other places, so they got abandoned sooner. Before they [industry/capital] headed south and then further south…
RB: It was also a hotbed of feminism. What was it called then?
BC: Suffragettes, yeah up in Seneca Falls. Syracuse had a lot of abolitionist stuff. There was a riot there, to free a slave who had been captured in Syracuse. The underground railroad passed through my hometown and the house I grew up in was built in the 1830’s and had secret trap doors in it and stuff. I don’t know if it’s been established, but yeah, there were secret passageways in my house…
RB: So tell me, have you thought of this? An area represents certain social/political values…
RB: …and then it changes. It seems as if those values should…
BC: This place has mirrored the Republican Party. It used to be the progressive party. Actually, Jim Jeffords mentioned it was the party of Lincoln the other day. I don’t think many of those other people think about that often or if they do they stay with it anyway. They stay with the Republicans anyway.
RB: Here’s one take on it. I have been observing for quite some time that most Americans are ahistorical. ‘Lincoln’ is just a name on a paper bill. The ‘Founding Fathers’ just words…
BC: Yeah, of course. And in fact they don’t know the real history. That’s where someone like Howard Zinn comes in so handy.
RB: Americans don’t even know the faux history…or the pop history.
BC: Well, what they know about the Civil War is what they saw in that horrible movie Gone With The Wind. “Oh, we’ll help ya, massa. Fight them Yankees….get them Yankees outta here. We don’ wanna be free” (Laughs) Right. Yeah. Right. That explains Nat Turner.
RB: In Walter Wetherell’s book, Morning, he writes, “Television has no history. It’s all immediate.” If you have people who, growing up, have been informed mostly by the TV, I think their ability to look into the past is challenged.
BC: Right. Without corny and manipulative music involving harmonicas …which aren’t really harmonicas now, the sounds are produced by software now. How can you expect people who can’t stay in the present to have the patience to deal with the past at all and to want to know anything about it? At this point—at least from what the media tells us—we can’t sit and watch a baseball game. We want sixteen other things going on. We got crap running across the screen. We want noisy stuff—every time you put up the score—it’s gotta go “Pshhhewww.” It has to have all these other dimensions to it. You couldn’t possibly just sit there and watch the game. Basically, by the time the game is on—god forbid some bad weather comes through the area—the game ends up on a postage stamp in the corner of the screen. And you’re watching sixteen separate things at once. On some level people are absorbing all of and absorbing none of it, and it keeps everybody distracted and sort of jarred. How are you gonna expect these people to sit down and read history, read a book, that’s not doin’ anything?
Whatever anybody could have said about TV ten years ago, those were the pastoral days of television compared to what they are doin’ now. Now they’re trying to make it look like the Internet. (in deep broadcast announcer voice) “Interactive. We care. About you. And we’re gonna talk to you during this and tell you you’re important and spend our time saying that so we don’t say a goddamn thing about anything that actually matters here because we wanna keep you distracted from the corporate scam that’s going on here. Look an eagle. Flying across the sky where Americans look in the land of our people and a wonderful place [Robert starts laughing]. This land of America. By the way, we just have this score…” During the Super Bowl, when I looked, they were showing who was finishing 19th in the Phoenix Open. The ball is in play, in the Super Bowl, and they are showing me who finished 19th in a golf tournament, at that point. They just won’t leave you alone. They won’t let you sit still…[Dogs interrupt, barking]…That’s what I like about the country.
RB: You’ve written for television.
BC: Oh yeah, for a little while. But I just basically wrote what I write. I would chime in a little bit on some of the other things, but mostly I wrote jokes for the monologue for the Dennis Miller Show. The old one, the syndicated one.
RB: Who was the genius at Miller’s show who wanted you?
BC: Kevin Rooney. Who is a genius, who really had a lot to do with establishing Jay Leno and then Miller. Rooney is one of the funniest stand-ups I ever saw. Consistently too smart for the room. But still, so smart, he could overcome it. Just one of the funniest people ever. And he was very helpful. And Miller wanted me, too. They started the show, I wrote some stuff for them from afar, and after the first week they were on the air they said, "Come on out here." And so I went out and I did it. It was an—interesting—experience. That was when the Carson Show was in its last year. And then the Leno Show was in its first year. It was almost impossible to get decent guests on that show. We’d write a hip monologue and the first guest would be the swimsuit model from Sports Illustrated. That would contradict the pro-feminist jokes we just did.
RB: Why wasn’t that a great guest? By the producer’s standards…
BC: Right, right, right. Ten days into the thing—when I first got there I said that I didn’t want to go to meetings—ten days into it, I wasn’t allowed to go to meetings anymore.
RB: You wrote what you wrote…
BC: Well, I had to tool it a bit for him, but basically…
RB: I took what you meant that you didn’t write for the medium, for ‘television’. You didn’t concern yourself with how people saw it or heard it…
BC: I think about how people see or hear anything that I write in that sense. But no more or less, really. I probably learned a few tricks. With Dennis if you could smuggle a pop-cultural reference or two in you could smuggle in more content. They might not realize that until the calls came in that night. (both laugh)
RB: Is it safe to say that—I won’t ask for specificity—in general, that it’s possible that the deliverers of the jokes are not fully aware of the ramifications of the material?
BC: That could happen, on occasion. Dennis is a smart guy. In many ways. Like a lot of smart people he often gives you cause to wonder WHAT THE HELL HE’S THINKING. I left after a while because I just didn’t want to be out there. And they take it personally. I kept writing for the show until it ended. It was just one of these rules, “Oh you have to be on this lot everyday to do these things.” And I would do the same things I could do at my house at the show. I wasn’t allowed to go to meetings and…
RB: I don’t get that part. You had to be out on the West Coast…to do the promotional tour?
BC: No, just to be tortured. “Sit here, you must come here everyday.” I hated it. I hated having to be somewhere everyday where there’s these people and this vibe, and clearly after a point it was becoming a death march.
RB: You were out on the West Coast…
BC: For a little while…
RB: When you weren’t actively working on the show, what did you do? Besides surfing…
BC: Yeah, right, besides the surfing. I went to book stores and I hung with the few radicals. I have a lot of friends in L.A. between performers and writers and musicians. I tried to forget I was there and basically attempted to manage a crumbling personal life on the East Coast. It crumbled completely and has now been rebuilt in a new location.
RB: Were you tempted to pursue other writing opportunities in broadcast or film while you were there?
BC: I’m really a failure or I’m really hip to something. I’d like to think that I’m somewhat hip to something. And that is I just never expected the corporate powers that be to allow me to stand on their soapbox and tell everyone that their soap is polluting the river. Basically, that’s what I end up doing. I end up in trouble. I’m almost untouchable with those people out there. I can’t work with them for long ‘cuz there’s just such…lying is just so deeply ingrained…being phoney and showing false concern about and whatever, and I have an honest face and I’m easily bored and I just didn’t click. But I still think that if they wanted to do something good they could produce one—gimme one HBO special—and it’ll get good reviews and be a real nice piece of work. There are some people out there that are hip enough to do it. These people know how to insinuate themselves in situations where they can get some stuff done. And there’s a lot of good people who have gotten a lot of good stuff done.
My problem has always been that I am just too head-on. I’m too literal. I’m a non-fiction comic. I’m odd because I’m non-fiction and yet I’m sort of jazzy because I experiment with themes and riff a lot. But still it’s basically non-fiction and it’s head-on and you know where I’m coming from. And I’ll say, “Yeah, I’m a leftist.” And everyone is scared they’d getting the label ‘Hollywood Liberal’. I’m pretty sure Joseph McCarthy did his job. Even though they make a nice movie every ten years about Edward R. Murrow saving the world, he didn’t save that world. You still get red-baited in Hollywood. I get baited and get baited a whole bunch of other ways. I take shots at stuff that other people…well, others will sometimes…but I take ’em maybe at more subjects. I almost did the Tonight Show. The guy liked me but he goes, “We need to know a little more about you…Where you from? Bup bup ba.” And needless to say I didn’t do the Tonight Show. I probably should have. What it came down to back then—was Nicaragua. I wanted to talk Nicaragua and what was going on in Central America…
RB: Please, let me stop you. There is an irony in your reference to red-baiting in Hollywood given the frequent attacks on Hollywood as a spawning ground of leftism…
BC: As it makes another action movie about killing Arab terrorists, yeah…
(Big noisy truck rumbles by…)
BC: (semi-shouts) Nice to be out here in the country…That’s a milk truck though.
RB: Barbara Streisand and Alec Baldwin…
BC: By the way, that sort of element is terrified of me because I dump on their crap, too. I’m no limousine liberal.
RB: That’s "SUV liberal" today…
BC: SUV limo liberal. I suspend my beliefs concerning the death penalty if you are driving one of those things. At least they do something with their money, at times. And they help a bit. There’s definitely a line that’s drawn and they’re selectively morally indignant. If they had thorough moral indignation, I think they might live a little differently than they do. You don’t need as much stuff. That’s part of the thing with Hollywood. Once you are out there, you gotta live there and once you got to live there, you gotta spend a lot of money, and that’s how they get ya. And that’s how they whore ya up. You just gotta keep makin’ that nut. And, you know, the nut is ridiculous. It’s just a ridiculous amount of money…compared to what it costs to live here. So I can live here and be somewhere nice and leave whatever kinda trail I’m gonna leave. Or I could go out there and write—whatever. You name it. “…He writes the interstitial material on a reality show. And makes enough money to live in a little house in Hollywood Hills. Or the Valley, probably.” I know people out there and the amount of money they have to spend to live is just ridiculous. So here comes the game shows.
RB: That reminds me of a cover story of New York Magazine in the mid eighties, “Going Broke on A $120,000 a Year.” What’s the poverty threshold in this country?
BC: Yeah, right, and it’s way higher than that in L.A., obviously. You need two of those incomes to live there, shabbily.
RB: I once asked a writer who lives in Vermont why she didn’t live in Manhattan. She quickly made the connection between money and murder. She said, “She’d have to kill too many people.” She bypassed quite a few propositions on the causal chain to get to that conclusion.
BC: Right. [To the dogs] You boys all need to lie down. We’re over run with dogs, birds and frogs…In L.A., they got ya on a really nice treadmill.
RB: That mirrors the rest of what you are talking about.
BC: That’s the thing with everything. People get so paranoid about the media. Basically you are dealing with a bunch of people that, whatever way, they end up being these corporate drones, who are scared to death that they are going to lose their health insurance. That’s the bottom line. Everyone’s worried about keeping some sort of gig with some sorts of benefits. When people talk about "the press is this and the press is that"—I’ve got a lot of friends that work at daily newspapers around the country. All have, slowly but surely, been bought up by the same three or four concerns. They are all dealing with the same struggle that’s been blueprinted at the home office somewhere. Here’s how you screw over these workers, here’s how you threaten them, here’s how you undermine them. And it works.
I don’t know what’s going on now, but a couple of years ago at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, they weren’t even letting those people leave the building…without a really good excuse. It was like a detention hall. You wonder why your newspaper sucks, your reporters aren’t out on the street anymore because you won’t let them go on the street. They used to have reporters on the street because there used to be competition. It’s funny about these capitalists. They’ve gotten to the point where there’s no competition anymore and that’s exactly what they want. Their professed love for capitalism was a bunch of huey. They’re into competition as much as Stalin was. They wipe out and absorb everything.
RB: Sadly, they don’t see it that way. The CEO or the senior manager’s mandate is not to screw the workers or to oppress. Their mandate is to do little things that they rarely connect to the dire consequences that are visited upon their employees.
BC: Not in the front of his head.
RB: If you told a corporate manager he was imperiling lives, he would respond that he was giving jobs…
BC: There are some that would chuckle. There are a lot that need to delude themselves and are good at it. That delusion works. It’s the same thing everywhere…we’re getting told how great the economy has been, but I don’t know how good the economy is for real working people in this country. Or how good it’s been for years. I think it’s been crappy. Real wages have gone down, benefits have lessened. Workplace safety is deteriorating. They’re working longer, for less money. Oh yeah.
RB: Wow, a hummingbird.
BC: Yeah, they like those purple flowers. (A dog barks persistently in the distance.) That’s what ignorance can breed—mean Golden Retrievers. That’s what’s across the road. It takes really dumb people to make a Golden Retriever mean and they’ve done it. Those are the same people that set up a trampoline at an angle on a hillside, “Hey! This don’t work. Ow!”
RB: You’ve benefited. You are able to do know what you’ve had in mind for a while. Which is to come to a slightly isolated part of the country—in a specific sense of the word ‘isolation’—and be in constant contact with the immense informational pool that you need and desire. The phone lines and cable infrastructure and the software wouldn’t be available to you…
BC: It’s a beautiful thing. These greedheads have sold us so much crap that we didn’t need, that eventually they got around to selling us a few things we can use. And it’s blowing up in their faces. That’s the good part of the Internet.—Al Giordano’s Narco News.com—him going down to Central and South America and covering the drug war for real, what it’s really about, and then putting it on the Internet everyday. And they can’t do a goddamn thing about it. They try but they’re gonna fail. All they’re gonna do is publicize it.
Barry in Color Photo Copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum
RB: Perhaps he was poisoned by a Black Widow planted by some agent of the Mexican newspapers?
BC: He’s okay. No, the Mexican newspapers are actually with him. It’s the Mexican banks that don’t like him. Mexican newspapers are much hipper than American papers…We can record and transmit history—People’s History like Howard Zinn taught us about—in a way that we never could before. At least for now that genie is out of the bottle. And it does do wonderful stuff. I can sit here and be in better contact, get more information sitting here way out in the country than I ever used to be able to get sitting in Boston, ten or fifteen years ago. I’m going to use that. That’s fun. I literally have a nerve center way out here in the middle of nothing. A lot of other people can do that too.
RB: The paradox of our culture and way of life is that all kinds of information has always been available to us.
BC: Up until now it was much more managed, it had to go through a funnel a lot more than it does now. It turns out we didn’t need the citizen band radio, we didn’t need whatever…a lot of the other crap. We didn’t need that, but computer and digital technology is pretty good because we can take this audio and play it on the Internet. And it’s there and if somebody wants it they can go back and look at it. Somebody wants to know what this nut was all about—either Birnbaum or Crimmins—they can go back and find this, at some point. Should I be thankful to the big corporations for this?
RB: What is our responsibility to pay attention, to seek out information, to understand the world. Is it okay to say, “Well, huge forces brainwashed our culture”?
BC: There have always been people that have sought out the real information and corrected the record. We’ll always need to continue to do that. That will be more participation in that on an immediate basis now because of these advances in technology. We shouldn’t run away from them and we shouldn’t use fascist terms like ‘computer illiterate.’ A very interesting thing has happened over the past few years, with Columbine High School and Bill Gates and all these other things. We’ve learned that—we’ve had a myth destroyed for us—that myth is The Nobility of the Dork. It turns out that the dork—given an opportunity—will be just as much as a fascist as anybody else. Or certainly has the propensity, just like anyone else.
Sure, there are wonderful dorks and cruddy dorks. The good dorks are at Apple. You can just use your computer like you use your brain rather than have to ship your brain to Seattle every five minutes for clearance like Bill Gates makes you do. Then they come up with the term ‘computer illiterate.’ You know what that term really means? [in a whiney nasal voice] “Guess you gotta talk to me now. You would never talk to me in high school, but you gotta talk to me now, doncha. Hah, hah. You gotta talk to me now. Oh suddenly you want to talk to me. You’re talking to me now aren’t ya? Why? Yeah, Because I’m computer literate and you’re illiterate aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not illiterate, I just want to use this keyboard and type this crap…” When I use the Mac, I’m on the side of my brain I use to be creative and I can stay there. When I use those other things it’s like trying to repair a carburetor and write a poem at the same time. The two are in conflict with one another.
RB: Windows seem to be the long way around.
BC: It’s just like a fake Apple system on top of DOS. And DOS in Spanish is, "number two" (both laugh). I can get through and play it to a tie but why bother? I feel so bad when someone says to me, “I don’t have a computer, I’m computer illiterate.” Sort of hat-in-hand. Do you say you are car illiterate because you can’t take your manifold apart and fix it?
Years ago, my car, something happens and it’s steaming and I bring it in. And the guy goes, “Well, it’s gonna need a gasket.”
And I’m going, (raises voice) “Oh great, take my whole wallet. A gasket. Go ahead, take it! Gasket! I was gonna ago on vacation this year but I need a gasket. How much is that?”
“Get one for everybody!”
Am I car illiterate? Are you microwave-oven illiterate because you can’t repair that when it doesn’t work? It’s just ridiculous that you are supposed to be this technician with something that has too many moving parts that can get screwed up and conflict with one another. They can make them better. It’s just too bad Apple blew their marketing and made a lot of terrible decisions. They’re responsible in this thing, too. Their stuff works and makes sense. I can call a file what I call it. I write something, “Bush Sucks,” to me, that’s my little note. Hopefully what I wrote is more clever than that, but to me I know, “Oh that’s the ‘Bush Sucks’ essay.” Actually, I put in one the other day and found out there was already one from 1991, but that’s a different story. I never call anything ‘Doc.’ Except, if I’m sick. It’s too bad. though. It’s sort of like AOL. Inertia. People get that kind of computer, they stick with it. They’re on AOL, they stay there. You know how that goes…
RB: (Both laugh) Is this the part of the program where I foreswear AOL. “Okay, I’m giving it up, soon.”
BC: Good, good. Satan.com. See that yellow thing there. That’s called (fake announcer’s voice) The Sun.
RB: I’ve been reading David Hadju’s book about the Fariñas and Dylan and Baez. Which has a lot to do with creative relationships and relationships between creative people. Here you and I are roughly contemporaries of those people…
BC: Well, you do what you do. If you sit around. I don’t know, I never…
RB: Well, they were really influential people and the most fascinating [to me] character was killed in a motorcycle accident on his wife’s 21st birthday. What could he have been?
BC: I think. What do I think? Hmm. You can’t become overwhelmed with whatever the contemporary results of your art are, the obvious manifestations of your art. I think everyone you mentioned is a wonderful artist and has done great stuff, and as it happens their stuff has clicked and they’ve been able to have a good audience for what they’ve done and that’s wonderful. If you look at the history of all sorts of art and literature you find a lot of people who put things down and recorded things, painted things that they just did because they were obliged to do so. And not even in their entire lifetimes did they realize that they would have this profound effect upon people for generations after they were gone. Art in some ways has to be an act of faith and an act of responsibility and you don’t know when what you do is going to kick in or if it’s going to kick in. Maybe, it isn’t supposed to be all about that. I think all we can do is leave some sort of a trail. That’s where the technological stuff comes in handy, we can leave much better trails with that and maybe it’s for someone else to sort out. Who knows, maybe all your photos that you’ve taken, that’s an unbelievable piece of history, that stuff is there and it’s tangible…who knows what will come of it.
RB: I don’t.
BC: We are conditioned to think we suck because we are not completely celebrated everyday. I just celebrate because I don’t have to go to work at NormoCorp everyday. I’m sitting out here in the early morning with the sun, with the birds singin’, and the dogs lying here, talkin’ with you, about whatever we want to talk about. We already won. We already won. They didn’t get me. I’m not worried about dealing with some nitwit middle manager all day who’s makin’ me feel stressed out and screwin’ up my life. I’m sittin’ here. I have to fly to New Mexico tomorrow to talk about why the drug war is stupid. That’s all I gotta do.
RB: I think when you mount your final show, that the big production number ought to be that Sinatra tune, "My Way."
BC: I was thinkin’ more of a Gordon McCrae song, (sings) "This is my country, land that I love…"—which I was singin’ the other day when Jeffords aced Bush. Being a good son of Vermont, Senator Jeffords knows when the sap is running and when to run from the sap. Right now my life is in inverse proportion to most people’s in one way. Professionally, something as dark and looming as the Bush administration come along, again. Everybody’s feeling pretty gloomy—everybody, being people that might be of like mind and heart—but for me it’s oddly invigorating. This re-energizes my audience, people want to hear from me now. It provides me with the opportunity to rail against stuff I enjoy railing against. It’s the ultimate mixed blessing. I would much rather remain in the background and not have something this terrible happen. It’s fun. It’s like being a hitter in baseball and you’re hot, you see everything, the rotation on the ball. I see the rotation on everything that these clowns throw at us. I could hit the hell out of the ball, before. I could hit this guy’s father and he was a better pitcher. Maybe the most optimistic thing you can say about it is: It will give us another chance to galvanize progressives and progressive thought and enlarge the progressive community. If we are going to do that, we have to repair a lot of stuff that’s wrong with progressives in the first place. A lot of that is just they’re no fun.
RB: An Oscar Wilde anecdote comes to mind. He was asked why he wasn’t a socialist and responded, “I prefer to keep my evenings free.”
BC: Whether it’s the Dennis Miller Show or politics—meetings, that’s the problem with the left. Meetings are group therapy for a couple of dominant malcontents. Whoever the Type A misfits are. “I have a few things I’d like to share before we get on with discussing that BABIES ARE BEING BOMBED OVER THERE. A few personal issues first.” The first thing I do when I go to one of those meetings is say, "The first thing I want is consensus on consensus. Unless everyone agrees to there being consensus we don’t have consensus. Okay. That’s not what we’re gonna use." That screws ‘em all up. So please, everybody remember that ploy. Consensus. Why don’t you just call it what it is. Paralysis. We have to make it seem fun and attractive to be progressives. We have to welcome converts. We have not to treat people in a condescending manner when they show up and seem interested. Not, “You don’t know about this. You don’t know about that.” There are so many people that are so cutting and negative and cruel to people who come in. “I just wanted to help. But now that I realize that was scum for not being here three years ago like you, I guess I’ll leave,” And we’re back down to havin’ nobody. There’s a lot of people in the Movement. Or the Stagnant or whatever you want to call it that are happy. They know how to fail. They’re good a failure and so they’re scared of succeeding. They would rather spend their whole life fightin’ over little chunks of turf than lift up their heads and see that the whole world is there to gain.
RB: Isn’t part of the pathology of a progressive that they have to be self-critical, sometimes self-hating and certainly contentious. Consequently social skills seem to suffer…
BC: You can be skeptical without being self-loathing. You have something there because you end up discussing all the time how much people hate themselves. That has be sorted and gotten over to realize they’re okay and were just some nice kid who got betrayed in one way…
To be continued.
All photos by Robert Birnbaum / Duende Publishing.