Sunday, July 28, 2013

RIP Mick Farren: The Obsolete Interview

I did this interview with Mick late last year- it appears in OBSOLETE! #7 and "The Best of OBSOLETE!"

He was so generous with his time and loved the underground paper aspect of OBSOLETE!– he was our single most consistent contributor. His guidance and encouragement was a big part of what kept us going.
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OM: Do you think there is room for a real “underground” in the age of twitter?

MF:I think it’s probably a double-edged sword. It’s never too clear what’s meant when we talk about an underground. If we’re talking about the psychedelic left – which is how I’ve pretty much always described my political persuasion – then social networks, blogs, Twitter, and, indeed the whole of the internet, make a lot of things possible that could never have been achieved in a time of print, limited access to radio, and even more limited access to broadcast TV. The internet is impossible to control and almost impossible to censor. It is a near infinite resource of a vast variety of information. You want to build a bomb or cook crystal meth? Hell, it’s all there. The potential offered by instant communication has scarcely been scratched. Flash mobs? Viral protests like the ones during the BP Gulf oil spill? They are only the tip of a huge subversive iceberg. Like I said though, it’s a double-edged sword. It’s a huge resource and if you want to find out about The Rapture or the Earth being flat that’s all there too. The internet is also wholly transparent. Any passing troll or secret policeman can see exactly what you’re doing, and, of course, computers never forget anything. A perfect example occurred during the recent UK riots. Looters were coordinating their efforts on iPhones and Blackberries but also had the police listening in, and then rounding them up later using their call records. You have to keep moving and keep a low profile. It makes visible leaders like Julian Assange hopelessly vulnerable.

OM:I feel like digital technology has knocked some of the sharp edges off western culture. Does your experience as a writer of science fiction inform how you feel about the new media environment? Is this the future you would have expected?

MF:I guess this is close to the future I expected. It’s not the utopia I dreamed about, but it also isn’t the glow-in-the-dark nuclear wasteland that was our worst-case scenario back in the 20th century. I’m not one of those ancient 1960s freaks who whine about the revolution being a lost boulevard of broken dreams. The gay movement, despite a fatal plague, has made great advances. Feminism is changing the face of society. We warned of a lot of current dangers, especially in the area of the environment and the spread of global totalitarian capitalism, but we were ignored, often ridiculed, and now the price is being paid. Yes, we told you so, but you chose to believe the oil baron’s media shills! The current media environment is nothing short of bonkers since Craig’s List gutted the newspapers – both mainstream and alternative – by taking away the classified ads. “50 Shades of Grey” is a bestseller while small independent imprints are publishing any worthwhile writing and inspired experiments in print. Literature and especially poetry is rapidly coming a wholly DIY business – only business is hardly the right word since no money is being made on the web except by Amazon. Sony can’t keep free Bob Dylan off YouTube; creativity on the internet – that may well be the repository of most popular creativity – can’t be supported by paid corporate advertising and t-shirts. Ultimately the web may spawn a form of cyber-socialism since capitalism can’t really handle it except by constantly reconfiguring the hard and software to sell us new but hardly improved versions of the same old shit..  

OM: In your autobiography “Give the Anarchist a Cigarette”, you describe your time on the scene in London in the 60's, and it reads to me as having been ground zero for the “Modern Age”. In many ways it seems more modern than the present, despite our technological advances. There was an energy and excitement about the future, and revolutionary changes in all aspects of life. Where do you think that went?

MF: In the 1960s, we were on our way to the Moon; we thought we were going to Mars and Stanley Kubrick told us we’d make it to the moons of Jupiter by 2001. We took our drugs and believed all things were possible. The floodgates looked wide open, even as the corporate filters were closing on us. Obviously I am extremely disappointed that all we’ve now got in the future is fancy phones, robot drones, CCTV and Twitter. Some developments are nothing short of bizarre. The Black Panther Party is nostalgic history, but America elects center right black president. Norman Spinrad predicted in his 1969 novel “Bug Jack Barron” that, by around 1980, Acapulco Golds – legal packaged marijuana – is sold across the counter. In reality the War On Drugs drags on into a new century and is close to destroying Mexico. Where do I think the energy and excitement went? I think it got hard when it ceased to be just a sex, drugs, and rock & roll culture war and we hit the real thing. We were taking on the whole concept of capitalism. It might not look like it, but capitalism is fighting for its life and capitalism fights hard and dirty. 

OM: Are you seeing signs of real revolution anywhere now?

MF: I think it’s all around us. There’s Occupy, there’s the One Percent. But, for the moment, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for America. A century ago the Bolsheviks had no trouble motivating a Russian underclass that was starving and oppressed by Cossacks. How you move a proletariat that weighs 500 pounds, lives on animal fat and high fructose corn syrup, and is hard wired to Fox News and the Bible is beyond me. You have to look past the USA and think more internationally. Kids in the UK went one a mindless instinctive rampage looting and burning. The workers in Greece and Spain have been pushed much too close to the edge by the so-called austerity – a racket that’s truly nothing more than a global scam for the rich to get all of the money. They’re mad as hell and not going to take it much longer. Then there’s the Arab Spring in the Middle East, which is a real AK47 shooting revolution. The only problem there is it will most likely be taken over by jihadists who will drag it back into a very nasty thirteenth century. I hear interesting things coming out of Bangalore, the Indian DIY Silicon Valley. Indeed, my revolutionary bets are on the “BRICK” nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and Korea. Pussy Riot may be showing us all the way of the future. 


OM: In addition to being too fat to fight, Americans are too medicated as well.  In the last issue of OBSOLETE! we ran a story called "Why Anti-Authoritarians are Diagnoses as Mentally Ill", in which psychiatrist Bruce Levine lays out how the American medical establishment is actively engaged in maintaining the status quo by medicating away dissent.  On the other end, kids in the Northwest are getting arrested for possession of anarchist literature, essentially thought crimes. I know that the UK is surpassing even the US in CCTV use and other high tech surveillance- since returning to live in the England, do you see that having an effect on the national consciousness?

MF: This shit has been going on at least since Napoleon banged up The Marquis de Sade in the lunatic asylum at Charenton, Let’s not forget that De Sade – aside from being a world class perv – was also an early utopian socialist. Stalin was very good at locking away dissidents in mental hospitals. In the US ECT and lobotomy were 20th century favourites for keeping the rebellious in line. Think of Francis Farmer or the fictional McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. Nurse Ratched is the scourge of though crime. In the Levittown, production-line conformity of the 1950s, the CIA had a mission goal of creating what they dubbed the “psycho-civilized society”. Totalitarian capitalism where conformity would be maintained with speed, barbiturates, and meprobamate happy pills (Milltowns) a pre-Valium tranquilliser, reinforcing a constant barrage of anti-Soviet better-dead-than-Red paranoia and massive sexual repression. I believe Elvis Presley and rock & roll did a whole lot to upset that apple cart.

I would venture that a slightly different perspective on the war on drugs is that it’s a face-off between Ritalin, Adderall, Valium, Prozac and Thorazine on one side and pot, acid, MDMA, and DMT (if we could get it) on the other. It’s the lockdown drugs against the liberating drugs. Those are the chemical battle lines.

I don’t worry about CCTV too much because I’m so fucking ancient I don’t participate in street actions any more, I do notice that teen fashions now tend to conceal the face – masks, hoodies, balaclavas etc. (Pussy Riot), anything to hide the facial biometrics. I’m hoping we will have a future fad for really elaborate renaissance-style masks.    

OM: At some point in the 70's you turned from writing for the underground press and song writing to writing Sci Fi. I first got on board with The Song of Phaid the Gambler
in the early 80's, but then went back to DNA Cowboys and other earlier stuff. How did you start writing Sci Fi- were you a fan as a kid and does that relate in any way to the political or musical sides of your work? There is a thread of Sci Fi sensibility in the bands you have written for- Hawkwind, Mötorhead....

I really don’t have a neat answer for this. I was a space cadet before I was a rocker. It’s like the two halves of my brain and it’s all interconnected. I started at five years old with a Brit comic Dan Dare Pilot of The Future and Flash Gordon and just sailed on from there. Sci Fi has such potential for stretching one’s imagination. The path led through Arthur C. Clarke, Orwell, Phil Dick, Ellison, Mike Moorcock, (who is a friend) and on to Uncle Bill Burroughs (who was a mentor), which meshed neatly with the surreal “Gates Of Eden” period of Bob Dylan. The DNA Cowboys books were really an attempt to set a narrative in a quasi-Dylan world. And of course, Sci Fi was an essential preparation for psychedelic drugs. It’s also a perfect medium for satire and oblique political commentary When I started, I didn’t really didn’t give up anything else, I was working at the NME and writing songs with Lemmy and Larry Wallis and later Andy Colquhoun with whom I still work today. I just wasn’t singing in a band right then which gave me some time on my hands and you can only watch so much television after the bars close. This all makes perfect sense to me. I don’t know about anyone else.      


OM: Sci Fi has been very much fan-driven since it's earliest days, as was rock and roll. The "Fanzine" goes back to early 20th century amateur Sci Fi publications, long before the pre-internet punk rock "zine" explosion. Now, the blogosphere is like one giant fanzine.  As a veteran of the indie publishing scene, what roll do you see for indie book publishers in the coming years?

Whatever future I might have in print – especially now I’m concentrating on poetry and experimental fiction – would seem to be entirely in indie publishing. There’s essentially no longer any point in dealing with the major publishing houses in NYC or London. They only want to publish Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Grey and cookbooks. The real question is how much of the work I’m doing will be in print. I firmly believe that popular art and popular culture always adapts itself to the prevailing technology. The 1960s underground press – particularly the very colourful one like Oz (UK) and The Oracle (Bay Area) – got real jiggy with the web offset printing. Punk zines of the 1970s where make possible by fairly sophisticated copier machines like the Cannon 500. Now we have all the ramifications of the internet from Twitter to YouTube, to Pirate Bay. On the other hand, people still have a need for tangible objects from the past. The obvious example is music on vinyl. (Or Obsolete) I could see a lot of my fiction coming out as ebooks. (Although I do see a problem with a lack of visual reinforcement. Where would all those Conan books have been without the Frank Frazetta covers?) Other stuff, especially poetry lends itself better to print. Book will increasingly become object rather than just delivery systems for information. They will be read but also be treasured, collected, and put on shelves or left lying around to impress visitors. All in all, I’m open to anything, open to offers, and riding into the purple sunset to see what happens next. Right now I’m pushing the novelette Road Movie that is published by Penny Ante. The UK indie publisher Headpress will be bringing out the first deluxe hardback edition of Elvis Died For Somebody’s Sins But Not Mine, which is a mammoth “greatest hits” collection of my essays, commentary, short stories etc., and I also wrote a learned introduction to a coffee table collection called Classic Rock Posters. And back catalogue is still up on Amazon. (Mick has left the computer.)