Rock & Roll Exorcism, Kayfabe & Familia Discordia: An Interview with Writer, Musician &
There are writers. There are musicians. There are Renaissance Men and then there's Mike Edison. A scribe and editor for magazines like High Times, Screw, Hustler & Spin, Edison first came upon my periphery with his must-read tome, Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! - Of Playboys, Pigs, and Penthouse Paupers, An American Tale of Sex and Wonder. His blend of on point cultural commentary and humor had the effect of being lucky enough to have a really smart friend tell you these great and occasionally insane stories while you two down a few pineapple rimmed sling-tinis at the local watering hole. I was hooked.
Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! was my gateway drug to the weird wild and admittedly fun looking world of Mike Edison. I soon discovered other facets, such as his virulent passion for the sweaty pageantry of professional wrestling, a world which he has written about numerous times. Then there's the music. With his band Edison Rocket Train, he has bridged in elements of dirty rock, spoken word vibe-age and tinges of blues. They even did a incredibly cute and bizarrely enough, holiday themed, cover of the Roky Erickson chestnut, “I Walked With a Zombie.” (Even better, that was recorded under the banner of Mike Edison & the Space Liberation Army.) Not content with all that, he even hosts a weekly podcast entitled Arts & Seizures, a show that has featured one of the absolute swankiest men in rock & roll, Fleshtones singer and living zeitgeist, Peter Zaremba.
So when the opportunity struck to interview Mike and read his latest book, You're a Complete Disappointment, the answer was a no-brainer. Delving into some personally borderline brutal territory of familial dysfunction and decades-old wounds, Edison still retains a sense of humor and a rarefied self objectivity. It's an honest, warm handshake from the heart kind of book.
And with that, here's you own peek into the Rocket Train man himself.
Q: You are a Complete Disappointment is one of the most raw, yet strangely well centered memoirs I have read in a long time. In the realm of writing, confronting yourself and especially the sticky-wicket of childhood memories bleeding into happiness and trauma, has to be one of the most difficult arenas ever. How long has this book been brewing for you? Was there a particular moment or epiphany that made you realize that you had to create this work?
It was about five seconds after my father beat me down in his hospital room that I knew I was going to write this book – he really gave me a gift with that speech. YOU ARE A COMPLETE DISAPPOINTMENT!!!! Holy fuck, I didn’t see it coming, it really blew me out of the water. And all the rest... I knew it was going to be a barroom jewel, at least, it was some kind of masterpiece of Jewish tragic-comic guilt, but it also put into very stark relief that my old man was a heel. It would be one thing for me to tell you that – but like I said, those last minutes on his death bed is what sold it. Like I’ve said, it was the “sedition of his glands.” It was his true-self betraying his gimmick of being a proper, conservative, preppy. I mean, when you use your last breath on earth to scream at your kid you have some seriously unresolved issues. And when your very last words – I mean after all this shit about what a huge disappoint I had been – when your last words are “I cant believe someone as smart as you likes professional wrestling...?” I mean, seriously, there is your epiphany right there.
I had sworn I wasn’t going to write about wresting anymore – it just splits crowds, most people don’t want to hear about it – you know what I always say, Wrestling is like what Dostoevsky said about Faith – if you get it, no explanation is necessary, if you don’t, no explanation will do. I’m not evangelical trying to explain why I find pro wrestling so entertaining – though I do celebrate it’s unselfconscious unreality, and a certain retarded charisma that the best bad guys always have – but it remains such a good metaphor, the concept that everything you see is a put-on. And as much as he hated it, that was my old man. He was all gimmick, all the way, then he broke down and told me what he really thought. YOU ARE A COMPLETE DISAPPOINTMENT. And then they carted him off to die. Seemed like a good place to start the story.
Q: Having parental acceptance when you're an artist is a real crap shoot for too many, with the reasons ranging from Keeping-Up-With-The-Jones's paranoia to well intentioned fears of surviving in a world that isn't always cut out for our types. When writing “You are...,” did you ever think of it in terms of being a way of reaching out to the younger “you's” out there?
Maybe not at first, but after I found myself on a shrink’s couch, definitely. I was probably the last Jewish guy in New York to get a therapist, haha, but jokes aside, when your Dad’s last words to you are YOU ARE A LOSER – and I am standing there thinking, really? I just finished lecturing at the New York Public Library on free speech and censorship. I ghost wrote a New York Times Bestseller and had a great year. My band was playing all the time. I had become the guy I had wanted to be and was, in a word, happy. But that shit got into my head. LOSER. DISAPPOINTMENT. And the next time I got a rejection, and as a writer it is a big part of the trip, I could not let it go. I heard his voice telling me, Told ya so.
Originally the book was going to be largely about his status anxiety and being what I call a “taste bully.” My old man was a snob – that wrestling thing was no joke, he looked down on any and all low-brow culture, he thought I was a moron because I like horror movies and comic books. And this when I was eight years old! But Dr. Headshrinker, as I affectionately call her, saw a pattern of abuse in my life, since I was a little kid, and she was right – seven years old and being yelled at to “grow up” and be somebody I wasn’t. Being berated when I was a teenager for playing rock’n’roll – my band had just seen some success, we were playing in Europe and Japan, and were opening up for the Ramones, it was a great time, and he told me “I hate you because you get to live your dreams and I never did.”
Apparently, my story isn’t so uncommon. Not the part about playing with the Ramones or me becoming a writer, but the part about parents telling their kids that they’ll never make it, that they aren’t that smart – “Why cant you be more like your brother?” Oy fucking vey. It happens all the time. Discouraging kids from their dreams is fucking evil. And children need love. You cant create them in your own image, it will backfire every fucking time. Like the Island of Doctor Moreau – it is a sick strain of narcissism. And now people call me telling me how much they relate to my book, and how it has inspired them to either let go of the anger they feel for their parents who strafed them with insecurity, or to be better to their own kids and help them find themselves – especially kids who want to be artists or anything non-traditional. My story has a happy ending. Me. I’m good. Dr. Headshrinker says it doesn’t always work out that way.
Q: Two of your biggest life muses seem to be professional wrestling and music, both getting a lot of mentions throughout the book. With the latter, you have turned it into another fascinating component of your creative career, with the most recent work being with your band , “Edison Rocket Train.” With the former, you have written about it in assorted articles and mentions in past tomes. Do you have any current wrestling daydreams or matches that should have been but never quite were?
In a sick way Donald Trump is fulfilling many wrestling fantasies, but he is also undermining my whole concept — I mean, in another venue, I would really love this guy. He combines the best parts of The Million Dollar Man with Rowdy Roddy Piper. He says anything to get heat – if he were a wrestler, and actually, technically, he has been – he’d be packing them in. Roddy Piper told me one time that the bad guys sell tickets, not the good guys, and here is Trump, holy shit, sold out every night. Except this isn’t wrestling, so I’m not laughing. The good part, if you want to see it this way, is that his candidacy is a complete indictment of how sick the system is. The two party system is a fraud, the illusion of choice, the craven quest for power, it is all so fucked up. This is Sinclair Lewis’ book IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE ... actually happening. It’s fucked up, I know, but I am enjoying watching it on an extremely perverse level, and anyone who clicks on TRUMP when they are scanning news on the Internet is just as guilty– it’s the same sick pleasure that comes with picking at a wound. You know it’s wrong. Nothing good can come of it. You can only make it worse. And yet... gosh, I really wish I could write the end to the Trump angle. Basically I would like to see the giant foot from Monty Python come down and squash him and be done with it, but I am afraid it won’t be so easy.
Q: Speaking of wrestling, who would make it into your ultimate top five-ish list of the greatest of all time?
I love that this has turned to wrestling, haha. You are really pushing my pleasure button. And I wont say guilty pleasure, because I don’t do guilt. Top Five – off the top of my head, Ric Flair is of course the greatest wrestler who ever lived. He had a work ethic like James Brown – epic matches every night, no matter what town you saw him in, you thought you were witnessing history being made. He could sell it like no one else. I am a big fan of the great managers of the 1970s, Fred Blassie “The King of Men;” Capt. Lou Albano, and the Grand Wizard of Wrestling who was this shriveled Jew in a turban and claimed to be the smartest man in the world. Before he was the Grand Wizard he wore a fez and called himself Abdullah Farouk. They all managed heels – bad guys – and it was all just absurd and wonderful. It’s hard for me to watch these days because it just isn’t as funny – when wrestling takes itself too seriously I lose interest. I love the big bumps – falling thirty feet off of a steel cage into a bank of television monitors, flaming bats wrapped in barbed wire, all that stuff – but I miss goofy gimmicks like coffin matches and drag queen wrestlers.
Q: With your music, is there a different kind of release with creating it versus your writing? Are the two connected for you or is it two unique passions under one creative umbrella?
The urge to create is very strong. The urge to never be boring in overwhelming. Writing is like having homework everyday, and it means a lot of time alone at the kitchen table. It takes a lot of discipline, it can get very lonely, but I like the results. Playing music is much more immediate, its like turning on the TV. But then again, that’s why so many people do it. I guess I am trying to find the connective tissue – you know I tour my books and try to bring them to life, I bring great musicians with me – last week my band had Dee Pop (Gun Club, Bush Tetras, the Clash) on drums, Bob Bert (Sonic Youth) – my favorite beatnik – on bongos, Jon Spencer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on twisted fuzz guitar, and my main man, my constant collaborator, Mickey Finn (Boss Hog, Left Bank, etc) on keys. I was up on the mic telling stories from all of my books, from the most heartbreaking stuff to the filthiest stuff... to me this all seems normal but we are having a hard time telling people what we do. “Stories,,,, with music?” Seems simple, but somehow it confuses people. Until they see it – “Oh, it’s psychedelic X rated comedy!” Sure. Because if I told you that, you would have understood, haha. I guess it all comes together at some point. It’s just me being me.
Q: Given the intense and discordant relationship you had with your late father, has writing “You're a....” given you a sense of exorcism and closure? (The last chapter is especially beautiful, for the record, though I am not going to spoil it for any potential readers!)
That’s very nice of you to say – sometimes there is so much craziness in my story that it is hard to put the compassion and heartbreak across, people are always looking for a laugh. Plenty of those, but life comes at you pretty hard, right? Writing this was definitely a move towards exorcising the harmful spirits of my old man, but it wasn’t written as revenge, and I didn’t write it just for me – my therapy – I wrote it first with the audience in mind. I know, because James Brown and Ric Flair taught me, that even while you are making sense of your own demons, there is nothing more important than the audience.
Q: What are your current muses in music, writing and life in general?
I think I may be very old-fashioned because I love “modern art.” I mean modern in the sense of 20th Century movements – I love abstract expressionism and cubism, which I do not think has been fully explored, at least as it applies to other things besides painting, the implications of bending time and space and looking at things from angles that have not previously existed... then again I love to get stoned and go to the Met and live in the Italian renaissance – those paintings are all about extreme suffering and God’s boundless grace, which is more or less what day-to-day life in Brooklyn is like, just not writ so large. I love Bob Dylan because he is such an unreconstructed version of himself, staying on the road, the last great troubadour. I laugh out loud everyday – I see a lot of absurdity and a lot of wonder all around me. That keeps me going. And people who are doing great work – Dan Clowes’ new book Patience just re-set the bar higher, it is an amazing accomplishment. Stuff like that pushes me to work harder.
Q: Are your siblings any more understanding of your journey, both with this book and being an artist as a whole?
As if. Frankly they are fairly aloof. I think if they dove in they would be terrified. Also, honestly, no one is ever thrilled to read a memoir about their family. Even when I have nice things to say it cuts pretty close to the bone.
Q: You already have an impressive career, both with books like Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!, your article work for publications like High Times, Huffington Post & New York Press, as well as your long standing music career, including a really great, holiday themed cover of Roky Erickson's “I Walked With a Zombie.” What goals do you have for the future? (Both in terms of the near and far off future!)
I want to keep exploring the idea of performing the books with live music, with my crazy band of beatniks, and turn it into a full-fledged one-man show or off-Broadway something-or-other. Mickey Finn has been an amazing collaborator and we have all sorts of ideas, he deserves a lot of credit for the literary mayhem. I am doing an audio book of my X rated political satire Bye, Bye Miss American Pie – it will be out in September and will sound something like a very greasy radio play, with porny music and a very lascivious reading. Gonna get back to the Edison Rocket Train and perpetrate some more dirty blues and gospel. And write another book, or two... also I have a ghost writing gig coming up, a good one, with an Italian chef. Food and wine are great motivators!
Q: If you could impart any wisdom or advice to anyone who is trying to follow their passions with a less than supportive home base, what would it be?
Learn to stop worrying. Don’t be the tree that snaps in the wind, be the one that bends. Let go of anger, or use it to make art. Forgive your parents for they know not... ah, that’s bullshit. They know exactly what they are doing, but they cant help themselves. It’s who they are. My parents were uptight squares who lived in fear and thought that dreaming was the danger zone. But it isn’t who you have to be. Evel Knievel used to tell me that it is better to suffer failure and great defeat and never to know the joy of victory, than to live in that gray twilight where you no neither, because you didn’t have the balls to try either one. You gotta look into the abyss and figure out who the fuck you are. And then try not to let the mutherfuckers bring you down.
Huge thanks to the man himself for taking the time out for this piece and for being the real deal. You can purchase You Are a Complete Disappointment and some of Mike's other books right here.