Austrian writer Clemens Marschall’s Avant-Garde from Below: Transgressive Performance from Iggy Pop to Joe Coleman and GG Allin (distributed in the US by Last Gasp) is a beautifully published hardback book about his adventures in the American counterculture. I found it a highly enjoyable read. I love interview books to begin with and if you’re hungry for the flavor of a classic RE/Search volume, this 2016 publication—which includes an interview with RE/Search’s own V. Vale, among other characters such as Richard Kern, Monte Cazzaza, SRL’s Mark Pauline, Greil Marcus, Stooge James Williamson, writer George Petros and art critic Carlo McCormick—should sate your appetite with its densely packed 409 pages.
In an email, he described his interviews having:
“...a focus on performance in the twilight zone between avant-garde and self-destruction; some people like Iggy Pop and Joe Coleman found a way out of that dangerous downward spiral, whereas GG Allin took it right to the end. And it’s also about playing with fire, taking things too far: A lot of people find it funny to pretend being into serial killers and violence, but once they really get into it, the fun stops pretty quickly. That’s one of the reasons why Sondra London ends the book. She is one of those who couldn’t stop and had to pay for her transgressions again and again.”
Marschall’s obsessions include freak shows, sex museums, murderers and dive bars. He lists among his odd jobs “sorting Jello Biafra’s huge record collection.” Below, an excerpt from Avant-Garde from Below: Transgressive Performance from Iggy Pop to Joe Coleman and GG Allin, a short, but nevertheless wide-ranging interview with painter Joe Coleman. At the very end, Joe’s wife, photographer Whitney Ward, says something about her husband’s youthful criminal proclivities that caused me to laugh out loud.
Clemens Marschall: Almost everyone who got involved with transgressive performance refers to Iggy Pop as a huge influence. Was Iggy also important to you?
Joe Coleman: No, I knew very little about Iggy. I had this punk band called Steel Tips back in the ’70s, but my influences came from country, western and blues. Don Van Vliet, Captain Beefheart, was maybe the most transgressive influence that I had at that time. I consider Trout Mask Replica a really ground-breaking record. Don had his band kinda trapped in his house where he kept them performing like 18 hours a day and fed them with beans and a slice of bread – maybe, if they played well. And he taught them the music on a piano that he couldn’t play. He would bang out the piano keys and ask them to imitate what he’d just played, but he didn’t even know what the fuck he was doing! [laughs] And when they finally tried to get it exactly the way that he had murdered those keys, then he would say, “OK, now you play it like you were jumping out of a window!” [laughs]
That’s the kind of stuff that interested me back at the time, and then also the performers in Austria, the Viennese Actionists: Günter Brus, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. They were more of an influence because I was trying to combine music and performance, turn tribal rituals into some kind of performance that I wanted to bring back to psychopathology.
You were getting away from music and focusing on performance from very early only, making it more pure. But did you ever feel satisfied with the Steel Tips or was it that you always wanted to put it one step ahead, get rid of the musical context?
Joe Coleman: At one point, at the beginning, I trusted the music, but not for very long. There’s always something in music that would make it somehow acceptable, create a border, like a caption over the events. What I preferred was walking into strangers’ homes and blowing myself up, where there are no borders. I wanted to get back to that kind of real transgressive energy and bring that into theatre. There was that thing called ‘performance art’, you know, where they were supposedly being subversive, and I was looking at stuff like Laurie Anderson and thinking, “That’s not subversive.” When you wanna make something subversive, you set yourself on fire; you point your shotgun at the audience and chase them out. And that’s what I was compelled to do at that time of my life.
The first time I read about you was in Pranks! by V. Vale. I was asking myself if you feel that what you did was a prank or if you think that sounds too frivolous. Because, no matter what you do, you do it in a very sincere way.
Joe Coleman: Yeah, I know, it’s been a strange experience in my life, because a few years ago, when the Jackass movie came out, there was a review in the LA Times that compared Jackass to Marcel Duchamp and myself. I like a lot of the things these Jackass guys are doing – but it’s very different from what I was doing! The things I was doing were desperate attempts at communication. There was also humour involved, but it was a whole different kind of thing. I was paying lawyers to defend me; I wasn’t getting paid zillions of dollars to do a show. I was compelled to make these things happen.
At one point in your career, you and GG Allin had the same promoter for your shows.
Joe Coleman: Yeah, that was an interesting coincidence that at a time a really delightful and beautiful lady called Jeri Cain Rossi was interested in both of us. She’s a great writer and so insightful that she saw the importance of what GG Allin was doing at the time and what I was doing at the time. She went to court for me, she had to pay fines, but she always stuck by me and really believed it was important to do these shows.
Looking at your career, you’ve been to prison for what you did; you had to go to court; you’ve been accused of being an ‘infernal machine’. What do you think about the connection between art and crime?
Joe Coleman: There is this idea of crime itself: when people form tribes, then they form states, then they form governments – there needs to be an antidote. Crime, in its basic sense, is an antidote to the order. But it doesn’t have the honesty that I’m after. Real subversion requires more thought than pilfering somebody’s pocket. Real subversion is pilfering somebody’s mind and infecting the mind so that it actually can be free. The whole structure is built on swamp gas and mirrors and cardboard and that’s more important. Crime just shows the will against established power.
You have been in contact with criminals like Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy. Can you tell me how this began?
Joe Coleman: I’ve corresponded with a lot of people that I thought had a lot to say, that were philosophers in their own certain way. Manson is a great philosopher and I remember the first time he really struck me. I started to get fascinated by him when he was in court and said, “Look down on me and you’ll see a fool. Look up at me and you’ll see a God. Look me in the eyes and you’ll see yourself.” He’s absolutely right. For many years, he spoke these really compelling arguments. I don’t have any defense for the murders committed, I don’t defend that at all, I’m totally against that, but what I’m saying is, “Listen to the word of the person who is in pain; listen to the word of someone who’s pushed to that degree; somebody who could speak that eloquently of his own pain.”
I also admire Charles Bronson who was being incarcerated in the UK for longer than anyone else, as far as I know, but he never killed anyone. He is certainly a violent offender but he’s got a brilliant mind, and he speaks of the pain and the misfits of society–and I care about the misfits. They deserve a voice. If society wants to learn anything, listen to the voice, don’t squash it out. When somebody finds out that they have cancer and they’re trying to express it to someone who does not have cancer, it’s uncomfortable for the person who’s listening. In fact, the person who’s listening almost feels like the mere mention of the word ‘cancer’ can cause them to have the disease as well. It makes them wanna remove themselves from the connection. But if you really want to avoid cancer, then you better listen and talk with that person and not ignore them!
Whitney Ward: If Joe was born ten years later, he’d be in jail… or dead. Because all his antics were so far ahead of their time. You couldn’t walk into strangers’ homes now exploding –are you kidding?! I mean, there was this kind of provincial naiveté at the time. It wouldn’t just be like, “Oh, these kids are disturbed, they might be on acid. We’ll call their parents, where do you live?” Today, this would be like a national event!
This is an excerpt from Clemens Marschall’s Avant-Garde from Below: Transgressive Performance from Iggy Pop to Joe Coleman and GG Allin.
Bonus clip, Joe Coleman talks “pranks” with RE/Search back in 1987. There’s some great footage from some of his early Professor Mombooze-o performances. Hilarious.