Conversation with Tamra Spivey, November 2001

Randy Roark’s Mona Lisa’s Veil: Selected Poems 1979-2001 will be released in December 2001 by Baksun Books.

Tamra Spivey is lead singer of Lucid Nation, an ever-changing ensemble who most recently included drummer Patty Schemel of Hole and bassist Greta Brinkman of Moby’s band.

Tamra: I learned from your note about Kerouac and Ginsberg’s “practiced” improvisation, and felt less guilty about recording extra vocal tracks for tracks I felt needed them.

Randy: This is what I think is the essence of improvisation: It’s a form of practicing your instrument along with your mind/senses. Then later, even when you’re “revising” your work, you can re-write it or re-play it with that same spontaneous mind. Or you can make room for improvisation within a structure-like Miles Davis. What you can never do is go back to the deadness and dullness of something over-produced, or produced poorly. It’s like having a great cup of coffee and then trying to go back to instant. Yeats said it was “to make an hour’s work seem a moment’s thought.” Or as I say, it ultimately doesn’t matter whether it’s improvised or not, but the closer to the truth something seems, the more powerful it is experienced by an audience. Or, as Gregory Corso told Kerouac, “I don’t want to deny any part of mind, including the part that rereads a poem and knows why it sucks.”

Tamra: I’m with Corso, the rigidity of restricting improvisation to its “purest” definition usurps spontaneity.

Randy: It’s also important to remember that Allen and Jack were talking of a highly specialized kind of improvisation, like great jazz (which is what they listened to). But Kerouac had already written a million words (by Burroughs’ estimate) before he began writing The Town and the City. It’s not just improvisation and spontaneity-it’s skilled improvisation and spontaneity. Check out the new Dylan CD-reportedly (like with “Blonde on Blonde”) he’d write a song, teach it to the band, they’d run through it once, then he’d go write another song and the band would go back to playing cards. That’s what some people consider improvisation and spontaneity. When you’ve been successful working with spontaneity and improvisation a couple of times, you learn how to do it, and what works and what doesn’t … or you stop doing it. And if you like it, you get bored and embarrassed by anything else. It’s not real somehow, and you’re just repeating something-there’s no edge or liveliness to it. It’s dead and you’re dead because you’re the one who’s wasting your time doing it.

They were opening a tour a couple of years ago in Boulder and they’d booked two weeks of rehearsal. For the first time in 30 years of doing this, Fripp and the members of the band had absolutely nothing to show by the end of rehearsals. They had to open in front of an audience the next night and fourteen days of rehearsals had been a complete and total disaster. They didn’t have a rhythm, a melody, or even a structure to use. So they walked out on stage without anything in mind and this guy said it was the best performance he’d ever seen one of Fripp’s bands give-and he goes all the way back to the original King Crimson line-up.

Tamra: Yes, the million words, but another factor is native intelligence and appreciation of some form of technique. For example, our keyboardist on the sessions, Diane, only had piano lessons ten years ago, had never played with a band, and had never played synthesizer, but she played beautifully. She was easily able to enter that space we old whore musicians went, crafting in the moment. Being a big music fan of course helped, but so did her skills as a designer and her love for art history.

There’s a certain proportion or blend of “weights/waits” or elements, did the Taoists call it li? I forget. Whatever, it’s that common flow in all things: fire, fingerprint, agate. I think when you start to see/feel that, you can do remarkable things in arts you’re not as familiar with. Like Woody Guthrie’s paintings, that remind me of early Japanese Zen painting. Randy: “Fire, fingerprint, agate.” That’s a cool line. Interesting flight of mind. I’ll probably steal that one. Don’t be surprised if it turns up in one of my poems. In fact, I’ll make sure of it now. That’ll be the title. The dadaists actually insisted that no real artist could possibly restrict themselves to one means of expression. If you were a painter, well then who would compose more interesting music than a painter, and who could write a more interesting poem than a sculptor, etc. etc. It made for some really interesting art too. But very few artists were good enough to be taken seriously in more than one medium. Ginsberg and photos. Cocteau’s visual art and films (although his visual art’s reputation has suffered somewhat lately, it was once considered on par with Picasso’s), that Maine poet/painter who got famous for his paintings but is now known as much for his poetry, Michelangelo’s paintings and sculptures. I’m sure there are more, but most are like Ferlinghetti and painting, or Ginsberg and music.

Tamra: It’s very odd how our celebrity cult culture wants people to be famous for just one thing. I never knew about the Guthrie paintings till I saw the exhibit the Smithsonian put on at the museum in Tacoma, Washington.

Randy: That’s so cool about your keyboardist. When Bowie and Eno were recording what would become “Heroes,” Bowie had an extraordinary recording budget and didn’t want to work with very many musicians, so they spent all their money on studio time, and Eno would order all these new electronic instruments and throw the manuals away. Everything was new. The designers weren’t musicians, they were engineers and so all they could imagine was to make fake violin sounds and stuff-or what they thought fake violins would sound like. Well, the last thing a musician’s going to be interested in is something designed to sound like fake violins, so they’d fool around and find out what the instruments could sound like. Everything’s an instrument, I think Bowie said, you just have to figure out how to make music with it. Do you realize that (I just realized) Brian Eno’s name is an anagram of One Brain?

Tamra: That is so weird you mentioned that about Bowie because Diane read that story in an issue of “Q” during our sessions and it encouraged her!

Randy: Those kind of coincidences happen all the time in my life. In fact, I began reading an article on Las Vegas in the current issue of “National Geographic Traveler” magazine the moment I first heard you sing the words “Let’s go to Las Vegas.”

Tamra: I think of synchronicities as a sort of guidance system.

Randy: Yeah, but I can never figure out what they’re telling me. Like the Las Vegas thing. What, I’m supposed to go to Las Vegas? Not likely. They happen so frequently to me that I call them my “coincidences of the day.” I counted a string about two weeks ago in a series of e-mails to a friend and I ended up with about seven weird synchronicities in a five-hour period.

Tamra: When I do zines it’s amazing how often the right illustration or quote falls into my hands. There were times I felt I couldn’t open my eyes or reach for something without it belonging in the zine I was working on.

Randy: Yeah, that always happens in art, I think. In fact, if that isn’t happening, it usually isn’t art it’s advertising.

Tamra: Recording and mixing at Uptone went well. Many eerie September 11 foreshadowings in the lyrics. We finished mixing September 10 and were supposed to fly home September 11. Wound up in Tacoma for an extra week. Thirty-five out of 48 tracks got mixed: some shining moments, but it was all somehow awkward and gravitized, if you know what I mean.

Randy: Not really, unless you mean that you ended up with less than you thought you would. I think that’s always the case when you’re working with art that’s still being realized. You shoot for something and you end up somewhere interesting, but it’s not exactly what you hoped for. As Pound put it, there are two kinds of geniuses in the world: There are the ones who are curious about everything and their legacy is a mess made up of 100 half-finished projects and beginning explorations in several directions. And then there are those who come along later and bring things to perfection. They scavenge around, can identify the cool bits and put them all together in their perfect form and basically kill that line of exploration by bringing it to its end (Joyce with Ulysses and Eliot with “The Wasteland”). I think it’s important to know which kind you are and then live accordingly. And I’ve also learned to put something away until I’ve forgotten I’ve written it before I take it out and reread it. If you have that kind of room, that might be something to do. Or just put it out-I’m sure it’s fine.

Tamra: I’d like to be Pound’s finishing genius, but I definitely fall in the explorer category. I feel very helpless to direct my inspiration. It’s like a fever that comes over me. When it says paint, I can’t write a song!

Randy: Yeah, I keep relearning this. Do whatever interests you at the moment and don’t stop until it stops interesting you and then find out what interests you next. Believe me (being one) the explorer has much more fun, and less success, and less of the drag that follows success. They stay very fashionable and respected well past the point of the finishing geniuses because they keep moving and interesting themselves, whereas the others end up chewing themselves up and being, on the whole, completely miserable (in my experience).

Tamra: Yes, that makes sense. the explorer is dealing with the anxieties of beginnings and the finisher the doom of endings. I always wondered if it was both a melancholy and exhilarating feeling, completing a masterpiece. Anyway, we got enough that I feel it’s my first truly great record.

Randy: I always feel that way too! Every time I finish a new book I think this is the best thing I’ve ever written! Every time I give a reading I always end up reading the last thing I’ve finished, sometimes on the way to the gig or even in the audience waiting my turn. That’s why putting books out is such a drag, because that’s what people think of you and you’re somewhere else now. And being in a band you know what’s that like more than I do.

Tamra: I may go to New York City to start a new band. Randy: Wow. Now that’s courage. You’re gutsy.

Tamra: You think? I think the death-rebirth there, the historically unique (for the moment) penetration of American complacency … it seems to me the river of inspiration is going to flow fresh and fast there. I’d like to feel that, be a part of it. Plus stuff is cheap now!

Randy: Oh, yeah, I’m sure that’s true. Or … I wonder. I think the decades of New York City being a huge city are over. Like Beirut.

Tamra: But of course Beirut was not the world center New York City is. And New York City’s whole mythology is about having heart in the face of crisis. As an artist I just feel I need to see and smell and hear it for myself.

Randy: Well, I’m just glad we’ll have a poet reporting from the trenches.

Tamra: Also we have more fans and friends in New York City than L.A. L.A. has proven herself somewhat indifferent to experimental rock since the days the Velvet Underground ran aground here, leaving Jim Morrison’s acid-addled Gerard Malanga impersonation in their wake.

Randy: You know Gerard? That’s much more hip than either the VU or Morrison. I published some of Gerard’s photos in “FRICTION” magazine-his photo of the manuscript of On the Road was on the cover of the Jack Kerouac issue (1983). It’s the only issue that’s sold out, but I’m putting up a website now and the cover will definitely be on it. And he introduced me to Ira Cohen, who took the photo on the cover of the “Doctor Sardonicus” LP for Spirit-a sixties Southern California psychedelic band. One of Ira’s photos is going to be on the cover of my selected. Ira took some really cool photos of Hendrix shot onto Mylar (like the Spirit LP cover-that distorted effect).

Tamra: The only Warhol graduate I’ve met is Holly Woodlawn. The earliest trio version of Lucid Nation backed her up live and recorded with her once. We would play ethnic instruments, flutes, thumb pianos, maybe an acoustic guitar, while she would stream of consciousness about those days. Some of it was amazing. She was raving about the goddess Ishtar and we were coming on like a Babylonian harem band. But after when we listened back we realized none of it was usable because she so expertly insults everyone she mentions!

Randy: Do you have any tapes?!

Tamra: I have to dig up the masters.

Randy: I like Jim Morrison in moderation. He was definitely the start of something big-as big as Elvis. I just wish the songs (and LPs) were better. But I have dozens of live versions of “The End” and “When the Music’s Over” and each and every one is terrific and interesting. What he had was real. And I get the feeling from watching videos of his live shows what it must have been like staring at him as he was standing at the mike staring into the audience, wondering who you were and what this was all about and what the fuck were you doing at a Doors concert in 1969 anyway? How sometimes it seems like he’s just this transparent hologram on stage and he’s actually being beamed down from some other world, just visiting. That’d change you.

Tamra: He had a way with words, as Patricia Keneally Morrison told my guitarist Ronnie. Jim could pack a whole lot of meaning into very few words.

Randy: I’ve heard Lucid Nation’s latest CD and it’s fucking terrific. Let me know when it’s about ready to come out for real and I’ll write a rave review for the Patti Smith list and also if you offer it on Amazon it could go there as well. I find that reviews are best when the object is available-if not, people look around and then forget about it by the time it’s finally out. If you want I’ll send the review to you early … it’s pretty much ready. It’ll take me half an hour or so to write it up from my notes. But I’d like to hear the other two first before I write something, so I have a wider base of information, which’ll probably take me two days or so. By the way, I looked up your site today and I heard your bass player when she toured with Moby two summers ago I think-she looks familiar anyway. That black net outfit and the way she plays the bass off her hip. Oh, by the way, it was so good to suddenly realize I was listening to “Heart of Darkness” after so long. It’s almost as if the Cleveland that David Thomas was singing about in 1977 is the world we’re all living in now.

Tamra: Yeah, that’s Greta! I actually prefer David’s original version with Peter Laughner’s Rocket from the Tomb.

Randy: See, that’s another one-I’m a huge Pere Ubu fan and yet I’d never heard of Rocket from the Tomb until last night when I was paging through a psych magazine I bought a couple of days ago because it had a CD with tracks by Bevis Frond and I’m a fan. And there was also a variety of psych artists from the sixties to the late nineties, including Japanese psych bands from the late sixties! I mean, imagine! I used to do a psychedelic radio show in the mid-eighties and I’m a real collector of that stuff and I had never heard of any of it. Anyway, when I bought the magazine the 18-year-old tattoed dyed-black-haired kid who called me “Sir” was caught off-guard when I asked if he had a vinyl copy of the Strokes LP and then handed him two White Stripes CDs and an Apples in Stereo CD. Anyway, he started and said, “Wow, we’ve had that magazine in the store for over two years now and it’s never sold.” So I was reading it last night and they had this really cool thing in the magazine-they had punch-out trading cards for “damaged guitar gods”-about fifty of them for people like Peter Green and Skip Spence. And I’m reading along and I come to the first guitarist for Pere Ubu (and Rocket from the Crypt). And what’s playing on the stereo? “Heart of Darkness”! And, in addition, I only gradually came to realize that that’s what you’re singing, like a camera coming into focus … like, “Wake up!” That’s what I mostly use those moments for now, because I can’t really figure them out. When I tell other people, they have all these explanations, but I still don’t understand any of it. I never get any hard information.

Tamra: I think of them as more a proof that your life is right where it should be. So you get magic sparkle synchronicities, cat treats.

Randy: By the way, you’re not suggesting with this improvisation thing that you’re improvising your lyrics, are you? Even if not, the performance is, obviously, improvised with the band. King Crimson during their 1973-1974 tour were the second rock band I know of to actually schedule improvisations in every show. Each night they’d trade off who’d begin and the others would fall in or not. And there’s at least one performance called “Trio” that’s absolutely amazing. The band had had a collective breakdown during a difficult tour and everyone thought that they were the only ones having problems. Drummer Bill Bruford was so depressed he sat out the whole song with his drumsticks crossed over his chest and the band essentially became a chamber trio-violin, guitar, and bass. Their recordings from this tour are very easily available, I think, if you like that sort of thing. “The Great Deceiver,” a 4CD set from this tour, is the best. If you can’t find them or want tapes let me know. Your band is very, very good and the CDs are very well engineered (especially the last one). The one with the cool shoes is my favorite thus far but I have to go back to the latest one again now that I’ve heard everything else. The latest one is so uncompromising and unrelenting and the sneakers one had the mixture of softer tracks that I’m more accustomed to. But I know I’ll prefer the new one in about two weeks. It’s got that halo around it.

Tamra: Let’s see, “Suburban Legends” is 100% improvised lyrics. Randy: That’s unfuckingbelievable. Why don’t you advertise that somewhere on the CD? Why aren’t you on the poetry circuit? Man, you need a manager! Tamra: We suck at self-promotion. Anyway, “Nonpoetic Rain,” the live on KXLU CD is about 2/3 improv. And on the newest recordings we did in Tacoma, Washington, any song with backing vocals was sketched out, a couple lines, a chorus, but all the rest are total improv.

Randy: Wow. I am so impressed. I do improv speeches but that’s a lot easier-you just get your thoughts together in public. So what’s the deal with “Heart of Darkness” and “Run through the Jungle”-they just popped into your head? There’s another cover I almost recognize-it’s an AC/DC song or something? I could be wrong.

Tamra: “Night Prowler” by AC/DC, the Richie Ramirez murder anthem. I’m always trying to redeem it. It started when I had a gig at PCH-Pacific Coast Highway Club in San Pedro, a tiny, scary all-ages space visible only by kids, in a bleak landscape of warehouses and train tracks. I went there to check it out a week before and freaked out in the car on the way home. I was just sure the car would stall, we would die, total anxiety. My guitarist Ronnie realized how closely this place resembled the place I was taken to and beaten after being abducted on my way to school in tenth grade. The resemblance triggered post-traumatic stress. He wanted to cancel but I wanted to face it, so for that gig we did a jam on “Night Prowler” and Sonic Youth’s predator song “Pacific Coast Highway.” I wore a black sweatshirt with hood up, on the back was written “terror worldwide” and when I sang “Night Prowler” I imagined it was me stalking the guy who abducted me. The catharsis was so intense people said I was glowing after. None of the scenester mod kids so proud of their indie credentials even knew Sonic Youth did a song called “Pacific Coast Highway,” standing in PCH Club. The roadie for Red Monkey won the free CD. Since then I’ve been really partial to the song.

Randy: I’m a father with a 17-year-old daughter. Your story sets off all my panic alarms … I started to cry. It’s like I told a friend about the difficulties I have at being a pacifist: If you push me around, fine. If you touch my girlfriend or my daughter I’ll fucking kill you. I heard a funny saying today: that being a pacifist except during wartime is like being a vegetarian between meals.

Tamra: Rape is epidemic in this country. It’s one of our biggest dirty secrets. And this country isn’t as bad as other parts of the world. Still, when a woman gets paid 75% less when she works late, then has to face the empty parking garage, that is a kind of terrorism.

Randy: I’ve produced some tapesets with Peter Levine on PTSD. We have tapes and such where he tries to get you to release it. Are you interested? It can get pretty intense. He also has a book about it called Waking the Tiger. He lives up in Lyons, a few miles from Boulder, but he travels a lot and has a useful website, if you want to look him up-there’s stuff on there for free. Peter believes that energy is stored in the body and you have to transform it via movement, not mental stuff. He talks about animals in the jungle, how they “shake off” fear-running in circles, jumping into the air-and how if you freeze it in the body it’ll remain there until you release it physically-that therapy will never get to that part of it. That seems true to my experience. Sounds like you instinctively tapped into that with “Night Prowler.”

Tamra: That’s why I’ve experienced so much transformation through yoga, then the martial arts.

Randy: About your lyrics: I especially liked the way the meaning of the words changed over time. It reminded me very much of Gertrude Stein from Lectures in America, the one about repetition-how if you say, jelly, jelly, jelly, jelly, jelly, jelly, jelly, jelly … that the eighth “jelly” is not the same as the first one, and the difference is that the eighth one is preceded by the other seven. It’s a form of insistence. It’s like you’re trying to get your dog to sit. Sit. Sit! SIT! SIT!!!! I also think there’s an element of incantation and shamanic magic in your form of repetition. You do that with “friends don’t let friends drive drunk” and something else, I’ve forgotten now. The first time I realized you were singing “friends don’t let friends drive drunk” was different from the next four times. It’s like a mini-novel, really. And it’s not in the words-you’ve stripped the words of meaning by repeating them and what people are listening to is you breathing through the words … do you know what I mean?

Tamra: Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses happens when you repeat a word. It’s the basis of all mantra.

Randy: I’ve had this weird experience where when I look at a word too long it looks weird too. Like “that.”

Tamra: First it shimmers with extra meanings, then it’s just a sound. Then it can be made to convey an opposite meaning with a different intonation.

Randy: But the sound is being made by someone, so it’s actually a different kind of language-not word language but beingness language. As if that’s the epitome of language, and when you’re trying to use language to get there you realize at a certain point that language itself is preventing you from reaching it. That’s why the dadaists said that it’d be healthier if language didn’t exist-or at least that life would be broader and more interesting without it. That’s what you’re doing with your band. I learned something similar hanging around deaf people. I grew up near the Eugene O’Neill Theatre of the Deaf so it wasn’t unusual to be at parties in conversation with a deaf person. They don’t get fooled by what you’re saying and you realize it’s because they’re actually reading your whole body, so it’s like waking up from a language dream. Some people start crying the first time they communicate like that. It’s ironic to me now that I used to argue with Allen [Ginsberg] when he used to read from his notebooks or be in one of his improvisational phases. I told him he was being self-indulgent. That this might be the only time some teenage kid in Nebraska gets to hear him and he should deliver the real transmission. Certain of Allen’s poems are undeniably liberating and have definite transmission power-thousands of people have testified to that-so Allen had a responsibility to change as many people as possible. Reading from his journals and his improvisations were fun in a classroom or perhaps in a small venue. But for a performance, people took the night off, they were excited. Maybe this was the only time they’d ever get to see Ginsberg-this would become their “Allen Ginsberg story.” But Allen argued that he had to keep himself interested, that he read more than 50 times a year all over the world. He said “I don’t want to think that the only poems I have worth reading were written thirty years ago. And if I’m not really there, if I’m only faking it, it’d be much worse. The people who can appreciate what I’m doing are appreciating what I’m doing. I can’t be responsible for everyone.”

Tamra: I have that discussion in a musical context. People say I need songs that crystalize my strong points and I need to play them over and over again for people because you can’t just make stuff up. They don’t get the whole Zen one stroke circle painting of it. We’re not just stupidly jamming. We’re experienced artists intently crafting in the moment a spiritual challenge. Yet I’m hearing more about the freestyle approach. I think it suits the internet.

Randy: Hmmm. But no matter, it’s what you’re interested in. You’re stuck with it now. If you believe in it 100%, it’s unarguable that it’ll be the best work that you can possibly do in this lifetime. And, all things being equal, wouldn’t that be great to look back on when you’re old and grey? Wouldn’t anything less be a loss? So we do it and who knows if it’s important or if it’ll last? But if you act like it is important and that it’ll last, that’s your best chance at getting there. Allen tape recorded himself every time he spoke in public for the last thirty years of his life. I saw how that made Allen choose his words very carefully, knowing that they’d probably last a long, long time.

Okay, here’s your poem:

fire, fingerprint, agate (for T)

the best work comes out of a belief in goodness
or other people-what in three years will be fashionable
can leave you just like that and be replaced
by its opposite-to avoid a belief in stability,
or in people who appear to be stable, or the need to
appear to be so-how I began to see it as
a kind of misunderstanding, that it was
something you could look at only inwardly—
what poetry does, for instance—
to be to language as a kind of encouragement,
to develop something new, something unstable,
and make it real, if only for a moment—
and that I did this deliberately,
and that this is how I did it,
and what I did is in these words.

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