Extra Terrestrial Man

Kristine McKenna meets The Captain of the Mojave Desert

NME, September 18, 1982

MANY OF the themes and much of the imagery in your music is distinctly American. How do you feel about this country?

I really don't give a damn. I'm from this place but I think it's ghastly – although I'd rather be here than anywhere else due to the fact that they don't even know I'm here.

Are artists allowed to get away with more in America?

I think so, although I don't find that many artists trying to get away with anything.

What's the most significant change you've observed in America over the course of your life?

They've begun to try and pass it off as the name of something, almost like an adjective or generic brand. But it was more America when I was a child than it is now. If you don't use a thing the way it's meant to be used it deflates. And there's no restraint. They're gonna ruin this planet if they get a chance.

Did you grow up in a liberal environment?

I must have because I wouldn't be here if I hadn't. They'd have probably shot me.

Was there music in the house you grew up in?

My aunt used to play a lot of the current stuff like Glenn Miller. I thought it was wonderful then and I still like that music. He's almost sculpting that stuff. I’m wilder and like to tear up more than that, but for the instrumentation he used I think he really did it. Amazing. My aunt also played a lot of Al Jolson. I heard that stuff in my basinet as I lay there being rocked back and forth.

What was the first record you bought?

A record for teaching a parakeet to talk, you know, "say hello Tweetie". I thought it was pretty hip. I got it when I was about five. Years later I took it to a party with a bunch of cholos, you know, heavy Mexicans, bad cats, women in angora sweaters, the bunny shoes and stacked hair. I took that record and slipped it into the stack of 45s and they just couldn't take it!

What were you doing at a party like that?


Did you like the women's style of dress?

I thought it was humorous. An over-emphasis on being a goldfish, the way their skirts were pegged.

You've commented on numerous occasions that you believe women to be the superior sex. In what way are they superior?

They're able to tolerate more – and it's a drag that they have to. The way women have been treated all along is an effrontery to my eyes. Women see more irony than men do – I mean, there's certainly irony in the fact that they'll get a big circle which gets bigger and bigger and then they have an infant! Sex leaves a human in them like a suppository! Amazing, just amazing.

Have you ever considered using a female musician in one of your bands?

I wanted to have Ruth Underwood and was going to use her on this album until Cliff Martinez came along. She's probably the best percussionist I’ve ever heard. She was in one band that was just atrocious though. She was just used as a kind of hood ornament – and you know who I'm referring to. That guy who looks like a fly's leg, Zappa. He's not even as hip as a fool.

Have there been pivotal episodes in your life that shaped you as an artist?

I don't think so. It was more a case of "Hey you! It's time to get up and write this down! Now paint that! Now sculpt this! Get this down!!" Why?! What the hell! Why do I have to do this!

What step in the music-making process do you most enjoy?

Probably giving it to somebody else and hearing it back, getting as close to the initial flash as possible. If the initial flash burns out to the edges and it gets up close – wow! I do enjoy the collaborative part but I don't enjoy collaborating with an audience. I'm there doing what I do and it has nothing to do with an audience. I'm not enough of an exhibitionist or voyeur to enjoy audiences and they're mostly just a distraction. That sounds horrible, doesn't it? I sound like a real jerk, but maybe artists are jerks. Selfish and inconsiderate.

How has living in the harsh, aggressive desert environment affected your work?

I haven't paid any attention to it and have nothing to do with it. I guess I'm just buried in what I do, whatever that is. I've been out here in the Mojave in a damn trailer for seven years! The only way to stay cool here is to use this thing called a swamp cooler, which is like an air conditioner that sprays out water. Moisture! I need it!

Your music suggests that you feel an unusually strong bond with nature. Why do you think that is?

I suppose it's because I know that I'm an animal – and I don't have to work to remember that. I don't think there's any way I could possibly forget it.

Rock critics often lump you in with the Delta blues singers. Do you think there's any truth to that?

No way, that's just ignorant thinking. And the idea of thinking itself! I mean, it's extremely difficult to think about something somebody else is doing. I have a lot of compassion for anybody who's got that job. I wouldn't have the nerve to do it! Pin something on me and I'm another way a minute later. Yeah, lumping me with the Delta blues but they already did it. I wouldn't go over somebody else's painting. How could they think I would?

You know who really moves me as far as blues singers go is Lightnin' Slim. Ever hear that song of his called 'Bed Bug Blues'? "Lord them bed bugs sure is evil/they sure don't mean Lightnin' no good/they thinks they am a woodpecker/they mistakes me for a chunk of wood". Isn't that nice? That's frightening. A really good sculpture. I like Lightnin' Hopkins too. And Martin Luther King. He was a funny fellow – a good blues singer.

Do you think of yourself as a religious person?

No. Religion's OK as long as it doesn't get too lively.

Do you work better amidst calm or chaos?

Chaos, and believe me it's all around us.

In past conversations you've mentioned numerous people you admire: Wyndham Lewis, Shakespeare, Lenny Bruce, Franz Kline, Stravinsky. Is there a common quality those people share?

Yeah, they're all real sensitive and honest. They have no choice other than to do what they do and don't try to fool around about it. They just do it. And they suffered for it.

It's a popular theory that an artist must suffer to do great work. Do you think there's any truth to that?

Yeah, to do the kind of work I like to see. Van Gogh for instance. Man oh woman oh man!


HOW DO you explain the adversary relationship that seems to exist between artist and audience?

It's true that people either seem afraid of artists or they love them in that "ooh, that's wonderful" way. I saw people doing that to a Van Gogh painting that absolutely put me on the floor! I started smashing my head against the wall and all these people were calmly saying "ooh, pretty". I don't know that they meant any real harm but I don't think they could even see the painting. But then, when Van Gogh was alive he wasn't treated too well, so maybe people do mean harm. They'll squash a spider! God, spiders are great. Talk about mathematics! Those things are funny.

Is today's audience more intelligent than the one you addressed ten years ago?

Yeah, but they're also more tedious. My records sell better than they used to but that's just because I'm becoming "popular", like a hood ornament or something. It's been my experience that people who initially just ran away in horror from my music have come up to me later and were really ready to be here. I guess those are the people who are really hearing it. And when I met people like that I ask "well, what do you think?" I want to know what the hell they think of because it's just me going to the bathroom.

What's the chief pitfall an artist need be on guard against?

If they even have to think about it, or think they have a choice about what they do then they're not an artist. And I don't think there are too many artists.

Then what in fact are the many people who refer to themselves as artists?

Courageous and guilty.

Has your work forced you to live insulated life? It seems that for a period you were attracting extremely obsessive fans who worshipped you in a rather unhealthy way.

That's true and it's something that concerned me to the point that I didn't even want to see it. They were using me for an excuse, which is ridiculous. What I'm doing isn't even comfortable.

Do you still get obsessive fans making the way to your door?

Yes, and that's part of the reason I'm moving. They've got a lot of nerve. You know, I love the way Muddy Waters said nerve – noive. I can't imagine what they want from me. You'd think all the records I've made would be enough for them. Greedy. I wonder what they get out of it? I sure wouldn't go to somebody's house like that, even if I wanted to. Isn't it funny, all these people who think they have the right to anything they want. They just really think they're correct. If they had any idea I'm sure they'd run.

What advice would you give someone who admired you and wanted to travel a path similar to yours?

Grow up. But what an idea! And people actually do try to do that don't they, model themselves after someone else! That's crazy!

What steps do you take to edit the input you get from the world?

Quick steps. The world, let's say it's a pear. That's a hip shape you know, all that water at one end. Kind of like a schmoo shape. That word, schmoo, that's from those old Popeye cartoons. Those were great cartoons. Max Fleischer was a wonderful artist. Hey, have you read The Forest People, that book about pygmies by Turnbull? I really enjoyed it.

What struck you as the most significant difference between the pygmies and contemporary Americans?

Pygmies have a sense of irony that is worn away by all the commercials we have to endure here. Some commercials are pretty funny though – actually, a hell of a lot better than most of the music played on the radio these days.


WHAT ASPECT of the future is most frightening to you?

The fact that man seems intent on getting rid of nature. You see pine trees that have been shaved until there's nothing left but a little poodle tail on top and you just know that somebody had an awfully bad Christmas.

So man is taking out his personal disappointments on his environment?

Looks like it to me.

What's the most overrated idea currently popular in the western world?

Stability. In attempting to hold it people don't get stability, they get rigor mortis.

When you find your will and inspiration are flagging what do you do to revive them?

Scratch my dog I guess, but I don't have problem too often.

How do you intend for your music to be used? What effect do you hope it might have?

I hope it gets people up and makes the move like I have to. I do it out of irritation – that's my drive. I have to do it. It's like sandpaper on a shrimp.

Are there days when you don't feel that drive?

I can't recall ever having a day like that. You know, I hear so damn good – I can hear through anything. No . . . there's never any silence. Course, if there was I'd start screaming.

What's been your biggest disappointment in life?

That I even had to move. Do you know what it takes to move a body?

What's the biggest obstacle you've had to overcome in your life?

You're asking some pretty deep questions. The fact that I can't feel something someone else is feeling exactly the way they’re feeling it. For instance a man and a woman – the idea of feeling what a woman feels for a man is a hell of an obstacle because it's totally different.

Is there any way to bridge that gulf?

Trust, love and blatant insanity.