The Rip Post Interview
Barry Smolin, the Man in the
Three-Cornered Hat. . .
||The kids in his
high school class call
him "Mr. Smolin." At KPFK-FM, he is Barry
Smolin, host of "The Music Never Stopped." To friends, he has long been
simply "Shmo" (see reason buried deep in interview below.)
Call him what you like, but never
call him bored. Smolin is one of those guys whose brain was born on overdrive; you can
hear it buzzing like power lines in fog. If he sleeps, it's just for show. His synaptic
chemistry should be studied and synthesized for widespread use. It would make Prozac
Okay, lots of people have multi-faceted
lives. But Smolin's facets are somewhat improbable, even Quixotic. You're really not
supposed to be able to make a living and raise a family as a high school English teacher
any more, for instance. The pay is lousy, and battling rap-speak is enough to daunt many a
Smolin is fabulous at it.
You're not really supposed to be able to
succeed in radio these days without playing the corporate-manufactured and
corporate-sanctioned music that Clear Channel dictates---let alone succeed with a show
devoted to (gasp) Grateful Dead and little-known jam band music.
Smolin succeeds gloriously at it.
And if you do both of the above tasks with the
love and man-hours that he puts in, you're certainly not supposed to have time left over
to record an album of original songs---and play piano on it, to boot.
Smolin did. His debut disc is entitled "At Apogee." It's not exactly going to
give Britney Spears a run for her money, with lyrics like this:
"Honesty's a ruse/ For specious guys/
Hot for the prize/ A sea of bogus clues/ Attractive bait/ To legitimate deception/
Sabotage the muse/ With ironic jokes/ Postmodern hoax. . ." (From "The
Shaming of the True.")
Take that, Clear Channel!
The Rip Post put a few questions to the facile
mind of this man with the three-cornered hat---about teaching, about his name, rap-speak,
his music, and the generally loused-up state of human affairs. His answers, as you might
expect, are downright percolating.
courtesy of Art Howard's Voyager
RIP POST: How difficult is it to wear a three-cornered hat?
MR. SMOLIN: With my square head? No small feat. I've managed to become
a fairly graceful juggler, though. My multifaceted activities all stem from the same root
personality; they're all extensions of the core Shmo, which I spell Sh'mo
when I'm feeling arty and eternal. All nodes lead to Home. Now, as to the
nature of that presumed core, well, then we begin our plunge into true
fluidity, don't we? What is the center whence all this emanates? It is
something resembling silence, I think. I have always wanted to be both wind
and water. Feng Shui incarnate. You see, the secret with me is: Whether I'm
teaching, making radio, composing music, writing in a variety of language
genres, performing weddings, or being a person among other people, I'm
really just trying to help others find the most organically correct way to
arrange their furniture. It's a great way to avoid arranging my own
furniture, actually. Dilettantes are often derided in our specialty-prone
culture for being shallow dabblers or hobbyists, slapped with the pejorative
epithet "jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none." In fact, I would say the
greatest difficulty in pursuing multiple interests in a serious way is the
general resistance to versatility. Human beings cling to barriers and
separations, the primal safety of the cave. We love attributing behavior to
meaningless aspects of consciousness like gender and ethnicity and the
zodiac; there is comfort in the context. Yet, nothing frightens me more than
RIP POST: Talk a little about teaching today. How tough is it? What
factors are you up
against---and I don't mean just funding or administrative red tape. Are you
able to get through to kids?
MR. SMOLIN: Teaching in contemporary American society, whether in public
schools, presents tremendous challenges. We have to compete with a growing
plethora of distractions and an increasingly anti-literate undertow. By
"anti-literate," I mean those who know how to read but would prefer not to.
Bureaucratic incompetence, well intentioned but half-assed attempts at
reform, a society that teaches violence at home and in the media and in the
behavior of our government and then pretends to be aghast when there is
violence in the schools, a contemptuous lack of respect for the teaching
profession, these are the great detriments to successful public schools. I
do my best to ignore all of it and make the noble task of teaching a simple
matter of me and the students. I close my classroom door and wail. It helps
me that I'm entertaining, to be sure. Occasionally I worry that the students
are just watching me like a TV set. But then there are those dazzling magic
moments of connection and insight. A mind is moved. A heart is stirred. A
life is changed. A light goes on. An artist is born. I have seen a
surprising number of my students go on to become teachers themselves. I
think I'm proudest of that group. Contrary to the popular view of them,
young people are desperately hungry for actual knowledge. Sometimes it
astounds me how easy it is to get their attention. And yes, I do reach them.
I reach them by talking about things that matter. I ramble on about life,
mostly loneliness and death with a little sex thrown in. You know, the basic
stuff of literature. I expect them to follow my nonlinear digressions and
anecdotes. I consider a class successful when the students feel like they
haven't learned anything. It's a subversive side of myself that I am unable
to suppress. An ongoing rebellion. I want my students to understand the
complexity of the world so they can one day do battle with the simple minds
who rule it. I want them to listen and remember. I want them to remember
death. I want them to develop wide-path minds, prodigiously interested in
everything. I want them to love me. I want them to feel my love, too. Love
is the key ingredient in my teaching. I have had a charmed career in terms
of the students who've come through my classroom. I am constantly aware of
my great fortune in getting to spend all day with beautiful young people.
I'm optimistic about the future of American society. These kids would have
never elected a creepazoid dictator like Bush. I believe the next generation
of Americans, if we survive the deadly errors of this current crumbling one,
will take it upon themselves to make the United States part of the world
community, as a fair and equal partner in matters of the planet's
well-being. The kids I see everyday are getting more and more radicalized
and involved in political action. They have a powerful visceral sense that
the future of the earth is being threatened. Perhaps they will steer us away
from this blighted attitude, the one that stands most in the way of
progress: People want their children to have good teachers, but they don't
want their children to BECOME teachers.
RIP POST: How much do media/pop culture influences shape young people and
MR. SMOLIN: The influence of pop culture imprints early. "Sesame
Street" launches the
first assault on the attention span, training children to receive knowledge
in 90-second increments. It's like drinking the ocean with a teaspoon. Then
they graduate to Nickelodeon where activities persist for nearly
180-seconds. And that's about as wide as the American attention span grows
these days. It has been fascinating during the course of my teaching career
watching the predominant voice of youth culture shift from rock-and-roll to
hip-hop. There was a brief flurry of rock-and-roll resurgence when Nirvana's
"Nevermind" album came out, but that whole thing kind of died along with
Kurt Cobain. It sort of morphed into the relentlessly uninspired
"alternative" rock that fuels the diminishing number of kids who still
listen to rock-and-roll at all. Unfortunately, a lot of the hip-hop that
kids get fed via the mainstream media is highly materialistic and shallow.
I'm not talking about he hip-hop underground which is doing some of the most
amazing stuff in music right now,in my opinion. Unfortunately, the average
young kid hasn't got a venue for hearing the real shit. Still, hip-hop's
influence encompasses all ethnicities. Sure, there are always a few
longhaired stoner dudes (who look the same as longhaired stoner dudes from
30 years ago) who listen to Zeppelin and come to class high, an assortment
of hippy/jamband freaks, some jazzbos and the odd classical music buff. A
lot of the artier kids are into Bjork. Our lesbian contingent grooves on Ani
DeFranco. But the VAST majority of the kids are into hip-hop. Hip-hop
culture pervades every aspect of life, from music to fashion to language and
speech patterns. I enjoy watching existing words develop new slang meanings.
And as a high school teacher I have a front row seat for that show. The word
"ghetto" for example is now an adjective synonymous with "poorly
"gay" now means "lame" or "pathetic." As in, "Those are
some ghetto jeans"
or "You got a 'D' in PE? Oh, man, thatıs gay." Guys call each other
and girls call each other "dude." There is a looking-class quality to the
common parlance. Television is certainly nothing new; it's been strip-mining
the human imagination for 50 years. I'd say the biggest influence on the
consciousness of this generation is the internet. They have access to more
information than we could have ever dreamed of tapping into in our youths.
The masturbation needs of adolescent boys have never been better served than
in today's porn-rich market. All the latest hot fodder is available online,
on cable, and in a network of traded videotapes. They've got it easy. We had
to settle for the underwear ads in the Sears catalogue and sometimes Uncle
Bill's Playboy magazine when you could find an excuse to use his bathroom.
Although the internet provides unprecedented amounts of information, its
lack of discrimination is troublesome. Racist diatribes are given the same
availability and credence as legitimate philosophical inquiries. Online
culture has become increasingly impatient with a real world that can't move
as quickly and can't provide as much instant gratification as the virtual
one. This is manifesting itself in the form of increasing and heightened
incivility and an addiction to being alone.
Mr. Smolin, in a rare negative moment.
RIP POST: I read an L.A. Times piece about how some teachers are turning rap into
course of study, at the expense of traditional literature including "dead
white males" (as the article said) like Twain and Shakespeare. Comment?
MR. SMOLIN: There is increasing pressure to shake up the canon and
jettison a lot of the
"dead white guys" and bring in greater numbers of books by women and people of
color. This is an ongoing process of change, all part of acceptance and
growth. I have used rap songs in my teaching but not to the exclusion of
traditional great works. Being a teacher has always meant deciding what one
is going to have to leave out, but that task has become more difficult and
highly politicized, as the canon broadens and instructional time shrinks.
One tries to strike a balance between adding new important discoveries and
making sure students experience the classics as well. I certainly have my
favorite dead white males, and I continue to teach them. How can someone who
cares about the English language not teach Shakespeare? He simply has no
equal. He's one of the few mortals to whom the word "genius" actually
applies. The brain-altering cadences, the complex view of human psychology,
the organic nature of his imagery. Yum yum yum. Flaubert is important.
"Madame Bovary" is a big turn-on for the students. It might be the book I
look most forward to teaching. Flaubert's technique is so brilliant that it
makes it very easy to teach the mechanics of analysis via a great story; the
students are quite compelled by Emma Bovary, the details of her mind; there
is an uncomfortable familiarity about her; they see their own sins writ
large in Emma, and they are captivated. Samuel Beckett is huge in my
universe. James Joyce. Homer. Dante. High school students LOVE "The
Inferno." Some of those dead white dudes wrote some amazing stuff. Their
exclusion from the curriculum would be a most shameful loss to collective
RIP POST: How long have you been teaching? Where? How and why did you
pursue this as a career?
MR. SMOLIN: I've been at this thing for 17 years. From 1987-1992 I taught
High School, my alma mater, actually. That was a pretty surreal experience
at first. Many of my old teachers were still there, these people who were
somewhat awesome to me, and suddenly I was their colleague. The English
Dept. at Fairfax at that time had some scintillating talent: Dan Victor,
Ellen Stonehill, George Schoenman, three of the most gifted educators to ply
the trade. In fact, George Schoenman has a lot to do with why I became a
teacher. Coming up through the L.A. Unified School District, I encountered
only 3 great teachers, a poor percentage; and yet, they were SO great they
formulated the basis of who I became as an adult. First was my 6th Grade
teacher Pat Hughes (though she was called Mrs. Donlon in those days) at
Melrose Avenue Elementary School, who turned me on to reading and art and
music and mostly the feeling of creativity itself. George Schoenman was my
next great encounter. He was beloved as a great writing teacher, and that he
was--to this day it is his voice I hear over my shoulder whenever I sit down
to write--but I was most enamored with the way he analyzed literature. His
units on e.e. cummings and A.E. Housman made indelible impressions on me, as
did his lectures on Existentialism. I was a bit too much of a slacker to tap
the full potential of what he had to offer, but what got through got ALL THE
WAY through. In 11th and 12th Grade I had the teacher who had the
profoundest impact on my life: Richard Battaglia. My eyes opened on infinity
for the first time in his class. The depths of thought to which he could
take us were thrilling and sometimes horribly intimidating. I agonized over
my papers for Battaglia's class; I so wanted to impress him; I so wanted him
to see that I "got" what he was giving. After years of being obsessed with
girls, I felt literature pulling me away from all that and toward my true
multi-limbed work. It was in Battaglia's class that I first encountered
Marcel Proust and James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, three writers whose vision
is integral to my own. Blake. Wordsworth. Keats. Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Ibsen. Loving Shakespeare for the first time. All of this occurred in Room
227, Battaglia's room. He brought literature alive which in turn brought me
alive. Plus, all of the cutest cerebral girls were in love with him, and it
was kind of cool to be sitting amidst that energy, too. I had my first
inklings of wanting to be a teacher while in his class. I remember thinking,
"I want to do this. I could do this. I could be very good at doing this."
That thought remained suppressed for quite some time. My decision to become
a teacher came about when I got engaged to Jill. I had been futzing around
teaching pre-school and Mommy-And-Me music classes. With marriage in the
offing, Jill and I went for dinner at Barneyıs Beanery one night, and Jill
asked me what I could do to earn a living that wouldnıt make me totally
miserable. The answer came blazing through in an instant. It was decided
that night. I applied to the UCLA Graduate School of Education, got in, and
turned myself into a teacher. Fairfax was a happy experience. I helped start
a program for underachieving gifted kids, which is what I was myself back in
the day. All of these wonderfully weirdo slackers came pouring into my life.
My Sweathogs. I was doing the total "Welcome Back, Kotter" thang. I
team-taught that program with a brilliantly gifted math teacher named Robin
Gostin. I also helped found a humanities program which I team-taught with
history teacher Ginger Wilber and art history teacher Michelle Martinez. The
same group of kids took all three of our classes, which were all interwoven
in terms of curriculum. It was a very small program. The classes felt like
family. But, I donıt know, near the end of my last year there, I sensed a
deadness setting in. Perhaps the deadness was happening in me. Anyway, I
heard of an opportunity at the Hamilton Humanities Magnet (thanks to an
inside tip from Richard Battaglia--by that time an administrator in the
district--in yet another gift to me) and went for it. Jim Berk was the
remarkable principal of Hamilton at the time, and the place was just abuzz
with positive creative energy. I've been at Hamilton since 1992. 1992-1996
was a very sweet pocket for me. I was on fire with teaching, and I had
fantastic talented students. Definitely my prime. I feel I've lost a step or
two each year since then. I know I'm not as good as I was, but I'm still
digging it. For the past 6 years I've had the most incredible teaching
partner: Kim Hallgren. We teach the 9th Grade Humanities Magnet students
together, and the experience of working closely with such a great teacher
and person has been a gracious blessing. We are a magic team. I get to work
closely with the other great teachers in the Humanities Magnet as well: Dan
Victor (who followed me from Fairfax), Alan Kaplan, Robert Coad, Gregg
Beytin, Faye Johnson, Carrie Brown, Katie Joynt, Cesar Campos, and our
worthy coordinator Mike Barnhouse. These are great, great people. Heroes. We
have a special program.
RIP POST: Have you found race to be a problem in the classroom? How?
MR. SMOLIN: I have not encountered problems with race, no. I can be quite
blasphemous and obscene, which kind of levels the playing field. Being in a
room where the teacher is more outrageous and shocking than the teenage
students can take the gas out of most underlying animosities. Gender and
ethnic identifications are thrown out of balance by humor and flippancy. But
there is an interesting degree of self-segregation both on the yard and in
the classroom. The white kids tend to sit with the other white kids, (and
then there's the subset of Jewish white kids, who tend to congregate),
blacks with blacks, browns with browns, Asians with Asians. So, we'll go
around the room telling racial jokes sometimes, but the rule is you're only
allowed to diss your own race. This is a very revealing exercise. And funny
as hell. It really does fuck with one's self-perceptions. And we also get
into very frank discussions about the power of words, whether obscene or
racial or both, and the importance of context. As one of my African-American
students so eloquently put it, "Thereıs a huge difference between a black
guy saying, 'Nigga be trippin',' and a white guy saying, 'That nigger is out
of his goddamn mind.'" I'm not afraid to run wild with that kind of stuff.
Racial humor is politically incorrect because we live in a racist society. I
find that humor and blasphemy coming from a loving, open-hearted place, can
actually subvert racial tensions. There's a stripping away of ignorance in
all of it. I feel the same way about discussions of religion. The more we
joke about our own traditions, the more we come to understand everyone
else's. Does that make any sense?
RIP POST: You be trippin', nigga! Whoops, sorry. Toughest day as a
MR. SMOLIN: September 11, 2001. The responsibility of being a teacher on
that day was
overwhelming. I never want to experience that again.
RIP POST: Best day as a teacher?
MR. SMOLIN: Itıs been one long best day really. I'm extremely lucky.
RIP POST: Have you always pursued music? And have you caught any yet?
Always played an instrument? At what point did you start writing music?
Mr. Smolin, bassically.
MR. SMOLIN: I took accordion and piano lessons when I was young, starting from
years old. I knew I was hooked when I made the transition from my parents
telling me to practice to my parents telling me to STOP practicing. The
impulse to play music publically, though, didnıt hit until I was about 13,
when I fell prey to the belief that it would make girls want to have sex
with me. Alas, that didnıt work out. And though I remain a virgin to this
day, I'm glad I continued to perform throughout adolescence and into
adulthood and thus unto middle age. I also started writing music when I was
thirteen. My first song, called "What Happened Friend?" was inspired by my
first experience watching a close friend descend into drugs and madness.
Playing in bands and being the "DJ" at parties was always an easy way for me
to feel comfortable in social situations. I suffer from debilitating
shyness. Interacting with the world requires all of my muster. I donıt know
how to make chit-chat. But when you're "working," thereıs kind of a built-in
authority (just like in teaching) that emboldens the confidence. In the game
and out of it at the same time, as old Walt Whitman used to say. I
cultivated a vivacious persona that served me well until I grew weary of the
masquerade. When I graduated from high school I became myself again. It had
been many years. I led a double life, on the surface a fairly easygoing
slacker performer type, but, deep in secret, my bedroom housed this very
intense little freak who wrote songs about loneliness and death with a
little sex thrown in. You know, the basic stuff of adolescent songwriting. I
wrote songs with titles like "Manifest Destiny and Beyond," "Frailty And
Naked Wrist," "The Divine Tragedy,""The Garden of Hedon," pretty
pretentious stuff. Christ, I named my band The Wake because it was the most
Joycean thing I could think of. In private, I was one arty-farty little
motherfucker. I moved to New York in 1984 with my pal Harvey Canter (with
whom I still make music to this day) and played my music to wholly
uninterested crowds. Very depressing, though I learned a lot about myself in
NYC. I kept writing songs, but I stopped playing live. In 1987, I gave up
songwriting altogether (except a handful of children's songs I wrote for my
kids) and turned my attention to poetry, drama and prose. Between 1987 and
2001, I wrote 7 books of poetry, a play called "Dead Jew On A Stick," a
prose epic called "This Again," and pieces of a paradise myth told in verse
that will be called "Sledding Through Eden" when I one day return to it and
finish it. I also began writing articles on music and art for various
publications, a little journalism hobby. My creativity left me on September
11, 2001. I stopped writing completely. There was nothing to write about. My
first ever writer's block. Then, New Year's Eve 2002 I had an incredibly
vivid dream that I was a satellite orbiting the earth at a great distance. I
woke to profound creative energy which I thought, at first, would manifest
itself as a poem. I wrote the lines, "I thought I saw a starfish traveling
at warp speed," and realized almost immediately that this was not a poem but
a song, my first serious song in 14 years. That song, "At Apogee," set in
motion a composing spree that lasted about 8 weeks; during that span the
songs on the Mr. Smolin album were written. Since then I have been writing
songs at a ferocious rate. It consumes just about all of my creativity these
days. If I had money, I could make two more complete albums right now. I am
trying to ride the crest of this fecund wave. How many more such waves are
left me? I appreciate the need to extract from this time of great fertility
all that is there for me.
RIP POST: Why do creativity and thought seem to be liabilities for
to break into "the music business"?
MR. SMOLIN: Because business is driven solely by profit and creativity is
by a sense of fulfillment, and rare the twain shall meet. The words "the
music business," in fact, have never really made much sense to me. I suppose
that is to my detriment in terms of getting my music heard. And the industry
zeitgeist seems to be the attitude that people donıt want to think; they're
just looking to console themselves with mindless diversions. It is a
deepening cultural problem in the United States (and in the entire world,
actually). The more intense the soul's need for sustenance the less
available such nourishment becomes. We so want to get ourselves drenched
with connection and meaning and truth. But one can't wallow in shallowness.
Merely wade. Life is being edited down to just the highlights.
RIP POST: You just started singing and performing in public in the last
year or so,
correct? How difficult was it?
MR. SMOLIN: I'd been playing keyboards and singing back-up vocals in
Harvey's band Ruby
Flux for several years, so the performing part wasn't difficult. Plus,
teaching and radio are methods of performance as well, and I'd been doing
those all along. But the Mr. Smolin live thing with just me on piano and
vocals, that nakedness intimidated me. My first gig out as Mr. Smolin, at
Taix Lounge in Echo Park, was a nervous, quivering affair. I'm very
self-conscious about my unspectacular singing voice and consider myself only
an adequate piano player, an accompanist at best, but I believe in the
songs, and that belief has strengthened my confidence. Fuck your
inadequacies, man, just get the work out there. I use humorous banter to
complement the fairly serious material. I would like to do a concert in a
classroom one day. That would put it all together for me.
RIP POST: Your songs are poetic, thoughtful---even the funny ones.
You seek to express some complex ideas in them. Your music tends to have
structure, melodies, and choruses.When do you expect to knock Britney Spears off the
MR. SMOLIN: Precisely never. I'm aware my stuff will only ever appeal to
a handful of
freaked-out weirdos. I'm not deluded about that. But I like to position
myself very much in the rich tradition of modern songcraft. I've learned
inestimably from Stephen Foster, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Stephen
Sondheim, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, The Beatles of course, especially John
Lennon, and I was also heavily affected by oddball recordings like Gilbert
OıSullivanıs debut album "Himself" and a glitter-rock record called
Kid" by the underappreciated David Werner. I like songs that have subtly
captivating hooks and lyrics that aren't afraid to be artful. There's a
whole grip of songwriters out there, talented ones in fact, who have an
aversion to rhyming. I love exquisite rhymes. Rhymes are a verbal
approximation of your mother's womb. But there's not much market for songs
about loneliness and death with a little sex thrown in. You know, the basic
stuff of midlife crises. Or at least I haven't found said market beyond
scatterings of people with arcane interests. Add to that a population that
has been conditioned to like what it's told to like, and, well, the audience
out there for what I'm doing is limited indeed. I could fit my entire
fanbase in a cupboard right now. What I hope is that people who DO like Mr.
Smolin's work will REALLY REALLY like it. Iıd be happy with that. I know
there will be many whose response to the record will be, "What the hell is
this shit?" I'm fully prepared for that.
RIP POST: Tell me about the "At Apogee" album. How long was it in the
MR. SMOLIN: As I mentioned above, I wrote the songs during January and February
recorded a demo in March of 2002. I gave it to Harvey and Stew to listen to,
soliciting their help. Once Stew and Harvey officially came on board as
partners in this endeavor, we started recording the album in July of that
year. Recording was completed in November. Making this record was the
greatest creative experience of my life. I recorded it at Sunrise Studios in
Van Nuys, with Adam Merrin doing the engineering. Adam is a musician himself
(in a superb and popular band called The 88) and brought thoughtful
suggestions and creativity to the sessions. I got to work with a bevy of
great musicians. Special mad props must go out to Harvey for the thoughtful
harmonies and guitar parts he contributed. He was integral to the making of
this record from its inception. And of course I was giddy with the
opportunity to work so closely on a creative project with Stew.
RIP POST: Explain Stew's beefy contribution to it. Yuck, yuck.
MR. SMOLIN: "At Apogee" owes so much to Stew's brilliance.
Without Stew's involvement, I
probably would have made an ultra-simple record, mostly piano/vocals, maybe
some harmonies and guitar flourishes. He turned the song cycle into a
symphony. He broadened the sonic palette to an extent I couldn't have
conceived on my own. From the first rehearsals in July, it was clear that
Stew was already hearing the final product, a talent that just amazes me.
The reason the partnership worked out so well is that Stew and I have very
similar artistic outlooks. We both tend toward the Apollonian. We'd rather
be eating Ambrosia on Olympus than mucking about in Dionysian romantic
quagmires. So we mostly agree to go in a heady direction. I gave Stew the
green light to try just about anything, and I think that freedom inspired
him to dedicate an unexpected amount of time and energy to producing "At
Apogee," and he took it very seriously. He was very much The Producer. As
the project progressed, he became more and more involved in every detail.
This wasnıt some demo he was helping a friend out with. From the dazzling
jamming of Double Naught Spy Car to the gorgeous horns of Probyn Gregory to
the celestial harmonies of Heidi Rodewald, all of whom he brought to the
sessions, Stew added volume and depth and lushness in spades, if you will.
Stew comes to every project with a complete world view. He has a genius for
preconception. And yet, he has this equally amazing willingness also to
follow the digressive paths and shifting visions that arise during
production, so that things don't necessarily turn out the way he originally
thought they would, in some respects. His idea fountain never relents. He
always hears just the right thing. I'm still feeling the effects of how
inspiring it was to be in the presence of his artistic energy on full blast.
With Stew as producer I felt myself in masterful hands that would not let me
down. That he took time out from his own important music making to take part
in the making of "At Apogee" leaves me feeling most honored and blessed. I
believe Stew is one of the greatest talents alive today anywhere. I keep
waiting for the world to catch on. I want to shout, "He's here! He's here!"
RIP POST: Is there a general tone or theme to the song cycle?
MR. SMOLIN: "At Apogee" follows a pattern, though irregular, of
distance giving way to
proximity. The first song begins at the farthest distance from the earth.
Each song explores an aspect of banishment (self-imposed or otherwise) from
the general flow of human life. This has been my experience with the world.
Voices peering in through the window or escaping to phantom happylands. Much
of the album references a sublime Richard Wilbur poem entitled "Love Calls
Us To The Things Of This World." The second half of the album allows the
disembodied protagonist to feel love and thus begin the process of re-entry.
Early in the album, ghosts and angels remain aloof from human society, as do
the denizens of a televised rodeo and an infatuated man inviting his beloved
to drop out with him to an ancient secluded wilderness. The closer the
listener gets to the end of the record, the closer the songs get to earth,
to human emotion, to blood ties and responsibilities, to adulthood, to
loneliness and death with a little sex thrown in. You know, the basic stuff
of cabaret. The last song, "Take Me To The Wind," is a final acknowledgement
that life in the world is necessary to oneıs growth and understanding: "Now
itıs time to live again/ In between is at an end."
RIP POST: Toughest day as a musician?
MR. SMOLIN: The night John Lennon was shot. I was 19 years old, living at
going to college. A Monday night. My nightly activity was playing the piano
in my parents' living room. I was actually preparing to make a demo tape of
the material I had written since breaking up my band The Wake. Mid-song, my
mother entered the living room and informed me that on Monday Night Football
Howard Cosell had just announced that John Lennon had been shot. I will
retain the awfulness of that shudder always. I went to the back of the
house, where my parents had the game on, and some time later, Cosell read
the terrible news that Lennon had died of his wounds. The Beatles were such
a center for me, with Lennon as the axis. But the center could not hold.
Things fell apart. The demo tape that grew out of that time was a complete
reassessment of my work as a musician.
RIP POST: Best day as a musician?
MR. SMOLIN: That would have to be August 8, 1998, when I was playing in
Ruby Flux, though it was called Sea of Green at that time. We were opening
for the Ominous Seapods, a group I considered the finest in the jamband
genre when they were peaking. The show was in Las Vegas, at hippy heaven
Legends Lounge, owned by the great Rudy Jalio. Near the end of our set, Max
Verna and Dana Monteith from the Seapods joined us on stage for a 20 minute
epic version of Harveyıs song "Dumb Intelligence." As a musician, I've never
felt more in the middle of the sounds themselves. A glorious rock-and roll
RIP POST: How long have you been on radio? How did you fall into the gig
MR. SMOLIN: I started doing The Music Never Stops on March 17, 1995.
Longtime host Bob
Young had departed, and his old sidekick Tom Norton became the host. I in
turn became the new sidekick. Jill was editing the KPFK Folio--the station's
program guide--at the time and brought my name up when management was
looking for a sidekick for Tom. Tom's pal Alan Sherwood was another
sidekick. We did the trio thing for several months, when on August 9, 1995
Jerry Garcia died and the Deadhead universe fell into disarray. For a while
interest spiked in the Grateful Dead following the media coverage of Jerry's
death. But when things cooled down and the media moved on and the Grateful
Dead announced they would no longer play as the Grateful Dead, Tom lost a
lot of his energy for the show and departed in December of 1995 to pursue
other interests, and Alan Sherwood moved to Oakland. I became sole host of
the show and have remained so since then. I like working alone. Doing the
show has been one of the great joys of my life. When I was a kid I wanted to
be a radio DJ. One of my earliest heroes was The Real Don Steele on 93 KHJ
Boss Radio.I got to meet The Real Don Steele once at Nickodell, the
restaurant that used to be next door to KHJ. My dad heard Steele hung out
there, and brought little 10 year old Shmo to meet an idol. It was one of
those very sweet dad maneuvers. Don Steele was incredibly kind and
encouraging to me. Now that I think of it, all my earliest heroes were
voices: Robert W. Morgan, Vin Scully, Chick Hearn. I was very attracted to
the intimacy of radio. This is somewhat embarrassing, but from the time I
was 9 to the time I was 13 I did a radio show in my bedroom, every Saturday
morning from 6-10 am. It was a completely rich, imaginative world I created.
The best radio show nobody ever heard. I even pre-recorded commercials and
read the news headlines. My music selections were drawn from my own meager
LP collection and the stuff I'd plunder from my parents' record stash. Simon
and Garfunkle, The Beatles, "Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter
Songbook," Janis Joplin, The Weavers, The Beach Boys, Oscar Peterson, Paul
Williams, Mickey Newberry, Cat Stevens, Gilbert O'Sullivan, a couple of
hokey Vicki Carr albums, tons of other assorted stuff. It seems so pathetic
in retrospect, I know. I was pretty serious about wanting to be a DJ until
about the age of 13, when girls became my main obsession. And yet, all those
years later I ended up becoming a voice in Los Angeles radio, much to my
constant astonishment. When I took over as host of The Music Never Stops, I
knew there was no future in a Dead-only show and so made the decision to
expand the playlist to include the young jambands touring the country in the
wake of The Dead, which caused a stir among the purist Deadheads. My show is
a heretical insult to their orthodoxy. There was just too much interesting
music being made in the post-Dead psychedelic jamband scene for me to stay
mired in the past. I'm not by nature an archivist or museum curator. I like
to be out on the frontier nosing out the latest permutations.
RIP POST: You promote extremely virtuosic bands on your show, like The
Negro Problem, the Disco Biscuits, moe., Phish, Double Naught Spy Car, Kiss
The Frog, Listing Ship, W.A.C.O., Gwendolyn. Why is this so unusual
MR. SMOLIN: Radio panders to the fit-to-shrink American attention span in
order to sell
products. Jamband music and other avant-freak psychedelia doesn't fit that
format. Contemporary Jam-Rock requires long uninterrupted spans of time and
the ability to endure a convoluted journey. The length of the jams undercuts
the ability of radio to play commercials commercials commercials
commercials. As the consolidation of media continues at a frightening rate
to gobble up and destroy independent voices, fewer and fewer opportunities
exist to broadcast the more challenging, adventurous music that's being made
today. The result is a vibrant but obscure underground. I mean, a band like
Phish can draw 80,000 people to their IT Festival this past August, and the
mainstream press completely ignores it. Likewise, the Bonnaroo Music
Festival in Manchester, Tennessee in June drew twice that number with nary a
word spoken about it in the traditional media. On the one hand, it's totally
cool that the underground scene, due in no small part to the power of the
internet, can generate such tremendous interest without the aid of the
commercial giants; on the other hand, it's a shame that more folks aren't
introduced to some of the cooler sounds that emanate from the American
grassroots underground due to the severely constricted portals that control
what information receives coverage in the mass media.
RIP POST: In the '60s, creativity and virtuosity came to be prized in
Today, the majority of popular music is product, created for mass
consumption as coldly and cynically as any glitzy snack wrapped in mylar.
How in hell did this happen?
MR. SMOLIN: It happened slowly and insidiously. As record labels seized
more and more
creative control and put it in the hands of very uncreative business-people,
the nature of music changed. Lowest common denominators became the lowest
common dominators. And every time a movement would arise asserting
independence and originality, the powers-that-be would dangle large sums of
money before the most visible artists in any given movement and eventually
co-opt it. This happened to punk, rap, and grunge. It's the reason you hear
the music of Janis Joplin, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones--at one time
considered dangerous rebels--used in television commercials and other
harmless contexts. There are only 5 record labels left in the world who have
any kind of mainstream clout. And, in the United States, we are heading into
a true nightmare scenario, wherein the omnivorous, satanic, reactionary
corporation Clear Channel is gobbling up every aspect of the market via
ownership of radio stations, performance venues, and, soon, music delivery
systems. I imagine one day they will merge with Ticketmaster and have their
greedy monstrous fingers on virtually every lever of power in the machine.
That said, I foresee a time when independent do-it-yourselfers will be able
to get around this totalitarian system in a wonderfully subversive way. The
means of production and distribution are now within the grasp of just about
anyone with a computer and online access. I recorded "At Apogee" into a
Macintosh computer using the software program ProTools, without the help of
any record label, and it sounds as professional as anything a behemouth
record company could have financed. I'm also distributing it myself. As more
and more artists choose not to be beholden to corporate control I predict
you will see a rise in the level of creativity and originality in popular
music once again.
RIP POST: Why is the music of Grateful Dead important?
MR. SMOLIN: The Grateful Dead synthesized several traditional American
(Bluegrass, Folk, Jazz, and Rock-And-Roll) into a freeform, limitless, epic
expression. But beyond the long exploratory format of their concerts, an
aspect of the Dead's repertoire that rarely gets mentioned is the first-rate
songwriting of the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter team. Songs like "Uncle Johnıs
Band," "Friend of the Devil," "Candyman," "Loser,"
"Stella Blue," "Black
Muddy River," "Lazy River Road," "Standing On The Moon," among
others, are examples of quintessential Americana, with Garcia's shining
earth-tunes and Hunter's campfire poetry (something like Rilke eating
'Smores) touching the very heart of the white man's prairie conquest. The
Grateful Dead honor the past, play in the always present moment, and act as
signposts to the future. The Dead are incomparably inclusive, creating
experiences that are both celestial and terrestrial, spiritual and visceral,
intellectual and muscular, celibate and sexy, eternal and temporal. The
expansiveness of the music, seen by detractors as irrelevant muzak for
people on drugs, takes on religious significance for those who succumb to
the rapture. Most followers/believers underwent a process of 'initiation,'
sometimes called 'getting it' in the Deadhead lexicon, so that there seems
to be an underlying myth that appreciation for the Grateful Dead requires
magic access to some kind of esoteric knowledge. Indeed, from one
perspecitve, the Dead's music may be seen as a manifestation of the Cult of
Dionysus, which arises in society whenever a culture's mainstream reality
becomes unbearably boring. Though the Dead are unique in American popular
music, their 30-year sojourn (recently resurrected by the surviving members
who now play as "The Dead"), is very much part of a tradition of impulse and
urge and psychoactive experimentation that goes back thousands of years. The
shamanic center of the Grateful Dead, the true conduit of the power, was, in
my opinion, Jerry Garcia, whose quiet charisma lent him a priestly aspect.
As a vessel for this energy, Garcia ignited everyone on stage with him, the
rest of the Dead becoming equal partners in the synergy that defines the
revelatory experience to which so many Deadheads became addicted. The music
of the Grateful Dead will survive because the songs are timeless,
unidentified with any observable trend or era, and the best of their live
performances represent a most unusual unfolding, in real time, of the very
impulse-energy of reality itself, what some people call God: Loneliness and
death with a little sex thrown in. You know, the basic stuff of apocalyptic
RIP POST: Tell me about your history with Grateful Dead music. When you
attending concerts, and when you "got it," as they say, and so forth.
MR. SMOLIN: I was a closeted Deadhead for a long time. The hipster milieu
when I was in
high school (1975-1978) had an intensely anti-hippie vibe. Patti Smith, The
Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, had seized the imagination of the
Fairfax High School Illuminati, and the Dead were seen as some bloated,
anachronistic brontosaurus. And the thing is, I very much loved punk rock
and the burgeoning New Wave scene, as well as some of the interesting
experimental pop that was being made by acts like Brian Eno and Kraftwerk.
The problem was the kids who liked that music dismissed the Grateful Dead as
boring hippie music, and admitting an interest in Garcia & Co. would pretty
much invalidate one's coolness credibility. My initial interest in the
Grateful Dead came from a hearing of a long, live version of "Truckin'" at a
party one night; it just completely grabbed my attention. I knew the song
already, of course, but had only heard the album version on the radio, so
this live rendering was a completely new experience for me. I was
embarrassed by how riveted I was. To this day I don't know what show that
jam was from. The tape was unlabeled, and the cut was the only Dead piece on
a miscellaneous party-mix tape that also included (weirdly and wonderfully)
the extended dance version of The Trampps' "Disco Inferno," which I consider
one of the most psychedelic pieces of music ever, a 20 minute monster. Disco
certainly had its great moments too, something many people don't realize.
Anyway, it wasnıt until after college that I came out of the closet as a
fullblown Deadhead. I loved going to shows until 1993, when I felt the
quality of the improvisation and Jerryıs participation went into very
serious decline. At the time, I thought it was me, that I had simply lost my
taste for the Dead. In retrospect, 10 years later, still loving the
top-notch Grateful Dead stuff, I now see that it wasn't me, it was them.
They just weren't as good those last two years before Jerry left us. I
believe an impartial, open-minded listening to tapes from the '93-'95 era
will bear out this opinion.
RIP POST: How do you ever have time for your family?
MR. SMOLIN: Family is of primary importance to me, and so I simply--or
maybe not so
simply--make the time. Teaching all day is followed by afternoons/evenings
helping my kids with their homework and hanging out with them. I sacrifice
sleep in order to accomplish this. I try to do the bulk of my serious
creative work between the hours of 10pm and 2am, the only time there is
silence and privacy hereabouts. For the past 10 years I've operated on an
average of 3-4 hours of sleep per night. Somehow the adrenalin of creativity
keeps me vibrant and productive. We have activities that we do together as a
family. Renting movies and making popcorn is always a homey act of
togetherness. We're big basketball fans in this house, so we watch Laker
games together, and we have season tickets to the L.A. Sparks in the WNBA;
we never miss those games. Lisa Leslie is our communal hero. We attend the
kids' Little League games. Reading the Sports page of the L.A. Times is a
ritual conducted by my son Noah at the breakfast table in the morning. He
fills us in on what's happening. We're in that lull now between the end of
the WNBA season and the start of the NBA season, so there's less to keep up
with. Just another Dodger loss. And another. And another. Luckily, much of
what I do I'm able to do right here at home, so even when I'm working I'm
around the family. Family is the fulcrum of everything. They are my center
and my balance. All else is merely adjunct.
RIP POST: Why do people call you "Shmo?"
MR. SMOLIN: The sobriquet was bequeathed upon me by my wife.
Shmo is Yiddish slang for "very small penis." She means it ironically of course,
as the opposite is actually the case.
host/producer The Music Never Stops
KPFK 90.7 FM--Los Angeles
Sunday Nights 8-10 pm Pacific Time
Live Webstream: http://www.kpfk.org/listen.html
Winner--Jammy Award 2000--Best Radio Show
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