The Rip Post                                The Rip Post Interview

"I want lesbians to  worship me the way gay men worship Judy Garland."
The Rip Post Interview:
Barry "Shmo" Smolin. . .

   . . .is an English teacher at Hamilton High (the L.A. Times says so) disguised as a radio DJ at KPFK disguised as a recording artist whose new album is called "The Crumbling Empire of White People" and whose song, "The Earth Keeps Turning On," will be used in episode 7 of the current season's TV show, "Weeds." The album, among other things, concerns John Donne, Mata Hari, Daktari, world domination, and the film, "Robot Monster." Shmo offered a look behind the disguises in this, his second exclusive interview with The Rip Post.

(Fool diss closure: Barry hosts our good friend, the poet Raj Bavnani, each year on the New Year's show of  KPFK's "The Music Never Stops.")

THE RIP POST: This is the only album Ičve ever encountered that has the word, "cataleptic," in a song ("Knock This Gulag Down 1"). First, what in hell does "cataleptic" mean, and second, did you have trouble singing it?

MR. SMOLIN: Catalepsy is a form of seizure that induces both unconsciousness and rigidity. 'Cataleptic' would be the adjectival form then, innit? For me, the adjective 'cataleptic' aptly describes the mentality of religious fundamentalists whose agenda of spiritual imperialism poses a very real and growing threat to human civilization. To accomplish their desired vise-grip on the minds of all living persons, these zealots require adherents who are unconscious and rigid and who do what they're told. A global goon squad. The choir invisible and its ministry of cataleptic voices. They long for a world in regress. They embrace the retrograde. The Endarkenment. The planet's spreading deserts are not just GEOlogical; they are IDEOlogical as well. I mean, you're talking about people whose idea of Paradise is an Absolute Monarchy. I could have called them 'brainwashed zombies' in the song, but 'cataleptic voices' worked better musically.

RP: Yowzah! Say hallelujah! Well, you nailed that one. . .Continuing this theme, the vocabulary on "The Crumbling Empire of White People" and the imagery and the rhyme scheme and the poetry is not the kind of stuff that lends itself to humming and skipping. Or does it? It is also the kind of thing that should force the listener to sit down and read and think. Your aim?

art by Gary Baseman

MR. SMOLIN: I spent my childhood listening to AM pop radio, and the importance of catchy, earworm-type melodies is deeply imprinted in my creative make-up. I do in fact try to write tunes that people will find themselves singing in the shower or while washing the dishes or waiting for a red light to change, the sort of ditty that's in your head when you wake up in the morning or when you're walking home from school or thinking about your current crush or watering the lawn.

When composing, I devote MUCH more time to melody than I do to lyrics. I LOVE melody, real melody, melody that has a life beyond the progression. A lot of modern songwriters, I'm talking excellent, much respected artists, engage in a compositional practice that I term "singing along with chords," a melodic structure that's sort of lifeless and lazy and though it might have isolated sparkles of wonder never really establishes a total and coherent beauty, one that would still be there without the ultra-hip chords and unusual voicings underneath.

RP: I know just what you mean. It's the kind of music that makes me think guitars should be licensed. I mean, you don't let a veterinarian build a house. But please continue. . .

MR. SMOLIN: That said, I am, of course, also passionate about language, and so, yes, my lyrics can be complex and dense and consciously poetic. I'm drawn to assonance, internal rhymes, unexpected juxtapositions, puns, high-brow and low-brow allusions erupting in the same line, and little crystalline aphorisms. I strive to communicate emotion and idea in a package that is both humorous and illuminating.

RP:  "The Crumbling Empire of White People." Please explain the title. Given what I see in Washington, D.C., the empire is very white and hardly crumbling. And that includes Condi "White" Rice.

MR. SMOLIN: Oh, it's crumbling, dude.

RP: Don't call me 'dude,' white boy!

MR. SMOLIN: (unfazed) What you see in Washington, D.C. are the last emperors, floating on a debt bubble and trying to avoid for as long as possible the economic collapse and environmental catastrophe that will ultimately do them in. But, to be clear, the title of the album does not refer specifically to American white people but to all descendants of the fair-skinned tribes that descended from the Caucasus Mountains around 2,500 B.C. and spread their culture and methodology across the planet but whose heft and influence are on the wane. We are witnessing the early stages in a final decline of the white man's dominance. Military failures in Afghanistan and Iraq and a far more devastating failure awaiting us in Iran (if we are foolish enough to engage that nightmare) are but the most obvious chinks in the armor. Israel's failure to defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon is also another fold in the movement toward 'paper tiger' status. Widespread disease and starvation and thoroughly depleted government resources will finish the job eventually, as climate change destroys the eco-system and the food chain along with it.

On the other hand, perhaps the realization that ideology and commerce and religion and cultural identity are all utterly meaningless if the planet becomes uninhabitable will force our species to work together for our very survival. "All for one from pole to melting pole," as the narrator of the song "A Goddamn Thing" sings. Might the crumbling inspire eventual global unity? We can only hope.

RP:  I have to say that "Toll On You" is one of my preferred works on the album. I wouldnčt mind if you would regale me with splendid tales of what is behind the song, or in front of it, if you prefer. The circumstances of its writing, and so forth.

MR. SMOLIN: "Toll On You" functions as a kind of overture for the album. That's why it's the 1st track. It touches on all the themes to be explored. The lyrics to "Toll On You" were first inspired by John Donne's "Meditation XVII," which says, in part, "All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated . . . As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all . . . No man is an island, entire of itself . . . any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." In contemplating this passage I was struck by its profound statement of interconnectedness among all living beings (and the mortality we all share), and yet I was equally fascinated by the way this beautiful and necessary interconnectedness is also the very source of our sorrow and defeat. "Toll On You" therefore is a compendium of all the little failures and crumblings, all the little rejections and paralyses and betrayals that inevitably occur in the life of every human being in interaction with other human beings and take their little toll on one's spirit. It's a song about the slow erosion of the human capacity for bliss and fulfillment, a song for "every heart that feels defeated."
RP: So John Donne was actually a Buddhist, and didn't know it. . .By the way, congratulations. You have accomplished something that no human being has ever accomplished. You have rhymed "Mata Hari"with "Daktari." I dončt think even the poet Scott Wannberg ever pulled off anything that remarkable! Now, did you really lose your heart to Mata Hari? Do you endless pore over websites dedicated to her memory?

MR. SMOLIN: The song "Mata Hari" is not autobiographical. It's an experiment in postmodern narration.The thing came upon me quite unexpectedly. I was driving down Fairfax Avenue near the La Brea Tar Pits one afternoon and passed a furniture store called Mata Hari which, for obvious reasons, triggered thoughts of the historical figure. I had actually learned of Mata Hari when I was a kid through the TV character Mata Hairi, the female consort of Lancelot Link on the early-'70s children's show "Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp," a Saturday morning program I adored when I was 10 years old.

RP: Yes, I remember the show. That was where I first realized that chimps can speak.


          Ms. Zelle, in better times.
MR. SMOLIN: When my father told me that character was based on a real person called Mata Hari, a spy! (allegedly), I remember I went and looked up Mata Hari in Compton's Encyclopedia and found the details of her life fascinating. I even did a history report on her in 5th Grade. Anyway, as I continued my car ride home, I thought about Margaretha Zelle (Mata Hari's real name) and thought it would be fascinating to approach her last moments from the point of view of Edouard Clunet, her lawyer and former lover who was present when she was awakened in her cell and taken to her execution at dawn on October 15, 1917. Edouard Clunet is the narrative voice in this song. It is reported she blew a kiss before the shots rang out, probably to Clunet. But remember, this is history filtered through the aesthetic sensibilities of a 21st Century artist who gets off on anachronisms and other temporal distortions, hence the reference to the 1960s TV show "Daktari" and the naughty allusion to Clarence the Cross-eyed Lion from that show in evoking the cunnilingus close-up ("cross-eyed in the bush") experienced by a dude who'd died decades before television was even invented. Historically accurate it ain't.

RP:  Do I detect deliberately Zappa-esque singing on the phrase, "The Crumbling Empire of White People?"

MR. SMOLIN: The singing on that phrase was intended to be a satire on the sound of a very white choir in semi-disarray (like the empire itself). The Zappa-esque quality that resulted was not consciously intended, no, but it's very cool regardless! I'm a fan of Zappa's musical achievement, but I would not, in all honesty, put him on my list of influences. One can admire an artist without being influenced by him.

RP: Why do you write songs? You are an accomplished and celebrated high school English teacher, having been the subject of a marvelous write-up in the L.A. Times that took due note of your rapport with students. You are a venerable and well-liked L.A. radio host. You are a father of sixteen or seventeen children. Well, come to think of it, maybe these things are the reason you write songs! Have you always been a musician and songwriter? How do you compose?

MR. SMOLIN: I have been writing songs since I was 13 years old and have been drunk on music since my earliest conscious encounters with organized sound (and this includes the sounds of birds outside my bedroom window, the scraping of rakes on concrete, the Helms Truck horn, air raid sirens on Friday mornings, dogs howling along with ambulances as they'd pass, etc.). The Beatles were the first pop artists that I loved, and I was 3 years old in 1964, so they are imbedded in my primeval memories. I literally grew up listening to The Beatles, not really understanding their social importance at all, hearing the albums my aunt would play when she babysat for me and my sisters. The Beatles broke up when I was 9, but they remained my favorites for a long time thereafter. When dealing with The Beatles, though, there comes a point at which it's sort of a waste of head-space to claim them as one's 'favorite' because they are, in a way, beyond such a category. It's like saying Shakespeare is your favorite writer. Well, duh. Nobody's ever going to equal that, so create a separate echelon for genius and make room for all the other great artists who are also capable of illuminating you. The Beatles are The Beatles, and then there's everybody else. All of my earliest songwriting lessons came from listening to Lennon's and/or McCartney's work. But, of course, I have had many many other mentors, including Stephen Foster, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Stephen Sondheim, Gilbert O'Sullivan, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and scads of others.

I write songs because it is simply one of the ways I respond to the world around me. I respond to the world in a variety of ways. I teach. I make radio. I write prose. I husband. I father. I love. I perform weddings occasionally. I contemplate the very impulse-energy of reality itself. And I also compose music. It's all one impulse as far as I'm concerned. Creativity is as natural as breathing, dreaming, thinking, laughing, wishing, wanting that cute girl to like you . . . same difference.

Mr. Smolin, live.

Another reason I write songs is so that I can make music with other people. I was privileged to work on the new album with brilliant musicians like Stew, Marc Doten, Harvey Canter, Probyn Gregory, Vince Meghrouni, Josh Baldwin, Carl Sealove, Patria Jacobs, Seth Kurland, John Lacques, Heidi Rodewald, et al. I consider myself a mediocre piano player, an accompanist at best; these artists brought to my songs everything that I can't bring as a musician. I am eternally thankful that these gifted artists were willing to use their scant free hours to be part of my little project.

And Stew, of course, as producer, made my very basic compositions into the apocalyptic pop tunes you hear on "The Crumbling Empire Of White People." If pressed on the subject I'd say that, in terms of the finished product, my role was pretty much as the guy who wrote the music and lyrics and sang lead vocals and played a teeny bit of piano, but Stew, Doten, and the other musicians did everything else. They are the ones who brought it all to life, not I. I'll definitely take full credit for writing the shit, but as far as performance and execution are concerned, all due props must go to Stew & Co.

RP: Youčve been playing for years at Taix in Echo Park. . . Do you have any sense of who your audience is? Who shows up? What is your goal as an earnest singer and songwriter in a world that prefers music-product? I ask this question as an earnest writer in a world that prefers book-product.

MR. SMOLIN: I love playing at Taix. It is by far my favorite room in Los Angeles. No rock club vibe at all, which is great 'cause I hate rock club vibe. Mason, who runs the room with a sensitive touch, has been able to maintain this very warm, informal atmosphere, and although the space is getting more coolness cred and more popularity by the day, my sense about Mason is he's committed to keeping things warm and informal over there. And, most importantly, the chairs at Taix are extremely comfortable. This matters when you get to be a man of my advanced age. I can't stand up on concrete floors all night any longer. Just can't do it. I need a comfy chair.

Who shows up to Mr. Smolin shows? It depends. It's usually a mixture of people who know me personally, curiosity seekers, and mainly a bunch of folks who've come to see the next band.

As to my my goals as an artist? Those have changed over the years. My initial goal was to become the Jewish Tom Jones. Middle-aged women throwing their panties at me would have been my ideal destiny. Alas, I have neither the length nor the circumference to inspire that response. After that I aspired to become the Christian Sammy Davis, Jr., but, again, that length and circumference thing got in my way. And so now my goal, as a citizen in the crumbling empire of white people, is to report on life amid the impending ruins, whether psychological, political, romantic, absurd, whatever form the ruination takes, and where possible offer hope for the ultimate survival of our species once it comes to its senses. Of COURSE I would love it if lots of people turned onto my stuff and really dug it, but that's not bloody likely and would really only be a sweet adjunct, not integral to serving the muse at all. I've been working in a vacuum for like 30 years. I'm very used to it. I create what I create because it's involuntary. It's one of my natural reflexes. An audience would be welcome but certainly isn't required. I just keep doing what I do regardless.

And, of course, you know, every artist has a super-secret goal, too, the one you don't write in your journal, the one you never admit in public discourse. But I've decided to turn renegade and, in a breach of artistic protocol, I am going to share with you MY super-secret goal:

I want lesbians to worship me the way gay men worship Judy Garland.

RP: Who the hell doesn't? Which, of course, brings up your song, "Tilting." Well, it doesn't, but I wanted to ask you about it anyhow.

MR. SMOLIN: Tilting is about the loss of equilibrium in one's life when faced with universal rejection. The narrative voice has found himself in a state of skewed imbalance brought on by what he calls "unrequited fantasy." The language and the music are intended to reflect the teetering, precarious grasp on reality of someone who can't connect with other human beings, specifically women, and never will be able to (and knows it). It takes place in the bardo between despair and collapse. Our hero chooses to mythologize himself out of existence. He becomes a living symbol instead of a human being, the embodiment of fear.

RP: "Twilight in America"---another favorite of mine---would seem to indicate that you believe the country is essentially cooked (as I do.) "No savants nor dilettantes can save democracy/ Freedom reeks of Jesus-freaks in veiled hypocrisy." Your comments?

MR. SMOLIN: Yes, "Twilight In America" focuses on the American wing of the crumbling empire, and I would submit that entropy has surely taken hold of this country's vital organs and has begun its mortal squeeze. I also maintain, though, that if we can somehow find our way to the end of the Bush Crime Syndicate's stranglehold on power without engaging in military action with Iran, AND if the American people find it in their good senses to elect a president who is not a shill for the corporate mafia or the evangelical mafia or the jihad mafia (or any other subsidiary of the God Industry), perhaps we can crawl out of this mess and set about the unenviable task of reversing decades of environmental rape and establish an American government that is willing to be an equal partner with all the countries of the world in committing to the rehabilitation of the only home we have, this precious, critically ill planet.

art by Gary Baseman

RP:  The album could have been called "Knock This Gulag Down," after the sort of anthem that recurs three times. . . We hardly live in a gulag, but we do live in a country where laws are now in place to turn it into one, should the government wish it. Do you really think the "gulag" can be knocked down before it is erected?

MR. SMOLIN: Actually, I'm not singing about the USA in that song: the 'gulag' I'm referring to is mental. Akin to William Blake's "mind-forg'd manacles." That gulag already DOES exist in the form of religious scriptures read as literal truth and the rigid ideologies that behavior inspires. You can only imprison people for so long physically with oppressive laws and intrusive methods of social order before they revolt, but apparently you can keep people enslaved mentally (and by extension spiritually) for centuries upon centuries upon centuries and they love you for it.

                                                               art by Gary Baseman
The 'gulag' I'm singing about is not a physical prison, not some vague Soviet nightmare scenario, not some Kafkaesque or Orwellian dystopia with booted henchmen patrolling the streets and asking to see your papers. No, the 'gulag' of the song is right here in our lazy fearful brainstems. The 'gulag' is the literal interpretation of mythology. There are those who teach literalist hogwash to young minds that are easily indoctrinated into the dogma of hatred. "Knee-jerk Literals" I call these manipulators. They are snake-oil salesmen, essentially, perpetuating an illusion.

Scriptural literalism robs us of possibility. I wish all the children of the world could be shown a bigger, truer, more nuanced version of reality's complexities than what they learn about in their respective cultures. Ignorance is our worst enemy. Freedom of expression must never be surrendered. Here's to a future that "needs not clergyman nor king," to quote one of my own songs once again.

RP: Congratulations on the line, "robot monster with a parasol." Please explain.

MR. SMOLIN: Heh. Well, the image 'robot monster' actually comes from the famously bad
1953 cult abomination "Robot Monster," a film that people watch when they are too stoned to care about character, plot, technique, and art but just want to laugh their asses off while pigging out on marijuana-munchie-fodder like tortilla chips and 5-layer dip from Trader Joe's or heaping bowls of Count Chocula and half-and-half (I have probably revealed more about myself than I meant to in this statement . . . ).
But beyond the low-brow cultural reference, that image of the "robot monster with a parasol" (along with the rest of the stanza . . . 'nature masquerading as a game' etc) is a commentary on the encroachment of technology into the most human activities like walking down the street on a sunny day. Believe me, I'm no Luddite. I LOVE the internet and satellite communications and online-everything (my laptop computer is my best friend, I will openly admit this), BUT the image of the 'robot monster with a parasol' is intended to be a stark reminder that the great threat of technology is that it will strip us of our ability to interact socially in the real world and will turn us into mere simulacra who appear to be walking down the street on a sunny day when we are really ensconsed in our dark little geeky lairs all alone posting shit we'd never actually have the courage to say to real human beings out on the street.

RP: Tell me a bit about the state of young people these days, seeing as you teach them on a daily basis. The country seems in a profound state of entropy, if that's the right word, content as long as there is enough beer, twinkies, and TV. I have spoken with a lot of UCLA students in the past couple of years, and I get almost ZERO indication that there is any serious comprehension of the problems facing the country---and little if any desire to do anything out of compassion.

MR. SMOLIN: I'm the wrong guy to ask. I teach in an urban public high school in the middle of Los Angeles, and the students who have passed through my classroom over the past 20 years have been overwhelmingly wonderful, compassionate, concerned about the planet and the species, and committed to doing something about the myriad crises facing us all as we grope our way, I hope, toward global unity. I think young people today are more connected to each other than ever before (due to electronic and online communication technology) yet on the other hand they are also fractured into a variety of niches when it comes to culture and the creative arts. They don't have a spokesman because they're all into these very narrow little scenes. There is no Beatles or Bob Dylan to come forward as the public conscience of a generation because there's no way to reach everybody with one type of music anymore. You'd need 5 or 6 Dylans now, each playing in a different style. There's no consensus icon. Harry Potter doesn't quite cut it. They are also bombarded with shitloads of infotainment programs which utterly blur news, art, and commerce. It can be difficult to see one's way past that haze and into enlightened awareness of what's really going on out there. I think we're all grappling with that problem regardless of age. But I have a lot of faith in the ability of young people to save our sorry asses. When it comes down to "do or die," they'll "do."

Remember. . .Barry Smolin is host/producer of The Music Never Stops,
KPFK 90.7 FM--Los Angeles, Sunday Nights 9pm-11pm Pacific Time

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