An interview with Tom Russell by journalist Naomi Koppel, inexplicably not picked up for publication but reproduced here with her permission. The first few words are missing due to the tape recorder not picking them up, I'm sure you'll cope.
Tom Russell, Bern, Switzerland, June 3, 2004:-
… accompanying a book I have coming out of my letters and interviews with Charles Bukowski. He was sort of a wild, edgy, American, working-class beat poet that I became familiar with in the 70s and we had a correspondence and I interviewed him. Anyway he has become quite famous after he passed away and they’re putting out a book of my correspondence with him and letters and interviews. It’s not enough so they got me to write some – quote unquote – poetry, which I don’t consider I do. Basically they’re small short stories about a life on the road. So that’s coming out and now they came up with the idea of putting a CD with it of myself and maybe some actors and musicians reciting either Bukowski poems or some of the material in the book. We’re working on that. I’ll probably have that firmed up within two weeks. We’ll have to do that when I’m back in the States and then after that I’m touring again behind this cowbody record and working on a double album, Love and Fear I call it right now, it’s a working title. Hopefully that’ll be a bigger record. It’ll be out next year about this time.
I’ve neglected Switzerland, Austria and Germany for a couple of years and we used to do pretty well over here when I was with the Tom Russell band and the country rock scene was happening more than ten years ago you had the Frutigen festival, you had about ten major country festivals. That’s kind of on the wane since Nashville has killed country music – I have a lot of theories on that – but now there’s this alternative songwriter scene that’s surfacing big time in the UK. Uncut magazine did this review. It’s filtering here. Somebody handed me the German Rolling Stone yesterday and there was a four-star review on the cowboy record. The guy said they usually don’t care about this but because they’ve heard of you before. There is a growing awareness and interest here. We played Freiburg the other night and it was full. Uncut magazine said this guy is the heir to Johnny Cash, which of course is mighty big boots to fill. Also I think ten 15 years ago when I first started coming over here there was a language barrier on what I did so that I had to stick to really up-tempo country songs. Now that language barrier, I think with the European Union, with more awareness of American roots music. I can actually say a lot more on stage and I’m selling a lot more records and getting a lot more airplay, so that Switzerland is just as viable an audience for me, almost, as the UK. All of a sudden.
Q: What sort of people are your fans here?
A: It’s like the UK. It’s a cross-section of older people who liked country music 10 years ago but have become disenchanted with it but knew that I wrote songs for Suzy Bogguss and Johnny Cash, and people that have seen and come to festivals. But also younger kids – this is what’s exciting me. Everybody from 20 up to 35 who are sort of Springsteen-type fans, the younger, alternative rock and roll fans who like the lyrics because they’re hip enough to understand them, that these aren’t regular American lyrics, they have an edge to them. They have a political – they’re not so political but they have an interesting view of America that isn’t quite middle-of-the-road, to say the least.
Q: As an American artist coming to Europe, did September 11 affect you and the things that happened afterwards?
A: A little bit. They didn’t affect me per se. I toured, I did that tour with Nanci Griffith right after September 11, she was one of the few people who didn’t cancel her tour. You could definitely see a difference in security, getting out of America and coming into America and Americans being really freaked out about it, that security had been breached in such a wild way, but it didn’t really affect me. Even now, there is a lot of anti-American stuff going round, especially in the UK. People were trying to make me make statements about Bush. It’s too easy for journalists to do that, I told them look, I think it’s an unfortunate situation but I’m not really a political person, you know I don’t even vote. If I was really into it I would give you a more informed answer about American politics. But I see people treat me pretty well, one-on-one, not as an American but as a writer, composer who has something to say. And I’ve never written exclusively about America anyway, I wrote the Angel of Lyon and I wrote songs that took place in Norway and Spain. So I’m not a truly Americana writer. I don’t think America’s the center of the universe by any means.
Fifteen or twenty years ago Americans didn’t want to come over here. Major country artists and major folk artists thought the whole market was in North America. Well we had the opportunity to come over to Norway in the early 80s and then over to Switzerland to the first Frutigen festival, helped develop this roots awareness in Switzerland. Still people look on us as well why are you working Switzerland, because you can’t work in the US? Now 15, 20 years later all these acts, alternative country, straight country acts that aren’t at the top of the charts, want to tour Europe. They’ll go to my website, call up my agent and say can we open for Tom. In other words they’re not so proud any more or so chauvinistic because people basically are people. A good audience is a good audience. Actually you sometimes get better audiences in Europe because you’re actually outside of that American umbrella of hype that tells you what’s hip to listen to on the radio and what isn’t hip to listen to. Americans are really robots in a lot of ways about television, radio, print media. If you get away from that, it’s a fresher environment because the press is generally more unbiased and better over here, especially the UK.
I’m proud that we broke a lot of ground. I started playing a saloon in Interlaken, the Western Saloon, I think it was on the side of a disco, in 1981. You had to play Kenny Rogers songs and whatever was current on the country charts or nobody listened to you. That changed after six or seven years until today I think I’m one of the few artists that plays acoustically that sings in English that people really listen to over here, because we put the 20 years of work in. Whereas others come and go. I think the whole country festival thing, the country club with people dressing up as cowboys and Indians and firing a gun, I think that all died out a little bit, here and in the UK. This is more like a carnival routine. It’s back now to the basic roots of the music, which is the song.
Q: Tell me about the Bukowski project, how you knew him.
A: To be honest I didn’t know him that well, but I met him once and I corresponded with him. The importance of Bukowski: first of all, he was born in Germany, his father was German his mother was American and he ended up in the states, in LA, and he was abused by his father. He grew up an outsider and a loner. The important thing about Bukowski is he didn’t come out of the university system or the straight academic system. He came out of the post office – he worked in the post office for 20 years – so his angle is something peculiarly unique in America, of a working-class poet, which is really looked down on because American literature is controlled from either academia or the New York Times, the top papers, saying what is hip, what isn’t hip. Well he didn’t come from that. He came from the post office and skid row and he drank a lot. He didn’t affiliate with any scene, even the beat scene. A lot of women would consider him a misogynist because he spoke a lot about sex. It was all very tongue-in-cheek. When I met him he was very kind. I met him on the street in Hollywood. He was with his wife Linda, who handles his business now. He was sober and he was very polite, soft-spoken and was very thankful to me because I had given him some old columns of his that he didn’t own. They made a book out of it called Notes of a Dirty Old Man. He did something funny that day. I was with this woman I was singing with at the time, Patricia Hardin. He neglected to introduce us to his wife when we met him on the street. I said do you want to go have a drink and he said no, no we have to go home. We said goodbye, we gave him a record and we took off in our car. About ten minutes later this little Volkswagen came racing up to the side of us and he rolled down the window and he got my attention. I said do you want to go have a drink. He said no, this is Linda over here, and he introduced us to his wife. She had probably given him a lot of trouble. He came across as very human and his letters to me were very human. I liked his attitude. He had a very rock-and-roll attitude for an older guy. He would do these wild, drunken readings in front of students. He could be very – use any cursing, you know, in the book, just to shock, but if you got through all that he was actually a very good poet – sometimes. And I recorded I think one of his best poems "Crucifix in a Death Hand," a poem about old Los Angeles where I was born. I recite it with some musical backing, which is sort of what we’ll try to do in the record. And there are some Quentin Tarantino actors interested, Michael Madsen and maybe David Carradine. Our only stopgap here is we have to get permission from Linda, his wife. She’s already given me permission to publish the letters. It will be a very interesting project.
A lot of people are underground Bukowski fans, even women, because he loved women, even if he spoke a lot about sex or his lack of sex for many years. Later on – he was sort of, I hate to say ugly, he had a real pockmarked face. But women liked that, it was like he was the monster with the big heart. It was very unique that a guy like that would come out of the American scene and never be destroyed, and I was very drawn to him. I mean I wouldn’t want to write totally like Bukowski because of the shock value, but anybody who can survive the scene in America – because our regular poets really stink, and more recently our writers. We’re not producing great novelists or songwriters since the 60s.
Q: What’s the name of the book?
A: I think it’s called California Blood Lines: Charles Bukowski and Tom Russell. We’re shooting for Nov. 1 at the latest. The press right now is called Black Shark Press, it’s a small literary press in California. People can also check my website.
Q: CD at the same time?
A: Yeah. I have a lot of studio time booked in July. I want to work on these new love songs, but if we get the readings done in the next couple of months I can do the music pretty quickly because I have it in my head. It’ll be very unique project one way or the other. I think it’s gonna happen. But what form it will take requires me to talk to his wife. I may have to drive over to her house in Long Beach and talk to her. She’s very protective of his stuff, which is fine. It depends what we can use. I’m 90 percent certain the CD will come out in some form. Ten years ago there was a movie, Barfly, with Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway.
Love and fear. I’m calling it that now. Who knows what it’ll end up being called. I just started painting again eight months ago. I painted the last cover, for what it’s worth. Of course it’s very na๏ve, but I love folk art. I see the projects now in terms of songs and painting. I just see this big, primitive looking art, one side’s cracked, you know, but it has love and fear, the two sides of human experience basically. Myself I’ve been through three relationships in the last five or six years that have been eye-opening experiences, and a lot of that ends up on the records, like Borderland had a lot about the relationship with this woman I moved out to El Paso with six years ago, and it ended kind of strangely. And I just ended a relationship – or we mutually ended a relationship – with a musician, just because she lived in Austin, I lived in El Paso. She wanted a husband and kids and I think I’m over that. But it was a hurtful thing, so it’s kind of triggered these new love songs.
Q: So does that mean that the cowboy songs are on the back burner?
A: No, not at all, but I don’t want to be totally identified with that, it’s a side job for me. It’s amazing this record is getting the recognition it did, because to be honest I was going to put it out on my website as a little reward for my cowboy fans. Hightone Records wanted to put it out desperately, and it’s gotten more recognition right out of the gate than any record I’ve had out, except maybe The Man from God Knows Where. But no, I’m not done with the cowboy thing, in fact the biggest project, that I’ve been working on for five or six years, is like The Man from God Knows Where. It’s a history of the California West sort of through the eyes of woman, who happens to be my sister-in-law, my brother’s second wife. She grew up on a historic Spanish land-draft ranch, a very large ranch in California, has virtually lived round there all her life and is the sort of woman that’s had to kill two bears that got in her house. It’s like interviewing someone from 180 years ago. She has all the history of her family there, she has all the photos. She can tell you everything about the environment and the history of the ranch and she has a very, very articulate point of view about women and the west, so I’m going to base this sort of cowboy folk opera around her point of view. But it’s also going to be a book, so it’s taking a lot longer than I suspected. To me that’ll be the ultimate cowboy record. And I’m in no hurry because I’m going to have to spend at least another two years putting that together. So I’m not really done with the cowboy thing.
Q: You seem to have a huge number of projects going on, and yet you’re on the road so much. How do you fit it all in?
A: You know, I’ve really had to get a lot of things in my life together. One of them is being in between relationships has helped. I’m not going to rush back into a relationship because that’s just one more thing. You can’t have a girlfriend without devoting enough time to try to make it work. So I want to relax on that for a while. I’ve cut out drinking a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t a huge drinker, but again it was another thing that got in the way. I’m really very focussed on my writing and painting. That’s what I get the most enjoyment out of and that’s what I’m meant to do, and I really have these projects I want to do. I’m not a normal person, let’s face it. I don’t need to be in a marriage. I have a wonderful house out in El Paso that needs a lot of work all the time, and I can do that. I have a painting studio and a writing studio and that’s what I want to do. The next five years I really want to devote my life to these projects. I’m able to get some of it done on the road.
I’m coming to the end of this kind of touring, I think, playing the smaller joints. I think if I come out with a bigger record – the Bukowski record then the bigger record and then the western record – I should be doing small theatres. I don’t need to be on a level with Bruce Springsteen or even Nanci, but I’d like to be up in 300-400-seat theatres all over the world, playing to serious audiences. That would be fine for me. Tour in large blocks, but less, you know, tour Europe and then take two months off. Now I have to do it this way. I put two records out in 10 months and the only way you’re going to sell them and get publicity is to tour every time. But it’s working. I did the David Letterman show last May with Nanci and he saw the Uncut review and now I’m going to do it again in September, and that goes out to 40 million people worldwide. It’s too small now, I mean I’ve done it. If I keep playing at this level I’m hitting my head against the ceiling. The records are selling more and more. I’m really beyond all boundaries of age or anything else, it’s up to me now to take it to another level. I’m talking to a friend of mine to manage my affairs and make the press kit bigger and do more TV and radio, but the bottom line is I have to deliver the record that I think will resonate with more people, in the way that certain heroes of mine do, Leonard Cohen and Dylan. You can do articulate, dark, meaningful songwriting and reach an audience without being a pop star. You remain a private individual.
It’s fascinating. I don’t even know either. I love the song. Most people think Rosemary killed Big Jim but I always think why is Lily taking the dye out of her hair. Did she impersonate Rosemary and set her up. Anything can happen. It’s an extremely well-written song for, like, a western song. It’s great that people debate it. It means they’re listening, trying to listen.
There’s something special about it because of the workshops during the day where we just talk like I’m talking here and people ask questions and songwriting and stuff, which I don’t really dig talking about, but it’s kind of call and the food’s really good, but the atmosphere is unbelievable.
Q:I need to check a few basic things. Your age?
A: I’m not going to tell you that.
Q: On your website it says you were born in 1950.
A: That’s pretty accurate. That’s about it. Let me just tell you why, in a way, because I’m superstitious. I could figure out how old I am because obviously I know, I don’t know because I stopped counting, but I know the year I was born, but I don’t like it put in pieces. I don’t think you have to tell a journalist anything you don’t want to tell, and I think it’s a negative factor in a piece because it influences what younger people think. In the same way as if you play something on the radio and younger people say "What was that?" But then they find out that this guy’s in his sixties, and they think well that couldn’t be hip. The more you can get away from typecasting and just getting people to listen to what somebody says, because in my country everything is youth-oriented. I could be on a bigger label but it’s a youth-oriented market. They don’t know that I’m going to do 10 more records. They think a guy like me is going to retire. So I don’t tell. It’s too bad because you’re just heading towards that, and then you get an obituary when you die. It’s just counting something that I don’t feel I’m a part of, to be truthful. And if I did believe it I’d be looking a lot older than I do. I just don’t see it as being accurate anyway. You could interview another guy who was born in 1950 and he would seem like he was 80, you could interview another guy and it would seem like he was 32, so I just don’t believe in the barrier. In the same way when journalists ask me about my politics, which I don’t have any, but they want it in the piece because they feel people can then judge where you’re coming from. There are certain things I won’t tell.
Q: Can you give me a potted history of your life?
A: Basically I went to the University of California at Santa Barbara and got a degree as a criminologist and sociologist. I was really into street-level problems and crime. I thought it was going to be really interesting. And then a friend of mine got a grant to go to Nigeria during the Biafra war, 1969-70, and offered me a job as a research teaching assistant. I was married at the time. I was very young. But we went to Nigeria as a year. I really didn’t do a lot of teaching. I collected art and hung out and played a lot of guitar, but by hanging out with the academic people I decided that wasn’t going to be the life for me. It bored me to tears, they bored me to death academic people. So I knew I wanted to be around musicians and ever since I saw Bob Dylan perform I thought that’s really what I am, a songwriter. I just didn’t have the guts to do it.
I came back from Africa and lived in Vancouver because we had friends there. I began playing in really bad Skid Row bars, six sets a night doing Hank Williams songs, Rolling Stones, and I worked my way up through there and started writing songs. I moved to Austin in the mid-70s when it was just being set up as a centre for alternative songwriters. Willie Nelson had just moved there, and Guy Clark. I recorded two albums with Patricia Hardin. We came very close to getting a major recording deal. I moved to San Francisco and recorded a record there and then we broke up and I moved to New York and kind of dropped out of the music scene. I had a developmental deal as a novelist with the William Morris Agency for a while, they shopped some of my manuscripts and not much happened, and I drove cab. That’s when I met Andrew Hardin, my guitar player. He was driving cab. He said "we’ve got to get out of this, you’re a great songwriter." I’d already written some pretty good songs like Gallo del Cielo.
The meat of the story is one night I picked up Robert Hunter, the lyricist of the Grateful Dead, and we started talking in the cab and I sang this song I’d written about cockfighting. He was stunned. He had me sing it again and again. The upshot of that was he got me up on stage a month later and said "I want to introduce you to a taxi driver who wrote this song," introduced me to a Grateful Dead audience. Got me back in the business really because he hired me and Andy to open some shows for him in New York, I mean top-level shows, out of the blue. So we instantly had an audience and we instantly were working and we’ve been working ever since – the last 20 years we’ve been touring 200 days a year.
I’ve made 18 records since then, all different kinds of records. I never ran into Robert Hunter again but I always point to him as one of the few people in this business that actually did something. Everybody promises something but he actually did something for me. He went off to England and for a couple of years I heard people say that he would sing the song and say "I learned this from a cab driver."
And then I stayed in New York 15 years. I finally had a novel published in Norway, eight years ago, a crime novel, and then I published a book with Sylvia Tyson on songwriting quotes that’s still available. Finally I got tired of New York five or six years ago. I was living with a woman in New York and she was born in El Paso, Texas, so we moved out to El Paso and found this beautiful, historic adobe house. And the relationship broke up – we weren’t used to seeing each other that much – and I kept the house and she moved back to New York, and that was about six years ago. I feel pretty firmly based there because it’s a semi-isolated place in the desert and I have three acres and my art studio and my writing studio. It’s not Austin, it’s not New York, it’s not San Francisco, and yet it’s one of the most historic towns in America and it’s right on the Mexican border, of Juarez, Mexico, and there may be two million people right across the border. A lot has happened. That’s my capsule bio.