Attention, Class of 2007: No matter your age, please read all the way to the end of this conversation with Vincent Gallo to discover what he hopes you will contribute to our future.
All curious others, get ready for an illustrated chat that moves through some of Gallo's fave screen idols and non-auteur films to explore his ideas about making music and movies, and also includes my story about a lifesize wax candle of Richard Nixon's head.
Cameos by Hilary Duff and Michael Jackson.
Guardian: Are you recording an album at the moment? What are you doing musically?
Vincent Gallo: We’ve decided not to be part of the problem of music in that way. We haven’t really made plans the way that people make plans. We’re focused more on preparing to perform live and to get off on doing shows. We’ve only played together something like 7 times, but each time we play it’s all day and very intense. We haven’t gotten to the point yet where we’ve repeated anything or done things from our past in a way that isn’t really truthful.
Someone said today, “It sounds like a jam band,” and that was the most gross comment. A jam is a disorganized version of the most ordinary cliché habits - that’s the furthest thing from what we’re doing.
Recordings of Music for Film
G: I sense a kind of open process within your Recordings of Music For Film. Some of its music doesn’t sound like it was necessarily made for a release, or the release that it’s received.
VG: Quite frankly, nothing on that group of recordings was created in any other way than that the tape machine was turned on and I played. I didn’t write a piece and rehearse it a bunch of times and play the shit out of it and make it an old habit and then record it. Those were all documents of creation.
G: There are tracks that remind me of Aphex Twin, and then there are other moments that make me think of Moondog.
VG: I probably only recorded about twice as long as Recordings of Music for Film’s duration. I didn’t have a lot of equipment or money.
I'm not devoted to rehearsing and practicing music the way that others are [devoted]. A friend, John Frusciante, for example, spent a lot of time getting better at his technique, at understanding theory, at understanding all types of styles, practicing them, and rehearsing quite a bit. Also, most of his daily routine is in some way supportive of his creation of music. That whole system seems to work for him in the kind of music he plays. I have made the least possible effort to purposefully develop better technique or to develop older musical traditions or to prepare myself to be adaptable to all types of musicians, or to take away any risk from live performance. In a sense I'm undereducated, or uneducated, but I don't feel unprepared. I don't often touch an instrument unless I'm composing or recording.
All Things Must Pass
G: You’ve said the Beatles were a huge formative influence on you when you were a child. For me it was the same type of scenario of loving them at age 4, though I had my sister to thank for turning me on to Sgt Peppers and Magical Mystery Tour.
VG: George Harrison puts out All Things Must Pass and I’m still a little boy.
It’s interesting when I think back. A record store had very few things in the contemporary or rock section. If you think about every LP released at the time, we’re still talking about one wall in a store.
If you were a kid in my generation, especially if you had older relatives or friends or neighbors who were open-minded, you would get a dollar for your birthday or two dollars for Christmas, and you’d buy an LP and really play the shit out of it. You’d play it until it wore out because it was your only record.
Those records I owned at that time I’ve listened to so many times. Through that listening, even though I had a young perspective and a young mind and I wasn’t developed in my vocabulary, I moved towards the most challenging pieces by default. When you listen to something 50 times, the hit becomes less interesting and you start to notice other things. That noticing of other things becomes your vocabulary. You start to make friends, or I did, based on that vocabulary.
That’s never changed to this day - and not just exclusive to music. It’s how I developed this tendency to connect with people through a type of vocabulary that comes from a level of commitment or an extreme interest or a lot of experience with something, all the while [being] freethinking. You can have a lot of experience and beat out your openness - you can have it pounded away. But if you remain open and you have a lot of experience you tend to notice and find things that are quite individual, or subtle.
That’s what’s so exciting about the situation I’m in with Eric and Corey.
Corey Lee Granet
G: Who are Eric and Corey?
VG: Eric is Eric Erlandson, Courtney Love’s partner in Hole. They were my favorite band of that time. I wasn’t a fan - it wasn’t like that period of music was going to change my life or influence me - but I did pay attention. I saw all the more obscure bands of the time, and what I perceived to be the more mainstream ones: Hole and Nirvana and Sonic Youth and Jane’s [Addiction], whatever bands were actually making the radio. Of the bands that made the radio, I remember liking Eric the most and thinking to myself, “I’m watching this guy, he’s in a really hyped band, but I just have a feeling that Eric and Courtney Love are cooler than we perceive. They're both probably cooler than Kurt [Cobain], and probably more influential on him than he could ever have been on them.”
His [Cobain’s] relationship with her - forget the dynamics between them personally, whether or not it was pathological in a mother-child way - just intellectually, aesthetically, it was the best extension of his sensibility. Being in a band with Dave Grohl doesn’t say a lot about you, or a lot that’s good about you. But having her as a girlfriend does.
G: One way I can see you finding her [Courtney Love] interesting is that you aren’t known for rock music the way she is, and her interests and knowledge extend far beyond just writing rock songs.
VG: Yeah, she’s an interested person who’s very open and fanatical. She puts herself out there. She’s had her ups and downs. I’m not in love with all her trips. There’s no truth in ego - nothing good comes from that.
G: That makes me want to jump in to say that I’ve noticed that one pet peeve of yours, especially around the time of The Brown Bunny’s release, is when people describe you or your work as narcissistic. For one thing, everyone is a narcissist, but it misses the point of what you were doing in that movie.
VG: First of all, it’s a clinical term, so when people use words like neurotic or narcissism, I challenge them to come up with another word and they always seem at a loss because they don’t have full understanding of what it is they’re trying to say.
The Brown Bunny
G: Also, narcissism is rooted in myth, and the myth of Narcissus is fundamentally connected to making art.
VG: Exactly. In my understanding of art, in the way that it’s most appealing to me, it’s a gesture, an act of doing something without purpose. It has no intentional purpose, or a purpose beyond the gesture. That is not to say the result of that gesture can't serve and be part of a purpose. But in its pure form, you're making something, doing something, behaving in a certain way, making sounds or colors, or just developing concepts. All these things, done with no career in mind, no audience, no social status, no crown of the art market, no rewards.
I think of the periods of my life when I did something like that. It was a very unique exercise, and an exercise that I repeated over and over, for no reasons that I could know or explain.
There is a side of me more interested in things with a purpose. If I make a movie, I make one because somewhere in my movie collection or movie vocabulary there seems to be something missing. It’s missing from what I might I perceive to be a perfect collection of films.
G: In one interview that took place years before you filmed The Brown Bunny, you said your next film would be like Peeping Tom in a way. It was great to come across that, just because of all the shallow nonsense that erupted around Brown Bunny. What’s haunting to me about Brown Bunny is that it really is like Peeping Tom, in a way.
VG: I guess it had a similar effect on that filmmaker’s career in that it made it difficult for him to continue.
It certainly moved me far away from the mainstream.
Another problem with Bunny is that people have a hard time swallowing a person like me, I evoke, I irritate in general. I’m not a provocateur, and like everyone, I like when people like me. I'm just not willing to not be myself to get to be liked.
Sometimes I’m willing to adapt myself to the politeness or the temperament or the continuity of another person. That’s when I’m collecting things. It has nothing to do with me personally. It's not for approval or glory or personal reward. Instead I make this personal sacrifice of myself and who I really am to get items away from people, items that I feel need to be preserved and protected, and to do this I'm willing to use manipulation or hypnosis of any kind.
G: There’s a bit of that type of interaction in Buffalo '66.
VG: Absolutely. But with Bunny, I feel that if someone else had directed the film, people might have been able to look at the performance and the screenplay a little differently. If somebody else had acted in the film, people might have been able to at least understand what my intentions were and not cloud them.
To hear people say, “Oh brilliant, you made a film just so you could get blown,” in a world where it’s so hard not to get blown. You basically spend most of your life preventing yourself from being blown. To spend four and a half years on a film, have three nervous breakdowns, and lose everything -
G: The film’s subject matter, right down to its portrayal of breakdown, is something I relate to; another reference or comparison that I thought was kind of interesting in relation to Brown Bunny is Last Tango in Paris. [Roger] Ebert had this huge reaction to your movie that came full circle, while Pauline Kael sort of went ballistic with love for Last Tango when it was released.
VG: I remember reading those responses to Last Tango.
You know, Last Tango was a very impressionistic experience for me as a filmgoer, which is strange because it’s one of the early or first European films I saw in a cinema.
If somebody said my film [The Brown Bunny] reminded them of Last Tango in Paris, I would at least understand the connection in regards to vibe, or taste somehow, or a type of sensitivity. I could understand it even though Last Tango was the furthest thing from my mind when I thought up and made Bunny. So the connection is not because it's an influence; instead, the connection is because I must share some of the same instincts and attractions.
However, if someone tells me that The Brown Bunny reminded them of Two-Lane Blacktop, and thinks that film influenced me making The Brown Bunny, I feel that person has a shallow understanding of my work and of Two-Lane Blacktop. In other words, both films have a car in them, and that's how they're tied together. I could have made The Brown Bunny in one room.
G: Two-Lane Blacktop is a surface comparison -- the literal paved surface.
VG: On the surface, it's closer to the film Bobby Deerfield, but that connection requires more insight.
G: I’ve never seen Bobby Deerfield, but a girl I know completely loves that movie.
VG: Ok, any girl that you know who loves Bobby Deerfield, you should make her your best friend. She’s got real sensitivity.
It’s one of the most beautiful, beautiful films.
We can go down auteur lane and name every [Robert] Bresson film, move through [Andrei] Tarkovsky, go into Japan, and make a beautiful, hip list of films. But those are not the ones that I watch a million times. I’ve seen them all, but they’re not the ones that move me the most. They excite me, but they don’t move me.
Sometimes I can be most moved by films with more mainstream cast members and a bigger company behind them. Some of my favorites were huge-budgeted films that maybe didn’t play well to audiences, but really played well to me.
One that comes to mind is George Stevens’ film The Only Game in Town, which was a 10 million dollar film shot in the late '60s, the largest-budgeted movie of the time, starring Warren Beatty and Liz Taylor.
In fact, Warren Beatty has been in more movies that I’ve loved than any other actor. What's interesting about The Only Game in Town is that Liz Taylor may have been a little too old for the film. Plus she refused to leave Paris for filming this Las Vegas project, so it’s all shot indoors. But the film just breaks my heart.
The Only Game in Town
G: Liz is fascinating during that era. Her performances have a real rebellious streak.
VG: Her voice and accent are incredible. In The Only Game in Town, her character has such a modest lifestyle; that’s something about [the film] I really like.
Warren’s good in The Only Game in Town, he’s good in All Fall Down, he’s good in Lilith, he’s good in Mickey One. He’s an actor who is beautiful enough and strong enough to fill the shoes of the male lead role in a film, but he’s sensitive and intelligent. I like him a lot.
Maybe not as much as I like the best Robert Shaw, or Richard Bright, or Al Lettieri, or Charles Bronson, or the best Oliver Reed.
G: Oliver Reed - now there’s someone you won’t find the likes of within movies today.
VG: I don’t think [someone like him] would get past the Screen Actor’s Guild in today’s world. How could Joe Spinell work? Who would cast Joe Spinell?
Joe Spinell (as 'Personnel Officer' in Taxi Driver, with Robert DeNiro)
G: I know. He has such an interesting career, in terms of starring in Maniac while also having a lot of great bit parts in great films.
VG: And he’s not just giving a great bit performance - he can be the only thing you remember. Joe Spinell is so good in movies that when I first saw The Godfather when I was 13, he was the only thing I remembered. I would pay 100 million dollars to have Joe Spinell's face. When I had pimples, I wished I had Joe Spinell's pocks.
G: Manny Farber’s movie writing is great in that way. He has a sharp eye for the bit roles and character actors and celebrates them rather than the hammier stars.
VG: The best person for me to talk to about movies is Sylvester Stallone’s son, Sage Stallone. He’s the most brilliant friend I have in regards to film. Johnny Ramone was pretty good, but Sage has better taste. Sage really means it when he connects with those kinds of performers, the much lesser-known leading men or character actors. They’re real heroes to him.
I tend to have the same thing, but I connect more with that type of woman actor, more with someone like Linda Haynes. The fact that Linda Haynes was the lead in a movie is incredible to me. I can’t imagine a movie that would cast anyone with that naturalness, with a vibe like that, in a lead.
Linda Haynes (in Brubaker)
G: Even mainstream actresses from the ‘70s like Sissy Spacek or Shelley Duvall possessed an individual quality absent from most lead actresses today. Chloe [Sevigny] is a closer example, I’d guess.
VG: Maybe in The Brown Bunny, but not in anything else I've seen.
I interviewed Linda Haynes recently, and she’d say something like, “Yeah, one day I moved back to Florida and my agent couldn’t really find me.” I thought, “Wow, this is a woman who’d just starred in three films and suddenly she moved back to Florida to be close to her mom.” Chloe’s not that type of girl. If you interviewed Chloe Sevigny today and [PR people] handed you her bio, it would not include The Brown Bunny. Somehow she feels that by distancing herself from a film like that she can keep herself in more favor with the mainstream. Linda Haynes would never have thought in those terms.
G: That’s too bad, because I interviewed her around the time of The Brown Bunny [when the film had its North American premiere in Toronto], and though she’d also recently worked with Olivier Assayas and [Lars] von Trier, the director she spoke most positively about was you, and I got the feeling that she liked The Brown Bunny more than the films she made with them, both as an experience and as a finished movie.
VG: My time with her was extremely beautiful. I never felt I had a buddy like that on a film. I told her I needed a buddy, I told her I needed to be close to her, that we really needed to find things we liked about each other, and she followed through with that. I felt so in love with her during the filming that I wept and missed her and mourned the fact that I wasn’t going to be spending any more time with her, really maybe ever again.
I’ve really only seen her two or three times since we made the movie and I feel that she Christina Ricci’d me a little bit.
The Brown Bunny
G: It sounds like a variant of what Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren went through, where the experience might have been be so intense that she needed to separate herself.
VG: Christina’s [Ricci’s] turn against me was a surprise, because we’d had a nice experience [on Buffalo ‘66]. I was tough on my crew, but I wasn’t really tough on her.
Christina Ricci felt that it was better to promote herself in the film The Opposite of Sex rather than Buffalo '66, when both were released at the same time. She thought that The Opposite of Sex would bring her more opportunity and put her in more favor. That meant she had to actually distance herself from Buffalo '66, not to bring it up and let it take away any focus from what she thought was a better career-move movie. Unfortunately, I took that personally.
G: One great actress I know you’re a fan of is Tuesday Weld.
VG: Her best moment is in The Cincinnati Kid. Steve McQueen can reflect off a chick better than any guy. Ali McGraw is unbelievable in The Getaway because he’s so solid.
Tuesday Weld and Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid
G: A gay magazine once ran an interview with you that featured photos by David Armstrong, whom I admire, and you were talking about something that can’t be mentioned enough, which is how horrible or nonexistent gay culture has become in the last decade or two.
VG: If this was 1975 and you called me up and said, ”Listen, the Guardian wants to put you on the cover and they’re going to send over a photographer. He’s a really interesting guy from Monterey -- oh, and he's gay,” the word gay would have popped out in my mind and made me excited and confident that he would probably be an open-minded person and not judge me. I would have been prepared to have fun; most likely he would have good taste and the pictures would be great.
Today, if you say, "a gay photographer from Monterey," I am gonna cringe.
G: Without getting too far into names, it’s like you’d encounter 1000 versions, and inferior ones, of David LaChapelle. It’s gotten consumerist to the nth degree, and it’s designer and boring.
VG: Still, this conversation is so modern in comparison to what it might have been five years ago. I enjoy more than ever communication and shared dialogue with people.
G: Your films have an appreciation of female beauty that is a lot more complicated than contemporary Hollywood’s. The versions of female beauty [there] are so regressive.
VG: You're right in regards to the pure mainstream girls, like Lindsay Lohan. However, one big star, Hilary Duff, does stick out to me. I think she has the most beautiful face, and I feel she could be so beautiful. I wish I could work with her.
G: She was raised by Disney.
VG: Second-generation Disney. She’s not ‘50s Disney -
G: Yeah, she’s not Annette Funicello.
VG: If she was only exposed to “it’s a small world,” that would be incredible. Instead, they pushed her through Space Mountain and Johnny Depp-as-a-pirate --
G: The Britney Disney. This is kind of making a big leap, but you once talked about seeing [Pier Paolo] Pasolini’s Salo when you first moved to LA. I read a book by Gary Indiana about Salo recently and he speaks about seeing it at exactly the same midnight theater that you mentioned.
VG: I was staying at the Hollywood YMCA. In New York I had no home. I took a flight to LA on one of those messenger service deals and I checked in there. It was three dollars a night. That doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but it was. I had maybe 30 or 40 dollars with me for the whole trip and I had to stretch it out.
On top of that, my shoes were stolen on the beach. I was not going to spend the last remaining money I had on shoes - even if they were 99 cent sandals, I was not going to get them. So I walked around in socks, and taped my socks to my feet to form a sole.
The Hollywood Y has a little courtyard, and it used to have a little snack bar there; maybe it still does. This really beautiful girl worked there. Of course, at that time she was a bit hippie-ish, very Charlie Manson girl in some ways, very sunny-faced. She asked me what I was doing and suggested I go see that film. I didn’t know who [Pier Paolo Pasolini] was really, but I walked for miles down Hollywood Boulevard until I got to that corner where she’d told me I’d find the theater. There was the marquee, and it was showing with some other homoerotic porn, basically.
Of course, the film blew my mind. It's one of the greats and very sophisticated and political. One particular thing made an impression. Pasolini portrayed some of the most gruesome images of violence by filming through the POV of a small telescope that a sadistic Fascist is looking through, through a window. We could see all the horrific torture that the Fascist had ordered, but he and we were seeing it silently, protected and comfortable, in his library. Wow.
G: I know that you're a fan of [The Rolling Stones] Rock and Roll Circus.
VG: Did you know that I sat next to Keith Richards at the premiere of the film at Lincoln Center? Yoko Ono was there, he was there, his wife Patti [Hansen] was there, and a couple other people in the movie. I sat two seats away from Keith, and I kept looking back and forth between him and the screen.
G: I love the Taj Mahal performance in the movie.
VG: I don’t think [Taj Mahal guitarist] Jesse Ed Davis realized how great he was. His vibe and his licks and his musical sense are so high that it’s hard to believe. And his look! The way the light falls on him, he looks like he’s in a Chinese portrait studio photograph, but it's come to life.
Jesse Ed Davis (post-Rock and Roll Circus)
G: That performance is amazing, and then when Yoko Ono is singing, it’s great to see Taj Mahal so into it as an audience member.
VG: Yoko Ono is very brilliant.
G: I want to discuss writing a bit because the one time we met previously, we talked about Kenneth Patchen and Rene Ricard.
VG: Rene was a very important person to get to know.
I found a book of Kenneth Patchen’s in a hallway of a building in New York City in 1977, before I lived there. It was Because It Is. I had a strong reaction to the book.
San Francisco has some of the best bookstores in the world. The best person I've discovered in San Francisco is the collage artist Jess. Jess may be the greatest of all time.
G: My boyfriend and I sometimes walk by the house he lived in with Robert Duncan. We don’t live far from there.
VG: I was told by people who got to know them well that they were pretty dynamic as a couple. They made a big impression wherever they went.
Along with Robert Ryman, the Futurists, and Duchamp, Jess is one of my favorite artists of the 20th century.
But when I’m in San Francisco, very few people know of Jess’s work, just like very few people in San Francisco know who Tuxedo Moon were.
San Francisco’s history is rich.
Arkadia Last Resort, by Jess
G: The city has trouble keeping track of itself. I know you have a gargantuan record collection. Do you see a connection between what you’re most fascinated by musically in recent years and what you’re currently doing?
VG: It always goes back to what’s missing, from a real strong desire to hear something that I’m not hearing -- that I haven’t heard and that I know I want to hear. That’s what has been so surprising about playing with [Eric and Corey]. When you make yourself really open, what you create is more interesting than you and your own rationale and intelligence and experience. It goes beyond you, it’s better than you.
If what I do is 50 billion times better than me then it’s pure crap because I’m just a jerk. But when you get together with people and transcend yourself it’s really an exciting moment, and that happened right away with us.
Off the Wall (featuring "I Can't Help It")
G: Listening to your album When, I thought “Who is this girl he’s got singing with him?” Then I read that you were into Anita O’Day.
VG: She moved me more than anyone has moved me as a vocalist. Her best moments are so good that when I’m singing or when I imagine myself being able to sing, I imagine her. We don’t sound anything alike, I don’t have anything near her instrument, her experience, her range, but I’m imagining my impression of her.
When you tap into something and what you get out of that tap is something new and ironic that’s the most beautiful thing.
Right now I’m listening to Michael Jackson day and night. I can’t listen to Michael Jackson enough right now. Not only do I listen to him, I’m so in love with him as a person that I cry every day as I’m listening to him. Listen, this is what’s in my CD player, ok? [Plays “I Can’t Help It,” from Off the Wall].
How good is this? How good is this!
If I could pick just one person in the world to spend my whole day with, it would be him, because he’s moving me so much. Many times in my life I’ve gone back to him. I’m not being sarcastic, and this is not part of a condescend, I’m not being ironic - I’m simply a fan.
G: There’s nothing better than falling completely in love with a piece of music. I think I’m being too feckless as of late. My boyfriend on the other hand will go into something like an intense year-long Nancy Wilson obsession.
VG: Nancy Wilson is fucking great. Listen to her version of “Make Me Rainbows.” It’s unbelievable. Something like “My One and Only Love” she sings better than anyone else.
Early Nancy Wilson
G: She’s a classic beauty.
VG: Amongst all the things that I’ve gone on You Tube to see, I haven’t found any good Nancy Wilson footage.
G: One period of hers my boyfriend is most into that hasn’t been reissued and is really fantastic is around the time that Philadelphia International were making records.
VG: That’s the period I liked Anita O’Day, too. I went from Nancy Wilson to Beverly Kenney to Anita O’Day, and then stayed wth Anita O’Day.
When I was in Gray with Jean-Michel Basquiat, me and one of the other guys in the band, Michael Holman, were Nancy Wilson’s biggest fans. It was the dream of our lives to see her live.
G: She’s still fantastic.
VG: Not too many people are hip to Nancy Wilson. A lot of black female singers have been fetishized as icons. No one knows the white chicks like Beverly Kenney, or the more offbeat singers. Nancy Wilson got less attention because she didn’t pretend to be a jazz cat. She’s more conservative; she was a beauty pageant winner.
G: She’s a real showbiz vet - she’s made tons of recordings.
VG: And she performs a lot. She could have been the wife of the first Black president if it had already happened. She reminds me of Pat Nixon in a way.
G: I know you have a thing for Nixon and have memories of seeing him on TV during Watergate when you were a kid. So I have a story to tell you. When I was three or four, my parents had this giant wax Nixon candle, a huge candle of his head, and one night when they were out somewhere I accidentally knocked it over and broke Nixon’s nose. I was completely shattered about it [laughs] - I thought I was going to be seriously punished.
VG: Did they have it because they were supporters? I had such a heart for him as a kid because I felt he was such an underdog in some way. The guy I like more now than anyone in politics is Newt Gingrich. If I had one wish for America, it would be that Newt would be the President forever.
That was then...
G: They don’t make politicians like they used to; he’s already of an era that has passed.
VG: It’s a funny time in the world, don’t you think? I want a revolution. I want something radical. I can’t wait until the world is really changing in a chaotic crazy way.
Science moves ten times faster than it did 100 year ago. We don’t realize it, but just the collective science community is moving that fast, which means that [the degree of change] we saw happen in the 20th century we’ll see [happen] from 2010 until 2020. That’s exciting.
I wish more young smart people would move out of litigation and regulation and into science and engineering.
G: That’s a good quote - I love how completely disconnected it is from a music profile piece, too. I can imagine you saying it to a graduating class.
VG: That’s what I’d say to the graduating class of a high school. I’d tell the ten smartest kids that science and engineering are really going to change the world.