John Shirley is a prolific author of science fiction and horror short stories, novels and screen plays as well as song lyricist, punk rock singer and sometimes journalist. He’s been doing all of the above for thirty years. Along with William Gibson and others he helped invent the cyberpunk genre of science fiction that attempted to fuse the sensibilities of underground literature with hardboiled crime writing to the traditional elements of futurist and speculative fiction. Cyberpunk became all the rage, in the eighties and nineties, and a bane to anti-genre lit snobs across the board. While a great deal of the style was derivative and cookie-cutter there was a great deal more that was original and seemed to offer a more accurate lens not only of the future but of the times in which it was written. Innovators in the genre hammered out not only a new style of writing from the old but a new perspective, new political insights and a new means of critiquing social mores and trends. Sometimes the writing was even visionary and offered a view of the future that was glamorous, sleazy, realistic, complex, culturally diverse and morally ambiguous, just like the past and the present. In other words rather than retreading Buck Rogers space adventure scenarios or investigating dystopian spas, cyberpunk actually provided something interesting to read. Shirley’s novel, City Come a ‘Walkin’ in which the City of San Francisco becomes a sentient and autonomous being in the near future is a seminal classic of speculative literature.
Shirley’s horror fiction treads the territory of Stephen King and Clive Barker with a bit of finesse and goes beyond them into the land of HP Lovecraft, Jorge Luis Borges and JG Ballard. In short stories like “Six Kinds of Darkness,” “Ticket to Heaven” and novels like “Demons” Shirley conveys a consistent sense of the war between the need to push understanding, awareness and experience and the social, environmental and personal ramifications of extreme behavior and megalomania, corporate or individual.
John Shirley’s musical career has paralleled the history of punk rock and in this interview he recounts seeing pre-famous punk personalities when his punk bands played around the country and in his native Portland, Oregon during the punk/hardcore hey day of 1975-1981. His longest running band was SadoNation, in which he was the singer. He’s also written songs for the legendary Blue Oyster Cult whom he calls “thinking man’s hard rock.”Shirley currently lives in Pinole with his family in the San Francisco Bay Area. I first met him during a reading at the El Rio in San Francisco’s Mission District in 2003. This interview was conducted in Spring 2006. John Shirley’s web site is www.darkecho.com/johnshirley. He has a new book coming out this year, The Other End published by Cemetary Dance.
Data Exchange with John Shirley
JS: Let me turn Joey Ramone down.
S: Is that the solo album?
JS: Yeah. It’s the last thing he did before he died.
S: I like “Don’t Worry About Me.” That’s a good song. You were doing rock and roll before you started writing books right?
JS: Actually I think I was published before I was in a band but writing and punk rock were almost simultaneous for me. I was actually writing proto-cyberpunk and recording proto-punk rock very early on. Sometimes I used my books to support my band.
S: How did you end up writing lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult?
JS: I met the Blue Oyster Cult through mutual friends who knew they were looking for someone to write lyrics. They'd heard of me and I adored their music--the thinking man's hard rock band, with one of rock's greatest guitar players, Buck Dharma--and I went for it. I unfortunately wasn't their lyricist in their heyday but I did write 16 songs for them on their most recent two albums. Their sense of humor and intricacy provide fascinating sub cultural intersections.
S: I noticed that the name of one of your bands, The Panther Moderns, is also the name of a subculture in William Gibson’s Neuromancer. This is a clique of juvenile delinquents that plays pranks with hallucinogenic drugs.
JS: Yeah it was our guitar player that named the band after a William Gibson subculture. I went along with it since William Gibson’s an old friend of mine actually and I liked the sound of the name.
S: How did you meet William Gibson?
JS: It was at a science fiction convention in Vancouver, British Columbia in the early eighties. I don’t remember what year it was exactly. He had only published one short story at the time. We had a lot in common. We were among the few people there who wanted to bridge the gap between Edgar Rice Burroughs and William S. Burroughs. We were both guys who had read underground literature – Black Mask Books, for example – as well as science fiction. There were very few people at this event who were involved with the subcultures we were a part of and we connected on every level. Later we collaborated on a short story and movie script—one of them was bought but not filmed, another version of The New Rose Hotel.
S: You were writing “cyberpunk” fiction before that term came into regular usage right?
JS: It depends on whom you ask. Arguably so. I was writing a “science fiction on the street” version of the genre. It became sort of a template for at least some cyberpunk later. My novel City Come a Walkin’ was an attempt to fuse science fiction imagery, progressive underground literary writing, like Burroughs and the beat writers, with rock and roll at its best, such as Patti Smith. There’s a character in City Come a Walkin’ who is based on Patti Smith.
S: Catz Wailen, the young punk singer that the protagonist is in love with?
JS: Yeah. Some people regard City as a classic and Gibson acknowledges the influence on some of his work. He's acknowledged, for example,that his creation of Molly, the lady assassin in Neuromancer, was influenced by my character “City” who is this walking badass humanoid incarnation of the city of San Francisco. Both Molly and City wear mirror shades that are actually part of their face, and both are superhuman. There are other things…
S: Burroughs had a huge influence on rock and roll, every generation since the Sixties with bands naming themselves after his books or characters: The Soft Machine, Steely Dan. In the eighties and nineties he was doing spoken word/rock collaborations with Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain. Ironically I don’t think Burroughs himself liked rock and roll or even listened to it despite his influence on so many rock musicians.
One thing I wanted to talk about is that according to your website you once lead a revolt in your high school in Portland and were expelled for it. Is that true?
JS: Well that's not my website. It’s a fan created website and they will interpret events that happened in my life in their own way. I was instrumental in a series of demonstrations in school that had an anarchic character. We sang nonsense songs and chanted nonsense phrases while handing out alternative literature that we printed up ourselves. These were self-published newspapers of an underground and radical nature. My friends and I were part of a hippy freak thing that drew inspiration from the musical Dadaism of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. We were reading a lot of books on Dada and were trying to bring a new perspective on the social reality we were living in. We felt that life was becoming increasingly absurd. We also felt that the world was becoming a saturated media environment. This was back in the early 70’s and now, in the early 21st century, we’re up to our necks in a saturated media environment. I think that people are completely loosing their sense of identity, drowned in other people’s advertising.
S: I agree.
JS: I feel as if people have lost any kind of real personal center and this is what my novel Crawlers was about.
S: Yeah, I’m reading that right now and I’m glad you’re talking about loss of identity because I think that’s what happened to punk rock and other counter/subcultures. Tim Yohannon of Maximum Rock&Roll – a flagship punk zine that I used to write for – had a rather rigid and dogmatic attitude about not “selling out.” He thought punk rock bands shouldn’t sign on to major record labels because then their product gets controlled and they have to make compromises. I kind of see a lot of that having actually happened. There used to be this kind of consciousness in the hardcore culture of “create your own culture” and don’t buy culture from corporations.
JS: That is right. Punk was about creating your own culture. It was something you could create in you own garage but it wasn’t just a garage band scene, there was something more spontaneous going on. Garage bands are ultimately aimed at playing arenas (whether or not they make it that far) and punk was ultimately an expression of angst projected through amplifiers. I was reading somewhere that there’s a whole new wave of this: people that can barely play, almost on purpose, playing anywhere. They’ll construct songs in a spontaneous way. That is punk rock. That’s what we had in mind back in the 70’s. When I was involved punk had a strong element of social criticism as well. Of course for some people nihilism was enough [laughs] but nihilism is a statement in itself.
I was the original lead singer for SadoNation for several years. Some of the band’s recordings are on the fan website (www.darkecho.com/johnshirley). There was a song called “Condominium Nightmare.” It was about the cookie cutter life of being in a housing tract and how that would extend to your lifestyle and way of thinking. The premise was that you were trapped in a “condominium nightmare.” I wrote that in 1977 or something and it came true for a lot of people.
S: Well there’s more of that stuff than ever before. Once I was mountain biking on Mt. Diablo, foolishly without a patch kit, and these nice Republicans stopped to help me out when I had a flat. They had a Bush/Cheney bumper sticker on their SUV and I didn’t say anything, of course, except thank you very much. The Bay Area suburbs are full of people who in many ways live very sheltered lives, at least it seems that way to me. People who may not have experienced what foreign countries are like, or the people in them at any rate. They avoid ethnic neighborhoods or big city downtowns that haven’t been properly domesticated and on a daily basis most of their information about the world seems to come from these very right wing AM radio broadcasters. They hate liberals because they’re told to. It’s ironic because the entire culture they’re apart of – the suburban “ownership society” – was created largely by FDR and the New Deal and the GI Bill – all examples of liberal Big Government social engineering and economic interference.
JS: Yeah I know. People take advantage of all kinds of things that were created by liberals and then they condemn liberals. Most people are happy to have social security which was conceived by "liberals". The extent that there is any kind of medical safety net is because the liberals created a medical safety net and Republicans take advantage of it all the time. They forget where it came from. Even civil rights, which almost no Republican would put down now, was something opposed by conservatives—it was a supposedly "liberal" idea which is now fully accepted by society. Going back to the 19th century, it was liberal to be opposed to slavery. In most of the country conservatives back then would say that slavery was just a fact of life and there was no way to change it. Now conservatives would be horrified if slavery was opposed again.
S: I’m not so sure about that. We have an immigrant population that does all the shit jobs.
JS: Yeah we have some disguised slavery. We have overseas slavery, in that we take advantage of like indentured servitude in places like Pakistan: a lot of sports equipment in this country is made by children who are essentially slaves.
S: What I noticed in much of your writing is you portray aspects of the corporate world order as behaving in a vampire-like fashion. One story in particular: “Ticket to Heaven” in Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories about the wealthy and undeserving essentially buying their way into Heaven.
JS: That story is a metaphor about imperialism and the Third World.
S: Well there’s a real consciousness in your writing about these very affluent, comfortable, all-pain-and-discomfort-removed-neighborhoods far removed from ghettos with high cancer rates, dilapidated housing and a lot of violent crime. That’s not a fairy tale. That exists. Tiburon and Hunter’s Point are 20 miles apart but they might as well be on different worlds.
JS: That’s true. It’s amazing how things can be right on top of people and they do nothing. They don’t even observe social problems that might be fixable happening around them. There’s a process we all go through where we buffer out perception. I believe we actively edit our perceptions to protect our world-views. We select what we see and hear. People like Rush Limbaugh collaborate with this process. A lot of people on the right are being lied to. I have a good friend who will tell me -- for example – “Did you know that suppressing DDT caused millions of deaths and that DDT was always harmless?” [laughs bitterly] I asked my friend where he got this information and he said he got it from Rush Limbaugh and Michael Crichton, another voice from the right. This DDT is harmless thing is absolutely, utterly untrue. It’s factually incorrect. You can check with any scientific authority and they’ll tell you that this is wrong but it’s repeated as truth over and over again to justify the production of dangerous toxins. They just found out that children are particularly vulnerable to pesticides and yet the Republican Congress has just removed controls over them that will make these substances even more prevalent in the environment.
S: When you were talking earlier about media reality overwhelming actual reality it made me think of watching somebody like Bill O’Reilly on Fox. A lot of people think these right wing commentators are just regular guys, saying it like it is, and that corporate TV news is the truth, but really these guys are actors ad libbing from a script full of talking points. I think the Republican corporate right is a lot hipper now than they used to be. They’re certainly more so than in the days of Richard Nixon. They’re better at referencing pop culture and they seem to understand how to talk to young people and college students with some degree of acumen.
JS: Well yeah. They've gotten cunning. And the young are more intellectually vulnerable
--there are some incredibly interesting and intelligent young people and there are incredibly vapid ones who are astoundingly ignorant, but every generation thinks the new generation is appalling.
S: I don’t think that.
JS: Well there is a tendency… There’s a lot of variety. Some young people are amazingly ignorant but some give me a lot of hope.
S: I don’t think young people are vapid. What I was trying to say is that I think the right wing talking heads, so-to-speak… if you look at Nixon making an appearance on Laugh In, meeting Elvis or talking with Hunter Thompson about football, trying to show everybody that he was a regular guy with a sense of humor, trying to relate to the kids – compared to how seamless the act is now. I think that the right is a lot more sophisticated at creating illusion presently than they used to be.
JS: I suppose so but we’re living in a sea of media illusion now.
S: In Crawlers there’re a lot of passages about military technology and the procedures of a salvage crew in the Carquinez Straits where the Sacramento Delta passes into San Francisco Bay. Did you hang out with any techies or a salvage crew to write these scenes?
JS: No. I observed some salvage crews working on a documentary, that’s all. I did a little book research. I tried to get it right in general. A lot of times a writer of the fantastic or other genre forms can rely on trying to imagine a situation or procedure as clearly as they can and then you try not to say too much and get caught out making some idiotic mistake. I go for the grit with something like that with the simplest descriptions I can think of and I do as much research as I have time to.
S: You’re pretty prolific. Between Wetbones and Demons there was a gap in book production and you were doing a lot of script writing. Is that right?
JS: I was script writing for several years and I was writing some nonfiction and experimenting with journalism but I kept having ideas that would expand into books. Things would come to me, and I would have to evacuate these ideas into some form of media, otherwise they would torment me.
S: You’ve said that you’re a compulsive writer.
S: How about music? Is that compulsive too?
JS: Well I keep coming back to it. I’ll say I’m not going to do music anymore but then I’ll be drawn back in. It’s really difficult to organize anything musically. I tried to put something together in San Francisco called the Screaming Geezers, made up of older guys with a Stooges sensibility you know? It’s amazing how few people could relate to that. Organizing musicians is like herding cats and I couldn’t find any musicians who wanted to do this. I tend to get discouraged when I’ve got so much else to do, but I can’t quite let go of rock and roll. It’s one of the few things that consistently makes me feel good.
S: Was SadoNation your first band?
JS: No my first band was Terror Wrist with a “W”. Pretty silly huh? We could barely play and I could barely sing but I did learn to vocalize eventually and finally managed to sing over a series of bands. Having a trained voice didn’t matter a great deal. If you listen to bands like Black Flag that wasn't singing either, but he was doing something very interesting: declaiming in a rhythmic, dramatic way that worked for people. I was in another band called the Monitors. There was a band I was in, in New York, called Obsession that was on a label called Celluloid Records. We put out one album. I had an opportunity to sign with a CBS Records subsidiary that was run by Robert Hammond Sr. but I disagreed with him about firing my band – like a dumbass I didn’t want to do it – I caused a lot of delays and he ended up not wanting to deal with it. I could have had a whole different life but for that.
S: SadoNation’s home base was Portland, Oregon right?
JS: Yes it was. I lived in Salem and Portland, Oregon for a while. Portland had three or four waves of punk. The first one was 1975-76. When the Sex Pistols came along the whole thing exploded and we proto-punks created a little nightclub called The Revenge. So if you ever hear anybody talking about the first punk club in Portland they’re probably full of crap. The first punk club in Portland was The Revenge.
S: You said you used to see Courtney Love come into your gigs as a pimply faced teen.
JS: That was later toward the end of my stay in Portland. She was actually from up north but she’d come in following one of the more famous bands – The Wipers. I remember her but I never met Kurt as far as I know. That was the late seventies or early eighties.
S: You get the energy and personality types of a rock scene better than almost any other writer I’ve read. One story you wrote involves a rock club and an emerging band encountering the fantastic and supernatural. This is in the collection Black Butterflies. There’s this polyester fundamentalist minister who shows up at a gig to denounce the music but he himself is actually a demon.
JS: Right. “Flaming Telepaths” is the name of that story.
S: One of the things I most enjoyed is that I recognized all the personalities. There’s one guy who has done too many drugs and while he’s a nice guy he’s dumb as a brick. There’s a spiritual, poetic, quiet guitar player.
JS: Yeah these characters appear like archetypes at every bar and nightclub. Somebody finds their way to a character level and they become that guy. There’s also people who transcend these little niches and default personalities that people fall into, and they stand out in the scene and become leaders without trying to. Often this is because they live in more than just a knee-jerk way.
S: This story goes against much of what the tabloid media thrives on in rock and roll. There’s all these moral parables about Sid Vicious and Darby Crash, Kurt Cobain or Jimi, Janis and Jim, how rock music is evil and bad for kids. You’re saying no, there are actually some very positive aspects to the punk and rock cultures. These scenes give people a sense that there’s somewhere they can go where they are not owned, where they can have fun and not regimented fun. The way you do the story doesn’t come across as pedantic or pretentious either.
I saw Iggy Pop play at the Warfield about ten years ago when he was the ripe old age of 49 or thereabouts, and goddamnit, it was one of the funnest shows I’ve ever been to.
JS: When he’s on he’s a kind of shamanic performer. He transmits something and touches something primeval in people and releases it in them because he’s released it in himself. It’s a gift he has and I admire him for it.
S: He gave me the impression that what he was doing, bringing people up on stage at the Warfield where they’re very uptight about that, climbing up onto the monitors, stage diving, putting off this energy that would be fierce for a young guy in his twenties, was not contrived. He was enjoying himself.
JS: Yeah and he still maintains a level of control--which is something he emanates. There is such a thing as controlled chaos. It’s a cliché but that doesn’t make it untrue. If you ever listen to Jimi Hendrix play guitar, at his best, that’s controlled chaos and Iggy does it as a performer. He walks the edge.
When I was young a lot of concerts and rock festivals were models for some kind of alternative society that actually never panned out, but they did suggest the possibility of some other kind of way to live than the normal patterns. The movie Woodstock, presented this idea in a hippy dippy kind of way, but you saw it in punk rock shows too, where people were anarchic but cohering into some kind of spontaneous social contract at the same time. It really gave you hope. I think concerts also provided a socialization process people needed. You’re really young and you can go to them, screw up at them, and learn where the boundaries are. You learn how to screw up and survive it. Not only can you find out where the boundaries are but you can find out what boundaries you can transcend.
S: Plus it’s a creative context. It’s kind of like taking Catholic Mass or a Protestant Revival, both of which are good shows, but leaving out the authoritarian structures.
JS: A rock show has its boundaries and elements of authority but it’s more porous than many big social events. Rock shows can get really ugly. Remember Woodstock II? There was a woman who was gang raped right in front of everybody and nobody did anything about it. There was grotesque financial exploitation of the audience: ten dollar beer, everything was ridiculously overpriced.
S: That reminds me of Lester Bangs’ article about the Clash. He was blown away by how they let their fans crash in their hotel rooms, kept their ticket prices down and didn’t seem interested in using their female fans for groupie sex. This, to him, was a marked contrast to Zeppelin, the Stones and the big touring acts of the late 70’s who lived aloof from their much younger fans and had thugs on hand to beat up any would-be boot-leggers at the concerts. It surprised him because the media image of punk was that it was just psychotic, violent nihilism. That may have existed but there were these other elements as well.
JS: Well yeah there was a lot of irony in punk, a lot of theater that looked strange to other people. It was an on-purpose temporary construction like performance Situationism but without the neo-Marxist claptrap.
S: No footnotes included. Your novel Demons seems to go to a lot of the places that HP Lovecraft stories and Dr. Strange comic books go to.
JS: Yeah the Lovecraft feel is intentional and I used to read Dr. Strange when I was a kid.
S: The Merry Pranksters were really into science fiction and Dr. Strange because that stuff seemed to accurately describe the psychedelic experience. Dr. Strange goes to all these other dimensions.
JS: Yeah Demons has out-of-body travel and extra dimensions. I don’t read much genre fiction or horror anymore and I don’t know if other people have explored that stuff, if they do it at all. I don’t think that many people have explored that sort of psychic stuff as a way of telling a story. I wanted to do this as a way of bringing a whole other dimension into narrative horror or fantasy storytelling and still have it make sense, not be a foray into a nonsense world.
S: Well there isn’t that much visionary literature along those lines in western literature besides maybe Dante, but there is a lot in non-western literature, such as Taoist writings and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, not to describe myself as a Tibetan Buddhist but there is some amazing imagery in there.
JS: I have read the TBOD. I don’t know how literally to take it but it is psychologically fascinating.
S: Just the sheer strangeness of the visions and the descriptions of these discarnate entities that you encounter when you die, demons and gods. I think maybe Lovecraft and Jorge Luis Borges are recent western writers who channel that kind of stuff.
JS: Oh yeah. I’ve probably been influenced by Lovecraft and Borges a great deal. I’ve gotten a lot out of Isaac Bashevis Singer too. I wrote a story called “Shaman” which I incorporated into my novel Silicon Embrace where I tried to create alternate urban gods. I guess Neil Gaiman did something like that years later with American Gods. In my version I tried to create modern gods, spirits or loa like in Voudou, that people in a modern, very technologically advanced environment could identify with and communicate with. This felt Borgesian to me.
S: The second or third Borges story I ever read was “The Library of Babel” which was a very strange story about the universe being a lattice of interconnecting hexagonal rooms stretching away to infinity and each room is a library chamber with bookshelves filled with books and a bathroom at one end to service the librarian who lives in each chamber. I wondered why there aren’t more published stories like that one.
JS: Well the universe is made up of information. He wasn’t wrong really. Anyway, my story The Almost Empty Rooms in Really Really Really Really Weird Stories) is that kind of feel, though a different theme.
S: Did you read much occult literature or indulge in any occult practices to visualize the action of Demons?
JS: I did when I was a youngster. I read Aleister Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice, AO Spare a bit, read about Eliphas Levi and got into a fair amount of Colin Wilson’s non-fiction about great magicians. I’m very skeptical about ritual magic having any efficacy outside the psychological realm. It’s great stuff as a basis of fiction. I do think there is a spiritual reality but people don’t understand it very well. It’s almost beyond comprehension.
S: I thought there was something to what you were saying in Demons. Here you re-imagine what happened in Bhopal, India and other industrial disasters as black magic rituals.
JS: There is certainly a willingness to sacrifice people to invoke riches. In Demons someone discovers a conspiracy to sacrifice people through industrial toxins and poisonings for material gain and immortality. It’s a metaphor. I don’t literally believe that’s happening. What’s happening, in the real world, is that people numb themselves to empathy. They numb themselves to their personal sense of responsibility. I believe there are structures in the brain that enable them to do that and they play right into this, go along with this—something I talk about in my novel In Darkness Waiting. You have to struggle to remain empathic and unselfish and many people don’t. The book is sort of a metaphor for that process—metaphorically speaking, people are being sacrificed and there’s something demonic about this.
S: JG Ballard said that most dictators step into an open jack boot, the way is prepared for them. People have to collaborate with a totalitarian or fascist system.
JS: Well strident authoritarian systems make them feel safe. People can experience catharsis when they can express normally repressed feelings through their leader. I have mixed feelings about this situation we are in currently. I don’t think we can do without an army. I’m not a pacifist. If you want to remain a large organized society you have to be able to defend yourself and there are real enemies out there. At the same time when Bush declared war, people got a way to release repressed anger that they could project at whomever Bush happened to declare war on. We’re always in danger of letting our psychology override our intelligence. There haven’t been that many justifiable wars in American history: The Revolutionary War, The Civil War, World War II--many of the other wars have morally complicated justifications at best.
S: You served in the US Coast Guard didn’t you?
JS: I was in the Coast Guard, yes, and was too immature and too much a misfit to be of much use to them, but I esteem the Coast Guard and am proud of my association with them. I would encourage my son to join the Coast Guard if he were at all inclined--you can serve your country without getting shot in some misguided war.
S: You’re right about psychology. You mentioned that you read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a very literary but violent western that takes a real raw look at the energy in war. Part of the point of the book I think, although McCarthy never overtly states anything, is that while everyone is supposed to hate war and want only peace, whenever one starts up everyone gets really excited -- people get turned on by soldiers and guns and the idea of a good fight.
JS: That’s right. My most recently published novel is a tie-in novel, solicited by DC comics, but I did try to write something meaningful into it—it's is a tie-in with a character I like, the DC-Vertigo comic book anti-hero John Constantine. The novel is called War Lord. The premise is that there is a conspiracy to invoke an ancient god of war into our time in order to create a world war that will end up whisking the conspirators into power. John Constantine discovers the conspiracy and tries to stop it. Constantine is a Liverpudlian, blue-collar magician. They did a lame movie version of him with Keanu Reeves, "Constantine". This is a novelization based on the comic.
S: Yeah I’ve read the Hellblazer comic. Part of the humor of the series, as well as the narrative drive, comes from Constantine’s use of English wit and slang. Did you get that tone? Was it difficult to do?
JS: [laughs] I did my best. I even consulted with Jamie Delano who wrote some of the Hellblazer stories by e-mail. I looked at on-line British slang dictionaries. I watched British films. I tried to make it as real as possible and probably screwed up in some places. I’m pretty much a west coast American you know?
S: That’s kind of like the cultural dynamic of Terrence Stamp in Steven Sonderberg’s The Limey, where Stamp plays an aging English gangster hunting down Peter Fonda in 1990’s Los Angeles believing Fonda, a degenerate aging sixties record guru, had something to do with his daughter’s death. A lot of the humor of the film revolves around Stamp dressed like a tough old Mod beating up thugs in LA and speaking with a thick cockney accent and using slang that nobody can understand: “Fuck me gov’nor, I fancied this was your manor. I’ll have a ‘ootchers ‘round.”
JS: [laughs] Yeah. I put a character in the story who is the spirit of a dead California surfer/raver inhabiting the body of a comatose Iranian terrorist type, for my own incongruity effect. Somebody who looks like Osama Bin Laden but who speaks like a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan. It also gave me a cultural reference point and some humor.
In the book John Constantine goes to Syria and Iran and there are a lot of scenes in Iraq. I weave in the Iraq war but thematically, amongst all the pulp entertainment vibe, I worked with the fundamental idea that what really matters in wars are the innocents that are caught in-between, caught in the crossfire, you know? We keep averting our eyes from them.
A John Hopkins study found that 100,000 to 190,000 Iraqis have been killed in the war. The US government will only admit to 30,000. These are civilians.
S: Women and children.
JS: Yeah women and children and parents, people at the wrong place at the wrong time.
There are indications of death squads emerging there employed by various sides. As far as I can see there seem to be three groups sponsoring death squads, probably some sponsored by John Negroponte. Wherever that guy goes, death squads follow. Death squads kill whole families. They just found eleven people shot dead and amongst them a seven-month old baby. They’d been tied up and executed. There’s some dispute as to which death squad did it, but the point is there are innocents caught up in someone else’s fantasy based unilateral dream, and they’re getting trampled under foot. That to me is what matters. What matters are all these women and children and unarmed civilians catching bullets when they approach an American humvee too quickly.
S: How extensively have you worked with Hollywood? You wrote the script for The Crow with the late Brandon Lee.
JS: Yeah I wrote the first four drafts and then David Schow came on and we ended up sharing credits. Then I wrote a script with William Gibson that was never made but was based on a story he wrote. Then I wrote a made-for-TV movie for Showtime that they gave a stupid name to: Twist of Terror. It came out in ’91. It was sort of a Hitchcockian movie that was divided into a trilogy. I wrote a lot of TV episodes and sold a number of scripts that were never produced. I did adapt Robert McCammon’s novel Stinger and wrote a really good script for it then the producers started fighting and they lost the option. I hope it will still be made. Very cool, stylish monster movie set in the desert. Of course it’s very hard to get an undiluted idea made into a film the way you want it to be.
There’s a new movie called Click about a universal remote control that can stop time, accelerate time – it seems to be based on a couple of episodes of The Twilight Zone as well as a short story by Richard Matheson called “Montage.” Matheson was one of The Twilight Zone writers and this may have been a Twilight Zone episode, I don’t remember. It was one of his more famous stories. Somebody, I think, read the story and saw The Twilight Zone episodes and put it together with some modern tech ideas. In Hollywood they take ideas from here and there and put them together like Legos or Tinker Toys and they make structures out of different stolen ideas all tinkered together. You see a supposedly original science fiction film and even if it’s not supposed to be based on some novel, it is anyway--or several novels.
S: Or someone takes a great science fiction idea and turns it into a very formulaic conspiracy or cop movie like what they’ve done with most of Philip K. Dick’s work such as with Paycheck or Total Recall.
JS: Sometimes they try to bring some of Philip K. Dick’s themes or the general feel of his novels into a movie but usually they loose it. Blade Runner I think had the right tone and I think the meaning of the film was the same as the meaning of the book even if the story was different.
S: I’m one of the few people I know who actually likes the movie better than the book. I think the movie is a better film than the book is a book. It’s not one of Dick’s best novels or treatments of his themes of paranoia, alienation, madness, esoteric Christianity and human consciousness, but the film has all these layers and the morality is definitely not black and white.
JS: I can see that. There was some mastery in the film somewhere.
S: Especially in the director’s cut version of the film which lacks the voice over narration. A lot is left up to you without any tidy explanations.
JS: William Gibson saw Blade Runner when he was writing Neuromancer and he thought he was watching his own novel. It wasn’t the same story but it was the same tone he was trying to get. He was trying to bring all these elements together in a similar way. Cyberpunk was in the air.
S: Well it’s definitely the atmosphere of Blade Runner and all the films that emulated it: ever-present Japanese imagery, beat-up looking high tech, a grimy nourish future as opposed to a shiny antiseptic future. Different sorts of subcultures and strange fashions, a future that is as complicated as the present. There was a whole aesthetic feel.
JS: And it’s all come true. Some of it will come true even more. But people will also be surprised by the future. There’re always things people don’t anticipate.