INTERVIEW: Harlan Ellison, part 1
Harlan Ellison is a force of nature.
For more than 50 years he’s published stories and novels, written for television, movies, and comics, created an award-winning CD-Rom, lectured widely, performed TV voice-overs and spoken word recordings, and been an all-around pain-in-the-ass curmudgeon. This month alone, Deep Shag Records issued his newest CD, On the Road with Harlan Ellison (Volume 3, no less) and a 105-minute theatrical documentary about him, Dreams with Sharp Teeth, will have its premiere at the Writers Guild in Beverly Hills on Thursday, April 19 (for information about all of this, and to get tickets for the Guild Event, go to www.harlanellison.com).
Dark Horse Comics just released Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor Volume Two, a book ten years in the making, with contributions from Gene Ha, Curt Swan, Martin Nodell, Gene Colan, Jay Lynch, Eric Shanower, Tony Isabella, Richard Corben, John Ostrander and more.
I first heard Ellison speak more than 25 years ago, at an event to which ComicMix sensei Denny O’Neil brought us. I no longer remember precisely what he said, but do remember being so angry about it that I was awake all night, arguing with him in my head. Ten years later, when the rabbi’s sermon provoked a similar response, I knew I’d found the synagogue for me. Jews are like that.
Reb Ellison is still schooling. Our interview started off awkwardly, as we called to arrange a schedule and Mr. Ellison wanted to go with no notice. After a pause while we ran out to buy batteries for our antique cassette recorder, we began.
HE: I live my life principally by one adage – Louis Pasteur: Chance favors the prepared mind. Thus, if you call me, you should have batteries. Now we know we’re running. Now you can interview me. Go ahead.
CoMx: You have a new graphic novel, you have a new CD, you have this movie coming out. Why now?
HE: Because though I’m incredibly humble and shy, I am, nonetheless, famous … I’m a cultural icon. Everyone gets their 15 minutes, and if they have some talent they get their 15 minutes repeatedly. My 15 minutes have been going on since about 1955.
One finds, at this age, the most annoying thing you have to worry about is cultural amnesia. For most of the little imbeciles today who live on the Internet, for whom nostalgia is what they had for breakfast, all the golden things and evil lessons of the past have no significance, no meaning, no understanding that whatever they do would not be possible had not the world, its artistic heroes, villains, done what they did before their smug, ignorant li’l asses were born. They know nothing, and are arrogant that they know nothing. “Bite me” is their mantra. They don’t even know the name of who won on American Idol last year or who came in second or who won the Academy Award, much less who Sojourner Truth was, or Lanny Ross, or Tris Speaker, or Subotai, or Klimt or Frank Buck, or Eddie Condon, or … or anything earlier than Sanjaya Malakar and Beyonce’s thong.
But they are quick to label geezer and old coot everybody who did anything the day before they were born. I consider myself very lucky still to have a large following and a loyal following in these parlous times, and I think, some interesting enemies, too.
CoMx: I was going to try not to talk about enemies.
HE: It’s all right. You’re dying to talk about enemies. You’re foaming at the mouth.
CoMx: No, I’d rather talk about what you like.
HE: Ah, good! Even better! I like all kinds of things. Comicswise, well, I just finished a five-issue mini-series of The Midnighter by Garth Ennis that I thought was, apart from the incredible brutality, quite clever. I’m looking forward to the conclusion of Strangers in Paradise. I’ve been following it since the beginning. And Jeff Smith is a pal, so I’ve been reading with great pleasure his retake on the Captain Marvel/Mr. Mind fracas.
I mostly read books. I just finished reading Bob Crais’s novel, The Watchman, which is great. I just read a Paul Di Filippo novel that brilliantly extends the movie, The Creature from the Black Lagoon – quite wonderful. I’m reading three or four texts about the lost gospel of Judas … I’m using some of it in a story of mine that I’ve been writing for a long, long time titled Bring on the Dancing Frogs. I read about five magazines a day including Science News, Skeptical Inquirer, Church and State, and on and on and on. I do what everybody does who is a thinking human being. I pay attention. I stay courant. Chance favors the prepared mind.
CoMx: The first time I saw you, I was so angry I argued with you in my head for the next two weeks.
HE: That’s what I like to do. I like to get people arguing with me. It means they’re alive. It means they’re thinking. I’m not one of these social redeemers. I have a love/hate relationship with the human race. On the one hand, I think it’s wonderful – it’s capable of painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, writing Moby Dick, and producing duck a l’orange and then, on the other side, it gives you paintings on black velvet of woeful children with big lemur eyes, and does Eros comics, and McDonald’s toadburgers. What is it they say in Latin? Spero meliora. I hope for better things.
CoMx: Do you read anything online?
HE: I don’t do Internet. Mywebsite, www.harlanellison.com, has one little section called Unca’ Harlan’s Art Deco Dining Pavilion, and that’s the only place I go to. I talk to my friends there with fair regularity. The website is good for me. It’s run by a fellow named Rick Wyatt. He does a marvelous job. I don’t have to bother with it. I do all of my business by mail, by phone or in person. I don’t like the Internet. I don’t like being part of the Internet. I’m not a Luddite, but I believe one operates at the level of technology that best serves your life, that most advantageously produces your art, and any mechanical toots and whistles beyond that and you’re just being a marching moron, getting in line and doing what everybody else does because not to do it means total strangers won’t think you’re “kewl” an’ “awesome.”
CoMx: Do you have an iPod?
HE: No, I have no iPod. Are you kidding? Sweet mercy, Martha, if ever there was a useless fucking invention it’s the goddamn iPod. Here are these assholes all dressed the same from the Gap and Old Navy walking up and down the street, staring at Shakira’s butt as a 7 Santini Brothers moving truck mows them down when they cross the street. They can’t be separated from their shit music for more than ten seconds. When did the world become a madhouse intended only to keep people’s attention diverted from reality by selling them cars and dulling their senses with transitory babble?
CoMx: Your iPod is the greatest radio station ever.
HE: Oh, you poor thing. You can’t stand the silence inside your head. When I’m walking down the street, I want to hear the sound of the crickets, the clatter of the crowd, the helicopters going overhead, the screams of the abused. I don’t need the intrusion of all this mechanical crap 24 hours a day. I listen to good music in my home, and I watch very little television now. I’ve been watching since ’48. I was a widely-read television critic four years. Two books, thousands of hours of viewing everything! I’ve seen what there is to see. It’s all the same. Now I watch maybe three shows a week and that’s it.
CoMx: Which three?
HE: I knew that would be your next question! What the hell does it matter which three I watch? You are obsessed with popular culture! Are you aware of that, Martha?
CoMx: We’re a pop culture website. That’s what I’m supposed to be asking you about. We can talk about other things if you want. We can talk about Don Imus if you want. But I thought we would stick to pop culture.
HE: Poor Imus. What an asshole. Poor Imus. Poor Michael Richards. Poor all of them. They just don’t understand that everybody is so frightened and everybody is so politically correct. A bunch of black guys go to a comedy club where comedians insult you from the stage. They get insulted from the stage and all of a sudden they’re outraged and Michael Richards is apologizing for having been drunk or loaded or his brain on vacation. It’s a cause celebrere, as if he did something wrong. He didn’t do something wrong. He’s probably no more a bigot than anyone else in America, black or white!
CoMx: Yes. But I think everybody else in America is more of a bigot than we like to think. Including me.
HE: I’m sorry to have to say this, but there are an awful lot of stupid black people. There are an awful lot of ignorant Latinos. There are an awful lot of absolute dipstick moron white folks. Stupid comes in all sizes, shapes, sexes and political leanings. I have a t-shirt that I wear about 90% of the time when I go out that says “ALLERGIC to stupid people.” But the minute you start calling someone who’s black “stupid,” you’re playing the racial card.
CoMx: He said they’d be strung up.
HE: He said, “In my day, guys like you would be strung up.” There’s no question that he lost it. It’s no more offensive than the shit Sam Kinison used to say. Sam would say to people who lived in Africa, “You assholes, you live in a desert! No wonder you’re starving. Go where the food is!” When Kerry points out that most of the guys in the Army – and I was in the Army, so I know it to be true – are morons, he’s absolutely right. No one in his right mind, no matter how big a patriot he is, wishes to go to Iraq. If you go to Iraq, it’s because it’s the least horrible choice open to you. Or, you’re an imbecile. That’s why the people at Abu Ghraib were acting like frat boys. Sweet mercy, folks, let us deal with reality here, not political correctness. Not fear. Everyone’s afraid to open his or her mouth. That’s why I’m considered a very bad fellow. I have no governor on my mouth. I deal with re-fuckin-ality!
CoMx: I’m an old movement person, and we coined the term to make fun of ourselves, for stuff like spending three hours discussing where the smokers should sit at a meeting.
HE: Did you march to Washington, Martha?
HE: Did you ever march with Martin Luther King?
HE: I did. Did you ever work for the Equal Rights Amendment by lecturing on the lecture circuit for thousands of hours?
CoMx: No. I’m not saying I’m better than you, I’m saying let’s have a conversation instead of shutting people up by calling them “politically correct.”
HE: I did. Your position is not one I wish to argue with, but here’s what I say. I got my creds. I can call a stupid black person, if I feel like it, a stupid black person. If they happen to be a stupid white person, I say, “You stupid honkie asshole.” Now, if someone wants to get upset with me because I use the word, “nigger,” well, I’m sorry. The word, “nigger,” exists and it’s an epithet and it’s not a nice word. So is spic, so is kike, so is sheenie, so is honkie. All of them. And they all have their power. And I’m a writer. Those words are not forbidden to me.
CoMx: I’m not disagreeing with that. But when you call a bunch of girls, “nappy-headed ho’s” because you think it’s funny…
HE: It’s in bad taste, but bad taste can be very funny, too. Things don’t have to be in good taste to be funny.
CoMx: You know, I think saying, “The emperor has no clothes,” is funny. I think saying “The peasants have no clothes” is kind of obvious and cruel and stupid.
HE: If you can’t make fun of cripples, who the hell are you going to make fun of? They can’t follow you, they just fall down. You just kick a crutch out from under them. You make fun of some linebacker, it’s not only not funny, probably, but the dude’ll also kick the shit out of you. Gimps are a lot safer.
So here’s this moron, Imus, who’s been doing this ugly shtick for thirty fuckin’ years … THIRTY …. And he’s looking at a bunch of girls and he sees ‘em covered with tattoos, and have their hair cut back to rugs so they can have more speed on the court – neither of which was true or real – and he’s looking at them, and that’s how he engrosses it for the benefit of what passes for insightful, topical humor in his cockeyed tunnel-visioned universe, and he pops the word “Ho. Everybody uses the word, “ho’s.” It’s common street coin. Black people invented the word “ho’s.”
CoMx: Reality. Okay, so how is it that you learned to do “reality?”
HE: I’m the only Jew who ever ran away from home at age 13 and joined a carnival. So I never went through that whole childhood inculcation thing. In largee measure I’m self-taught, your basic autodidact. The only thing I picked up in a Jewish household was that I didn’t learn until I was about 30 that everybody does not scream at the top of their voice to have a conversation. I’m an all-purpose card-carrying loather of all human beings. The only people I like are people who are as smart as or smarter than I.
CoMx: Do you have a list?
HE: I do. I do have a list. There are very few people on it. It’s a lonely world for me. But I’m blessed by having friends who are, themselves, pretty spectacular. I think you judge someone, not so much by their enemies as by who their friends are. My friends are people like Neil Gaiman, Robin Williams, and Josh Olson. Jack Williamson thought I was the peaches. Ray Bradbury and I are pals. Carl Sagan, Terry Dowling, Peter David, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, Mike Gold, Julie Schwartz, Diana Schutz, Paul Chadwick, and on an on. And you’re my friend, ain’tcha Martha? These are outstanding human beings. And when you’ve got friends like that, guys like Gary Groth kind of make you giggle. So. Are you foaming to get into the lawsuit imbroglio with Groth?
CoMx: No. I’m a firm believer in, “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.”
HE: That’s the way I’d feel about him, too, if he did not constantly come after me. He has cost me, in my life, many many things of value. Things I would not have lost had it not been for Gary Groth. And I took it for 28 years.
I was bullied a lot as a kid, in grade school. Most of the people I know were bullied. And I learned to fight back. You only have two choices these days. People say, “Ellison is litigious.” Bullshit! You got two choices: Either I can be litigious, or I can pick up an AK-47 and I kill at random. Many of those who pillory me for bringing legal action are the same spineless jerks who themselves get screwed again and again, and do nothing but piss and moan about the cruelty, the unfairness of the received universe. Crybabies.
I fight back. You go through the day, and by the time you get home at night, you have encountered so many semi-sentient pus-bags, so many people who cut you off in traffic, who insulted you, who disrespected you, who don’t give you proper service, who dismiss, ignore, rankle, who tell you we don’t make that model anymore so you have to buy a new one at twice the price and it’ll fall apart in nine months …
CoMx: What do you mean, audio-cassette. Who uses them anymore?
HE: What do you mean, tape deck. Everybody’s got CDs. I need a needle for my phonograph. What? By the time you get through a day, you randomly want to slaughter anyone who comes in your eyesight. Or you stay at home a lot, as I do now, and when someone comes into your venue and tries to take you on, you either have to fight them or stand there like a wuss and play Whack-a-Mole!
Well, Gary has been whacking me for 30 years, and I’m tired of playing Whack-A-Mole. So I went after him. Now the son of a bitch is such a cowardly little fuck that he keeps trying to con supporters into believing this action is somehow about the First Amendment, and freedom for him to run his mouth with lies. Everyone who’s known me for even six minutes knows it’s ridiculous that I would be in any way impairing anyone’s First Amendment rights. I don’t care if Gary is a moron or an asshole and what he says and who he denigrates. I do care if he defames and libels me and says I’m a weasel who doesn’t pay his legal bills.
TOMORROW: Harlan talks about comics, Brother Theodore, George W. Bush, and Gary Groth.
Copyright 2007 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. All rights reserved. Harlan Ellison is a registered trademark of The Kilimanjaro Corporation.